Catching Up After Five Years Away

Louisa Cafe. Photo: Mark Caltonhill

After living in Taiwan for two decades, regular Wine & Dine contributor Mark Caltonhill returned to his native UK at the end of 2013. Now he’s back and looking at what has changed on the food scene.

Returning to Taiwan after a five-year absence, my initial reaction was that prices seemed a lot higher. Currency fluctuations didn’t help, as I was getting only NT$40 per pound rather than the $50 or so when I left.

Friends confirmed my suspicions. Those habitually dining out complained of restaurants now aiming for NT$400 per head compared to NT$300 previously, and even of ordinary lunchboxes costing NT$100. Those regularly cooking at home said much the same about prices for meat, fruit, vegetables, and – oh-my-word – milk.

Nor did it help that I arrived in spring, just before fruit and vegetable prices entered their expansive summer season. Nevertheless, this period seems to have gone on longer, and many prices trebled instead of the doubling I remembered.

There seems to be little explanation for this increase in terms of supply and demand. While Taiwan’s population grew by around 1% over the last half-decade, Council of Agriculture statistics show steady or even increased production in most food categories. Only the fish catch has shown a decrease, of around 20%.

My next surprise came in shopping for eggplants. In the UK I had searched assiduously for something approaching Taiwan’s long, thin variety. In Taiwan I’m now being offered the large, near-spherical type I grew up with – but never particularly liked – promoted as an exotic import.

Other good news for ratatouille lovers is that zucchini is much more widely available than five years back, and with tomatoes were two of the few things to have dropped in price once the summer season ended. Another positive development is the appearance of Brussels sprouts on supermarket shelves, although they are anything but cheap.

Photo: Mark Caltonhill

Probably the most exciting items to have become more economical are certified organic vegetables. I recall that they used to be about two-and-a-half times the price of regular leafy greens, whereas now they are only about NT$10 more per bunch.

As I settled back in Taiwan, I wondered whether there might have been a new “egg tart phenomenon” during my absence. In the late 1990s, a craze for the Portuguese-style confectionery led to hundreds of stores opening within a short time span, huge popularity among consumers for a while (even causing a reported egg shortage), and then a sudden end to the fad. A similar obsession followed with Krispy Kreme doughnuts in 2013 and the short-lived Black Thunder chocolate bars in 2014.

When I asked friends about the last five years, however, all they could suggest were the claw-machine arcades that are now found in every neighborhood. I’ve rarely seen anyone in them, though, and wonder if they’re merely some kind of money-laundering venture. 

Perhaps the nearest thing to an “egg tart phenomenon,” I concluded, are the various fashions in bubble tea, a market now valued at about US$1 billion per year domestically. But this is more of an evolution than a revolution, and certainly was well underway before I left. Even 7-Eleven has entered the market, which has expanded to include such innovations as bubble tea cake and the “pearl milk-tea pizza” that Domino’s Pizza is market-testing this winter.

Tiger Sugar. Photo: Mark Caltonhill

Judging from queue lengths in Taipei’s eastern shopping district, Tiger Sugar – with its bands of caramelized sugar sticking to the sides of the transparent cups to create a tiger-skin-like pattern – seems to be the latest rage. Possibly its potential for Facebook or Instagram-friendly selfies is as important as its full-on creamy taste.

Tea and coffee politics

There was no queue at all outside my local Yifang tea-shop franchise, for reasons seemingly having to do chiefly with politics. In August 2019, the Hong Kong representative of the now globalized Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea (一芳水果茶) condemned protesters in the territory and expressed support for China’s “one country, two systems” formula. Naturally that didn’t go down too well in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and sales plummeted. I have made six visits to the store to take a photo without once finding a customer present.

A year earlier, a similar political development took place in Taiwan’s US$2 billion-plus coffee industry when 85°C Bakery Cafe capitulated to China. Beijing reacted negatively when the Los Angeles branch of the Taiwan-based coffee company welcomed visiting Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. 85°C then quickly announced that its “firm support for the ‘1992 consensus’ [a vague One China formulation] has never changed,” but customers in Taiwan were not pleased. By now, consumers seem to have forgiven or forgotten, so maybe Yifang just needs to be patient.

Speaking of coffee, one of the most visible changes I noticed is the proliferation of Louisa Coffee shops, a brand I was probably not hip enough to have been aware of five years ago. Especially popular with students and younger office workers, it has grown – from a single takeaway stall in 2006 in an alley off Minsheng East Road – to being the nation’s number-three brand behind Starbucks and 85°C. Despite being only slightly more expensive than convenience store equivalents, its coffee is surprisingly drinkable and its snacks quite acceptable. Most branches have ample seating, electrical sockets, and free Wi-Fi, and in student neighborhoods they are generally as quiet as libraries.

It’s hard to remember Taiwan in the days before coffee, but in my own early years here my suitcase would be half full of ground coffee and filters when I returned from annual trips home. The other half was usually cheese, another item that was hard to find here, especially outside the big cities. Getting something better than meltable, orange, plastic-like squares required a special trip to one of the high-end supermarkets.

That is no longer the case. Many shops have a reasonable range – if not at reasonable prices – and Carrefour and Costco have dozens of cheeses to choose from: hard or soft, mild or stinky, and white, blue, or green, as well as orange. The hypermarkets have also radically improved their wine selections, the best of them surpassing many of the choices I found back in the UK.

Locally produced alcoholic beverages have also undergone significant development, especially in the beer market. One major player to have come from nowhere is Buckskin, and though initially I was wary of trusting the brewing ability of the makers of Mr. Brown coffee and Kavalan whisky, their Marzen beer is a highly welcome addition to the market. (More on Buckskin in this issue’s feature on draft drinks by Dinah Gardner).

In general, the craft beer explosion currently underway in Taiwan hasn’t been entirely satisfying. The initial flavors tend to be fine, though sometimes a little too hoppy, but there is rarely any follow-up taste and invariably no finish. Hopefully some of the dozens of craft beers fighting for shelf space will come through in the long run.

That said, none of these brews tastes as bad as the latest offering from TTL: a non-alcoholic version of its popular Gold Medal Taiwan Beer. In fairness, the product is called a “beer-taste beverage,” though even that requires quite a stretch of one’s imagination. As someone who probably imbibes too often, I appreciate the attempt, just not the result.

One more thing about beer. I’ve always wanted to make pancakes with beer instead of milk, but it seemed such a waste. Now that I’m living in a country where milk costs about NT$100 per liter and TTL’s Taiwan Classic Beer works out at about NT$65 per liter, I’m finally living my beer-pancake dream in the mornings.

Another noticeable development over the past five years is the proliferation of “Western-style” all-day breakfast joints. My use of quotation marks should say it all. 

Which brings us finally to restaurants. Being a restaurateur is a notoriously precarious profession. Indeed, several of my old hangouts have closed for whatever reason, but there is never a shortage of people willing to take their places, it seems.

At the top end, the Michelin Guide Taipei update came out just as I touched down in Taiwan, and includes three new two-star restaurants and four one-star restaurants. Sadly, my income level precludes me from paying NT$3,000-$5,000 for a meal, but it is good to see high-quality Taiwanese cuisine, like that at the Mountain and Sea House (山海樓) at 94 Ren Ai Road, Sec. 2, being acknowledged alongside the usual French and Japanese cuisines.

The guide also includes a selection of “Bib Gourmand” establishments – restaurants and even night-market stalls offering “good quality, good value cooking” – where a three-course meal costs no more than NT$1,000. These I do intend to check out.

Meanwhile, down at the mom-and-pop end of the food spectrum where less rapid change might be expected, there has been at least one exciting development in my local Wuxing Street neighborhood. Perhaps not surprisingly since the fresh market, night market, and restaurants in the area all grew up to cater to the nearby postwar military veterans-and-dependents’ villages, there are at least a dozen beef noodle outlets.

Almost without exception, these serve their fare on melamine “crockery,” and although I am by no means a food snob, I do think that eating off plastic detracts from the dining experience. But Zhanzihao (詹字號麵食館; no English name, no English menu) at No. 91, which opened in 2018, uses the same Tatung ware I have at home. So despite being vegetarian, I am more than happy to take friends and family to eat there. The food isn’t bad either.

Real crockery at the Zhanzihao restaurant. Photo: Mark Caltonhill

Speaking of vegetarianism, while there is a lot of online chatter about vegetarianism and veganism – especially as concern over climate change increases – not much seems to have changed domestically. There have always been vegetarian restaurants, even in small towns, usually run by Buddhist or Yiguandao religious groups. And while Western-style restaurants will have vegetarian (although not necessarily vegan) options on their menus, there are also local restaurants that have absolutely nothing suitable, unless you don’t mind a portion of rice and a few leafy greens that were boiled in the same water that cooked meat products.

Indeed, last year the Bafang Yunji (八方雲集) chain suddenly stopped selling its highly popular vegetarian dumplings without explanation, and 7-Eleven removed its microwaveable vegetarian rice that had been a lifesaver for me on cycle trips to the mountains. Fortunately, however, the convenience-store chain has since replaced the dish with four similar items.

Probably the best place to find vegan food is in cosmopolitan Taipei, especially in the more academic and middle-class districts like Da’an, and I am informed that Vegan Taipei, which opened in 2017 at 130 Rui An Street, has the best vegan pizza on the island.

Ravi Dadlani, proprietor of Vegan Taipei. Photo: Mark Caltonhill

All of which was starting to make me think that not so much had changed in Taiwan’s F&B sector, at least not compared with previous decades. Then I was almost run down by a foodpanda delivery scooter. And after that almost knocked off my bicycle by another deliverer speeding through a red light. Worse still, over a four-day period in October came news that two deliverers – one from foodpanda and one from UberEats – were killed in traffic accidents in Taipei.

An investigation by the Taipei City government discovered that such incidents were more common than had been realized. Four of the five largest food-delivery companies then committed to a voluntary code of conduct aimed at addressing the problem. For example, the companies agreed to ensure that delivery workers held valid motor-vehicle licenses and insurance. They also committed to setting realistic timeframes for riders to arrive at destinations, with due consideration for weather conditions.

Food deliveries. Photo: Mark Caltonhill

This massive growth in online-booked, two-wheel-delivered meals is undoubtedly the biggest noticeable change since I left five years ago, fed in part by Taiwan’s culture of long working hours. It’s not just in Taipei and other big cities where 8 a.m.-10 p.m. workdays are not uncommon, and employees think they gain merit by never leaving their desks. I was recently in sleepy Luodong in Yilan County around lunchtime, and the streets were a veritable sea of pink – foodpanda apparently dominating the market there.

I’d pretty much given up on finding the latest “egg tart phenomenon,” and with the deadline looming for submitting this article, I retreated to a branch of Louisa Coffee to type up my notes. It was raining outside and the cafe was full, so I relocated to the empty 7-Eleven next door. Barely had I and my companion fired up our laptops than a PR woman entered, accompanied by a mic-wielding TV presenter and a cameraman. They set up a table in the corner, opened a box of something, and started shooting a segment.

“Haidilao,” my companion said.

“Heidi who?” I asked.

The author at his first encounter with Haidilao. Photo: Mark Caltonhill

“No, this is what you’ve been waiting for. It’s the latest food fashion. Only started last month. It’s made by the Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao (海底撈) and includes a kind of heating pad that finishes the cooking in the pot. Takes around 15 minutes. It means the ingredients are healthier and taste fresher.”

I snuck over and asked in my best tourist-style English if I could take a photo. The PR woman acquiesced, and when they’d finished filming, brought the pot over and asked if we’d like to sample the contents.

My companion gave it 8.5 out of 10, but deducted one point for not being ecofriendly, since there was a pot within a pot and every ingredient came in its own pouch. I gave it a 3. My friend is probably more in touch with Taiwan’s culinary pulse, but we’ll see how long this particular fashion lasts.