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  • A Work of Art — The Amazing Little Dumplings from Ding Tai Fung!

    Posted on May 5th, 2009 Michele Sun No comments

    I posted about how to reheat frozen steamed buns yesterday, and that topic sure got noticed and sparked interest, however the interest was in the “buns” – people wanted to know where they can get Ding Tai Fung steamed buns in Bay Area. Well, sorry to break your heart but Ding Tai Fung has only one location in U.S. and it’s in Arcadia, CA.

    I have taken several friends to Ding Tai Fung in Arcadia when they visited LA, and have never failed to impress them. The Steamed Dumplings (xiaolongbao) are just too delicious, and even the most simple dish, stir fried broccoli, has won many woos and ahhs. To complete each wonderful meal, I always recommend sharing a small plate of Eight Treasure Rice, a sticky rice desert filled with red bean paste. If you get there between 10:30 and 11:00 am on weekend, you may just  be lucky enough to order the mini dumplings — limited supply only. There were times that  got seated and was told the last steamer of mini dumplings just got sold or I got stuck in traffic on I-210 and both time I was in tears with disbelife and frustration.

    Ding Tai Fung is a legendary restaurant from Taipei, Taiwan started in 1958, and their most famous dish is the small steamed dumplings, plus other very popular dishes such as chicken soup, vegetable and pork bunsmashed red bean buns, fried rice…etc, and the paper-thin steamed dumplings have them rated by the “New York Times” in 1993 as one of the top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world. It is a MUST go restaurant for tourists from Japan and Hong Kong, and is also ranked by the “New York Leisure Magazine” as one of the ten must-see destinations for tourists visiting Taiwan. Even with their multiple locations in Taipei, you are still expected to wait outside of the crammed and narrow restaurant for 45 to 60 minutes just for a table, and the waiting line goes the same for their US, Japan, H.K. China, Singapore, Korea…locations.

    It’s very amusing to see the long line of customers outside of their restaurants, especially the Japanese tourists led by little white flags. It’s so popular and loyally loved by Japanese gourmets, not surprising that Ding Tai Fung started their first overseas business in 1996, Tokyo. Since Ding Tai Fung had won public acclaim in Japan already, many people knew about this Taipei restaurant before its grand opening. On opening day in Tokyo, it was reported that people had to wait in line for two hours to get seats. As of today, the revenue from their Japan branches still accounts for one third of their worldwide revenue.

    When Ding Tai Fung announced they were going to open their restaurant in Shanghai, China, many people thought Ding Tai Fung was out of their mind. Because little dumplings are delicacy from Shanghai originally, a Taiwanese restaurant selling and competing in its homeland was almost expected to fail. But in 2001, Ding Tai Fung opened its first restaurant in Shanghai, and won the picky palates of Shanghainese in no time. Today, there are total of 42 locations in 9 countries, plus some non-related or authorized imposers using the Ding Tai Fung name.

    making-dumplingsWhenever I am in Taipei, I would like to visit the original Ding Tai Fung on Hsin Yi Street, where I would find myself stand in line outside of the restaurant, given a number and menu (without price) by a girl wearing a walkie-talkie, and there is a digital display showing number being called. One will hear many languages spoken while standing at this busy side walk, while waiting it’s interesting to watch the busy chefs and helpers making little dumplings in the crowded and steamed-filled open kitchen. On any given day, they can sell over 1,000 steamers of the meat-filled dumplings, about 15 million steamed dumplings annually.

    Forty five to sixty minutes later, you will be called and led by the waitress, then entered and walked up a narrow stairway leading to second and third floor; the small tables were set against one wall and staffs were all busy talking into the walkie-talkies. The menu is quite simple for such acclaimed restaurant, and most customers already know what they wanted before sitting down, so the order taking is always easy and fast, so is the service. Everything is controlled by computer system nowadays, and each table is to complete the meal in 45 minutes.

    Many media have reported the secret of Ding Tai Fung’s success, about how precise and flawless of the weight, folds, and the tissue paper-thin wrappers of the dumpling, but I think what has set Ding Tai Fung apart from other competitors or imitators are the level of dedication and heart they put into the work – food. Every dishes you eat today taste just as good as last year or 10 years ago, you won’t run into quality problem with their food. The attention they give to food preparation , material selection, employees trainings, and even “talent retention” is something bigger corporates should learn from. There are several very famous dumplings houses in Taipei that are owned and managed by ex-Ding Tai Fung employees, and when asked or interviewed they will humbly tell you “Ding Tai Fung is still the best.”dumplings1

    While other restaurants have the little dumplings listed as one of the many items, the never advertise Ding Tai Fung has successfully turned a “product” into a “brand”, and turn a little cooking-oil shop into one of the world’s top ten restaurants. Ding Tai Fung is living proof that success can be done given skill, perseverance, and sheer hard work. And YES, I totally agree that the amazingly thin and delicate little dumplings are a work of art!

    *update on May 22, 2009 — Ding Tai Fung might get into the new Seth Godin’s Purple Cow


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