Already a hot destination for foodies, Taiwan further bolstered its culinary reputation recently when Chuang Yu-Hsien, the executive chef at Master Ming's Danzai Noodles in Taipei, took home the top prize at a regional cook-off.
The cooking competition, sponsored by condiment giant Lee Kum Kee in partnership with the World Association of Chinese Cuisine, lured 48 young chefs to Hong Kong for a head-to-head, two-day Chinese cooking challenge.
The challengers - from Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan - were told they must cook in the Chinese style and were limited to preparing either prawn or steak dishes and using only the company's condiments.
With these restrictions, competition organisers hoped to steer chefs away from expressly regional cooking styles and level the playing field. Still, local touches were apparent on the plate, from the clean, unadorned presentations from Japan to the ever-present chillies and sub-continental flavours of the Malay Peninsula.
Competitors were judged by a panel of Chinese master chefs from across the region. "In the course of the competition we've seen a lot of 'new' sauces," says Singaporean judge chef Pung Lu Tin.
By the second day of the competition, the enormous kitchen classroom at the Vocational Training Council in Pok Fu Lam was thick with steam and fatigue was starting to show amid the clang of pots and pans. Chefs in their freshly pressed whites dripped sweat as they fussed over the final touches to their dishes or leaned against the walls awaiting judgment.
With only 90 minutes to complete their dishes, time management was the biggest challenge for many competitors.
Hong Kong based chef Lor Sze-ho - who presented a deep-fried prawn dish with a sauce made from butter, condensed milk and black pepper - said although he wasn't nervous, and all went smoothly in the kitchen, he still struggled to stay on schedule.
The judges were also starting to show the strain - understandable given they'd tried nearly 50 dishes in just two days. They say they were able to avoid palate fatigue by drinking Chinese tea between tastings, but Hong Kong-based judge chef Lau Ping-lui's comment was typical: "I think that for the next month no more beef or prawns for me."
The judges agree that the dishes were stronger on the second day. "[On the first day] some of the young chefs were very nervous, so some of the dishes were not fully cooked and some of the presentations were not properly balanced," says Pung. Those problems were mostly absent on the second day. In fact, the chefs were so good that judges found themselves in a quandary. "Most of the young chefs are equally talented," Pung says.
At the City Hall awards ceremony 10 gold, 15 silver and 22 bronze medals were presented before the coveted grand prize, the Gold with Distinction Award, was awarded to Chuang.
The winning dishes - sautéed shredded beef with oyster sauce in winter melon cup and his deep-fried chilli garlic prawns seasoned with premium oyster sauce - were both traditional Taiwanese banquet style dishes he learned to cook from his parents.
None of the competitors left empty-handed. Organisers say the cook-off is less about stoking the chefs' competitive spirit and more about giving them a chance to learn from each other and gain experience in high-pressure environments.
Chuang agrees the real value of the challenge was in the opportunity to learn. "It certainly is exhilarating to win. Yet the exchange with contestants from other regions reminds me that I want to strive for better still. There is a lot I could learn from them."