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Travel

In Taiwan, the dishescome with personality

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob McKeown
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2005

TAIPEI-- Evergreen Restaurant is the kind of place parents bring their children -- and grandparents tag along to share the same hot-and-sour soup they ate when they were young. Ensconced in a small lane near a clutch of wedding shops, Evergreen's walls are neatly decorated with small oil paintings whose moody shapes recall the early work of Manet. They come courtesy of the owner, who wears fuchsia Issey Miyake dresses and black shades as she barks orders and clears plates.

Mainly, people come here for the food, especially the pan-fried dumplings. Shaped like tubes, they are cracker-crispy sheaths with ground-pork filling that is salty and sweet in unison. They come 20 to an order, like spokes stuck together on a wheel.

Today, we've come here with Mama Lee. My tall and soft-spoken friend Barth had met her in line for fried chicken at Jilin, one of this city's frenzied night markets full of neon lights, round plastic tables, and dizzying aromas. ''You ever taste this chicken?" was Mama Lee's first line to him, spoken in a burst, like machine-gun fire. As Barth tells it, he nearly jumped.

Indeed, most of Mama Lee's phrases seem to end in an exclamation point. ''So this is where this place went!" she says when we arrive at Evergreen. The usually steely owner softened when she laid eyes on Mama Lee. ''I know this place," Mama says. ''We used to call it Howard Johnson's because of the GIs. Her mother was one tough lady." Barth and I gape in disbelief. Neither of us can believe she not only knows our beloved dumpling place, but knew it decades before in its original form. Mama Lee talks on, doubling our order of pork chops in the meantime.

Eating in Taipei is as much about personality as anything. The wide avenues, 1960s buildings, and endless malls one drives by make the capital seem bland at first. But with food, the passion of the city flushes out. Taiwanese cooking is defined by disparate influences: the Chinese cuisine of Fujian province just across the Taiwan Strait, the salty air of the surrounding seas, the lightening influence of the Japanese, and a touch of the earthen to reflect the mountainous interior.

If Asian cities such as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are defined by one-dish vendors, Taipei is defined by its cooks. One named Ah Zheng, who runs an unassuming place called Ah Zheng's Kitchen, was trained by a Japanese chef, lists his mother's cooking as a touchstone, and even begs her to make fish balls for his special dinners. His card reads ''CHEF SHOW TIME," and he sips espresso as he flits between brick-lined dining room and wok-lined stove. His cooking is a highly personal reconciliation of West and East, with tastes and ideas that could be found only in Taiwan.

He serves local fish such as shi mu yu, riffs on kimchi, and taro-based sweets. But one dish stands out: grilled pork neck. It is given vigorous flavor by a spice rub and then wrapped, like a rugged jewel, in bean curd skin made by a local shop. Ah Zheng serves it with a white miso dipping sauce and a salad of cucumber, chile, and vinegar.

Near the neon-riddled Shi Men Ding area, a cook named Ah Cai runs a cafe crowded with construction workers, taxi drivers, and the odd club youth when it opens around midnight. I had been told it was the place to try an iconic dish called lu rou fan, a kind of glorified pork rice. ''What with that?" barks the owner in Chinese when I order. Puzzled, I am whisked to a counter lined with glistening pink shrimp, milky white squid, and green vegetables. I point, nod, and for the next hour don't have a dish with a repeated ingredient or taste.

The squid arrives in a cast-iron pot with red swatches of chile and green flashes of basil. The shi mu yu fish is pan-fried and smacks of lime and garlic; it tastes like afternoon sun. Omelets soak up the larger-than-life flavor and would make a Parisian proud.

On another night Yi Lan, a writer, takes me on a multistop ramble through the city's food culture. We begin at a place called Jing Chia that is renowned for a soup made of only chicken, sesame oil, and rice wine. It has an emphatic taste. But I like another dish better. It is a kind of glutinous rice concoction that looks like a cake and resembles purple-black marble. Made of pork blood and rice flour, it is drizzled with crimson-red chile sauce, dusted with a peanut powder, and layered with spring onions.

In one evening, Yi Lan helps me tumble through what seems like an entire world of food. We dash in and out of small alleys, shady shopping-mall basements, sake bars, and off-the-beaten-path cafes. A former editor at Vogue who gave up the fashionista lifestyle to write about food, she is one of those diners who knows something about everything. When I tell her about the spicy duck tongue vendor who delivers to my hotel, she asks if I ordered the noodles too. When I ask her about tea, she brings me to Wang De Chuan, a beautifully remodeled shop that sells leaves from high-mountain spots in Taiwan, such as Oriental Beauty, and far-flung Chinese provinces, such as Yunnan.

My last hour in town I stop into the Cheers at the Grand Hyatt Taipei. On the menu I spot lu rou fan, the famous breakfast dish I've had at night markets and Ah Cai's place, and I order out of sheer curiosity. It arrives in a huge bowl, glistening soy-soaked piles of pork belly and chopped meat in formation above a mountain of white rice. I dump in some chile sauce and dig in with chopsticks and spoon. It's exceptional, and I am comforted by it just as much as I am by the burger I ordered alongside. Though this is a hotel, I know that such food -- especially in Taipei -- can come only from the hands of one person with a great recipe. I can't wait to meet the chef. I know exactly what to ask him: Where does he eat?

Rob McKeown is a freelance writer based in Asia.

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