A passion project featuring chefs and restaurants around the world, Taiwan Bites proves that Taiwanese food is more than bubble tea and beef noodles.
Kenny Png has a crystal-clear recollection of the first time he tasted real Taiwanese home cooking – and not just because the occasion was as furtive as a drug deal.
The year was 1998 and Png – like many Singaporean conscripts in previous and subsequent years – had traveled to Taiwan for military training. Png spent most of his time with his fellow soldiers stuck in barracks or eating combat rations until, during a grueling exercise in southern Taiwan, the group defied orders and bought food from a local resident.
“We’d spent two days wandering through the mountains, our only source of joy being some packs of M&Ms we’d smuggled in,” says Png, the director of Taiwan Bites, an upcoming eight-part TV series about chef-entrepreneurs who promote iterations of Taiwanese cuisine on distant continents. “There was a standing directive that anyone caught buying civilian food from the ‘ninja vans’ that’d find their way onto the training grounds would be punished. Those vans sold everything from buns to fried chicken — Taiwanese hustling at its best!”
Png says the group wasn’t “very good at following orders on an empty stomach, so a bunch of us gathered in a back alley in a darkened village. I couldn’t speak Mandarin to save my life, but I drew the short straw and knocked on a door. We pooled together money we’d hidden in our underwear and handed it over to the occupant.”
The man who had answered the door took the money, disappeared into the house, and soon reemerged with bowls of duck fried rice. “It was winter, and the warmth of that food was the closest we’d felt to human dignity for a while,” says Png. “I remember chewing the rice and being taken aback by its texture.” (Taiwanese prefer short-grain rice to the long grain eaten in Singapore.)
Png and his friends were almost caught. “A jeep with a searchlight came back, sending us all into tactical concealment behind doors and alleyway trash. But we never spilled a grain of that delicious rice!”
Since his days in the military, Png has been back to Taiwan several times. Although the food scene is constantly evolving, he says that “for me, the first chomp of a fried chicken steak in a night market, or the gooey hospitality of an oyster omelet, has not changed.”
Fast forward to early 2022 when Png, by then a professional with more than 100 hours of creative and commercial video content in his portfolio, was tapped by Roger Cheng, a Taipei-based producer of factual and scripted shows. Cheng asked Png to work with Eric Sze, co-owner of New York-based Taiwanese eatery 886, on the show that would become Taiwan Bites.
Png says he tried to go beyond the obsession with street food shown by many documentary makers and YouTubers. “This always infuriates me. Taiwanese food gets reduced to ‘meat on a stick.’” Compared with the cuisine of his native island, “Taiwanese flavors are very refined, with a taste of sweetness that makes them unique.”
Cheng says he had pondered making a Taiwanese food program for several years, but it wasn’t until he saw one of Sze’s YouTube videos that things started to come together for him.
“He came off as interesting, young, very confident, yet eager to learn and bilingual,” Cheng says of Sze, who graduated from Taipei American School.
Using a first-time presenter is always a huge risk, Cheng says, as hosting a long-form show is very different from making a quick “how-to” video. “But Eric has done really well,” he adds. The script was a collaborative effort by Cheng, Png, and Sze, who drew heavily on his personal experiences running two Taiwanese restaurants in New York.
In addition to the Big Apple, the production team filmed in Germany, Poland, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey. The eight 42-minute episodes cover themes including breakfast, braised pork rice, beef noodles, vegetarian fare, traditional cuisine, 24-hour food culture, and bubble tea.
Cheng singles out a pair of books as especially useful when gathering background information: The Food of Taiwan by Cathy Erway and A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, which was co-authored by Katy Hui-wen Hung and the writer of this article. (Erway, Hung, and this writer are among the interviewees who appear on the program.)
Cheng, who describes Taiwan Bites as “the first-ever culinary series focused on Taiwanese cuisine,” made the series on spec, despite the financial risk, because “program distributors know very little about Taiwan’s cuisine.” The confusion showcased by CNN in their reporting of the 2023 New Year fireworks display at Taipei 101, mixing up Taiwan and Thailand, “gives you an idea of what we’re up against,” he adds.
Working with an established platform like Discovery Channel would have meant accepting its ideas regarding hosts and themes, Cheng says. “It’s tougher to put a show together on your own, but in creative terms, you have much, much more freedom.”
At the time of this magazine’s publication, Taiwan Bites is in post-production. Cheng expects the series to be released later this year.
A subsidy from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture covered about a quarter of the production budget, much of which was eaten up by travel costs. Cheng says they would have visited more cities if they had more time and money. “Is there any Taiwanese cuisine in Baghdad or Kabul? In war zones or deserts? It wouldn’t surprise me.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, international media have focused on the risk of war between Taiwan and China. “But Taiwan isn’t only about that,” says Cheng. “It isn’t only about semiconductors. And the food scene here isn’t just bubble tea and beef noodles. When I put it like that, even people who’ve never been to Taiwan instantly get what I’m trying to do.”
Host Eric Sze says that during filming, he was struck by how similar the Taiwanese people he encountered were to him. “These food entrepreneurs – myself included – all had this sense of relentless foolishness to keep moving forward. I wasn’t expecting to meet so many people with the same mentality. Taiwanese in foreign countries and Taiwanese who live in Taiwan – everybody has that same hustler mentality.”
Sze adds that although the chefs he met were “way more talented and technical” than he was, they all had one thing in common: efficiency. “Something about being from a small island makes you prioritize efficiency over most everything else. From the way we store plates to the style of service, we all value efficiency a lot.”
Cheng notes that while they may lack formal culinary training, the food entrepreneurs featured in Taiwan Bites “all share the same vision, ambition, and frustration. They need to educate their consumers. It’s not just about ‘authenticity.’ If your food is good, you’ll get customers. Trial and error. Adapt to local palates.”
In addition, most of the chefs are relatively young and well-educated. “They’ve had good options in life, so why do they run restaurants, which is high-pressure and difficult at the best of times? It seems to be that they have a desire to tell the Taiwan story, through food, in different cities around the world.”