Feasting at the Table of the Other China
LIKE any great restaurant, Old Wang Beef Noodle Soup King has no sign. It sits on Taoyuan Street, not far from Taiwan’s presidential palace, and there are pretty much only two ways you’d know to go there instead of the similar noodle shops that surround it. Either you spy the line, which is long but fast-moving, and figure all those families, businessmen on lunch break and fashionable college kids are onto something. Or you catch the scent of broth — soy, anise, chilies, beef — which draws you inexorably into the dining room, where your intrepidity is rewarded with chewy wheat noodles, a rich and clean-tasting soup and hunks of meat that shred juicily at the slightest pressure from your tongue. There may be no better beef noodle soup in all of Taipei.
Hidden in plain sight, popular but light-years from trendy, surprisingly accessible and instantly enjoyable, Old Wang is also a perfect metaphor for Taipei, the Chinese capital you haven’t heard much about in 2008. This was, after all, Beijing’s moment in the sun, with the Olympic Games giving it the opportunity to strut its stuff on the world stage.
And Taiwan? The little democratic island of 23 million just can’t compete with the Communist state of 1.3 billion that claims it as a renegade province and would react unfavorably if Taiwan’s leaders were officially to declare independence. Unless you’re in the semiconductor business, chances are you’ll choose the Forbidden City over, say, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, especially when Taiwan’s tourist bureau promotes it with slogans like “Taiwan: Touch Your Heart.”
Which is a pity if you like to eat, for food is one arena where Taipei — the world’s most underrated capital city, according to Monocle magazine — blows Beijing away. Its food incorporates more influences, spans street food to haute cuisine with greater aplomb and is out and out more delicious than that of its mainland counterpart. Not to mention that its people are perhaps the most comestible-crazed Asians outside of Singapore — no excursion is complete without, say, a bag of stewed duck tongues at journey’s end.
My high opinion of Taiwanese food may be somewhat biased: My wife, Jean, grew up in Taipei, and her family still lives there, on the edge of Ximending, an exuberant neon-lighted night life-and-shopping zone that’s like a friendlier version of Shibuya in Tokyo. Whenever we visit — as we did for a week last November — her family and friends ensure that we fill our bellies with the best food around.
Defining that superlative cuisine, however, is tricky, for Taiwan is a melting pot. Virtually every cooking style of the mainland is represented, thanks to the waves of immigration that began in 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.
For Shanghai soup dumplings, there’s the world-famous Din Tai Fung, and if you love the fiery food of Sichuan province, check out the retro Chuan Guo for hot pot (a bubbling communal soup in which you cook meats and vegetables) and the new-school Kiki for dishes like fly’s head (ground pork stir-fried with chilies and chives).
Japanese ingredients and techniques have a long history there as well, since Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to the end of World War II. Sushi is as common in night markets as oven-roasted buns stuffed with sweet, peppery pork; teppanyaki has advanced far beyond Benihana; and humble tempura is a fixture, transmogrified into batter-free tian bu la.
Side by side with these influences lives Taiwanese cuisine. In part, it resembles the food of China’s Fujian Province, from which much of Taiwan’s population immigrated beginning in the 17th century: heavy on pork, seafood and vegetables, with an emphasis on textures that may seem odd to Westerners. Soups tend to be extra thick, and Q, a springier analogue to the concept of al dente, is essential, whether you’re chewing noodles, fish balls or the tapioca in your sweet milky tea.
To find these flavors and textures in one place, follow the crowds to Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodle, a Ximending staple since 1975, where dozens of people stand, slurping from bright-green plastic bowls. They’re all eating Ay-Chung’s signature dish — actually, its only dish — mian xian: thin rice noodles in a vinegary, glutinous broth, studded with needlelike bamboo shoots and Q-y curls of pig intestine, and topped with sprigs of cilantro, chopped garlic and chili sauce.
Strange as the combination may sound, it works. The intestine resists your bite for a split second, then pops as you cleave it. The garlic, chili and vinegar give it a punch that clears the sinuses. The cilantro cuts through everything else with its soapy, floral aroma. And the noodles and warm soup provide a heartening backdrop for everything else. To the Taiwanese, this is comfort food, a regular indulgence (Ay-Chung’s 27-year-old manager told me he’d been eating there since middle school) that can, if you’re denied it too long, easily turn into a craving.
AY-CHUNG’S noodles belong to a category of Taiwanese food called xiao chi, or small eats. Often, this means snacks sold on the street and in night markets, like a spicy-sweet grilled sausage or something odder, perhaps stinky tofu, the flash-fried cubes of fermented bean curd that smell like an open sewer. Of course, as anyone who’s fallen in love with odoriferous French cheeses knows, aroma and flavor may be connected, but they are not interchangeable. Stinky tofu has an uncannily earthy flavor that is, at its best, sweet as well, and matches perfectly with chili sauce and cool, crunchy pickled cabbage.
Xiao chi, however, encompasses more than just street snacks, according to Shu Kuo-chih, whose book “Notes on Taipei Xiao Chi,” based on his column in Business Weekly, was published in 2007. To Mr. Shu, a tall, thin man who claims not to have cooked a meal since returning from the United States in 1990, xiao chi is simply the Taiwanese way of eating, a culture of small plates — to use an apt New York restaurant term.
“It can be lunch, snack and dinner food,” Mr. Shu told me over a bottle of wine one night at Mei’s Tea Bar, a hangout for Taipei’s culturati. “You can sit as long as you want and just take one bowl of noodles.”
When we’d finished our bottle, Mr. Shu took me, Jean and his publishing friends Max Lin and Rebecca Huang for some late-night/early-morning xiao chi at Yonghe Soy Milk King, a fluorescent-lighted breakfast parlor on a stretch of Fuxing South Road. In the stainless-steel kitchen, vats of warm soy milk bubbled, cooks scrambled eggs and wrapped them in scallion pancakes, and sticks of you tiao, a kind of Chinese cruller, emerged glistening from an oil-filled wok.
We ordered all of the above, plus rice balls — small cylinders of glutinous rice wrapped around shredded pork and pickled daikon — which are the Taiwanese version of the Japanese onigiri. They had never been my favorite (too dry, chewy rather than Q-y) but these were a revelation, juicy, a little sweet and bursting with honest flavors of rice and pork.
“It’s one of the best rice balls in the whole of Taiwan,” Mr. Shu said. No one argued; our mouths were full.
Not every xiao chi meal is lowbrow. In fact, the once-rustic Taiwanese fare has gone progressively upscale in recent years. AoBa, the reincarnation of the venerable Chin Yeh, was the sexiest restaurant I visited in Taipei: wood floors and tables that glowed under soft lighting, a semi-private corner table shrouded in red banquettes, glossy black-and-white photos that evoked not glamour but intimacy. AoBa managed to give chic a heart.
Naturally, the kitchen took a similar approach, gussying up traditional Taiwanese dishes with enough quality ingredients and precision preparation that they became wholly new without losing their essential flavors. A seafood salad not only came loaded with squid and shrimp but was, to my surprise, an actual salad, with piles of fresh lettuce. (In the minds of most Chinese cooks, only barbarians eat raw vegetables.) A stir-fry of celery and lily bulbs was pure simplicity, preserving the individual textures and flavors of the vegetables, as did the radish fried rice, a shockingly straightforward approach that managed to redeem the entire shopworn concept of fried rice.
Nor was service neglected. Waitresses and busboys came and went nearly invisibly, refilling teapots and clearing dishes with studied efficiency. Jean and I and our friends, Annie Lu and Thomas Willemsen, who both work in Taiwan’s pharmaceuticals industry, left feeling almost humbled by the experience. Who knew food so simple could be so sublime?
The next day, Jean and I joined her mother, two aunts and an uncle for lunch at the Eat Rice Center, a restaurant on bustling Yongkang Street whose simple name belies its sophistication. First, the dining room: subtle lighting, pebbled and tiled walls warmed by wooden plaques with elegant calligraphy and a mural depicting an outdoor kitchen in the countryside.
Then, of course, there is the food, a mix of Taiwanese standards and dishes from Yilan County, a mountainous region on the northeast coast. Historically, Yilan was isolated, two factors that shaped its cuisine. Its dishes tend to be minimalist in an almost Zen way: pig’s liver cut into neat triangles and pan-fried; or gao tsa, literally leftover cakes, made of egg whites and pork or chicken broth whipped into airy cylinders and deep-fried — pure peasant genius.
“It’s very hot on the inside but cool on the outside, and that represents Yilan peoples’ character,” the restaurant’s owner, Lu Wen-yong, explained in a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect that is many locals’ first language. “Country folk are shy and not good at expressing themselves, but if you get to know them, you see they’re people of private passions.”
The passions on display at C’est Bon, possibly the most ambitious restaurant in Taipei, were hardly private. At first glance, C’est Bon might seem pretentious, with its French name (its Chinese name translates as the Way of Eating), its quirky décor (a potatoesque boulder hangs from one white wall, and a torso-shaped bamboo log, nicknamed Adam, sits submerged in a glass vase) and its waiters sporting skirt-like pants and T-shirts adorned with a single pink feather. And the chef Chuang Yue-jiau’s shaved head and thick black eyeglasses could certainly give the impression she’s a hipster dilettante.
But Ms. Chuang, who opened C’est Bon in 2002 with the photographer Hsieh Chun-te, is Taiwan’s most devoted locavore. She hires family farmers to raise pigs just for her. The snow chickens come from a farm 10,000 feet up Hehuan Mountain. The fish is speared only at night, in the wild currents north of Taiwan. She even grows her own rice in Yilan County, using beneficial micro-organisms to make it especially plump and flavorful.
None of this would matter if her cooking weren’t exquisite — but it is. The multicourse set menu began with what looked like a block of tofu swimming in a pool of chicken broth. One bite proved this wasn’t soy but rather eggs and chicken kidneys whipped together and steamed into a cake that tasted, oddly but pleasurably, just like matzo ball soup minus the heaviness of the matzo meal. At the same time, it tasted wholly, inescapably Taiwanese.
What followed were dishes of equal innovation and purity: a purée of squid accompanied by a fat black mushroom that had been stewed for an entire day; a duck-taro-and-shrimp pancake with a sweet plum sauce and shiso leaves. It all culminated with a little bowl of cherry tomatoes. They’d been grown below sea level, in a field fed by both fresh and saltwater, and Ms. Chuang had macerated them until the sugars took on a sweetness deeper and richer than any standard dessert.
Two days later, I returned to C’est Bon to ask Ms. Chuang the question I’d asked everyone in Taipei: What exactly is Taiwanese food? In response, she told me about lu rou fan. It is, perhaps, the simplest dish ever: ground pork, stewed in soy sauce and served over rice. Yet there are infinite permutations. (I once ate it three times in a single day; the best was at San Yuen Hao.) In fact, it was lu rou fan that began Ms. Chuang’s career as a chef. She’d once sold it from a street stall, working tirelessly to perfect the dish, and her pursuit of the best rice, meat and spices eventually paid off, enabling her to create C’est Bon.
Then her waiters brought out her special lu rou fan. Like everything else, it was amazing, a peasant dish elevated to the highest levels. The pork was meaty and sweet, and fragments of crispy fat nestled like microscopic rock candies amid the toothsome grains of rice.
As I swooned, I remembered something my mother-in-law had said back at Old Wang’s while I was devouring my noodle soup. It was just two words — “kou fu” — and I’d turned to my wife for a translation.
“‘Lucky mouth,’” Jean explained. “She means you’re having a good week of eating.”
START YOUR DAY WITH THE BREAKFAST OF THE SOY MILK KING
HOW TO GET THERE
Many airlines fly to Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport from the New York City area. For late September, EVA Airlines (www.evaair.com) has round trips with outbound flights stopping in Anchorage and nonstop returns for around $1,100.
Travelers should be aware that in Taiwan Chinese is still mostly converted into the Latin alphabet using the Wade-Giles system, but transliterations in pinyin, adopted by Beijing in 1979, are sometimes used. Chung Hsiao Road, for example, is sometimes rendered as Zhongxiao Road.
WHERE TO STAY
Several big, relatively luxurious chains have arrived or been renovated in Taipei the last few years, including the Sheraton (12 Chung Hsiao East Road, Section 1; 886-2-2321-5511; www.sheraton-taipei.com; doubles from 6,900 Taiwanese dollars, or about $210 at 32.63 Taiwanese dollars to the American dollar) and the Grand Hyatt (2 Song Shou Road; 886-2-2720-1234; www.taipei.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from 8,100 Taiwanese dollars). There are a number of boutique hotels like the Ambience (64 Chang-An East Road, Section 1; 886-2-2541-0077; www.ambiencehotel.com.tw; doubles from 2,760 Taiwanese dollars), whose rooms have Philippe Starck furnishings.
Those looking for a middle path between size and style might consider the San Want Hotel (172 Chung Hsiao East Road, Section 4; 886-2-2772-2121; www.sanwant.com; doubles from 5,600 Taiwanese dollars), a cozy, smartly run hotel in the middle of Chung Hsiao East Road, one of Taipei’s biggest shopping and eating districts.
WHERE TO EAT
Eating in Taipei is not only delicious but affordable, thanks to the relatively stable exchange rate. Most sit-down restaurants will have English translations on their menus (or English-speaking employees) and will accept MasterCard and Visa, but you should bring cash and your best point-at-what-you-want skills to informal places like Ay-Chung and Old Wang. Prices below do not include drinks.
AoBa, 116 Anhe Road, Section 1; 886-2-2700-0009; www.aoba.com.tw; multicourse set menus for four start at 2,800 Taiwanese dollars.
Ay-Chung, 8-1 E-Mei Street; 886-2-2388-8182; www.ay-chung.com;, small bowls of mian xian are 40 Taiwanese dollars, big ones are 55 dollars.
C’est Bon, 23 Lane 33 Chung-Shang North Road, Section 1;886-2-2531-6408; www.cestbon.com.tw; the multicourse set menu is 2,200 Taiwanese dollars a person.
Chuan Guo, 52 Jianguo North Road, Section 2; 886-2-2506-3622; 600 Taiwanese dollars a person.
Eat Rice Center, 5 Lane 8, Yongkang Street; 886-2-2322-2632; www.sit-fun.com.tw; 300 Taiwanese dollars apiece.
Kiki, multiple locations, www.kiki1991.com; 400 Taiwanese dollars a person.
Mei’s Tea Bar, 16 Lane 37 Yongkang Street; 886-2-2394-2425.
Old Wang Beef Noodle Soup King, 15 Taoyuan Street; a bowl of beef noodle soup is 140 Taiwanese dollars.
San Yuen Hao, 9-11 Chongqing North Road, Section 2; 886-2-2558-9685; 100 Taiwanese dollars a person.
Yonghe Soy Milk King, 102 Fuxing South Road, Section 2; 886-2-2703-5051; 100 Taiwanese dollars a person.