A Bite of Taiwan
With cheap and cheerful night markets and more Michelin-star restaurants than the entire United States, this island nation is an appetizing place for the gourmet-minded.
Ensemble Vacations, Fall 2021
Inside the open kitchen at Din Tai Fung in Taipei, four chefs expertly roll, fill, fold, and then weigh, the restaurant’s famous soup dumplings.
“All of the dumplings are made fresh here, by hand,” explains Agnes Lee as she leads our group to a table. Each one weighs exactly five grams, the right size to hold the soup inside. Perfecting the art of dumpling making to Din Tai Fung’s exacting standards takes three years of training, which explains why the restaurant chain’s revered xiăolóngbāo have received so many global accolades.
When dinner is served, it’s a masterpiece on a bamboo platter, where chicken, pork, green squash and shrimp, and crab soup dumplings are meticulously arrayed. Lee demonstrates how to eat the plump morsels of dough. Poke a hole to release the soup broth, slurp it from the spoon, garnish the dumpling with oil, vinegar and shredded ginger, and enjoy.
They’re miraculous. No sooner do I gobble them down, more arrive.
“Feeding people is part of Taiwanese culture,” says Vincent Lu, a local seated beside me. “Don’t eat it all. Leave some food on your plate, otherwise they’ll keep bringing more!”
So begins my introduction to Taiwanese cuisine, a diverse mash-up of Chinese, Japanese and other Asian flavours. Over the next week, I’ll eat my way through teeming night markets and staid Michelin-star restaurants, in between visits to tourist attractions like Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the National Palace Museum, and Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building until 2010. Taipei is a top destination for travellers to Asia, and a popular cruise stop.
Even more than for food, Taiwan has been praised globally for its handling of the pandemic. This positions the island as a safe place to travel as the world opens up again.
The island’s fascinating history of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945, and centuries of immigration from mainland China long before Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan after his nationalist party lost to the communists in 1949, helps explain its fusion of Chinese and Japanese taste traditions, from dumplings to ramen. The Presidential Office Building in Taipei even features a display of the island’s most popular and unique foods, including gua bao, the Taiwanese hamburger. This savoury snack of braised pork, cilantro and peanuts, sandwiched between a steamed bun, is eaten like its North American counterpart.
Lu’s words come back to haunt me a couple days later. A man seated at the table next to me at the hotel restaurant spies my empty plate, introduces himself as a visiting professor from Dallas born and raised in Taiwan, and proceeds to show me how to build a proper local breakfast (clearly I am still hungry because of my clean plate).
The result is a peculiar dish of soybean gluten, bamboo shoots and peanuts, along with a steaming bowl of danzai noodles, a Taiwanese specialty with oil noodles, minced pork, and an egg, bathed in broth and topped with bean sprouts and cilantro. I scarf down everything while my new friend watches with a satisfied smile.
Before Taiwan introduced the world to gua bao and danzai noodles, though, it was famous for its tea. After the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, tea from “Formosa” (what Taiwan was called until the early 1900s) finally reached New York City by ship and turned the oolong leaves grown on the island’s hillsides into a coveted product. While Formosa Oolong is still popular, Taiwan’s most beloved potable export by far is bubble tea.
We travel an hour south by train to Taichung and visit Chun Shui Tang, the tea house where Taiwan’s gift to the world was accidentally invented in 1987 when a worker added “pearls” (tapioca balls) to a glass of iced milk tea sweetened with cane sugar. Bubble tea was born. My glass of creamy goodness is delicious, but it pales in comparison to the food feast that follows. I’m so stuffed with braised bean curd, rice cakes and noodles doused in egg gravy that I barely have room for tender Beijing roast duck later that evening.
On my final night in Taipei, I embark on a pilgrimage to try stinky tofu. Every local swears by this snack of tofu deep fried in pig fat found almost exclusively at night markets like Shilin. I dive into the maze of stalls, passing stands offering grilled octopus, pork skewers, candied tomatoes and oyster omelets.
I don’t see the stinky tofu stall as much as smell it — rancid fumes waft through the night, like a breeze winnowing past a pig trailer. Surely, stinky tofu will pull a durian fruit trick and taste better than it smells.
“You like it?” the vendor asks, after I’ve bitten into a few hot, crispy tofu cubes forked with pickled cabbage and drenched in chili-garlic sauce. Maybe it’s due to Shilin Night Market’s bustling atmosphere, but it tastes good. I give him a thumb’s up and continue relishing my stinky tofu. I’m careful to leave some on the plate, though, lest more deep-fried morsels arrive unbidden.