Uncle Lu, one of my father's friends, and an unrepentant gourmand, told us of an old Zhejiang restaurant in Taipei where they served a chicken soup that we just HAD to try. So on a recent trip to see my parents, we rustled up 28 relatives for a dinner of Zhejiang specialties at Xin Yuan, a little, slightly dilapidated restaurant on the back side of Fu Hsing Rd. South. We picked our way carefully down the slightly greasy, rickety stairs into the "private dining room" where we somehow packed ourselves into two tables, piling the kids onto spare laps. (No matter about the seat shortage, the four boys were immediately off scuttling like crabs on the floor, testing the structural integrity of the building to its limits. They returned periodically to bolt down delicacies as each course was served, before returning to do battle with the aliens).
While we waited for everyone to show up, we picked at the saucers of cold starters - bitter, braised mustard stems, big, sweet fava beans, garlicky sour shredded napa cabbage pickle, and painfully hot little chilis stuffed with ground pork and fried, then braised with gigantic cloves of garlic.
The first course was a cold plate: a veritable mountain of drunken chicken, mock goose, sliced pigs stomach, jellyfish. Surrounded by logs of oiled crisp cucumber (as an aside, does anyone else here also happen to think the slender asian cucumbers, the bumpy and CRUNCHY kind are just great? Ditto lemon, lebanese, and mediterranean cukes. But I digress). This fortress was, circled by a fleet of sleek jet black pi dan (preserved eggs) halves, their glistening yolks oozing slightly in the center. This was probably the weakest offering all night, and it was by no means bad, just that everything else that followed was so much better.
Steamed stinky tofu, each pale brown spongy slab topped attractively with a pinch of bright red chili slices, fresh green soybeans, and preserved black beans. Each pungent, yet sweet, bite releasing its juices with a squirt.
Qing chao xia ren (clear fried shrimps), a dish I've always found either terrible (and there are so many ways it can go wrong) or spectacular. Happily, this was the latter. Perfectly cooked (i.e. just barely, and over high heat), little freshwater shrimps, each curled up into a crisp, wine-scented ball, and napped in a silky lightly thickened sauce. Tart, slightly spicy-sweet, aged jin jiang black vinegar added a perfect little kick to these lovelies.
Next came a whole yellow croaker braised in a clay pot with fresh tofu and finely chopped xue cai (dried mustard leaves). The croaker was delicate and meltingly tender, without a trace of fishiness, enhanced by the slightly bitter leafy taste of the mustard preserves.
Another vast steaming clay pot contained chunks of braised pigs feet and taro balls. The skin was tender and tasty from the sweetened soysauce, and the tendons delightfully gelatinous, and we sucked the bones dry. I was way too slow because there were no seconds left by the time the lazy susan made a full revolution.
Steamed qing jiang cai in fish stock (the bok choy with pale green stems), carefully trimmed and arranged to form concentric circles on a huge platter. I don't know how they get the vegetables to taste so intense - I know that napa cabbage is often wilted in the sun to intensify the flavor. In any case, the sweetness of the greens was complemented by bits of spongy bamboo fungus and crab meat bound in a lush, milky, thickened fish stock.
A steamed ground pork patty the size of a frying pan came next, draped over a mound of fresh, tender tofu skin knots. The "pancake" was springy, juicy, and pungent from the salted fish beaten into it, but at that stage of the game, was just a little too strong in flavor to eat a lot of without rice. We ate the tofu knots and my cousins took the pork home to have over rice for breakfast the next day.
Yet another steaming clay pot contained yang chun mian - slender, but firm, noodles in a lightly thickened broth flavored with lots and lots of dried shrimps, fried shallots, and dark green scallions.
We had almost forgotten about it, but finally out came dun ji tang (the chicken soup). A whole chicken with bright yellow skin was first steamed and then placed in an earthenware crock, into which the stock made from another chicken was poured, along with some high quality ham, mounded with napa cabbage, and then whole crock was placed in the steamer to meld the flavors. The napa cabbage was sweet, soft (but not mushy) and pale brown from having soaked up the goodness of the chicken essences, the flavorful chicken was picked down to the bones with chopsticks, and we all drank bowl after bowl of the clean, sweet broth until it was gone. Uncle Lu never fails.
Somehow, room was made to slip in just one or two delicate red bean paste-filled steamed buns. A slice of green-skinned, valencia-like sweet orange freshened us up just enough to make it back up the stairs for group photos.
Xin Yuan Shi Fu
Fu Hsing Rd 2nd section 148-1