Food & Drink

In Taiwan, top chefs are building on a long history of culinary exchange with Japan

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

At 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, the Raohe Street Night Market in downtown Taipei is heaving. A line snakes in front of a stand selling caramelized pork buns near the grand, red gate that marks the entrance, and groups wander through the rows of vendors, munching on skewers of grilled squid and slurping down bowls of noodle soup with fish balls. Amid stalls pungently redolent of fermented stinky tofu — an iconic Taiwanese snack — hawkers sell local versions of Japanese dishes such as tempura, kushiage (breaded, fried morsels on skewers), and takoyaki (octopus dumplings) made with baby octopus, their curled tentacles peeking out of the dough like fleshy, purple chrysanthemums.

Japanese influence is apparent throughout Taiwan’s culinary landscape. In addition to restaurants serving sushi and bento boxes, Japanese chains such as Mos Burger can be found on every corner of Taipei’s central districts. Japanese is one of Taiwan’s most popular cuisines and Japan “continues to be a top destination for Taiwanese tourists,” who travel for “everything from desserts to ramen,” says blogger Joan H., of the food site Hungry in Taipei.

But the connection between the two cultures runs deeper than mere affection. Japanese flavors are thoroughly integrated into Taiwanese cuisine, a unique hybrid of food traditions that has evolved from the interactions of ethnic groups that have historically populated the island — namely, indigenous tribes of Austronesian descent, Han Chinese settlers and Japanese immigrants. Locals sprinkle dried bonito flakes on glossy black century eggs, while dashi stock forms the base of mian xian, a thick, brown vermicelli soup containing oysters, pig intestines and chili oil.

Japan’s gastronomic legacy here traces its roots to 1895, when Japanese forces occupied Taiwan, bringing ingredients and customs from their native country, along with advanced agricultural techniques. As scholar David Wu writes in the anthology “Re-Orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-first Century,” the Japanese introduced short-grain rice, the mountain yam and the use of sugar in food preparation. Despite a rocky start, the 50-year period of colonization was marked by widespread reforms in infrastructure, education and industry that helped launch Taiwan into the modern era. Positive associations with Japanese rule — together with the current fondness for Japanese pop culture — have kept Japanese recipes alive and part of the cultural consciousness.

In recent years, the region’s blossoming high-end food scene has begun attracting widespread global attention. Led by young chefs such as Taiwanese-born Andre Chiang, of Restaurant Andre in Singapore, the new generation of culinary talent is embracing indigenous ingredients while celebrating the island’s multifaceted cultural identity. At Raw, his sleek upscale eatery in Taipei, Chiang has established what he calls “a platform for Taiwanese culture,” where updated classics showcase local products and flavors.

In the hills outside of the southern city of Kaohsiung, Alex Peng is re-inventing aboriginal cuisine at Akame, which offers wild ingredients cooked over a wood-fire grill. At Mume in Taipei, Noma alums Richie Lin, Long Xiong and Kai Ward combine forces to create an eclectic style of modern cooking that uses native ingredients almost exclusively. Building on the early-20th-century tradition of making Japanese dishes with Taiwanese produce, Ryohei Hieda uses giant cucumbers from Tainan and local freshwater fish in his refined kaiseki (multi course cuisine) at Shoun Ryugin, a sibling of the three-Michelin-starred Ryugin in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

“Taiwan has always been a culinary crossroads,” says Cathy Chao, co-founder of the International Chefs Summit Asia (ICSA), which took place in Taipei last autumn. “It’s time to show our potential to the world.”

The past few years have brought opportunities for audiences in Japan to experience the new wave of Taiwan’s culinary offerings at dinner events featuring the region’s top chefs. In October, Akame’s Alex Peng took over restaurant Anis, Susumu Shimizu’s grilled meat specialist in the Hatsudai neighborhood of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. The team from Mume visited Tokyo twice, to cook at restaurants Den and Liberte a Table de Takeda, where guests dined on tostadas made from Taiwanese quinoa topped with ayu sweetfish and vegetables dressed in a vinaigrette laced with fermented black beans.

“It’s easy for Japanese people to understand our concept,” observes Mume’s Richie Lin, who plans to return to Tokyo for another collaborative dinner event later this year. “I’m a big fan of Japanese food and am strongly inspired by it. I use a lot of umami-rich elements and, when I’m cooking in Japan, I look for local, seasonal ingredients combined with some unique foods from Taiwan.”

In the spirit of continued culinary exchange, Japanese chefs such as Den’s Zaiyu Hasegawa, Liberte a Table de Takeda’s Kenji Takeda and Hiroyasu Kawate, of Florilege in Tokyo, have also traveled to Taiwan for guest-chef dinners. This year, Kawate will open a more casual outpost of his contemporary Japanese-French fusion restaurant in Taipei.

The legacy of Japan’s impact on Taiwan’s dynamic food traditions endures in the mutual affinity between the two cultures, but the region’s restaurant scene has finally come into its own. Judging from recent developments, exciting things are yet to come.