Taiwan cuisine is difficult to define the brand is too recent and the influences too many but a good place to start has come to Taipei via, of all places, the Caribbean's St. Martin and San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Those are some of the locations where James Tseng plied his trade for 34 years, sinking as low as providing all-purpose Chinese buffets before returning home to reclaim his roots with a vengeance. At James Kitchen Big Secret, tel: (886-2) 2343 2275, on Yongkang Street's restaurant row (and at James Kitchen Small Secret, a nearby storefront that takes the inevitable overflow) the menus are primers of the island's homespun culinary techniques. Expect soups and stews that are a tangy mélange of dried fish, cabbage and pumpkin, supplemented by clams and grilled-whole local catches. Omelets come filled with radish and bamboo. Subtle spring onions from nearby Yilan county inform strips of salted pepper pork. It's good, rustic stuff, harking back to when Taiwan was a farming and fishing province, not a high-tech enclave enthralled by Japanese aesthetics and American doughnuts. It's also the perfect antidote to Taiwan's indigestibly deep-fried street food and its slavishly nostalgic showcases of other Chinese regional fare.
To Andy Chou, a local food researcher and TV commentator, Tseng's efforts represent "a tour of Taiwan for the tongue." Still, Tseng's foreign escapades were not all in vain. He says his next goal is to manufacture the "world's best beef jerky." That would blend right in with the country flavors of his island oasis.