Anthropologist extraordinaire Margaret Mead once said, "A city is a place where there is no need to wait for next week to taste the food of any country ... to find new voices to listen to and familiar ones to listen to again." Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Taipei, where the melting pot of food traditions spans from Shanghai and Tokyo to Paris and Rome, and the bustling restaurant culture and night markets bring together Taiwanese locals, expats and tourists of every stripe.
In fact, enjoying food is such a central part of Taiwanese life -- it's the glue of family and community gatherings and holiday celebrations -- that the cuisine here could be a starting point for any sort of anthropological study that seeks to understand the essence of Taipei.
First off: our field notes on local, regional dishes. You don't have to be a specialist in biodiversity to appreciate the exquisite fruits that abound in this subtropical climate. From juicy mangoes to deliciously lush white peaches to the sweet lychees (and their slightly less cloying cousin, the long an), eating fruit here is an unparalleled, drip-down-the-chin sensory experience. On a humid summer day, there's nothing better than cooling off with a heaping of fresh fruit over a Taiwanese shaved ice. We particularly love the mango ices at Yong Kang 15 and, in addition to the fruit toppings, we're partial to the numerous additions at Dong Qu Fen Yuan like mung beans, barley and tapioca.
Yet despite the year-round warm temps, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy your local eats hot -- and we don't mean spicy-Taiwanese food is not especially piquant, just perfectly seasoned! For a bit of anthropology in a bowl, head to no-frills joints like Yong Kang Beef Noodles and Lao Zhang Beef Noodles for steaming servings of the namesake soup, which is the de facto national dish. The city's various Night Markets are also great places to sample traditional Taiwanese delicacies, but if you want more of a refined ambiance, try Shin Yeh, where homestyle Taiwanese classics like pan fried turnip omelettes are served up in sunny, upscale-casual surrounds.
Putting on our cultural anthropologist cap, we're always amazed to survey the multitude of cuisines imported here over the centuries by newcomers to the island, especially from mainland China (Sichuan, Cantonese, Dongbei, Hangzhou, Shanghainese) and Japan (sushi, teppanyaki, katsu, izakaya). World-renowned Taiwanese dumpling chain DinTaiFung has so mastered the art of perfectly steamed Shanghai soup dumplings that even the Shanghainese swear by it. Stylish Ji Pin nails Cantonese dim sum and specialties like braised sea cucumber and radish spring rolls, while Tien Hsiang Lo crafts artful Hangzhou small plates. Kanpai Classic is a Japanese standout for its in-table grills (and the festive groups who gather 'round to feast and imbibe). European influences are well represented, too, at spots like Bellini Caffe (fun Italian) and S.T.A.Y (trendy French).
As delicious as the food may be across the map, the scene is often just as compelling. Our inner ethnographer thrills to observing the setting and the crowd in Taipei restaurants since eating out is such an essential part of social life. While you might shovel in shaved ice or beef noodle soup while sitting on a simple wooden stool, the ambiance at most of our restaurant picks is carefully crafted. We love the chic urban vibe at fusion-focused Yuzu Japanese Kitchen and the zen-like vibe at ultra-fresh sushi purveyor Sumie Nouvelle Cuisine Japonaise.
Generally speaking, casual attire reigns supreme in this town-even at sleek restaurants such as these, you'll see many diners dressed in jeans and t-shirts (albeit designer ones). One exception is at the formal Tainan Tantsumien Seafood Restaurant, where the crowd is at least as well dressed as the tables (think Royal Daulton china and Christofle silverware).
But whether you indulge in this type of opulence or stick to street-casual eats, immersing yourself in Taipei's restaurant culture will be as much of a treat for your taste buds as for your trip journal. Just consider those few extra pounds you're bound to put on as "research" and remember that you're gaining important cultural wisdom along with inches. As Margaret Mead herself said, "The traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep."
-- Emily C. Brands and Rachel B. Levin, www.thepurplepassport.com