Handmade in Taiwan
Judith Elen finds a touch of whimsy on a culinary odyssey
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