If Taiwan is the new heaven for globetrotting gastronomes, I’ve just made it through the pearly gates. Inside, one of Asia’s great cultural melting pots beckons – with a rich and tantalising menu of culinary traditions.
The reputation of the island’s cuisine recently hit a new peak with Conde Nast Traveller magazine lauding it "the foodie destination of 2015".
But perhaps the first waft the world got of Taiwan’s superlative food scene was back in 1993. That’s when a not-so-fancy eatery serving xiao long bao (soup dumplings) in the capital Taipei was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 best restaurants on the planet.
Din Tai Fung has since become a Michelin-starred chain spanning the globe. You can even get a taste of Taiwan’s famed steamed ‘little basket buns’ in Australia.
But when in Rome, or rather Taipei, you’ve got to do what the locals do. Even with some very haute offerings upping Taiwan’s gastronomic ante in recent times, eating at Din Tai Fung is still regularly listed among the top foodie things to do for visitors.
But be warned, this can mean joining the end of a very long line outside one of its several restaurants. So if you want to avoid the queues that can take up to two hours, make sure you get there before the hungry hordes at lunch and dinner.
Not that the wait wouldn’t be worth it. You might even gain some local knowledge for your next dining odyssey from a friendly resident. (Given how much the Taiwanese love to eat, that could be any one of its 23 million people.)
If you go to Din Tai Fung’s restaurant at the bottom of the 509-metre Taipei 101 skyscraper, you can also give your eyes a feast by taking a ride up to the observation deck for a view of what is one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Of course, when you finally get to your table the dumplings aren’t bad either. They come with an array of fillings – including pork, beef, shrimp, chicken and vegetable. Each one of them is made with surgical-like precision to weigh 21 grams and neatly sealed with 18 delicate pleats.
But there’s far more to Taiwan’s cuisine than perfect dumplings and wherever your itinerary takes you there’ll be something unique to sample.
Such as at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, where you can order at the in-house restaurant, Silks Palace, edible reproductions of some of the museum’s signature artefacts, including the famous jadeite cabbage.
Being caught between the culinary superpowers of China and Japan has had a major influence on the country’s vibrant food scene. Since 1949, years of immigration have brought almost every cooking style from mainland China into the kitchens of Taiwan. The flavours from the Japanese occupation of the island in 1895 until the end of World War II also have lingered.
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But this fusion is now being further enhanced – and taking Taiwan’s fine dining to a new level – by a growing number of international Michelin-starred chefs opening restaurants. Also, a new generation of well-travelled Taiwanese-born chefs is stirring the pot – including Asia’s leading female chef Lanshu Chen.
Her French noshery Le Mout in Taichung City in central-western Taiwan – easily reached from Taipei via the 300-kilometre per hour High Speed Rail system – was recently named on the San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, the cuisine of Taiwan’s 14 indigenous tribes is also creating a buzz. But you’ll have to venture a few hours beyond the big cities and into the central mountain ranges and rugged coastline to the east to taste it.
Indigenous eateries offer a variety of traditional dishes – often with a modern twist – cooked using seasonal vegetables and herbs foraged from the surrounding countryside as well as fresh seafood and meat (usually boar).
Eastern Taiwan’s largest city, Hualien, and its surrounding lush, steep terrain is the realm of the Amis tribe, the country’s largest indigenous group. It is also home to Taroko Gorge which is a spectacular marble canyon, carved by the Liwu River, that stretches for 19 kilometres.
In the island’s Central Mountain Range, the traditional fare of the Tsou tribe is on offer. It’s simple yet flavoursome, and all about the purity of the fresh ingredients. More than 2200 metres above sea level, the centrepiece of the area is the Alishan National Forest.
It is from here you can witness the phenomenon known as the ‘sea of clouds’ – a tide of white cloud that fills the valleys below, turning the surrounding mountaintops into an archipelago in the sky. It is best observed as the sun rises over Yushan (Jade Mountain), the 3952-metre pinnacle of Taiwan.
Pork, chicken, seafood and beef are common ingredients in Taiwanese cuisine, but with Buddhism being the major religion vegetarians also are well catered for across the country.
At the other much wackier end of the dining spectrum are Taipei’s themed restaurants.
Over the years, the city has developed quite a knack for coming up with quirky culinary venues. These have included a cafe based on an Airbus A380 where waitresses dressed as flight attendants serve meals on trays and boarding passes are issued to those waiting for a table; a hospital-themed eatery where ‘nurses’ administer drinks via IV drip bags and syringes; as well as jail and school-themed restaurants.
The novelty seems to know no bounds – at the popular Modern Toilet, diners eat meals out of miniature toilet bowls and urinals. The world’s first Barbie restaurant offers a plethora of pink and, to satisfy another Taiwanese obsession, there’s a Hello Kitty-themed cafe.
Dining possibilities don’t come much more diverse.
But even if you’ve already eaten your fill, no visit to Taiwan could be complete without savouring street food at its renowned, and arguably the world’s best, night markets.
This is where the Taiwanese have perfected the mouth-watering art of ‘small eats’ or xiao chi, which is an integral part of the local cuisine and has been largely responsible for turning the world on to Taiwan as a foodie mecca.
Think beef noodle soup, oyster omelettes, lu rou fan, grilled squid, deep-fried milk (frozen milk cubes dipped in batter and deep fried) and, of course, that famous fermented and highly pungent local delicacy, stinky tofu.
Among the most famous night markets are Taipei’s Raohe Street night market – the city’s oldest – Shihli, Linjiang and Shida night markets.
There are an estimated 300 island-wide. Bon appetit.
Words by Phil Bartsch