Showing posts with label gourmet_food_taipei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gourmet_food_taipei. Show all posts

Saturday, March 17, 2018

In defense of Taiwanese food

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Braised meat rice with shredded chicken, tender bamboo and tea egg with pickled radish. It was very good, and doesn't get more Taiwanese than this.  

Look, I know a lot is going on and I could write all about it now. Warmongering jerk and friend of Taiwan (guh) John Bolton is about to be promoted to National Security Advisor and...guh. Maybe I'll say something about it later. The Taiwan Travel Act is now law. Yay! The Daybreak Project is cool (although I have a low-key pet peeve about using the word 'project' to describe these sorts of things and I don't even know why, it's still cool and I won't hold that against it and you should check it out). I have been growing more annoyed in recent weeks with equating displaying the ROC flag with 'supporting Taiwan' and would like to say something about that.

I can and will write about some of these things, but I'm TIRED. My last paper of the term is due soon and I really need a montage. So, instead I want to write about food.

The Michelin guide for Taiwan came out and...eh.

I'm not even going to bother writing much about what made it in and what didn't, because maybe I'm too Anthony Bourdainy about this but...what is considered when awarding a star - what those guys think makes food great - is not what I think goes into food that is actually great. I never intentionally eat anywhere with a star, and am more than likely to avoid starred restaurants because they'll be pricey and crowded and frankly, I think the food is probably better in some local stall or market. Sorry, but between some Fancy Thing for NT$1500 from a restaurant that's been around for maybe a decade, or A-ma who has made onion pastries or gua bao for 50 years out of the same little stall...A-ma probably does a damn good job, quite possibly a better one, for a tiny fraction of the cost.

But I will say this - some people are upset that Taiwanese food didn't get more recognition from Michelin. The top-rated restaurants seemed to be in hotels, and tended to be either Chinese (not Taiwanese), Japanese or Western/innovative (I think there was one Taiwanese restaurant on there). And I get it - loving Taiwan means maybe hoping its food gets some international fine dining recognition. Some people reading this might even be thinking "why does Taiwanese food need to be defended?"

It has certainly been said before that there's a sad history in Taiwan of elevating cuisines from China to 'gourmet' status while treating Taiwanese food as a poor, not-as-good provincial cousin.

It's also been said that despite Taiwanese loving to rhapsodize about their excellent food, that it's actually...not that great. Basically, that maybe more Taiwanese restaurants didn't get Michelin stars because they didn't deserve them.

I'm going to take a middle road here.

I think Taiwanese food is great, and I also acknowledge it lacks the complexity and rarefied quality of some other cuisines (such as certain cuisines of China, most Southeast Asian food). And I'm fine with that.

When I say that I'd rather eat A-ma's onion cake or at some random market stall or just a good bowl of braised meat rice, and I think that food is fantastic, what I mean is that to me great food doesn't always come from a delicate kitchen genie spinning rare and expensive ingredients into improbably complicated food sculptures that melt in your mouth. While it's true that some expensive ingredients require expertise to work with - don't cast your fig balsamic or fleur de sel or even workaday lemon zest before swine because a thoughtless chef will destroy what is wonderful about these things - it's also true that okay chefs can make better food with better ingredients.

What really warms me inside is everyday ingredients made into something really tasty and satisfying. That takes a great chef. That takes A-ma who's been at it for half a century. Anyone can learn to make a good quality steak taste great.

But only real talent coupled with many years of practice can take gross old pork scraps and some soy sauce and whatever and make a freaking delicious braised meat rice. That is talent I admire.

It's also not the talent that bags Michelin stars (it might bag a Bib Gourmand note, but that's not the same thing) and I am totally okay with that.

And yet, I admit that Taiwanese cuisine lacks the vivacity of other foods - it doesn't have that deep, delicious tastes that Indian gravies are known for, or the marriage of tart, sweet, spicy and salty (and creamy, from the coconut milk) found in, say, Thai food.

I'm still okay with that - to me, Taiwanese food is what it is because of Taiwanese history. This is a country that was once described as having a "history of agonies". Even if you won't sign off on that description, it's a history of cohesive identity denied or actively suppressed, a history of being treated like a backwater or second-class colonial holding, of (until recently) poverty and agriculture and immigrants and refugees trying to carve out a better life - while, it should be said - making life harder for those already here, on this "ball of mud beyond the pale of civilization".

That - and not a great history as a self-ruled kingdom with all of the trappings of king and court like Thailand or Vietnam, or following the same imperial-dynasty based cultural and political evolution of China - is what made Taiwanese food what it is. We have taro rice vermicelli and sweet potato balls and a variety of single-bowl rice and noodle dishes because that's the food of Taiwan's past. We didn't have a royal palace where great chefs could practice their craft for state banquets. We didn't have the same number of rich or noble families eating rare and expensive delicacies from fine porcelain plates. We just...didn't (or we had much less of it).

When your recorded history is entirely made up of an interplay between indigenous groups, farmers and foreign colonizers (yes, this includes China, which has absolutely been a foreign colonizer twice over) living on "the edge of civilization", what you get as a "national cuisine" is down-home farmer food, gross pig scraps and soy sauce made tasty by talented grandmas, the same onion cakes for 50 years. That is just what you get.

And that's fine. Every time I eat a good braised meat rice or something like it, I don't think "well, this tastes good but it's cheap and uses boring or mediocre-quality ingredients and is a bit blander than other cuisines". I think - if I am inclined to think rather than just stuff my face - that this is the food that speaks to the history of an island nation I care about, and you can all pipe down already because I like it quite a bit.

If it doesn't pull down Michelin stars, then the Michelin folks just don't get what makes some food great, and frankly I'm fine to have more of it to myself.

Yes, it's farmer food. But you know what? Farmer food is good. 

In fact, as a friend noted after I posted this on Facebook:

I actually think you don't go far enough... I'd say Taiwanese food may lack the complex flavors of South or Southeast Asian food, but instead emphasizes less flashy virtues like appreciating fresh ingredients' unadorned flavor. Sichuanese food is poor farmer food- you need the spiciness to cover possible rot. Taiwanese food is rich farmer's food.

And as another friend said:

Much of Taiwanese food is hearty and rustic, almost reminiscent of southern US cuisine.

Yup. I'll raise my chopsticks to that.

If Michelin doesn't think this merits stars, I'm going to offer up the opinion that the problem in terms of knowing good food is not Taiwan, but Michelin.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Update: Indian food in Taipei

I've updated my long-running list of Indian restaurants in Taipei, making a few improvements:

- Standardized format with links and addresses in green
- Consolidated updates
- New additions (including places I haven't tried yet and a few changes in ownership)
- Cleaning out of entries for places that are closed
- Updates of reviews - a few places have slid considerably in quality
- A few more photos

I've hit literally every restaurant I've heard of or can find, but I can't try them all and I can't keep up with every opening and closing, so I do count on reader comments to help me out with this.

I consider this my bit of free community service, making sure everyone can find their perfect Indian food match in Taipei since 2008. Yes, I started this in 2008. I have been making sure Taipei's Indian food scene has a consolidated online presence for 9 years. This is because I'm great. You're welcome. :)

I'm working on this in part because I want a break from reading for my paper due in January, and in part because I'm genuinely heartbroken over the labor law kerfuffle going on in the legislature now. Did the Taiwanese left and Taiwanese labor (that is, most of us) ever have a major party that had their backs? Can the NPP pick up the slack and become a bigger force? I don't know, but it's killing me to watch both major parties screw us over so royally. Truly, the old Turd Sandwich Party used to have a real rival. Now, they're just running against a Giant Douche Party.

I just can't take it. It breaks my heart. Let's talk about curry instead. Consider this my fiddle music as Rome burns.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Fusion Asia Indian Restaurant

Fusion Asia
#34 Section 3 Heping East Road
和平東路三段34號
MRT Technology Building or Liuzhangli

Fusion Asia is easy to miss - just one more storefront along the busy eastern end of Heping Road past Dunhua as it veers toward MRT Liuzhangli. I'd actually walked by it several times thinking "we should eat there" (as a part of my nefarious plan to eat at every Indian restaurant I can find in Taipei and then compile it into one huge blog post - which will be updated with Fusion Asia shortly).

One rainy night when we were both unexpectedly free and planned to walk around the Yanji Street area and just pick something that looked good, we decided instead because of the weather to just go here.

The space inside is actually pretty large by Taipei standards, and we were one of only two sets of customers so it felt a bit empty and cavernous. The decoration was innovative, with musical instruments centered inside frames of PVC pipes draped with Indian women's bangles. I got the feeling, however, that they started out with this idea of being both a restaurant and bar (it advertises itself as such), but that didn't quite work out as the space is made out to really just be a restaurant. For that concept to work, your space has to be decorated and set up accordingly, and Fusion Asia really just screamed "restaurant" despite the full bar and drinks menu. As usual in Indian restaurants in Taipei and elsewhere, a flatscreen TV played Bollywood musical numbers.

We honestly weren't expecting much of the food despite the management from India - it was too empty, too unknown, too trying to be something it wasn't.

But we were surprised...the food was actually pretty good, especially the appetizers.

They were out of Kingfisher (BLASPHEMY!) so we got Taiwan beer, samosas and channa aloo chaat. I love a good chaat and I love any restaurant that can do one well. This was pretty good - chick peas and potatoes in a tangy chaat masala with chopped onion and tomato. I would have added a drizzle of yoghurt and then topped the whole thing in sev (crispy fried potato threads), but that's just me. The samosas were brilliant - the outside golden and crispy, the inside moist and very well-spiced, although the tamarind and coriander chutneys were lackluster and they also gave us some mayonnaise, which we didn't use, because that's gross.

For curry, we ordered baingan bharta (grilled mashed eggplant curry) and butter chicken (my favorite). The baingan bharta was very good - well-flavored with a grilled flavor that still let the freshness of the eggplant come through, and perfectly textured which is hard to do with eggplant.

The butter chicken was also good, but perhaps a bit too mild. I thought it might have just been the result of eating two spicy appetizers, but after washing all of the heat away with beer, the butter chicken was still lacking the bit of heat I like it to have.

The garlic naan, however, was quite good and unlike Out of India, they use real garlic, not crappy garlic butter spread.

The menu was standard north Indian fare - curries in sauces with naan or rice. Don't look for regional specialties here - those are really only to be found at Mayur Indian Kitchen or, for Punjabi specialties, Balle Balle.

All in all, I'll go back. It's not the best Indian meal in Taipei, but it's pretty good and close by. I might just go for samosas and chaat though!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Black Garlic in Taipei!

I've been a bit busy to post actual longer posts these past few weeks, but I wanted to share my latest culinary find: black garlic! I had heard of it before but not had the chance to try it - it's an extremely flavorful ingredient made by...I guess by heating it on low, and perhaps steaming it then drying it (?) for a month or more. It turns the cloves shriveled and black and gives it a soft, spreadable texture and a taste that's somewhere in between soy sauce, tamarind and balsamic vinegar.

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Well, there's someone in Taiwan who makes it - the store is just called 黑蒜頭 or "Black Garlic". It's made from garlic grown in Yunlin County and it is delicious.

To get some, take the MRT to Xinhai station. Exit and look almost immediately to your right (slightly away from the road, down another small dead-end road). Alternately, follow the smell of sweet roasted garlic that permeates the air for several meters in every direction. There's a small shop with a can't-miss sign (you can even see it from the MRT train if you take it past Xinhai) that says "Black Garlic" in English and Chinese and has a picture of black garlic on it for good measure.

Don't live in Taipei? You can also call them at (02)2934-0535 or visit their website. Apparently they do deliver!

This shop also has black garlic wine, vinegar and other items - I feel like black garlic wine would be a wonderful thing to cook with and I will eventually go back for some.

You can use it in a lot of different ways - it seems like it'd be really good in Italian, French or Spanish foods, and also work well in Chinese food (imagine a sauteed whole chicken rubbed down with the stuff, which also flavored the broth at the bottom of the pan, or on a fish that could handle its flavor). It seems to go especially well with vegetables, tomatoes, chicken and cheese. I think it'd be delicious as a lamb chop rub or with stuffed mushrooms.

But black garlic doesn't come cheap. One large bulb is NT100, a pack of 6 small bulbs is NT250, and a large pack is NT600. If you wanted to experiment with this ingredient or just eat it (it's delicious eaten straight), an NT100 bulb will do just fine.

Make sure you pick up a copy of their brochure for this little gem. Then stroll to victory with your black garlic!

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Little additional note: If you take that main road to the right for a few minutes' walk you'll also come to Mr. Lin, who makes old-school tatami mats that are far higher quality than the ones sold at B&Q. He is the only guy I can find left in Taipei who still does this.