What does gourmet mean?

Your assumptions are built on sand

June 2021

Ah strawberries! Is there anything more universally evocative of summer? Perhaps roses. But a bowl of strawberries and cream, eaten on a picnic blanket under a balmy sun, whispers of summer days past and promised, of freckles sleepily captured in dappled light, and joyfully earned in frisbee fields.

So imagine my surprise to discover that, here in Taiwan, strawberries are a winter fruit. To a Taipei-ite, nothing captures winter’s essence like a punnet of strawberries fresh from Miaoli county.

Now, call me seasonally confused! My culinary assumptions are all up in the air! Error 404! My taste buds, and their best friend, my gastronomic memory, just don’t know what to do with that information!

If I’m wrong about strawberries (and I still can’t quite make myself associate that little red jewel with December days), what else might my deeply-held gourmet convictions have wrong?

Ah: well right there, at ground zero, lies more treachery waiting, like an untied shoelace, to trip me up. Try explaining, in Taipei, what the word ‘gourmet’ means. Go on: try it! I did, several times, before giving it up as a totally duff concept.

Here’s why:

Me: ‘Gourmet – a word bequeathed to the English language from French, describing food using high-quality ingredients and skilled preparation.’

Every Taiwanese I tried to explain the concept to: ‘So, all food then?’

Me: ‘No no, really good food, that tastes especially delicious, and is made using only the best ingredients and the best, most skilled chefs.’

Every Taiwanese (etc): ‘Yes. All food.’

Me: ‘Oh right…. yes, all food.’

In Taiwan, it’s true: all food is prepared using the best ingredients, and by the best chefs most skilled at their particular specialty. And that got my head in even more of a spin than strawberries being a winter fruit. Why would any society have high quality, delicious food for those who can get it, and low quality, not-delicious food for those who can’t?

Fancy a bowl of beef brisket, slowly braised, with hand-pulled noodles and served with freshly-chopped herbs? Available for a song on every street corner.

How about some crispy deep fried chicken, succulent, juicy, with the freshest breadcrumbs and spice tailored to your taste? No problem – any night market will provide a feast for the senses.

Is the finest sashimi more to your taste? Recommendations for the best sashimi locale are unnecessary: you can find them everywhere, serving the best raw fish outside Japan, cheap as chips.

A bowl of steaming dumplings, light as a marshmallow, fragrant as a flower, with a broth your Grandmother would be proud of? A dime a dozen, scoffed by lawyers, street sweepers, students, and surgeons, within five minutes walk of wherever you are.

Even a bowl of instant packet noodles will make your taste buds dance and sing, while a trip to any convenience store yields delicious, healthy sandwiches in flavour combinations you never imagined (but should have). In fruit stores and markets, the ancient Greek gods on Olympus would toss their ambrosia aside for the true heaven of Taiwanese mangoes and pineapple.

There’s just no concept of ‘gourmet’ in a culture that believes every living soul deserves exquisite nourishment alongside light, water, and love.

That’s just another of the countless reasons we love Taiwan.

That, and the fact that you can get strawberries in winter.