Based on my experience as a tour guide, “Taiwanese noodles” — by which I mean the special kind of “red noodles” that are unique to Taiwan — are more popular among Japanese visitors than the more widely promoted beef noodles.
Japanese tour group members often approach me clutching a guide book and ask how to get to a certain well-known noodle restaurant in Taipei’s bustling Ximending (西門町) area.
They would rather line up and eat while standing than join an itinerary that the tour agency can book for them, allowing them to eat their noodles in relative comfort.
Even though I am over the age of 50, it is still very hard to find out from a Japanese whom I have just met why they do it this way.
We probably all remember hearing members of our parents’ generation make fun of the Japanese, saying that their politeness is only skin-deep. Even today, Japanese culture still emphasizes putting up a facade when talking to strangers and only expressing their true feelings when talking to people they know well.
I have been wondering about the noodle mystery for years, but I could not find an answer until one evening when a Japanese friend, who had lived and worked in China and Taiwan, visited me.
After a few drinks, he finally answered my question.
“Noodle dishes in China, including beef noodles, are generally just as tasty as they are in Taiwan, as well as being cheaper, but Taiwanese noodles are something unique that I have never eaten in China,” he said.
At first, I was inclined to disagree, because I have taken tour groups to Kinmen (金門) and further to China’s Fujian Province. There, I have eaten noodle dishes that are very similar to Taiwan’s “red noodles.”
I grilled my friend about what he thought was so special about the nation’s “red noodles.”
“As well as looking nice and being a bit more chewy, the other special thing about them is the way they are cooked using Japanese-style dashi broth made with bonito flakes and kombu, Japanese-style kelp, which is a legacy of Taiwan’s 50 years under Japanese rule,” he said.
“Japanese probably find this flavor comfortingly familiar, but when it is paired with ingredients that are rarely used in Japan, such as oysters and intestines, it has the special attraction of being familiar and unfamiliar at the same time,” he said.
According to the Tourism Bureau, Taipei has always been the most-visited city by international visitors to Taiwan, and Japan has always been among the top sources of overseas visitors.
Although the Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival has been held annually for many years, in my experience, Japanese tourists do not make a beeline for beef noodles.
Foreigners do not necessarily have the same idea as Taiwanese as to which food is the most delicious. Different people like different things.
As someone who regularly deals with overseas visitors, I support any kind of activity that the government organizes to promote Taiwanese food.
All I want is to encourage readers to think about how to promote Taiwan’s unique “red noodles” on the world stage.
Lin Chih-yen is an English and Japanese-speaking tour manager and guide.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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