Din Tai Fung: Asia’s best-loved dumpling heads to Europe

CNN  — 

It takes just a few bites to see why Din Tai Fung, a Taiwan restaurant chain, has become the world’s most celebrated purveyor of xiaolong bao – pork soup dumplings.

To the uninitiated, the plump, ping-pong ball sized dumplings might not look much but each is a tiny, slurpable work of culinary art.

Puncture the delicate bundle, each folded with 18 intricate pleats, with your chopstick. Allow the soup to rush out onto your spoon, sip the exquisite juices and then bite through the skin into a delicious pork filling.

Be warned it could lead to a life-long addiction. It did for me.

I first encountered Din Tai Fung two decades ago as a student in Taipei when a friend introduced me to the chain’s very first restaurant in an unassuming building on the city’s Xinyi Road. In Hong Kong, where I lived for a decade, Din Tai Fung has earned a Michelin star – a rare accolade for a relatively inexpensive chain restaurant.

On moving to London this summer I was thrilled to discover that Din Tai Fung was launching its first European restaurant in the British capital, which opened in Covent Garden in December.

Ding Tai Fung's success is now a case study taught at business schools around the world.

Although the ambience is more upscale than the Din Tai Fungs I’ve eaten at in Asia, with artwork commissioned from Singaporean artist Tan Oe Pang on the walls and a cocktail bar, the dumplings tasted reassuringly familiar. Key ingredients such as rice, flour and soya sauce are imported from Taiwan to maintain flavor consistency, while fresh ingredients are sourced locally.

But will Din Tai Fung win over London, a city increasingly spoiled for choice when it comes to authentic and good quality Asian cuisine?

“London is a prime destination for food,” says Ching He Huang, a London-based chef and Chinese cuisine expert who was born in Taiwan. “It is very competitive here. People are very discerning.

“But people love and swear by them. They have their die hard fans. Locals who haven’t heard of them soon will.”

Din Tai Fung didn’t invent the xiaolongbao, which translates as little steamed basket bun. It, along with the larger tangbao that is sometimes eaten with the use of a straw to slurp out the juices, originated in the Jiangnan region around Shanghai, says Huang.

While many marvel at how the soup gets inside the dumpling, it’s easier than you might think. It’s formed by adding gelatinous broth that then melts in the steamer.

Din Tai Fung chefs prepare dumplings at the newly opened London branch.

Din Tai Fung founder Bing-Yi Yang, who originally came from northern China, began making the dumplings with his wife in Taipei in 1972 after their cooking oil business failed. Their son Yang Chi Hua is now the company’s chairman and it’s his obsession with precision, standardization and service that’s been the driving force behind the company’s international success, says Huang.

“They’re a very humble brand. It takes something to take a skill like this and translate it across the world. Not many people get it right,” she says.

No matter which Din Tai Fung restaurant you eat in, the dumplings are prepared in the same exacting manner – in a glass-fronted kitchen where customers can watch staff wearing white coats, baseball caps, hair nets and face masks meticulously weigh and roll out the dough and measure the filling. Chefs train at each task for up to six months and must pass a test to move onto the next.

Din Tai Fung operates more than 150 restaurants around the world, mainly in Asia, but also on the US West Coast and in Dubai.

The company’s international success story is now a case study taught at business schools including Harvard but at the London opening Yang was extremely modest, declaring: “I only know how to make xiaolongbao.”

Din Tai Fung have more than 150 restaurants around the world.

A second UK branch will open in London’s Centre Point building in 2019. George Quek of BreadTalk, the Singaporean company that operates the restaurant on a franchise basis, said that London holds the potential for more than 20 outlets.

And if the two-to-three hour wait to eat at the restaurant on its opening night is any measure, he might well be right.

Need to know:

Din Tai Fung


5-6, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London

Opening hours:

Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. - 10.30 p.m.

Sunday & Bank Holidays 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

No reservations taken