Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hooked on Taiwan's food

Japanese foodies take Taipei
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, July 2006
(untranslated draft)

Kuniko Mita misses the snow of Nagano. Before her engineer husband came to Taiwan four years ago to work on the island’s high-speed rail project, the two would drive out of Yokohama every weekend, heading for the great outdoors. But in Taipei, where they now live, they’ve no car -- and this subtropical city cannot offer snow.

Luckily, in place of outdoor activities they’ve a new passion: food. The Mita’s have become smitten with the island’s culinary delights -- show-cased in Ang Lee’s 1994 film `Eat Drink Man Woman`. Kuniko carries a notebook with a wish list of restaurants to visit, and 43-year-old Kosuke writes a blog to record their gastronomical adventures. Says Kuniko: “on weekends in Japan, we went camping and skiing. Here, our sport is eating.”

At one of their favorite restaurants, Jiu Fan Ken (Changan Rd. East, Section 2, #172, 2F), the two display their eating skills while knocking back Taiwan Beer served in small bowls. The scrumptious meal includes Taiwanese specialties: ton rou, a chunk of fatty pork cooked to custard-like consistency, wu wei yu, crispy fish in mild red sauce, and abalone soup, bao yu gao zhan. “In Japan, we eat abalone raw,” notes Mita. “Here they dry it first, and then soak it in water to make it softer.”

Finishing their soup, they are careful not to slurp — a Japanese habit considered rude in Taiwan. It’s one of the small cultural differences that took getting used to. Another was the pedestrian’s slow pace. But that dawdling reflects a laid-back attitude that’s been easy to adopt. Rents are cheaper than Japan and apartments typically more spacious -- and although Taipei is generally safe, the Mitas live in a building with 24-hour security for extra peace of mind. Food isn’t their only recreational pursuit: Kuniko has made Taiwanese friends while studying kiko, a martial art similar to taichi, and Chinese meditation. And on weekends, the two escape the noise of the scooter-mad city and head for their favorite hot springs resort -- Wulai, in mountains just south of the city.

Now, with the rail line due to be completed later this year, they know they will miss Taipei – especially, its food. But at least returning home will be easier on their waistlines. “We’ve both gained so much weight,” says Kuniko with a laugh. “The clothes we wore before don’t fit anymore.”

The fine culinary traditions of this mountain-ringed metropolis of 2.6 million go back hundreds of years. When the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan from China in the 1940s, some of China’s best chefs came too. But there are plenty of local specialties, often found in Taipei’s cheap night markets. Though the city boasts trendy, ultra-modern malls with food courts, islanders still love to crowd cheek-by-jowl into narrow alleys for a late-night snack, amid the clatter of steaming, brightly lit food stands and the pungent aroma of a Taiwanese favourite: stinky tofu.

Takahiko Ishikawa fell for Taiwanese food on a business trip ten years ago. The 54-year-old Tokyo native, now president of Taiwan Toshiba International Procurement Corp, wandered into the city’s Shihlin night market—and became hooked forever on shui jian bao (fried dumplings). “I was surprised at how good they were,” he says. “We don’t have this kind of dumpling in Japan—just steamed.” Ishikawa’s enthusiasm led to a Taiwanese cookery class to learn the secret. How are his dumplings? “Sometimes they’re OK, sometimes they’re no good,” he says ruefully. It’s obviously easier to consume the local specialities than create them.

Taipei’s relatively small size (the central part of the city covers just about 67 square kilometers) makes it easy for Ishikawa to pop into his favorite food spots. And if he misses good ramen noodles, he’s more than compensated by the island’s oyster noodles -- oamisua. Taipei’s vibrant food culture – as well as regular golf outings – make it easier for Ishikawa to live alone in Taipei; his wife and family are back in Tokyo. He even muses about opening a Taiwanese-style restaurant when he retires in Japan.

Ryotaka Izawa has similar ambitions—and he’s in Taipei to chase his dream. The 27-year-old from Nikko is learning to make Shanghainese food at Taipei’s ritzy Grand Formosa Regent Hotel. Why isn’t he in studying in Shanghai? “In China, [some] people don’t like Japanese because of the historical background,” said Izawa. “But Taiwanese like Japanese people and culture—it’s easy to live here.” His only complaint is different attitudes toward cleanliness: He was shocked when Taiwanese friends walked, in their shoes, on a bathmat in his apartment. Says Izawa: “In Japan, this doesn’t happen.”

But cultural clashes are rare, and Izawa has thrown himself into his busy new life: Chinese classes in the mornings, the hotel in the afternoon and evenings. Right now, he’s doing prep work and learning to use the industrial-sized steamers. And on days off he likes to take Taiwanese friends out to dinner – drunken chicken is a favorite dish. When he’s mastered Shanghai-style cooking, Izawa will return to Nikko and add that regional flavor to his father’s Cantonese restaurant. Eventually, he hopes to take over the business. So what does his dad think of Izawa’s adventure? “He said, gambare.” And that’s exactly what his son is doing.

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