For food lovers, Asia is a must-go destination. Exotic fruits, palate-tickling spices, and amazing cooking techniques turn the continent into a gourmet’s paradise. Adventurous eaters are rewarded with elegant noodles in Tokyo, ethereal soup dumplings in Shanghai, unimaginably good duck dinners in Beijing, and elaborate banquets in Hong Kong. It’s a whirlwind trip of amazing flavors and top-notch service. Come along for the ride, and remember to bring your appetite.
Take a culinary tour through Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong as writer MICHAEL KAPLAN samples some of the best dishes these Far East cities have to offer.
TOKYO: SOBA NOODLES
Tucked into my suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo, I’m thinking that it would be easy to survive on room service and dinners at the in-house culinary hot spots Piacere (high-end Italian food) and Nadaman (Kaiseki-style Japanese food) — with meals augmented by the Lobby Lounge’s cocktails, which are expertly shaken and extra hard, as is the Tokyo style these days. But even the most smitten hotel guest needs to get out and explore the city. For me, that usually entails a search for the best local cuisine.
Second, perhaps, to sushi, noodles stand out as the iconic food of Japan, and a great noodle dinner becomes the object of my quest. But within the world of noodles, things can get a little complicated. Shangri-La chef Oliver Weber and his chef tournant Kensuke Nakamura (pictured top right) offer to set me straight. One morning, hours before Nadaman opens for business, they greet me there with an array of noodles: thin soba made from buckwheat; fat, flour-based udon; and bowls of ramen noodles steeping in soup. “It’s an ancient food,” Nakamura explains through a translator. “Noodles date back thousands of years and were eaten by samurai — as the original fast food — before they became fashionable among the wealthy.”
Armed with knowledge — primarily that artisanal soba is the noodle of choice in these parts — and aiming to have a refined noodle experience, I make my way from the Shangri-La to the Roppongi district of Tokyo. That is where Takeyabu, a one-star Michelin restaurant, ranks among the top soba specialists in town. The dining room is small and sweet, feeling more like a home than a restaurant. Soba sensei Takao Abe (pronounced Tah-cow Ah-bay), owner of Takeyabu, grows his own buckwheat on his own farm and makes his own noodles each morning. Following my Shangri-La tutorial, this is only somewhat surprising: Chef Weber emphasized that Tokyo’s best noodle restaurateurs are totally hands-on in their preparations.
Takeyabu offers a noodlecentric tasting menu. It comes with mushroom, sashimi, and tofu dishes, but they all rotate around roughly hewn soba which, I find out, is regarded as the most epicurean noodle in Japan. Noodles, served in antique plates and bowls, arrive fresh from the kitchen and need to be eaten immediately, lest their consistencies deteriorate. I’m served soba in soup, soba with vegetables, and cold soba that’s been artfully laid out on a plate. Each one has its own subtle flavor notes, but my favorite is a platter of cold soba that has yuzu — a citrusy, seasonal Japanese fruit — cooked right into it. The taste is distinctive and zippy, best experienced after dipping the fruit-studded noodles into a soy-based sauce and devouring them immediately.
Slurping, as I can tell from those seated around me in the small dining room, is not discouraged. I follow suit and savor every mouthful of fresh, homemade soba.
INSIDER’S TIP: Noodles are practically a lunchtime staple in Tokyo. To experience a more proletarian noodle, go to Kanda, a neighborhood in central Tokyo, and join salarymen (and women) for a casual meal at Kanda- Matsuya.
DETAILS: Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo, shangri- la.com; Takeyabu, Roppongi Hills Residence B3F, Keyakizaka-dori 6-12-2 Roppongi Hills, 011- 81-3-5786-7500; Kanda-Matsuya, 1-13 Kanda-Suda-cho, Chiyoda-ku, 011-81-3-3251- 1556
SHANGHAI: SOUP DUMPLINGS
In China, they’re called “xialong bao.” In America, we call them soup dumplings. Either way, these delicacies are thin, almost translucent wrappings of dough that hold ground pork in pools of hot soup. Visit Shanghai, and multiple meals of xialong bao are mandatory.
Poke your head into the kitchen of the sleekly designed Din Tai Fung (shown above), arguably Shanghai’s best spot for xialong bao (even though it is a spinoff of the original in Taipei), and you see that the cooking technique is surprisingly simple: Refrigerate crab or pork broth until it becomes gelatinous, then scoop the gelatin and a little bit of ground pork into a dumping. Tie the dumpling at the top and steam it. They’re served 10 to a bamboo basket and eaten almost acrobatically off of plastic Chinese soup spoons.
Chinese dumpling lovers have been savoring xialong bao for 135 years. The so-simple-it’ s-probably-true tale of the soup dumpling’s invention has it that a baker on the outskirts of Shanghai dreamed up the recipe, put them on offer, and found himself with a major hit. Whatever the case, we’re all the better for the Shanghainese turning this unassuming snack into their city’s version of the New York pizza slice or a slab of Kansas City barbecue.
INSIDER’S TIP: If you are looking for a more down-home soup dumpling experience, check out Jia Jia Tang Bao. Keep in mind, though, that the kitchen often runs out of dumplings by 1 p.m.
DETAILS: Din Tai Fung, Unit 11A, House 6, 2F, Ln. 123 Xinye Ye Road, 011-86-21-6385-8378, www.dintaifung.com.tw; Jia Jia Tang Bao, 90 Huanghe Lu, 011- 86-21-6327-6878