A Taste of Taiwan
Taiwan may be tiny but its gastronomic appeal is anything but. Taiwan’s Indigenous tribes occupied the island for millennia until the 17th century when the Han Chinese began arriving. The island has been colonised by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese, until 1945, when Taiwan was placed under the control of the Republic of China. This revolving door of colonisation and immigration has resulted in a deliciously diverse cuisine that offers diners everything from Michelin-starred fine dining and innovative indigenous restaurants to atmospheric street markets and everything in between.
In the Hualien province on Taiwan’s east coast, a winding road snakes between towering walls of marble, past mist-shrouded shrines and temples, through caves and across vibrant coloured bridges to reveal jaw-dropping new vistas. Taroko means beautiful and magnificent in the language of the indigenous Truku tribe and Taroko Gorge is indeed that. A spectacle millions of years in the making, a visit to the gorge is one of Taiwan’s unmissable experiences, as is a sensational meal of succulent boar ribs served with wild ferns at the indigenous Leader Village Taroko Resort, designed as a small tribal village with accommodation styled on the Truku’s traditional huts and food inspired by native produce.
Hualien province offers some great opportunities to taste the food of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. At Yao Zhong Indegines Cuisine, just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Aboriginal flavours are fused with modern techniques by award-winning indigenous Amis chef, Chen Yaozhong, to create culinary masterpieces. There is no menu here; chef Yaozhong’s daily degustation menu is a work of art created from his own daily catch, foraged wild ingredients and produce from his own garden. There’s crispy boar skin, smoked flying fish, fern fronds, silken savoury custards, fresh bamboo shoots and wild rice served alongside driftwood platters of luscious fresh seafood and sublime local sashimi.
From Hualien and the depths of Taroko’s canyon floor we head back to the heights of its energetic capital and the towering Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings. One of the most stable buildings ever constructed, it houses the world’s fastest elevator which shoots you to the rooftop observatory at speeds of 63km/h for spectacular views over the city. All that gazing at Taipei can work up an appetite. Luckily downstairs is one of the first ever branches of Din Tai Fun, the restaurant chain that has become one of Taiwan’s biggest exports, and steamers full of xiao long bao pork dumplings. Judging by the discreetly placed photos alongside the open kitchen even Tom Cruise is a fan of these translucent bundles of soupy perfection.
Taipei is home to an extraordinary street food scene. It’s almost impossible to walk down Yongkang Street without stumbling across delectable delights like chua bing, a fluffy green onion studded pastry delight that is bordering on the addictive and mee sua, a thick vermicelli soup piled with pieces of pork. It’s also hard to escape the ubiquitous marbled tea eggs (Cha ye dan). You’ll even find them bobbing in a broth of tea, soy and spices in 7 Elevens. The convenience stores, like the eggs, are everywhere, and you’ll also find hot treats like fish balls, pig’s blood cakes, dumplings and tofu nestled between the candy and magazines.
One of the best places to succumb to street food temptation is between the cheap electronics and quirky keepsakes at Shilin Night Market. There are steamed dumplings, freshly pulled noodles, oyster omelettes and a huge variety of fried, steamed and barbecued things on sticks – some of which require us to leave our squeamishness at the door. We also find pungent Taiwanese favourite, stinky tofu. Well, it finds us, its malodorous fragrance assaulting our noses long before we spot a vendor.
When not indulging we visit Buddhist temples, watch the changing of the guard at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and peruse the world’s largest collection of Chinese art and antiquities at the National Palace Museum before eating them. Their digestible doppelgangers that is! The Museum’s Silks Palace Restaurant serves delicious edible reproductions of the country’s national treasures.
Lovers of kitsch can don their sunglasses and sail a sea of retina-searing pink at the world’s first Mattel-licensed Barbie Café. The interior of the sprawling café on Zhongxiao Road, one of the busiest shopping districts in Taipei, is really something. I’m not sure what exactly, but that something is pink. An ocular assault of neon paint, reams of tulle and fuschia-hued glitter, even the menu here is dripping in pink. Though Barbie’s waistline would suggest she doesn’t personally indulge in the café’s candy-coloured offerings, I most certainly did. And they tasted … pink.
Less about food and more about entertainment, themed restaurants are huge in Taipei. If the pink frosted fun of The Barbie Café isn’t your thing, you might prefer to infiltrate a ninja lair at Ninja Restaurant or pull up a cistern at Modern Toilet – a nationwide restaurant chain where you can enjoy your chocolate soft serve in a miniature toilet bowl. I passed.
An hour from Taipei on the northeast coast is the spa town of Yilan. Surrounded by lush mountains, waterfalls, rivers and beaches, the town is most famous for its natural springs. But we’re here for whisky. Taiwan is one of the world’s biggest consumers of whisky and the award-winning Kavalan Whisky Factory is located in Yilan to make the most of the fine water from the springs. A tour of the factory offers us an insight into whisky making as well as a much appreciated sampling of their range, some of which follows us home.
Back in Taipei, our journey reaches its culinary zenith in the mountains on the city’s outskirts at Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant. A cobbled narrow walkway lit by candles and bamboo lamps takes us to a room with a low long table and views over the mountainside. There is a stillness here bordering on the meditational.
Nine dishes are served in elaborate Kaiseki Japanese style using produce that is both seasonal and local. A feast for the senses, each exquisite dish is designed to nourish body and soul but one course is so magical it leaves us breathless. A simple earthenware vessel holding a mystical broth of Chinese herbs and chicken is brought to the table and a single dried lotus bloom carefully dropped into its broth unfurls beatifically before our eyes. It is surreal. It is culinary theatre. It is, quite literally, chicken soup for the soul. •
Photography by Aleney de Winter
China Airlines is Taiwan’s national airline and operates direct flights from Sydney and Brisbane to Taipei. china-airlines.com
Where to eat and drink
Leader Village Taroko; leaderhotel.com/blw/leadervillage
Din Tai Fung; dintaifung.com.tw
Silks Palace at the National Museum; silkspalace.com.tw
Kavalan Whisky; kavalanwhisky.com
Shi Yang Culture Restaurant Taipei; shi-yang.com
Taiwan Tourism; taiwantourism.org