Tucked down a quiet, winding lane in central Taipei, Chán Shífāng (饞食坊) is, at first glance, just another izakaya-style restaurant among the city’s multitudes. But a white sign with the name, which translates roughly to “The Gluttonous Eatery” or “Greedy House of Food,” catches the eye. The muffled din of young people, deeply enmeshed in the pleasures of food and drink, draws you closer. And once inside, you’ll find an establishment singularly and proudly Taiwanese, with a unique menu featuring only local alcohol and unabashedly political décor, unusual for a popular restaurant within a culture often uncomfortable with direct conflict.
A glowing neon sign that reads "glutton" at Taipei's Chán Shífāng.
Take a seat at the narrow metal bar, and the first thing you’ll notice is a giant neon character for the word “Glutton” glowing red on the wall. The chipped, half-tiled floor, peeling yellow concrete walls, low stools and folding tables are meticulously curated to give off a nostalgic air, a call back to classic Taiwanese eateries of the 1980s. More surprising is the prominent banner declaring “Freedom for Taiwan” (台灣獨立). During one visit, cards exclaiming “Freedom for Hong Kong” lay scattered on a bench. The profile photo on Chán Shífāng’s Facebook page declares “No Extradition to China” in English. While the groups of chatting friends around the room don’t read as particularly rebellious, the very fact that they’re eating there means the displays don’t shock. The customers may even agree.
Chán Shífāng is a new breed of bar and restaurant: a trendy Taipei hot spot with pro-Taiwan banners and a proudly Taiwanese menu.
To understand the significance of these design choices, it’s worth noting that the growing movement of people identifying as Taiwanese is relatively novel and very divisive. The small island society is influenced by a long, complex history of immigration and occupation, and often historical ties are put before geographical ones. A recent and influential demographic change came in 1949, when the end of the Chinese Civil War brought General Chiang Kai-shek, his army and millions of people fleeing Mao’s Communist regime. Chiang Kai-shek declared the formerly sleepy settlement to be the new seat of the Chinese government, and he vowed to reunite Taiwan and mainland China in the future. Many of the ethnically Chinese people who had relocated to Taiwan and their children never considered the island their homeland. Taiwan was the place they lived, not the place they were from.
More and more of the current generation feels differently. Young people today often define themselves as Taiwanese first, and with that identity comes more pride of place, less longing for something across the sea. They are no longer waiting for a reunion, and in fact, reject the very idea of it.
Chán Shífāng only offers alcohol that's made in Taiwan.
Of course, China considers Taiwan a province gone rogue. While there have been other pro-Taiwan movements, this current wave feels more urgent because of China’s increasingly bellicose overtures toward invasion, an upcoming election in Taiwan and the attendant uncertainty. There are few countries left with official diplomatic ties to the Taiwanese government. Citizens of Taiwan are in a position where they must consider what they want their future to look like, and what they consider their identity to be. In that context, Chán Shífāng is a new breed of bar and restaurant: a trendy Taipei hot spot with pro-Taiwan banners, and a menu that only offers alcohol made in Taiwan.
A handwritten sign notes that this isn't the typical Japanese-style izakaya, of which there are many around the city, remnants of when Japan occupied Taiwan between 1895 and 1945.
The drinks menu includes fruity, fragrant plum wine from central Taiwan’s mountainous Nantou, a sake-style drink from central Taiwan’s industrial powerhouse, Taichung, and Kavalan whisky from the bamboo-covered hills of eastern Taiwan’s Yilan. There’s even special small-batch rum and brandy made in a tiny town in the mountains right outside of Taipei.
But the short list of xiǎo mǐjiǔ (小米酒), or millet wine, most clearly speaks to Chán Shífāng’s Taiwan-first narrative. The top of the section reads: “Since we only sell Taiwanese alcohol, how on earth could we not sell authentic [Indigenous] Millet Wine?”
Xiǎo mǐjiǔ, a Taiwanese millet wine, has a reputation as an unsophisticated homebrew and is not widely distributed, even within Taiwan, but it appears on the menu at Chán Shífāng.
Taiwan’s Indigenous groups and their products have historically been looked down upon, discriminated against or turned into tourist curiosities. But the growth of Taiwan pride has coincided with a reappreciation for the island’s original population. Taiwan has 16 officially recognized Indigenous groups, and each has a god or goddess dedicated to millet and its own version of xiǎo mǐjiǔ.
At its most traditional, xiǎo mǐjiǔ is made using a type of cereal grass akin to quinoa, which is steamed, mixed with brewer’s yeast and left to ferment for around a month. Today, the wine is often brewed with glutinous rice, which is easier and quicker to ferment. It has a reputation as an unsophisticated homebrew, sweet to the point of treacly and eye-crossingly strong. It is not widely distributed, even within Taiwan. It is certainly not often found at hip bars and restaurants around Taipei, where drink menus are dominated by craft beer, European wine lists and elaborate craft cocktails with smoky flourishes that are presented to tables where diners clap in adulation.
At Chán Shífāng, xiǎo mǐjiǔ is served from a carafe alongside popular dishes meant to be shared.
Chán Shífāng offers four xiǎo mǐjiǔ options. The first, with the lowest ABV (10 percent), is brewed with green plums. Its sweetness is reminiscent of a Sauternes or Tokaji wine, the viscosity cut with a tart fruitiness. The next is fermented with rice and has the sweetness and aroma of toasted rice. The third, which has only millet, no rice, is considered the most authentic; its makeup leads to a cleaner, drier mouthfeel. The final is an aged version that, at 33 percent ABV, is described as “for those in a hurry” (presumably to get drunk).
The house specialty is a dish consisting of thick chewy noodles laced with numbing spice (right), a popular accompaniment to xiǎo mǐjiǔ.
Each is served in a small glass carafe, along with a sweating container of ice. It’s best enjoyed slowly, paired with a long parade of small sharing plates. The flavors of Chán Shífāng’s complementary dishes draw inspiration from southern Taiwan, with a bit of Japanese influence and a personal flair. Unadorned chewy noodles surprise with a fiery bite of white pepper and numbing spice (花椒面). A whole fish, roasted in salt over coals, is juicy beneath its smoking skin (烤魚). A comforting bowl of rice is drizzled with long-stewed pork, and called, simply, “The Study Abroad Student’s Version of Stewed Pork” (留學生滷肉飯). They say there’s a story behind the name, but it’s for another time.
Chán Shífāng offers four xiǎo mǐjiǔ options including an aged version described as “for those in a hurry” (presumably to get drunk).
Xiǎo mǐjiǔ and many of the other Taiwanese beverages on Chán Shífāng's list can not yet be found off the island, but with the increasing popularity of Taiwanese food in America, perhaps beverages are soon to follow. For now, though, places like Chán Shífāng act as a bellwether for the current and future trends of the island nation. It is not only a comforting place to tuck into food and drink; its pride of place translates to a unique spirit of conviviality where one can toast to Taiwan’s complex heritage, its future and its Indigenous culture.