By Chan Chia-an (詹家安)

Editor’s note: President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) signature New Southbound Policy, aimed at strengthening economic ties with Southeast Asian states, has resulted in an inadvertent yet delicious side dish of food diplomacy.

The author often goes on business trips to New Southbound countries and receives envoys from those states here in Taipei. He believes there is no better way to open up dialogue than sharing a few drinks and a good meal. Forget work – expatriate officials become more honest, straightforward, and open when talking about their local cuisine.

The author has spent a considerable amount of his free time trying out the very best restaurants recommended by foreign envoys to Taiwan. This was, of course, a fact-finding mission to confirm the correctness of the information provided – one that just so happened to satisfy his taste buds in the process.

Because of limitations in time, budget, and the author’s stomach, he could not visit every recommended restaurant. He has selected one from each country, meaning there are surely some regretful snubs. Have we left out your favorite spot to eat? Feel free to share in the comments; we’ll gladly add it to our list for research purposes.

1. Indonesia: Sate House, Da’an District

One of the most well-known Indonesian restaurants in Taipei is Sate House, near Liuzhangli MRT station. The place is owned by an Indonesian-born Chinese woman who has lived in Taiwan for three decades. Apart from being the favorite restaurant of Indonesian envoys, its catering service is also often the go-to choice of the Presidential Office when it holds banquets for guests from Indonesia.

The decor inside the restaurant is authentic. One can feel a rich Indonesian atmosphere upon walking in. A large decorative Indonesian ship sports countless signatures on its sail from a who's who of celebrity patrons, from politicians like former Vice President Lee Yuan-tsu (李元簇) to Mandopop superstars like Karen Mok (莫文蔚) and David Tao (陶喆).

Indonesia is a land of diversity: over 360 ethnicities speaking upwards of 300 languages on the country’s 17,508 islands. And diversity in culture leads directly to diversity in food. The staple food is rice, with yellow ginger-flavored rice being particularly famous. Indonesia is humid and hot, so people like fried foods or highly salty and spicy dishes.

Beef rendang is a must-order when you visit Sate House. The owner said rendang gained infamy in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, and that beef shank must be used for its tenderness. Spices like chili, shallots, garlic, galangal, and lime leaves are ground together with coconut milk and added into the stock.


Credit: Chan Chia-an

Indonesian satay sauce (front) and deep fried fish (middle).

As an island nation, Indonesia has long coastlines and plenty of seafood. People there like deep fried fish, which is crunchy and tasty. Another must-order is satay. It is said that satay, called sate in Indonesian, originated in Sumatra. It’s usually chicken, beef, or lamb (never pork, forbidden in Islam) dipped in sauce made up of shrimp paste and chili. Satay has numerous flavors – the sauce in the photo above, rich and thick with a strong peanut aroma and slight taste of chili, is the favorite of overseas Chinese.


Credit: Sate House

Java fried chicken, or ayam goreng.

Another recommended dish is Java fried chicken, or ayam goreng. At Sate House, free range chicken is marinated with age-old, specially-made pickled ingredients for one day before it is cooked in brine. Then, it’s thrown into the pot to deep fry. The author found it a bit dry for his taste, but still crispy and tasty. No wonder fried chicken is wildly popular among Indonesians!

2. Vietnam: Minh Ky Vietnam Cuisine, Xizhi District

Taipei has plenty of Vietnamese low-budget fast food shops and, of course, Madame Jill’s in Gongguan and Thanh Ky on Yongkang Street. However, the most popular spot for Vietnamese consular envoys is Minh Ky Vietnam Cuisine, located in New Taipei’s Xizhi District. Minh Ky has a garden with furnishings and decor shipped directly from Vietnam. It’s where Vietnamese envoys bring high-ranking officials from home, and it’s our top choice when we receive guests from the country.


Credit: Chan Chia-an

The interior of Minh Ky Vietnam Cuisine.

The Vietnamese diet was influenced by Han Chinese culture for 1,000 years, French colonization for 100 years, and the United States for about two decades. At the same time, it has many features of Southeast Asian cuisine. When the Vietnam War ended, many Vietnamese emigrated to other countries. Vietnamese dishes, therefore, became increasingly popular around the world – including here in Taiwan, where the large Vietnamese population has shared their native cuisine, much to the delight of Taiwanese diners.

A long, narrow country, Vietnam’s dishes can be roughly classified into three categories: north, central, and south. North Vietnam’s food is considered to be light, but it’s also known for its bun cha – grilled pork and rice noodles. Central Vietnam’s dishes are spicier, while southern Vietnam is known for its sweet flavors and use of herbs and coconut water in dishes.

The restaurant serves all the typically famous Vietnamese dishes, including beef pho, baguettes, and spring rolls. The must-order signature dish is Vietnamese chicken curry, best enjoyed with a baguette. It’s not as spicy as Indian curry; rather, it’s sweeter and more aromatic and duck blood is added. The owner says that their baguette are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, just like the ones you get in Vietnam. Dipped in curry, it is delightfully smooth on the taste buds.


Credit: Minh Ky

Vietnamese chicken curry and baguette.

Another famous Vietnamese dish is beef pho. Like China, Vietnam used to be an agricultural society and never got into the habit of eating beef. The author wonders whether the raw beef and large amounts of vegetables found in pho resulted from the influence of French colonization. It’s a shame that there’s no direct evidence to back up the author’s idea. According to Vietnamese friends who accompanied the author to the restaurant, pho is usually eaten at breakfast. In Vietnam, it is customary that rice is eaten at home, whereas pho is eaten when one is outside. As a result, there’s a pun to eating pho, which also means ‘homewrecker’ (pho is fresh and delicious and can only be had outside). The naive and innocent author can only say that he understands none of it.

3. Philippines: 'Little Philippines,' Zhongshan District

Although Filipino cuisine is gaining international popularity, its status in Taipei is quite embarrassing. There are still few upscale Filipino restaurants to this day. So, after consulting Filipino teachers and friends in Taiwan, the author chose to explore “Little Philippines” around St Christopher’s Church on Taipei’s Zhongshan North Road in search of Filipino cuisine. The church not only teaches English, but offers Mass in Tagalog. Therefore, many of the author’s Filipino friends make it their religious center. Next to the church is the Wan Wan Building, which has all kinds of Filipino supplies and groceries.

The Filipino friends picked two restaurants this time: Cres-Art Philippine Cuisine, which has featured in newspapers, and Lungfei Restaurant. Compared to the aforementioned Indonesian and Vietnamese restaurants, both are smaller in size with unassuming decor. When one walks into the restaurants, however, they discover that, like in the Philippines the Western style of eating is adopted: knives and forks are the main cutlery, and chopsticks are nowhere to be found.

The Filipino friends explained: Apart from their savoriness and sourness, Filipino dishes, which are also influenced by China, Spain, and the United States, can be collectively called “cuisine without borders fusion.” The Philippines has over 7,000 islands, so naturally there is plenty of diversity in its dishes. Bicol, on the northern island of Luzon, features large amounts of vegetables; unlike its northern neighbor, the capital of Manila uses abundant amounts of meat, be it grilled or deep fried, with no vegetables to be found. The Cebu region, towards the south, primarily boasts seafood. In Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao, there’s a balance between vegetables and meat. Filipino cuisine in Taiwan consists mostly of home style dishes, so it may depend on where the restaurant’s resident chef hails from.

The most famous Filipino dish of all is none other than adobo. Pork or chicken perfectly combined with vinegar, laurel leaves, garlic, salt and pepper is slowly stewed until fully cooked. Many Filipino pork dishes are also famous. Take Filipino barbecue, fried pig skin, roasted meat, sausage and fried pork knuckle, for example. Of these, fried pork knuckle may be a little bit dry for Taiwanese diners, but for homesick Filipinos in Taipei, it’s nothing less than a taste of heaven.


Credit: Chan Chia-an

Filipino fried pork knuckle.

So why does the cuisine of Manila contain so few vegetables? Some Manilans on the internet self-deprecate, saying they are allergic to vegetables. Taiwanese expatriate government officials have observed that while the Philippines is rich in agricultural resources, making it easy to grow crops, Metro Manila does not have a stable supply of vegetables, which often leads prices to soar. Farmers may not receive adequate subsidies, so when crops will lose money, they would rather leave vegetables dying on the fields. As a result, there may be room for Taiwan and Philippines to cooperate in improving the production and marketing of vegetables.

This time, the author ordered pinkabet, a dish which includes eggplants, green beans and bitter gourds (top left in the photo below). This restaurant also serves something special to Taiwanese people: savory red bean paste.


Credit: Chan Chia-an

All kinds of set meals are up for grabs in Taipei's Filipino fast food restaurants.

Some Filipino fast food restaurants in the Little Philippines don’t voluntarily offer Chinese menus. If those who visit the restaurant for the first time are unfamiliar with the culinary choices, they could consider the set meals. Filipino dishes on average tend to be a bit too salty for Taiwanese people, so one could order more rice to offset this.


Credit: Chan Chia-an

Most set meals at Filipino diners start from NT$100.

In terms of desserts, the author went to other small shops but regretfully did not get to eat the famous Filipino desserts Halo-Halo or Turon. Halo-Halo is a Filipino dessert made with condensed milk-covered crushed ice mixed with sweet beans, jelly and other ingredients, whereas Turon is fried banana rolls. The owner said that when Filipinos come to Taiwan, they prefer Taiwan’s mango shaved ice. As a result, Halo-Halo stopped being imported.

To facilitate understanding and knowledge between the two neighbors and New Southbound partners, Taiwan needs Filipino businessmen to bring over their unique culture and cuisine. Hopefully, more people will be willing to bring the cuisine of the Philippines to Taiwan in the future. Take the leader of Jollibee, the Filipino fast food empire, which has faded out of the Taiwan market. Rumor has it that it will soon return to Taiwan. Let’s look forward to what can happen in the future.

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This article first appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens and can be found here. It was originally published by ASEAN Plus Journal.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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