Ever notice how an interest feeds itself? The idea of visiting Taipei was initially planted by Robyn Eckhardt, a travel writer I met in Penang a few years ago. Subsequently I have had a number of Taiwanese kitchen hands working for me at my Beechworth restaurant, Provenance, which fuelled my interest.
Gradually, every magazine, newspaper and social media feed seemed to have a mention of Taiwan, and in particular Taipei, so I decided it was time to visit.
Taiwan, located between the southernmost tip of Japan and mainland China, is a product of its geographical and political location; the food of this island even more so.
I've had an interest in Japanese cuisine since studying the language at high school and then at uni, but I'd never really included it in my professional cooking career until I started Provenance with my wife, Jeanette Henderson.
Taiwan, and hence Taipei, was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945. The Japanese influence is still very evident in the city.
During a week-long visit to the city, our first meal was yakiniku, a Japanese style of barbecue derived from Korea – so here is a Taiwanese interpretation of a Japanese version of a Korean barbecue. The restaurant, Da-wan, cranks from the moment its doors open at 6pm through to midnight, partly due to its recent Michelin star. Bookings are essential. In some yakiniku restaurants, you do your own cooking, but here, all meats are grilled in front of you by experts. One warning though – if the host offers to arrange a selection for you, be prepared for a large bill.
Dumplings are a big part of the cuisine of Taiwan. Fu Dan San Dong King of Dumplings is a small, family-run restaurant. Join the queue, which makes its way past the kitchen, so you can watch one chef working supremely hard, cooking all the dumplings and noodles for the restaurant. The queue continues past the dumpling prep area, where the rest of the family rolls the dumplings. The dumplings are of a more rustic style (if you have ever been to Shandong Mama in Melbourne you'll know the style), but no less delicious for it.
Another great option for dumplings is Kao Chi, on the renowned food strip Yongkang Street, where the dumplings are more refined, and subtly seasoned – in fact, I found the level of seasoning in most of the food in Taipei much lower than you would find in Australia.
Din Tai Fung is well known for its huge queues. The queue at DTF at Xinyi Mitsukoshi department store is slightly shorter than at its other branches and ordering is sorted before you even hit the table. The dumplings here are perfect in appearance, gorgeous in texture, delicious and balanced in flavour. The other dishes on the menu, of which there are many, are equally good. I wasn't sure DTF would meet the hype – it did, and then some.
Taipei's street food alone is reason for a visit. It is a city slow to wake up, so street food can be a great choice for breakfast – early birds get the congee, fan tuan (a sheet of sticky white or red rice wrapped around fillings such as pork floss or pickles) and gua bao (steamed buns with braised pork, crushed peanuts, coriander and pickled cabbage)..
But to truly experience the street food of Taipei, you have to go to the night markets, of which there are quite a few, each with its own specialties. One of the larger, and older, ones is Raohe Market in the Songshan district. The place can get very crowded at weekends. A Taiwanese pepper bun (a flour bun filled with pork and spring onion and seasoned with a good amount of black and white pepper, cooked in a tandoor-like oven) is a perfect way to start your journey. Walk down one side of the market, back down the other side, stopping where you like, eating and drinking whatever grabs your attention – fried chicken, pig's blood and rice cake, sweet Chinese sausage.
One thing you can't avoid in Taipei is bubble tea. The "bubbles", balls of dough usually made out of tapioca, add a springy, elastic texture that is so popular in Taiwan it has its own name – Q. Q is found through many foods in Taiwan, where texture far outweighs flavour as a prime consideration.
Another popular dish, while not unique to Taiwan, is shaved ice. In its simplest form it is literally shaved ice with fruit, tapioca pearls, sweet peanuts, grass jelly, condensed milk and fruit syrups. But places such as Ice Monster are taking it to new levels. Its ice is flavoured before being shaved and topped with flavours such as jasmine and lime, sesame and almond, and peanut and milk.
Taipei's vibrant coffee scene owes a lot to Melbourne. But realising that most of the good coffee houses don't open until 11am, or even 1pm comes as a shock. Coffee in Taipei is considered an afternoon kick on, not a morning heart starter. My favourites were Paper St Coffee, Rufous Coffee Roasters, The Folks and Fika Fika (this one actually opens early). Another good one is Haritts Donuts and Coffee. One of my favourite stores in Tokyo, it recently set up in Taipei serving great coffee and some of the best doughnuts you will ever eat, all in a low-key, handmade kind of setting.
Tea in Taipei often fills the space normally occupied by alcohol in Australia, but that is not to say there aren't good places to imbibe. The cocktail field in particular is very lively. Wootp offers casual, but still well crafted cocktails; East End, a collaboration with Hidetsugu Ueno of Bar High Five in Tokyo, has a sophisticated vibe and stellar creations; and Wa-shu is the place for cutting-edge drinks.
If you are looking for a big night out, there are plenty of options, with Andre Chiang's RAW and Tokyo import Ryugin being the best known. Another worth considering is Mume, run by three chefs with an impressive combined CV – Noma, Quay, PerSe among them. The restaurant achieves that difficult balance of fine dining cuisine in a casual atmosphere. The food is beautifully plated and the seasoning and balance in the dishes is en pointe. Dishes like a fine very fine, friable tart with Taiwanese caviar, local clams with lychee, rose and dill, abalone with pear, bamboo shoot and kombucha sorbet and lobster cooked in oolong butter with shaved pistachio show the chefs' creativity and skill. As with any great restaurant their cooking and use of ingredients also grounds you to where you are dining – this food could be nowhere else but Taipei.
Mountain and Sea House is one of the more interesting restaurants I have visited in some time. The restaurant is recreating Taiwanese food from the 1920s and beyond using produce from farms just outside Taipei that the restaurant owns. It also has strong ties with producers – expect to see Taiwanese Yellow beef, Taiwanese pork and local seafood on the menu. This is a traditional Taiwanese restaurant with a very modern method of sourcing and growing produce.
I was in Taipei for seven days, enough to get under its skin, but it is a city of many layers, and there is still so much more to explore. I didn't eat anywhere near enough of the dishes that the city is renowned for – hot pot, beef noodles, spring onion pancake and dumplings. And I definitely need to eat more of its street food.
Da Wan, 22, Lane 177, Section 1, Dunhua South Road, Da'an District, Taipei City
Fu Da San Dong King of Dumplings, 11, Lane 140, Section 1, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City
Kao Chi, kao-chi.com
Din Tai Fung (multiple branches), dintaifung.com.tw
Raohe Night Market, Raohe Street, Songshan District, Taipei City
Ice Monster, ice-monster.com
Paper St Coffee, 28, Section 1, Bade Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City
Rufous Coffee Roasters, 339, Section 2, Fuxing South Road, Da'an District, Taipei City
The Folks, 3-1, Lane 208, Siwei Road, Da'an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106
Fika Fika, fikafikacafe.com
Haritts Coffee and Donuts, 33, Lane 81, Fuxing North Road, Songshan District, Taipei City
East End, hotel-proverbs.com
Wa-shu, 39, Lane 101, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Da'an District, Taipei City
Mountain and Sea House, mountain-n-seahouse.com/zh-hant/