Queue for more than half an hour for dumplings? You bet, writes Helen van Berkel.
They say the best advertisement for a restaurant is tables full of locals.
Another clue is a queue out the door and an electronic board warning of the wait time to get a table.
The Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Taipei — one of nine in Taiwan alone and although there are branches in 11 countries you would have to travel to Australia for your nearest fix — had a queue snaking around the corner of people happy to accept the 42-minute waiting time lit up by the red LED bulbs.
It's a restaurant that takes dumplings very seriously indeed, elevating the little dough-wrapped tablespoonfuls of minced meat/seafood/vegetables/all of the above to gourmet level (it was in the top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world in — to be fair — 1993, but hey, the dumpling house is still justly proud of the accolade. Buns, soup and noodles are also on the menu, but dumplings were what we came to sample.
The magic happens in the kitchen to your right as you enter: an army of chefs labours among high piles of bamboo steamers that ebb and flow as wait staff negotiate stacks of freshly-made steamed dumplings to the restaurant's dining areas and return the empty vessels for refills.
You also haven't been to Taiwan, home of the world's best dumplings, unless you have sampled the world-famous bubble tea. Someone in the depths of the 1980s thought it would be a good idea to add tapioca balls to iced tea. That someone, according to the Chun Shui Tang Tea House in Taichung, made the marvellous concoction in that very teahouse and it draws in the crowds to this day when, in an elaborate ceremony, visitors learn how the bubble tea is created.
Although the Taiwanese are more likely to catch up over a cup of the aforementioned bubble tea than a glass of wine, alcohol is increasingly a part of Taiwanese culture. In fact, one of the world's best whisky distilleries pumps out whisky from northeastern Taiwan. Kavalan is the original name of Yilin County, where the distillery collects local spring water in the process of making its award-winning whiskies. We were only allowed a single sample and a later google suggested why: this water of life can sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle. And Robbie Burns would be spinning in his kilt if he knew: the Taiwanese-made single malt beat the best of Scottish in Burn's Night tastings.
Kavalan throws open its doors to interested visitors and you can see the process that produces the whisky from top to finish — including the part where they burn the barrels to produce a smokier taste. Most of the equipment is imported — as well as most of the ingredients — and the main lesson you learn here is how everything is possible with a plan — and a lot of money.
will fly a new direct service from Auckland to Taipei, five times weekly from November this year. Fares are on sale now — one-way Economy Class fares start from $759.