In this article, I talk about the onset of my plant-based journey and my experience writing about food for the Taipei Times.
A little bit of Background
When I was 16 years old, I started writing for the Taipei Times, the largest English newspaper company in Taiwan. After trying a few articles on highlights, or previews of upcoming events in Taipei, I stumbled upon the world of restaurant reviews.
I still remember the day I did my first restaurant review. On a bright summer’s day, four of us visited Serenity (祥和蔬食餐廳), a vegetarian Taiwanese restaurant on the Michelin Bib Gourmand List. At the time, I was still unfamiliar with vegan and vegetarian cuisine, having been an omnivore my whole life. Looking at the menu, I was quite honestly disappointed, seeing that there are no meat-dishes despite there being at least a hundred items on the menu. My mind was somehow plagued with the idea that I needed to have at least a bit of meat in every meal.
What follows completely changed my viewpoint on vegan and vegetarian cuisine.
We ordered this dish called Deep Fried Squid balls (炸花枝丸), which is one of my favorite Taiwanese street food dishes. As shown in the picture, these morsels of what seem to be a mix of seitan and tofu are deep fried to golden-brown perfection and placed atop a bed of crispy basil leaves. They surely looked visually appealing, but at first I was skeptical — how could a squid ball without squid taste remotely like the real thing?! I was wrong. They tasted just like the real thing. They were so impressive I had to confirm with the waiter that they didn’t accidentally throw squid in there.
Fast forward to today, I am a proud omnivore who is open-minded and conscious about plant-based eating and cuisine. While I do not restrict myself to certain diets such as vegetarianism or veganism, I am doing my part to promote the gradual adoption of a plant-based lifestyle through cooking. This means that 100% of my cooking is vegan or vegetarian. Granted, I do take part in eating plant-based food 90% of the time.
If I must say, writing about food is quite an easy task. Everyone can describe what they just ate in pretty good detail. But writing about food in a way that provokes emotion, stirs interest, and conjures life — that is something not everyone can do.
Including myself. Sometimes I found it difficult to convey all of my feelings; sometimes I found it difficult to feel. While I am constantly on the lookout for new flavors, new feelings, they don’t always show up when I think I’ve found them. Sometimes I would taste the food, only to be disappointed by how little I felt or how little I could say.
The principle rule we were given as restaurant reviewers is to write generally positive reviews.
Wait, so if you did not like the food, did you have to lie? Well, no. For one, there was no real need to lie. Given that the task is to write positive reviews, the restaurants that I went to are hand-picked. These are restaurants that have received much praise but have never been reviewed before, or are restaurants that I myself have already visited.
And if there were dishes that I did not like, I was quite honest. Below is a photo taken when I was reviewing Impromptu by Paul Lee, a one-Michelin starred restaurant in Taipei.
"A kind of interlude was the house-made bread and whipped butter. Just the right amount of charring on the outside and delicate, flecked with grains on the inside — perfectly baked, but slightly boring." — Full article here.
Don’t get me wrong, the house-made bread was amazing. But sitting in a Michelin starred restaurant, I just had to expect more. I expected every dish to completely blow me away, and while most dishes did, I was honest when a dish didn’t.
Telling a Story
So, how do you write about food? Before you get even start writing about the food, you have to set the scene. Often times, a great restaurant not only has delicious food, but has a unique backstory or ambiance. Thus, your job as a restaurant reviewer is to tell the restaurant’s story, from start to finish. This means that you must document your entire experience: from standing outside of the restaurant, walking to the table, to the very end of the meal.
That is why all of my food reviews start with a blurb, giving some background about the restaurant or a few things I notice as I walked in. For example, in my review for Serenity, I wrote:
"Aside from the restaurant’s pronounced store sign, its interior is almost entirely pigmentless, perhaps to highlight the vibrant colors of each exquisite dish. The anterior of the restaurant, enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass panes, allows sunlight to be radiated onto every corner, creating a bright and invigorating atmosphere."
Descriptions like this will allow the readers to step in your shoes from the very start — an important step if you’re trying to tell a story. By simply describing what you observe, you let readers feel as if they were accompanying you as you visit the restaurant.
Describing The Food
Now onto what you’ve been waiting for, so to speak: the food. When the food arrives, you taste it, and the food makes you feel a certain way. Well, how do you go about expressing that? Say you tasted this dessert, and you were to write a description for it:
Option 1: "The snowman dessert had a great presentation. It not only looked stunning but tasted extremely delicious. Everything on that plate was very tasty."
Option 2: "The snowman dessert looked as good as it tasted. As the plate hits the table, the chef ladles liquid nitrogen-infused ruby chocolate and vapors consume the snowman like it is its own microcosm. When you savagely pry open the body of the snowman, you find more ruby chocolate that encases yogurt parfait and a molten peach coulis core. Perfumed by the tart peach, the subtle fruitiness of the ruby chocolate is elevated instead of overpowered. Different layers of the dessert confer different flavors, and different textures dance on my tongue, waltzing to a crescendo."
You would always pick option 2. Not just that it is longer, but its descriptions go beyond the surface level, covering the entire experience that comes with the dish. You want to stack as many adjectives as possible like this, so as to fully and accurately capture the moment. In option 1, you may observe the use of words like “delicious” and “tasty.” These are non-descriptive words you should never include in food writing.
Another key point, which may seem obvious, is to only write about the food that you actually tasted. You will never be able to describe the food in sufficient detail if you did not taste the dish yourself, unless you are making things up. On the other hand, if you only listed the ingredients and didn’t bother to describe what the dish tastes like, you are not giving much information to the reader — they could just read the menu and get the same information.
With all that I’ve said, I’m here to remind you that food reviews are a lot of fun. Don’t let the nuances of writing deter you from the most important part of a food review: enjoying the food! It’s your turn to to act like a Michelin inspector and wield the authority of your tastebuds.