The global craze for the refined French confection sweeps Taiwan’s capital
By Matthew Fulco
Western desserts have historically been a risky endeavor in Taiwan, where local palates are wary of sweetness in pastries.
But in cosmopolitan Taipei, a surge in interest for authentic French desserts paired with afternoon tea is changing the equation. Tea salons and eat-in pastry shops are springing up around the Taiwanese capital, from secluded lanes to upmarket department stores.
Macarons enjoy pride of place in Taipei’s French pastry boom. The colorful confections made from egg whites, ground almonds, and sugar are winning accolades among the city’s savvy sweet tooths, who are undeterred by hefty price tags of NT$60-$100 per piece.
At the Taipei branches of Sadaharu Aoki, a Paris-based patisserie known for its Japanese-inspired confections, a single macaron sells for NT$90. “The price is the same as a typical lunchbox in Taipei,” says Paris Ying, manager of the patisserie’s two Taipei stores, located in the five-star Regent Taipei hotel and upscale Bellavita mall. “But our customers are able to afford to indulge themselves and believe eating macarons is fashionable.”
“Macarons are colorful and cute, appealing to the eye,” says Judy Lin, 31, an editor with a research firm in Taipei and dessert aficionado. “Their French origins also attract Taiwanese who want to enjoy ‘the good life’ associated with France.”
But it is not only Gallic glamor that makes macarons hard to resist, Ying says. “The taste is complex. The hard outer shells are sandwiched together with a soft creamy center, maybe chocolate or fruit puree. You can experience multiple textures – crispy, crunchy, sticky – that change rapidly in one little pastry.”
Compared to other pastries, macarons are also available in a dizzying array of flavors – typically, anywhere from 12 to 20 in Taipei’s patisseries – which appeals to Taiwanese consumers’ desire for variety in dining. Those flavors range from the conventional (such as chocolate, vanilla, and lemon) to Asian-inspired – like sesame, macha (green tea), and yuzu (pomelo) – to the unusual: balsamic vinegar, lime basil, and confections infused with teas endemic to Taiwan.
Macarons have become such a Taipei institution that they can even be found in local coffee shops like Dante, but the petit pastries were not always so well-received. When they first appeared in Taiwan almost a decade ago as restaurant desserts, consumers rejected them, says Remy Chiang, founder and head chef of the Taipei patisserie La Douceur (French for “sweetness”). “The macarons’ sweetness was a problem,” he says. “There was much less of a French dessert culture in Taipei at the time.”
Paris Ying believes Taiwan’s extreme heat and humidity cause local palates to recoil from the saccharine. “I think the climate here exaggerates the sensation of sweetness,” she says. “It’s true that sweet drinks are common in Taiwan, but if you want bubble tea, you can choose semi-sweet or sugar-free. It’s not possible with desserts.”
For pastry chefs then, it was imperative to subtly tone down the sugar levels in their macarons if they expected to make headway in Taiwan, but the Taiwanese palate has probably become more tolerant of sweets in recent years as well.
The small sizes of French desserts, and macarons in particular, have helped them gain popularity in Taiwan, Chiang says. “Before French pastries became popular here, Western desserts were thought of more in terms of American sizes, which can be overwhelming if you’re not used to them.”
The miniature size of macarons appeals to women, who are the biggest consumers of the confection in Taiwan, says Linna Chan, manager of the Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon – named for the eminent three-star Michelin chef – in the Bellavita shopping center. “Women like sweets in small sizes,” she says. “They have a lower calorie count.”
At the same time, the quality of life in Taiwan is improving, leading to changes in attitudes, says Ling Kao, marketing and public relations manager of the Zenique Tea Salon, which is tucked into a tranquil lane off of bustling Yongkang Street. “Taiwanese are now able to appreciate more refined desserts than before,” she says.
Coming in bite sizes, macarons are a natural accompaniment to afternoon tea, which is going upmarket in Taipei as the city’s population places a greater emphasis on quality of life. “People are discovering how to relax in the afternoon,” Chan says. “Afternoon tea is one of the best ways way to do that.” She adds: “Five years ago, afternoon tea was usually buffet style here. Macarons are too high-end for that setting. But they are perfect a la carte, which is where we are now.”
Zenique, which takes its name from a combination of the words “Zen” and “unique,” blends elements of a French patisserie and Taiwanese tea salon. Founder David Huang is a tea connoisseur who developed an affinity for French desserts during his five years in France as a student. He founded the Zenique brand in 2006 and launched the tea salon in 2011, with the concept of “appreciating tea through desserts.”
That can be done by pairing Zenique’s Nantou-grown tea with its tea-infused macarons, Ling Kao says. She recommends pairing the osmanthus fresh grapefruit macaron with osmanthus green tea. “The fragrance of the osmanthus is highlighted while the sweetness of the green tea compliments the taste of fresh grapefruit,” she says.
The rose black tea macaron, meanwhile, is an ideal match for black oolong tea, Kao suggests. “The rose black tea macaroon is aromatic and a bit sweet. It’s the perfect companion to the full smoky flavor of the black oolong tea,” she says.
Despite the gourmet trappings of macarons, it is their whimsical qualities that may endear them most to their devotees. At La Douceur patisserie, a macaron-shaped brochure resembling a child’s drawing doubles as an oversized business card. The pastel-colored brochure opens to reveal a history of the storied confections, the flavors available at La Douceur, and instructions on how to properly refrigerate them.
“Many French people grow up eating homemade pastries. Eating them as an adult brings back happy childhood memories,” says Remy Chiang of La Douceur. “We want to evoke that feeling at our patisserie.” To bring home that point, he motions toward the image of a smiling young girl on the brochure, also in the style of a child’s drawing, which is used as La Douceur’s logo. “This was inspired by my daughter,” he says.
At Sadaharu Aoki, customers are purchasing macarons for a traditional Taiwanese ceremony held when a child is four months old to reduce the constant drooling common at that age, says Paris Ying. During the ceremony, which is called shouyan (收涎), cookies are strung around the neck of the baby. Family members and friends break off the cookies and rub them on the lips of the baby to prevent future drooling. Then they eat the cookies.
“I’m not sure if it works – it’s just a tradition,” Ying says. “But macarons are becoming popular for the ceremony because they look great in photographs.”
“For women, macarons are one of those sweets that can make us feel happy instantly,” she adds. “They look and taste delightful. I think they bring out the little girl in all of us.”
A 1:1 shell-to-filling ratio is ideal. There should be a substantial layer of light filling between the two shells. Keeping things balanced is essential, as too much shell or filling spoils the macaron experience.
Ganache, buttercream, jam, and caramel all work as fillings. In the case of a ganache filling, when the texture has sufficient firmness and the shell-to-filling ratio is correct, the filling should not seep out of the edges of the macaron when it is being eaten. The shell surface should be smooth, without bumps or bubbles, while the interior of the macaron should be moist and tender.
Macarons are sweets by definition. However, sweetness should not be overwhelming, to the point that it overpowers the pastry’s original flavor.
Lastly, bigger is not better when it comes to macarons. Ideally, a macaron is no larger in circumference than a U.S. quarter. When the pastry is too large, quality may be compromised. Most commonly, the outermost ring of the shell gets overcooked and the inside is too chewy.