The plate of raw tomatoes looks like a late-summer Bay Area staple: ripe heirlooms from Sebastopol-based Radical Family Farms, cut into wedges, served on a plate with chunks of fresh mozzarella and a little tub of black syrup to dress them with. Caprese, right?
Well, sort of. The tomato plate is the latest seasonal offering from Good to Eat Dumplings, the Oakland-based Taiwanese dumpling pop-up, whose chef and co-owner Tony Tung refers to the dish as “Taiwanese caprese.” That syrup isn’t balsamic vinegar but rather a thickened soy sauce glaze, Tung explains. She asks customers to first sprinkle some sugar onto the tomatoes and then to dip them into the soy sauce for a salty, sweet, and refreshing bite — one that’s thoroughly Taiwanese.
According to Tung, the dish has a long history in southern Taiwan, where tomatoes were first introduced via the port city of Tainan — perhaps as far back as during Dutch occupation in the 17th century, she believes. Because the fruit wasn’t native to the island, it was viewed as an oddity at first — it was “this weird foreign produce,” Tung explains, “that’s got a weird smell and weird taste that they don’t know how to eat.” At some point, however, locals hit on the idea of dipping the tomatoes in soy sauce and sugar to make them more palatable — a combination that proved to be such a hit that it’s remained a night market staple in southern Taiwanese cities like Tainan and Kaohsiung for all this time. It’s a grassroots kind of street snack, Tung says — often sold at stalls “operated by a very old grandma.”
Even within Taiwan, the idea of serving raw tomatoes with soy sauce is slightly controversial, Tung says. People in northern cities like Taipei find it shocking. But Tung loves the dish unreservedly and decided to create her own version: She slow-cooks soy sauce down until it thickens into a syrup and then grates in fresh ginger and licorice root, the latter of which gives the sauce a natural sweetness.
Like so many restaurant offerings these days, the tomato dish marks something of a COVID-19 pivot for Good to Eat Dumplings, which has been embedded inside the Jack London District’s Original Pattern Brewing since January of 2019. The concept was a kind of dumpling-and-local-craft-beer “izakaya,” and, as its name indicates, prior to the pandemic the pop-up served Taiwanese-style dumplings (with a thin wrapper and a focus on seasonal filling ingredients) almost exclusively. It’s probably best known for its long potstickers.
Once shelter in place hit, though, Tung and her business partner, Angie Lin, decided that they shouldn’t limit themselves to just dumplings if they wanted to reach customers who were looking to enjoy good food at home. So they expanded their offerings, adding Taiwanese rice plates and noodle dishes, like a version topped with minced pork sauce. The response so far has been great, Tung says. “We feel the distance between us and our customers is actually closer,” she says. “Every time we do a new dish, they text us to tell us how much they love it. These are the reasons we believe we will not stop.”
The tomato plate is part of the new rotating lineup of dishes and should be available as a weekend special — for both takeout and outdoor dining — Friday through Sunday, for at least the next two weeks, Tung says.
Good to Eat Dumplings is open for takeout and outdoor dining six days a week at Original Pattern Brewing Company, at 292 4th Street in Oakland’s Jack London District — Tuesday through Thursday 5–8 p.m. and Friday through Sunday noon–8 p.m. Check the pop-up’s Instagram page for its weekly menu, and walk up or call 510-698-2244 to pre-order.
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