Monday, October 5, 2015

How Taiwan Became The Hottest Food Destination On Earth

I knew it the moment I skipped through arrivals and stepped out into the luscious tropical warmth of the Taipei afternoon. That here was a city I’d love, way before I ever worked out why. It started in my gut, a joyously inexplicable primal glow that streamed through my veins, and head, and muscles of my cheeks, tweaking them into the sweetest of involuntary grins.

Maybe it was those gentle smiles at customs, and the sense of heartfelt welcome, such blessed contrast to the blank-faced, purse-lipped suspicion of mainland China. Or the fact that I could actually see the sky, a smart, clean blue, unhindered by incessant, meanly pervasive, nicotine-hued smog. Here, tall trees line the wide roads like swaying guards of honour, bending their heads in arboreal bonhomie. Here, the traffic hums rather than snarls.

I’d just spent a week in Shanghai, a place of both thrusting, gleaming modernity and incomprehensibly alien froideur. A city where the shop-fresh vestments of progress barely cover the ragged undershirt of the past. There, I felt lonely and adrift, disconnected from the outside world. Tolerated, just another gormless “round eye” who simply didn’t have a clue. Sure, there were international hotels with their single estate rums and $600 views. And the discreet charm of the French Concession. Plus all that raw, cold-filtered capitalism, pulsing through Pudong. But just like the sweet, oily food of the region, it left me rather cold.

Here, though, at noon in Taipei, capital of Taiwan, I felt human once more, my senses keen, and all thoughts turning firmly towards lunch. I’d been meaning to visit Taiwan for years. Ching-He Huang, the Taiwanese-born food writer and chef, had endlessly extolled its virtues. “One of Asia’s great culinary gems,” she would say on the set of Market Kitchen, while whipping up some Sichuan hotpot for the hungry cameras. “The ingredients are incredible, and top quality, and the whole nation is obsessed with food. Obsessed. Beef noodles, dumplings, steamed pork sandwiches and stinky tofu…” Her eyes would gleam with greedy zeal.

Taiwan is one of those countries with which we’re all familiar, yet know nothing about. Sure, we’ve grown up seeing Taiwan embossed on shiny plastic, affixed to hi-fi and ghetto blaster alike. Or printed next to the washing instructions on some nylon label. Back in the Eighties, pretty much everything I watched, or fed with batteries, seemed “Made in Taiwan”. But those three words appeared more well-honed trademark than actual country, a vast, gleaming production line, ruled by robots and microchips.

So, I imagined Taipei to be a place to make the Los Angeles of Blade Runner look positively antediluvian. Soaring mega-scrapers, neon-drenched superhighways and vending machines that could sell you your soul. Tokyo meets Hong Kong meets Mega-City One. But with the exception of the splendid Taipei 101 tower, a priapic symbol of Old East clad in New West glass and steel, Taipei seems modest, discreet, mainly grey and sprawling. Far less frenetic and sultry than Bangkok, slower moving than Hong Kong, and rather more approachable than Tokyo. It’s like their reserved cousin, who doesn’t say much but is always effortlessly polite and eminently civilised.

“There’s rather more to Taiwan than video games and calculators,” smiles Enshen Huang, Ching-He’s brother, and my guide for the next few days. He’s smiling and open faced, educated in England, but back now in Taiwan, working for a large software company. His wife, Jasmine, an expert in Taiwanese art and jewellery, is striking and beautifully dressed. She’s behind the wheel, cruising down the wide roads and astonishingly well-behaved traffic. In most Asian cities, the roads are constipated with cars, polluted with fumes and din. Here, things seem to work just fine.

“Taiwan has a totally different culture from China, a different etiquette altogether,” Enshen says. Any initial awkwardness, of the forced meeting of strangers in a land far from their own, has long since dissipated. A shared love of food tends to do that within moments. But there’s something in the Taiwanese character that puts one immediately at ease. Not so much a need to please than pure, old-fashioned hospitality.

Taiwan has its own constitution and democratically elected president, armed forces and freedom of speech. It very much sees itself as a separate sovereign state. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), though, disagrees. It claims that the government of the Republic of China (RoC, or Taiwan) is an illegal and illegitimate one. To the PRC, Taiwan is not Taiwan, rather the “Taiwan authorities”. And in its mind, the PRC remains very much in charge. It allows no international recognition of Taiwan as an independent sovereign state.

Nor any discussion of the issue, either. In the PRC, at least. Try to Google the subject when on the mainland, and you’ll find nothing. Anything save the PRC version of the truth is not just censored, but banned. China still has 1,600 cruise and ballistic missiles pointed at the country, and threatens to respond with “military conflict” should Taiwan ever try to claim full independence. It’s an odd state of affairs, but not one that seems to affect day-to-day life.

In fact, relations between the PRC and Taiwan are fine at the moment, with the same sort of free trade relation-ship with the mainland shared by Hong Kong and Macau. While most of the residents of Taiwan want independence, and see themselves as Taiwanese, they also realise that a working relationship with China is of crucial import.

Taiwan is also a country built upon, and defined by, immigration. It started with the aboriginal people, as it usually does. Then came the Chinese immigrants, mainly from Fujian province. Followed by the Dutch, who spotted the island’s strategic importance. Sited between China and Japan, the Philippines and Macau, it was the perfect base for Asian trade. But the Chinese immigrants had little time for colonial rule and booted them out. By the end of the 17th century, Taiwan was governed by the Qing dynasty as a prefecture of Fujian province.

We turn into a small side street, past a Christian church and various alleyways filled with simmering food stalls and strange herbal medicines. “In April 1895, China ceded Taiwan to the Japanese, who ruled until 1945,” Enshen says. “Many Taiwanese then abandoned Chinese folk worship for Shintoism, speaking Japanese, taking Japanese names and pledging allegiance to the emperor.”

We get out of the car and I follow the couple upstairs into Shin Yeh, a wildly popular traditional Taiwanese restaurant. “When Japan was defeated in the war, Taiwan was placed under the control of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China. And when, in December 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was ended by Mao Zedong, he fled, along with two million refugees to Taiwan. This was his government in exile, the Republic of China. He lived here until he died, in 1975.”

Under Chiang Kai-shek’s party, the KMT, martial law was declared between 1948 and 1987, the longest period in world history. That meant no right to free speech or to assemble or protest, and the Taiwan Garrison Command could arrest and detain anyone. The KMT governed Taiwan until 15 years ago. “Now, we have democracy and free speech and freedom. And the majority want to be independent, and see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese,” Enshen says.

All these influences and invaders and conflicting ideas of sovereignty might muddy the pools of national identity. But it certainly makes for a thrilling food culture. “Taiwanese food, like its history, is a mixture of Chinese and Japanese,” says Enshen, “with some fried stuff, and lots of seasonings, soy sauce, chilli peppers, fermented black beans, pickled greens, sesame oil, coriander and endless herbs.” We sit down in the large dining room, expensively air-conditioned but glaringly lit. “Standards are high, and the quality of ingredient carefully regulated. Unlike China.” He lived in Shanghai and Beijing for a while. “Taiwan is a huge food tourism destination. With the technology companies all gone, it’s now a place for cultural tourism from the mainland. Food is the culture that everyone in Asia understands. It’s the first thing on their mind when they come here.”

We’re greeted by a thin, elegant lady who runs Shin Yeh. “This is Ms Chung Ya-Lin, Jasmine’s aunt, who has worked here since she was 16. Now she’s a partner. There are branches across the country, but this is the original and best. It’s a Taipei institution.” We eat steamed pork intestines with sour vegetables; elegant, politely chewy, gentle and mild. And a bracingly clean, refreshing pork noodle soup, with delicate clear broth and a nose-clearing blast of white pepper.

“Taiwan wants to be independent,” says Enshen between bites of popiah, a thin, wheat-flour pancake stuffed with crisp, grated radish, carrots and turnips. Plus slices of omelette and peanut powder: crunch and chew. “The media are totally free, and crazy for stories. They can say anything. But sometimes we can be too laidback as a country. A few months back, students invaded parliament for two weeks. Nobody did anything! They trashed the whole place and nothing happened to them. People even sent them food.”

He passes over a vast gua bao steamed bun, bulging with slices of fatty pork, pickled mustard green, more peanut powder and coriander. “We call it ‘Tiger Bites Pig’,” says Jasmine, and you can see why. I struggle to get my fists, let alone my mouth, around this great and glorious lump of highly seasoned fat and stodge. “Proper, old-fashioned winter food, filling grub for long days of manual labour,” says Enshen. Forget your baguettes with limp, curled-corner cheese and pickle. This is one sandwich to rule them all, billowing steamed dough with fat and heat and salt and joy, an Asian master at whose feet all others should tremble. Its roots may be in regional China (and the likes of Momofuku group founder David Chang have propelled it to international culinary stardom) but it reaches its apex here in Taiwan.

Taiwan is, for most, a very good place to live. “The tax rate is five per cent, the standard of living high, and crime very low,” Enshen says. I eye up a plate of water spinach, cooked with handfuls of soft garlic. Flavours here are straightforward, and pronounced. Not neat or dull, rather vibrant and well defined. “Taiwan is all about food and temples,” Enshen continues as we climb back into the car. “We eat, and go to our Buddhist temples, to give thanks and make offerings. Then go to eat again. Now, this is the Songshan Feng Tian temple, one of our favourites.” We pass through trestle tables sweating under the weight of endless offerings of money, eggs, cakes and sweets, all given to ensure a prosperous year. Incense sticks are lit for good fortune, robes donned and mantras chanted.

They locate my own special Buddha, after finding out my date of birth. He’s gold with big, slanting eyebrows and a wry smile. I bung him as much money as I have on me, needing all the spiritual help I can get. They give gifts to their gods and we wander through, as they point out various Buddhas devoted to child birth, or marriage, or financial fortune, or the sea. It’s a pragmatic system of worship that seems to make more sense than Christianity. Before we go, I rub a few more lucky Buddhas, and Enshen gives me some coins to feed into vast, electronic columns with gaily blinking lights, which you pay for good luck and a prayer. Food and temples, sinuously interlinked.

We climb up and out of the city, past the ex-pat schools and expensive villas, and into the lush, tropical hills with their endless shades of verdant green. The air is thick with the stink of sulphur, and baths, public and private, greet us at every turn. We look down, over Taipei, light grey and gently expansive, with three great brown rivers snaking through its heart, and that delicate Taipei 101 tower, tiered and magnificent, its tip poking through the clouds. We drive up higher still, past pink-blooming cherry blossom trees, and sudden explosions of crimson petals and garishly red temples, swaying palm trees and burbling brooks.
“There is a tradition of home cooking,” says Enshen as darkness falls and we descend, slowly, back into the urban mass. “But you see more in the south, where it’s still agricultural. In the city, life moves faster. There are seven million people here, all obsessed with food. We eat take-out
perhaps four times a week. From the night markets. Everything is so convenient and cheap. Good, too.”

We stop at a traditional tea house. “Taiwanese tea is world famous,” Jasmine says as she expertly douses a mound of rare and precious leaves with freshly boiled water. “It’s all about quality control. Thousands of tonnes are exported to China. There’s just no quality control in China.” It’s pure, clean and light yellow, with a pleasant bitterness at the back. We nibble fried pumpkin chips and hot coconut bread and sit, gassing, in a mild caffeine buzz.

“These old tea houses are disappearing fast,” says Enshen, pointing at the intricately carved wooden walls and rather less charming modern “water features”. “They’re a place to sit back and let the world pass by, a feature of a less hurried time. But restaurants can make far more money,
so they’re all changing over. It’s sad. Tea is a key part of Taiwanese life.”

But there’s little time to linger over a brew, however good. Chicken soup is calling, and it’s no ordinary broth, rather a two-day cooked version famed across the land. Gi Yuan (Seasons Garden Restaurant), is in the centre of Taipei, and looks unremarkable save the 50 large ceramic pots in the open kitchen, bubbling away over 50 specially made burners. It’s a stirring sight. “You have to book your soup in advance, and once all the soups have been reserved, that’s it,” I’m informed. It’s not cheap either. Prices are steep – more than £200 a pot – more if you’re adding abalone.

But I’m not allowed to put my hand anywhere near my pocket, the whole time I’m there. Despite trying. Again and again and again. In the end, I give up. “You are our guest,” the couple both say, and that is that. We sit downstairs, in a low, expensive glow, among well-scrubbed, Rolex- and Cartier-
sporting diners. It’s the only expensive place that we visit, but I soon realise that perfection has a price.

A pig’s foot appears, vast and glistening beneath a shimmering, burnt umber slick. Braised with soy sauce, yellow wine and rock sugar, it’s not only one of the most magnificent pieces of offal ever to pass my lips, but a serious contender for greatest thing a cook could ever do to any part of a pig. Seriously, I don’t know where to start. The wobbling, seductive fat, so obscenely rich and decadent and filthily sexy that my taste buds hardly know where to look. This sort of thrilling depravity must be illegal. Then soft meat, great nuggets of sweet, piggy delight, oinking of farmyards and incredible succour. “Good, eh?” smiles Jasmine. I just nod, my gob filled with swine, lost in my own greedy reverie.

But then comes the soup. Jesus Christ, that soup. A titan, a triumph, pure liquid bliss. The broth is simmered for two days, with pigs’ feet and dried scallops and God knows what else, before stage two, when specially bred chic-ken is added to poach. Jasmine’s a purist and doesn’t rate the abalone used by the restaurant. So, she brings her own, tinned (about $100 a can), from Chile, “the best, and for a soup like this, only the best will do”. Amen to that. She gives the can to the waiter and he bears it off to the kitchen.

Back to that soup. It has the most profound chicken tang, and sumptuous depth and extraordinary richness. So much so that I want to strip off, jump in and wallow in this umami-tinged magic. But that might be frowned upon. Instead, I moan and coo and gasp and sigh and slurp. The soup has the texture of liquid silk and the taste of poultry paradise. Pig’s foot and chicken soup; two fairly everyday dishes, taken here to the most heady and astonishing heights.

But no time to linger. We have a night market to tackle. “Ah, the night markets,” cries Enshen, still savouring that soup, “an essential part of our eating culture. Cheap and fresh and the flavours are amazing. Everyone eats on the street, from politician to road sweeper. And some of the stall holders are rich. They might have sat for 30 or 40 years, selling the same noodles or stinky tofu or whatever. But you can make a huge amount of money. They might have five flats, and send their children to boarding school in Europe, Japan or the States. They want the best for their kids, and want them to leave the stall, to break the cycle, to get a decent job in the growing modern industries. You can be very successful.”

By now, five minutes have passed without eating, so a brief detour to Chia Te Bakery, another national institution that sells famed pineapple cake, is imperative. I feign excitement but really would rather save the remaining grains of space left in my bulging belly for street food. The cakes, though, are good — of course they are – lithe, light and resolutely uncloying. But I’m beginning to struggle now. It’s been a heavy day’s scoffing, and there’s still a few more miles to go. Raohe Street Night Market runs down one street, about half a mile long, with stalls selling everything from Lego knock-offs to fortune-telling budgies.

We wander down, through the ever-munching crowds, grabbing a charred corn on the cob here (soft, buttery, fierce with chilli powder), a frilly edged oyster omelette (Oh ah jian) there, with sweetly spicy sauce, bitter green leaves and plump bivalves. We pass petite teenagers sipping on herb-laden pork-bone soup, nibbling daintily on the great lumps of bone.

Pork belly rice (Lou ba beng), soothing comfort, with slivers of soft skin and chopped mushrooms and soy; a peppery, beef filled pastry (Hu jiao bing), a cousin of our own Cornish pasty; crisp, deep-fried, paper-thin sheets of dried beef with a cinnamon tang: Ba-wan, hulking great meatballs, the size of a heavyweight’s fist, wrapped in a chewy, glutinous skin. And stinky tofu. Bloody stinky tofu, whose shitty, tropical sewer stench permeates the air for miles around. It’s a delicacy, and the taste is marginally more acceptable than the pong. But only marginally. I’ll eat most things, but give me raw tripe, donkey cock, even a service station fry-up over this fetid filth. “You always eat stinky tofu on the street,” Enshen advises. “Cook it at home and the place stinks for weeks.” I discreetly slip the contents of my paper plate straight into a bin.

All ages, all classes wander up and down, nibbling, chewing, chatting, drinking. It’s a thoroughly democratic place, scrupulously clean, yet with rough edges very much intact. But it’s late now, and I can eat no more. I’ve hit the wall, and can think of only lying down, on a soft bed, in cool air conditioning. Enshen and Jasmine drop me off at my hotel and I stagger into bed, my belly distended. I fall asleep, dreaming of soup.

And awake in search of breakfast. At Yong He Dou Jiang Wang, or Yong the Soy Milk King. This is another Taipei institution, where deep fried dough (Youtiao) is dipped in sweet or salted soy milk, like oriental churros. It’s bland, warm and comforting. We eat pork and shredded white cabbage wrapped in thin rice pancakes, and crepe-like egg pancakes, dipped in the milk. And soya milk with peanuts, sweet and clean. No doubt about it, Yong is most definitely the Soy Milk King. The queues stretch down the road but move quickly, as office workers and traffic cops and construction workers stop by on their way to work. Cheap, filling and typically democratic, too.

This, though, is simply breakfast part one. Its sequel, like The Godfather: Part II, is better still. Din Tai Fung is a dizzyingly successful chain of restaurants that stretches from America to Australia, specialising in the perfect Shanghai soup dumpling. It all started here. Jasmine remembers when it was just one small stall downstairs. It’s been going 43 years, and again, it’s mobbed. You can see why. The broth is exquisite, searing hot, slightly sweet and packed full with piggy allure. The dough is just thick enough to restrain the amber liquid from bursting through. Make a small hole, suck out that incredible nectar then top with sliced ginger, soy sauce and chilli oil, and finish off that ball of pig.

Years of culinary training now come into play, as we go from double breakfast to lunch at the curiously named Addiction Aquatic Development. It doubles as a fish market – with gushing tanks containing oysters and crabs (swimming, hairy and blue) and squirting clams – plus a supermarket that makes America’s Dean & DeLuca look Third World. Sushi-grade fish and finest Proven├žal olive oil, dried abalone and Orangina and claret. We stand by the sushi bar and eat buttery o-toro (tuna belly) streaked with fat, the rice warm, soft and near-perfect. Uni (sea urchin), is as decadent and filthy as ever, both slut and virginal debutante, all in one bite. A hot pot, too, with hairy king crab legs, bubbling broth, salty oysters and sweet clams. I crawl back to the hotel, part-man, part-fish, all pig, having feasted on Japanese food every bit the equal of Tokyo’s best.

My final meal in Taipei is eaten alone, on a wobbling stool, in a small, nondescript room with scuffed lino floors, laminated menus and cramped, communal tables. The place reeks of dripping, in a good way, as it should. For this is Yong-Kang Beef Noodle, another famous local joint, but one among many famous beef noodle joints. Because beef noodle is more than mere soup, rather an edible statement of Taiwanese identity. It has roots in China (beef was not a traditional Buddhist meat), and was brought over with Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers. But it was quickly incorporated into the heart and belly of Taiwan.
Workers in dust-choked overalls sit next to designer-clad darlings and weary policemen. Again, I’m struck by the true democracy of Taiwanese food. Everyone has their own favourite place, and all will argue that theirs is the best. You can pay £50 for a bowl, and also £1. Here, it’s about £5. The roar of air-conditioning, the gentle murmur of slurped noodles, the clatter of chopsticks on porcelain is music to my ears.

I choose Hong shao niu rou mian, with a spicy red broth and fatty, squidgy slow-cooked lumps of beef that fall apart with languorous ease. The noodles are soft and plump and just-chewy, the broth rich, dark and resonant. Add a splash of vinegar and a whack of fierce chilli paste. The slurping here is gentle but assured. Next to me, an old man sips and sighs with joy: meat goes first, eaten with serious concentration; noodles next, then broth. His joy is contagious, this modest bowl of soup sublime. For me, this simple bowl contains the very essence of Taiwan: foreign roots; democracy; generosity; straight-talking flavours; subtle punch; love; and skill at the hob. And an obsession with getting things right. Time and time again.

Taipei might not be the most seductive of cities. It doesn’t fight to lure you in, or tempt one with illicit thrills, but this beauty comes from within. Taiwan’s strengths are its people, its food, its huge and generous heart.

I was genuinely sad to leave. Taipei’s charms might be subtle but, no doubt about it, they definitely grab you by the gut.

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