As marvellous as beef noodles and braised pork rice taste in Taipei, Jessica Chan is eager to discover a more gastronomic side of the city. And she plans to take her non-foodie friends along for the journey for their upcoming vacation.
An unexpected feast
It’s worth jumping through hoops for a taste of the finest fare in life. Epicure readers will need no convincing. My nonfoodie pals, however, will need a little coaxing. Thankfully, we’re taking a week-long holiday in May and will be heading to the perfect gastronomic city – Taipei. This newly-minted Michelin town is an exciting destination to be in. 20 restaurants with Michelin stars and 36 Bib Gourmands in 2018. (Not that Taipei needs these accolades; it’s already a gourmet destination in its own right.) For me, there isn’t a more satisfying way to experience a country's melting pot of influences better than through its food, presented by the best chefs who live and breathe cooking. I’ve got our itinerary all planned out by the hour. It’s to be an entire week of street eats at night markets as well as fine dining offerings.
Here’s the challenge. I will have two non-foodies and a traditional foodie travelling with me. There’s S who gives a nonchalant shrug at the mention of André Chiang or Lanshu Chen. Then there's B who sees food as serving a functional purpose and whose junk diet consists of Cheez Whiz or butter-flavoured margarine. And, finally there is V who thinks the most authentic meal can only come from the dingiest alleyway; bonus points if it’s a obscure spot that even Google Maps can’t pinpoint. Granted, while V is a lot closer to a foodie than my other two pals, her staunch notion of what’s “authentic” might derail my restaurant reservation plans. Taipei is more than its staples of lu rou fan (braised pork rice) or mian xian – and it falls on my shoulders to show them.
My strategy? Mornings will be reserved for sipping high mountain oolong tea at Hermit’s Hut, where its fragrant floral notes will make millennials forget about bubble tea. I’ll have them hoof down a hefty fan tuan (rice roll) of pickled greens, eggs and pork floss at Liu Mama, an iconic breakfast spot in the Da'an district. I’ll point out the larger boulders on their grounds and say, “The owners are of Hakka descent, and continue to press down
their pickled greens with these stones every day.”
We will set aside time for Addiction Aquatic Development, Taipei’s answer to Tsukiji Market, where the freshest seafood is served as sashimi, sushi or grilled over binchōtan. I’ll have them enjoy slices of mullet roe as well as sake, tachinomiya-style, and let them take in the impact of Japan’s 50-year-long rule on Taipei's food scene. A bunch of Kyoho grapes from the nearby fruit market will complete the experience.
Then, there is Taipei’s burgeoning café scene. Specialty coffee beans, including those grown in Taitung or Gukeng Township, often take pride of place, thanks to the Dutch East India Company, who cultivated Arabica beans in Gukeng in the 1600s. Accompanying these cuppas will be gorgeous desserts that’ll make Pierre Hermé proud. They are, however, made of taro, a root vegetable that has fed the aboriginal tribes for centuries.
Two nights will be set aside for Chiang’s RAW and Richie Lin’s MUME, where they combine the best Taiwanese produce, such as ping po (Chinese chestnut) and maqaw (mountain pepper) with French culinary techniques. Other nights will see us bar-hopping from R&D Cocktail Lab to Ounce for a taste of gaoliang (a local sorghum wine) in innovative cocktails. For a more casual setting, we will settle into a re chao (hot stir-fry) spot. It’s where young Taiwanese can often be seen chatting away at tables groaning under the weight of plates of gongbao chicken, sautéed beef or fried rice, with ice-cold beers on the side.
Even after completing this jam-packed itinerary, we would have barely scratched the surface of what Taipei has to offer. Its complicated history has given rise to a dining table of myriad flavours that continue to evolve. Perhaps, my role as an unofficial tour guide is to help my friends enjoy a Taipei that includes a full spectrum of casual eateries, drinking dens and fine dining restaurants. Eventually (and hopefully), they will be planning the itinerary for our next gourmet adventure. Tokyo here we come!