In the open kitchen of a bare-bones, brightly lit café on Ningxia Road in the historic Datong District of Taipei, a chef in a flat white cap and an auspiciously coloured red apron is standing guard over a vast, bubbling pan of eggs, oysters, sweet-potato starch and greens. Using a metal spatula, he gently coaxes this seething mass into eight distinct omelettes; when they are cooked, he flips each onto a plate to be anointed with a ladleful of sweet, hot, sticky sauce. The restaurant, Yuan Huan Bian, has been selling these omelettes in the middle of the Ningxia Night Market since 1965, and the straggling queue outside is testament to their enduring popularity. In the window, in an equally auspicious shade of red, is a big sticker proclaiming the restaurant’s inclusion in the inaugural Michelin Guide to Taipei, launched last year.
A few yards away at stalls 8 and 10, Rong’s Pork Liver – an even more basic establishment – boasts a coveted Bib Gourmand, awarded to the Michelin inspectors’ “Favourites for Good Value”, although there is no red sticker visible here, probably because there is nowhere to stick it. After queuing for a few minutes, I am ushered to a stool and given a bowl of pork liver and tripe soup: surprisingly delicate, with a hint of ginger in its depths and a few shimmering dots of sesame oil on its surface.
Taipei’s 2.7 million residents love eating out, so much so that many studio apartments lack kitchens, and the city’s increasing prosperity has seen down-home food stalls joined by hundreds of more ambitious restaurants representing dozens of cuisines. It is an easy city to visit, with much of it laid out in a generous grid system and simple to negotiate by taxi or public transport. The Japanese, who occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, demolished much Qing-era architecture, including the old city walls (only the North Gate remains more or less untouched) and laid out a deliberately western-style city of wide boulevards and open spaces. Many of this era’s buildings – the Presidential Office Building, the National Taiwan Museum – are surprisingly neoclassical in style. Even in the old, higgledy-piggledy merchants’ quarter of Datong, alongside the Tamsui river, these additions, fashioned from then-revolutionary reinforced concrete, jostle with wooden Qing-era houses, while more recently, Xinyi District, east of the city, has become its modern financial and governmental hub, with the dizzying Taipei 101 skyscraper its crowning glory.
Taipei is also increasingly exalted as a gastronomic destination by visitors from Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China; its history of Japanese occupation and as a home for migrants from every corner of China, has resulted in a range of cooking styles as diverse as its architecture. Its culinary scene has till now remained undiscovered by most westerners; I suspect, now that Michelin has awarded Taipei’s restaurants with 24 stars and 36 Bib Gourmands, that will change.
Guide books are one thing; word of mouth is another. My gastronomic perambulations were in large part steered by two expert local palates: Kurt Kuo, a London-based chef who grew up here and has a deeply felt nostalgia for milkfish belly and pork-blood soup; and Stella Wang, who works for Mandarin Oriental, Taipei – where the guide was launched last March – and who has a fondness for tripe, pork with sticky rice and even stinky tofu: “As long as it’s deep-fried, not steamed.”
The Mandarin Oriental’s Chinese restaurant, Ya Ge, earned one of Michelin’s new stars for chef Tse Man, and quite rightly too: his cuisine is as refined and opulent as the dining room, blending Taiwanese ingredients with Cantonese technique. Grilled mullet roe and leek rests on a tangle of tiny beansprouts; maqaw (mountain pepper) seasons mud crab and lemongrass; deep-fried cubes of (non-stinky) tofu are paired with an XO sauce made with local shrimps. His luxurious version of three-cup chicken, a Taiwanese favourite made with equal parts sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine, showcases lobster instead of poultry and is headily fragrant with local basil. I was taken with the maqaw, which has a distinct flavour of lemongrass and a hint of Szechuan pepper, so Stella took me to Zhongshan District, where we tracked down a packet in one of the many Aladdin’s cave-type grocers that make up the city’s Binjiang Market. It is a food lover’s paradise: the air sings with the aroma of fresh garlic and young ginger roots; slender, elegant bunches of spring onions look as if they have just been plucked from the soil, as do amaranth leaves of vivid purple and jade green. Stella spots a stack of luffa, her favourite vegetable – “best cooked with salty duck eggs”, she advises. Just over the road, the fishmongers’ slabs are flamboyantly laid out with crimson perch, yellow croakers, blue-green parrotfish; there are cleaned squid, too, ready to be floured, spiced and fried as a snack.
The adjacent Addiction Aquatic Development (Stella assures me that many business names sound much more beautiful in Chinese) is a different kettle of fish. Huge concrete tanks hold live seafood of all kinds: you pick your flappingly fresh lunch or supper and have it cooked to your liking for a small extra charge. Addiction’s funky, filament-bulb-lit shop next door has a distinctly hipster edge, with a smart sushi counter and craft beers for sale. We stood and ate sushi and miso-marinated white fish outside, as well as a smuggled carton of Stella’s favourite pork and sticky rice, enhanced with duck gizzards, that she’d bought from a nearby stall; washed down with a frosty can of Taiwan-brand beer, it made a splendid mid-morning snack.
Many of the old merchant houses that line the northern section of Dihua Street, in Datong, are also frequented by young, cool locals: sensitively converted into galleries and boutiques, they have a style that bridges the gap between the old city and its new bohemianism, with goods ranging from bespoke knives and wooden kitchen paraphernalia to handwoven fabrics, organic rice, vinegars and sesame oil. At No 302, Gallery Life-Seeding (“sounds better in Chinese”, Stella reminds me) offers visitors a taste of one of Taiwan’s most precious commodities. The same mountainous topography that produces the superb produce in Binjiang Market has also, for centuries, been perfect for growing tea, particularly semi-oxidised oolong, and Life-Seeding has a range for sale, some of them wild. You can, as I did, taste before you buy, in a serene, unhurried process of filling and refilling a small pot, extracting different, unexpected flavours each time the leaves are refreshed. To the front of the shop is a display of exquisite hand-thrown pots and cups, all for sale; to the rear, a gallery of changing exhibitions; and between them are the tasting room and a dresser full of teas, some from the 1980s. To taste, a booking is necessary, but a visit here is a must.
The smell of food is omnipresent in Taipei, but so are wafts of burning incense (the city’s thousands of temples venerate spirits and gods from Chinese folk religion, as well as Buddhist deities) and Dihua Street is no exception. The Xia-Hai City God Temple honours the City God and the City God’s Wife, but the Matchmaker is the main attraction: lovelorn locals and tourists throng the courtyard and temple in search of a partner, joss sticks in hand. Should you find true love, you are expected to return with wedding cookies to express your gratitude.
And so to lunch: a bowl of beef-noodle soup, rapidly becoming Taiwan’s national dish. It features heavily in The Michelin Guide, which has awarded Bib Gourmands to eight beef-noodle joints: I went to Yong Kang Beef Noodle, on Jinshan South Road, established in 1963 by an ex-soldier from Szechuan. Its superb version is spicier than the norm, full of slippery noodles and long-braised chunks of meltingly tender beef, with pickled cabbage and a jar of eye-wateringly fierce chilli paste on the side. Do not, as I did, attempt this soup while wearing a light-coloured shirt.
That advice also holds true for xiao long bao, the famous Shanghai soup dumplings, appropriated by the Taiwanese to such an extent that toddlers seem to be weaned on them. They are classically made from jellied stock and chopped pork wrapped in a delicately fluted dough skin; the stock melts as the dumplings are steamed, and the idea is to dip one into a mixture of rice vinegar, soy sauce and finely shredded ginger, manoeuvre it with chopsticks onto a spoon, pierce the skin to let the juices out, then swallow it whole.
Din Tai Fung are the global masters of xiao long bao, with outlets in a dozen countries (one opened in London last December) and six in Taipei alone. And there is Hangzhou Xiao Long Bao – like DTF, awarded a Bib Gourmand – with two restaurants in the city. I went to the DTF in the food-hall basement of the giant Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store. Jolly good they were too, but not as fine, I thought, as those at the Songshan branch of Hangzhou Xiao Long Bao, recommended by Kurt: smaller, paler and more delicate, with excellent pork. The restaurant itself is lovely, with pleasingly woody decor and – despite a preponderance of families on a Sunday afternoon – a calm atmosphere. (The offspring were heavily sedated with dumplings, I think.)
Back at the Ningxia Night Market, and still a little peckish (despite having stopped en route to sample cold noodles with sesame sauce – highly recommended by Kurt – and a bowl of eggy broth at Fu De in Zhongshan), I head for Liu Yu Zi (stall 91), another Bib Gourmand recipient, in search of taro balls with salted egg yolk and pork floss. Sadly, it is shut, so I head instead – through a brief waft of stinky tofu – to the Roasted Beef emporium (stall 6) for a final fix of Taipei’s street food. Slabs of heavily marbled beef, garish scarlet under the bright neon, are scissored into cubes by the stallholder and scattered with cumin and salt. Expertly wielding his turbocharged blowtorch, he turns them with his tongs as they spit and sizzle, like a spot-welder who fancied a career change. He decants the cubes of steak into a cardboard carton and hands me a toothpick.
As I carelessly spear chunks of the rare flesh and meditate on the joyous nature of alfresco eating in a city that seems addicted to food, the juices drip down another blameless shirt. My laundry bill, it occurs to me, will almost certainly be higher than my food bill: in Taipei, a gourmand really needs a bib.