It was 1972 when Yang Bing-yi and his wife Lai Pen-mei opened a small, unassuming restaurant on Xinyi Road in Taipei and called it Din Tai Fung. Little did he know that some 50 years later, this seed would grow into a global empire with more than 170 locations and, more importantly, introduce the rest of the world to delicious soup dumplings. Sadly, on March 26, the man himself passed away at the age of 96.
Yang was born in 1927 in the city of Taiyuan, in Chinese Shanxi province. At the age of 21, he had to flee to Taiwan due to China's civil war, along with more than 2 million of his mainland countrymen. He didn't finish school, so he had to get along as best as he could, working in Taipei as a delivery man and cooking oil salesman. In the early years of his "new life", he met and married his future wife, Lai, and in order to make some extra money, they started selling noodles from a storefront of his small business. As he said in one of his rare interviews, they "worked and slept there".
Making noodles came rather easy to Yang, as he learned the skills as a child back in Taiyuan. But Yang wanted to enrich his menu with other items, so he chose delicious Shanghainese dumplings xiaolongbao. These soup-filled steamed dumplings soon became a local hit. The patrons praised their taste and juiciness, especially as they were notoriously hard to make (properly) - a cook has to squeeze minced meat and broth into a paper-thin dough and make 16 folds on top. Yang further upped the ante by making 18 folds a requirement for his take on this classic Chinese dish.
In 1972, Yang and Lai decided to cease all of their other operations and focus on their dumplings, so the first official Din Tai Fung restaurant opened its doors. They continued to refine their recipes and soon opened their first outlet, and in the following years, continued to open branches all over Taiwan. This small local franchise got some international recognition in the early 90s when journalists and chefs started to write about this new and exciting enterprise and their trademark dish. In 1996, this led to the opening of their first location outside Taiwan - in Tokyo, Japan.
The first American outpost was opened in 2000 in Arcadia, California, and the chain continues with expansion to this day. The menu of Din Tai Fung restaurants has expanded through the years, but the signature dish is still xiaolongbao, served on steaming bamboo trays. All of the restaurants are praised for the consistency of their dishes (for example, every xiaolongbao dumpling must weigh exactly 21 grams) and for the fact that although standardized, they are still made by hand and with premium ingredients. This kind of attitude and professionalism earned their Hong Kong branch a Michelin one-star rating five times.
But, as his empire grew and his children took over the family business, Yang made fewer and fewer public appearances, especially after his wife passed away in 1996. Still, on the rear occasions he did an interview, this humble man didn't miss the opportunity to give the world a little bit more. For example, in one instance, on a TV show, he taught the viewers how to properly eat his dumplings - a gentle bite on the skin, followed by slurping of the flavorful broth before finally eating the whole bun.
The world's gastronomy has indeed lost a great man, but we hope his legacy will live on for generations to come, 21 grams a piece.