Hand­made in Tai­wan

Ju­dith Elen finds a touch of whimsy on a culi­nary odyssey

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

S I am about to board my re­turn flight af­ter a re­cent Tai­wanese food odyssey, my hosts press a box of Tai­wan Cute Cakes into my hands. The rounds of se­same-coated pas­try, with a dense, strangely de­li­cious fill­ing, are in­deed cute but they are a uni­verse away from the wildly ad­ven­tur­ous food scene I have dis­cov­ered here.

few days ear­lier, at the start of my trip, I trav­elled from Taipei, in the north of this small is­land coun­try, to Taichung, near the west­ern coast of the Tai­wan Strait. The last thing I ex­pected to find in Tai­wan was a restau­rant like a Gaudi cathe­dral air­lifted from Barcelona. But this cav­ernous build­ing in Taichung, hand­made of drift­wood, tree trunks, branches and pot­tery, is the work of a young Tai­wanese woman, and the story of its cre­ation is as fan­tas­tic as the build­ing, now one of five sim­i­lar restau­rants across the coun­try.

Xie Li-Xiang is in her early 40s. Fif­teen years ago, a coun­try girl from the south­ern town of Tainan, with no ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing and lit­tle money but vast imagination, Xie built houses for her­self and her par­ents, en­tirely by hand and from found ma­te­ri­als. She fur­nished them with pieces she made from drift­wood and stone. Ad­dicted to the process, she went on to build a restau­rant.

Linked by com­pli­cated and in­trigu­ing threads, the story con­tin­ues. The first restau­rant, Five Cent Drift­wood House, opened in Tainan in 2000. There are now four in cen­tral and south­ern Tai­wan and one in Taipei’s Neihu district. Gen­er­ally known as the Five Dime Restau­rants, each is more wildly fan­tas­tic than the one be­fore. There are tow­er­ing tree-trunk pil­lars, in­ter­nal fish­ponds, swirling fe­male fig­ures of drift­wood or ce­ramic and col­umns sev­eral storeys high. Ceil­ings are vaulted and wooden stair­ways wind or­gan­i­cally around the walls.

At the Five Dime Restau­rant in Taichung, we sit at a heavy wooden ta­ble and gaze around us at the hal­lu­ci­na­tory in­te­rior. The staff are in­trigu­ingly swathed in rus­tic fabrics like of­fi­ci­ates in a monastery and we can’t stop star­ing at the build­ing’s myr­iad de­tails. Mov­ing fast, wait­ers load our ta­ble with a del­uge of soups, seafood, sal­ads, all served in weirdly mis­matched hand-thrown pot­tery and metal bowls. There’s a soup (I think it’s called bam­boo leap­ing in the sky) made from date palm, with chicken, green beans and dark red berries, pos­si­bly gogi. There are let­tuce cups of prawns, chest­nuts and prawn crisps, and oth­ers with prawn, tomato and may­on­naise.

There is sweet and sour chicken, which does not re­sem­ble any dish of the same name you might find in Aus­tralia. In one of the metal bowls, there’s squid with spinach, a dark caramelly sauce and fresh basil leaves.

The menu comes on a stiff, brown-pa­per place­mat printed with a net­work of cal­lig­ra­phy, looking like draw­ings of tele­vi­sion an­ten­nas, houses and pa­per lanterns, un­der head­ings of beau­ti­fully detailed char­ac­ters. Noth­ing is ex­plained in English and our Tai­wanese hosts are not en­tirely sure of trans­la­tions or in­gre­di­ents. Ev­ery­thing tastes sur­pris­ing and won­der­ful. Prices on the menu mat gen­er­ally range be­tween $3 and $10. One es­pe­cially pricey dish is listed at $NT1200 (about $36).

A uni­verse away from Xie Li-Xiang’s fevered fan­tasies, Lin Pin-Hui has just as painstak­ingly built up his Bud­dhist restau­rant, now 12 years old, in the moun­tains of Yang­ming­shan Na­tional Park, on the north­ern edge of the Taipei Basin. Also from a non­restau­rant back­ground (though he is an ar­chi­tect), Lin is the cre­ator of Shi-Yang Cul­tural Restau­rant, set in 6ha of gar­dens with wa­ter­falls and streams.

Lin, too, de­signed ev­ery­thing, beginning with the space and build­ing, the porce­lain, table­ware and im­ple­ments, and fi­nally the food. His method, un­like Xie’s, is slow and mea­sured, but is or­ganic in dif­fer­ent ways.

Lin in­vites our small group to a room in the up­stairs med­i­ta­tion area, where we sit at a long, low ta­ble and sip tea, very for­mally, from tiny cups, as we watch the out­side light fade. We have ar­rived es­pe­cially at 6.30pm

Ready to eat: A ven­dor pre­pares fresh dumplings at Taipei’s bustling pro­duce mar­ket

Weird and won­der­ful: Five Dime Restau­rant, Taipei to see the gar­dens, for­est and moun­tain views in the last of the day­light. Cor­bus­ier is Lin’s favourite ar­chi­tect, bridg­ing Ja­panese and West­ern vi­sions, and there is a strong Ja­panese Bud­dhist in­flu­ence in the de­sign and aes­thet­ics. Taipei peo­ple in­vite their for­eign friends here, Lin says, and they dis­cover in re­al­ity what they had dis­cov­ered in books. Then they re­turn with their friends. Ev­ery­thing is by word of mouth.

Through our mar­vel­lously po­etic in­ter­preter, Ivy Chen, Lin tells us he wanted ev­ery­thing, in­side and out, to co-op­er­ate. He wanted to in­vite the out­side in. Peo­ple walk in the gar­dens and can ex­pe­ri­ence the trans­for­ma­tion from out­side light to in­side light as night falls over the moun­tains. He says peo­ple love to come in sum­mer when it is hot in Taipei, but in win­ter there are clouds and mist and it is more zen-like.

Set­tled at the ta­bles down­stairs, we find the food a rev­e­la­tion. The menu is set daily, with a sin­gle fixed price (that con­verts to about $32 a head).

There is an English trans­la­tion of the del­i­cate char­ac­ters on the left of the page: juice and peanut tofu, steamed egg, lo­tus root and vine­gar, sashimi, abalone and vine­gar, fried rice, stewed lo­tus, dessert, fruits, tea. Such blunt la­belling, like a shop­ping list of the main in­gre­di­ents, doesn’t be­gin to hint at the del­i­cacy of the dishes.

The tofu comes as a cake, hand­made with a fill­ing of peanuts, with wasabi and soy. A smoked sal­mon roll is done on the hot grill, with may­on­naise po­tato and miso sauce, topped with a blue­berry. A soup, looking like pale pump­kin, has a fas­ci­nat­ing sur­face: two kinds of clams, dried and soaked, give a steamy flavour, while fresh clam is pureed and mixed with egg. The sur­face is of two kinds of pureed po­tato, with moun­tain pep­per and tiny flow­ers and, be­neath baked cus­tard, is cod­dled egg and shred­ded clam.

Cour­ses come clus­tered in sep­a­rate lit­tle pot­ted com­po­nents, like shot pots. I re­alise we are only just ap­proach­ing the lo­tus root, which is shred­ded in rice vine­gar with a sar­dine on top, served with soft pump­kin and broc­coli flower. Soon a lit­tle pot of laven­der vine­gar, slightly hon­eyed and over ice, ar­rives as a palate cleanser. And, later, an­other of rose vine­gar.

Dessert is a shot of fresh rasp­berry and straw­berry juice, and cream cus­tard with a tiny scoop of mil­let cooked with brown su­gar. The food is the end point of good liv­ing, Chen says enig­mat­i­cally.

Back amid the buzz of Taipei, at 6.30am the fol­low­ing day, Sher­wood Ho­tel chef Lam Yau-Chang leads our di­min­ished but in­trepid group to the city’s pro­duce mar­ket. Like a small vil­lage, di­vided by its own streets, fab­u­lously fresh fruits and veg­etable — ly­chees, dragon­fruit, gin­ger and bam­boo shoots, green mel­ons tied with red rib­bons, ex­pen­sive black grapes, bam­booleaf wrapped parcels — give way to draped sausages, trays of pigs’ trot­ters and heads, chicken’s feet and slabs of tofu.

Nearby is a sea of gleam­ing fish and shell­fish. We are ab­sorbed by the sights and sounds, the smil­ing faces and sleep­ing forms slumped be­side crates. Even­tu­ally we re­tire to a mar­ket cafe, a cor­ner plat­form open on two sides to the bus­tle of the street, where we eat the dumplings and broth of the traders.

From the pale green points of cooked aloe leaves (stone lo­tus), ten­der and sub­tly flavoured in sal­ads and veg­etable plates, to the ma­hogany-rich pek­ing duck and Can­tonese-style braised pear soup our Sher­wood chef pre­pares for us when we re­turn to the ho­tel for lunch, it is all cui­sine Tai­wanese-style. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Tai­wan Tourism. www.tai­wan.net.tw www.five-dime.com.tw www.shi-yang.com www.sher­wood.com.tw

Pic­tures: Ju­dith Elen

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