STORY: La Mien & Dumplings With Julie
Like many good things in life, it all started as a mistake.
I was on my way back from Luang Prabang, a magical little town on the shores of the Mekong in Laos. While its beauty is heralded I also knew it was often overrun with hordes of tourists, which made my choice of visiting during the shoulder season all the more delightful. A vacuum will always be filled, so the lack of fellow tourists seemed to leave the floodgates open for humidity and heat. When I left the steamy little hamlet I was a sweaty, sticky mess of a human being and my flight to Bangkok, lengthy connection, and onward flight to Hong Kong seemed to do little to take the aftereffects of the climate out of my system.
I was quite happy I had decided to take an overnight stop in Hong Kong before continuing to Chicago. I was simply exhausted when I arrived and I needed a little moment to peel off the slick, gooey film of 'travel' we all develop when on the road too long. A chance to re-enter the world as refreshed and rejuvenated for the next segments.
Humidity and humility aside, I would have made a pit stop in Hong Kong regardless. I think any frequent traveler will tell you they have certain rituals they always perform. Over the years I've met people who wear the same exact shirt every time they get on a plane, always wear a certain color, or go to the exact same bookstore in their home airport and pick up a new book regardless of whether or not they finished the last one they purchased. We're creatures of habit after all.
I only have two travel habits, and true to form they both involve food. The first is that almost without fail, the night before a big international trip, I will have Indian food delivered to my house. This, ladies and gentleman, is an atrocious, heinous tradition. I never sleep well the day before a big trip because I'm stuffed full of creamy curry and I end up having heartburn the first half of my plane ride. Indian food isn't exactly a type of meal that is light and refreshing either, so I wander around the airport feeling like I'm smuggling a few bricks in the bottom of my gut. Why I torture myself like this, I will never know. But it's just what I do.
My other travel tradition is a bit more specific and much more pleasing to my psyche - whenever I am passing through Hong Kong on a trip (and if you know anything about how I travel, I am passing through Hong Kong quite often), I make sure I am either taking an overnight layover or a long layover so I can clear customs and immigration and stop at the Crystal Jade restaurant on the ground floor of the airport just outside of baggage claim. I have been known to purposefully choose airline itineraries that go through Hong Kong when it's significantly less convenient to my overall travel plans simply so I can go to this restaurant.
Why? Well you see, I'm a bit of a xiao long bao freak. We're talking commit a felony, smack your Momma for no damn reason, agree to do a shady drug deal on your behalf kind of XLB loving freak. If you don't know what xiao long bao is ..... first of all, what kind of monster are you? Second, click THIS LINK and be dazzled by one of the most amazing culinary treats available on the planet. You're welcome.
If you don't have time to click the link, here's the quick and dirty - xiao long bao are a type of Chinese dumpling. They're bite-sized little pillows of dough that are relatively thin and translucent. They can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients, though the most popular I find are pork or crab. The stuffing includes a portion of meat as well as solidified stock (soup). The dumplings are then placed in steamers and cooked over boiling water. The solidified stock liquifies and creates a little packet of meat and soup encapsulated in a thin dumpling skin. Then your panties drop, you throw your hands in the air, and you testify to the glory that is life.
Now, despite Chicago's sizeable Chinese community, it's still pretty difficult to find a good XLB anywhere within a two hour driving distance. I've found a handful of places that sell a decent enough XLB, but I still find I need to head over to New York City or hop on a plane to a major Chinese city to get a fix of these little pockets of heaven. While Crystal Jade isn't even my favorite place to get a soup dumpling, the fact that they do sell a really good one and are located literally a few dozen feet away from the doors to the baggage claim of an airport I am constantly traveling through means I've developed a habit and I'm not afraid to admit it. Or indulge it.
And apparently I'm not the only one.
After a decent night's rest at Hong Kong's Regal Airport hotel, I headed down to the departure area, checked into my flight, and then proceeded to queue up with various other savvy travelers for a seat at Crystal Jade for some XLB and handmade noodles. As a single diner it wasn't too hard for me to secure a seat quickly, and I was sat at a table near the entrance. Service at Crystal Jade is probably best described as efficiently surly, so there was little ceremony to the menu that was tossed onto the tabletop as the hostess dashed off to meet with the next customer in line. I picked up the menu and gave it a cursory browse, though I tend to order the exact same thing every time I arrive - two baskets of xiao long bao and a piping hot bowl of spicy, nutty dan dan la mien. While doing my best impression of a undecided diner, a woman was escorted over to the table directly attached to mine. I sat with my back facing the aisle, and she sat kitty corner from me in the seat against the half-wall separating the dining area from the general airport area.
She immediately caught my eye for some reason. I'm not sure whether it was the graceful way she slide into the booth or the aura of polished elegance that cloaked her as she set her designer handbag on the empty bench space besides her and picked up the menu with perfectly manicured hands, but she commanded attention. Not wanting to stare, I moved back to my menu for a few minutes before finally catching the eye of a passing waitress and flagging her down to place my order.
As expected, I ordered my usual. It's not a habit if it's not consistent, right? The woman across from me also caught the waitress' eye and fired off her own order in Cantonese, never dropping her gaze or the slight curl of a smile at the corners of her lip. The waitress cocked her head to the side, looked over at me, then back at the woman before asking what I could tell (despite my complete lack of any Cantonese language skill) was a question. The woman looked at me and back at the waitress before letting out a laugh and providing a quick reply. The waitress nodded and walked off.
A short period of silence followed as the woman began to organize her passport and ticket before her eyes flicked up to mine and she said in accented but perfect English, "The waitress asked me if we were dining together on a single check. A simple mistake. I let her know that despite our tables being connected, we do not know each other." And then a smile as she added, "Yet."
I smiled back and laughed but said nothing. I'm not usually one to be at a loss for words but there was something about her effortless perfection that intimidated me. Like I had walking in on Queen Elizabeth's afternoon tea wearing sweatpants and holding a bag of greasy McRibs.
"So, what brings you to Hong Kong?" she asked, clearly unfazed by my ineptitude.
Conversations tend to go so much more smoothly for me when there's direction, and with a specific question to tackle I felt the insecurities of speaking to a stranger in a foreign land melting away as I suddenly heard myself explaining I was on my way back from Luang Prabang.
"Ah, must have been a nice trip. Hot there right now, yeah? I have never been but I have considered going. I grew up during a time when Laos was off-limits to travelers and haven't really got it into my head the country is now open to visitors. Did you like it?" The words trickled out of her mouth like the pitter-patter of raindrops on a tin roof - slightly off-kilter but in a calming, zen-like way.
I confirmed the heat was indeed quite potent throughout my trip, but emphasized the lack of other visitors was a nice trade-off. I tried my best to describe the charm of a city where architecturally East and West are united so seamlessly, the endless dining options, the sheer joy that is a two hour massage for only $12 USD! She sat across from me with a warm smile, genuinely interested in what I had to say. She nodded her head as I spoke, letting me know I was making sense and making a connection - all the little things that signal someone is actually invested instead of simply passing some time and going through the motions. Feeling like I might be monopolizing the conversation a bit, I asked her whether she was a local or on her way onward to another destination.
"I suppose I am a local now. I've lived here in Hong Kong for quite awhile, though I am originally from Taiwan. I also lived for many years in mainland China. All of it is home, really. I am on my way to Taipei today. I'm going to spend the summer there."
I explained I had traveled quite extensively throughout Asia but Taiwan was one country that still eluded me. She feigned shock and dismay, telling me playfully that I should stop avoiding one of the jewels of Asia. I asked if she was going home to visit her family.
"Oh, no. I have some extended family still in Taiwan but my immediate family is all over the world right now. I have three children. My oldest son is in Zurich finishing his Ph. D. My daughter is in London working for the past few years. My youngest son is in the US. Finishing school at Northwestern near Chicago."
A could feel the big smile spreading across my face as I told her I was from Chicago and was very familiar with Northwestern as I had applied to graduate school there and had almost started their Masters of Public Administration program. She honed in on my use of the word "almost" and asked why I hadn't started the program.
"I'm not sure if this makes much sense, but I looked at my life and my career and realized it wasn't going to help me much. I'm already a government employee, and I don't need the degree to advance in my career. It just seemed like I was about to take on a lot of debt to learn more about being government red tape."
"That may have been a wise choice. Too often people take on debts or burdens without thinking about the benefit received. If there is little to no benefit, you should not do it. Good for you."
A flurry of arms and dishes suddenly broke into my field of view and a tiny army of Crystal Jade employees laid out both my meal and the woman's with what can only be described as Chinese efficiency. The woman looked up at me and smiled, communicating without any words what we both knew - for the next few minutes, the conversation was on hold. It was time to savor the noodles and dumplings before us.
One of the beautiful things you learn about the world the more you explore it is despite the distances and differences that can separate us there are always things that will remind us of how similar we are. One of those things is food - we all need food, and we all want good food. People all across the globe come together to eat, whether it's a gathering of family at dinner, co-workers at lunch, or brunch with friends. Food is community. Food is an equalizer. We all need it, we all want it, and we all find joy in the shared experience of eating something amazing. Together.
As a reminder of how uncouth I felt in her presence, the woman turned to me with my mouthful of doughy noodles mid-slurp and said, "This is not your first time eating xiao long bao."
I tried to reply without choking or mumbling through a mouthful of noodles but sadly succeeded at neither. I did finally manage to sneak out a gasped inquiry about her thought process behind the statement.
"I watched you. You can pick it up without breaking the skin. You don't put the whole dumpling in your mouth, you put it in the spoon to break the skin. You even use a little vinegar and ginger. Not your first time."
I nodded and admitted this was far from my first time eating the magical XLB. And she was right - those who are uninitiated with xiao long bao are likely to fumble with the rather specific methodology needed to eat it. One of the hallmarks of a good xiao long bao is that the skin is neither too thin nor too thick. It should be thick enough to hold the soupy contents but not thick enough to lose the translucent quality of the skin. If your chopstick skills are lacking (or the quality of your dumpling is poor) you are likely to pick it up and break the skin, causing the golden liquid inside to scatter down the cracks of the bamboo steamer. And crying commences.
Also, xiao long bao are best served immediately after steaming, so they come to you piping hot. Despite being essentially bite-sized, they are NOT intended to be thrown into your mouth and chomped upon. Diners who attempt this are in for a surprise - gushing, scalding hot soup exploding into every corner of your tender mouth. No bueno. This is why XLB are served along with a small bowl and big soup spoon - you place the dumpling on the spoon and then gently break the skin to allow the soup to flow out. This lets the liquid and the interior of the dumpling cool off a bit.
After this, technique varies from person to person but generally speaking you sip the soup and then consume the remainder of the dumpling in some fashion. Some folks prefer to consume it whole, with the soup leaking out into the spoon allowing it to cool enough for a single pop into the mouth. Others, like me, prefer to drink the soup from the dumpling and then place a little bit of vinegar and ginger inside the deflated packet. As long as you can get the XLB into your mouth without spilling the soup or going to the hospital for third-degree burns, you're doing alright.
"So you know about xiao long bao. Did you come to this restaurant for them or were you just lucky to find them here because you were hungry?"
I debated for a second whether or not I should tell her about my travel quirk, my undying need to return to Hong Kong time and time again so I could pass through immigration and walk through those frosted glass doors just for 20 minutes of indifferent service and heavenly dumplings. Would she judge me? Would she think it silly to go through so many hoops just for a tidbit of food?
I'm not a very convincing liar though, and I tend to believe in almost all aspects of life honesty is the best policy. So I told the truth and confessed my arrival at this meal was pre-determined the minute I booked my tickets to Luang Prabang. Crystal Jade is as vital to my travel experience as my passport or my Delsey luggage.
At this she threw back her head and laughed. I wasn't sure whether she was laughing at me or misunderstanding me, so I patiently waited for her to return her gaze to my eyes before trying to clarify or defend my words.
"I am the same way! I live here in Hong Kong and travel so often. Every time I have a flight I make sure I arrive at the airport a little earlier than needed so I can come to this restaurant and order a tray of xiao long bao and some la mien. Every time. Every single time!"
Now it was my turn to laugh. I went from thinking I was being mocked to realizing I was being affirmed. Two people from two very different worlds end up sharing a table in an airport restaurant and realizing despite everything that reminds us of how different we are the things that bring us together will always be stronger. My little revelation helped transition the conversation from polite chit chat to something more open, something deeper. Between commentary on US politics, my interest in travel and this blog, the best airlines to fly in Asia, and comments on the evolving nature of the Asian family structure, we slurped our noodles and carefully picked up dumplings. Like two old friends, sharing a meal and catching up.
"Well, I must get going. My flight to Taipei will be leaving within the hour. What is your name?"
"David." I replied, suddenly realizing we had failed to exchange the most basic of pleasantries. "I'm David. And you?"
"Julie." she offered as she placed a neat, organized stack of Hong Kong dollars on the bill tray the staff had left when they dropped off the food.
"I like you, and not just because you have good habits!" she said as she pulled a receipt from her purse. "I am going to give you my email address. It seems you make your way around, so if you ever find yourself back in Hong Kong or even better, in Taipei, please let me know. I would love to enjoy your company again. And to maybe show you some other things to eat that are just as good as these xiao long bao."
She handed me the receipt, upon which she had written her name and email address. I returned the favor and provided the same to her, using a slip of paper I had in my backpack for some long forgotten reason.
"One more thing before I go - do you mind if I take your picture? I am going to tell my kids about this but I don't think they will believe me unless I can prove it." Asking such a delicate question, she seemed for the first time to lose a bit of her boldness. Still, she wore demure as well as she wore confidence.
"Only if I can take one as well!"
And with the snap of two iPhone cameras and a firm handshake, Julie walked away from our table and onto her flight to Taipei. I gathered up my belongings, paid my bill, and walked toward the security lines with a full belly and a new friend.
As I queued up for immigration I began to think about habits. The odd thing about them is often times they can make us feel alienated from other people. They're things we do that seem weird or unreasonable in our own eyes, that we squirrel away from the light and do our best to hide. Things we're afraid will open us to ridicule or shame.
So, imagine my surprise to discover 8000 miles from home that I'd find a kindred spirit who shared my love for travel routines and soupy goodness. Something I never really discussed much with anyone because I was afraid it would push people away ended up being the conduit through which I connected with another human being on the other side of the world. As I handed my boarding pass over to the gate agent and walked down the jet bridge, I smiled as I realized airplanes and cheap airfares aren't the only things that can bring us closer together.