Political discussions about Taiwan and China can be fraught (via BBC). When it comes to food, however, the line is clear: Taiwanese food is not the same thing as Chinese food. Similar in many ways? Sure. But unique in many? Absolutely, per Gothamist. If there’s anyone who knows the nuance of Taiwanese cuisine, it’s Jonathan Yao. His Taiwanese cooking has earned his Los Angeles restaurant, Kato, a Michelin star, per Michelin Guide.
Largely defined by the surrounding sea, cooking in Taiwan uses lots of fish, of course. So much so that, during a recent interview with Mashed, Yao even said: “I mean, I cook so much fish at work, I don’t really cook fish at home.” The cuisine is also inspired by everything from indigenous Austronesian foods to Japanese cooking (via PNAS). As a primer to the island’s food, Yao discussed a few distinctly Taiwanese dishes anyone interested in the cuisine simply has to try. “There’s a lot of different stir fries in Taiwanese food,” Yao said. “Three cup chicken is a good one. Braised pork rice is a pretty big Taiwanese food. Those are good starting points.”
And once you have started, you’ll likely find it hard to stop eating the stuff. For as distinct as Taiwanese food can be from Chinese mainland cuisine and other Asian cooking, they all share one thing in common: they’re incredibly popular. Thus it’s no surprise that Kato is often packed to the gills and sees reservations booked far in advance even with parties usually limited to a maximum size of four diners. Which makes sense, given that there is only seating for a dozen or so people inside and about 10 more outside.
The most common misconception most Americans likely hold about Taiwanese food is one all too often held about Asian cooking in general: That it’s all more or less the same. In fact, the differences you’ll find in dishes served in Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Korea, and on it goes are diverse and distinct and deserve close attention as such. Oh, and also add “delicious” to that group of words.
Along with encouraging people to try Taiwanese food, Jonathan Yao also wants to dispel some common misunderstandings people have about the cuisine of his heritage. “I feel like Americans don’t really know [the cuisine],” he said. “They don’t really have a lot of exposure to Taiwanese food. So I think that’s one of our missions. Just to educate.” The chef wants people to know how rich and diverse the cooking of Taiwan is beyond those few popular dishes that first come to mind. “Instead of just saying beef noodle soup, when they think of Taiwan, or boba [bubble tea], we’re trying to make them think of other things when they think of Taiwanese food.”
Want something Taiwanese sweet that’s sweet but not bubble tea? Yao recommends the dessert at Kato. “I think everybody likes our dessert. It’s a boniato yam, tapioca, and a fresh cheese that we make and a frozen sable. People really love it. I think it’s a good riff on flavors that people associate with Taiwanese food already and I think it’s a fun way to have it.”
Keep up with Jonathan Yao’s restaurant, Kato, by visiting their website. Be sure to catch Yao’s episode of “MasterChef: Legends” on FOX.