I was raised on Cereal and Pop-Tarts. This was the mid-’90s on Long Island, New York.
My mother, Leah, brought us up all by herself, so she didn’t always have time to prepare the traditional Taiwanese dishes she grew up with, much less persuade my sisters and me to eat these unfamiliar foods. It wasn’t until college that I became obsessed with Taiwanese food.
One afternoon I went to Bei Gang, an old-school Taiwanese place in Flushing, and ordered Fly’s Head, a funky chive and ground pork dish. The bites of pungent, garlicky chives transported me back to the dishes my dad’s mom used to make when I visited her in Taiwan. I got lost in that memory. If you eat the food your ancestors ate, your body just recognizes it automatically. It was in my genes to love this food. And I was instantly hooked.
A few years later, in 2014, my friend Trigg Brown, a chef from Virginia, and I started talking about opening a Taiwanese-American restaurant in Brooklyn.
I decided to take him to Tainan—one of the oldest towns in Taiwan—to show him the birthplace of this cuisine. While Taipei is the business capital of the country, the south is known for unique dishes that borrow ingredients from the nation’s indigenous people, the Japanese, Dutch colonizers, and mainland Chinese, who have all occupied the island. I’d gone there as a kid to visit family, but this time eating was the main activity. Trigg and I explored the food stalls and restaurants across the city, deciding which vendor had the best lu rou fan (rice and pork belly). That no-frills street food had more flavor than some of the best meals I’d eaten in the States.
Our trip reinforced the style of food we wanted for our restaurant, Win Son. It may not be the same snacks you’d find in Tainan, but we’ve stayed true to the essence. It’s an intro that gets Taiwanese food into people’s minds. Go to Taiwan. But until you do, visit us at Win Son or make these recipes. Even if it’s not in your blood, I think you’ll find something you like.
—Josh Ku, as told to Ashley Mason
Taiwan’s Culinary Capital
Travelers flock to Taipei, but Tainan, a short flight from Hong Kong, is home to the best street food. Brown and Ku share their top spots.
Six Thousand Beef Soup
“Line up for breakfast to grab a fragrant bowl of beef soup poached to order.”
Sheng Li Breakfast
“Locals start the day with layered egg crepes and steamy vats of soy milk at this tiny café.”
Du Hsiao Yueh
“This is the ultimate spot to slurp danzai noodles: brothy vermicelli with minced pork and a single shrimp.”
Jin De Spring Rolls
“Fill up the soft, lacy rice wrapper with cabbage, shrimp, mushrooms, and scrambled eggs.”
“The chain’s iconic fried chicken cutlet is bigger than your face (really, it’s huge) and it’s incredibly crispy.”