Taipei stands out as one of the friendliest cities in the Far East. Despite being one of the most successful economies in Asia, the pace is less hurried and locals are approachable. Taipei doesn’t have the vibrant glamour and cosmopolitan allure that is Shanghai, but there is much depth in a society that is still defining its identity and place in a world of nation-states. While it is distinctly Chinese, centuries of autonomous development and colonial influences have created an urban capital that brings together a symphony of influences from around the region.
- Beef noodle soup, niu rou mian
- Boiled pork dumplings, shuijiao
- Braised grass carp
- Braised pork chops and rice
- Chicken, mushroom and flower soup, jinzhenhua
- Grilled chicken feet, ji jiao
- Oyster omelet, o-ah jian
- Oyster vermicelli soup, o-ah mee soa
- Pork blood soup
- Sauteed prawns with pea shoots
- Sauteed river eel with chives
- Sauteed snails with basil
- Spareribs in sacha sauce with rice
- Steamed fish fillet with soy sauce and spring onions
- Stewed minced pork with rice
- Stinky tofu, chou tofu
- Stir-fried beef with bamboo shoots
- Stir-fried clams with garlic
- Stir-fried seafood and noodles
- Stir-fried watercress with garlic
- Three cup chicken, san bei ji
OVERVIEW OF TAIWANESE CUISINE
While the Taiwanese people use condiments of northern Asian countries such as soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, a combination of additional ingredients create more unique flavours. These can include black beans, miso, pickled radishes, peanuts, chilli peppers and herbs such as parsley, cilantro and Taiwanese local basil.
Local dishes are often lighter than the mainland Chinese versions, with a focus on freshness. The much-loved basil and cilantro are often topped as garnishes and flavourings to many soups and stir fries. This fondness for lightness and freshness is evident in the widespread use of a clear, light, rice wine, similar to mirin in Japan, over the stronger-flavoured yellow Shaoxing wine prevalent in traditional Chinese cooking.
Small plates or snack food are an essential part of the Taiwanese meal. These feature a wide range of wonderful flavours including a variety of stinky tofu, dumplings, oyster pancakes, fried anchovies with peanuts, pig’s blood pudding and pickled cucumbers. These small dishes, eaten as snacks or part of a meal, are at the heart of the local cuisine. They are the everyday comfort foods that the Taiwanese miss when they travel abroad. Beyond the island, even in Hong Kong and large southern Chinese cities, good Taiwanese restaurants are surprisingly difficult to find.
FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
Even the most articulate locals have difficulty defining Taiwanese food. There is often some reference to southern Chinese cuisines, even southeast Asian flavours and suggestions of Japanese influence. Most will give examples such as beef noodle soup, oyster omelette or turnip cake, as being Taiwanese; but often, after some consideration, they will scratch their heads trying to come up with other examples since most of the dishes have their origins outside of Taiwan. When the people coming from Fujian began to arrive in the 1600s, they found the main island filled with bountiful fruits, vegetables and seafood. Even now, more than 400 years later, the mountains still provide a wealth of edible vegetables and seafood is abundant and cheap. Fujians brought with them the love for umami-laden soups, slow-cooked foods and flavours that are light and subtle. They are known to favour the salty, tangy flavours of shacha sauce (savoury and spicy paste) and the umami-rich taste of wine lees.
During the 1600s, Ming loyalist Cheng Cheng-kung arrived in Taiwan with over 30,000 mainland Chinese. Cheng’s goal, which never materialised, was to use the island as a base to overthrow the Qing rulers. Fast forward nearly 350 years later in 1949 with the mass exodus of millions of Chinese from all over the mainland into Taiwan, this time with Chiang Kai-shek. These included chefs, farmers as well as soldiers and other military officials. Thus, all types of Chinese cuisine are well represented in Taiwan, including favourites such as Sichuan, Hunanese, Shanghainese and northern Chinese food. In many instances, the original dishes have become ‘Taiwanised.’ For example, Taiwan’s ‘Sichuan noodle soup’ uses fresh herbs, has lighter broth, less oil and only bears a slight resemblance to the original classic noodle soup dish.
However, the dishes most closely associated with Taiwanese cuisine are not found in restaurants but in the street side and night market food stalls. Xiao chi, or small eats, is at the core of Taiwanese everyday food – including oyster pancakes, rich beef noodle soup, oyster noodle soup, meat dumplings and congee or rice porridge. The best examples are widely available in busy food stalls or in markets such as Shilin Night Market.
WINE AND BEVERAGE CULTURE
Since the Fujian settlers introduced tea to Taiwan several hundred years ago, it has become a fundamental part of life, both as a beverage to accompany food and to enjoy by itself. Tea cultivation became an important business and export activity starting about 150 years ago and now Taiwanese tea such as oolong is highly regarded by tea connoisseurs around the world. Since the 1970s, tea culture spread rapidly throughout the population with teahouses sprouting all over the city as well as organisations and groups dedicated to tea research and education. The best tea in Taiwan is reputed for its purity of taste using natural spring water.
With growing affluence, the Taiwanese switched from local spirits to imported brandy and whiskey and more recently, to wine. The progressive reduction in wine duties and increasing competition led to a wine boom in the mid 1990s followed by another surge, 10 years later. Viewed as a luxury product, wine is closely tied to economic sentiment. There were discouraging dips following the market collapse in 1997 and 2008, but once the outlook improved, the wine market rebounded with renewed enthusiasm. The small but growing number of Taiwanese wine lovers has fuelled the growth of numerous publications and books devoting substantial pages to wine.
WINE AND TAIWANESE FOOD
The typical Taiwanese kitchen employs stir frying, steaming, braising and simmering with a light touch. The most obvious differences in Taiwan are the generous use of fresh herbs such as parsley, basil and coriander, the inclusion of pickled vegetables on the table and a light but flavourful combination of ingredients. This type of cuisine pairs well with wines that are light to medium-bodied but with sufficient fruit expression to match the herbs and seasonings. Good options include cool climate, lightly oaked Chardonnay from Australia or New Zealand, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blends or high quality New World Pinot Noirs that have ripe fruit and depth from complex savoury characters. The high umami content in many Taiwanese dishes means that mature red wines, such as Bordeaux from the 1980s or Rhône from the 1990s are wonderful complements to the food.
Some Taiwanese dishes can be quite strong-flavoured and salty. The best wine for something as powerful as chou tofu (stinky tofu) is sparkling wine. Popular side dishes such as pickled cucumbers or Hakka-inspired food can be fairly salty. In this case, avoid very tannic young red wines since the high salt content will only exaggerate the tannins. Instead, opt for a medium-bodied white or a light, fruity red wine with low tannins such as a chilled Beaujolais Cru or a light Grenache-based red.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR TAIWANESE CUISINE:
Mature Red Bordeaux Red
Premier Cru Burgundy Red
Premier Cru Burgundy White