An inside look at the traditional Taiwanese cuisine restaurant sitting on top of Taipei 101.
Today’s Taiwanese dishes are not only served on top of street carts, just as fine dining restaurants in Taiwan are no longer confined in Western cuisines. In 30 years, Taiwan transformed itself, from an agricultural-based island, to an international hub of trading companies and manufacturing headquarters. Such an accelerated rise, is reflected in the changing landscape of its cities, the types of foods provided to its people, and the way local Taiwanese have opened their minds to embrace different approaches of eating. Ding Xian 101 (頂鮮 101) is the prime example of a prosperous island that breeds survivors, who have endured poverty and warfare yet flourished by international exposure. Taiwan now, finally, prevails in multiculturalism with exuberant adoration for existing luxury.
One of the most legendary chefs in Taiwan, Bing-Zhan Lin, now acts as consultant at Ding Xian 101, reminisces, “Back in my day, it was about the nation’s economy and education. Culinary schools in Taiwan did not exist, it just wasn’t part of our culture. There were simply one or two French restaurants in Taipei. If I had served molecular foods locally 20 years ago, they would’ve yelled and screamed, ‘What kind of food is this?’ ‘How am I supposed to eat this?’” In Taiwan’s history, aborigines first inhabited the island. Since 17th century, it has been ruled by a series of foreigners: Dutch, Spanish, mainland Chinese during Qing Dynasty, and Japanese in 1895. Such intercontinental influences are reflected and still remain in today’s traditional cuisine. The European associations have mostly worn off over the centuries, but traces from southern provences of China and Japanese flavors are deeply rooted in certain dishes.
Due to Taiwan’s geographical location, a wide variety of seafoods, fruits and vegetables are locally grown. Over the years, the island endured an increase in population, which led to imports of particular produce and agricultural items. Some local favorites traditionally enjoyed within households or served on street carts, are: Dan Zai noodles/擔仔麵 (shrimp, minced pork, coriander and garlic,) Oa Chian/蚵仔煎 (oyster omelet with sweet and spicy sauce,) Jiu Hi Ke/魷魚羹 (cuttlefish in fish paste, served in thick soup,) just to name a few.
Despite such aromatic array of dishes made from local lands; decades ago, education in Taiwan was only available to the rich. By the end of World War II in 1945, Japanese left the island, leaving local Taiwanese to persevere in ways of survival. Many families of poverty had one bowl of rice to share between five or more siblings. Chef Bing-Zhan Lin remembers, “my father used to tell me, ‘To grow up, you need to be educated. To be successful, you have to go out and dig.’ So I chose to be a chef, to help earn money for the family at a very young age.” And that is how most Taiwanese cooks and chefs began their careers. Ding Xian 101’s current Head Chef, Qing-De Lin, shares a similar experience. “I came into this business, because I grew up in a single-parent family. We needed to find ways to get by everyday, so I began to help out in the kitchen.” Both chefs have climbed their ways to the top, literally, now working closely together at a passionately cherished restaurant atop one of the tallest buildings in the world. With humble beginnings, however, they are grateful to be in the forefront of designing traditional Taiwanese foods accented with Western influences.
The beauty of Ding Xian 101 is an understanding of the progressive shift in Taiwanese culture between 1980s until now. 30 years ago, the art of cuisine began to transition in Taiwan. Culinary schools, emphasis on hygiene inside kitchens, recruitment process of trainees and the intent of becoming a chef, all began to shape with modernism. It has only been in the past 10 years that Western cooking was incorporated into traditional dishes. As Taiwan surfaced in the international economic scene with a booming presence, exchanges between foreigners and locals as well as acceptance toward Western cultures heightened. Ding Xian 101 is a luxurious branch of a massively successful restaurant chain in Taiwan: Tainan Tan Tsu Mien /台南擔仔麵, famous for its Dan Zai noodles, that first opened its doors in 1954. Last year, the owner launched Ding Xian 101 on the 86th floor inside Taipei 101, overlooking Taiwan’s flourishing capital. The expansive and spacious restaurant occupies the entire floor, adorned with Wedgewood chinas, Nachtmann crystals from Germany and the finest Christofle silver flatware from France. The restaurant is often packed with Taiwan’s most recognizable entrepreneurs and international businessmen, thus its menu is completely Taiwanese in taste but presented with international flair.
Head Chef, Qing-De Lin, explains, “Because our businesses have become so worlwide, and this reflects upon our customers, we can take a very local dish that Taiwanese love, but knowing they’ve been traveling and seeing the world. So we put the dish in fine porcelain, we make sure it’s made with organic ingredients because people are more health-conscious now, or we have local dishes that are made with imported items to showcase how modern and international we’ve become.” At times, the restaurant serves Oa Chian (oyster omelet with sweet and spicy sauce) with a combination of foie gras. Or Taiwanese shrimp rolls and fried calamari balls wrapped in lettuce (to be eaten like a Westernized sandwich.)
Inside its extravagant walls, private rooms are named after cities in Taiwan. Taipei Suite spaciously sits across the hall from Kaohsiung Suite, which isn’t too far away from Chiayi Suite. Ding Xian 101 staff members humorously joke among themselves, that they can travel all over Taiwan within a few steps.
Ding Xian 101 is a symbol of how far Taiwan has come since World War II. The “Taiwan Miracle,” as most call it, came to be, due to agile industrialization and active cultivation. 30 years ago, Taiwanese cuisine revolved around a desperate mode of survival with watered down rice (which led to variations of porridge) so additional servings could be offered to every family member amid poverty. Today, an appreciation for culinary culture has evolved to focus on: quality, customer service, satiation of all senses besides the stomach, and the entire experience of power lunches and dining out. From local to luxury, Ding Xian 101 is surrounded by panoramic view of a city continuing to change its face. This is all a delectable reminder that tradition and modernism beautifully co-exist together as a result of: survival, immeasurable hardwork and humbled beginnings.
Booking a trip to Taiwan? Make a reservation at Ding Xian 101.