Our friend was nice enough to invite Justin and I to join her family and enjoy what would become my absolute favorite Taiwanese food: soup dumplings. Her family, which included her grandparents and her cousin, met up with us at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Inside, the staff was busy making the delicious bites, but they immediately recognized her family and greeted us with warmth and enthusiasm. I asked if I could film them making the dumplings, and they kindly obliged.
Soup dumplings (xiao long bao) come in a variety of styles, but this particular kind was about the size of a golf ball. Soft, chewy dough is rolled out with a small wooden rolling pin and filled with a spoonful of pork, vegetables, and gelatinous soup. The cooks then roll the ball up and fold in the edges in a spiraling pattern with exactly the right number of folds, leaving a tiny pinhole at the top for steam to escape. The best chefs train for years to get the perfect weight of the dumplings and to fold them just right. The chefs at this restaurant moved quickly and expertly, joining speed with effortless precision. The dumplings are then steamed inside a bamboo basket, while the soup inside melts into a liquid.
When they are served, you lift each one individually into a spoon, feeling the tempting weight of the meatball and soup inside. Usually they are dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. The exact portions are up to you, although it is recommended to try one without the sauce first. It’s also a suggestion to have more vinegar than soy sauce, and to only use a little. Personally, I prefer a little more soy sauce. Some people bite into the dumpling straight away, letting the hot soup burst inside their mouths, but you run the risk of burning yourself. The way my friend taught us was to open a small hole in the side of the dumplings with your chopsticks and slurp the soup out that way. Other people like to drain the soup out into the spoon and then eat it together in one bite.
However you choose to eat your soup dumplings, you are guaranteed to have an amazing experience. The broth is light and delicate, pairing nicely with the meatiness of the pork. The steamed dough is the perfect chewy texture without being mushy, and the sharpness of the soy-vinegar sauce cuts through for a nice contrast. They are absolutely addicting and usually very cheap if you go to the kind of restaurant we visited. Each dumpling was only about 50 cents, so we worked our way through several baskets.
Soup dumpling quality tends to vary in Taiwan. Some small places, like the one we visited, serve top-tier ones as a ridiculously good price. Other shops sell them for a good price, but they may be frozen and store bought, so not as flavorful. There are also the top tier soup dumplings you can get from Din Tai Feng, a famous Michelin Star winning restaurant in Taipei (and a few other locations). I had the whole spectrum, and I have to say that the ones we first ate in that tiny restaurant were on par, if not better, than those we paid much more for at Din Tai Feng. If there is one thing that you eat in Taiwan, I would have to recommend the soup dumplings. Hopefully you can find a nice local to share their favorite spot with you.