Pork belly buns are just a preamble to this dynamic cuisine
On the menu at Washington D.C.’s Maketto, the dish was called “oysters on egg omelet,” though this was not going to be one of those rolled French delicacies with a flawless golden complexion. What arrived looked fetchingly freeform: The beaten eggs had quickly seized into an informal circle when they hit the hot pan, leaving the fringes lacy and the oysters huddled at the center. Chopped chard peeked through in grassy patches. A thin, sweet-and-sour tomato sauce added a finishing gloss. Called o ah jian, the dish is a culinary icon in Taiwan, where Taipei street vendors cook these patchwork delights to order in the city’s flourishing night markets.
The omelet concealed an extra layer of intrigue: folded into the eggs were swirls of gel made from sweet potato starch. Erik Bruner-Yang, Maketto’s executive chef and co-owner, likens the starch’s cooked texture to melted cheese. To me, the consistency came off more jelly-like, and after the initial surprise of its texture, I warmed to the way the its gooiness melded with the oysters and tangled with the chard.
This was last May, not long after the opening of Maketto, a sleek multiplex of a restaurant that also sells men’s clothing and houses an upstairs coffee bar. The menu features dishes inspired by the Cambodian heritage of Bruner-Yang’s wife, Seda Nak, as well as, notably, the food of his own native Taiwan. His childhood memories come through in comforts like steamed pork buns, scallion pancakes, and chicken fried in a sweet-potato starch batter (which in this context, instead of a jelly-like texture, produced a shattering crunch).
I spend most of my time on the road, eating for work (but also for pleasure). In years of wild and wondrous eating, the meal at Maketto stood out as one of the most distinctive I’ve enjoyed, in terms of experiencing both dishes and flavor profiles new to me. America’s culinary landscape is full of first- and second-generation Asian cooks interpreting and remixing (not to mention often faithfully recreating) the food of their parents and grandparents, delving into the pantries of China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and more.
Yet before visiting Maketto, I’d encountered vanishingly few restaurants working with the culinary traditions of Taiwan. That’s surprising: Why isn’t such a dynamic cuisine a bigger part of the ever-evolving conversation about Asian food in the United States? Many American food lovers (and the media that spurs them on) have come to cherish the regional variations within the vast expanse of Chinese cooking, fluent in the differences between refined Cantonese seafood recipes, the gently sweet nuances of Shanghainese specialties, and the spicy-smoky spectrums of the Sichuan kitchen. But the food of Taiwan, which draws on strong cultural/historical affiliations with China, has slipped past much of the American dining public.
In fact, there is one Taiwanese dish that has achieved mass cultural saturation, but it’s one most diners may not realize is Taiwanese at all: gua bao, a spongy, steamed, clamshell-shaped bun most commonly filled with pork belly, and elevated to blockbuster fame by David Chang at Momofuku Noodle Bar. There, he dresses his pork-filled signature with a swipe of hoisin sauce, quick-cured cucumbers, and scallions, launching a thousand imitators mixing and matching proteins and garnishes.
Unlike Momofuku’s riffs, the version of the pork belly bun served by Eddie Huang, chef-owner of Manhattan’s BaoHaus and author of the memoir-turned-TV-show Fresh Off The Boat, is faithful to his Taiwanese heritage. The specific garnishes define the classic: peanuts combined with sugar and ground to a fine powder, chopped pickled mustard greens (Huang refers to it on the menu as “Haus relish”), and cilantro. While some Taiwanese restaurants might swap out the pork for something else, wherever I’ve encountered gua bao, the trio of peanut-cilantro-mustard greens is consistent. The versatile dish holds obvious universal appeal (they’re called “Taiwanese burgers” in their homeland for good reason), but when it comes to Taiwanese food’s alluring scope, gua bao is only a preamble.
After my eye-opening meal at Maketto, I kept a look out in my travels for Taiwanese restaurants. The broadest options are available, of course, in the country’s largest Taiwanese communities: Southern California (especially the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles) and the New York City region (most notably Flushing, Queens, though the population has diversified there in recent years). But you can find Taiwanese restaurants in almost every major city: In Houston’s Chinatown, among the Hunan and Sichuan options, is friendly, bustling Yummy Kitchen. In Seattle, there’s a Taiwanese hot pot joint not two blocks from an outpost of Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese soup dumpling chain that is inarguably the country’s most famous restaurant export (even though xiao long bao originally hail from the region around Shanghai). The more I ate of this complex, aromatic food, the more I craved, and the more I came to see that Taiwanese cuisine is indeed slowly making its presence known across America’s vast dining landscape. It may not yet be at the front of the food-trending zeitgeist, but it is without a doubt one of the new culinary influences moving into the American lexicon.
“In the past few years, finding Taiwanese in restaurants around America has become easier,” agrees the writer and cook Cathy Erway. Her recent book, The Food of Taiwan, became my guide as I became more and more interested in the subject. “It stems from the same trend that has inspired people from many cultures to open U.S. restaurants: The ex-pats are homesick for the foods they know, and second-generation Taiwanese-Americans want to hold on to their culinary legacy.”
Shrimp omelet at Bento Cafe in Atlanta; Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen in Atlanta; the spread at Pine & Crane in Silver Lake
Understanding Taiwan’s food culture begins with tracking the evolution of its society. Erik Bruner-Yang put it to me this way: “Historically, it’s a young country that has been touched by colonists and warlords.” The Portuguese called it Ilha Formosa (“Beautiful Island”), after one of its trading ships passed by in 1544, and the name stuck for 400 years. Occupation by the Spanish, Dutch, and Chinese ensued over the centuries, and Taiwan’s modern era began in 1895, when China relinquished control of the island to Japan, after the First Sino-Japanese War. In 1945, Japan surrendered Taiwan to the Allies, and in 1949, the government of the Republic of China fled there after Communists took control of the mainland, bringing nearly two million people from various regions with them. Today, the island’s international status is uniquely ambiguous: Taiwan functions as an independent democracy, but is still claimed by the People’s Republic of China.
Like any nation with a turbulent colonial history, traces of Taiwan’s past reach well into the present. Its cuisine retains some Japanese culinary hallmarks — penchants for ramen and mochi, a devotion to the aesthetics and utility of bento boxes — but the influx of Chinese mainlanders and their cooking endures as the single greatest food influence. As in any culture, the cooking in Taiwan adopted over time and developed individual character. That oyster omelet I had at Maketto, for example, has its origins in China’s eastern Fujian province on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, though unlike the Fujianese, the Taiwanese consider the slathering of sweet-and-sour sauce indispensable.
Ingredient-wise, umami bombshells like tiny dried shrimp, fermented black beans, and dried shiitake mushrooms animate Taiwanese soups, stir-fried vegetables, and fillings for savory pastries. As you might expect for an island nation, seafood abounds, not just oysters but also clams, shrimp, fish, and squid; pork is beloved as both seasoning and centerpiece. Taiwan produces about 1.6 million tons of rice annually, but immigrants from northern China also brought a taste for wheat that shows up in myriad noodle dishes. Flickers of five-spice, ginger, and white pepper often intensify dishes.
One beloved Taiwanese dish, stinky tofu (chou doufu), derives its wallop from an age-old preservation technique: blocks of soy bean curd are fermented in a brine that includes already-fermented vegetables, meats, or seafood. I won’t candy-coat it: The smell generally makes the uninitiated swallow hard. Like limburger or sauerkraut or durian, stinky tofu is an acquired taste. The good news is that once you get past the odor, the flavor can be akin to a deeply veined blue cheese with an extra nuance of sweaty funk — and like stinky cheeses, stinky tofu commands an almost obsessive love. Most Taiwanese restaurants serve it deep fried, with basil and sweet sauces to offset the pungency. A hot pot presentation like the one I tried at Boiling Point — a growing chain with a dozen locations in Southern California and four in the Seattle area — goes all-in with slices of stinky tofu arranged alongside ingredients like pork intestines, pork blood cake, enoki mushrooms, and Napa cabbage. For non-acclimated palates, the pleasure might be hard to grasp at first. But for those of us inclined toward the funky, it pays extraordinary rewards.
Finding the specific foods of Taiwan in most American cities can require a bit of research and strategizing. Taiwanese restaurateurs often assemble menus that mainly focus on regional Chinese cuisines or Chinese-American standards, the better to appeal to unadventurous American palates, the specialties of their homeland jumbled in among kung pao beef and General Tso’s chicken.
I used Atlanta, where I live, as a case study for sussing out restaurants serving Taiwanese specialties. Three places fit the profile: Bento Cafe, a small Taiwanese mom-and-pop in a strip mall dominated by Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants; modish Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen in Atlanta’s bustling Midtown; and La Mei Zi, a Sichuan-Taiwanese newcomer on Buford Highway, Atlanta’s renowned corridor of international eats. At each of them, I asked for guidance toward their most traditional Taiwanese dishes, and at each of them, my server pointed me first to beef noodle soup. In The Food of Taiwan, Cathy Erway notes that this soup, often called Taiwan’s national dish, likely originated in the military villages established in the 1940s to house the mass migration of Chinese mainlanders. It is so popular now that a beef noodle soup competition is held annually in Taipei.
Garlic, ginger, star anise, and the sweet hints of five-spice powder rippled through the broth at all three restaurants — as did a gentle tingle from Sichuan peppercorn. The presentations looked similar as well: medium-thick wheat noodles submerged in the dark elixir, beef shank and bok choy drifting atop. As with Vietnamese pho, though, each kitchen distinguished its version by calibrating the broth’s spices a little differently. I most preferred the soup at Ah-Mah’s, where the concentrated flavors balanced beefy brawn and sweet, heady seasoning.
Gua bao at Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen in Atlanta
Lu rou fan, a dish of rich, simmered pork sauce over rice, also showed up on each restaurant’s menu, and delivered more forthright pleasures. Erway likens the meat sauce to Taiwan’s Sunday gravy. At Ah-Ma’s, the dice of pork was bigger and chewier; at the others the meat was truly ground, the sauce soaking into the rice underneath. Tea eggs, soft and steeped in soy, came on the side to add another dimension. Exceedingly comforting, so easy to shovel down.
“Three cup” chicken, another Taiwanese triumph, has a name that refers to the sauce’s triumvirate: sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine. A generous hand with basil leaves at the end helps distinguish the dish from its Chinese analogs. I noticed at restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that the three-cup treatment wasn’t just reserved for chicken; the sauce did its job on everything from fish head, to (non-stinky) tofu, tripe, chitterlings, and cuttlefish. In Atlanta, Ah-Ma’s doused chicken wings in the sauce. La Mei Zi took a more traditional route, the round chunks of bone-in chicken arriving striated with small, fragrant basil leaves in a casserole dish.
Gua bao, the spongy pork buns, were of course omnipresent, and Ah-Ma’s took the win for the most generous slab of belly meat and a bun appropriately sized for its fillings. I sampled other several other Taiwanese standouts, like crunchy nubs of salt-and-pepper chicken spiked with Sichuan peppercorn and basil or ba wan, a gummy, mochi-like rice flour meatball stuffed with pork and bamboo shoots. Clearly, this was all merely an introduction to the repertoire.
Taiwanese-American chefs are also pushing the boundaries of the cuisine in incredibly compelling ways. Maketto’s Bruner-Yang made his name in D.C. with his first restaurant, Toki Underground, where he serves a variation on Taiwanese ramen using Chinese egg noodles that are curlier and bouncier than the typical Japanese strands. At Maketto, Bruner-Yang blends tradition and his own individual perspective. He presents bao as a DIY platter, arrayed with wagyu piece and piles of vegetables and herbs, no classic crunched peanuts in sight.
And the omelet that so captured my attention? It wasn’t popular at first, so Bruner-Yang changed the presentation to include three fried oysters on top and a sauce that’s a gastrique made with wine vinegar, tomato paste, and spices. Now it’s a steady seller. “I’ll make it the original way for regulars who prefer it,” he says. “But I’m happy with the balance in the evolution of the dish. It’s still gooey inside. There’s elements of tradition, and also of innovation.” (I kept an eye out for the oyster omelet at the other Taiwanese restaurants I visited, but only Bento Cafe served it, and then using shrimp rather than oysters, a modification that cuts down on the slippery elements.)
Casual, hip Pine & Crane in Los Angeles serves Taiwanese standards that also serve to show off California’s fixation with pristine produce. I arrived at the restaurant (located in the indie-cool Silver Lake neighborhood) at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, just as the doors opened for the day, and groups immediately rushed in to order at the counter and claim tables. I ordered ever-comforting beef noodle soup, and chewy, pink-red xiang chang sausage, cut into slices and served with raw garlic. I also asked for beef roll: braised beef, scallions, and cucumbers coiled into a thin scallion pancake. The dish isn’t endemic to Taiwan, but likely an invention of the Taiwanese-American communities of Southern California.Whatever its origin, the roll’s textures collided at crisp and chewy and I couldn’t stop eating it.
Three cup chicken wings at Ah-Ma’s and Taiwanese pork intestines with ginger at La Mei Zi in Atlanta; beef noodle soup at Ah-Ma’s
A case in the front counter displayed alluring cold salads, options like willowy seaweed, undulating wood ear mushrooms, and glossy bamboo shoots, and fresh tofu sliced into noodle shapes. Many of them were composed with vegetables grown on farm maintained by the relatives of chef-owner Vivian Ku, a graduate of both Harvard and the Culinary Institute of America.
As a child, Ku ate in the San Gabriel Valley’s Taiwanese restaurants on the weekends with her family. I asked her if she thought growing up in California changed the way she approached the foods of her heritage. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that my cooking doesn’t seem authentic because it isn’t salty or oily,” she said. “But that was never the way my grandmother, who came to Taiwan from China in 1949 and then moved to America, cooked her dishes. We always left her house feeling light and nourished.” Among the cooked vegetables from her parents’ farm: mild sweet potato leaves or snow pea leaves sauteed simply (and wonderfully) with fresh garlic.
Speaking of leaves, Ku also serves a handful of exquisite examples of oolong, a variety of tea that grows famously well in the misty climates of Taiwan’s mountains. Oolongs are the shape-shifters of the tea world: a Da Yu Ling varietal can recall green tea in its floral notes, and with a heavier roast the aptly-named Eastern Beauty recalls the deeper richness of a black tea. (If you straight up prefer black tea, there’s a brisk Taiwanese cultivar called Ruby 18.) Pine & Crane was the only Taiwanese restaurant I visited that offered these finer examples of oolongs — and as a tea lover, I asked everywhere I went. Many places, including Pine & Crane, do serve boba, or bubble tea, the flavored drink with chewy tapioca pearls dreamed up in Taiwan in the 1980s that’s now a global phenomenon.
When I asked Ku and Erway in separate conversations if they thought we’d be seeing more Taiwanese food across the country, and why, they both brought up the same point: That in our age of instant information, constant travel, and far-flung curiosity, every cuisine can be part of the culinary dialogue, and Taiwan is no exception. And after a self-directed immersion course, I do think the Taiwanese cuisine potentially holds particular appeal for American food obsessives. The flavors have enough edge to hold the attention of our ever-diverted palates, and much of it is just familiar enough to make deeper explorations feel anodyne. The island’s young culture is a melting pot. In that way, its food already fits naturally into the American culinary landscape. Here’s betting we’ll all soon be eating more gooey oyster omelets and soothing, sneakily spicy pork sauce over rice.
Maketto: 1351 H Street NE, Washington DC, (202) 838-9972, maketto1351.com
BaoHaus: 238 East 14th Street, New York, NY, (646) 669-8889, baohausnyc.com
Yummy Kitchen: 9326 Bellaire Boulevard, Houston, (713) 541-4420
Boiling Point: 206 South First Avenue, Arcadia, CA, (626) 461-6688, and other locations in Southern California and the Seattle area, bpgroupusa.com
Bento Cafe: 5495 Jimmy Carter Boulevard, Norcross, GA, (770) 300-9798, bentocafe.com
Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen: 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta, (404) 549-9848
La Mei Zi: 5150 Buford Highway, Doraville, GA, (770) 676-0225, lameiziga.com
Pine & Crane: 1521 Griffith Park Boulevard, Los Angeles, (323) 668-1128, pineandcrane.com
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