California Enjoys Tastes of Taiwan

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by Melissa Newcomb
Staff at California’s 626 Nightmarket show off the world’s largest cup of bubble tea. Image: 626 Nightmarket.

Taiwan has a reputation for being home to delicious foods, and six restaurants in California were recognized in September for upholding that reputation in the United States.  The Culture Center of Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) awarded six Los Angeles County restaurants with “Overseas Quality Restaurant” awards for serving authentic Taiwanese cuisine. The culinary award was created in 2013 and stipulates that recipients must be open for three years, meet health codes, and serve dishes that are found in Taiwan.

As a form of soft-power diplomacy, promoting Taiwan’s cuisine gives people a taste of the culture and piques their interest to visit the island. The Overseas Community Affairs Council gave 36 restaurants the Overseas Quality Restaurant award in 2014, and about 70 restaurants in total have been recognized since the award’s genesis.

There are about 200 Taiwanese restaurants in Southern California alone. Over the past few years the increasing popularity of Taiwanese foods, such as bubble tea and beef noodles, have drawn Taiwan’s franchises to open locations in the US.

In fact, many restaurant chains from Taiwan are looking to expand in the US. Examples of major Taiwanese chains now open in America include Ten Ren, famous for high quality teas, 85 Degree Café, well known for pastries and coffee, the famous dim sum restaurant Din Tai Fung, and several bubble tea shops. The majority of Taiwan’s chains concentrate in California. Ten Ren has 14 stores in California, compared to six in New York, two in Maryland, and one in Chicago, Illinois. 85 Degree Café has seven stores in California and plans to open 50 stores in the US over the next three years.

The 626 Night Market has also increased awareness of Taiwan’s food culture in Southern California. Founded in April 2012 by Johnny Hwang, the 626 Night Market and its subsidiaries are open air food markets styled after the ones found in the streets of Taiwan. Hwang founded the market as a space for local businesses and entertainment to broaden their reach within the community. Last year, the 626 Night Market attracted more than 200,000 people.  Sophia Wong, the general manager of market, believes it offers young Asian Americans a way to reconnect with their cultural heritage.

California has a large Asian American population of over 5.7 million people comprising about 15% of the state’s total populace, and over 100,000 who are of Taiwanese descent.  This explains why Taiwan’s franchises and gastro-diplomacy efforts have so far been focused in the state. Successes in California will likely to lead to further expansion to other areas with large Asian American populations, as well as metropolitan areas across the US.

 Melissa Newcomb recently graduated from American University SIS and is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.