A Taste Of Taiwan

Going Places

March 2015

 

The island's culianry scene reflects its rhytm: diverse and inventice, writes Tatyana Leonov. 

Taiwan is fast gaining a reputation as a top spot for just about anything. People are flocking here to shop, eat, and drink, and then do it all over again. The gastronomic scene is reflective of the 23 million people who call Taiwan home. There’s plenty of food; you can practically find everything you want and more.

In bustling Taipei, casual eateries, humming street stalls, retro dessert bars and luxe restaurants are open round the clock to cater to a population that’s frenziedly trying to sample it all. Yet just a stone’s throw away, you’ll find pockets of serenity where indigenous chefs serve their freshest catch alongside vegetables plucked from the land. 

 Taiwan is a place of continuous transformation. Chefs, restaurateurs, stall vendors, and even diners are all chopping and changing the very definition of Taiwanese cuisine.

Sundown Shenanigans

After a long day, the flickering sun scatters its last rays of light across the fiery orange sky, the ‘no cars’ signs have been strategically positioned, and the music starts pumping. Groups of laughing teenagers sojourn to suss out their options, families push prams through the jovial crowd, and everyone is smiling. The hawkers bellow to make themselves heard. “Great dumplings here,” one sings. “I make the best bubble tea in Taiwan,” hollers a lady as she accidentally spills tea all over herself.

Night markets have been around in Taiwan since the 1950s, but they were much smaller back then. Today, you can find just about anything at the markets. Food takes centre stage, for good reason: Taiwan has some of the best street eats in the world. Lurou fan (fatty pork mince stewed in soy sauce, served atop steamed rice) is one of the most renowned dishes, oyster omelette is a sticky and tasty affair, dumplings and savoury buns are sold on every street corner, and noodle soup is slurped everywhere.

Although beef is the standard, try something a little different. For goose noodle soup, head to Ya Rou Bian (No. 98-2 Yi Section, Zhonghua Road) in the Wanhua District of Taipei and you’ll get chunks of tender goose meat in broth that’s jam-packed with fresh bean sprouts. Slurp, chomp and crunch alongside laughing locals and get lost in the vibe of Taiwan.

With over 300 night markets peppered around the island, visiting one (or a few) should be on everyone’s itinerary. Shilin Night Market in the Shilin District of Taipei is legendary, but often, little markets in sleepy towns offer the most unforgettable experiences. 

If sitting down is preferable, there are plenty of places where you can sample Taiwan’s best quick eats in a more relaxed environment. One of the world’s most famous dumpling chains, Din Tai Fung (dintaifung.com.tw), has nine locations (and plenty more around the world). Here, chefs meticulously ration each morsel of filling and pastry and dexterously craft dumplings quicker than customers can guzzle them down. Formosa Chang (fmsc.com.tw) is another chain worth visiting. The former solo food stall is now a Taiwanese conglomerate, with 29 restaurants nationwide (and four in Japan). Try the lurou fan (locals rave about it) or braised chicken with rice. It’s quick, easy and tasty.

Indigenous Flavours

The food culture of Taiwan’s aborigines is captured in the phrase ‘living off the mountains and seas’ and even today, indigenous chefs often double up as fisherman and foragers. Because of this, menus are a rarity and whatever is fresh is what guests will be served.

Of the recognised tribes in Taiwan, the Ami tribe is the biggest. At Pakelang Boat House (pakelang.com.tw), located on Taiwan’s eastern coast in Hualien County, diners can sample Ami tribe food and stay in the accommodation. Chef Chan Lah cooks wearing only swimming shorts and laughs loudly. He’s had no formal training (he learned by watching his mother) and wakes early each morning to catch the fish he’ll be cooking that day. The dishes arrive looking like artwork. The plant stalks that Chan Lah picked a few hours earlier are capped with cabbage slivers and delicate carrot slices. The seafood platter showcases just how good Taiwan’s seafood is, while rice (a Taiwanese staple) comes wrapped in bamboo tubes.

Not far from the entrance to the famous Taroko National Park is Dageeli Tribe Restaurant (dageeli.ehosting.com. tw), a restaurant run by the Guo family, who belong to the Truku tribe. Again there is no menu, and like at Pakelang Boat House, all dishes arrive stunningly presented. A plant stalk and leaf salad is generously crowned with a local berry- based sticky sauce, local peas and carrots are mixed into a citrus-based noodle dish, and even braised chicken is presented on a gigantic forest leaf that’s placed on a wooden board. The ornate woodwork is a big part of the restaurant space, which also doubles as an art shop. Taiwanese aborigines are multi-skilled, and the sculptures and artwork dispersed around the area point to their multitude of talents.

The same goes for Tsou tribe aborigines A-Jiang and his wife, who run Home 23 Café (ajong.com.tw), an accommodation and restaurant space located in the Alishan National Scenic Area in Chiayi County. The first thing you notice upon arrival is the charming wooden and stone huts that A-Jiang built himself over 19 years using materials from the land. His idea was to depict a small traditional Tsou village so that guests can have an authentic experience. Like the other indigenous cooks, A-Jiang and his wife comb the fields for vegetables and herbs each morning and customers are fed whatever is fresh. With lodging available, it’s a wonderful way to stay awhile and really get a feel for indigenous food – and life. 

Taipei’s Tasty Transformation

Many of Taipei’s fine diners are headed by chefs who are strong advocates for Taipei’s gastronomy boom. The head chef at Le Palais restaurant (palaisdechinehotel. com), Chen Weiqiang, ended up working in hospitality after starting out as a kitchen apprentice at 12 years old. Today, his parents still inspire him to cook some of the best food in Taipei; he explains that he serves his guests what he would serve his parents. One of Chen’s favourite dishes is the marbled meat, which is streaky pork cut into millimetre-thin slices and formed into a tower, with preserved vegetables placed in the centre and the dish slowly cooked in a clove, star anise, cassia, ginger and scallion gravy.

At YEN Chinese Restaurant (yentaipei. com) at W Taipei, dim sum chef Dicky Wu recently joined executive chef Ken Wu to offer delicacies from mushroom dumplings to delicious fried turnip rolls. A collection of intricate lanterns dangles from the high ceiling and glazed glass exterior walls run the perimetre of the room, showcasing spectacular views of the iconic architecture of the Xinyi district.