Beyond the Michelin Guide: What Is Real Taiwanese Gourmet?

Beyond the Michelin Guide: What Is Real Taiwanese Gourmet?
Photo Credit: Da Mou

What you need to know

Liz Kao, one of Taiwan's leading food writers, does not think the Michelin Guide has the final word on the country's gourmet scene.

If we are asked about fine dining restaurants in Taiwan, we may struggle to mention an establishment that serves gourmet Taiwanese cuisine. Despite years of evolution from its original influences, Taiwanese cuisine is often assumed to be nothing other than street food, night markets, and a famous dish or two like beef noodle soup.

Liz Kao was practicing law in Taiwan almost 10 years ago when she decided to rectify this situation, starting a food blog in Mandarin called Self-taught Gourmet addressed to a Taiwanese audience. Her mission was, and still is, to both chronicle the growth of Taiwanese gourmet and to show that it is more than the sum of outside influences.

After years running her blog, she has expanded her efforts to writing several books, hosting a podcast, and developing a platform called Taster (美食加).

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Photo Credit: Engly Chang

Kao maintains that Taiwanese cuisine is still an amorphous entity, under the process of crystallization. “We are still trying to define ourselves,” she says, citing the typical menu of a wedding in Taiwan: sashimi is served at the beginning, followed by the classic Chinese or Taiwanese dishes.

“I can’t define Taiwanese cuisine in a single sentence,” Kao says. “There’s no one item that can speak for Taiwan like kimchi does for Korea or sushi for Japan.”

The politics of food

According to Kao, no one seriously thought of Taiwanese cuisine as its own entity until Chen Shui-bian’s presidency in the 2000s. Chen threw parties that featured Taiwanese dishes, gradually elevating the status of Taiwanese food to be appropriate for fine dining, Kao adds.

But the roots of Taiwanese cuisine run much deeper. Politics and history can’t be separated from discussions of a national cuisine, and for Taiwan, the Japanese colonial era and the Kuomintang (KMT) occupation both influenced local dining traditions.

When the KMT retreated from China to Taiwan in 1949, they brought along the “Eight Major Chinese cuisines” (八大菜系), all of which evolved on arriving in Taiwan. Ingredients changed, and many of the famous Taiwanese dishes emerged from this melting pot. Beef noodle soup is said to have been created by KMT soldiers reworking Sichuan “red braised” (紅燒) beef noodles. They made use of the widely available, cheap wheat flour from American food aid. The ubiquity of toast-based snacks and sandwiches at local Taiwanese breakfast shops also finds its origins in American wheat subsidies from the early Cold War era.

Does the Michelin Guide define Taiwanese gourmet?

What, then, is Taiwanese gourmet food today? Kao has dedicated much of her work to evaluating the Michelin guide’s recommendations and criteria as a way of addressing this question. A diverse range of international cuisines is represented by the restaurants and eateries listed, and Kao credits the guide for having a good general understanding of Taiwan’s food scene.

Kao praises Michelin for recognizing chefs, particularly those of a younger generation. Taiwanese chefs Alain Huang of Raw and Kai Ho of Taïrroir were both elevated to two stars in 2019.

But the food writer does not think Michelin has the final word on gourmet in Taiwan. “We must bear in mind that Michelin is a travel guide,” she says. “So it's not meant to be used by the local people. It's meant to be used by visitors.”

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Photo Credit: Da Mou

This year, the guide expanded to bestow stars on four restaurants in the city of Taichung. One restaurant, JL Studio, was directly granted two stars. This restaurant has also been recognized by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. The star recipients in Taichung this year were particularly controversial. “There are four restaurants with stars, and three of them are French. The other is Japanese barbeque — yakiniku. “I’m not sure if this reflects Taichung’s dining scene,” Kao says. In addition, the owner of the yakiniku restaurant was granted a Young Chef Award, which is typically given to chefs, not owners. This has led to doubts among food critics in Taiwan that the Award is properly adjudicated.

A whole world of cuisines

Taiwanese cuisine, high and low, is under constant revision.

As Taiwan is a liberal and open-minded country, Kao welcomes international chefs to introduce their own cuisines to Taiwan — “We still don't have a good Mexican place. Or even good Malaysian.” As Taiwanese cuisine continues to define itself, it will benefit from chefs of all culinary backgrounds taking up its study. “For one thing, chefs can learn cooking techniques. Owing to Taiwan’s environment and agriculture, we have a diverse bounty of ingredients.”

But one of Kao’s central hopes is for Taiwanese chefs to dig deep into their own culture, to learn and pass on traditional cooking techniques, and to further define Taiwanese cuisine.

The vision Kao settles on is threefold: to promote Taiwanese cuisine within Taiwan, to promote Taiwanese cuisine abroad, and to promote Taiwan as a food scene with all of the best of the world’s culinary traditions.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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