I first came here over thirty years ago on a study abroad excursion for a month. At that time, the savior of international travelers—McDonalds—had just opened their first location in Taiwan. There were two small privately run western style restaurants in Taipei, and that was it for western food. There were several restaurants giving a local interpretation of western food, usually consisting of a minute steak with a fried egg on it, and some distinctly nonwestern side dishes. Salad was an alien concept. The idea of eating cold vegetables was a source of revulsion, for logical reason, you need to cook out any germs that might be present from the use of human waste and pesticides in production. Cheese was viewed as a vile diarrhea-inducing lump of fat. Beef, though available, was not much loved, and tended to be hidden among the dish’s other ingredients. Potatoes were not readily available. The price of a plate of fries was astronomical, and usually consisted of 7-10 fries that were simply julienned pieces of potato that had been deep fried, without any other preparation. They weren’t so much french fries as soggy oil sponges.
When I began living in Taiwan, twenty years ago, there were a few more decent western restaurants and many more McDonalds locations in Taipei. Still, it was difficult to find a good western meal in a restaurant. Likewise the ingredients for western cooking were hard to find. For the first two years that I was here I only ate one western meal. Partly this was a financial decision; local food was cheap, western food was expensive. Also it was a manifestation of my belief that how well an expat adapts to the local culture, and whether they will survive long-term, can be measured by how well they adapt to the local food.
The first time I went back to Canada I ate everything. I gained 10 kgs. in 3 weeks. I had been missing so many of the flavors—something as simple as salt. There were no salty foods or snacks in Taiwan. I ate ketchup, salt & vinegar, and dill flavored potato chips until I felt plaque forming in my arteries. Then I had more. Hawkins Cheezies, beef jerky, pepperoni sticks, it was an orgy of salty snacks. But also sweets, the Taiwanese don’t like sweet food, so their desserts are bland. Even western desserts here fail to get the right level of orgasmic, coma-inducing, decadent sweetness. It is as if the baker looked at a magazine picture and thought, “Well, I guess that’s how a Chocolate Praline Torte should look,” and copied the look. Western desserts are gorgeous here. Then he licked the page and thought to himself, “Well, I guess that’s how a Chocolate Praline Torte should taste.” Those were just the snacks, there was also Ukrainian food, western bar food, barbeque, I couldn’t get enough, because I’d been denied those flavors for two years. When I returned to Taiwan and stepped on a scale, I vowed never to do that again. Luckily help was on the way.
Taiwan’s food scene changed in 2002 when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization. Within a very short time free trade brought full-sized western grocery stores, carrying a host of western brands. It began a boom in international restaurants, especially in Taipei. Now I can find everything from British pub grub to Tex-Mex and extremely fine steak houses. There are French, Italian, German, Middle Eastern, and even a few African restaurants here. They run the gamut from large international chains to small expat-run restaurants. I am sometimes disappointed when I go back to Canada now. I can get better western food in Taiwan. Of course, I can’t get somethings that have particular importance to me—perogies like dear old bubba used to make.
All these bars and restaurants have become a refuge for expats: A little taste of home, with the ambience of home. Taipei has become a mecca for foodie travelers, mostly because of the tremendous local cuisine, but also because of the international dining available. Still, there would not be a boom in western restaurants if they didn’t enjoy patronage from locals. Their clientele is overwhelmingly young and Taiwanese. These young Taiwanese are sophisticated consumers. They know what they’re ordering, how it should be served, and whether it is actually good or not. This may sound elementary, but think about it. Do you really recognize authentic Chinese food? Can you tell if it is a good example of the dish? Is it being served appropriately? It has taken me a couple of decades to develop a reasonable palate for Asian food.
The change in attitude amongst Taiwanese consumers began before WTO and was apparent when I moved here. Western restaurants at that time had a largely foreigner clientele, but Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s, were beginning to show a willingness to try foreign cuisines. Having wine and cheese was seen as classy. Some truly enjoyed the experience. Salad became something that people ate, at least as a side dish. There was a new openness to western cuisine. Of course people also needed to learn about western food. Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to take a young Taiwanese woman to a restaurant and be asked in a slightly embarrassed way to order for her, because she couldn’t understand how to create a meal from what was on the menu. These were not your average Taiwanese, most were worldly and open-minded, with at least a little international travel experience.
Restaurants themselves have had to learn how to prepare and serve western food. Many times I’ve gone out with a group of friends for dinner only to have the restaurant serve the meal plate by plate, Chinese style, totally failing to appreciate that each plate is an individual serving. It forces some to eat their meals, while others look on hungrily. That’s unpleasant. I have seen one person finish their meal, dessert and a cup of coffee before others at the table got their food. The situation has improved with greater competition among western restaurants and a better understanding among Taiwanese of how a western meal should work.
My life as an expat has changed enormously since the WTO came. The availability of items that make living in Taiwan a less foreign experience is astounding. I began living in Asia before free trade opened the doors for western products. Comfort food was a plane ride away, now it is just down the street. I eat more western food now than I have most of my adult life. I’m not sure if it is coincidence, aging, or the WTO, but my belly has been on an outward trajectory since 2002.