My steps are lost yet they’ve guided me through the beauty and serenity of Kowloon Park on an overcast day. It’s warm and humid but that’s just early June in Hong Kong. I’ve come to the other end of the park, walking down a small slope to cross a crowded street full of shops and neon signage. Let’s see… I need to walk west to the corner of Haiphong and Canton. The Google map I cached on my phone’s memory says it’s that way. One of the best restaurants in Hong Kong is buried deep in the belly of Harbor City; somewhere amidst this massive clutter of Fendi, Burberry, Armani and Coach.
I’ve been trekking this labyrinthian mall for far too long. Let me check on the other side of this glass enclosed bridge over the street and into the Silvercord building. I think I’m on the right track. First it’s the smell of salt and meat that guides my way. Next it’s the sound of the hustle and bustle of a restaurant in full swing. The smell and sounds are growing stronger when finally I see, at the top of some stairs, Din Tai Fung.
After a short wait, I’m seated with my menu. A short perusal later, I let the waitress know what I’d like. A side of fried rice and perhaps some dessert after six of their famously glorious xiao long bao. I unwrap the chopsticks and have the waitress take the refuse. Not caring to read what looked like instructions of some kind on the wrapper but never mind that. I’m here enjoying life in an amazing city on the other side of the planet.
I slump in my chair and take a deep breath looking around knowing that I’m actually just… living. Billions of people in the world will never know what this is like. I can take dozens of pictures and sloppily spill nine hundred and fifty-seven words but sometimes it’s best not to try and grasp at the essence of an experience. All I can do is smile and cherish these ephemeral moments and be cognizant enough to know when I’m living inside of one. I think for the next few minutes about how lucky I am and feel even luckier that I see my xiao long bao being carried in the hands of a gracefully beautiful Hong Konger.
“Here you are, sir.” The sound of the wooden container echoes comfort when she places it on the table. She lifts the cover and when the scent takes a stranglehold of my mind, my periphery begins to blur and my vision slowly zooms into the steamy, nebulous mounds of heaven exuding vapors that literally vanish into thin air right before my eyes. Everything is set. A hot cup of tea and weighty chopsticks are complemented by black vinegar and soy sauce for dipping. All is well and all this beauty and all this perfection, it suddenly falls apart.
“Shit… there has to be a proper way to eat this… I know when I had these the other day for dinner, I was probably eating them wrong. At least then the restaurant was almost empty and I wasn’t in danger of appearing uncouth. Those were probably instructions written on the wrapper of the damn chopsticks. There are no chopsticks on the tables next to me either. Think back to that Travel Channel show you saw years back explaining how to eat Chinese soup dumplings. Damn I don’t remember. There’s no open wi-fi so my phone is useless so I guess I’m on my own. Now my eyes are darting back and forth. Shit… The waitress saw me looking at her and probably wondering why I’m not eating.”
“Okay, think. Alright that lady down the way to the right looks like a local and is already eating some of these. Just slyly look over and do as she does. Drink some tea and pretend to look at your phone until she quits talking to her friend. There she goes… Okay so place the chopsticks under the small knot of dough at the top to pick up the dumpling. Gently dip it into the black vinegar and soy sauce, then place it in the dumpling spoon, bite the side to drain the broth then devour the whole thing.”
That wasn’t so bad. Crisis averted. The first attempt goes without a hitch. Nibbling a small hole at the side, I watch the shiny, honey colored broth drain slowly into the spoon and around the deflated dumpling. Tilting the contents of the spoon doesn’t just satisfy taste, it awakens a gustatory rapture. The soft, savory succulence of the first full bite slows time and suddenly there is only silence. Watching a blurred world of hazy figures drifting by, I realize, in this moment I may never have better xiao long bao.
Starting from the furthest soup dumpling, I make my way around counterclockwise and leaving one last dumpling in the center. I place my left elbow on the table and rest my chin in my left hand then lift the dumpling and stare at it hanging from the chopsticks. Looking at the pink tinge of the pork filled center showing through the slightly transparent dough, I come to an absurd realization. As gratifyingly transcendental and educational as this meal was, in my mind, I see how ridiculous this all seems. Succumbing to a culturally neurotic moment of panic over some damn xiao long bao. I guess the ambient effect of actually eating Taiwanese food in China surrounded by Asian people amplifies all the emotions and expectations. Still I’m staring into the last dumpling wondering how something so small, so simple can take over your world.