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Asia travel

Michelin Guide Taipei set to raise profile of a foodie paradise that’s stayed below the radar until now

Famous for its vibrant night markets and local ingredients, Taiwan’s capital is the latest Asian city to be focus of a gastronomic guide from French publisher, which is expected to highlight both its street food and affordable fine dining

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 10:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 November, 2017, 7:15pm

From streetside stalls dishing out US$1 bowls of braised pork rice to upscale eateries tucked away in quiet alleyways, Michelin inspectors are scouring the Taiwanese capital selecting restaurants for the French publisher’s first guide to Taipei dining.

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The island’s reputation among in-the-know travellers as a foodie paradise will be further burnished when Taipei becomes the latest Asian city to have its own Michelin guide in the first quarter of 2018.

Best-known for its vibrant night markets and fresh local ingredients, the city’s street food could well make the grade alongside higher end restaurants, Michelin says, as it has in the Hong Kong and Singapore editions.

“You don’t need to be in a wonderful place to have extreme quality of ingredients and to have real personalities of the chef,” says Michelin spokesman Bruno de Feraudy. “Exceptional for us is what’s happening on the plate and purely on the plate.”

Michelin guides have traditionally been seen as a posh gourmet compass, but increasingly they recognise budget eats, and the establishments that benefit have used the prestigious award to build big businesses.

Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan went from hole-in-the-wall to successful chain, while a Singapore hawker awarded a Michelin star last year has grown his soy sauce chicken stall into a franchise.

Taiwanese foodies are speculating that Jinfeng – a no-frills corner joint serving NT$30 (US$1) bowls of rice topped with braised minced fatty pork, called lu rou fan – could make the cut.

But shop manager Wu Su-yan says she is indifferent, and the long queues of tourists and locals speak for themselves.

“Having customers is confirmation enough. We don’t need it to be written on a piece of paper to know our lu rou fan is good,” she says.

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Shin Yeh’s five branches in Taipei are packed most nights of the week and the 40-year-old institution hopes Michelin will spotlight the types of traditional dishes it serves, which have fallen out of favour with some young Taiwanese.

Favourites such as pan-fried pork liver cost NT$280, while dark orange slices of roasted mullet roe go for NT$680 a portion, putting its prices well above street snacks but far below the highest-end restaurants.

A thick golden omelette studded with preserved turnip is so popular that Shin Yeh’s kitchens have spots reserved just for making the dish, says brand director Cybie Fang, with new chefs taking three months to master the recipe.

I will be quite ecstatic for a moment, but there will be enormous pressure for me
Tony Wang

Fang believes the new guide might help rebrand Taiwanese cuisine for young domestic consumers, some of whom see Shin Yeh’s menu as “too passé”.

“No matter how many restaurants get stars, I think it is a big plus for Taiwan,” she says.

But others worry about the burden winning the stars could bring.

“I will be quite ecstatic for a moment, but there will be enormous pressure for me,” says Tony Wang, whose restaurant Niu Ba Ba, or “Beef Father”, serves up bowls of Taiwanese staple beef noodles for an eye-watering NT$10,000.

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It also offers cheaper noodle dishes starting from NT$500, but still manages to sell three of the expensive bowls daily on average.

Wang insists the price reflects the quality of the ingredients – he says he spent NT$60 million and several years researching different kinds of beef.

His recipe uses four types of premium meat, broth made from four kinds of tomatoes, and noodles that cost six times the average because they are kneaded from Japanese flour.

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Some restaurateurs in France and elsewhere have handed back their Michelin stars due to the high pressure of maintaining exacting standards. But Michelin’s de Feraudy says the guide will not exclude a restaurant just because a chef requests it.

He says: “If there is something exceptional [consumers] could enjoy, we should tell them.”