There’s something undisputedly magical about dim sum. The bamboo steamers, the bite-sized morsels, the (increasingly obsolescent) pushcarts, the rowdy din of the restaurants, the clean flavours and sharp, vinegary accents; the list goes on. As vegetarians, however, the only problem is that our choices are so limited. There’s the above-par Xin Man Yuan in Singapore’s Chinatown, and most Chinese-style vegetarian eateries will offer a few dishes, but not enough to cut the custard. Sorry, I mean mustard. This explains the unbridled excitement that accompanies the discovery of any wholly vegetarian dim summery. They’re a rare find that should never, ever go unpatronised. Not ever. Dim sum, yum yum. A couplet as obvious as it is true. Dim sum, in my tum. Also can.
Yang Shin Vegetarian Restaurant in Taipei (located right next to the Songjiang Nanjing MRT station, Exit 8) is one such institution that enjoys an almost mythical status. It’s popular. Incredibly popular. So popular in fact that reservations are needed or, failing that, a willingness to wait 45 minutes or so for a table. Wait we did, and what a foresightful investment in time it was. The menu spans umpteen pages of wholly vegetarian dim sum and associated Canto dishes. The service is bustling and friendly. The prices are high by Taiwanese standards, but it’s well worth temporarily loosening the pursestrings for what was (or will be) a very enjoyable eating experience.
That being said, our first dish actually turned out to be one of the most lacklustre of the bunch. The fried mashed tofu with oyster sauce (NTD 240) was quite bland and nondescript in taste, with the “oyster” sauce doing little to lift the tofu beyond the realm of, well, unseasoned tofu. The patties were a combination of tofu and diced vegetables, but the veg provided little in terms of texture or taste. A little disappointing, but thankfully the exception rather than the rule.
The rather erudite-sounding sautéed Arctium Lappa (which, in its defancified form, is simply “burdock”) on rice (NTD 30) was small and simple and delicious. Sticky rice with soy sauce, and a scattering of pine nuts and burdock up top. The rice had a subtle salty-sweetness to it which, combined with its swollen grains and sticky texture, left me imploring for more.
The steamed pumpkin dumpling with porcini (NTD 108) was a little overstated, mainly because there was little evidence of the porcini or any other fungi. That said, they did include a nice variety of ingredients which, in (dim) sum, produced a cornucopia of colours and crunches. More beautiful than tasty, but very beautiful at that.
Xiao long bao tend to be the barometer of any good dim sum, and these vegetarian xiao long bao (NTD 68) were exquisite. So good in fact that we ordered two helpings. The lovely, flavoursome, umami-esque filling of diced mushrooms was delicious. One of the best dishes we tried.
The steamed vegetarian dumplings (NTD 98) were clean and simple and no-frills. The filling was fresh-tasting, green-looking and healthy-feeling that consisted mainly of spinach, chestnuts and other green stuff. If you’re willing to fork out a bit more, there is also a mushroom version on the menu.
The baked shaobing with ji-cai (NTD 128) were another of our favourite dishes. The flatbread crust was perfectly baked (its crunchiness yielded an unparalleled sense of masticatory satisfaction… or masticaction?!), and wonderfully seasoned with sesame seeds. They were filled with ji-cai and other vegetables – ji-cai being, of course, a mainstay of TCM that has a slightly sweet taste, a cooling effect, and apparently works wonders for the heart, lungs and eyes. Tastebuds as well, I might add.
The Cantonese barbecued vege ham (or char siew) pastry (NTD 108) is always a favourite of mine. Always. This one was good – a very sweet and moist filling that was ensconced in crumbling, slightly astringent pastry. It was very tasty, but slightly eclipsed by the sublimity of the shaobing. Shaobiff, more like.
Finally, our gorge-fest ended on the only note imaginable: egg yolk custard buns (NTD 128). Like the char siew pastries above, custard buns are another go-to order for me and, accordingly, were highly anticipated. Unfortunately they were slightly below par – a nice (if parsimonious) coconutty filling, wrapped in a tough and rather unforgiving bun. They seemed to be a little over-steamed, and lacked the loveable fluffiness and ensconcing stickiness of a good (dessert) bao. Oh well. Dim sum, yahh mon!