Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chip Flavors For Taiwanese Tastebuds

For you who are interested in potato chip flavors around the world, here are some found at the local 7-11 in Da Shi, where the bus from Taipei deposited my childhood best friend and I.

Top picture, from left: Cheese flavored, sushi nori flavored*, Korean kimchi flavored.
Bottom picture, from left: chicken juice flavored (literally, usually just salt and chicken broth), Thai "leaf" chicken flavored, and regular ol' sour cream and onion.
*the baseball player you see on the nori package is Wang Chien Ming, Taiwanese pitcher extraordinaire for the Yankees.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Din Tai Fung, Best Soup Dumplings In The World

I can say with absolute certitude, that Din Tai Fung makes the ultimate, BEST tasting soup dumplings on the planet. Standing outside of the restaurant gives you no hint of any of the deliciousness that await you inside. All you see are mobs, waiting, sometimes literally around the block. Right under the red Din Tai Fung sign on the right side of this picture, is a huge line of Japanese tourists. In Japan alone, there are 11 branches of this restaurant, whereas, in it's native Taiwan, there are only 2. You know my theory: if Japanese tourists flock to it, it must be REALLY good. The wait was so long that some people were going to the bookstore next door to waste time before sinking their teeth into the tender dumplings.
A typical soup dumpling meal starts with condiments. From the left, starting from the cup of tea: ginger, vineagre, and two things of soy sauce on the caddy.
I suppose this is a form of what English speakers call Kimchi. It's marinated/pickled/preserved cabbage, but it's simple and not spicy at all. There are no complex scales of acidity or mix of spices. The cabbage is stored in a salt solution and eaten while relatively fresh.
Seaweed and do gan appetizer. I've never encountered the occasion where I had to use do gan in an English context. I guess you would call it dry tofu, but when I think of tofu I think soft. Do gan is actually pretty tough or chewy or crumbly. Not soft at all.
Swan La Tang: literally, sour and spicy soup. English speakers know this as hot and sour soup. I dare not try the versions they serve in Chinese take-out type restauarants because they add too much cornstarch and the soup turns into more of a slime. This soup was just the right consistency - thick but not goopy.
...and the famed soup dumplings.
In every steaming chamber there are exactly 10 dumplings, and each dumpling has the same number of folds at the top (15 or 16, I forget). The skins that hold the meat are very thin and very stretchy, one wonders how they possibly stay intact to keep the savory soup inside the little delicate pouch. At lower quality soup dumpling places like Joe's Ginger/Joe's Shanghai, they don't pay enough attention to the skins and they break inside the steaming chambers or when you pick them up with your chopsticks. The meat is soft and slightly chewy full of juice, with the flavors perfectly balanced so that the carnal taste of meat is a mere subordinating shade contrasted with the other ingredients. There is no way anybody could stop at just one. Din Tai Fung soup dumplings are perfectly shaped and orgasmically flavored bites of joy; a food group in its own right worthy of being placed on your "ten-things-to-eat-before-I-die" list.

The secret to there being actual soup in these dumplings and not in other types of steamed dumplings or buns, is that they put pork broth that has been solidified into gelatin (simply by refrigeration) inside of the skins along with the meat. When the dumplings are wrapped, they are cold and the soup is solid. When the dumplings are steamed, the soup returns to its liquid form and presto! soup inside a soup dumpling.

The proper way to eat these dumplings:
1. pick one up from the steaming chamber and place in soup spoon.
2. bite a small hole to release the hot steam and blow so that the soup does not burn your mouth.
3. drink the soup from the small hole you've made
4. dip the dumpling in the vineagre/ginger dipping sauce that you made while eating the appetizers
5. eat the soup dumpling in one bite.

I don't exactly do it that way, but everybody has their own way of eating soup dumplings. This is how I do it:
1. pick a dumpling up from the steaming chamber and place in soup spoon.
2. bite a small hole to release steam and drink the soup
3. drink some of the soup, leaving about 1/3 of the original volume of liquid
4. chomp the remaining soup and dumpling in one bite
5. chew dutifully
6. smile

After dinner is a traditional Chinese dessert, sweet sticky rice. It's called Ba Bao Fan, or 8-treasure rice. I don't really remember the eight treasures that go in it, but some of them are nuts, or dried fruit.
On our way out we saw the true secret to consistently great tasting soup dumplings: a gaggle of masked chefs quickly folding their way through gajillions of dumplings every night. All this, just to satisfy the hungry regulars (my aunt) and tourists who make the pilgrimage to Din Tai Fung.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gratuitous Saturday Afternoon Sweets

I've got nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to load vintage ppotos of desserts. These are from a traditional Chinese bakery around Shi Men Ding. I've always wondered why Americans have such a hard time adopting the concept of bakery. In France, you have a boulangerie on every block, as dense as coffee shops are in Seattle. In Taiwan you have the same thing. People like sweet baked goods. I like sweet baked goods. The closest thing to that is Panera ... I guess. You can find comparable products (though not as adventurous) at bakeries in Chinatown, like Tai Pan Bakery (pink) or Fay Da Bakery (green) around the corner from it, in the opposide direction as that one fish store on Canal St. (I don't remember the names of stores, just the general color of their storefront. Tai Pan is the pink bakery, Fay Da is green)

This is the blueberry creme cake that my aunt and I bought for "our birthdays," since they're pretty close to each other. The other side is a bit smashed, but it was wonderlicious.
I have no idea what these breads are, but they look like monster clams made from pate feuilletee, the same type of dough with which you make croissants and pains-au-chocolat. It looks like there might be complicated knotting involved too?
This reminds me of animals. I think it's a pretty standard bun with a spiral of purple batter and coconut on top. From the looks of it, I postulate that the inside is either redbean paste or some sort of sweet coconut paste.
Checkerboard Tiramisu, I presume.
These just look suspicious. Smooth chocolate with egg-imitating custard? I should have gotten one just to see what's under that veneer of tastiness.
Coffee sponge cake, probably.
Hmm...this one puzzles me. I know it's probably some sort of berry creme icing with chocolate sponge cake and chocolate shavings on top, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Campbell's Chunky Soups To Go

I didn't have time to make myself a lunch, nor did I have bread or lunch-making materials, so I stopped by the local Teeter and grabbed a bowl of Campbell's Chunky Soup to take to work with me. It was extremely unsatisfying and vile, and I'm pretty sure I'm not going to consume any more of their canned soups.

The offender: Grilled Chicken with Vegetables and Pasta
Not only did I think it was overpriced (I was in a bind, but normally I would NOT pay more than 2 dollars for a can of ubersalty soup.), it was just gross in general.

1. Of the approx. 17 pieces of "white chicken meat", only one(1) piece was free of gristle and/or fat. They even drew brown "grill" marks on the meat to make you think that you're eating a cut up piece of grilled chicken breast. What they didn't realize is, you can't grill chicken fat, and if so, the fat is still not going to have "grill" marks on it.

2. The addition of "smoked" flavor (check the label, it really is one of the ingredients) makes the already unbearably salty soup even more bitter than they intended it to be.

3. The label says the soup only contains 2% or less of chicken fat, but the liquid itself is basically homogenized chicken fat. If you set the plastic lid down on the table after microwaving the bowl, all you get is a ring of beta carotene-dyed chicken fat. MMMMM...delicious! gag.

4. After your sodium levels spike and you're regretting that you even bothered to get a soup with meat in it, all you want to do is shoot Douglas Conant, president and CEO of Campbell's soup. Their #2 or 3 business objective is to consistently "improve the packaging and quality" of their products. What a load of crock. Maybe the packaging has been getting better. The quality of Campbell's soups has definitely been on a dedicated quest to crap on itself in the lowest of low craters on the face of this planet.

I disapprove, and do not recommend this or any other Campbell's canned soup products to anybody who is 1) not suffering from sodium deficiency or 2)living with disfunctional tastebuds.