So with so many cooks, how did they avoid spoiling the broth? Let’s have a look at how a past packed with migration, war and occupation has shaped a distinct food with its own legacy, and made it some of the best in the world.
The catalysts for culinary evolution in Taiwan, as in many cases, were both geographical and historical. Home only to its indigenous aborigines for centuries, the island sits amid the waters of the South and East China Seas, and boasts a varied terrain of rugged mountains and rolling plains. The island’s 16 indigenous tribes traditionally each had their own distinct culinary customs according to their location – those by the coast favoring seafood, and those based inland hunting mountain game. They preserved and prepared meat with salt and millet wine, and grilled it on bamboo skewers over fire pits. This traditional use of what is produced by the land is still in practice today. In island nations, large-scale farming is not common, and so it is unsurprising that the Taiwanese often supplement their protein source with fish; tuna, tilapia, mackerel, grouper and anchovies are all common in the food here. Rice features heavily too, and much of it is grown locally, with Hualien and Taitung being renowned for the quality of their grains. Meanwhile, its subtropical location means fruit and vegetables are available in abundance and feature heavily on Taiwan’s plates. Look out for fresh melon, plums, peaches, lychees, starfruit and papaya, as well as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, eggplants and carrots. Potatoes, taros and sweet potatoes add a little carbohydrate to the mix.
Multicultural influences began with the Portuguese arrival in 1544, followed in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company and the Spanish Empire, vying for control of a number of ports as trading posts. The European mark on Taiwan can still be tasted in popular fusion dishes, like Portuguese-style egg tarts. Meanwhile, and even more influentially, Han Chinese began to immigrate to Taiwan from disparate mainland regions around the same time – particularly Hokkien and Hakka minorities from southern Fujian. Thanks to their geographic proximity, Taiwan and Fujian share a similar climate, so it wasn’t difficult for the settlers to continue to prepare their native food in their new island home. Among the contributions they brought with them were stir-frying and popiah – a thin pancake, which was traditionally wrapped around meat and vegetables like a burrito. Nowadays you can try it for dessert, filled with ice cream and peanuts.
When China was defeated in the war, Taiwan was taken over by the victorious Japanese in 1894, who occupied the island for almost 50 years. They brought yet more new ingredients and cooking techniques, popularizing dishes like sushi and sashimi and easily absorbed teppanyaki and seaweed into a culinary culture already au fait with grilling and seafood. Later, when the Japanese were defeated in World War II, Taiwan was given back to Chiang Kai-Shek’s China by the United States. After only four years though, in 1949 when his Nationalist Kuomintang party was beaten by the Communist party, Kai-Shek and about two million mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan. As Taiwan’s tables became even more broadly influenced with the influx of dishes from Guangdong, Beijing, Sichuan and Shanghai, the chefs from those areas found new ingredients and products with which they experimented. Blending their own cooking techniques with those practiced by the indigenous islanders and the Han and European settlers, combined with the now-ingrained habits left behind by the Japanese, they created an array of distinct dishes, and what we recognize today as Taiwanese cuisine began to be codified. Nowadays, a visit to Taiwan can be a flavorful exploration into the myriad dishes on offer – a delicious mission to pick your favorite among the countless delights – each with its distinct story and mix of influences.
Because of the importance of cows in farming, the indigenous Taiwanese traditionally revered them and rarely ate beef, and yet you’d never know it – such is the ubiquity of beef noodle soup on the streets of Taipei today. This hearty dish was a Sichuan speciality, tweaked with local ingredients, and its popularity has led to its own festival. Tamsui or “iron eggs” also smack strongly of Chinese influence – the tiny, protein-rich quail eggs having been braised for hours in soy sauce until they are chewy and almost black.
Then there’s tian bu la, a Taiwanese remix of Japanese oden. Fish paste is moulded, deep-fried and then boiled in a broth; pile the chunks of solid paste in a bowl and smother them in the signature brown sauce before you indulge. Pillow-soft, glutinous mochi are another example of Japan’s influence, and the Taiwanese pack them with sweet or salty fillings like strawberry jam, sesame paste and green tea jam.
With such a vibrant culinary heritage and the resulting diversity of dishes, it’s perhaps no wonder the foodie scene in Taiwan is booming, that its widely agreed-upon best restaurants comprise a list of establishments that reflect a tradition of outside influences with a Taiwanese twist.
Most famous perhaps is Din Tai Fung, the once-humble xiao long bao house that is now an international empire. Originally a specialty of Shanghai, it is this Taiwanese joint that has given soup dumplings their world-renown, thanks to their perfectly-thin dough and delicious fillings of shrimp and pork in a delicate broth. For those wishing to avoid the block-long queues for dumplings, Da Wan BBQ offers a taste of Japan in Taiwan, though advance bookings are recommended. Here grilling is the game, and some of the best yakiniku beef and pork in the city is on offer. Alternatively, for a classic Beijing-inspired breakfast, Yonghe Dou Jiang Da Wang serves up you tiao – a deep-fried doughy stick in perfectly sweet soy milk (dou jiang).
Meanwhile, to the delight of any western visitors craving another taste of Taiwan having returned home, innovative Taiwanese chefs are taking the cuisine global, and restaurants have popped up in Paris, Brussels and North America. But, while it is possible to sample Taiwanese food in the West, anyone who has been will surely agree it’s always so much better to go and experience the real thing.