Despite torrential rain in Zhongli, a district in Taiwan’s north, a humble restaurant called Jin Cheng still has a queue of customers keen to step inside its steamed-up interior. Some are here to eat, some to take away, but all are drawn by the incredible chicken, duck and goose that have been served for more than 40 years.
The simple secret to its success is that all the produce served is locally sourced, including the fowl, which the owners raise themselves. A dipping sauce for the astonishingly good chicken is made from local kumquats, while sweet potato leaves from just outside town are the vegetable of choice that week.
There are no signs proclaiming the restaurant’s farm-to-table heritage, because this is how it’s always been in Taiwan. Residents simply make the most of local ingredients, which have grown significantly in reputation. Today, the island’s produce represents some of the most sought-after ingredients in Asia, as chefs and home cooks alike realise that the provenance, terroir and price point together make for a very compelling combination.
Hong Kong native Lam Ming-kin and his life and business partner Amy Chen run two of Taipei’s most popular and critically acclaimed restaurants, the classy French brasserie Chou Chou and modern fusion spot Longtail. To source produce, Lam heads south.
‘We visit our suppliers every season,’ he says. ‘It’s funny but the producers really care about their produce and need to know the chefs before they work with them. They want to know their produce is being treated properly.’
The vast majority of ingredients served at their Taipei restaurants is produced on the island – including some surprising ones like the perfect stracciatella cheese. It’s made by Henry Gerard, a former advertising executive from California, at his company, Formozza – a clever play on Taiwan’s former name Ilha Formosa, or ‘beautiful island’, given by Portuguese sailors. Three times a week, he gets up at 5am to collect fresh cows’ and goats’ milk before returning to craft it into a range of produce. The multi-storey building in the heart of Taichung combines a shop and a production centre, with a smoker on the terrace burning Dutch hickory wood, while cheeses age in cool rooms and fridges.
The ground floor tasting bar seats eclectic local characters, often accompanied by a glass or two of Taichung-made wine. Gerard says he started making cheddar curds for himself but soon realised friends were very keen on his creations. Today he makes about 15 different cheeses, with smoked scamorza the current favourite.
‘If you’re in Taipei, in an hour you can meet your farmers,’ says Gerard. ‘That’s what’s so beautiful about Taiwan. Coming from Los Angeles we don’t have that opportunity. I love to tell the younger generation here how lucky they are to eat good, fresh food that supports farmers. Many of the farmers here are highly educated, with master’s degrees, maybe in architecture or finance, not farming. They come from a farming background, their parents send them to the best schools abroad and then they return, sometimes after other careers.’
Two hours’ drive south in the flat, green plains outside the city of Tainan, Lam and I meet Tomo Lin. Lin has a background in engineering and studied industrial design in Japan. He stayed there until his mid-30s, and when he returned his mother fell ill, so he started growing vegetables for her. Decades on, his modest enterprise covering over 25 hectares grows some of the finest produce that Lam has seen – and this coming from a man who has worked under Guy Savoy in Paris and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York.
In a cluttered office, decked with posters of herb and lettuce varieties from around the world, the farmer lays out a hessian sack on a blue wicker table. From the packing room next door comes a series of vegetables that blow us away with their vibrancy, colour and, most of all, taste.
‘I grow for flavour, not aesthetics,’ says Lin. ‘Each one has to taste like what it’s supposed to be. Sometimes it’s trial and error. I won’t sell any crops not up to standard, because it’s my reputation. One of the trends now is hydroponics and it looks very pretty – but there’s no flavour. They need to develop character.’
There are five kinds of kale, six types of technicolour beetroot, a dozen varieties of carrots. There are 12 different varietals of tomatoes, each with incredible sweetness and depth of flavour, with their origins in Italy, Japan, the US and beyond. The produce of this island is increasingly compared to Japan’s, which is held up globally as the gold standard. Lin is unequivocal about this comparison: ‘Guaranteed, here it’s better than Japan. It’s the nutrients, soil and water, but also crop rotation. Taiwan is sub-tropical so produce from both temperate and tropical places can grow. We’re lucky to have perfect conditions – and we love what we do.’
It’s clear why Lam bases his menus at Chou Chou on what Lin has to offer. ‘It’s the flavour,’ says Lam. ‘Everyone does carrots, but these actually taste of carrots. Most beets have a muddy taste but from here, after you roast it, it’s so sweet – the caramelisation, wow. I’m already thinking I can use Henry’s cheese with these carrots in a salad. For the turnip, just glaze it, let the main character shine. Or that incredible rainbow chard, just sauté it with some pecans, dried fruit and a drizzle of aged balsamic.’
Our trip finishes with more renowned local produce: seafood. At one o’clock on a freezing morning, Tainan’s fish market is a hive of activity. Boats on the adjacent quay offload directly as buyers scramble to see the catch. There’s no auction, just personal barter on a first-come-first-served basis for huge Spanish mackerel, beautiful silver bonito, yellowfin tuna, cobia fish, pomfret and many more.
At the market, Lam and I meet Ah Bin, a 43-year-old free diver who hunts prey such as spiny lobster. Incredibly, in summer he can hold his breath for two-and-a-half minutes – in winter he uses a tank and wetsuit. He’s the second generation doing this dangerous job, one in which he has to hope that others with harpoons don’t mistake him through the murky waters for a catch.
He comes from a family in which everyone is in the business in some way, including a seafood restaurant where everything served is line-caught. His highest-quality catch goes to regular clients. His daily schedule is unenviable: he dives from 7pm until midnight, using a beautiful basket that he made, before hitting the market. He then sleeps from 3am until 6.30am, before selling more of his catch until noon. He sleeps until 6pm before going back out to dive.
It’s not all bad, though. He can earn NT$1,500 (HK$380) per kilogram for a prime lobster. As he and Lam talk, it quickly becomes clear that Chou Chou in Taipei has a new supplier to add to its enviable list – and the reputation of Taiwan’s produce grows further.