For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore.
X is for xiaolongbao
His girlfriend loved xiaolongbao. So for their first anniversary, he took her on vacation to the home of xiaolongbao – Taipei. They took in the sights, did some shopping, and enjoyed the sinful snacks at the night market. Then on their second night, he finally took her to the xiaolongbao restaurant. He had made special arrangements as someone he knew knew someone who knew someone who knew the family who owned the restaurant, and so they were seated at a table in a quiet corner (or as quiet as a Chinese restaurant could be), and had their orders taken by a smiling waitress. They feasted on a bamboo salad, pork xiaolongbao, steamed chicken soup and vegetables. She raved about the xiaolongbao – exquisite and delicate. She counted the folds on each one she ate – 18 on all of them, she gasped. She gently picked up a xiaolongbao with her chopsticks, placed it on her spoon, then nibbled the side of the xiaolongbao and sipped at the rich broth within. She added some ginger strands and a bit of vinegar to the dumpling and ate it in one bite. Then she sat back as she savoured the meaty xiaolongbao, her eyes closed, her mouth masticating. A swallow, a smile, a reach for another xiaolongbao.
After all that, they still had room for dessert, and she ordered a basket of taro xiaolongbao. Those tiny bite-size dumplings filled with a faint purple mashed sweet taro. Soft, chewy, sweet. They ate to their stomach’s content. Who knew that one could eat so many xiaolongbao at one go?
Then a final steamer basket arrived and the waitress gently placed it in the middle of their table.
“What’s this?” his girlfriend asked, “I don’t remember ordering anything other than the taro xiaolongbao. This must be someone else’s.”
He told her to open the lid and check what was inside.
She gently lifted the lid to have a peek. And gasped. She quickly pushed the lid back on the basket.
Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide open.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked quietly.
His heart was beating wildly. This was it! He was going to do it! He eased his chair back, picked up the steamer basket, and held it towards her. Please please please please please say yes, he repeated in his head over and over. His hands trembled and the basket shook a little. But he steadied himself. I must be brave. I can do this.
He was on one knee. His heart hammered away at his chest, threatening to burst though.
Although they were in a quiet corner, people had started noticing. And the din from the chatter died down as he knelt there in front of her, holding up a big steamer basket.
Her hands were covering her mouth. And she was shaking.
From fear? From laughter? He couldn’t quite tell.
He was just going to do it anyway, he had already come this far and everyone was looking.
He leaned forward.
“Will you marry me?” he managed to blurt out.
She said yes and the restaurant burst into applause.
Then it went back to business as customers returned to their xiaolongbao and tea, and waitstaff took orders and ferried baskets of xiaolongbao around.
Three months later, she returned to Taiwan alone. She had told him ‘yes’ but in reality, she wasn’t ready. She didn’t want him to be left kneeling in a public place like that, she didn’t want him to feel embarrassed by her inability to accept his proposal. She had felt the pressure of everyone looking at them. She had noted the absolute silence in the room, everyone waiting with bated breath for her answer. How could she say no? She said that he had put her in the spotlight, he had forced her to say yes. And after they returned to Singapore, the beautiful diamond ring on her finger felt like a burden, a lie that she no longer wanted to tell. She loved him, she loved being with him, but she said they were too young for marriage. She told him that she would rather return the ring, call off the engagement, than wait it out and see if she felt any different a few months later. He felt like he had to pick up all the tiny pieces of his broken heart off her living room floor. Had he been too hasty? Had he been so in love with her he had read all the signs wrong?
She went to Taiwan for work, stayed on and they never saw each other again. He occasionally looked at her photos of Taiwan on Facebook but noticed that she never posted any pictures of the restaurant where he had proposed. And he felt strangely comforted by that.
Xiaolongbao isn’t a traditional Singapore dish. I didn’t eat it as a kid. But these days, xiaolongbao is everywhere, thanks largely to the many branches of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung, located across Singapore (19 at this point of writing! 19! On an island only 277 square miles or 719 square kilometres! That pretty much signifies Singaporeans’ love for xiaolongbao).