Taiwanese Cuisine: Overrated?

19 Nov 2006

Prince Roy in Taiwan:

> I consider it one of my biggest tasks to dispel the myth that Chinese food in Taiwan is ‘the best in the world’. It is one that many foreigners living in Taiwan buy into uncritically. For instance, in the No. 5 issue of Taiwanease, Albert Creak, author of the article “In Search of the Pu Pu Platter”, enthusiastically agrees with a guy named Mr. Lin who tells him: “Once you’ve tried the Chinese food in Taiwan, you’ll never want to eat at another American Chinese restaurant again.” Not only does this perpetuate a harmful vicious cycle which overrates the quality of Chinese food in Taiwan, it is woefully and demonstrably inaccurate. It’s high time we take off the blinders and face the truth: yes, Chinese food is good here, but it’s no great shakes, especially compared with the PRC, and it now lags behind the USA as well.

> I couldn’t have made this argument thirty or even twenty years ago, but the simple fact is that time has marched on and left the culinary world of Taiwan behind….

Read the rest of the entry.

I’m not much of a gourmet. The problem is I tend to like most things I eat. I’m just not critical enough. The way I see it this works out in my favor in the long run, but it’s a reason I don’t normally shout my opinions on food from the rooftops. It’s interesting then, to see Prince Roy’s take. When I was in Taiwan I found the food good, but not amazingly good. The scene seemed similar to Shanghai’s: plenty of mediocre offerings, but also plenty of great food if you can afford it and know where to go.

Share

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. what is Chinese food in Taiwan?More accurately, it should be interpreted as Taiwanese food. the term ‘Chinese food’ itself is a mixture of various local cuisines across China. Like Sichuan food, Dongbei food as well as Suzhou/Shanghai food, taiwanese food is just taiwanese food, from my point of view.

    Chinese food in Monterey Park in LA is extremely well-made……no worse than any couterparts in China.

    I have once eaten taiwanese food as my dinner after taking off from work for half a year. I considered it quick-served and relatively easy to find. I got at least 3 this types of resterant within 2 blocks on Jiangsu Rd, Changning District. It’s been disgusting to me since then. Love Dim Sum forever………………………………..no thing is better than delicate, eye-catchy dim sum.all I can say is WOW…..

  2. correction: nothing is better than delicate, eye-catchy dim sum.

  3. Greg Pasden Says: November 19, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    John, In my opinion, the Chinese food in Taiwan is better than the Chinese food in the USA. For me this is because it is less oily and there is more quality in the preparation of the food rather than hastily prepared food for the masses in the USA.

    Also (in my limited exposure) I noticed a difference in the Chinese food preparation in China compared to that in the USA. In China, they don’t seem to use the sections of meat that I am accustomed to in the USA. For example, the chicken or fish used in the USA is deboned and eye-less. In China, all meat seems to have bones incorporated in the servings (or fishheads with eyes– is eye sucking something of a treat in China?).

    I believe that When someone says that one cuisine (such as Asian/Chinese food) is better than another, then this is an opnion based on what they are familiar with or what they prefer. Familiarity, preferred Textures, colors, & tastes are all subjective factors that will influence each individuals tastes in different ways.

    With this being said… I think people should enjoy the experience with thier friends instead of worrying who has the bragging rights for that days meal. Who knows how much ones palette might change for the better when they pleasantly experience the sharing of a meal and making memories with their friends.

  4. Chinese food in Taiwan is better than the Chinese food in the USA. For me this is because it is less oily and there is more quality in the preparation of the food rather than hastily prepared food for the masses in the USA.

    Greg, where did you eat in Taiwan? I’m not a big fan of food swimming in grease either. I can definitely see where PR is coming from, at least when it comes to variety. The US has Chinese people from all over the place and as long as you’re not afraid to order from the Chinese menu, there are a lot of options.

    I was really impressed with the food in Beijing, both western and Chinese.

  5. No, I TOTALLY DISAGREE with your assessment!!! Chinese food and overall Taiwanese food is way better in Taiwan than in the U.S. Hell, even the food at the food court of Taiwanese malls are much better than many Chinese restaurants in America. I’ve yet to see a Chinese American restaurant in non-Chinese towns serve hot pot. They serve them everywhere in Taiwanese malls.

    The U.S. is populated with tons of Americanized Chinese restaurants that serve boring, common, greasy and fatty dishes like general tso’s chicken, kung pao chicken, fried lo mein, etc. Chinese food in Taiwan is less greasier and oilier and uses more fresh ingredients and I think more innovative. From what I hear Chinese food in Taiwan is less oilier, saltier and greasier than even Chinese food in China too. And in Taiwan they dont use questionable strange “meats” like they do in China. But of course in the end, everyone’s culinary tastes are different and subjective.

  6. Greg and Paul,

    I think that Prince Roy had two unspoken assumptions:

    1. That, as a foreigner, you are used to authentic Chinese cooking (issues with bones, etc.) and don’t mind it.

    2. That, in the States, you are capable of finding the decent Chinese restaurants. (I really don’t think he was comparing Taiwan’s finest restaurants to the “Panda Expresses” in American shopping mall food courts.)

    Hope that helps.

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: November 19, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    I’m also not much of a gourmet, and I’ve never been to Taiwan. But I live in the San Gabriel Valley and was wondering which 3 Chinese restaurants are the best in Prince Roy’s (or anyone else’s) opinion. Cuz when I think of really tasty food, I don’t especially think of Chinese food but sushi or Alaskan king-crab legs or something. I mean, my palate gets more joy from any medium-priced Japanese buffet than the best Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been in (though, I’ve never been in any truly high-priced ones).

  8. Japanese is great. There just isn’t much variety. I think one of Chinese cuisine’s strong points is its vast amount of dishes. (But you’re right about sushi….I mean come on, it’s sushi)

  9. I think there were many very good & authentic Chinese restaurants at all price ranges when I lived in Oakland (also in nearby San Francisco), and to some extent everywhere else in the US I’ve been. Judging them all by what’s available in malls isn’t fair. Food in malls is gross.

    On the other hand, good Japanese restaurants in the US are few and far between, and what is good is overpriced for what you get – whereas, I thought Japanese food in Japan was real good (and has a lot more variety than what’s available in the US). Personally the old-ish tuna sashimi with added fat you get at your average mid-priced Japanese-US restaurant isn’t even worth eating. It’s still better than the mid-priced Japanese food you get in Shanghai. My god.

  10. There’s definitely more variety in Japan (Don’t see much okonomiyaki in the states unfortunately), but as a cuisine, Japanese is much more limited than say, Chinese, or Italian.

  11. The best Chinese food out there?

    Striaght from dear old grandmum’s kitchen.

  12. Offtopic: I have a question for you guys.

    I’ve been studying Mandarin for three years now and recently discovered that a very simple method allows me to memorize and use far more words and in less period of time, compared to the any other method I’ve seen before. Now, not only that this method was not used in my schooling in any way, it was in fact used in the opposite way rendering my studies less effective. This idea can be implemented in text, podcasts whatever. I came upon this idea by pure accident due to some sort of a non usual way to studying Chinese — simply as I was too bored of the system.

    Now to the question: if I publish this idea, I doubt it can be patented in any way and can be easily imitated. So question is, how can one build a product from it? 🙂

  13. My Grandmother (oddly enough) goes to the back kitchen to school Chinese cooks, as often as not teaching them Hawaiian-Chinese foods which aren’t really Chinese.

    I’d take Oakland’s Shanghai Restaurant over Grandmother’s, any day of the week!

  14. Greg Pasden Says: November 20, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Mark,

    Answering your question about where I eat in Taiwan… I stay in Taipei quite often. I stay next the Taipei 101 at the Grand Hyatt. I usually dine with in a 5 mile radius (11Km radius) of the hotel. Therefore, I think I might be getting a commercialized or toned down version of real Taiwanese cooking. I continue to try new places with some of my local friends who are interested in showing me their city and culture.

    I see we agree that we do not like the oily Chinese foods… but I assume you like Asian foods. My favorite Types of Asian food is Thai because it is flavorful, colorful, healthy (for the most part) and not saturated with an over abundance of oil (plus they debone their fish, and meat… haha).

    Enjoy your time in TPE… I’ll be there this Friday thru Monday morning.
    Take care
    Greg P

  15. Greg:

    if you have time this weekend and would like to visit a very cool traditional Taiwanese teahouse, email me.

  16. Hi, John. I’m writing from Beijing. You have definitely been here, right? I came across your blog just now. Really like it. Keep up your good work. I’ll find time to read all your articles written both in English and Chinese. I’m also contemplating creating a blog like yours, both in English and Chinese, after the Spring Festival when I don’t need to work long hours as I do now every day.

    Wish you great success in learning Chinese and good luck in China!

  17. “oily Chinese foods” — when asked why it is so oily, the Taiwanese used to blame it on the mainland. 牛肉卷 is my recommendation of the day (at least I think it’s Taiwanese…)

  18. I don’t know what you guys are talking about. Nearly all Taiwanese food is swimming in oil. Even the soup here looks like an Exxon disaster. All food in Taiwan can be categorized into one easy group: “brown, salty, loaded with MSG and drowned in oil”. Even the vegetarian food is 99 parts oil, 1 part “unidentifiable plastic dog biscuit with neon pink die and flowers pressed on it”. In addition, the rice that the Taiwanese insist on comsuming is of the worst quality I’ve ever seen. Tiny, sticky, paper-flavored pebbles of mouth numbing gluten. I’ve been here for 5 years. When I first got here I loved Taiwanese food. I ate it for the first year here and put on 40kg. Then one day I realized that every food in Taiwan is uber-glutenous and and an MSG/oil timebomb. All of the bread here in all those ‘fabulously decorated’ bakeries taste like cake. Buy French Bread = get jet puffed marshallow that’s been heated till it’s brown on top. Since then, I’ve begun to consistantly refuse Taiwanese food and cook at home only. I’ve lost all the weight and actually enjoy eating again. The key to success is to first learn how to make EVERYTHING you like from scratch. This is necessary because, even in the grocery stores you’ll find nothing but instant noodles and row upon row of “salty, brown sauce”. Don’t let the bright colored vegetables fool you. They’ll end up in, yes: A brown, salty sauce. I’ve been all over the island and eaten with my wife’s family countless time at their home in Taichung Harbor. I’ve also tried the fares of countless other families and it’s all the same. The thing that dumbfounds me most about this subject is the fact that there are actually foreigners here who “swear there are good restaurants in Taiwan”. Well, yes guys, I’ve been to those “two” restaurants, and for the sake of an arguement, the “existance” of a couple of decent restaurants does vindicate your position. However, a couple of restaurants doesn’t make a “whole country” a treasure trove of cullinary delights. Learn to work around the 1 meter X 2 meter kitchen deterrent and redicover how good food used to be

  19. Max,

    you’re right to a point: the cafeteria places and little foodstands are exactly as you describe. I think you can get away from that in more traditional sit-down places, as far as the oil and ‘salty brown sauces’. MSG, on the other hand, is just a fact of Chinese restaurant life.

    For restuarants in Taipei that get away from the ills you’re referring to, I invite you to check out some of the reviews in my ‘Chinese Food’ section.

    I have to disagree with you about rice here. I like it. Not as good as Thai or Japanese (yes, there really is a difference), but light years better than India. No complaints from me in that department.

  20. Marco: I have disagree with you about Monterey Park. Outside of Asia, the best Chinese food is considered to be in Hongcouver. Second to that is Los Angeles, San Gabriel valley.. which means Montery Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel cities. Although Chinese food in LA is not bad, it is no where close to what it can be in Asia. Some dishes are just as good and a very few are even better, but in general, it is not good as it is in Asia.

    I can site several reasons and one is the basic ingredients. In the States, we have different breeds of poultry and pork. The pork in Asia is superior. Eat a 叉燒 in Asia and eat it in LA and one will see the large difference in the porks texture. The tenderness of Asian pork is unmatched. By the same token, beef in the PRC cannot match American beef. Many local ingredients cannot be found, so substitutions are made, i.e Chinese style 黃瓜 is rare in the States… so substitutions are made with typical hothouse cucumbers. Not hte same. I think the Chinese vegetables available in the states are just as good, but alas, we don’t have the same variety as in the PRC. We simply can get the more obscure local vegetables.

    Secondly, I feel that the same level of talent just doesn’t exist consistently in the States. A restaurant may have one or two star chefs in house… but the rest of the sous chefs cannot match the main chef’s caliber. Therefore quality control is a big issue here in the states, even at some of the best restaurants in LA. Very few restaurants have consistent quality.

    In my last couple trips to Hong Kong and the PRC, I spent most of time eating in larger restaurants. This coming trip, I hope to eat more local and smaller scale establishments…. I wonder if my opinion will change?

  21. the chinese food in california is better than other parts of the usa, IN fact the chinese food in california is better than the chinese food in taiwan or the mainland.

    A chinese person hates to hear this, Nothing is more insulting a chinese person than to tell him/her that the chinese food in the usa is better than china. One reason is that the best chefs leave china and work in american kitchens, especially in the bay area.

  22. There’s also the fact that Chinese food in the US has almost always been adapted to suit American tastes… When I talk to Chinese friends here, they frequently bemoan the 芥藍牛 “broccoli beef” style of food that seems to be the rule here. Buffets are cheap, but they’re also far from the real thing.

    When I went into what is supposed to be the best Sichuan restaurant around here and ordered 乾扁牛肉絲, actually a Hunan dish but common enough in Chuancai, they were delighted that I’d ever heard of the stuff.

    Also, most of the staff at Chinese restaurants in the US that I’ve met have been from Fujian, so a lot of the food here is influenced by that.

    One of the things I disliked most about Taiwan was the Chinese food. Other cuisines were pretty good — cheap Thai food, acceptable Mexican, some good Indian places, etc. — but the actual Chinese food, regardless of specific cuisine, was almost always exactly as Max describes it: “brown, salty, loaded with MSG and drowned in oil”. An occasional restaurant didn’t re-use their oil forever and load on the salt with a shovel, but it was far, far too rare.

  23. This depends on where you are in the US. Plus, not all Chinese food in the US is the same (or adapted to American tastes). You can get good Cantonese food at restaurants that cater to almost exclusively to Cantonese clientele in the Bay Area, for instance. Same with the Taiwanese “small eats” places that I’ve found in California.

  24. Atleast we can come to some kind of consensus that East Los Angeles/San Gabriel Valley has the best Chinese food in the US and possibly outside of China.

  25. the one thing i can agree with the above comments is the following:

    more hot pot restaurants are needed in the states. and not “shabu shabu”, but yinyunmala (not sure if that’s correct, but the 1/2 mala, 1/2 regular) haugua.

    during the time i spent in taiwan, most of my food came from my girlfriend’s mom’s kitchen. the bounty of fresh veggies straight from the local fields was great and healthy.

    perhaps a great number of you are eating as tourist/foreigners do…junk shops. eat like the locals and you’ll eat better foods. **case in point: tourists come to nyc and feast on pizza, bagels and doughnuts. do you really think that’s what all the locals are eating everyday?

  26. Jeanne Wang Says: January 6, 2007 at 11:33 am

    The Chinese food in the U.S. is actually Cantonese because most Chinese in U.S. and Canada are Cantonese. It’s very hard to find a Taiwanese restaurant in Canada and the U.S. Also, Taiwanese food may look oily but it is not. When you cook Taiwanese food you use some oil at the beginning of the stir fry and towards the end you add water. That’s how my Mom cooked Taiwanese food.

  27. I must say, although Chinese food in America is coming closer to the standard of Chinese food on the Mainland, it’s still far too off to truly compare. Many complain about the oil in foods but I’ve had several enjoyable meals with light sauces and meats with little of the heavy bog of grease.

    There are some foods here you just can’t get anywhere else as fresh and good. Like Da Ja Xie (river crabs), and Xia long bao.

  28. MSG gives me a splitting, 5-hour headache, which starts only around 45 minutes after I’ve eaten, so I had to learn early on to say, “bu jia wei jin!”

    It took me awhile, but I eventually learned which dishes to always avoid in Taiwan, and which dishes CAN be prepared without MSG…if I am able to impress upon the cook clearly enough that I don’t want a-n-y MSG, not even “yi dian dian”. So most things prepared AFTER you order are OK, or things that are only cooked in water (like shui-jiao, hwun-dwun, etc.).

    Because I am allergic to MSG, one of my favorites is ma-jiang (sesame/tahini) noodles, or other types of gan mian (dry noodles).

    But you have to be careful. I sometimes get MSG even in sweet snacks, such as that sweet, brown powder they give you to dip mwa-ji or even fresh cut fruit in.

  29. There’s tons of MSG everywhere. I guess you don’t have Doritos or salad dressing either.

    Most Chinese food in most of the US was traditionally Cantonese (really, Cantonese suited to American tastes). That was the Chinese restaurant scene 30 years ago. These days, that’s not so much the case, and you can find honest-to-god Taiwanese food operated by people from Taiwan where there are concentrations of folks from Formosa (greater LA, parts of the South Bay/Silicon Valley).

  30. Come on, what did you expect of Chinese food in Taiwan? Taiwanese people aren’t Chinese any more than Americans are British. It’s like expecting good fish and chips in Brokeback, Wyoming. Think of Taiwan as a little duckling that wandered off from the brood many centuries ago, and was raised by a succession of vastly different foster parents, and it should be no surprise that the “Chinese” cuisine on the island doesn’t quite taste Chinese.

    But if you’re in Taiwan, mealtime is an opportunity to explore the local cuisine. After all, Taiwanese are better at preparing their own foods than they are at preparing Chinese (a deficiency they probably attempt to compensate by using MSG!). So I recommend exploring night markets and the siao-chih (“small eats”) where you can get authentic Taiwanese food and desserts. For the curious foreigner, Taiwan offers a unique culinary experience. Though influenced by the Chinese style (soy sauce and other soy-based foods are prominent), a couple centuries of divergent evolution on a tropical island with little natural resources have introduced some differences. You’ll see the wide use of Japanese-style rice wine, cilantro, basil, sesame seed oil. Indigenous food include dried shredded pork, referred to by some as “pork floss,” sweetened pork jerky with a variety of spices (unlike American jerky, the Taiwanese variety remains slightly moist and is much easier to chew), pickled turnip omelettes, and a whole plethora of seafood dishes. For sweets, lots of red beans and green beans, taro, made into all sorts of jellies, pastries and soups, and plenty of tropical fruits like star-fruit, papaya, “li-chee.” And of course, bubble milk tea. And that’s not an exhaustive list. Save your stomach allocation for Chinese food until your trip to China, where the Chinese food is superior. But in Taiwan, Taiwanese food cannot be beat.

  31. Uh, Jim, traditional Taiwanese cuisine is the same as what can be found across the strait in the Min-nan speaking parts of Fujian (except for the use of tropical fruits & plants that can’t be found on the mainland). This isn’t that surprising considering that there was plenty of interaction going on across the strait until 1949 (even during Japanese occupation). Also, comparing Taiwanese cuisine with Chinese cuisine is akin to comparing Azorean cuisine with European cuisine. In fact, if the Azores had gotten flooded by people from all over Europe after WWII, you’d get pretty much the same setup.

    So most of the stuff you listed (with the obvious exception of things invented in Taiwan like bubble milk tea) or the tropical vegetation (which traditionally can be found in Hainan and now can be found all over mainland China as well) are traditional foodstuffs in one Chinese cuisine or another (usually in the south). Rice wine, sesame seed oil, the shredded pork, turnip omelettes, red and green beans, taro . . . these can all be found in the diet of some Chinese region or another.

    Finally, for the longest time, the best type of certain regional Chinese cuisines was found in Taiwan (because of the mainland influence and because the Communists really destroyed the culinary arts for a generation or 2 on the mainland–haute cuisine didn’t really exist there from the Great Leap Forward til after the Cultural Revolution).

  32. Also, Taiwanese cuisine (including the siao-chih) was heavily influenced by the mainlanders who came over in ’49. For instance, what’s now staple fare like scallion pancakes, yu tiao, and beef noodle soup (really, anything with beef in it and most wheat-based foodstuffs) were unknown then and brought over from the mainland.

  33. I don’t know where the people who don’t like Taiwanese food are eating. I think the food in Taiwan is great. I love han bao dan, the breakfast pork patty on a bun. On my last visit I ate all kinds of things including deer, boar, fern, and even honey bees, plus more traditonal noodle, fish, chicken, and vegtable dishes. I didn’t come across anything drowned in brown sauce. But then again I was spending time with my wife’s friends and family who are mostly foodies. My big complaint with Chinese/Taiwanese food is the use of seafood in it. I’ve been in both Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants and ordered meals and been assured there is no seafood in the dishes only to find shrimp in it. Since Taiwanese consider shrimp as a spice. I find this annoying since some people won’t eat seafood for religious or health (allergies) reasons. I know a few people who are so allergic to shrimp they can die from eating one.

    The food I can’t stand is very oily and greasy. I find most of the Chinese restaurants in the US to have been westernized. Fortunately I now only go to places that offer a chinese menu so I can eat the real chinese/taiwanese food, not that westernized stuff.

  34. Taiwanese food is great!!!! Much cheaper and tastier than most chinese food in the U.S. I dont know anyone who’ve been to Taiwan who hated the food. They only loved it!! And Taiwanese cuisine does not only consist of fried oily foods but many healthy steamed and stewed dishes too.

  35. and what is so great about sushi? it’s just raw fish for godsakes!! i mean i like sushi, but why is it so expensive?? i can buy a chunk of raw fish, cut it up and make my own sushi and it will be much cheaper compared to eating it in a restaurant. there’s no cooking preparation to sushi and it has no flavor except for the fact that you dip it in soy sauce and wasabe. so there’s no justification for the high price. i love seafood and i dont always want my seafood raw and chinese/taiwanese cuisine offers much more variety in seafood than japanese food.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *