I am sitting in a soap factory in the outskirts of Taoyuan, eating some of the best xiaolongbao (小籠包) dumplings in Taiwan, arguably as good as or better than the famous Din Tai Fung. In fact, I like them so much that they were one of the first things I blogged about on Taiwanxifu.com, and I still feature the dumpling photos on the banner on my blog.
Where am I?
I am at the Namchow factory in Guishan, Taoyuan, a ‘tourist’ factory in a growing cluster of 22 factories open for tourism. The Namchow Group started out manufacturing soap in 1952, and their soap, washing and detergent products still dominates 75 per cent of the Taiwan market. If you live in Taiwan you might have seen their ‘crystal soap’ in the supermarket. Mr Taiwanxifu insists we use their crystal soap flakes for washing all of our clothes, including for Taiwanxifu baby. I must admit I was a bit hesitant to use it at first: unlike the white, snowflaky powders in Australia this is brown, looks like shaved sawdust and is unperfumed. Sounds awful, but it is an all natural product that is effective and soft on clothes, and kind to humans as well. It was environmentally sound and biodegradable long before such a thing was fashionable.
But under the leadership of the current Namchow Chairman, a son of the founder, Namcham has branched out to other lines. I visited their Chungli factory to observe the process for manufacturing frozen udon, ramen and fettucine, for which they use premium Australian wheat. While there, I was lucky enough to also observe their puff pastry manufacture and peek into their bakery test kitchen. (And got to taste-test cream cheese danishes, daikon radish sesame pastries, and wicked chocolate chip cookies.)
And Namcham group also has restaurants. Seriously good restaurants including Dian Shui Lou (點水樓), an award winning Shanghai style restaurant that makes delicate xiaolongbao dumplings and other dishes. I visited at their elegant restaurant at their factory site (yes, at their factory) in Guishan, but they have other restaurants including in the Yongkang St gourmet area and not far from the Taipei Main Train station at Huaining St.
Our meal started with a selection of appetizers. I especially liked the pumpkin lightly pickled in plum vinegar. Also good was their drunken chicken albeit being more of a traditional, bony, gelatinous dish; there was a time when I would have run a mile away from this, but while I passed on a second piece, it wasn’t too bad.
First dish was mango prawns (香芒蝦球) used bountiful Taiwan summer mangos to good advantage. This was a sweet dish, as you would expect with the addition of fresh mangos, but still light with a fruity and lightly-cooked sauce.
I did however indulge in seconds with the clay pot dish of tofu in crab roe casserole (蟹粉豆腐煲). I love this dish, and liked the way it was treated at Dian Shui Lou. The egg tofu was soft and billowy, soaking up the rich, golden sauce that had been augmented by crab roe.
I also enjoyed the bamboo rice basket of three different flavoured xiaolongbao dumplings (圓籠小籠包). My hosts urged us to try to original favour first; this was a delicate pork flavoured dumpling encased in a thin skin and sealed by nineteen chrysanthemum folds. As I have blogged before, the style an quality is as good — if not better than — the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung. But what I didn’t know was that the restaurant is named after the shape of the dumpling as you pick them up with your chopsticks — like a drop of water (literally in Chinese 點水樓). Like a drop of water falling into a pond, or the sound of money falling down.
Second dumpling to try was a strong XO-sauce favoured dumpling. This set me into an embarrassing coughing fit. No, there was nothing wrong with the dumpling but rather with me as I had the early stages of a cold (which later required a trip to the doctor and time off work) and I reacted to the chilli in the XO sauce. The dumpling wasn’t especially spicy, it was more than the flavour was strong and I was sensitive. If you like bold flavours you will enjoy this dumpling.
Finally, a sapphire basil dumpling. Both the skin and the filling were made with basil, an aniseedy variety often known as ‘Thai basil’ and used in cuisines in South East Asia. The basil skin wrapping must be made freshly as it will go grey in colour if it is exposed for more than an hour. So the chefs at Dian Shui Lou must work quickly. I appreciated the workmanship in this dumpling, and enjoyed the combination: although there was a lot of basil, it was not overpowering.
Another famous dish on the menu was fried John Dory fish, coated in a red-yeast batter, with rice crackers (紅糟酥魚). The fish was tender and the overall dish was something like a sophisticated Shanghai version of fish and chips. I was, however, a little disappointed that the dish was not served with a wet sauce: I have had rice cracker (guo ba) dishes served at banquets where a sauce is poured over the hot rice crackers, resulting in a spectacular pyrotechnic noise.
I try to avoid eating fatty meat, but I could not resist the tea smoked pork rib with pinenuts (烏龍茶煙燻松子子排). The tea added a subtle aroma to the dish, and the meat between the fatty layers of the rib was so tender, it just melted. Not as cholesterol inducing as pork belly dishes such as Dongpu meat, but still hardly a health dish. I also enjoyed that it was served with pine nuts, which are surprisingly common in Taiwanese dishes.
Beef noodle soup is justifiably famous in Taipei, and I hadn’t realised until this meal that Dian Shui Lou has a top-class version as well.
Served in a rich broth, this beef ‘Sanuki’ noodle soup is hearty and delicious (點水讚岐牛肉麵). The beef shanks were tender and the serving generous. The pale coloured meat you can see on the lefthand side is beef tendon, a favourite addition to Taipei beef noodle soup. The best part of this dish were the Namchow noodles; these were the traditional, thick northern-style ‘scraped’ noodles (刀削麵, dāoxiāomiàn). (I was lucky enough to have take-away noodles so recreated at home. Mr Taiwanxifu loved this dish, and declared that the daoxiaomian were the ‘proper’ noodles to eat with this dish.)
Dessert time. Out came a large plate of Chinese crepes with red bean (棗泥鍋餅). But these were not any red bean, but rather a red bean and Chinese red date jam. Our hosts explained that this dish was a favourite of General Chiang Kai-shek’s fashionable and powerful wife, Soong Mei-ling, and is a recreation of the dish made for her at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, where she had a residence.
Then ice-cream. Yes, plain vanilla ice-cream. At a Shanghai restaurant? Namchow Group also manufactures dairy desserts including a line of premium Russian-style ice-creams. The Kabisuo vanilla ice-cream was rice and smooth, with enough flecks of vanilla to show it was genuine without overpowering the effect, and slightly sweeter than many Western-style dishes.
After the fruit-plate, there was one more surprise. Our hosts wanted me to try a summer speciality: Chinese red dates filled with mochi. I had tried these before, but not smothered in shaved ice. It was like a treasure hunt sifting through the ice to find the dates and mochi.
Taiwanxifu was invited to visit the Namchow factory as part of a group excursion to learn how they use Australian products. Tours of the Guishan factory are available (phone 03 263 0264), including on weekends, and include the opportunity to mould soap (more fun than it sounds). You can even participate in classes to make xiaolongbao at certain times; there are only a few xiaolongbao classes available, so best to ring and book ahead.