The Michelin Guide, a benchmark in gastronomy, last month released its Bib Gourmand list featuring 141 inexpensive eateries in Taipei, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung. Compared with Michelin-starred restaurants, the Bib Gourmand list is a distinction for establishments that offer customers a three-course meal for a fixed price not exceeding NT$1,000 (US$32).
Meanwhile, CNN recently ran a report, titled: “50 of the best street foods in Asia.” Taiwan’s bubble tea, salt and pepper fried chicken and stinky tofu made it to the list. The New York Times also recently ran a report, titled “In a tense political moment, Taiwanese cuisine tells its own story,” pointing to the affinity between Taiwan on the international stage and its cuisine. Both are “layered, distinct, multi-ethnic — facing similar issues of visibility. The food of Taiwan is often subsumed under the umbrella description of Chinese,” it said, adding that “the idea of distinguishing Taiwanese cuisine started to really take hold on the island.”
Taiwan is famous for its food, especially its affordable and delicious snacks, which have now become characteristic of Taiwanese culture and are popular among tourists. With promotion by international media, the quality and status of Taiwanese cuisine are likely to rise again.
This year’s Bib Gourmand list for Taiwan includes more than 20 types of cuisine. With Taiwanese cuisine accounting for as high as 30 percent of the total, it highlights the rich and diverse culinary culture of Taiwan.
With the Michelin Guide extending to southern Taiwan for the first time, 19 of Tainan’s 27 Bib Gourmand eateries are chosen for street food specialties, including many with a long history offering affordable snacks — such as salty congee, milkfish dishes, migao (sticky rice cakes), pork heart cellophane noodle soup, shaved ice, fried-Spanish mackerel thick soup, beef soup, shrimp and pork bawan, fish skin soup, calamari rice noodles and wagui (steamed rice cakes).
Special mention should be given to the dedication and commitment of decades-old eateries. Many of Taiwan’s famous restaurants and snack shops used to offer a limited number of dishes, traditionally only opening for a few hours in the morning or afternoon until the food was sold out. Each shop had its own specialty, with no branches, take-out option or delivery service. Some sold only one signature dish for years, and as long as the food was good, customers would come. For example, Kaohsiung’s Bib Gourmand eatery Caizong Li (菜粽李) has been selling only peanut zongzi and miso soup for the past 76 years.
In Japan, there is a small snack shop called Ichimonjiya Wasuke, known as “Ichiwa,” next to Imamiya Shrine in Kyoto. Ichiwa was founded in the year 1000. It is currently operated by the 25th generation of the same family, selling only grilled rice cakes with free green tea. The shop owner told the New York Times: “A business cannot just chase profits. It has to have a higher purpose. In the case of Ichiwa, that was a religious calling: serving the shrine’s pilgrims. For Ichiwa, that means doing one thing and doing it well — a very Japanese approach to business.”
Kaohsiung’s Caizong Li and Kyoto’s Ichiwa share the same spirit. They serve as an example for quality improvement and sustainable development for many businesses. Some local stores and restaurants in scenic spots and night markets are used to doing one-time business, with a short-sighted and profit-driven business model. As a result, their quality, price, hygiene and service are often unsatisfactory.
Taiwanese cuisine is rising in popularity internationally, particularly in the US. A clear sign that interest in Taiwan’s culinary heritage is on the up is the increased number of cookbooks dedicated to traditional Taiwanese food on sale in the US. The number of US restaurants with “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese” in their names have also doubled in recent years. Taiwanese cuisine has officially arrived on the world stage.
This is a reflection of Taiwan’s evolving food and drink culture, and the determination and hard work of trailblazing Taiwanese cooks and chefs. Each successive wave of immigration to Taiwan has seen the arrival of a new ethnic group, bringing with them a unique culinary tradition, adding different flavors and culinary techniques to the nation’s rich cultural “melting pot.”
Indigenous diets are characterized by taro, yam, millet, wild vegetables and herbs, wild boar and seafood. Early Han Chinese immigrants, predominantly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces, introduced their traditional foods to Taiwan, adding a range of new delicacies to the national cuisine.
The Japanese colonial era brought a smorgasbord of new flavors and textures to Taiwan, including sashimi, oden (various ingredients simmered in a soy-flavored dashi broth) and boxed meals containing steamed rice and side dishes.
At the end of the Chinese Civil War, 2 million Han Chinese arrived on Taiwan’s doorstep and brought with them the eating customs and cuisines of northern and southern China. Over the past seven decades, this has evolved into a unique Taiwanese style.
Taiwan’s opening up to the world has also seen the introduction of European, American and other Asian cuisines, introducing Taiwanese taste buds to a plethora of new foods, flavors and ingredients.
These diverse gastronomic traditions — Austronesian, Han Chinese, Eastern and Western — have combined to produce a vibrant contemporary food culture that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Taiwanese cuisine received perhaps its most significant boost when former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was elected in 2000. Chen’s inaugural feast featured Tainan-style savory rice cakes, milkfish ball soup and savory taro cake to represent the fusion of Taiwan’s ethnic cuisines.
It was a signal that the nation’s first non-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) president was an ordinary Taiwanese and aficionado of native cuisine. The inclusion of humble Taiwanese fare on the menu helped to elevate the profile of Taiwan’s rich food culture.
The intensification of the Taiwan-US relationship has also allowed for a flow of people and commodities between the two nations, and with it, an exchange of food cultures.
A new generation of Taiwanese chefs is boldly innovating and experimenting, responding to the demands of increasingly adventurous Taiwanese diners and the challenges of a constantly evolving market.
Din Tai Fung and other Taiwanese restaurants and beverage chains have taken on the US market, setting up shop in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — enabling the world to sample authentic Taiwanese food.
These ambassadors for Taiwanese cuisine have also brought classic Taiwanese street food — oyster omelet, guabao (pork belly buns), beef noodles, xiansuji (Taiwanese-style crispy fried chicken), stinky tofu and pot stickers. The chefs often tweak the recipes to suit foreign palettes, sometimes to great effect, elevating original recipes to sublime new heights.
The inclusion of so many Taiwanese eateries in the latest edition of the Bib Gourmand list should help to foster mass appeal for Taiwanese cuisine.
However, Taiwanese chefs and restaurateurs must not rest on their laurels: They must continue raising standards and refining their skills to elevate Taiwanese cuisine to next-level, lip-smacking deliciousness and a place on the world’s culinary stage.
Translated by Eddy Chang and Edward Jones
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