Taiwan Culture and Cuisine Shine on New Netflix Series “Street Food”

Joshua Samuel Brown
Special for Taiwan Scene

Taiwan’s unique culinary traditions are once again making tasty waves in the international media (Recently: How Did These Michelin Restaurants Make the Cut?), this time thanks to a new Netflix series called Street Food. The series (which made its debut on the streaming service in May) dedicates each episode to the culinary traditions of one particular spot on the globe. Though hardly surprising that Taiwan made the first season, the show’s creators make a bold choice by skipping the usual Taiwanese culinary tropes of night markets, dumplings and beef noodle soup, choosing instead to focus on the culinary traditions of lesser-known (outside of Taipei) city of Chiayi. (Read More: A Fine Pair – Siraya National Scenic Area and Chiayi City)

Though ostensibly about food, Street Food: Chiayi goes deeper than the dishes themselves. Over the course of the 33-minute episode, viewers are treated to far more than just mouth-watering shots of food preparation. They’re also taken inside the homes, personal struggles and family dramas of the people behind the dishes. The episode’s breakout star is undoubtedly Grace Chia Hui Lin, who, along with her family,gets the most screen time. The show begins with Grace shopping for produce for her restaurant Smart Fish while talking about the family business, her childhood struggles with the nickname Fish Head (a name which she later proudly adopts,) and the challenges of getting her family to adapt to modernization and innovation without sacrificing quality and tradition.

Also getting a meaty chunk of the show’s attention is Uncle Goats, whose extremely laborious medicinal goat hot pot requires in preparation several days time, a walk-in oven, and the use of an industrial-grade gas mask. While going into great detail on the dish itself, the segment also focused on “Uncle Goats” Chou and his conflicted feelings concerning his famous dish which brings joy and good health to customers while costing the chef his own health. (Read also: Goats and Gas Masks at Taiwan’s Hell Kitchen)

Netflix Series “Street Food” Uncle Goat-Author and Film crew with Gas Masks.
Author and Film crew with Gas Masks.

The episode also delves into two other dishes more commonly associated with Chiayi (and generally more easily found around Taiwan).

While fish head soup and medicinal goat hot pot are considered exotic (even by Taiwanese standards) Chiayi Turkey Rice easily falls into the category of Taiwanese comfort food. Casual visitors will notice stalls and restaurants advertising the dish all over Chiayi, and most cities in Taiwan boast at least a couple of restaurants offering Chiayi Turkey Rice (kind of likehow most decent-sized American town has at least one place offering New York Pizza). For the episode, Netflix singles out the stall of Li Hua and Liu Zhu, a couple who’ve been preparing the dish for over fifty years. Their restaurant, Magistrate Liu’s, is widely considered to be home to the quintessential example of the dish.

Of course, no meal would be complete without something sweet, and rounding the show off is Douhua, or tofu pudding. Though easily the most ubiquitous dish on the Street Food: Chiayi menu, the version prepared by Tsui Eh (whose stall in the Chiayi night market has made the desert the same way for over sixty years) is considered among the best in Taiwan, earning the chef and her humble stall a spot on the show. 

For those caring look, the show offers a few nits to be picked, as W. Ted Chen of Ketagalan Media pointed out in his article Dear Netflix: Street Food Taiwan Is A Missed Opportunity. Focusing mostly on the five chefs themselves, show producers got a few details wrong and with limited time to work with, were unable to give full scope to the cuisine and culture of Chiayi.

But for the most part, Street Food: Chiayi comes across as a love letter to Taiwanese food and culture, offering a warm portrayal of the people behind the dishes and a sense of how important cuisine has been (and continues to be) in creating, maintaining and promoting the shared culture of Taiwan. The fact that the show has a great deal of spoken Taiwanese (though on Netflix subtitles this comes up in the subtitle box  as “Mandarin”) is a small, good thing, giving listeners the chance to hear the spoken language of Taiwan. That Netflix choses to treat Taiwan as a distinctive cultural entity without ever once describing or otherwise “explaining” Taiwan through the prism of cross-cultural relations should be seen as a big win for Taiwan’s ongoing efforts at soft power diplomacy.  (Explore the world of Taiwanese cuisine by joining our Culinary Experience Tour)

Street Foods: Chiayi (Where to Go)

1.Smart Fish / Grace Chia Hui Lin

Fish Head Soup, just like mom used to make!

Address: 361 Zhongsheng Road, Chiayi 600, Taiwan

2.Magistrate Liu’s Turkey Rice / Li Hua and Liu Zhu

Chiayi’s favorite comfort food done to perfection.

Address: No. 197, Gongming Road, East District, Chiayi, Taiwan

3.Uncle Goats / Song Shan Tu Yao / Uncle Goats Chou

A labor of love with distinct flavor and laborious cooking process.

Address: No.48-16, Songzaijiao, Songshan Vil., Minxiong Township Taiwan

4.A Eh Douhua

A deceptively simple desert dish, this humble stall serves the best in Taiwan.

Address: Yenping St., East Distilled., Chiayi City (Chiayi Night Market)

Other things to Do in Chiayi: Because food isn’t the only thing that should bring you to Chiayi

1.Alishan National Scenic Area

Wander among ancient cypress trees in the high altitude forest of Alishan
Wander among ancient cypress trees in the high altitude forest of Alishan

Easily the most well-known scenic area in central Taiwan, the Alishan mountains feature cloud-ringed peaks and green valleys, and is an excellent spot for hiking. The area is also known for having some of Taiwan’s finest tea. Most visitors start in Chiayi and take the Alishan Forest Railway into the park itself. (Explore the famous Alishan Forest Recreation Area with MyTaiwanTour by joining the 3 Days Mid Island History and Nature Private Tour)

Alishan Forest Railway

2.National Palace Museum Southern Branch

Night view of Southern Branch of The National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source: iStock)

Offering all the art and culture of Taiwan’s famous National Palace Museum minus the crowds, the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum offers yet another reason to visit Chiayi.

Address: No. 888, Gugong Boulevard, Taibao City, Chiayi County, 612

3.Beigang Chaotian Temple

Photo credit to wikimedia

Though not actually in Chiayi (it’s just across the border in neighboring Yunlin county), this 300+ year old temple to Matsu, goddess of the sea, is one of the more ancient and important temples in Taiwan.

Address: No. 178, Zhongshan Road, Beigang Township, Yunlin County

4.Chiayi Prison Museum

Photo credit to wikimedia

This former prison located was designated a historic monument in 2005 and offers visitors a chance to explore a lovingly restored Japanese colonial-era structure. Within walking distance of the Beimen station of the Alishan Forest Railway, the Prison Museum offers interesting photo opportunities indeed.

Address: No. 140 Wei Hsin Road, East District, Chiayi City