I’ve been eating at Taiwanese rechao restaurants for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories of Taipei are of sitting outdoors at a short table with my parents as they ordered platters of wok-fried eggplant and poached calamari with sweet and sour chili sauce. Certain details stand out: the bright vermilion hue of the tables contrasting with pastel-pink plastic chairs, the flicker of a broken streetlamp on the corner, the sweat of my dad’s beer bottle, the incessant buzz of motorcycles whizzing by. As a young child visiting Taiwan from my home in the United States, I found rechao chaotic. But when I eventually moved to Taipei when I was 29, rechao restaurants became a sanctuary—places where I could meet up with friends and sit in the familiar, comforting noises of the island.
In Mandarin Chinese, rechao translates to “hot stir-fry” and refers to a type of late-night restaurant—usually with squat outdoor seating by the street—that offers Taiwanese classics such as three-cup chicken, greasy plates of fried rice, and stir-fried clams swimming in garlic. These restaurants are not found at night markets—street markets that really come to life after sunset. Instead, they are an entity all their own. They exist in almost every major neighborhood on the island, but they’re particularly common in northern Taiwan.
The rechao serves dishes that are almost always baptized by fire—tossed and turned in giant woks. A high-powered stove is mandatory: Rechao food comes marching out fast, a quick progression of hot plates. Speed is a noted feature of the cooking experience, and the food—salty, with multiple layers of umami—is designed to pair well with beer. Rechao, though, is more than just a restaurant. It’s a culture.
Perhaps most importantly, the rechao menu tells a cohesive story of what it means to be Taiwanese, an identity that is multicultural and nuanced. These eateries are not one-dish wonders; they are generalists constructed to appease the masses. The cuisine is unfussy and quick and reflects the abundance of crops, seafood, and proteins on the island. Says Kuo Chung-Hao, a professor of food history at Taipei Medical University: “Rechao food is the food of the people.”
For me and my friends, it’s also an excuse to host a large party. Whenever a returnee, visitor, or transplant comes into town, one of us will organize a rechao welcome dinner.
“Rechao, Friday 7 p.m.?” I’ll write over LINE, Taiwan’s messaging app of choice, blasting the note to a motley group of friends and acquaintances. And by the end of the week, a dozen of us will congregate around several long tables. Illuminated by the warm glow of yellow paper lanterns strung up high, we’ll spend the night as worshipful congregants indulging in spicy braised stinky tofu and clay pot chicken simmered in a classic trinity of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. As the evening progresses, the table gets increasingly louder, antithetical to the introverted politeness that permeates Taiwanese society during the day.
As a writer who specializes in reporting on Taiwanese food culture, I find it difficult to properly contextualize rechao’s significance without drawing parallels to other cuisines. Similar to the Japanese izakaya and the British pub, yes, the rechao is a place where people meet up and drink. To me, it is emblematic, essential.
Unfortunately, the food of the rechao spread remains largely overlooked in the culinary canon of the island. I spent the past year and a half researching the ins and outs of Taiwanese food for a cookbook I’m writing, diving into different aspects of the cuisine. I discovered that as a destination, Taiwan is often pigeonholed as a place for night-market dishes or hot bowls of beef noodle soup. Rarely does rechao get more than a passing mention.
Part of that is geographic. While rechao is ubiquitous throughout the country, it hasn’t really taken off abroad. The last major wave of emigration out of Taiwan took place in the 1980s, right before rechao as a concept was beginning to bloom, so it remains an enigma to much of the Taiwanese diaspora (with a few exceptions). Its obscurity is understandable: Taiwanese food as a whole is rarely given a spotlight, and when it does receive mention, it often gets a cursory glance or is lumped under a broad umbrella of Chinese cuisine.
To understand the significance of the rechao, one must first consider Taiwan’s layered history. The nation on the edge of the Pacific Ocean has a culinary scene that has shifted with its colonial influences over the centuries. Originally an island populated by Austronesian nationals, Taiwan saw Chinese and Dutch settlers begin to trickle in centuries ago, many of whom moved here to fish and to work the land. Immigration picked up until the Austronesian inhabitants were eventually outnumbered by the Chinese, and by the early 19th century, parts of the island were declared a province of China under the jurisdiction of the now-defunct Qing dynasty. The Japanese empire took over the island in the late 19th century, and in 1945, it was handed over to the Nationalist Chinese government—an administration exiled to Taipei after years of civil war with the Communists in China.
In the 1980s, things shifted once again, when Taiwan officially transitioned to a democracy. Out of this freedom of choice came a distinct Taiwanese identity separate from China and Japan. Roughly a decade later, the first rechao restaurants on the island appeared.
“It really took off in the 1990s, during the height of Taiwan’s economic prosperity,” Kuo says of the rechao experience. “When people got off of work, they wanted to unwind.”
The practice of eating by the street has been part of Taiwan’s culinary culture since the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when peddlers would walk through busy streets with food in buckets dangling from poles balanced on their shoulders. The peddlers would congregate around Taoist temples—crowded places of worship—eventually forming the foundation of Taiwanese night markets. Meanwhile, near the coast, seafood restaurants stocked with fish tanks started serving fresh catches, with chefs cooking what was available that day. The chefs at these seafood spots eventually started to expand their repertoire, Kuo says, and that turned into the rechao restaurant.
Live fish tanks remain a feature at some rechaos, where patrons can pick what they want the chef to cook. Some rechao owners even allow customers to bring in fish that they catch themselves, which is what He Chong-Yu, a Taiwanese food blogger, and his friends do on a semi-regular basis: Autumn is crab season, winter is cuttlefish. But for most rechao restaurants today, the menu encompasses much more than the sea.
The rechao menu is informed by all the island’s cultural influences throughout the years. Japan comes through in the platters of delicate sashimi served with a dollop of tubed wasabi. Grilled salmon is often prepared with a generous layer of miso. Other dishes, rather than literal replicas of foods found elsewhere, feature a Taiwanese twist. In Sichuan, the southwestern Chinese province where poached pork belly dates back thousands of years, the dish is dressed with chili oil and light soy sauce. But in Taiwan, it’s slathered with a diluted concoction of Taiwanese soy paste and ginger. Everything is just a tad bit sweeter at a rechao.
“Taiwanese food is different than Chinese food,” says Chen I-Chin, owner of Buzi Restaurant, a rechao eatery in New Taipei City, southwest of Taipei. Chen calls himself the “godfather of rechao” and claims he was the first to popularize the genre in the 2000s. “We took all the eight major cuisines of China and Japanese food and mixed it all together.”
As a result, there are dishes at the rechao table that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, such as deep-fried shrimp tossed with sweet mayonnaise, pineapple, and a hefty shower of rainbow sprinkles, or a Hakka-inspired stir-fry with slivers of pork, dried squid, bean curd, and bright sticks of celery. Indigenous Taiwanese ingredients also feature heavily: Ferns, which grow wild and abundantly in Taiwan’s subtropical climate, are stir-fried and mixed with pickled seeds of the birdlime tree, which resemble small green olives and taste like sweet capers. Grilled pork sausages are sometimes infused with maqaw, an indigenous Taiwanese spice that has notes of both pepper and lemon.
While a menu comprising 100 to 200 dishes might seem daunting to a cook, all the owners I spoke with emphasized that it’s not that complicated. “Chefs just need to know the basics,” says Hu Nei-Ta, the co-owner of Fat Man Eatery, a rechao restaurant in Taipei. “They should know how to cook vegetables, fried rice, and fried noodles and how to fry, grill, and make cold dishes. After that, whipping up more than 100 [different] dishes isn’t a problem.”
Beer is also central to the experience. Taiwan has produced beer domestically since the Japanese colonial era, but sales skyrocketed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when foreign beer brands like Heineken were imported en masse. Today, rechao restaurants account for nearly 45 percent of all beer sales in the country.
Affordability, too, is another characteristic of rechaos. “I started selling plates for 100 NTD (US$3) a pop, and the lines back then were incredible,” says Chen of Buzi Restaurant, which has been open for more than 20 years. Large blue signs plastered on the marquee of his restaurant still advertise these prices, but in reality, only a few dishes cost $3 today. “Food costs have just gotten too high,” he says. “Back then rice was cheap, and food was cheap.”
It’s still cheap—relatively speaking. In my experience, the check at the end of the meal averages out to around US$15 a person. While considerably more expensive than an average dinner out in Taipei, the difference is that rechao is a type of rare elongated social activity, in which people can spend hours eating and drinking in the same spot.
Still, the rechao experience can be uncomfortable; diners oftentimes sit elbow to elbow on short stools close to the ground and grow slick from the reliable layer of humidity that cloaks Taiwan all year round. But despite such potential drawbacks, to rechao devotees, the spread of food is just as flavorful as the fare at any white-tablecloth restaurant in Taipei.
“I see it as a banquet,” says Acer Wang, a Taiwanese engineer now based in San Francisco. For Wang, the rechao restaurant is a sacred space—a place where he and his friends order without having to exchange a single word. “There’s this unspoken rule where it’s one plate a person. You pass down the menu and we each pick something we want. It’s very harmonious.”
This past year, when September rolled around and the weather in Taipei cooled down, I decided to host another rechao gathering for a couple of new friends from Europe. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” said the auntie who greeted us, and before I could respond, she began to list the dishes she knew I was going to order: three-cup chicken, beef and pepper stir-fry, deep-fried sweet and sour fish, tender fern shoots, white pepper–dusted baby corn, egg fried rice, stinky tofu, eggplant, and a platter of stir-fried Taiwanese cabbage. I said yes to all her suggestions and added a couple of my own for good measure.
As ever, the dishes came out rapidly. And as my party dined and drank our way through the evening, I didn’t have to school anyone on how to eat anything, nor did I have to explain what the dishes were. There and then, I realized that even though I’ve spent the past year trying to intellectualize rechao and identify its significance in Taiwanese cuisine, the beautiful truth is that the rechao restaurant also speaks for itself—hot, fast, and noisy. Glorious.
Additional reporting by Xin-Yun Wu. Wei’s cookbook, Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories From the Island Nation, will be available on September 19, 2023.