If poetry could arrive on a plate, it would happen in Taiwan. In a country where eating has become the national obsession – second only to karaoke and possibly the addiction to betel nut – food has become more art than science, something that requires a story and a picture before the savoring of its message.
At one meal, a dish called coffin bread arrives in the form of toasted “bricks” with a sweetish creamy soup inside. Turns out once there was a poor chef who saw a restaurant throwing out lots of bread each night. He took the bread home and tried to figure out what he could do with it. In the end, he came up with boxes that looked like coffins and filled them with tastes that were very much alive. In another dish, in a hot pot is a chicken soup made from a black chicken. The pot is stirred and sent around the banquet style table in a lazy susan.
The unlucky person to scoop the chicken’s head will soon have bad luck. Dishes called “stinky tofu,” “ants on a tree,” ‘lion’s head,” and “Buddha Jumps over a Wall,” can be found in fine dining establishments and steamy night markets alike. And in a country that rewards chefs for their creative ingenuity, each region, each market, each city has its “must try” favorites.
Where Chinese cuisine tends to play regionally with a past that rewarded excellence in traditional pursuits, Taiwan’s history is quite the opposite. The island that has been ruled by Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese had its most recent renaissance as the refuge for nationalist Chinese sympathizers fleeing Mao in the 1940s and settling under the more freeing dictates of Chiang Kai-Shek. Taiwan accepted all comers and they came from all regions of China. Suddenly cuisine secrets were being shared among chefs, who were exposed to myriad methods of cooking and ingredients they had never seen. And suddenly every chef had to stand out with extraordinary fare if he was to survive.
The result? Dishes that popped out as artwork in appearance, dishes that came spun with a yarn of mythology, dishes that became attractions in themselves as part of the local culture.
Visitors to Taiwan can experience restaurants where all food is cooked in tea. There are food stalls where the central meat is snake or central garnish is ants, and other spots where locals line-up from morning until night for saucy, juicy dumplings.
Visitors will no doubt need a guide to get through the morass of dining choices. Every stall, restaurant or café will have its unidentifiable version of roast duck or “warm” fresh pig, steaming buns, live squid, smoked pork floss, noodles of every shape, size and texture, tofu that is hard, soft or “stinky” when fermented in a brine of food leftovers for months then fried and opening to a silken interior that is doused in soy and chili paste. Positively addicting.
If the most coveted treasures at the National Palace Museum are a pearly jade carving of a Chinese cabbage and a multicolored rock that resembles a piece of fatty stewed pork, then oeuvres from the pricey Japanese-inspired Shi Yang restaurant above Beitou, the legendary dumpling dishes of Din Tai Fong, the famed oyster omelets of Ningxia night market and much more await the traveler with the adventurous palate.
New York-based Artisans of Leisure features an ongoing Discover Taiwan program that runs seven days and focuses on Taipei as well as scenic Sun Moon Lake as it goes from museums to temples to cultural districts to special dining spots and markets with the luxury of a private English-speaking guide and a private upscale vehicle. Accommodations are at the Grand Hyatt in Taipei and The Lalu at the Lake. Cost is $5,590 pp dbl (singles add $1,815) land only.
True foodies will want to come for the country’s August food festival in Taipei, this year from August 20 – 23. It features the Taiwan Culinary Competition, international contests attracting connoisseurs and conjurors of Taiwanese cuisine from all over the world. A trip lead by Chef Lawrence Chu, president of the Asian Chef’s Association in the US, happens from Aug. 18-29 and includes a full tour of Taiwan as well as four days at the culinary exhibition for $2,399.
The tour calls for sightseeing in and around Taipei, viewing and sampling food products from the hundreds of food exhibits, special gourmet dinners and visiting various night markets as well as travel to Kaoshiung on a bullet train for a taste of the island’s south. 415-531-3599.
For more information on Taiwan contact Taiwan Tourism offices at 213-389-1158, 212-867-1632, 415-989-8677; go2taiwan.net.
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