There are no Chinese restaurants in Taiwan, at least the kind so popular in North America, where Chinese restaurants serve up a menu mix of Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese food. In Taiwan, when you want Szechuan, you go to a Szechuan restaurant, or to a Beijing-style or Shanghainese or Fukanese restaurant or dumpling house for that cuisine, and so on.
Recently, I ate my way through Taiwan, from Taipei in the north, to Kaoshing, close to the island’s southern tip, sampling everything from traditional teahouse sweets to modern dishes that could win a Top Chef competition. Each meal was different – and better – than the one before.
The popular Din Tai Fung, a four-story dumpling house in Taipei’s Zhongxiao district serves endless bamboo baskets of steamed pork, crab and chicken dumplings. My favorite was something called a soup dumpling. That’s a Din tai Fung specialty – a dumpling you place in a deep ceramic spoon and stab with a chopstick to release the soup inside it. You eat the pierced dumpling and its sip of soup all together in one delicious mouthful.
I paused on the way out to watch a dozen or more white-shirted chefs make the dumplings behind a glass-walled kitchen that was as spotless as the rest of the restaurant. Each dumpling was measured and weighed in quick succession before heading to the bamboo steamers.
Another day, in Jiaoxi, an area of hot springs 90 minutes from Taipei that is a popular weekend and vacation destination, dinner was a chef’s tasting in a modern setting, run by fifth generation restauranteurs. Fourth generation, actually, since the first one was a street vendor. More about street food later.
Link is a one-star Michelin, but should be more for its inventive menu, attentive service, and stylish décor with custom-made plates whose design matches the restaurant’s wall tiles. One course was a small, local sardine, deboned and stuffed with mustard cabbage, cooked and served wrapped in a parchment, that you unwrap — like a gift for your tasteburds.
Another was braised fresh bamboo tips, cut and served like an artichoke. You peel and eat the outer “leaves” until reaching the sweet, nutty center. Dessert was a bowl of silky smooth almond tofu, much like a pannacotta.
In Taiching, the standout meal was at Gulu Gulu, serving traditional foods of the Paiwan aborigines, one of the original island tribes. We were welcomed with a traditional beverage of fermented millet, passion fruit and beer, and feasted on spicy pork ribs and roast chicken with a slightly smokey flavor from the open fire on which it is cooked.
Taiwan is popular with Japanese and European tourists, and every hotel has an international buffet. Forget choosing between includes Japanese sushi and noodles, Taiwanese dumplings and shredded pork, European cold cuts and cheeses, and American-style ham and eggs, and go for a little of each. Just leave room for fresh local fruits, such as melt-in-your-mouth dragon fruit, a sweet, white-fleshed treat said to lower blood pressure.
Street food is a Taiwanese tradition. One of my most memorable meals was nibbling my way through First Street, the actual real first street in Taipei, close by the fabulously ornate Longsham Temple, both dating to the 1700s.
One vendor flash fried mushrooms to order. Another a cracked quail’s eggs into a huge skillet indented with rows semi-circles, and flipped each one over for a one-bite over easy. Another mixed scallions, sprouts and oysters with chicken eggs for an omelet sandwich on soft yeast rolls. There was watermelon juice to drink, and pineapple scented with basil, and rice milk flavored with peanut powder.
My Taiwan culinary adventure started and ended on the Eva Air non-stop between New York’s JFK and Taipei’s modern and efficient Taoyuan Airport. Shrimp with pesto fettucini is good any time. It tastes even better at 36,000 feet.