Creative cuisine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am


Tourists who go to Taipei's night markets for authentic Taiwanese food may quickly tire of the endless stalls of stinky tofu, oyster omelettes and fried chicken steaks.

Locals, on the other hand, seek out more upscale sit-down restaurants that add a dose of creativity and quality to humble Taiwanese cuisine.

'Taiwanese society is becoming upwardly mobile, and restaurants are trying to bring that into the dining experience,' says Anthony van Dyck, a food aficionado and founder of the website 'Many eateries are now creating haute cuisine with a Taiwanese flair, and the service is top notch.'

Much traditional Taiwanese food reflects the island's agricultural past. Presentation may be simple, but quality lies in the choice of ingredients and right balance of flavours. Like Cantonese food, Taiwanese cuisine is light on the palate.

At Formosa, a basement restaurant in the Howard Plaza Hotel, the mainstay is sweet potato congee, a rural staple. 'Our Japanese guests are usually surprised we promote porridge because they normally eat it only at funerals,' says the hotel's public relations manager, Chris Hsu. 'But it's what comes with the porridge that delights them.'

Formosa's head chef Wang Zhe-wen did his culinary training in Paris. He creates gourmet side dishes to pair with the porridge, including three-cup chicken in basil leaves, deep-fried tiny silverfish with peanuts, and preserved turnip omelette.

He also matches dessert with a baked sweet potato pudding topped with cheese that is lightly toasted to resemble creme br?lee.

'The best Taiwanese food uses the freshest and choicest local ingredients,' says Joan H., author of the 'A Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei' blog.

She recommends Shin Yeh, a chain restaurant renowned for prettying up classic street eats for the fine dining crowd. Although many of its dishes, such as braised pork belly and steamed glutinous rice with peanut powder, can be found on the street, guests pay for the ingredients, service and location. The chain's most coveted outlet is on the 85th floor of Taipei 101.

'Every time I go, I order the spring rolls,' she says. 'The meat is always perfectly tender, not too fatty or tough. I've had them on the street where the meat was too tough.'

Those seeking a less elaborate ambience can head to Tu Hsiao Yueh. The restaurant began in 1895 in Tainan and is renowned for danzai noodles, a small bowl of noodles with minced pork and broth that was once carried onto the street with wooden burdens and served as a quick lunch for passing workers.

Now, the commoner's meal can be found in four restaurant locations in Taipei. Although customers have traded the kerb for wooden chairs, the chef still makes the entire noodle dish while sitting on a bench, with all the ingredients within arm's reach.

The noodles still go down as quickly as they did more than a century ago.