Sep 23

Cross-strait “Trash Talk”: which side has the better cuisine?

Written by Allen on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 5:22 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, aside, culture, General | Tags:, , ,
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With all the arguments generated by our discussion on cross-strait politics, we need to start a topic that both sides can agree on.  One thing I think we can all agree is that Chinese Cuisine is an important aspect of Chinese Culture.  The only question is: which side of the strait 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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32 Responses to “Cross-strait “Trash Talk”: which side has the better cuisine?”

  1. FOARP Says:

    Taipei with a bullet, no question, the food there totally kicked arse compared to what I’ve eaten in Beijing, but common – Beijing is not the best city in Mainland China for food.

  2. Allen Says:

    OK – instead of Beijing v.Taipei – how about any mainland city v. Taipei?

  3. Wukailong Says:

    My supervisor did quite a bit of business travel in China back in the 80s, and he says that the Chinese food at the time was much worse than you could get in the Bay Area (not to speak of Taibei). This situation has improved considerably, though, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Taibei is still better. I know this other guy I could ask too. 🙂

    On a general note, travelling around in China during 2001 was a big eye-opener for me foodwise. I had shaomai up in Baotou as breakfast and remember it as soggy, brownish dough buns with tasteless filling. Then, down in Guangzhou, I had the same thing and it was completely different – half transparent, perfect filling and very soft, but still keeping together well.

    I still think local expertise beats expensive restaurants easily. Beijing isn’t much of a culinary center compared to Sichuan, in which I’ve had some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Also, Xi’an is simply much better for grilled lamb than Beijing.

  4. boo boo Says:

    It’s ‘strait’ … not straight.

  5. wuming Says:

    If I remembered Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” correctly, the chef father complained that everything in Taipei started to taste the same. Of course he was loosing his taste, but isn’t there something about mixing of all cuisines that destroying each’s unique taste? If it happened in Taipei (I wouldn’t know,) it is happening in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

    As for a great dish, the “Old Duck Broth” 老鸭汤 from 张生记 is just divine. If you American/Canadian/European expats have not tasted that, you should certainly put it on your to-do list. It’s a chain restaurants originated from Hangzhou, but you can find it in Shanghai, Beijing and probably other cities

  6. admin Says:

    @boo boo

    Thanks. Corrected.

  7. Leo Says:

    It’s just a question of taste of the respective ethnic backgrounds. The most people of European backgrounds tend to like things that are sweet or sour, which Taiwan cuisine tends to be. The most comments I got from my circles about Taiwan dishes are that they are too sweet. Din Tai Fong is marked by some expats as the best dumpling ever while my impression is it is just so-so in general and nobody I know will go to there extra for dumplings.

  8. TommyBahamas Says:

    The List of Favourite MIddle KIngdom dishes for non-Chinese:

    Let me guess:

    Assortment of sauteed vegies with garlic
    Sauteed broccoli with garlic and beef or scallops
    Sweet & Sour pork with pineapple
    Sweet & Sour beef
    Sweet & sour pine nuts fried fish
    Ma Po dou-fu – Shichuan spicy tofu
    Sauteed beef with black peppers
    Cashew nut chicken cubes
    Gong Pao Chicken cubes (No bones please)
    Corn soup with minced pork, crab meat or chicken meat
    Deep fried Mun Tou (Chinese bun) with condense milk dipping
    Fried egg noodles with eggs & BBQ pork
    Peking Duck
    Jiao Zi / Dumplings
    Yangzhou (Cantonese) fried rice with shrimps, eggs and BBQ pork
    Cantonese Dim Sum
    Deep fried Wanton
    Spring rolls
    BBQ pork steamed buns
    50cents beer with spicy Yangrouchuan – lamb kababs

    Absolutely no-nos for most new comers to China: Hell, I am myself Chinese, and having lived in CHina on and off for ten years, I still NEVER volunteer to order the following dishes, but I’ll eat them out of politeness.

    Any assortment of tripes
    Savory duck feet or chicken feet & chicken asses, duck’s necks; fried duck’s tongues
    Steamed bony fish; fried bony fish; if its bony
    “dish-water” soup such as pig’s lungs or pigs stomach or pig’s brain soup etc.
    Cow’s penis, deer’s dick, snake soup. Oh, here comes the favorite clay pot food for the ancient Jiu rou chinese monks: dog, cat, rabbit, rat meat. Ok, that’s enuff from me, so, folks, please carry on …..

  9. Michael Turton Says:

    Hahaha. Prince Roy, a US foreign service officer who has been to both places for long periods of time, has already dissed and dismissed this idea that Taiwan beats China.


    I’ve been to China only once, but lived here since 1989 and tend to agree with Prince Roy. For the most part Chinese food in Taiwan has been rendered banal to suit Taiwan’s palates, which fear anything spicy or hot. And despite what the author of the NY Times piece says, bless his Taiwan-loving heart, lu rou fan sucks and nothing can redeem it. There’s a reason the peasants give up peasant food….


  10. Wukailong Says:

    I believe most of the dishes mentioned above are what Chinese people think foreigners like (or are “used to”, because apparently you can only “get used to” food from another place, never like it for the pure taste), and what most people get. But a lot of people would probably like the following standard fare too if they were actually given it:

    Yuxiang Rousi
    Huiguorou (well, that one might be common abroad too these days)
    Ziran yangrou
    + most of the cold dishes, hotpot, shuan yangrou etc

  11. wukong Says:

    “Trash talk” on cuisine? Not very appetizing, isn’t it? 😛

  12. Hongkonger Says:

    “because apparently you can only “get used to” food from another place, never like it for the pure taste”

    Really? I grew up on Hakka, Cantonese and curry…I have never lived in “the West.”, but if you let me choose what to have for breakfast and dinner everyday, I would choose European food. God, I love yoghurt, muesli, European bread w/ butter and homemade fruit jams with black strong coffee. For lunch, I don’t care, pizza, cheese or BLTC sandwiches, bluecheese quiche or regular Chinese noodles or rice are fine. Dinner is when I like to take my time with european wine to compliment european food. The one month I spent in Europe was heavenly. I would spend over an hour on breakfast, whereas in Asia, breakfast is usually over in 15 minutes for me. My one and only wonderful western or rather country & western breakfast was in boston bar, B.C., Canada in a country house. It was like living a cowboy fairy tale — Blond children gathered around the breakfast table, coffee brewing on a stove in an iron pot while the lady of the house fried Canadian bacon, and eggs. The fresh butter and milk I was enjoying came from the cows grazing outside. I don’t ever miss Chinese food whenever I am not in China, however, like right now, I could really use a nice juicy beef fillet with a glass of wine. However, a tasty Malaysian, Vietnamese or Thai food would hit the spot just as fine too.

  13. Jane Says:

    I prefer Taipei for its street food. Shilin nightmarket was awesome! I prefer Shanghai and Beijing for more formal restaurant types of foods. Shanghai for southern cuisine and Beijing for northern cuisine (noodles, dumplings, Xinjiang dishes).

    I don’t know if it is proper to compare Taipei against Mainland cities at this point in time. After all, people in Mainland China starved for the better half of the twentieth century. It is natural that its food culture may have been stunted a little bit. Also, why is it that Taiwanese people think Stinky Tofu is a Taiwanese dish, I distinctively remember eating it in Mainland China before any cross strait culture exchanges happened. Anyway, in terms of food, Taiwanese people should thank the Nationalists and count their blessings that they didn’t starve like Mainlanders.

  14. Allen Says:

    @boo boo about the spelling of “strait,” thanks for catching my spelling error!

    @wukong about mixing “trash talk” and “cuisine” in one title – I guess you are right – hopefully putting quotation marks around “trash talk” would help a little…

  15. FOARP Says:

    I say we broaden this out and have a pan-China one-on-one city-versus-city smack down, I’d make a (small) side-bet on Sichuan (Chengdu or Chongqing? I guess they’ll have to have a cook-off) winning, but then I’ve never been there.

  16. ChinkTalk Says:

    Anybody tried dog meat – what does it taste like.

    How is the dog slaughtered

    Do they eat dogs in Taiwan as well

  17. RMBWhat Says:

    Never been to Taiwan so don’t know. But one thing I enjoy about cities in China is that if you have the munchies 3 in the morning you can always find some place… And the food is usually good. Hey when you have the munchies anything is good lol. Street food just plain rocks! Anytime and anywhere.

    As for breakfast as much as I enjoy a western breakfast but I love a Chinese breakfast. Love to have some tofunao, or some jianbing or something shaobing, or those soup-dumplings in the morning. Hmmmm. Probably because I can go out and eat a American style breakfast anytime (waffle house lol) but hard for me to eat jianbing anywhere.

    @Chinkytalkychink (LOL! I know you are having a troll of a time)

    I tried dog meat once. In some Korean Chinese joint. It was in a stew, didn’t do it for me. I thought it would be really tasty or something but it was pretty bland. Maybe it’s because I don’t like stew? Never going to try anything like that again.

    Oh this little AJAX click to edit thing is nice.

  18. RMBWhat Says:

    Yuxiang Rousi
    Huiguorou (well, that one might be common abroad too these days)
    Ziran yangrou
    + most of the cold dishes, hotpot, shuan yangrou etc

    Oh yeah!!! I know everyone likes those.

  19. DS Says:

    Taiwan by a mile. China is not even close. Don’t let those flashy signs and expansive menus fool you. Walk into street corners and find some real treats. Yum-Yum-Yum-Yum!

  20. ChinkTalk Says:

    RMB – I guess I am influenced by the Western media to the point of being brain-washed on the subject of Chinese food and dogs. You kind of snapped me out of it. What am I thinking.

  21. RMBWhat Says:


    Glad I could help. Always nice to snap zombies out of their zombie state.

    Naw, I doubt it you are cured. Here is a shotgun blast to the brainz.

    Bye bye.

    *Chika BOOM*

    On a serious note. Are you mocking me? I guess you are. When did I ever say that the subject of eating dogs implies “western” propaganda. And I tell it like it is, I tell people in real life that I’ve tried dog meat once. No point in hiding it. Well, Chinese people eat anything, and they eat dogs. If you think that’s nasty because “name of your dog” was for dinner, that’s fine. Nobody is forcing you to “accept” it. But it is reality. I don’t mind it at all. And this is not some subjective moralist b.s. either. Universally killing of other human beings is prima facie wrong. But I don’t think eating habits of different societies should be considered something that is universal.

    Now for a real piece of the media propaganda I present this (fine, it is biased. I admit):


    And you go ahead and believe that western media is not a bit biased. Now do I think there is anything “wrong” with that. I don’t, because I know in every society there is a dominate paradigm, it’s a fact of life.

  22. TonyP4 Says:

    The rarer the food, the more tastier, expensive and better for your body it is. A myth to me.

    Shark fin soup and bird’s nest soup are over-priced to me – make me sick to slaughter the sharks just for the fins. I do not think monkey’s brain makes me smarter or some animal’s penis makes me a better lover (I do not say I’m not capable in that department). The wild birds may cause bird flu. The Cantonese eat everything with 4 legs (and some two) except the table.

    My long stay in US makes my taste similar to the average American.

    In China, I ate in established restaurants. I am always worry about the water and whether the food is clean.

  23. RMBWhat Says:

    Oh yeah, I’m definitely not cool with killing sharks etc for food.

  24. Wukailong Says:

    @Hongkonger (#12): I was just making fun of a common perception here that you’re “used to” food. I don’t really mind it when locals ask the question whether I’m used to Chinese food or not since I know they think about it that way, I just find it amusing.

    I would say I prefer European for breakfast, and probably Chinese for lunch and dinner… Though I don’t suffer when I’m with my parents who of course eat the food they grew up on. I think I’m one of the few people on this forum to enjoy pickled herring and crisp bread for breakfast. 🙂

  25. Hongkonger Says:

    WKL, # 24

    Oh, I see…I totally missed your joke. Sorry. I’m not the brightest bulb in this room, I’m afraid 🙂

    Pickled herring and crisp bread for breakfast, huh? I won’t slam it since I’ve never sampled your homemade version of the said-breakfast. Oh, crisp bread I like. As for pickled herring, I need a nice ice cold soda, ice lemon tea or some tangy white wine to wash off the fishy taste in my mouth. Or perhaps a couple dashes of tasbasco if only beer or a glass of ice water is available.

    Hey, actually, Hong Kong, as my friend there pointed out, has the best selection of genuine Chinese, Taiwanese, western – in other words, world cuisnes!

  26. Charles Liu Says:

    Michael @ 9, “fear anything spicy or hot”? Go to Taipei 101 food court and order some stinky tofu or “late night chitlin stew” (五更腸望).

  27. Allen Says:

    @Michael Turton,

    There’s a reason the peasants give up peasant food

    Thanks for the url to Prince Roy’s blog. That was very interesting…

    As for lou rou fan, I am sorry to see you don’t appreciate peasant food!

  28. boo boo Says:

    Hey, no problem. Just a pet peeve of mine, probably because I’ve done it myself!

  29. chriswaugh_bj Says:

    @ChinaTalk: Dog is kinda disappointing. Somewhere between beef and mutton, very ordinary, not that astounding, “Oh shit, I’m eating Rover” kinda flavour you’d expect. I much prefer donkey, although the texture is a bit on the squishy side.

    Now, who mentioned doufunao? Dammit! Now you’ve got me hungry for tofu brains! Haven’t had that for ages!

    As for which city would win some kind of cuisine competition, whoever suggested that: Changsha would kick all of Sichuan and Chongqing into oblivion easily, and then they’d bring out their good chefs. Ya can’t beat Hunan for sheer culinary awesomeness.

    Can’t compare the Mainland with Taiwan, though. I’ve never yet ventured to that renegade province.

  30. Chops Says:

    My taste for sea cucumber waned somewhat after finding out it’s a slug feeding on the sea floor. 🙁

  31. little Alex Says:

    Neither. Hong Kong all the way, baby. :p

    troll much? but to take you at face value, like chris said, between beef and mutton. it used to be available just across the hk/shenzhen border back when I was a kid, but nowadays…

  32. Steve Says:

    Hmm… I’d say of the two, I narrowly prefer the food in Taiwan because the raw food rather than the preparation is better. For lamb and mutton, I like the northern Chinese restaurants, for hot pot I prefer Shanghainese and for spicy I’d go with Singaporean. My only real concern in China was how fresh and pure things were, especially the fish. I remember ocean fish were pricier than river fish because of pollution concerns. However, if you love street food as much as I do, be sure to get your Hepatitis A shots before you go, whether you’re in Taiwan or China.

    Both countries tend to go crazy with the MSG, so be very careful if that bothers you. In the NY Times article they mention a restaurant in our old neighborhood (Ximending) called Ay-Chung Flower-Rice Noodle. My Taiwanese wife and I have tried it but the MSG was too much for us. Din Tai Fung is excellent in Taipei, very good in Shanghai but pretty bad in Los Angeles. Most of my local friends in Shanghai now prefer Din Tai Fung (in the Xintiandi shopping area) over Nanxiang Mantou Dian, the supposedly original xiao long bao restaurant. I liked both and would definitely recommend them.

    I haven’t been to Hunan province itself so I’m no expert but the best Hunan food I’ve had is at Di Shui Dong on Maoming Nan Lu in the French Concession in Shanghai. The spicy spare ribs are fantastic and the waitresses wear the traditional blue pajama like outfits, prices are reasonable and dress is casual. Another really nice restaurant in Shanghai is Xiao Nan Guo. It’s Shanghainese style and though they have several locations, I usually went to the branch inside the Ruijin Hotel on Ruijin Lu, also in the French concession. My favourite dish was their pork trotter, not sure what you call it in Chinese but the one with the pork fat on top and cut into chunks (also easy to find in Taiwan). They also had the best salad I ever tasted in China.

    One to skip is Meilongzhen Jiujia in Shanghai. It’s in all the guidebooks and has been there for a very long time, but this was the general consensus among myself and all the Shanghainese with me.

    In Taipei, my favourite meal is actually breakfast. We just walk to one of many breakfast places and order the shen dou jang (not sure about the spelling but my wife translates it as salty soybean though it’s not salty at all), egg pancake, and a dish made from turnip, something like laboga? (can anyone help on this one?) Afterwards, wash it down at an 85C coffee shop, way cheaper than Starbucks and better coffee. I liked the coffee milk tea that is like the Indian milk tea with the marsala spices but they have all the usual ones.

    If you have an opportunity to try a real Hakka (kejia) restaurant, the food is awesome. It’s hard to find good ones in Taipei but easy in the four main Hakka cities of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli and Pingtung. I’ve had vegetables there that I’ve never seen anywhere else. In general, the vegetables in Taiwan are much better than in China, especially kong xin cai (empty heart vegetable), which is my favourite of all.

    One dish that TommyBahamas mentioned is Ma Po dou-fu. Made correctly, it’s definitely one of my favourites. I’ve only had good ma po dou fu in China; when I tasted it in Taiwan it was terrible, though there might be good places for it that I haven’t tried. Another dish I really like is Shanxi noodles, handmade rolled and sliced thick so they are really chewy and not thin like the pulled ones.

    As time passes, the food gets better and better in China so the differences are less and less. I guess the nicest thing about Taiwan is that there are so many cooking styles to try that are unique from each other. Hey, let’s not argue, let’s eat!!

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