Monday, March 2, 2015

Food Post 5: 小籠包 xiao long bao (lit. small basket bun) Steamed Dumpling!

The white characters on the red background say Din Tai Feng (the name of the famous Taipei restaurant where I bought this these xiao long bao) and the big black character with white background says again "Din."  Din Tai Feng has the most famous xiao long bao in all of Taiwan.  The restaurant even earned one Michelin star, and as far as I know it's the first time I've eaten at a Michelin rated restaurant.  Certainly it is the first Michelin rated restaurant that I ordered take-out from!

What is xiao long bao?  They are a dumplings with a very fine skin that is folded together in a spiral about the top, allowing all of the juices of the meat to collect in the bottom.  They are steamed in bamboo baskets, stacked sometimes perilously high.  Then they are served with lots of thin spaghetti-like strands of fresh ginger and a very light soy sauce that has a little bit of vinegar in it.  The secret of Din Tai Feng, apparently, is the number of folds that they flute about the top: 18.  Apparently it's the perfect amount of folds so that the xiao long bao experience is not too doughy, but I feel as this explanation is a little bit like a magician telling you to look over here while he does something else behind his back.  In any case, something amazing is going on with the dumpling skin--it really does have an incredibly soft, unobtrusive, but chewy texture.  Usually you puncture a side of the xiao long bao with your teeth and then suck out all the juices.  Some people put the xiao long bao in a spoon to eat it.  It's almost like wonton soup, where the soup is actually in the wontons instead of all around it!
Here is the Mandarin name for Wonton:  雲吞 yun tun (lit. cloud swallow).  Wonton is called "cloud swallow" because they are like clouds in your soup and they slip down your throat also like clouds.  I guess the English "wonton" derived from these two words, "yun-tun."

Another interest language tidbit is the name for basket: 籠 long "basket".  This word is composed of two other words, the character 龍 long, which means "dragon" and the radical 竹 zhu, which means "bamboo" (竹 is squashed significantly until it is small enough to hover over 龍).  This character is different than, say, 仙 xian, which means "immortal," which is composed of a man and a mountain and gains meaning from that juxtaposition.  籠 on the other hand takes two already established characters 龍 and 竹 and uses the sound of one, "long" (the sound for dragon), and the meaning of the other, "bamboo."  籠 and 龍 are pronounced exactly the same, with even the same rising tone--the only difference is the bamboo radical on top.  This is one way that characters--though not phonetic--can provide significant clues as to their meaning and their pronunciation.  Say I knew the word for dragon and bamboo and I had often eaten and talked about xiao long bao without ever investigating the individual meaning of the words.  If one day I came across a sign that said, "小籠包" I would be 99% certain of what I was reading. I would definitely be able to "read" the sign, even though I had never before come across that character.  I would know by context primarily, but I would have the overwhelming confidence of knowing that "dragon" which is a significant part of this new character is pronounced exactly the same.  I would also be able to guess, because of the very explicit way xiao long bao are steamed in bamboo containers, that "long" meant exactly those baskets, because of the addition of the "bamboo" radical.  So while Chinese characters seem very cryptic, they are built intelligently with a single purpose, and once you discover that purpose, or story, you almost never forget that character again, as though each character was a mnemonic device for itself.  

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