Taiwan was for a time the most advanced colony under the Japanese empire, and there is a lingering affinity in Taiwan for all things Japanese, including its diverse cuisine. While options for Japanese food in the capital Taipei are plentiful, not all can be considered high-quality or authentic. One place that definitely achieves that standard, however, is ibuki, Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel’s premier Japanese restaurant, now under the leadership of Chef Norihisa Maeda from Osaka.
Chef Maeda, whose kitchen experience spans three decades and five different locations throughout Asia, says that his experience sourcing ingredients in Taiwan has been eye-opening. “When I was cooking in Hong Kong and Macau, I had to order 90 to 95% of my ingredients from Japan because the quality of the local vegetables was not so high,” he says. But in Taiwan he found that the caliber and variety of locally grown produce is so good that now “almost 80% of the ingredients I use here are locally sourced.”
To showcase his approach of using mostly Taiwanese ingredients to produce novel yet genuine Japanese dishes, Chef Maeda has crafted a versatile menu for ibuki, focusing on the traditional set meal known as kaiseki. In previous times, kaiseki was reserved mostly for the country’s nobility, but over the centuries has come to be enjoyed by all classes. The contents of the dishes are adjusted according to the seasons, with the current winter menu featuring foods that, according to kampo – the Japanese appropriation of traditional Chinese medicine – raise the body’s temperature to withstand the colder weather.
The winter kaiseki set begins with a salmon sashimi salad. The blend of raw salmon and seasonal local vegetables is bathed in a tangy sauce of white miso and pomelo. Sprinkled on top are small cubes of clear jelly made by refrigerating a slow-cooked bonito fish broth overnight. The dish packs a surprisingly zesty kick, dancing delightfully on the tongue.
Seafood is another area that Taiwan is known for internationally, and locally caught seafood is featured in the second course, a fresh sashimi platter. It is followed by an oblong plate of Japanese-style fried chicken steeped in a clear sauce thickened with kudzu starch and flavored with truffle. In between the pieces of lightly battered chicken sit artfully placed slices of local eggplant, which add to the richness of the dish without making it too heavy.
Next is a plate of A5-grade wagyu beef, cooked vegetables, and kanzanji miso, a side made from miso paste and grains. It has a refreshingly sweet taste that perfectly complements the tender, flavor-packed beef.
The final main dish features Taiwanese king crab and uni (Japanese sea urchin) from the northern island of Hokkaido, laid on top of a thick soup of sticky rice and a stock made from kombu seaweed. The seaweed, says Maeda, gives the dish umami, a Japanese description for savory foods that has made its way into international cooking vocabulary.
A typical Hokkaido dessert of milk pudding – topped with diced and puréed persimmon –completes the meal. The set is served with a complimentary glass of Gassan Izumo Junmai Ginjo sake.
The nuance and innovation on display in Chef Maeda’s kaiseki meals reflects his philosophy that in order to continue making excellent food, chefs must constantly learn and discover, applying their new knowledge to their culinary endeavors. However, the number one priority for him is making his customers happy. His exquisitely designed kaiseki sets leave no doubt that guests at ibuki will leave feeling fully satisfied.