I am no expert on Taiwanese cuisine. My parents are from Taiwan, many of my extended family still reside in Taiwan, and I identify myself as being Taiwanese. But I grew up mostly in the Midwest where Wendy’s dotted every corner and the entire Asian continent is largely represented by General Tsao’s chicken. (Note: I love Wendy’s and General Tsao’s chicken. Just sayin’.)
However, all the women in my family know their way around the kitchen. My grandmother was the quintessential Asian grandmother who made literally everything (both in and outside of the kitchen) from scratch and to perfection. I regret that I was too stubborn as a child to appreciate all of the Taiwanese delicacies she made when she visited, but I am lucky that my mom and aunts have carried on many culinary traditions.
So while I can’t succinctly describe Taiwanese food and how to precisely distinguish it from Chinese food, I can tell you that when I was not fine tuning my civil disobedience skills via baked potatoes, I ate a lot of pork-shrimp dumplings, beef noodle soup, marinated pickled cucumbers, cold sesame noodles, congee, corn soup, sticky rice, and pineapple cake. The potato always triumphed over all forms of tofu, gluten (actual gluten in solid form…), various dishes that involved using dried brown ingredients, whole fish, and anything that was discernibly spicy.
As an adult, my palate has broadened, and my pride in Taiwanese cuisine reached a pinnacle when I ate my Aunt K’s ba-wan, which Wikipedia describes as “a Taiwanese snack food, consisting of a 6-8 cm diameter disk-shaped translucent dough filled with a savory stuffing and served with a sweet and savory sauce.” I would describe my Aunt K’s version as freaking amazing (I wish I had a photo; Aunt K’s is head and shoulders above the Google Images search!). They are so good that my spoiled cousin living in San Diego has my Aunt K FedEx them to him with dry ice when he is homesick.
My pride in Taiwanese cuisine also soars every time I visit Toki Underground, D.C.’s first and only Taiwanese dumpling/noodle house. Since Toki opened on H St NE in April, I have visited at least 8 times, usually in spurts of once every week for several weeks in a row like a true Toki-addict.
I’ve tasted all of the ramen except for the Masumi Vegetarian, and the Chicken Curry Hakata (with extra noodles, of course) is hands down my favorite ramen. Of. All. Time. Seriously. In. The. World. (My friends who love kimchi are hopelessly devoted to the Kimchi Ramen.)
For dumplings, I opt for the pan fried pork. The steamed seafood dumplings were a little bland on my first visit back in the spring, but I think the pork filling on my last visit had more kick to it (in a good way) than prior versions, so I may need to revisit the steamed seafood. Toki’s dumplings are tops in my book because the dumpling skin is the perfect consistency/thinness (just say no to doughy dumpling wrappers!).
Aside from the food, there is a lot to love about Toki (incredible attention to detail for the quirky and clever decor, awesome music, refreshing cocktails, friendly staff, fueling the growth and development of H Street NE, etc etc), but it has a special place in my heart because Toki waves its Taiwanese heritage/inspiration/pride proudly and loudly. Thanks to Toki’s media blitz coverage, at least a segment of the population now knows that the Japanese do not have a monopoly on ramen.
As for the fabled long wait times, yes, the wait is long. Especially during peak times/days. But there’s no other place in D.C. I would wait (let alone be happy to wait) two hours for dinner on a Friday night.