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Q&A: Elizabeth Kao

An insider's guide to Taiwan's food scene.

Food writer and Taipei native Elizabeth Kao constantly has her finger on the pulse of Taiwan’s culinary scene. With her impressive social media following (upwards of 53,000 fans on Facebook and over 8,700 on Instagram) and an unconventional background as a Harvard law grad and former lawyer-turned food media professional, Kao truly puts her money where her mouth is in pursuit of growing Self-Taught Gourmet, her personal blog. “I was nuts [to start blogging]” she jokes. “I had an online food column on a website established by my friend, that was the beginning,” she says. “After a while, I grew more and more passionate about writing about food so I struck out on my own.”

After being discovered by a publisher in 2012, Kao created of her first book: My Japanese Pantry. She’s now working on her second—an insider’s guide to Taiwanese food history and dining scene.

Kao notes that mainstream perception of the Taiwanese dining culture is somewhat skewed. The island nation is most well-known for night markets chock-full of culinary delights, but Kao stresses that there is much more to Taiwan than just street food.

“Taiwan is not only about street food. Our Japanese food scene is strong and Western cuisine is catching up,” she says. “You can eat at family-style restaurants or you can have finer versions of Taiwanese food.”

Here, Kao relates her knowledge about the Taiwanese food scene as a whole, from where to eat now, to the up-and-coming food trends redefining the nation’s culinary scene.

How would you describe Taiwanese food?
Taiwan is a melting pot and there are a lot of influences here from China and Japan. Mainly, the biggest influence is from China. Hakka and Fujian influences are strong. The south of Taiwan is more seafood-based and the taste tends to be sweeter. In the north, there’s more meat.

Dish examples?
Braised fatty pork over rice, vermicelli noodles, oyster pancakes, and beef noodle soup.

Where’s your favorite place to get affordable Taiwanese dishes?
Tzu Sheng Temple at Dadaocheng. It’s a place where a lot of food vendors gather. It’s my personal favorite.

Even though you prefer restaurants to night markets but if you had to choose one night market, which would it be?
Tonghua Night Market. Mainly because I live really close to it. I don’t see the point of traveling far for a night market.

What’s an example of an up-and-coming trend?
Western cuisine is developing and it’s getting stronger here in Taipei. A lot of young chefs go abroad and come back to set up their own places. It’s mostly French influences these days.

Best restaurants?
RAW is the biggest thing in Taipei right now. Its Taiwanese fine-dining, redefined. Chef Andre Chiang takes Taiwanese ingredients and serves them in a modern way. Mume and Roots Creative are other top contenders. Taiwan is really catching up in the fine dining scene. These chefs are all classically trained.

Ryugin has the best Japanese food in Taiwan. The chef is from Japan and they’re quite thoughtful with their dishes. They take Taiwanese ingredients but serve them in a Japanese style.

What about desserts?
French pastries are huge. A great deal of pastry chefs go to Ferrandi in Paris to train.

Favourite restaurant?
Meowvelous. It’s got a lot of character. The cooking is very spontaneous and it’s a mixture of Taiwanese and Western cuisines. It’s French-based but still, the owner will incorporate Taiwanese influences and his ideas. It draws a lot of people from the creative industry like writers and singers. It’s tasteful.