Xiao Long Bao: Get in My Belly

Interactive and appetizing, xiao long bao might be the best invention ever to take the form of a dumpling. They also happen to be some of the best comfort food we found in Asia. Homesick? XLB. Sick day? XLB. Tuesday? …you get the idea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB3.jpg” title=”Peeking in” caption=”A scrumptious little pod.” position=”center”]

As one of our most prized food discoveries, we ate a lot of xiao long bao in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It’s a pretty straightforward dish: Little pouches of dough filled with meat and broth, neatly pinched together at the top, and steamed in wooden baskets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB8.jpg” title=”Swirls of yum” caption=”Pinched to perfection – consistent and delicate.” position=”center”]

The dumplings are filled with aromatic meat mixed with gelatinized pork stock that liquifies on cooking, transforming into a delicious savory broth. Aside from the pork-filled XLB, other popular types include crab meat, crab roe (or a mix of crab and pork), and varieties that include salted duck egg yolk.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB1.jpg” title=”A skill we need to master” caption=”XLB being made at Lin Long Fang, Shanghai.” position=”center”]

Once they’re assembled the soup dumplings are steamed in bamboo baskets. Often the baskets will come lined – if not, the dumplings might stick and rupture and you’ll miss out on the savory broth. Hell hath no white-hot fury like a XLB addict whose broth has been carelessly spilled in the basket.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB4.jpg” title=”Be verrry careful with these” caption=”Dumplings at Lin Long Fang – notice the lack of liner.” position=”center”]

The skin of the xiao long bao is really important. In the best examples the skin is pinched in such a way that the top isn’t too doughy, and the rest of it is tender, smooth, and translucent. Elasticity is also key – there should be a bit of “give”, but the skin should be strong enough to hold the broth and meat inside without breaking.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB10.jpg” title=”Sagging with soup” caption=”The skin is *just* strong enough to hold the broth in.” position=”center”]

If you’ve never tried xiao long bao before, the Taiwanese chain of Din Tai Fung restaurants is a good place to start. They have a Michelin star and locations in over ten countries, including the USA (LA and Seattle).

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB5.jpg” title=”This is how you know you’ve arrived” caption=”The Din Tai Fung mascot, whose head begs to be eaten.” position=”center”]

Their Michelin status does make their food a bit expensive (and you’ll probably have to wait in line), but boy do they know how to make a soup dumpling.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB6.jpg” title=”Small servings – DTF” caption=”Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung.” position=”center”]

Upon trying xiao long bao for the first time you’ll notice that everyone eats them differently. If you pop the whole dumpling in your month willy-nilly you’ll likely be scalded by piping hot soup, and besides, these things should be savored if you’re to fully embrace the XLB experience.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB2.jpg” title=”Bright hot red” caption=”A side of chili sauce adds a spicy kick.” position=”center”]

Regardless of your consumption method, start by adding soy sauce and vinegar (3 parts vinegar, one part soy) to a small dish of finely shredded ginger. From there, anything goes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB7.jpg” title=”User guide” caption=”Din Tai Fung’s recommended method of consumption.” position=”center”]

My approach is something like this:

  1. Start by putting scooping some of the vinegar/soy sauce into the spoon.
  2. Pick up a dumpling with chopsticks and place it in the spoon.
  3. Bite a small hole in the dumpling.
  4. Pick up the dumpling with chopsticks and pour the broth into the spoon with the vinegar and soy.
  5. Drink the broth.
  6. Dip the dumpling, hole-first, into the vinegar and soy mixture.
  7. Place it back in the spoon.
  8. Finally, eat the dumpling in one bite.

This method basically ignores the ginger and achieves a high sauce-to-dumpling ratio. Drinking the broth separately also reduces risk of bodily harm since it gives the dumpling some time to cool down.

Eric’s approach is closer to Din Tai Fung’s recommended method:

  1. Pick up dumpling with chopsticks, dunk in vinegar/soy mixture.
  2. Place in spoon.
  3. Bite (or poke hole with chopsticks) in dumpling.
  4. Allow broth to drain into spoon.
  5. Optional: Add a few slivers of ginger.
  6. Consume.

Eric views the sauce as a mere accompaniment to the dumpling, allowing more of the subtle flavors to shine through.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB9.jpg” title=”Cheaper than DTF” caption=”Ming Yue Tang Bao in Taipei is more affordable than Din Tai Fung – and just as good!” position=”center”]

However you decide to eat them, the important thing is that you eat them often and in great numbers. May the soup be with you.

Hello Kitty, Goodbye Ground

I’m not sure I get the Hello Kitty hype. She’s a cute cat, to be sure, but what’s she all about? Does she represent something in particular? And how is she so good at getting her face printed on merchandise the world over?

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKStore.jpg” title=”So.much.pink.” caption=”Need something pink before boarding? Stop at the HK store in Taipei’s airport.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKBreastfeeding.jpg” title=”Bizarre.” caption=”Or perhaps you can pay a visit to the HK breastfeeding room?” position=”center”]

Personally when it comes to Japanese cats, I’m more of a Maru fan. So for clarity, this article is not an endorsement of the Sanrio Corporation, Kitty, her views, beliefs, or fuzzy little friends.

Now that that’s out of the way. Eva Air (a Taiwanese carrier) has built a whole fleet of Hello Kitty jets so I’ve put together some photos to show you what it’s like to fly on one. By chance, we flew on two of them:

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKPlane.jpg” title=”Apples plane” caption=”The ‘Hello Kitty Loves Apples’ plane.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HKPlane2.jpg” title=”Sanrio plane” caption=”…and the ‘Sanrio Family Hand in Hand’ plane.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HKSeats.jpg” title=”HK seats” caption=”Starting to see a theme?” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKAttendant.jpg” title=”Attendant” caption=”Lest we forget this is a HELLO KITTY JET.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKMeal.jpg” title=”HK meal” caption=”Note the cutlery and fish cake. And that carrot is shaped like a bow.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKBathroom.jpg” title=”HK bathroom” caption=”Bathroom break? How about some Kitty toilet paper.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKFoisGras.jpg” title=”HK bathroom” caption=”For first-class passengers: Hello Kitty fois gras.” position=”center”]

So what do you think? Is this a fun marketing ploy on Eva’s part, or have they gone overboard here?

Taiwan Costs: $90 a Day

Compared to neighboring countries like Japan, travelers will find that Taiwan has a lot to offer for less than $100 a day.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

A third of your daily budget will easily be spent on lodging. We found the cost to stay in hotels and hostels was a little higher than anticipated, at least when compared to how much you’ll pay for meals and transportation. And the rooms in Taipei tend to be TINY – we had smaller rooms here than in Japan, if you can believe it. Looking back, it would have been a good place to try couch surfing – even more so because a lot of people speak English there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiFood.jpg” title=”Night market” caption=”Thankfully Taiwanese food tends to be really affordable. Chicken feet anyone?” position=”center”]

In order to keep lodging costs down we used some reward points from Agoda.com, the site we use to book most hotels. Agoda’s reward program (among others) will give you points worth 5-7% of the hotel price. They’ll also price-match with competitors so you can book with them all the time. Over the course of the year we’ve accumulated over 100,000 points worth about $200, which isn’t trivial to the unemployed. This isn’t a plug for Agoda, merely a RTW money-saving tip!

Transportation costs in Taiwan are really reasonable, especially considering the small size of the country. Use the Easy Card in Taipei for good discounts on the Metro and city buses, and take slower trains between cities to save on long-distance travel.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaiwanHiking.jpg” title=”Hualien” caption=”Take the train down to Hualien for some great hiking.” position=”center”]

The capital city of Taipei has a lot of free sights and activities (check out my Taipei on a Shoestring article here). Like any great city, you can spend an afternoon just walking around snapping photos of everyday sights. Also, this is random, but if you need to stock up on medicine you can buy antibiotics here without a prescription!

[ptcPhoto filename=”WallArt.jpg” title=”Mural” caption=”A mural in Taipei’s Daan neighborhood.” position=”center”]

The daily average cost for our visit was $90.40 (or $45.20 per person per day), so we came in under our budget of $100 a day.

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which included an $40 flight from Sanya, China (we used miles for this flight and only paid taxes). Visas are not required for US citizens, so there were no other costs associated with entering the country.

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 21 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $735.08 $35 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $30 on Green Island to $41 in Taipei. The use of Agoda points brought one room down to only $12 a night.
Food $560.18 $26.68 You can get a meal of potstickers and boba tea for as little as $3.
Transportation (within country) $273.23 $13.01 Use the Easy Card in Taipei for good discounts on the Metro and city buses. Slower trains between cities are also discounted.
Entertainment $53.43 $2.54 Includes snorkel purchase, the Taipei National Palace Museum, the saltwater hot springs on Green Island, and the Taipei Zoo.
Alcohol $131.36 $6.26 Large cans of beer are about $1.40 in convenience stores.
Incidentals $145.18 $6.91 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $1898.46 $90.40 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare)

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaiwanPieFinal.jpg” title=”Pie” caption=”The breakdown of costs in a pie chart.” position=”center”]

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – $600TWD ($22.50)
A cup of boba tea – $30TWD ($1)
Metro fare, one way – $25TWD ($.85)
Cost of a 120-minute massage (sadly, I never did get one) – $1,300NTD ($45)

Month Ten: Leg Two Revealed

Before jumping in, I’ll just note that Hong Kong is a great city and we had SO MANY good meals there. Too bad it’s so expensive! We’ll fill you in on more details (and recommend some great restaurants) in the coming weeks.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckDuck.jpg” title=”Empire City Duck” caption=”DUCK-DUCK-DROOL” position=”center”]

On to the big news: Leg One is over! A couple months ago we decided that we needed a travel break. Asia has been incredible but we needed a change of scenery and our homesickness really only had one cure. We’ll go back to Asia to visit Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos at the end of the next leg.

We kept our visit home (mostly) a secret and flew 8,165 miles to arrive in the USA on Thanksgiving morning. It was more fun that way, and besides, how often do people get real surprises anymore? My mom and sister were shocked and very happy to see us. After recovering from jetlag in Denver for a few days we flew to New York to visit family and friends. Now we’re in the Chicago area with Eric’s family, planning for the next leg and putting some pounds back on with home-cooked comfort food.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NYTree.jpg” title=”Christmas in NYC” caption=”The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center” position=”center”]

So, how did this happen? Eric was up to his usual mischief with frequent flier miles and found a very good deal for us to fly round-trip from Hong Kong to Denver with a stop in Portugal on the way back, all in business class. Getting a good deal was somewhat complicated this time, but it involved earning 100% bonus miles for sharing them with each other in addition to a 30,000-mile discount. Turns out this visit home really is a trip around the world comprised of nine flights and more than 26,000 miles. Curious what that looks like?


In reserving all of these flights we made a tiny oversight and booked our ticket back to Asia on March 4th instead of February 4th, giving us seven weeks in Europe instead of our intended three. So, ok – twist my arm, I guess we’ll go to Spain too. A month in Spain should cost less than the change fee, right…? Right!

After all that was worked out, we went ahead and booked flights through the summer. Here is the route we’re flying (also in business class!) for a mere $400 and a total of 100,000 frequent flyer miles.

[ptcPhoto filename=”flights2.gif” title=”Leg Two” caption=”Oceania and Asia…so much for overland travel.” position=”center”]

Long story short, our plan for Leg Two is pretty-much set. After Portugal and Spain we’ll head back to Hong Kong for a few days and rest up before moving on to Australia for five weeks. Come April we’ll go to New Zealand for a month and then take a little vacay in Fuji. Then, finally, in June we’ll start exploring Southeast Asia.

Anyone want to visit? Unlike with Leg One, we have some pretty exact dates. It’ll be a change to stay on schedule (and in the countries we actually planned on visiting). But if the last year is any indication, we need to exercise some restraint!

So for now we’re enjoying catching up with family in the States and exploring some sights closer to home. We went to Niagara (my first-ever visit to Canada!), which was freezing but gorgeous and basically deserted.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NiagaraIce.jpg” title=”Ice” caption=”Ice near the Falls” position=”center”]

Hope all of you are having a great holiday season!

Snapshot Sunday: Niagara in the Wintertime

[ptcPhoto filename=”Niagara640.jpg” title=”Horseshoe” caption=”Horseshoe Falls at Niagara, Ontario – Canada” position=”center”]

The mist subsides for a moment and we see through to Horseshoe Falls, the world’s second-largest waterfall. Over 600,000 gallons of water cascade off of this 167-foot ledge every second, making Niagara a prime spot for sightseers and daredevils alike. The first person to survive going over the Falls in a barrel was schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor, who took the plunge on her 63rd birthday in 1901. Her cat joined her in the barrel, and he survived too.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.