Halfway down Yongkang Street, in central Taipei, a trio of women fry up zhua bing (gorgeous shreddy circles of hot pastry studded with spring onion) and serve them fresh from the griddle.
Opposite, teenagers perch on stools outside a snack bar slurping “mango avalanches” and “strawberry blizzards” – piles of juicy fruit over shaved ice that take the edge off the sultry tropical heat. It’s hard to walk more than a few paces along this street, or indeed much of Taipei, without succumbing to gastronomic temptation.
Taiwan’s eating habits have been shaped by a history of settlement, colonisation and immigration. Once populated by indigenous tribes, it was settled by immigrants from Fujian province in the 15th century and later by Hakka people. Portuguese sailors dropped by in the 16th century and the island was colonised in subsequent centuries by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. In 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war, Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Nationalist army took some of China’s most accomplished chefs with them when they fled to Taiwan.
These days, Taipei is a melting pot of regional Chinese cuisines, with a bias towards the refined cooking of Shanghai and the mainland’s eastern seaboard. Most famously, the international Din Tai Fung chain, originally a family business, specialises in what Westerners call Shanghai soup dumplings and locals xiao long, which it has raised to previously undreamt-of levels of perfection.
Pick up one of the twirly dumplings, rupture its side with a chopstick and let the exquisite juices flow on to your spoon before you bite in.
For more formal Shanghainese dining, Feng Chao-lin’s Small Shanghai Restaurant has a cult following among local gourmets. Here, a banquet might include crucian carp braised with spring onion, pork belly slow-cooked with fermented bean curd or crisp stir-fried shrimp. And the tiny and unassuming Sanfen Suqi, a favourite of local food-writer Chu Chen-fan, offers slices of juicy pork neck with a dip of soy sauce, garlic and chilli, a mesmerising version of a Sichuanese classic, as well as “dry-fried” fish, which is a delicious mix of golden crispness, tender flesh and peppery fragrance.
For a strictly local culinary style, try the Ningxia night market, where you can perch at a makeshift table and scoff a bowl of rice covered in a lazy stew of spiced pork belly, a skewer of grilled mullet roe with garlic and radish, or an oyster omelette. Some restaurants take market food indoors, such as Du Hsiao Yeh on Yongkang Street, where you can eat a bowl of “slack season” noodles topped with a rich pork sauce, mashed garlic and a prawn.
It was the Shin Yeh chain that first took Taiwanese folk cooking upmarket. Head chef Cheng Kun-yin says: “We’ve tried to raise its status, using less oil and salt and serving it in a restaurant environment, but keeping the old flavours and the special local ingredients.”
Shin Yeh is now an international business, serving delicious renditions of classic Taiwan dishes without the rough edges of the night markets. Try, for example, the marvellous soft wheaten pancakes stuffed with warm vegetables spiked with dried fish, coriander and a sweet peanut relish, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, a stew of pig’s kidneys and chicken testicles.
In the South Gate market, traders preside over mouthwatering displays of Jinhua-style ham, dried bamboo shoots and mushrooms, all locally produced. The fresh fruit grown in Taiwan is a highlight of any visit. Market stalls are piled with wax apples, mangoes and pineapples, often served with a powder of preserved plums and salt.
And there are growing numbers of organic cafes in Taipei, according to food writer Sarah Chen, who met me at one of them, Tanhou, for a breakfast of “enzyme energy soup”: glasses piled high with juicy chopped vegetables, dried fruit and seeds, which we ate with a spoon.
There’s a Japanese edge to the Taiwan food scene, too, a legacy of half a century of Japanese colonisation, which ended in 1945. The old city fish market has been transformed into Addiction Aquatic Development, a chic, warehouse-style Japanese restaurant and supermarket, with a “stand and swallow” bar for sushi-eaters and a grill outside.
If it’s a teppanyaki blowout you’re after, don’t hesitate to drive out of town to the Shen Yen restaurant, in Yilan county, where chef Chen Chih-yung will dazzle you with his local seafood. Our lunch was an 18-course miracle of fish, eel and crustaceans, seasoned occasionally with his home-made soy sauce and interspersed with sublime bamboo shoots, shots of iced hibiscus infusion and other treats.
After a meal like this, it might be best to drop into the old Wisteria Tea House, a hangout of local subversives and intellectuals, where you can sit on wooden chairs or tatami mats sipping honeyed oolong tea as a glass kettle murmurs away on a burner beside you.
Guardian News & Media