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Taiwanese Treats

What do you get if you mix Taiwanese food with dishes from Japan, China, Cambodia, Italy and the Netherlands? You get ... Taiwanese food.

Author CHANEY KWAK AND JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN

Tofu stuffed with curry paste and pumpkin at Chamkar

SCATTERED AROUND THE WORLD are those tiny pieces of land that everyone wants. Whether it’s because they have more natural resources or offer much-needed ports, each one changes hands pretty much every time the local power dynamic shifts. While this can be exasperating for inhabitants, it does tend to create some of the world’s most interesting food — and nowhere is this more true than on the island of Taiwan.

Take signature dishes like ôáchien (oyster omelets) and bawan (meatball dumplings wrapped in sweet potato dough), for example. They represent thousands of years of Austro-Polynesian tribal heritage (think roasted wild pig, oysters, yams, tropical spices) tempered by early Dutch and Spanish colonial influences and combined with several regional varieties of mainland Chinese food. Throw in a few fried prawns and some raw fish and serve it with a measure of Japanese minimalism, and you have a delightfully haphazard composite cuisine that takes the classic island “if we’ve got it, we’ll use it” ethos to a whole new level.

Almost anywhere you eat on Taiwan, you can make a sport of identifying the influences in each dish that comes your way. At Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant on Yangming Mountain outside Taipei — where the prix fixe menu includes sticky rice cakes with sun-dried mullet roe, and prawn and lotus root in homemade berry-lavender vinegar — you’re looking at Taiwanese tribal food fused with traditional kaiseki, a Japanese multicourse dinner. At night markets like Taipei’s popular Shilin, small plates called xiao chi contain elements from the eight major Chinese traditions (Sichuan and Hunan being the most well known among Westerners), along with local seafood and sauces made from ginger, kumquats and pickled vegetables borrowed from Hakka cuisine. These markets are possibly the only places on earth where you can find stinky tofu, pork sausages wrapped in rice sausages, and fried chicken, all within mere feet of one another.

“Taiwan is a paradise for food lovers, with an amazing diversity of tastes at all kinds of prices,” says Nicolas Devaux, owner of Chamkar, a simple eatery that elevates Cambodian recipes gleaned from Devaux’s years in Siem Reap by adding local produce from a nearby garden. His dishes — like tofu stuffed with curry paste and pumpkin and topped with green peppercorn sauce — are proof enough of that.

So what other culinary traditions mesh well with Taiwanese food? Italian, for one. “I was catering for a group that included a woman from one of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes,” says Evan Shaw, head chef of Hui Liu, a vegetarian restaurant and tea shop in Taipei. “I wanted to make something special, so I created a vegetable noodle dish called Aboriginal Pesto Pasta using ziciong,” a Taiwanese herb. The stab at indigenous Taiwanese-Italian food won Shaw a lot of fans, so naturally his next step was to do what chefs in Taiwan do best: start finding new things to mix it with.

FREE SPIRIT
At the trendy Taipei cocktail bar Fourplay, there is no menu. Patrons simply tell bartender Allen Cheng what they’re craving, and he creates a beverage to their tastes. We asked him to concoct something using the Taiwanese sorghum wine known as kaoliang.

THE ICE BOAT
> Lemon wedge
> Orange wedge    
> 1 oz. Kinmen kaoliang
> 1 1/2 oz. vanilla liqueur
> 1 oz. lemon juice  
> 2/3 oz. honey syrup
> 1 oz. absinthe
> Rosemary stalk

1. Place the lemon and orange wedges in the bottom of a Boston shaker and add the kaoliang, vanilla liqueur, lemon juice and honey syrup. Muddle.
2. Add ice, and shake to combine.
3. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Top with absinthe and the rosemary stalk.
4. Light the stalk on fire. Serve.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS
This Taiwanese chef cuts a fine figure

CHEF CHAO-LIN CHEN is an artist by any measure, whether he’s creating gaojha, a spicy Yilanese dish made of chicken, shrimp, pork and cornstarch, or the intricate carrot dragon he can carve in less than nine minutes to go with it. Chen’s gaojha has been known to draw diners from as far as the capital city of Taipei to his little restaurant, Doo Hsiao Yueh, on Taiwan’s windswept northeast coast — but it’s his deft carving that’s made him world-famous.

In 2008, Chen and his carving team brought home a gold medal from the prestigious Food & Hotel Asia Imperial Challenge in Singapore. Many of Chen’s creations were subsequently included in his book, Doo Hsiao Yueh I-Lan Feast Taiwan Cuisine, which showcases both dishes and sculptures from the restaurant. As Chen flips through the pages, astounding tableaux are revealed: A painstakingly detailed carrot phoenix appears in flight next to a plate of minced pork cakes; a bamboo-shoot swordsman does battle with a dish of stewed carp. The ones that win awards are even more elaborate, like the green winter melon Chen transformed into a three-dimensional scene featuring a Chinese junk.

“Winter melons are great for carving because their shape and size allows for serious creativity,” Chen says. “The biggest I ever carved was 25 kilograms.” And what did he do with it? “I turned it into a massive dragon.” —JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN

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