Searching for Authentic Taiwanese Cuisine
In an attempt to uncover the nuances of modern cuisine on the island nation, John Krich concludes the real thing can be difficult to find. Photographed by Alberto Buzzola
Published on Dec 4, 2012
I try to live by the adage “when in any land, eat like the natives.” But when you’re in Taiwan, that can be a tall order. Whether marketed by migrants overseas, or celebrated as a source of rural pride, Taiwanese cuisine, like the country itself, is still in the midst of defining its distinct identity—which can make the real thing pretty hard to come by.
While most restaurants in Taipei will tout their Sichuan or Shanghainese lineage, there is nothing on the door to tell travelers that the secret identity of James Kitchen Big Secret (65 Yongkang St., Da’an District; +886 2 2343 2275) is decidedly local. Although “local” in Taiwan means a hodgepodge of different cuisines. Owner-chef James Tseng proudly declares, “Fujianese, Hakkanese, Japanese, Aboriginal—they’re all mixed in my stews.” This humble joint with an open kitchen, supplemented by a second “Small Secret” down the same street, is where one Taiwanese food writer encourages me to sample quintessentially Taiwanese delicacies like pig tail soup with black beans, oysters rolled in an egg pancake, whole squash baked with dried scallops, smoked pig’s ears accompanied by sour kumquat dip. It doesn’t matter that James spent much of his life in California. Everything this homestyle cook puts on the table is slow-cooked, devoid of thick sauces, strongly flavored and filled with local produce and seafood freshly plucked from the ocean.
When pressed to describe their island’s cuisine, other famed local chefs resort to vague terms like “basic,” “unsophisticated” and “rustic.” Clearly, it reflects its history as a poor backwater, long isolated from Imperial China, peopled largely by farmers and fishermen.
The starting points, according to Liu Jian-Hua, the long-haired chef of
the picturesque Ah Tsai’s restaurant (17, Lane 41, Jenai Rd., Sec. 2; +886 2 2351 3326) housed in an antique-filled two-story colonial home, are “large portions meant mainly for sustenance.” To that end, his pan-Chinese menu always maintains Taiwanese favorites—hearty fare like turnip omelet, cinnamon-tinged slices of grilled pork neck and a hot pot with free-range chicken and island pineapple.
Shin Yeh (No. 112 Zhongxiao E Road, Sec. 4, second floor, Da’an District; +886 2 2752 9299; shinyeh.com.tw), the deluxe chain founded by a housewife in a back alley some 35 years ago, is now refining local farmers’ fare at nine outlets, including the popular location atop Taipei 101 (+886 2 8101 0185), the country’s iconic skyscraper. Says head chef Cheng Kun-Yin: “Everything stems from our street food. But our dishes are less oily here than in China, with less use of medicinal herbs or spice.”
But that doesn’t quite do justice to the subtle skill involved in nuanced offerings such as clams with basil, winter melon with egg, or pig knuckles saturated with anise. And it certainly doesn’t account for the finesse shown by more innovative Taiwanese chefs, like Lin Ping-Hui, Restaurant whose Shi-Yang Culture (No. 7, Ln. 350, Sec.3, Xi Wan Rd., Xi Zhi City, Taipei County; +886 2 2636 2266; shi-yang.com), a serene lair set amid roaring streams on the far side of a mountain park above Taipei, is one of the most original eateries in all of Asia.
First-time visitors might be fooled into labeling the place, as some reviewers have, as “contemporary Japanese.” Yet despite the liberal use of ingredients like mochi, miso and wasabi, the elegantly minimalist presentations and low tables with tatami mats capture the “real meditative spirit of Chinese culture that has been lost,” says creator Lin. An ex-architect turned back-to-nature guru—he has encouraged spiritual enlightenment among his staff as well as a number of imitators since he went into the food business 16 years ago—Lin insists his Zen style stems from the Tang dynasty, not Taiwan’s century as a colony of Japan. “That experience helps makes our presentation more beautiful,” he admits. A dried lotus flower set atop a warm soup opens its petals slowly, lured to bloom by the heat of the broth. There are artfully arranged concoctions like peanut tofu topped with olive tapenade, rice cake with mullet roe, and palate-cleansing homemade vinegars, always finished by a killer chicken soup featuring plenty of bamboo shoots. But the flavors are resolutely earthy, including bits of raw corncob and giant shrimp. There’s the strong influence of neighboring Fujian, where it’s said, “you can always hear the soup sloshing in people’s bellies,” but beneath it all, this is pure Taiwanese comfort food.
Once accepted, it’s the sort of bold stuff—unapologetically fishy, salty or meaty—that makes a traveler want to return for second helpings. Meanwhile, back at James Kitchen Big Secret, the meal ends with a plastic jar of house-pickled green mango slices—one perfect dessert served in juice that, much like this culturally complex island, has a
distinctly satisfying flavor.