Standing under the shadow of skyscrapers on a busy Taipei street corner I find it impossible to stop eating the steaming-hot green onion pancake.
Lifted from the street-seller’s iron griddle, one bite made it crystal clear why these flaky multi-layered goodies are high on the list of the country’s favorite snacks. My friend and travel guide, Bill Chang, couldn’t resist swerving his car to the curb to get in line for a taste at the woman’s stand—although we’d just finished lunch.
Like most food-obsessed Taiwanese, Bill will talk your ear off about the edible delights around every corner of his fun and frenetic home city. Steering me toward intertwining little lanes and alleys, he pointed out tiny shops with a reputation for a certain specialties like steaming bowls of fabulous braised pork over rice (lou rou fan), Taiwan’s most famous comfort food which is especially tasty at Jin Feng Lu Rou Fan and Jin Shian in the tourist-friendly Xyinyi district.
We talked about upmarket places, too and the fact that the island is finally being recognized as an amazing foodie destination and food-lovers paradise.
But defining Taiwanese food can be tricky business. Built on layers and layers of delicious flavors, it is primarily a Chinese cuisine but one like none other.
Taiwanese cooks have had the luxury of choosing the most appealing regional specialties from a multitude of immigrants who came to the island nation in various waves. This is why you find some dishes that seem Northern—with wheat buns and noodles, pickled vegetables and sometimes chiles. Others display the rich sweet star anise-inflected seasonings of Shanghai and the East or the raging heat of Sichuan and Hunan.
These influences arrived after WWII when Nationalist Chinese leaders fleeing communism on the mainland brought their chefs from many corners of China. At first they opened strictly regional restaurants and night market stalls but eventually their contributions were integrated, profoundly changing the earlier domination of Fujian and Hakka cuisines into what we know today as Taiwanese cooking.
You’ll also notice loads of Japanese restaurants and bakeries. A strong Japanese influence was embraced during Taiwan’s era as a colony for over 60 years of Japanese imperial rule between 1895 and 1945. Sashimi, we found has crept into mainstream Taiwanese eating. Among the best deals on plates of Japanese-influenced raw seafood to be found was at Sit Fun in Yongkang area with its display of fresh ingredients stocked on ice as you enter the modestly-priced restaurant.
Besides the occasional street corner entrepreneur and well-known night markets squeezed into every neighborhood are more sedate spots where you can sit and relax after a day of shopping the winding lanes off Yongkang Street. One such place is Slack Season Dansai Noodles whose specialty is a phenomenal mix of rice or wheat noodles in shrimp-spiked broth topped with rich stewed pork. The dish has roots as a street food but the restaurant and its branches, run by a younger generation, has a chic urban vibe and a modern menu to match.
After taking in the breathtaking view from the 88th floor of the 101 building (where you’ll find a splashy branch of the famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung) you might want to experience the ultimate evolution of Modern Taiwanese cuisine on the 85th floor at Shin-Yeh 101.
My trip seemed like non-stop eating that included everything from famed dual broth hot pot at Tripod King, regional seafood at North Sea Fishing Village, indigenous tribal food at Basdan, and pure Hakka cooking at Chia Chia Hakka CuisineB. The places that follow give you an overview of Taiwan’s unparalleled diversity. But they are just the tip of the iceberg, far too few places to appreciate the marvels of this stunningly complex cuisine. So, of course, I plan to return for more. ~~~~~~
Braised pork on rice: Jin Feng Lu Rou Fan 10 Roosevelt Road, Section 1, Jhongjheng District, Taipei City; Phone (2) 2396 0808. Braised pork over rice Taiwan’s number one comfort food.
Braised pork on rice: Jin Shian restaurant 473 Songshan Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Metro station: Yongchun station, phone: (2)727-2267
Tu Hsiao Yueh Tan Tsai Noodle (AKA Slack Season Danzai noodles) newest branch Yongkang Street area: No 9-1 Yongkang Street, phone 02-3393-1325 website: http://old.iddi.com.tw/index.asp Taiwan’s most famous street food turned into refined restaurant fare by the family’s 4th generation of owners.
Tripod King Hot Pot Restaurant 89 Guang Fu North Road, (Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall MRT); 2-2742 1199. Chinese website: (鼎王光復北路) Originally from Tainan city, this King of hot pot restaurants serves high quality (as opposed to all you can eat) hot pot. The broth is said to be the best in Taipei, so popular patrons take in home in jars. Originally from Taichung the restaurant now has three Taipei branches.
North Sea Fishing Village Seafood No. 8 Sec. 1 Hangjhou S. Road., Jhongjeng district. Taipei City, Phone: (2) 2357-6188. Website Surrounded by the Sea, it’s only natural that fish would be a mainstay. This restaurant procures fish from the Pengu archipelago that sits between Mainland China and Taiwan.
Chia Chia Hakka Restaurant Address: 10, Ln 2, Yongkang St, Taipei City Telephone: (02) 2393-3130 . Little English spoken here but lots of colored pictures of the food on the walls of this regional restaurant help you decide.
Sit-Fun Taiwanese-style Restaurant Yong Kang Street, #5 lane 8, Da An district, (02) 2322-2632. www.sit-fun.com.tw (site in Chinese but click on “Menu” and you get translation to English and pictures of the dishes) Food is fresh and light here. Nicely priced sashimi plates to start.
Shin-Yeh Taiwanese Restaurant No. 34-1, ShuangCheng St, (02) 2596-3255 shinyeh.com.tw Well-crafted traditional fare at this well-known and popular spot.
Shen Yeh Ambiences: Up-market; semi molecular gastronomy-style Taiwanese. Shin Yeh @ Taipei 101, 85 Floor-1, No. 7, Sec. 5, Xinyi Rd., Xinyi Dist., Taipei City. Phone: 02-8101-0185. English and picture menu.
Badasan Aboriginal Restaurant No. 111 Guanhai Blvd., Bali District, New Taipei City, Taiwan, Phone: (02)261-05300. Yes, it’s touristy but this is also one of the few accessible spots to try an approximation of indigenous (pre Chinese) dishes.