Cross-strait “Trash Talk”: which side has the better cuisine?
Normally when talking about the cuisine of 23 million against that of 1.3 billion, I would pick the side of the 1.3 billion. However, in this particular case, Taiwan may have some special advantages.
Recently I came across an article on the Cuisine of Taiwan in the NY Times discussing the various eclectic cuisines to be found in Taiwan. Here is a short excerpt:
[I]f you like to eat, for food is one arena where Taipei — the world’s most underrated capital city, according to Monocle magazine — blows Beijing away. Its food incorporates more influences, spans street food to haute cuisine with greater aplomb and is out and out more delicious than that of its mainland counterpart. Not to mention that its people are perhaps the most comestible-crazed Asians outside of Singapore — no excursion is complete without, say, a bag of stewed duck tongues at journey’s end.
Defining that superlative cuisine, however, is tricky, for Taiwan is a melting pot. Virtually every cooking style of the mainland is represented, thanks to the waves of immigration that began in 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.
For Shanghai soup dumplings, there’s the world-famous Din Tai Fung, and if you love the fiery food of Sichuan province, check out the retro Chuan Guo for hot pot (a bubbling communal soup in which you cook meats and vegetables) and the new-school Kiki for dishes like fly’s head (ground pork stir-fried with chilies and chives).
Japanese ingredients and techniques have a long history there as well, since Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to the end of World War II. Sushi is as common in night markets as oven-roasted buns stuffed with sweet, peppery pork; teppanyaki has advanced far beyond Benihana; and humble tempura is a fixture, transmogrified into batter-free tian bu la.
Side by side with these influences lives Taiwanese cuisine. In part, it resembles the food of China’s Fujian Province, from which much of Taiwan’s population immigrated beginning in the 17th century: heavy on pork, seafood and vegetables, with an emphasis on textures that may seem odd to Westerners. Soups tend to be extra thick, and Q, a springier analogue to the concept of al dente, is essential, whether you’re chewing noodles, fish balls or the tapioca in your sweet milky tea.
I returned to C’est Bon [one of Taipei’s new upscale restaurants featured in the article] to ask Ms. Chuang [owner] the question I’d asked everyone in Taipei: What exactly is Taiwanese food? In response, she told me about lu rou fan. It is, perhaps, the simplest dish ever: ground pork, stewed in soy sauce and served over rice. Yet there are infinite permutations. (I once ate it three times in a single day; the best was at San Yuen Hao.) In fact, it was lu rou fan that began Ms. Chuang’s career as a chef. She’d once sold it from a street stall, working tirelessly to perfect the dish, and her pursuit of the best rice, meat and spices eventually paid off, enabling her to create C’est Bon.
Then her waiters brought out her special lu rou fan. Like everything else, it was amazing, a peasant dish elevated to the highest levels. The pork was meaty and sweet, and fragments of crispy fat nestled like microscopic rock candies amid the toothsome grains of rice.
So here is a question for those who have been to both Beijing and Taipei: which city do you think offer the better food? Are there any personal special favorites (restaurants and dishes) that you would share and recommend here?
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