Here’s what and where to eat in fascinating Taipei

Donato Marzolla spent a few months working in Taiwan’s capital. Here are his notes, with some tasty anecdotes...

17-05-2019
Donato Marzolla (first from the right), chef Pao

Donato Marzolla (first from the right), chef Paolo Morresi discovering Taipei

So here I am ready to tell you about another place on the other side of the road. Little over a year ago I was in Antigua and told you about my winter experience in the Caribbean Islands; then we celebrated the stars at Due Camini al Borgo Egnazia; soon I’ll start a brand new journey; before that, here’s another great work and life experience from the past few months. Where? InTaipei. At first I didn’t even know where it was, then I found out it’s the capital of Taiwan, the huge island in front of China.

It’s a place that in some ways is fantastic, very interesting and different from our lifestyle – it wouldn’t be right to say if for better or for worse. Taipei has a peculiar culture, very different form the European one, with lots of inspiration we can draw from and possibly bring to our beautiful Italy.

Here’s some things that stuck in my mind, before focusing on the food scene.

To reach that country and work there, as I did for a few months, there’s a special procedure that includes multiple hospital tests (eyes, breathing, audiometrics, pressure, blood, X rays...), and then they give you a sort of insurance number with which you can obtain a visa from the Ministry of Immigration and at the Consulate... I did all this starting with a taxi from the place where I was staying, in less than three hours’ time, and after seven days all the papers were ready and stamped. Every comparison with our country would be pitiless.

In Taipei the most popular means of transport is the scooter. Their movements are well ruled: at traffic lights, if you must turn left, you move to the right where there’s a specific area marked on the road: when it’s green, you can go. Every time you put petrol in the tank, they give you a bottle of water as a gift, or a pack of napkins .There are frequent controls from the local police and almost always this includes test for alcohol: if you’re positive, they send you straight to prison for the night, and then there will be a pricey fine too.

Strict controls are the rule here. There’s CCTV everywhere (which is questionable, I agree) there’s a very low crime rate and you can leave your scooter helmet – everyone wears a helmet – without having to keep an eye on it and be afraid it will disappear.

So here are a few colourful notes. But how about the food? First of all, something I’ve started to hate: they use chopsticks – which is normal – but they also suck the food noisily when bringing it to the mouth, even if it’s long pasta and if – alas – it’s a soup.

I tried many local specialties. Some are truly good, like oyster omelette, sausage in rice bread, pork soup (strictly boiling), sugar cane juice, papaya juice with herbs, Taiwanese black tea, as well as a local whisky that received many awards. On the other hand, there are things that fully deserve a place in my black list such as black fermented egg (it’s truly black... and tastes of ammonia!), stinky tofu (literally. It’s a fermented tofu often sold as a street food snack), the “fresh” meat from local markets, left in the open air.

Black eggs on sale

Black eggs on sale

Black tea from Taiwan

Black tea from Taiwan

Taipei has plenty of international restaurants: I think it’s fantastic how you can go around and taste so many multi-ethnic specialties all over the place. In these months I’ve eaten a lot of soups, rice and noodles; I often enjoyed the excellent Korean cuisine with mushrooms, herbs, leaves and spices. There’s some lovely Italian cuisine too, thanks to chefs like Paolo Morresi at Il Mercato, of whom I’ve already written (Paolo Morresi: how to make excellent Italian food in Taipei). Here, on top of the restaurant itself, there’s a sort of cooking school where all the products we import, strictly Italian, are explained and offered for the guests to taste. The cellar has an excellent choice; with Coravin we can offer a taste of different bottles so that people can find out about our excellences; this is helping Italian wine and grappe to grow, whereas up until the recent past the market was dominated by France.

Paolo Morresi, Donato Marzolla, Enrico Derflingher

Paolo Morresi, Donato Marzolla, Enrico Derflingher

But on top of Il Mercato, what other culinary experience shouldn’t you miss? I certainly recommend a visit to the famous local night marketsamong the most famous ones there’s the one in Shilin, where you can taste local food, from sweets to savoury, with fruit drinks and pressed sugar cane, all made right there and then. You can find lots of stands, some of which are even mentioned in the Michelin guide.

Why are these night markets in Taiwan so popular? There’s a simple reason. Locals don’t enjoy cooking, and, since they don’t have a family culinary tradition, they are used to eat street food every day, for a low price, mostly based on rice and vegetables, and then spices, pork and chicken. In the end, eating out is much more convenient.

A kiosk at the market in Shilin recommended on the Michelin guide

A kiosk at the market in Shilin recommended on the Michelin guide

What should you taste? Here are some specialties I’ve already mentioned.

·       Pig’s blood cake: it’s fun. It’s a mix of glutinous rice, pork blood and a sauce made with a broth from the same pork, with soy. It’s all on a skewer, cooked in a beautiful gigantic steamer and finally breaded with coriander and chopped peanuts. You won’t try it a second time!

·       Soup of pork shin: spicy pork broth (coriander, ginger, shallot and garlic, soy sauce and... Coca Cola) with bits of pork shin.

·       Omelette with local oysters: ugly but really, really good. It’s paired with a sweet and spicy sauce of chilli pepper and lemon that balances the sapidity of the molluscs.

·       Taiwanese castella: a sweet that looks like a sponge, but very, very soft, with egg white, flour, milk, butter and sugar. It’s cooked in a bain marie in the oven. Excellent.

·       Beef soup with noodles: noodles soup, braised beef (muscle, tripe, tendons, ribs), beef broth, vegetables and wheat noodles. They usually serve some shallot on the side.

·       Stinky tofu: and the name is well deserved. Every time you’re close to a stand selling it, you can tell… by the smell. It’s a soy cheese fermented and then boiled (in a soup or a stew) or fried and paired with soy sauce or a hot sauce. The fried tofu is often paired with sliced cucumber, sweet and sour cabbage and a sauce of garlic (for fried tofu). You make a hole with the chopstick in the middle, so it absorbs the sauces. The boiled tofu is served in a soup: it’s basically a spicy vegetal broth.

·       Lu rou fan: it’s the national dish par excellence. Boiled rice with pork stew (cooked in sugar, soy sauce, cinnamon, star anise, ginger and Sichuan pepper). A “poor” Taiwanese dish, easy to find in every corner.

·       Whisky Kavalan: gold medal in 2018. Really one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted (even though I was not convinced at first).

Finally, here are some tips as to where you can eat all these specialties.

Tower inside shopping centre 101

Tower inside shopping centre 101

The skyscraper of Shopping centre 101 (No.7, Sec. 5, Xinyi Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City 110) is surely one of the meeting points for all gourmets. It will satisfy all sorts of palates, offering Taiwanese cuisine, Korean, Japanese, as well as the classic kiosks selling burgers and fried food. Plus there are many people selling fruit juices in every corner of the city. Try the pressed local papaya but don’t neglect the one with guava, or the local pineapple (also used for a famous dessert). There are also bubble tea franchising places everywhere.

Bubble tea

Bubble tea

The people in Taiwan are great enthusiasts of coffee and tea. Their bubble tea is a mix of tea, milk and tapioca bubbles. So basically you must drink the tea while chewing these jelly bubbles with an aftertaste of milk … Interesting to try, but very strange.

And how about gourmet dinners? Here are three places:

Delicacies at Addiction Aquatic Development 

Delicacies at Addiction Aquatic Development 

Addiction Aquatic Development (18號, Alley 2, Lane 410, Minzu East Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, addiction.com.tw): a large open air market. Medium-high target, plenty of emotions. Famous for crab and sushi in general 

The dining room at Nihonryori-ryugin 

The dining room at Nihonryori-ryugin 

Nihonryori-ryugin (301號, Lequn 3rd Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, www.nihonryori-ryugin.com.tw): 2 Michelin stars, Japanese cuisine, it’s almost impossible to book a table.

A dish at Le Palais

A dish at Le Palais

Le Palais de Chine (No. 3號, Section 1, Chengde Road, Datong District, Taipei 103, www.palaisdechinehotel.com): 3 Michelin stars, Chinese-Cantonese cuisine. Fantastic setting with antique Chinese furniture, supported by a good service (something rare in Taiwan).

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso 


SEE ALSO: Paolo Morresi: how to make excellent Italian food in Taipei, by Donato Marzolla


Sections

Dal Mondo

Reviews, recommendations and trends from the four corners of the planet, signed by all the authors of Identità Golose