Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Taiwanese Food is #1 in the Taiwanese Mind

The question though is does Taiwan's cuisine rank in the top 10 or even top 20 in the world? Are the Taiwanese true culinary masters or do they just have a huge culinary ego?

Basically, most top ten lists name the usual suspects:



Mexican, Greek and Lebanese and lots of others also get thrown in. Could these lists be anything other than super subjective though? It's a fact though that I've actually never seen Taiwan on a top ten list unless you lump it in the Chinese category.

Most Taiwanese are ferociously proud of their cuisine (even with respect to other local Chinese cuisines) which in some respects has had thrown in a mixture of many different Chinese styles. This is due to the fact that immigrants to the island have brought their various Chinese local area cuisines with them. For example, I'm a big fan of Northern food (dumplings and buns) but these are hardly traditional Taiwanese food, even though sold everywhere in Taiwan.

Another thing is when Taiwanese travel to other places, they are often disgusted with foods there. My wife wasn't even that impressed by French, which consistently rates as the top in Western minds! But when I experienced her rejection, I presumed that Taiwanese are quite picky about their food's taste and are not so adventurous when it comes to international cuisines that do not resemble their own; they are fond of Italian (noodles) and Thai (spicy) but are turned off by British food (to the point of packing instant noodles in their suitcase when having to live there for any period of time) or German (heavy and would doubtfully rank in the top 10 in Western minds either).

Taiwanese tour groups visiting European destinations famous for their food often hit local Chinese restaurants to essentially please the older (read more stubborn to try new things) Taiwanese travelers. My Taiwanese father-in-law, for example, often shows his dislike of cheese but in fact I think he just can't change his eating habits.

So, in the end, maybe the best way to judge cuisine is on a restaurant by restaurant basis. As such, there are many amazing restaurants and places to eat in Taiwan. Ding Tai Feng, a dumpling restaurant, was rated one of the top restaurants in the New York Times and boasts of this fact. I, for one, agree with the review when talking about the taste and presentation.

However, faced with the 'lu-wei' stall on the street with it's assortment of brown (soy-marinated) animal parts etc., I would say exactly what a old Japanese teacher once said to me when we were teaching at the same school in China:

"Japanese food looks fantastic but tastes so-so. Chinese food tastes great but looks horrendous."

The latter sentence pretty well sums it up for most cases. But then again, I'm an aesthetic minded Westerner! :)
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