Taiwan R.O.C., Republic of Chinesefood

15 08 2009
food stallThe most fitting place to begin this food diary is with my favorite place in the world to eat: Taiwan.
When I tell people that my wife is from Taiwan, sometimes I’ll get this bewildering reply: “Oh! I love Thai food.”  As do I.  But I love Taiwanese food more.
Most Americans are, understandably, unfamiliar with this tiny island off the coast of China.  It’s definitely not a player in world politics.  In fact, due to our need to please China, which is financing our debt and stocking our Wal-Marts with cheap tchotchkes, we don’t officially recognize Taiwan as a country, since China claims it’s theirs.

taiwan flagThe most fitting place to begin this food diary is with my favorite place in the world to eat: Taiwan.

When I tell people that my wife is from Taiwan, sometimes I’ll get this bewildering reply: “Oh! I love Thai food.” Most Americans know that Taiwan isn’t Thailand, but are still unfamiliar, understandably, with this tiny island off the coast of China. It’s definitely not a player in world politics. In fact, due to our need to maintain good relations with China, which is financing our debt and stocking our Wal-Marts with cheap tchotchkes, we don’t officially recognize Taiwan as a country, since China claims it’s theirs.

food stallBut to visit Taiwan is to discover one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It’s one of the most interesting places in the world, packing an incredible diversity of geography, culture, and economic activity within a mere 13,000 square miles. Its landscapes range from rocky beaches to snow-capped mountains to lush jungles. Its exports include some of the world’s most advanced electronics, the world’s best green tea, and much of the world’s supply of wasabi.  More importantly for this blog, it’s one of the the best places in the world to get Chinese food. It might be a mere speck on the world map, but when it comes to food, Taiwan is a world power.

Picture 024This seems unlikely for such a small place. But Taiwan’s culinary supremacy is due to a happy coincidence of several historical, economic, and geographical factors.  When Chiang Kai Shek, head of the anti-communist “Whites” in the Chinese Civil War, fled from the Red Army back in 1949, he chose Taiwan as his last redoubt, bringing his entire army there. Chiang’s soldiers were from all over China, and their families brought their own regional cuisines to the island, adding to the existing local cuisine. Everything from the barbecue of the North, to the spicy food of Sichuan, to the Cantonese teatime snacks known as Dim Sum, not to mention the unique cuisine of the aboriginal Austronesian tribes, are available in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s tiny size also works in its favor. It’s at most a day trip to the ocean from anywhere on the island. Combine that with its lush, monsoon climate, and it means that whatever you’re eating, you can be sure it was just picked, caught, or butchered. Wherever you are in Taiwan, it’s a short walk to the nearest market, where fresh produce and meat are abundant and cheap.

Combine the availability of cheap, high-quality ingredients with the relatively high per-capita income (it’s one of the 4 “Asian Tiger” economies), and you get a culture where eating out is the norm. Most Taiwanese eat out for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between. And why not, when you can get a meal for less than $3?  Add to this the extremely high population density (15th in the world, 5 times higher than China), and you get a food service industry that is highly, highly competitive, which, like any other industry, leads to high quality.

The Taiwanese are highly selective in their choice of eateries, because if one place doesn’t meet their standards, there’s another place around the corner, serving the exact same thing, but tastier and cheaper. So what you have is a culinary arms race. Secret recipes are guarded as closely as nuclear codes. Even the cheapest mom-and-pop food stall is in a constant struggle for survival. You either make great food or you go out of business. Being a food vendor in Taiwan is hard, hard work. But the Taiwanese people, and anyone lucky enough to visit, reap the benefits.

OK, so there’s your primer on Taiwan. What will follow is a diary of my eating experiences there over one week, as I visit my in-laws. I hope you get a sense of the depth and breadth of Taiwanese food and you’ll want to visit on your own.

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