Thursday, 23 September 2010

A Slightly Inadequate Guide to Taiwanese Cuisine

Bellagio (鹿港小镇) isn't as you might think an Italian restaurant but rather it's a chain of Taiwanese eateries. It's a bit more casual than most of the places I was taken to in Beijing and that was no bad thing. I left the ordering to my host but I was invited to contribute with some ideas and my thoughts on the noodle order (was my cover being blown?).

I had a lot more success in tracking down both the English and Chinese names of the dishes for this post. However, I still feel that this is a slightly inadequate guide, as I'm not entirely sure if what I ate here was proper Taiwanese food. Come to think of it, despite having been to Taiwan, I'm not even sure what constitutes proper Taiwanese food!

My Favourites
三杯鸡 Three-cup chicken – or san bei ji is named as it's cooked with a cup each of soy, sesame oil and rice wine. The 'three cups' reduce and combine with chicken bits (on the bone), Thai basil, ginger and garlic and the end result is just the most aromatic and fragrant dish. This version was superb with the chicken having absorbed most of the 'three-cups' but without drying out. I also loved the abundant whole cloves of garlic, which I devoured. This is my favourite Taiwanese dish and the one that I suggested although I'm sure it would've have been ordered anyway.

蒜泥龙豆 Dragon beans w/garlic – I've never seen these in the UK and I loved the crunchy texture of these stir-fried beans, which were perfectly complemented by the garlic.

油淋鲈鱼 Steamed sliced perch – Steamed fish is one of my favourites and this was a decent rendition. Unusually, the perch was filleted rather than served whole.

The Rest
菠萝油条虾 Pineapple w/shrimp stuffed in crullers – this dish is wrong on so many levels. I'm no fan of pineapple in savoury dishes and the sweet cloying sauce isn't great either. But whoever decided to stuff a dough stick or cruller (you tiao 条虾) with shrimp paste before deep-frying it is a genius. This would work well as a cheung fun (腸粉) filling in my opinion.

客家小炒 Hakka-style stir-fried celery w/dried squid – considering this dish includes two ingredients I dislike, celery and tofu, it was better than I expected. Perhaps Chinese celery is less crap.

Rice & Noodles
黑胡椒牛肉炒饭 Black pepper beef fried rice – this looks a bit too dark but it tasted better than it looked. The black pepper lent this dish some heat and there was a pleasant kick. I may try adding black pepper, the next time I make fried rice.

台式炒米粉 Taiwanese style fried rice vermicelli – there were many noodle dishes and when we discussed the options, I voted for the rice vermicelli. A Taiwanese favourite and one of mine too.

What is Taiwanese Cuisine?
The menu at Bellagio confused me, as I spotted some Cantonese and Sichuan dishes. I thought this was a Taiwanese restaurant, which begged the question, what is Taiwanese cuisine?

Taiwan came under Chinese rule in the 17th century and settlers from Fujian province soon became the majority population. Therefore, Taiwanese cuisine has much in common with Fujianese food. Dishes like oyster omelette (oa-chian 蚵仔煎) and black pepper bun (hujiao bing 胡椒餅) can be found in both Fujian and Taiwan. There were also many Hakka amongst these early settlers, which explains why that celery stir-fry was on Bellagio's menu.

Later the island came under Japanese occupation (1895-1945) which influenced the cuisine with dishes like tianbula (甜不辣). However, the most profound influence on Taiwanese food came with the influx of Nationalist Chinese following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Coming from all corners of China, some of their dishes came to be regarded as Taiwanese, most notably beef noodle soup (niu rou mian 牛肉面).

Last but not least, Taiwan is renowned for desserts like baobing (刨冰) and drinks like bubble tea (珍珠奶茶), and these are very popular at Bellagio. So much so, some groups came in just for these sweet treats. Sadly we were too full to try these amazing creations. In conclusion, I guess Bellagio's eclectic mix of dishes isn't that unusual for a Taiwanese eatery after all.

The Verdict
You can get banquet fatigue in Beijing, so the simpler pleasures at Bellagio were a welcome respite. In particular, the three-cup chicken was out of this world.

I ate at the branch near the Olympic stadium but there are outlets across Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou amongst other major cities.

Bellagio, No.4 Building, Area 2, Yayuncun An Hui Bei Li, Chaoyang District, Beijing
鹿港小镇 北京朝阳区亚运村安慧北里2区4号楼 (Tel: +86-10-6489-4300)

Taiwanese Cuisine in the UK
Taiwanese cuisine isn't that prevalent in the UK, as historically there's been very little immigration from Taiwan. However, in recent years some Taiwanese eateries have popped up in London, most notably Leong's Legends, with its three branches dotted across Chinatown and Bayswater.

From the more interesting corners of the London blogosphere, Su-Lin from Tamarind and Thyme has reviewed Fulham's Formosa whilst Pig Pig's Corner made the journey to Golders Green to check out Old Tree. Incidentally, Pig Pig's Corner has some amazing posts on Taiwan itself.

I've also spotted Taiwan Village in Fulham (I need to check this place out), where I believe a former alumnus of Belgravia's Hunan is in the kitchen. Both places are Taiwanese run but are more renowned for their multi-course 'leave it to us' banquets rather than their native cuisine. If you know of any other Taiwanese eateries in London or further afield then please let me know.


  1. Great post! There is also a huge population of Hakka people in Taiwan so a great deal of what is considered Taiwanese dishes also have Hakka roots.

  2. "Come to think of it, despite having been to Taiwan, I'm not even sure what constitutes proper Taiwanese food!" That about sums up my view as well, though I admire the walk through history to try and explain the question of what is Taiwanese food.

    I'm headed to Taipei in just over a month, so we'll see if I get any closer to answering this burning question, lol.

  3. Ooh, I _need_ to try three-cup chicken! Anything including whole cloves of garlic is good in my book.

  4. 3HT - thanks! There is a Hakka influence on Taiwanese food but I'm not too familar with their food and I'm struggling to think of a Hakka dish that is popular in Taiwan!

    A-in-L - on finding out what Taiwanese food is, I've come to the conclusion that trying all the different dishes is the most fun part of that particular project!

    Lucky, lucky you! Touring the Taipei night markets was one of my all-time favourite foodie experiences. I can't wait to read about your trip to Taiwan on your blog!

    Kake - if you can't be arsed making this then Leong's Legends do a version of three-cup chicken. They don't call it three-cup chicken in the English menu but I'm pretty sure they use the characters 三杯鸡 as the Chinese translation.

  5. Oooh, I went to Bellagio in Beijing too - and it was fabulous!

  6. Su-Lin - it makes a nice change for you to go to a place after I've been! I'm glad you enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to your posts on Beijing.

  7. Try this link for Taiwanese food into:

  8. Mr Noodle, wonderful blog! It seems we agree on many important things.

    I'm Taiwanese and thought this is actually a pretty good summary of Taiwanese food. The thing is, Taiwanese culture and food is so diverse that I'm constantly surprised by what my other friends eat.

    I'd like to add 3 other further classes of typical Taiwanese cuisine:

    1. Street food: oyster omelette (as you've mentioned) and other seafood snacks, thick sticky oyster rice noodle soup, stinky tofu
    2. Porridge: Different from the cantonese style porridge, we have plain porridge which we eat with various small accompaniments (tofu, picked cucumbers, dried pork powder, stir-fried veg).
    3. Soup: I've been told by non-Taiwanese observers that the predominence of soup at every meal is very typical of Taiwan - not sure how this compares with other Chinese cultures though!

    And thank you for campaigning for Din Tai Fung in London!


    1. Welcome! Thanks for the kind words and the further insights into Taiwanese food.

      In terms of soup, the Cantonese also serve it at most mealtimes. I think this may be the case with southern Chinese cultures (I know Taiwan isn't China but its culture is v.similar to that in south China especially Fujian).

      And please, please let's get DTF in London.