From today's Daily Yomiuri ザ・デイリー読売 comes an article on the spread of Japanese restaurants across Asia (http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/business/20090314TDY08301.htm):
"Japanese restaurant chains are advancing into the rest of Asia--including China, Thailand and Taiwan--where the popularity of Japanese cuisine is soaring as the standard of living improves. Shrinking Japanese domestic markets, mainly due to a declining birthrate and a drop in consumer spending, lie behind the trend of Japanese restaurant companies seeking to expand into new markets."
The story mainly focuses on outlets being opened in Shanghai, but Taiwan is briefly mentioned in one paragraph:
"Some firms that have already opened restaurants outside of Japan are making steady profits. Ootoya Co. 大戸屋 based in Tōkyō 東京, which sells low-cost meals at its restaurant chain, opened its first overseas restaurant in Thailand in January 2005. The firm now has 31 overseas outlets in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong--out of a total 242 at home and abroad--that earn about 10 percent of its consolidated sales."
Japanese food is very popular in Taiwan, and rave reviews of mainly Taipei (Taihoku) 台北-based 日本料理 eateries can be found throughout the blogosphere here. However, I found myself continually disappointed by the quality of Japanese food served in restaurants in Taiwan. For example, noodle dishes such as ramen ラーメン are marked by their underwhelming flavors. Taiwanese chefs appear to labor under the notion that Japanese cuisine is meant to bland, and in fact I've been told by several students who have traveled to Japan that the food there was too "salty"! After living for nearly 18 months in Yokkaichi 四日市, Mie Prefecture 三重県, my Taiwanese wife complained that the Japanese food on offer in Taiwan was tasteless! Unfortunately, she seems to be in the minority.
I also have problems when it comes to my favorite Japanese dish, tonkatsu 豚カツ. In Japan, it is almost universally tasty. In Taiwan, the pork often has too much fat, the batter is too thick (a problem that also plagues tempura 天ぷら dishes in Taiwan), and worst of all, instead of Worcestershire sauce and mustard, ketchup is often presented as a condiment to go with the meat!
And then there is sushi 寿司 and sashimi 刺身. Is it only my imagination (or bias), or is the quality better at the cheapest conveyor belt joints 回転寿司 in Japan than the more expensive Japanese restaurants here in Taiwan? Wasabi ワサビ is often provided (and used) in such great amounts that is absorbs almost all the soy sauce. So much for subtlety. And perhaps I'm just unlucky, but it seems every time I have sashimi, the fish is served half-frozen.
As a lover of Japanese cuisine, therefore, I'm happy to read that more Japanese restaurants will apparently be opening up in Taiwan. I shouldn't get my hopes up too high, however. Take the above-mentioned Ootoya, for example. A Google search revealed there are 9 outlets on this island - five in Taipei, two in Kaohsiung (Takao) 高雄, and one each in Hsinchu (Shinchiku) 新竹 and Tainan 台南. The staff at Compass Magazine may delude themselves into believing that Taichung (Taichū) 台中 is the "culture city", but it takes a long time for things from the outside world to make their way into the central part of Taiwan. And as for good ol' Fengyuan (Hōgen) 豊原, well, there is a MOS Burger モスバーガー...
In the interests of fairness, the state of Chinese food in Japan is just as bad. There was a "Taiwanese" restaurant in downtown Yokkaichi that served Japanized versions of Taiwanese noodle, rice and tofu dishes. And who in their right mind would list "Japanese food/restaurants" as one of their reasons for visiting Taiwan? It's just that as a long-term resident in a small city who needs a break from the stir-fries and chopped-up pieces of bone, it would be nice if the most popular international alternative could taste a little more like it does in its place or origin, and a little less like the native dishes.