Eight years of writing restaurant reviews has not yet propelled me to culinary stardom. Nobody has asked me to be a judge on Celebrity Bake Off. Masterchef has never called. But I do have one claim to fame: I star in the staff training video for Taiwanese dumpling sensation Din Tai Fung.
It happened in 2017, when I was in Taipei writing a piece on the city’s food scene. In between eating sea anemones and giant, gelatinous fish eyes and rancid “stinky tofu”, I dropped into a dumpling restaurant in a shopping mall at the foot of Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest skyscraper. I was a bit put out: I was jet-lagged and rain soaked and the place had all the personality of a provincial Pizza Express.
But I was enlivened by its dumplings, each one a perfect package of pork and prawn, a delicate sculpture destined to last only minutes in this cruel world. I gorged myself, ordering one of everything and then some more, my excitement bordering on the priapic.
A film crew, which just happened to be making a staff video that day, spotted the bedraggled but ruggedly handsome Westerner consuming his bodyweight in dumplings and asked me to say a few words; I can’t remember what those words were, exactly, but I’m sure they continue to motivate xiao long bao-makers to this day*.
For the uninitiated, Din Tai Fung is a phenomenon, an institution. It began life in 1958 as a cooking oil merchant, before branching into dumplings in the early 1970s. It trundled along for 25 years, making fans of the locals, before embarking on a frightening global expansion, colonising Japan, Singapore, China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and the US. It won Michelin stars. Tom Cruise went there to learn how to roll dumplings. It is, ladies and gentlemen, a thing.
There are now 119 of them in 14 countries, including one in Covent Garden, which saw five hour queues when it opened at the end of last year. Which is weird, because the blueprint for this global dumpling-making machine is resolutely, determinedly uncool.
Its restaurants are vast, canteen-like places with strip lighting and flyaway furniture. Covent Garden has 250 covers spanning two gigantic floors. In pride of place is a glass box filled with masked chefs working up some serious RSI rolling out dumpling after dumpling after dumpling, dreaming of a time when they might escape their glass prison, free from children and tourists peering at them like they’re animals in a zoo.
It’s the kind of place that should be utterly unconducive to an enjoyable meal. But my gosh the dumplings are good.
They’re precision-engineered, each round, squat xiao long bao featuring at least 18 folds, considered to be a sign of exceptional quality (dumpling nerds will tell you there should be at least 12 folds, so 18 is going over and above). Bite into one and it bursts like a delicious pustule, releasing a mouthful of hot broth. The prawns crunch. The pork is aromatic.
At first the menu looks intimidating, but it’s essentially the same few ingredients remixed into different formats. Whether you’re eating xiao long bao, jiao zi (cocoon-shaped dumplings), shao mei (the bell-shaped ones), or wantons, the default ingredients are pork and prawn, with a handful of more outre options including truffle, crab, angled gourd, and chocolate and red bean.
Everything is disciplined and refined. String beans with minced pork and dried shrimp are exactly oily enough. The noodles have precisely the right amount of bite. The steamed buns are the ideal combination of fluffy and doughy. There are no idiosyncrasies. There is no showmanship. Instead there is cold, hard science. Din Tai Fung has mastered the dumpling equation, perfected the xiao long bao algorithm.
This isn’t an eccentric Ferrari purring off the tarmac of Maranello, it’s a gleaming iPhone rolling from the conveyor belt, correct in every regard. It’s the ultimate consumerist dining experience, every detail weighed and measured. It is the xenomorph of restaurants, a perfect culinary predator, cold and calculating and delicious and it will eat you for fucking breakfast.
I take some credit for this: that training video is clearly paying dividends.
* I’ve never actually seen this video, because I don’t work for Din Tai Fung, but I believe in my heart that it is utterly inspirational.