Twelve years ago, cofounders Susan and Leiti met while dancing on nightclub speakers in Shanghai. The two competitive overachievers looked across the deejay booth and thought: “Who’s this other broad who’s dancing up a storm?” They jumped down, introduced themselves. Leiti (Taiwan-born), who was traveling to Shanghai for the first time, asked where the good Taiwanese food in town was to be found—at 2am in the morning, no less. This was also code for: “The food in China sucks compared with where I’m from. Susan (Shanghai-born) proved her wrong and took her to a spot.
Who knew that twelve years later, they would found a travel company together, and in the course of doing so, have the opportunity to contemplate these roots in a grand trip to Taiwan?
These are their personal stories and reflections on the people and culture of Taiwan—at least what you need to know as a traveler today, with a dash of history so you can sound smart at your gathering.
Leiti Hsu: “Is Taiwanese Food As Good As I Remember?”
Born in Taiwan and raised in the Los Angeles area since two years old, I’d go back some summers as a kid to visit extended family. After traveling and eating professionally as a grown-up years later, I wasn’t sure if I could trust my memories of Taiwan being really awesome. Was it truly as awesome as I’d remembered it?
Only recently have I begun to dive into these questions. Is Taiwanese food as good as I remember—and what makes the Taiwanese people special? These are rather subjective qualities about a destination to measure, that is, until you’ve gained time in other places under your belt to be able to make objective comparison.
My mom and dad were not and still aren’t avid travelers. So most of my formative global exploration has been self-directed as an adult, and solo. These questions about where I was born were something to finally figure out. After experiencing now some of the world’s best and most famous places, I wanted to find out the truth.
“Taiwan is like Japan, except in Taiwan, people jaywalk,” says my friend the writer and author Matt Gross, ex NYTimes Frugal Traveler columnist and Bon Appetit editor.
Matt is somebody whose taste I have come to trust deeply over the years: we’ve judged a hot sauce competition together (years later, he’s now an expert on the world history of chili peppers), he’s traveled to Taiwan extensively, and—he’s married to a Taiwanese fashion designer.
Sometimes, when you’re from a place, it’s hard to have context for what makes it special. After all, I didn’t want to be biased. But in talking to Matt and then dozens of locals experts recently, I’ve come to understand where I come from.
The Taiwanese people will tell you that they’re “re qin,” which translates to “passionate,” meaning friendly but in the most authentic, warm and hearty way.
What Matt said about jaywalking is an astute observation. When in certain parts of Taipei, it’ll feel just like a mini version of Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, with big neon lights, bustling crowds and a palpable buzz about it. The queues here are infinitely more orderly than in China (cue image of shoving my way to buy tickets at a train station in Beijing) but less so than in Japan (cue image of lines to board a train magically manifesting themselves before the train arrives). In Taiwan, (some) rules are meant to be broken.
While mastery and orderliness is godliness in Japan (to good effect, as they are well-known cultural, economic and culinary leaders of the world), in tiny Taiwan, risk-taking, entrepreneurship and creativity valued. There is more of that “going with the flow” small island attitude that you might find in Southeast Asia, where being five minutes late to a restaurant reservation isn’t a cardinal sin, the way it can be in Japan.
READ MORE: Journy's Ultimate Taiwan Travel Guide
However, Taiwan was one of the first Asian “tigers” along with Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea—that is, economies that from the 1950s to the 1990s underwent rapid industrialization, experiencing growth rates in excess of 7%.
So Taiwan was soon a place 1/11 the size of California that could live a better-than-sustenance lifestyle. That made it a haven for culinary—and other—cultures to remain largely undisturbed and flourish.
Cuisine in Taiwan is a combo of international influences, rooted in colonization and migration, e.g. Spanish to Portuguese to Dutch. But the major influences are China and Japan. Food from all regions of China are reflected here; further, the Taiwanese have great love for Japanese culture and flavors.
The Taiwanese think and talk about food endlessly. Good food and quality local ingredients are readily available and accessibly priced, so everybody here holds vehement opinions about the best recipe for or rendition of this kind of noodle soup or that street food specialty—and locals will argue (in the most friendly way, of course) with you about it until the cows come home. Case in point: If you go to a fabric market, between every stall for fabrics, there will be a stall selling a particular snack. It’s unfathomable to shop without snacking, and food is quite literally part of the daily fabric of life here.
So, the Taiwanese are fiercely fond of their home recipes and the food stall owners, proud of their businesses. These are cooks that have more often than not having been serving the same one specialty, say, oyster omelets, for their whole small business careers. While they take food and drink very seriously, the Taiwanese don’t take themselves too seriously.
So, I’ve confirmed a few truths about my people: we’re extra friendly and hospitable. Taiwanese food is world-class. And the Taiwanese people are obsessed with good food.
Susan Ho: “Jie Guo”
I’m in a crowded street market. The kind where people are packed in like sardines and you inevitably have a dozen bodies pressed up against you and you’re moving slowly as one collective blob. Someone tries to get past me and politely says “jie guo,” the equivalent of “excuse me,” but a literal translation is an elegantly worded request to “borrow the way.” I’m flabbergasted.
I’m in Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China), an island off the coast of “Mainland” China (known formally as the People’s Republic of China). Taiwan is decidedly not the mainland. This moment in the street market, while seemingly not at all a big deal, is one example of how your experience visiting Taiwan may not be what you expect if you’ve been only to Mainland China.
Let me back up a moment. See, I was born in Mainland China. My father was born in 1958 and lived through the Great Leap Forward. It was a period of rapid industrialization in China when China’s leader, Chairman Mao, sought to transform the country from a farming-based economy into a modern socialist society. It’s also a time period that historians today widely considered to be the cause of the Great Chinese Famine, during which time, millions starved.
Many of my family members on my father’s side left Mainland China around 1949, the year the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War against the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang). They fled to Taiwan, following the ousted Nationalists who established rule there. During our recent trip to Taiwan with Andrew Zimmern and Journy, I met seven of my cousins for the very first time.
The fact that my father’s side of the family had members who fled to Taiwan made them targets during the Cultural Revolution (a sociopolitical movement launched by Chairman Mao in 1966 to purge China of both capitalist and traditional Chinese values). They were heavily persecuted to the point where my father had to change his name and move from his hometown of Fuzhou to Xi’an just to be able to go to school.
Meanwhile, my mother’s side of the family were established Communist Party members who, because they joined the Communists pre-1949, were greatly respected and never experienced what my father did growing up. At the end of the Cultural Revolution when universities reopened, my mother and father met in Hangzhou and started dating. Their mothers, my grandmothers, happened to teach at the same school. My grandmother on my mother’s side one day went up to my grandmother on my father’s side and said to her, “This peanut represents my daughter. This sunflower seed, your son. Does it look like they match?”
All of this animosity was a result of my father’s family ties to Taiwan. You can imagine how my own notions of Taiwan were shaped, or rather, confused by this. On the one hand, I grew up hearing constant jibs and jabs at Taiwan from my mother’s side of family, while on my father’s side of the family, many today proudly call themselves Taiwanese and not Chinese. Plus, it’s no secret that relations between Taiwan and China are fraught (Beijing recently reiterated its goal of unification, even going so far as to state that the use of military force is an option).
Having grown up between Shanghai and the United States, one of my biggest gripes has always been the lack of manners, especially when people push past me with no regard for personal space. The Cultural Revolution’s purging had led to the deterioration of many old values. Today’s Chinese manners are a far cry from the etiquette of traditional Chinese courts, when proverbs such as “civility costs nothing” or “courtesy demands reciprocity” were passed down.
It’s a problem that Beijing officially recognized when hosting the 2008 Olympics, going so far as to launch a campaign to “improve public awareness of manners,” working to curb spitting, and commemorating a “queueing day” complete with volunteers in the subways to usher people into orderly lines.
Perhaps you can now understand my surprise in hearing “excuse me” in Ningxia Night Market in Taipei the first time I visited in 2007. It’s something that I rarely heard in mainland China where I grew up. Today, I have a deep appreciation for the traditional Chinese values and culture carried on in Taiwan, the very same ones that Chairman Mao sought to end during the Cultural Revolution (though it is worth noting that it was during the Cultural Revolution when Mao declared “Women will hold up half the sky,” contributing to the end of Confucianist values from 500 BC that placed women as subordinate to men in all instances). Visitors to Taiwan will get to experience a destination that has preserved many elements of Chinese culture (the Taiwan National Museum for instance, houses many treasures of Chinese Imperial Courts that you won’t find in Mainland China).
For me, it’s the cuisine, restaurants, and hospitality that call me to Taiwan again and again. In this area, Taiwan had decades to develop when China was going through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution (it’s also important to note Japan’s influence on dining and hospitality under their colonial rule as another factor contributing to its rich dining culture). In “Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure: 100 recipes from our journey,” the authors note that “because so many top chefs fled with the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, it is probable that the traditional Chinese food culture was able to survive there.” Taiwanese cooking today is a fusion of Fujianese, a major branch of Chinese cooking, Hakka, a branch of Han Chinese in Southern China and Taiwan, and Japanese influences. The restaurant Mountain & Sea House in Taipei is a prime example of where you can find Taiwanese haute banquet style dishes based on recipes from the 1930s.
What’s great about Taiwan though, is that you don’t need to go to a fine dining restaurant to experience warm service and hospitality. Because it’s so ingrained in the culture, you’ll find warm and friendly service even at street market stalls and casual street side restaurants. Just remember to do as the locals and say “jie guo” as you make you way to the front of the oyster omelette line.