A taste of Taiwan, from comforting noodles to spicy broths
Fish, tropical fruit and comforting noodle dishes are all on the menu in Taiwan.
With a mainly subtropical climate and mountain ranges running the length of the island, Taiwan offers perfect conditions for growing an array of crops, from rice and tea to fruit and vegetables. And there’s real pride in the produce: the aged soy my grandma uses; the competition Oolong tea with which my late grandpa was obsessed, and which never makes it outside Taiwan as it’s so popular; the Chih Shang rice that needs to be edition stamped to prove its authenticity.
Fruit shops are piled high with mountains of longan fruit, sugar apples, melons and dragon fruit, all ripe and ready to eat. And, being surrounded by waters, there’s access to great seafood, too, from abalone to snapper. Even the eggs in Taiwan seem to taste better than anywhere else, as the chickens are mostly wild.
Taiwan has absorbed influences from various cultures that have inhabited the island over the centuries, from Aboriginal communities to Chinese, Japanese and even Dutch. Flavours are often rich and soy-based, with a hint of sweetness due to the large sugar trade in the south of Taiwan in the 19th century. The first dish I seek out whenever I’m back is mee shua (oyster noodles), an addictive and comforting bowl of slightly thickened bonito-based broth (showing the Japanese influence) and silky, slurpable noodles.
Some dishes, like mee shua, are best enjoyed at the buzzy night markets for which Taiwan is known, but I crave home-cooked meals, too. I grew up with my grandma cooking large, banquet-style meals daily for our extended family. Dishes include cold cuts of poached meat such as black pork or goose, pan-fried fish (often fatty and flaky cobia), stir-fried greens and seafood, soy-braised pork in a clay pot and mi fen — a dish of vermicelli fried with shiitake, coriander and black pork. Before these meals, I’d sit on the back of my grandma’s bike, whizzing through the wet markets, and afterwards, I’d be the last one left at the table, savouring every last bite.
Erchen Changis creative director and co-founder of BAO, and co-author of the book of the same name.
BAO, by Erchen Chang, Shing Tat Chung and Wai Ting Chung is published by Phaidon Press (£29.95).
Three must-try dishes in Taiwan
1. Lu rou fan
A comforting dish of steaming hot short-grain rice topped with slow-braised fatty pork belly. The braising sauce trickles over the rice, coating the grains. It normally comes in a small low-lipped bowl, with a side of pickle.
2. Beef noodles
You’ll find beef noodle shops all over Taiwan, particularly in Taipei. There are many different styles: thin or thick noodles, light or rich broth. My preference is the rich, spicy broth with thinner noodles. They should have a slight bite and a good ability to soak up the flavours of the broth.
3. Re chao
Quick fry, or re chao, restaurants usually have a display of seafood on ice — diners can select the one they want to eat and the chef will cook it. What exactly is on offer varies seasonally, and it’s best to visit with a group to taste as many dishes as possible.
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