Day 33, Grand Asia 2018
Friday, Nov. 2, Taipei, Taiwan:
At some point while traveling to nearly a dozen ports in Japan and China, you realize that you’ve seen your fill of temples and shrines, just like many European tourists eventually tire of cathedrals and castles.
That’s when a foodie tour is just the thing, and we had a great one today in Taiwan.
Din Tai Fung opened in Taipei in 1972, specializing in xiaolongbao(soup dumplings). It shortly was named as one of 10 restaurants worldwide that inspires a pilgrimage and subsequently expanded throughout Asia. In 2013 it was ranked the best restaurant in Asia and in 2015 as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Some locations have been awarded Michelin stars. Now you can visit Din Tai Fung at west coast locations in the United States, but we were here where it all began in Taipei, Taiwan.
We arrived an hour before the restaurant opened for lunch and entered through a double line of cute Taiwanese young women – one to assist each of us in making the dumplings. The women have been selected for training before going to work in overseas locations. They helped us don aprons, hats with hairnets and masks and then mainly cheered us on as we slowly tried to form 18 perfect folds in each dumpling.
Once we each filled a bamboo steamer tray, they held fun signs for pictures and cheered our success. My awesome assistant, Nayumi, may just be a friend for life!
Next we moved to dining tables and sampled spicy cucumbers and tea while we awaited the unveiling of our dumplings after steaming. I had put one dumpling made by a professional in the middle of my tray, which put mine to shame.
But I must say that the flavor of mine was just as good, beyond the big wad of dough on the top. I first sipped the soup from the inside and then finished the pork dumping in one bite. You can probably guess which ones are mine and which are the chef made:
Our lunch didn’t end there. Following our own dumplings was course after course of more dumplings (truffle, vegetable, spicy shrimp, crab, etc.), pot stickers, shrimp and pork shao-mai,hot-and-sour soup and shrimp fried rice. Our individual assistants stood by to refill our tea, swap out dirty plates and mix the perfect blend of vinegar and soy sauce for our garlic, which had been sliced into incredibly thin matchsticks.
The meal ended with the most wonderful chocolate dumplings.
We didn’t want to leave, but they sent us on the way with individual pineapple cakes. Tom Cruise is reported to have learned to make dumplings at the same Din Tai Fung location at Taipei 101, but it is hard to imagine that even he got better service and attention than we did.
Speaking of Taipei 101, it is currently the sixth tallest building in the world, and when opened in 2004 was the tallest. It is 101 stories high and designed to look like a bamboo shoot that keeps extending itself higher and higher. The low clouds obscured the upper levels of the building, with the top occasionally peaking through.
The ground floors are an upscale mall, where we had an hour to shop after eating. By now, the line to eat at Din Tai Fung was 70 minutes long. The smart people in our 14-person tour group spent the time getting some steps logged. I quickly found the Apple Store and used its superfast WiFi to upload all my dumpling photographs. It would have taken an hour minimum on the ship.
We started our tour with a walk down an open-air market street, despite the rain that lingered all day from yesterday. The merchants were friendly, waving and encouraging us closer for photographs. I couldn’t resist adding an umbrella to my Asian collection. They have such cute designs, unlike what I see at home.
After lunch and shopping, we stopped at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to watch the hourly changing of the guard in front of a giant bronze statue of the famous leader of the Republic of China. It was a fine display of military precision.
Dinner was another gala night, with the theme of bygone glamorous days. Our dinner friends Judy and Glenn were decked out – she with a beautiful lace-embellished black dress and a glitzy headband with feather from the 1920s. They brought outfits for each of the dozen or so theme dinners – it’s a good thing they are in a Neptune Suite with lots of closets. I brought a few nice cocktail dresses and tops with black slacks.
Following dinner was a Chocolate Surprise at 9 p.m. on the Upper Promenade – the deck with the lounges and public areas. I went looking to see what it was and found waiters carrying small chocolate treats, such as the tiny cone with chocolate mouse and white meringue that I sampled.