Global Food Crazes Find Fans in Taipei

Photo: Tamed Fox

From smashed avocados to beetroot lattes, the city’s restaurants and cafes are catching on to the latest international eating trends.

There’s something wonderfully devilish about an otherwise health-oriented brunch place that also serves a wide range of alcoholic beverages. After all, a piña colada is the perfect accompaniment to a plate of poached eggs.

The rest of the menu at ACME Breakfast CLUB (3F, No. 10, Lane 27, Chengdu Rd.), though, is rather more conventional brunch fare featuring fashionably healthful ingredients, something relatively new for Taipei. Mashed avocado on toast, acai bowls, fresh figs, and sourdough bread are a far cry from the city’s usual budget breakfast offerings of fried egg rolls, sizzling meat patties, and oily noodles.

Photo: Acme Breakfast Club

There’s definitely demand for ACME’s pricier items, even in Taipei’s gritty Ximending District. At 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday, the restaurant – located on the third floor of an aging building that’s also home to several backpacker hostels – was absolutely packed, with a minimum 20-minute wait for a table. Opened in 2018, this stylish café’s success reflects how Taipei is slowly beginning to embrace international food trends that have become wildly popular in the west.

Many of these global food crazes – such as gluten-free and ketogenic diets, acai bowls, and turmeric drinks – are still considered quite niche. However, those that have their roots in the region, like plant-based milks and meats, are spreading much more quickly.

Take mock meats, for example. Fake pork, chicken, and fish, usually derived from soy or wheat gluten, have been a staple in thousands of Buddhist vegetarian buffets and restaurants across the island for decades. This might explain why plant-based meat manufacturer, U.S.-headquartered Beyond Meat, which has taken the world by storm, seems to be making headway in Taiwan, too. At the end of last year, convenience store FamilyMart announced it would sell the firm’s veggie burgers in branches countrywide, just a year after the U.S. company entered the market.

You can now also munch on a Beyond Burger at a handful of sit-down restaurants, including American chain TGI Fridays; select branches of Japanese fast-food joint MOS Burger; Japanese-owned, Western-style diner chain Royal Host; and locally owned vegan eateries such as Ooh Cha Cha, V Burger, and BaganHood. None of these options is cheap, though. TGI Friday’s Mushroom Beyond Meat Burger is the second most expensive burger on the menu at NT$470, and a pack of two patties at FamilyMart is a whopping NT$499.

According to Ihab Leheta, Beyond Meat’s director of international sales, the company is not targeting vegans or vegetarians, but rather meat eaters who want to improve their health and lower their environmental impact. “93% of our customers [in the U.S.] are meat eaters,” says Leheta, who was in Taipei last December to launch the company’s partnership with online and TV sales company momo.com.

David Yeung, founder of Hong Kong-based Right Treat – maker of OmniPork, a pork-substitute made from pea protein, soy, shiitake mushrooms, and rice – has a similar view. “The real growth is from meat-eaters who are aspiring to eat healthier, many of them millennials and Generation Zers,” Yeung wrote in an emailed interview.

Yeung’s product is giving Beyond Meat some stiff competition in this market, helped in part by the focus on pork, the favorite meat of Taiwanese. OmniPork entered the Taiwanese market last March, and Yeung projects that his fake meat foods will be sold in 5,000 retail and restaurant outlets here by the end of the first quarter this year.

New non-dairy alternatives are also quite popular in Taiwan these days. Taiwanese have enjoyed soy, oat, and almond drinks for decades, and silken tofu is a much-loved dessert, so the global craze for nut milks (or “nut mylk,” a spelling used to differentiate it from animal milk) and non-dairy desserts has found a robust following here.

Newcomers such as Soypresso and Real Soy (sign in Chinese only: “其實豆製所”) do a roaring trade during the summer at the several branches they operate around the city. Both vendors serve up soy ice creams that are just as creamy but not as sweet as regular ice cream. Real Soy also makes a reasonable Affogato (NT$90), although the volume of soy ice cream cools the shot of espresso a bit too quickly.

Meanwhile, nut-milk bars are giving the city’s trademark bubble tea vendors a run for their money. Nut Milk, with branches near Taipei Main Station and National Taiwan University, uses apricot kernel, cashew, macadamia, walnut, and almond milks in its own dairy-free bubble teas. Environmentally conscious customers are urged to bring their own drink containers as the outlets use a large amount of plastic.

NUTTEA (11-1 Fuxing South Road, Sec. 2), near the Da’an MRT station, is popular with office workers. Its drinks are a little more expensive – but are richer and creamier – than Nut Milk’s. A tall glass of Chocolate Hazelnut Nut Mylk (NT$85) is nourishing and velvety in texture.

Detox and weight loss

Fermented teas have their origins in East Asia, but Kombucha – an antioxidant and probiotic-packed beverage said to be good for the digestive system – has yet to go mainstream here, though it has become very popular in the West.

One place trying hard to help Taiwanese develop a taste for Kombucha is vegan restaurant Flourish (No. 32, Lane 233, Dunhua South Road, Sec. 1), part of the Daohe Food and Beverage Group, where diners are greeted with a small cup to try before they sit down. A row of giant, cloth-stoppered jars filled with the fermenting pale brown tea dominate this lovely light-filled space located in the trendy East District near the Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT station.

Flourish’s manager, Chiou Pei-chian, says the aim in focusing on Kombucha is to offer local people a way to heal themselves after all the fried and sugary foods they tend to consume when they dine outside the home. “Kombucha can help clean them out after all that unhealthy food,” she says, lamenting that Taiwanese people’s sweet tooth means that many customers still find the drink too tart.

A meal set at Flourish. Photo: Flourish

Flourish is also one of the few establishments offering gluten-free options. Many Westerners started shunning gluten – a protein found in wheat and several other grains but not rice – after some medical studies showed an association between the consumption of gluten and gut inflammation and immune disorders.

Flourish’s gluten-free desserts, which include delectable-looking mousse, tiramisu, roasted brown-rice pudding, brownies, and cupcakes, employ rice flour instead of wheat. I’m offered the lemon pineapple cake (NT$140) – a soft, moist slice of sponge cake smothered in coconut cream. The gluten-free aspect wasn’t something the restaurant focused on originally, says Chiou, because not many people in Taiwan care about it. But in 2017, as more and more customers mentioned that they were sensitive to wheat, the kitchen switched to using brown-rice flour in its baked goods.

The company’s philosophy, says digital marketing manager Sara Luan, is to create clean, healthy food that is environmentally friendly and does not contribute to animal suffering. In line with that philosophy, in 2018 all of the Daohe brands, including Flourish and a string of Japanese restaurants and bakeries, went vegetarian or vegan in recognition that meat and dairy production is a major contributor to global warming. (According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, livestock are responsible for around 14.5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.)

Concern about the environment also motivated Rose Lai, a former Greenpeace campaigner, when she opened her Ketoer Café (5-1 Fuzhou Street) in 2018. She wanted to promote the idea of rejecting disposable plastics – and if you come looking for a coffee to go, you’d better bring your own cup or else you’ll have to rent one from her. But she knew that environmental friendliness wouldn’t be enough to bring customers through the door.

At the time, Lai was researching ketogenic (low-carb, high-fat) diets because her mother had been prescribed the diet by her doctor. Initially skeptical, she soon became convinced that ditching carbs brings many advantages. “We all eat too many carbohydrates, but it’s not good for our bodies,” Lai says. “It can lead to diseases like diabetes and cancer.”

Out of that research came the main concept for her café – keto-friendly food and drinks. Ketoer, a cozy nook painted green and blue, is located between the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial and Guting MRT stations – and has just three standalone tables. An oversized menu includes keto favorites such as “bulletproof coffee” (where the milk, which contains sugars, is swapped out for butter), salad bowls, and quiche made with almond flour. Each entry is given a calorie count and a breakdown of how many grams of fat, protein, and carbs it contains.

I ordered the Green Keto Smoothie Bowl (NT$200), which is made from blended avocado, kale, and almond milk, topped with chia seeds, blueberries, chopped nuts, and two rows of tiny, star-like white and pink flowers. The rich, buttery taste of the avocado jostled with the crunchy seeds and nuts. It was the kind of meal that makes you feel cleansed after you finish.

While awareness about keto is not as high in Taiwan as it is overseas, people are gradually learning more about it, Lai says. It’s a diet that is challenging to sell here because rice and noodles dominate local dining options. Still, other keto outlets besides Ketoer have begun popping up around the city, including Sweet Cooking, situated off of Yongkang Street, and Ketoneversion near the Taipei City Hall MRT stop.

Chuan Lee, the man behind Ketoneversion, said he was inspired to open his restaurant after he lost 30 kilograms in a matter of months due to going keto a few years ago.

Lee said that the trick to satisfying local people, who expect to have a staple in their meal, is to use alternatives rather than just providing proteins and fats. “We use cauliflower rice instead of rice, konjac noodles instead of noodles,” he says. “With a staple food, you can have a good dining experience, and the ketogenic diet becomes easy.”

A better brunch

When nutritionist Debra Liu was planning to open her health food restaurant back in 2017, she was motivated by a desire to offer Taiwanese diners more balanced meals, but she didn’t want to oversell the healthy side because she was worried the food would sound boring.

She therefore decided to call her restaurant Tamed Fox after a character in the French classic children’s tale, The Little Prince, something totally unrelated to diet or nutrition. “There’s a perception here that healthy food doesn’t taste good, that it’s just boiled vegetables,” she said. “I didn’t want to scare people away.”

Thankfully, the fare at Tamed Fox (No. 56, Lane 122, Ren Ai Road, Sec. 4) has very little to do with boiled vegetables. Menu items include smoked salmon, ricotta cheese, American breakfast sausage, beer-braised pork and cheddar cheese, and sweet potato burritos. Other options – such as beetroot, turmeric and activated charcoal lattes, non-dairy milks, avocado toast, sourdough, quinoa, and acai bowls – align with global health food fads.

Photo: Tamed Fox

Despite its location in the upmarket Xinyi neighborhood, the place is understated. A light-filled space with numerous potted plants and an assortment of tables and chairs, it’s a bit like an oversized kitchen in someone’s house. Adding to the homey vibe is Liu’s little teddy bear poodle, Rae, who is usually either padding about the restaurant or napping.

I decided to try the beetroot latte (NT$160), which was russet red in color. Thick and rich, with shades of chocolate, it also had a tart aftertaste. The smoked salmon avo toast (NT$290) offered layer after delicious layer. It was made from sourdough bread, which had become a little soggy from its heavy load of soft scrambled eggs, slices of avocado, creamy ricotta, crunchy walnut fragments, and folds of smoked salmon, topped with a pinch of dill.

“If it goes on the menu, it has to be something that my staff and I think tastes good,” Liu says, adding that almost everything is made in-house and that she doesn’t use MSG.

The food looks beautiful, too. The foam heart in my Heartbeets latte stayed intact all the way down to the bottom of the cup. These days, when everyone “Instagrams” their food, restaurants have to think about making their interior and their food presentation photogenic.

Instagram is definitely the big draw at ACME Breakfast CLUB. All of the mostly young patrons were photographing their orders from several different angles before taking a bite.

Photo: Acme Breakfast Club

At the bar, twenty-something Ashley Hsu had ordered an acai bowl, but it wasn’t the Brazilian superfood berry dish that had lured her that morning down a graffiti-adorned alleyway lined with cheap hair salons and claw-crane arcades to ACME. Rather, she was there because her friend had told her it was a great place to take photos.

ACME, launched by two young men as an offshoot of their men’s designer-ware brand, is undeniably stylish. It’s a big, bright open space that is clean and white and dominated by the bar along one side. Among its more curious embellishments are a porcelain basin and white human bust with antler-like hair cupping a bunch of bananas.

“I can’t deny that our business started out well because of Instagram,” one of the partners – who asked to be identified only as Spinle – wrote in an email. “We have a chic and nice interior, good-looking food and coffee, lots of natural light. All these are important elements of a good photo on Instagram – and good photos attract more people.” But, he adds, people wouldn’t share the photos if they didn’t enjoy the food.

And the food is good. The whorl-shaped poached egg, speckled with pepper, is done just right. A slice with a knife and the yolk burst out piping hot, drenching the flavorsome sourdough bread. The Long Black coffee (NT$110) was so rich that it left a trail of grains on the inside of the cup, and the Acai Smoothie Bowl with Seasonal Fruits and Granola (NT$280), a romantic deep purple, was topped with niblets of dark chocolate, crunchy granola, and slices of strawberry, kiwi fruit with the soft skin still on, and sweet chunky banana.

I was full to bursting by the time I left ACME. Sadly, there was no room for a piña colada. That will just have to wait until next time.

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