The Hunt for Chou Doufu and other Taiwanese Food in London

Lin Nung's Milktea & pearl in Shoreditch, East London, serving up one of his shop's offerings. (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)
Lin Nung's Milktea & pearl in Shoreditch, East London, serving up one of his shop's offerings. (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)

After spending around two decades in Taiwan, three years ago TOPICS contributor Mark Caltonhill returned to live in the UK. Within weeks, he was missing “three-cups” slow cooking, kongxin cai (空心菜), and perhaps most of all, stinky tofu (臭豆腐). Here is his report.

Arriving at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport in the 1990s after each annual trip home, my bags would be full of cheese, Scottish oatcakes, bags of coffee, and other things I couldn’t live without – and which were either ridiculously expensive or impossible to obtain in Taiwan.

In December 2013 when I flew to Taiwan for the last time, I carried my passport, bank card, toothbrush, and a change of underwear. Following changes in Taiwanese people’s tastes and the spread of international supermarkets and department stores, everything I might need could be bought, and mostly at prices similar to those back home.

In fact, although I certainly haven’t “gone native,” the opposite has been true for quite some time – that flying into the UK my bags are heavy with dried shiitake, Yuchun Sake (玉泉清酒), pineapple cakes, and other Taiwanese goodies I now think of as indispensable to normal life.

Aided by an ever-expanding range of items available at Asian supermarkets in Britain, over the first couple of years since returning home I managed to improvise a few Taiwanese-ish dishes such as “three-cups tofu” made with cooking sherry instead of mijiu (米酒, rice wine) – before discovering the Taipec website for specialist import items – and luobogao (蘿蔔糕, turnip cake) made with parsnips or Western turnips, before I found a local market that sells the long white luobo. I’ve even fried-steamed-fried shop-bought dumplings to satisfy my craving for guotie (鍋貼, pot-stickers).

And had I remained in a small beach-and-golf town an hour outside Edinburgh, this might have been my lot. But a year ago I moved to London, and one day I cycled past a restaurant called Hoja. Ironic, I thought, that sounds like “tasty” in Taiwanese – a mean trick to play! Then I looked more closely. It wasn’t ironic or mean; it really was a Taiwanese restaurant.

In fact, since London has the largest Chinatown in Europe, with a plethora of Hong Kong-style barbequed-and-marinated meat, dim sum, and rude-service restaurants (not a complaint so much as one of the reasons Londoners go to eat in Chinatown), as well as a Chinese takeaway in every village, town, and city district throughout the country, I thought I knew everything about Chinese cuisine in Britain.

But it turns out Taiwanese food outlets are springing up across London, reflecting its citizens’ relatively high disposable income coupled with their voracious appetite for new things. Internet searches didn’t provide much guidance on where to go, but social-media discussions among London-based Taiwanese were alive with suggestions.

Taiwan Village

Probably the longest established eatery is Taiwan Village in the SW6 district of Fulham, which recently announced it would stop selling crispy duck after 16 years. Some might object that in Taiwan duck is considered “Mainland” food, but in fairness this restaurant does advertise itself as offering Taiwanese and Hunanese cuisine, and anyway it would take a brave person to claim to define the limits of Taiwanese cooking.

Plenty of classic dishes are available, however, including three-cups chicken (三杯雞), lurou fan (滷肉飯, stewed meat with rice), guabao (割包,“Taiwanese hamburger;” see the separate article in this issue), General Tso’s chicken (左宗棠雞), yuxiang qiezi (魚香茄子, eggplant with minced chicken), mapo tofu with minced pork (麻婆豆腐), and Taiwan’s signature beef noodle soup (牛肉麵). Quite a few dishes are available with vegetarian alternatives, and there are various seasonal vegetables with options of black-bean, oyster, or gongbao (宮保) sauces.

Mark Caltonhill is delighted to find Taiwan's iconic Tatong cutlery at Taiwan Village Restaurant (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)
Mark Caltonhill is delighted to find Taiwan’s iconic Tatong cutlery at Taiwan Village Restaurant (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)

One Taiwanese diner, art history professor Tzeng Shai-shu, gave the restaurant a mixed review during a research trip to London. Her steamed sea bass impressed, being “exactly like what we have in Taiwan,” and her wonton soup was “not bad,” but her tofu, “cooked with a thick and dark soy sauce,” was far from acceptable. She lamented that this problem – soy sauce that “dyes all meats and vegetables black so you can’t recognize the origin of the foods anymore” – exists at many Chinese restaurants abroad. She then launched into a lecture about how good cuisine should attract the eyes and nose as well as the taste buds, since “we enjoy a meal even before we eat it.”

For her taste of home, long-term London resident Mathilda Lee generally chooses lurou fan or beef noodles, especially with dao-xiao (刀削, “knife-cut”) noodles, which she says are hard to find in Chinatown and almost impossible to make oneself. Or she might get a guabao for a snack. And definitely kongxin cai (water convolvulus) if it’s on the menu.

“Taiwan Village is pretty much the only place I go for Taiwanese food,” she says. “Hoja is too snacky, most of the food is fried, and the decoration is poor. Leong’s Legend is very poor, in fact I don’t believe the owners are Taiwanese. And Bao Bar might be good, but I don’t want to queue 40 minutes for a guabao. Hopefully Din Tai Fung will open a branch in London next year, but they announce that just about every year.”

Hong Kong Meats and dimsum were Chinatown's standard fare until the recent revolution (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)
Hong Kong Meats and dimsum were Chinatown’s standard fare until the recent revolution (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)

Bao Bar

Presumably Bao Bar is doing something right if other people are willing to queue so long for its food. Moreover, it recently opened its third London outlet in as many years. The original Bao is a small hut offering take-away guabao in a corner of the Netil Market in East London for three hours on Saturday afternoons. Apparently the owners, whose background is in design, not catering, were looking for an iconic foodstuff to market to London’s brand-conscious foodies.

“They don’t want people sitting down for a drawn-out meal,” says Andy Huang, a Taiwanese resident of London who says he knows Bao’s creators. “They want the busy on-the-go young fashionista.”

Since perfecting their fusion braised-pork and fermented-greens guabao at the market stall, Bao has opened 32- and 47-seat restaurants in Soho and nearby Fitzrovia respectively.

In addition to fairly authentic albeit small guabao at £4, other creations include chicken, lamb, and vegetarian bao, as well as night-market favorites yansu ji (鹽酥雞,deep-fried chicken) and zhuxie gao (豬血糕, pigs’ blood cake). A small bottle of Taiwan Beer costs £4.50, though more fun might be their original Koxinga cocktail for £8. I wonder how many Soho diners have heard of the Chinese-Japanese pirate turned Ming loyalist who threw the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 1600s.

Good Friend Chicken

Most of the other Taiwanese food outlets focus mainly on snacks, and like Bao Bar’s first enterprise, they tend to be small in scale or even operate as pop-up events. Roger Ren’s Good Friend Taiwan Chicken Shop on the eastern approach to Chinatown, for example, sells little more than night-market style zha jipai (炸雞排, deep-fried chicken filets), yansu ji under the name “popcorn chicken,” and sweet-potato fries, as well as around two dozen flavors of bubble and regular teas.

Milktea & Pearl

Lin Nung’s Milktea & Pearl on the first floor (second floor to Americans and Taiwanese) of Boxpark in Shoreditch, East London, has even fewer products. Housed in a complex of reconditioned shipping containers that brands itself “the world’s first pop-up mall,” the shop sells only one item: Taichung’s contribution to world cuisine – zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶, bubble tea).

“And even that wasn’t easy,” says Lin. “When we first opened, we had to educate local people’s tastes, and for the first three weeks we simply gave away free drinks. We were also learning from them about what they liked, and we adapted our products accordingly.”

Lin is candid about his target market: “Definitely not Taiwanese people, or even Asians. You couldn’t make a living from a niche market that represents about 10% of my sales,” he says. “None of us could,” he adds, referring to his fellow Taiwanese in London, “which is why it’s difficult to find any truly authentic Taiwan food in the UK.”

His own special innovation to this fusion culture is Milktea & Pearl’s range of tea cocktails. Instead of being boiled in water, the tea is cold-brewed in vodka or gin for 24 hours.

Like most, perhaps all, of London’s Taiwan food providers, Lin had no background in the catering industry. Now aged 32, he came to the UK in 2008 to study for an MA at the London School of Economics. When he graduated, the financial crisis had struck, so in 2010 he opened a bubble tea stall in a multi-outlet venue near Oxford Street, followed by the second in Shoreditch a few years later.

Dumpling Heart

The area to the north and east of Liverpool Street Station is where to look for Liu Meihui’s high-end dumplings. Originally a fashion designer, she has studied and worked in London since the mid-90s when she had a pop-up clothes outlet at the famous Portobello Road market. Her entry into the food business began two years ago when she participated in a 10-day food festival.

Since last year she has focused on pop-up events, renting kitchen spaces at various locations for a couple of days and collaborating with designers, potters and other artists to put on “Dumpling Heart” events. While her set menus might sound like mom-and-pop cuisine, at £30 per person including a glass of wine, her prices are not.

“We use expensive ingredients,” she explains, “such as ginger pork from Hill and Szrok, who supply some of London’s top restaurants, and organic ingredients wherever possible. And definitely no MSG.”

When she decided to buy the best rice imported from Taiwan, she was delighted to find that it came from her grandfather’s hometown of Chishang in Taitung County. “It means that some of the rice I sell may have been grown and harvested by my aunt!”

The Old Tree

Two restaurants are patronized by significant numbers of Taiwanese and other Asian customers. The first is Lao Shu Daiwan Bee (Old Tree Taiwan Flavor), which started as a bakery in north London but recently added a restaurant on the western edge of Chinatown. For Taiwanese students and guest workers, it appears to be the place to go for authentic flavors and cheap prices.

Mathilda Lee, who works in Taiwan’s de facto London embassy, says there are around 4,000 permanent and long-term Taiwanese residents in London, plus numerous students (many on one-year master’s courses) and 1,000 young people on working visas.

Old Tree’s many classics include Taiwanese beef noodles, o-a mi-swa (蚵仔麵線, oyster thin-noodle soup), o-a jen ( 蚵仔煎, oyster omelets), “three-cups” chicken, salt-and-pepper squid, liang mian (涼麵, cold noodles) in summer, and of course guabao.

It certainly is a change from the barbequed meat and dimsum dominating Chinatown. Perhaps co-owner Mr. Yip from Malaysia is right when he says his Taiwanese wife has truly “revolutionized the neighbourhood.”

A simple but filling, economical lunch at Hoja, including a can of Hey-song Sarsaparilla. (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)
A simple but filling, economical lunch at Hoja, including a can of Hey-song Sarsaparilla. (Photo: Mark Caltonhill)

Hoja

Summer Hsia, co-owner and general manager of Hoja in west London’s Shepherd’s Bush area, never did much cooking when she lived in Taiwan. “Like most young working Taiwanese I ate out all the time, especially because I lived in a studio apartment in Taipei without a proper kitchen. Also it’s really cheaper to eat out than to cook for yourself in Taiwan. But I when I worked for four years in Beijing and Guangdong, I found the food too heavy and too oily, as well as having concerns over food safety, so I started cooking for myself.

“Fortunately I’d watched my mother cooking so much that I could manage well enough. We’re from Tainan, home of many of Taiwan’s traditional small dishes. So when I started cooking for my husband, and later for Hoja, it was these famous xiao chi [literally “little eats”] that I focused on.”

These snacks include the so-called “popcorn chicken.” Hoja also does a wide range of home-marinated dishes such as pork on rice, pig’s ear, Chinese cabbage, and soy eggs, one mouthful of which transported this writer straight back to Taiwan.

Pride of place, however, is Hoja’s beef noodles, served with a choice of ramen, udon, or knife-cut noodles. Many early local customers weren’t used to noodles in soup, so a more Western-style chowmein has also made its way onto the menu.

“Similarly,” Hsia explains, “many Westerners aren’t used to the basic rice-or-noodle choice common to Taiwan cuisine, so we designed some wraps, starting with beef rolls and later prawn and vegetable versions. These aren’t the same as the North China wraps typical in Taipei, but reflect my south-Taiwan heritage in that the beef is marinated and slow-cooked.” They also show an accommodation to British tastes, in that the usual cucumber has been replaced by lettuce.

“I’d say we’re about 90% pure Taiwanese style, about 10% UK fusion,” she says. What is 100% Taiwanese are the karaoke rooms in the basement, with perhaps the best collection of Taiwan crooners’ songs in London.

Interestingly, Hoja is considering diversifying by opening a pop-up or market stall – that is, going in the opposite direction from Bao Bar, Lin Nung, and others. “Hopefully we’ll attract the attention of a wider range of people,” says co-owner Chris Wang, a structural engineer by day.

All that provides reason for optimism about the future of Taiwan cuisine in London. Perhaps one day I’ll even encounter the sniff of stinky tofu. Until then, the hunt continues.

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