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Came for the Movies, Returned for the Cuisine: An Interview with Food Writer Matt Gross

Acclaimed Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang can take credit for more than award-winning movies like as The Puppetmaster and Yi Yi: A One and a Two. Back in the early 1990s, their films inspired in one American a profound curiosity about Taiwan which has turned into an ongoing love affair with the island, its food, and one of its women.

Matt Gross, who’s been writing about food and travel for 15 years, enjoys an in-depth relationship with Taiwan that isn’t entirely a result of being married to a Taiwanese woman. He first visited Taiwan back in 1997, long before they met.

“After watching several Taiwanese movies, and getting to know a number of Taiwanese-Americans, I was very curious about this island which is so often ignored,” recalls the New York-based reporter. He’s flown to Taiwan at least a dozen times since 2005, and in recent years has visited every summer so he, his wife, and their two daughters can spend time with his wife’s family.

“My wife is from Ximending in Taipei, and I love the mix of teenage trendiness and fast-paced change you find there,” says Gross, who has written about Taiwan for New York TimesSaveur, and many other print and online publications. “At the same time, there are places that have been in business for 60 years, and chefs who’ve been doing the exact same thing for 30 years.”

Each time he’s in Taipei, he makes sure to return to a couple of eateries. One he describes as “a little cart in Ximending that does mianxian [vermicelli-like rice noodles] and danbing [egg pancakes usually eaten for breakfast].” Another is a goose-meat noodle-soup place just around the corner from his in-laws.

Asked about favourites, he replies: “How can I not say fruit? My wife’s family always has fruit. It’s really hard to name a favorite. The best mango of my life was on the east coast. Mangoes are always incredible. Lianwu [wax apples, also known as mist apples] are invariably fresh and crunchy and juicy and light. They’re an unsung wonder-fruit unjustly neglected by fruit fans!”

When he’s not eating, he likes to visit Treasure Village, an artists’ village, or Yangmingshan National Park. Beyond Greater Taipei, Gross has a soft spot for Yilan, especially the hot springs in the northern part of the county, and the forests and mountains in the southern part. “I love how close everything is in Taiwan. You can get out the city quickly, and really feel you’re outside the city.”

“Taipei isn’t about the biggest, the best, the most flashy… it’s a human-scale place,” Gross advises those planning their first trip to Taiwan. “You’ll have great meals, great seafood and fruit, and you’ll find neighbourhoods you can walk around and return to again and again. Taipei exists for the people who live there, not for tourists. That’s a great thing, but it means it’s quirkier than most big international cities. Visitors need to explore and adapt if they’re to get the most out of the experience – and it’s made much easier by the incredibly friendly people.”

He has one final suggestion: “Learn to say zao [“good morning!”] when you meet locals. Also, buhao yisi [an apologetic “I feel embarrassed”) is a good excuse in any situation.”