Like many great food stalls and restaurants in Taipei, the Cong Zhua Bing onion pancake stand on Yongkang Street is easily missed by tourists.
It sits, incongruously, beneath a sign for a closed-down Vietnamese restaurant and offers no clues, in English, as to what it sells. But its pancakes are fluffy and airy with a good mix of tangy fried scallions and creamy butter. It is famous throughout Taipei, and the lines outside can run to more than 30 people on Sunday afternoons.
“They sell the best pancakes I have found in Asia,” says Deborah Chien, an American Chinese pastry chef who presents online food shows for Go Makan, an online Malaysian restaurant directory, and visits Yongkang when she is in Taipei seeing family members.
“But I only found the stall by passing by one day and joining the queue to see what people were lining up for.”
Cong Zhua Bing is a fitting metaphor for Taiwanese cuisine. This small democratic island, which the Beijing government claims as part of China, gets little attention as a tourism destination. And its food, along with its stunning beaches and fantastic hiking trails, tends to be under-rated.
Yet the island has some of the best food in Asia, thanks to its mixed Chinese, Japanese and aboriginal heritage, the high standards demanded by a food-obsessed public and its restaurateurs’ exacting attention to detail.
For travelers who have only a short time in Taipei, Yongkang Street, home of Cong Zhua Bing, is the place to go.
永康街位于台北市中心的大安区，靠近台湾师范大学。“永康街是台北最活跃，品种最丰富的小吃街区。”约翰·克里奇(John Krich)说，他写了一本关于中国菜的书《云吞的诱惑》(Won Ton Lust)。
Yongkang, close to National Taiwan Normal University in Central Taipei’s Da An district, is “one of Taipei’s liveliest and most varied streets for food,” said John Krich, the author of Won Ton Lust, a book on Chinese food.
“There’s a natural melange of the island’s rough, rustic fare, heavy on long-stewed pork and shrimp paste, the aboriginal use of roots and dried fish, with various regional cuisine of China, the dumplings of the North, noodles of the South, and especially the soups of the Fujianese, all taken to a level of loving meticulousness and care of presentation,” Mr. Krich said. “In terms of food choices, Taiwan is a China in miniature sent floating off into the South Seas.”
At the Northern end is Yongkang’s internationally famous resident, the original branch of the Din Tai Fung dumpling chain. The business, which was founded by Bingyi Yang, an immigrant from Shanxi Province near Beijing, operated from this single location until The New York Times named it one of the world’s top 10 gourmet restaurants in 1993 and it then expanded around Asia, the United States and Australia.
After midday, customers regularly wait an hour and half to get in to the Yongkang branch.
“We have Din Tai Fung at home, but the dumplings here are the best,” said Chang Haw, a 19-year-old student from Malaysia, who arrived at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning to stake his place in the line. There were 20 people in front of him.
The specialty is xiao long bao, a Shanghainese dumpling filled with soup and nuggets of juicy pork.
The atmosphere inside is one of quiet reverence, as customers first dip their dumplings in vinegar and finely sliced ginger, then place them onto large spoons. They then poke a hole in the skin to let some broth spill out, before eating each dumpling, about the size of a squash ball, in one mouthful. It takes concentration not to spill the hot soup, and the occasional loud gasp is audible proof that not everyone manages it.
Din Tai Fung has a smart interior and is popular with Taipei’s business lunch crowd. By contrast, most Yongkang outlets are food stands or casual cafes. But they are all “of a high standard,” said Lai-fa Huang, chief chef for Chinese cooking at Taipei’s five-star Regent Hotel. He declined to recommend individual eateries but recommended that visitors sample beef noodle soup, oyster noodles, braised pork on rice and mango shaved ice.
These dishes represent “Taiwanese home food,” Mr. Huang said, and are “cooked with a lot of love and care.”
Taiwan was first inhabited by aborigines who researchers have found share ethnic links with Malays, Polynesians and Maoris. Settlers from Fujian in Eastern China and Guangdong, across the border from Hong Kong, began arriving en masse in the 17th century. Japan controlled Taiwan from 1895 and 1945. The island then became home to the Chinese Nationalist government that had been defeated by Mao’s Communist Party and whose successor political party, the Kuomintang, is currently in power.
“You can learn a lot about our history and culture from eating the food,” said Maggie Liu, a Taiwanese chef and the host of a Chinese language cookery, show Maggie’s Magic Menu, broadcast in Taiwan on the TLC channel. She recommends visitors eat at Yong Kang Beef Noodle, a restaurant just off Yongkang Street selling beef noodle soup, a Northern Chinese dish popular in Taiwan.
Elsewhere, the Fucheng Tainan seafood cafe provides a culinary snapshot of Taiwan’s rural south. It is run by a family from Tainan, a seaside city in Southern Taiwan surrounded by rice paddies and fruit farms. The menu includes shrimp rolls that are coated in minced pork then deep-fried, a traditional morning or afternoon snack for farm workers. Fucheng’s specialty is a glutinous rice dumpling filled with shrimp and topped with cilantro and wasabi.
On the ground floor of Din Tai Fung is a glass-walled kitchen where cooks make dumplings in a display of silent concentration characteristic of a high-end electronics factory. Standing in groups of four around tables, two workers roll dough spheres into identical flat circles while the others insert pre-mixed stuffing and wrap the dumplings, ensuring the thickest dough is at the base of the meat ball, thinning out toward the edges. Each quartet produces exactly four dumplings a minute, said Liu Cheng-liang, a 35-year-old cook.
Yongkang is also a fine place to relax and watch the confident, laidback residents of Taipei enjoying their leisure time. In the small park in the center of the street during early mornings, surprisingly flexible elderly residents practice Tai Chi. In the late afternoons, university students prepare formation dances they will later break out on Taipei’s dance floors to the latest electronic beats from Japan. The street also showcases the harmony between Taiwan’s social classes that the mainly Buddhist islanders are proud of.
In the early afternoon at Yongkang 15, a popular dessert stand selling huge plates of shaved ice topped with fruit, condensed milk and ice cream, you can see smart office workers huddled around tables with construction workers in overalls and scuffed boots.
“Here, it is pretty common for a C.E.O. to finish work and head to the night market to eat oyster omelettes or barbecued meat on sticks,” said Jenna Cody, a Taipei-based blogger and corporate trainer. “Not least because Taiwanese street food is actually really good.”