At New York City’s 886 and Wenwen, Eric Sze tops savory dishes like BDSM fried chicken—brined, deboned, soy milk-battered—and crispy tofu with “Taiwan dust.” “It’s just fucking hujiaoyan,” he said, referring to a blend of white pepper, salt, MSG, and sugar.
It’s easy enough to list the common herbs and spices in Taiwanese dishes—white pepper, five-spice powder, basil—but it’s far more difficult to define Taiwanese cuisine without referencing Chinese cuisine. Much of Taiwanese cuisine has evolved from dishes brought by Han Chinese migrants, and as Taiwan strives to define its cultural identity, chefs of Taiwanese heritage are trying to put their own stamp on New York’s food scene.
Born and raised in Taipei, Sze told VICE that he’s often misidentified as Taiwanese American just because he speaks fluent English, lives in New York, and opens restaurants in the city. He describes himself as “super Tai”—a slang term that was used to mock people who were Taiwanese to a point where it was tacky, but now signals a sense of national pride.
When it comes to food, however, Sze said it’s tough to define Taiwanese flavors partly because many of the ingredients are “at its core very Chinese,” like soy sauce and spicy soy bean paste. As Taiwanese cuisine grows in popularity, restaurants are still figuring out a core menu that screams Taiwanese. Without a rigid playbook, Sze leans on a running joke: “I just bring a little can of five-spice around, spray that five-spice on anything I eat, and I just call it Taiwanese.”
Defining Taiwanese cuisine inevitably launches one into “a long history lesson,” as most quintessential Taiwanese ingredients have roots elsewhere, said Cathy Erway, the author of The Food of Taiwan. For example, she explained that most people would say shacha sauce, a smoky and fishy condiment, is “the most Taiwanese thing ever.” But it was adapted from satay sauce in Southeast China and parts of Southeast Asia. Shacha sauce itself didn’t actually become popular in Taiwan until the 1970s, when sliced beef hot pot became a national sensation.
Signature Taiwanese street food like oyster omelet, stinky tofu, and gua bao can also trace their origins to Fujianese migrants from China. Hakka people who migrated from China to Taiwan in the 17th century introduced a wide variety of pickled and sun-dried foods and potentially sweet basil, now a staple in Taiwanese cooking. Indigenous communities in Taiwan distinguished their cuisine with one important native ingredient, maqaw, also known as mountain peppercorns. They also added to the diverse Taiwanese palate with delicacies like millet-based wine and chewy, sticky peanut-stuffed mochi.
But there’s more. Culinary influences from early Portuguese explorers and decades of Japanese colonization have all endured in Taiwanese foodways. Taiwan’s historically diverse population has created an ever-changing cuisine defined by experimentation and cultural fusion.
Taiwan’s night markets are the birthplace of many new street eats and beverages, such as coffin bread and the now ubiquitous bubble tea, which itself has morphed into eccentric creations like cheese foam tea and the infamous boba pizza. These food havens also inspired New York’s “cult-favorite” Yumpling, a fast casual restaurant that has earned a loyal following with its Taiwanese fried chicken sandwich and rice bowls.
Jeffrey Fann, who founded Yumpling with Howie Jeon and Chris Yu, grew up with traditional Taiwanese home cooking in New York, but he wasn’t exposed to street food like Taiwanese fried chicken. When he and Jeon took a trip to Taiwan in 2016, they took note of how night market stalls offered food adapted from around the world alongside traditional street eats.
“It gave me a lot of confidence that we could put our own spin on things and not be on the wrong side of the culture,” Fann said. He added that Taiwanese cooks “borrow a lot from everybody else” as long as it gets the job done.
But operating a Taiwanese restaurant in the United States sometimes comes with the burden of having to explain the menu. “We still occasionally have customers come in and think we serve Thai food,” Jeon said.
Many Americans may be unfamiliar with Taiwan beyond its periodic appearances in political headlines about China’s aggression. Fann said while he’s happy that people know about Taiwan, “it would be nice if it was for the food and not for the fact that they might get invaded.”
Taiwanese cuisine has always been good at adapting from other cultures, but Fann said there’s one dish that most chefs don’t mess with: beef noodle soup. He believes that it should have a place “in the pantheon of amazing Asian noodle dishes” like ramen and pho. When Yumpling was first opened as a food truck, its lack of space didn’t allow for noodles and broth. The savory beef broth derives its saltiness from soy sauce, followed with undertones of spices like cinnamon and Sichuan peppercorn. As an alternative, they created a rice bowl version, which is still on the restaurant’s menu today, except they now offer beef noodle soup in its original glory as well.
In Manhattan’s East Village, diners line up for a bowl of beef noodle soup at Ho Foods every night. Owner Richard Ho, who is revered by fellow chefs for his signature dish, remembers beef noodle soup as a comfort food that his mom would spend days making at home. When Ho was preparing to open the restaurant, he was frequently asked: “Is this just Chinese food?” He struggled to give a simple answer, but he could name aromas that smell distinctly Taiwanese, like the overwhelming herbal scent of lu wei broth and the earthy tones in sauteed bamboo shoots.
Ho Foods now also offers classic Taiwanese breakfast items like fan tuan and savory soy milk—rarely found elsewhere in New York. A standard Taiwanese menu doesn’t exist yet because restaurateurs are still exploring which foods would resonate most with American diners. “The only way we can find out is if more people open up Taiwanese restaurants,” Ho said.
As Chinese food trends in New York have shuffled from dim sum to soup dumplings to dry pot, only a small subset of Taiwanese cuisine has emerged overseas. For Sze, Taiwan’s tourism initiatives are partly to blame. He thinks they’re too fixated on promoting night markets and fried chicken while neglecting other facets of the food culture.
At his restaurants, Sze is doing his part to expose New Yorkers to the breadth of Taiwanese dining culture. One of them, 886, is an iteration of a Taiwanese rechao restaurant, similar to a Japanese izakaya or Korean pocha, with playlists of retro and contemporary Taiwanese pop music, low plastic stools, beer poured into shot glasses, and shared plates of food. Wenwen, on the other hand, has more of a “private kitchen” atmosphere where the music is quieter and the chairs have backrests.
For now, there’s much more to Taiwanese cuisine that remains unrepresented in the U.S., but it’s an exciting moment for chefs. “It’s the Wild, Wild West in terms of Taiwanese cuisine branding,” he said. “So we're just doing whatever the fuck we want.”
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