Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Taipei - Rich, Fresh Diversity (Le Pan)

Among Greater China metropolises, Taipei has a unique history, and this has created a culinary scene of exceptional richness. Early migrants from Fujian adapted their cooking traditions to the wild game and seafood they found in abundance. Indigenous Austronesians and Hakka clans still live on the fringes of this city of 2.7 million, and present their ethnic cuisines in scores of restaurants.

Japanese dishes began appearing in homes and restaurants soon after Tokyo seized control of Taiwan in 1895. Japanese rule ended in 1945 - but you might not think so, given the ubiquity of sushi and miso soup, plus an enduring love for sashimi.

A second influx occurred just after World War II. Following his defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek set up a Nationalist government in-exile in Taipei. His followers included foodies from every part of the Chinese mainland, and within a decade the city boasted excellent Shanghainese, Hunanese and Szechuan eateries.

By the 1970s, Taipei was a key player in the global economy. But rather than business visitors, the key demographic nowadays for international restaurants are Taiwanese whose tastes have been shaped by travel or study overseas. For quite some time, Taipei folk have not lived by rice alone.

Even now, many Taipei housewives still shop at traditional markets four or five mornings per week, and the expectation that all ingredients are ultra-fresh influences how restaurants present their offerings. Glass tanks filled with fish and crustaceans are a feature of seafood establishments throughout the region, but in Taiwan similar thinking is also found in many places where beef is served. Look carefully, and you will likely see a notice stating the number of hours from slaughter to table.

Considering at least a tenth of Taiwan’s population eschews bovine meat for semi-religious reasons, the popularity of one dish in particular is striking. Among Taipei residents, few issues are more contentious than the question of which eatery serves the finest beef noodles, and the city government organizes an annual festival. Few people blog so frequently and passionately about food as the citizens of Taipei, and online appraisals of beef-noodle restaurants judge dishes not only by the quality of the meat and the taste of the soup, but also by the freshness of the scallions and mung-bean sprouts, and the presence or absence of garlic, tomatoes, hot bean paste (doubanjiang, 豆瓣醬) and star anise. Brisket is the usual cut, but there are some who favor tendon or shank.

Hot pot is another type of meal with a massive and devoted following. Herbal-medicine and mala (numbingly spicy, 麻辣) broths are perennial favorites, but restaurants here offer at least a dozen variations on the theme, including pots which incorporate milk, yoghurt, Korean kimchi, or lemongrass and other Thai ingredients.

The arrival post-1945 of people with roots in northern China manifests itself in the range of wheat-flour foods available on every thoroughfare...

Le Pan (The Art of Fine Wine Living) is a new online and print publication focusing on gourmet food and top-notch wine in East Asia. My article is part of Le Pan's 'Culinary Capitals' series, which to date has also covered Tokyo, Singapore, Barcelona, Rome and other international cities. I took both photos in Addiction Aquatic Development, where Japanese cuisine is served in a seafood-market setting.

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