Review: AKAME, Contemporary Indigenous Taiwanese; Best in Taiwan?

Intro

Ever since I returned to Taiwan in March of this year to take refuge, I have been eating nearly nonstop. From new and old favorite street stalls and hole in the walls. To attempting to eat at most of the new haute/ tasting/ creative type restaurants that have popped up in the last 4-5 years since I moved back to the States. Dining with family and friends, many have constantly thrown ever more restaurants and street stalls my way. But one restaurant that I had never heard of until someone mentioned it was AKAME. And little did I know, its located in the mountains of Taiwan’s southernmost county, Pingtung and has, since its inception 5 years ago, quickly become one of the toughest reservations in Taiwan. 

After dining at some fantastic spots in Taichung, Pingtung and Taitung, it turns out, some of the best restaurants in Taiwan are no longer in Taipei. In fact, now amongst my top 5 meals in Taiwan, ever, and quite possibly my over all #1 spot for Taiwan, is none other than AKAME. (Ok, this ranking is in terms of restaurants/ finer dining experiences). 

First, what kind of food is AKAME? I’d describe it as Contemporary Indigenous Taiwanese, which quite frankly, it may be the only one to offer such cuisine.

So, what exactly is it about AKAME that has it leaving such a mark in my brain and stomach?

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It is Taiwanese ingredients and cooking methods in some of its truest forms. Everything is Taiwanese, from the ingredients to the utensils and plates (even an Indigenous traditional knife is used), and even Taiwanese wines are featured on the wine list. The dishes are simple and beautifully presented, mostly in a French/ Haute cuisine style. But each dish, despite at maximum 8 ingredients in total, achieves complexity and balance. Oh, did I mention that not a single item is made from molecular gastronomy or sous vide? Nor are there ingredients and forms of the ingredients that you wont understand when the wait staff explains it to you. You literally see what you eat, except maybe for a few of the more unique sauces, but even those dont utilize any fancy techniques or machines. The main part of the kitchen are two wood fire brick ovens, and other than dessert, every single dish comes out of these two ovens. There is no use of caviar, uni, foie gras, wagyu, or any other stereotypically “fancy” foods that are now too often associated with what makes for a “good” and “sophisticated” meal (dont get me wrong, I still love all of that stuff, but a lot of folks in Taiwan tend to think that a meal must include these to be worthy of being called “michelin” standard). But there is no need for that here, the chef knows his homeland, its vibrant ingredients and his Indigenous heritage so well he knows exactly what to use, how to pair things and how to utilize a simple wood fire to bring out the most of the natural flavors and qualities of each item. 

Another added element is that Taiwan’s social fabric has throughout its history and for varying reasons cultivated systemic discrimination against the Indigenous people, just like in basically any other nation with an indigenous population. So it is so great to see an Indigenous chef open up a restaurant near his village to showcase Indigenous ingredients and culture with the international culinary skills he acquired whilst maintaining Indigenous traditions of hospitality and communal dining without turning his heritage into a simple amusement park display of tribal dancing, music and the stereotypical Taiwanese Indigenous ground roasted pork (which again, dont get me wrong is still quite delicious). What I am trying to get at without diving too deep into a anthropological rabbit hole, is that it is about damn time Taiwanese Indigenous community get the respect and spotlight they so deserve. 

And so, let me take you on this journey to Southern Taiwan. 

The AKAME Story

(Note: a large part of the below summary comes from a Chinese article from TianXia Magazine)

43 year old chef Alex Peng is a Rukai from the Rukai Tribe in Taiwan. He started off as a chef in Taiwan but having never had autonomy in the kitchens of other chefs he felt he lacked his own soul and craftsmanship in the culinary sense. His ultimate goal was to cook Indigenous cuisine and yet he felt the majority of Taiwanese society didnt value Indigenous cuisine and thought of it as unsophisticated. Further, he wanted to learn and elevate his culinary skills but without language capabilities he felt he could not go to France or Japan or the likes to learn from great chefs. 

And so we bring in Chef Andre Chiang of Taiwan’s Raw and the now closed Singapore’s Restaurant Andre into the story. Chef Alex had seen Chef Andre on the news as by that time Restaurant Andre was racking in the accolades and stars and brining pride to Taiwan. Chef Alex then researched and saw that Andre was hosting a talk and Q&A in Pingtung. Upon attending the talk, Alex felt a connection with Andre’s philosophy and approach to cooking and as such he stuck around to the very end of the event to approach Andre. The attendees had all but left and Andre was about to leave too when Alex approached and asked what a Chef’s next step should be once they have dabbled and learned varying cuisine techniques in Taiwan. Andre’s response? “You should not go outside to learn, but learn what is within YOU. Who are you? You are of Indigenous heritage, you know those ingredients and techniques and flavor profiles better than anyone else, that is YOU.” 

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Chef Alex Peng

Chef Alex then asked to learn from and work for Andre in Singapore. Andre could see the persistence and resilience in Alex and agreed. Between initial language barriers and culinary imperfections, Alex never gave up and with Andre’s team and family approach to the kitchen team, Alex was able to continue to learn and perfect his skills. 

Chef Alex first staged at Restaurant Andre for 3 months but upon returning to Taiwan he felt he needed to learn and practice some more. He asked Chef Andre to become a full time member of the team and then worked there under the guidance of Andre for 2 more years. He then returned to his home county of Pingtung to open up AKAME. 

The word AKAME means wood fire grill, or simply the technique of grilling in the Rukai language, and if I recall correctly it is pronounced Ah-Gah-Ohm. 

According to Peng, he did not want Andre to visit the restaurant in the early years because Peng felt he was not ready and AKAME was not at the level he wanted it to be at. 5 years later in 2020, Andre finally visited and Chef Alex said he finally feels ready. 

The AKAME team consists of Chef Alex, a cousin, and brother-in-law in the kitchen. His wife, his sister-in-law, and another relative at the front of the house. Thus it is a family run restaurant. 

Their next projects are to open a casual daytime restaurant nearby as well as a bed and breakfast.  

Booking and Getting There

Reservations open at midnight on the first of each month, and open for the second following month, so on August 1, reservations open for October. On May 11 I hopped on their reservation website, which as with most Taiwanese restaurants nowadays is on inline, and saw that there was only 1 slot left in June. I quickly snagged the 1 person booking for 6PM on Thursday June 11, 2020. I then messaged them on Facebook and asked if they could accommodate adding one more spot to the reservation, much to my surprise, they responded immediately saying they could add one more spot right then and there. When I later pushed my luck to get two more, they said they were full. 

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They have 2 seatings, 6PM and 9PM, with a dining time limit of 160 minutes. Last order occurs at 90 minutes into your meal so allow the kitchen ample time to prepare and then turn around. CASH only. Party sizes of 1 to 10. If you are a party of 6-10 you will likely be seated in the private room (which occupies the former outdoor entrance of the restaurant but with the demand they converted it into a private indoor room). There is a small table that seats 4-5 at the end of the room, the bar seating facing the open kitchen (where you want to sit) and a high top bar facing the wall. At maximum capacity, the restaurant can seat around 28 people. There is no credit card required at booking, nor do they charge for no-show or cancel. The menu is a-la-carte, there is a wine list but you can also pay the corkage fee (apologies, I forget the amount) and bring your own bottles. Given the portion size and a-la-carte, I recommend bare minimum 2 people, ideally 3-4 people to fully experience the dishes and not feel overly stuffed.

Now, how to get there and back? 

AKAME is about a 80 minute drive from Zuoying (Kaohsiung) High Speed Rail station in good traffic conditions. There are no public transport to get here. 

Some die-hard foodies will do one day roundtrip situation. Wherein they take the high speed rail from Taipei to Zuoying (Kaohsiung) and take a taxi or arrange for a roundtrip transfer or book a cab for 4-5 hours, and go have their dinner, and return by high speed rail the same night. This is exceptionally tiring as you will likely not return to Taipei until midnight or later. It is also stressful to have to worry about making it in time for your return train during the meal.

I recommend you either have AKAME book a nearby bed and breakfast (very basic accommodations, and most likely the one right next door), or book accommodation in Kaohsiung or Pingtung. Definitely arrange for transportation, I dont recommend driving, unless you are staying nearby in the village. We booked a full-day taxi that cost around 3500NT (USD$120) for around 11-12 hours, the driver took us around Pingtung and around the village before dinner and then took us back to Kaohsiung where we were staying. As mentioned, AKAME can also arrange for roundtrip or one-way transfers on your behalf. If staying in Kaohsiung, I highly recommend Silks Club Kaohsiung. 

I also recommend spending some time before dinner in the village/ surrounding mountains. There is an Taiwan Indigenous Culture Park nearby, less touristy and more authentic apparently that Jiu Zhu Cultural Park near Sun Moon Lake. But what you MUST do is have a Millet Donut from the stall next to AKAME, Li Mumu’s Song 莉姆姆的歌,  even AKAME will tell you to go eat it. And have some Pingtung Coffee and Pingtung Chocolate at the many roasters and chocolatiers in the village. The one I went to was called Taiwanese Native Cafe 嵐雲綠海居風格館. I would give yourself about 1.5 hours before the meal to enjoy the donut and have some coffee to digest it and enjoy some local chocolate. 

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Millet Donut
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Pingtung Coffee beans

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Afterwards, you should return to the restaurant around 10-15 minutes before dinner time to snap some pics and make some new friends with the army of out-of-towners on their foodie pilgrimage.

The Restaurant and Service

By 5:50PM there is a crowd eagerly standing outside the restaurant and taking pictures with the front facade and sign. All are from out of town. All bringing this quaint and quiet alleyway to life. Some are staying next door or in the village, others like us were staying elsewhere. Some tourists who were visiting the surrounding area also came by, some curious as to what this place was, some knowing that it is a famous and hard to book restaurant. 

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At 6PM Chef Alex’s wife comes out. She calls each party individually and walks them in. It is a rather ceremonious entry process. The entrance is to the left side of the main facade after they shifted it from the front to accommodate the private dining room. My mom and I were called in last. 

You step in and its almost like you have gone into a different world that the restaurant’s surrounding area. To the right is the private dining room. To the left is the cozy yet expansive dining room. Facing the back wall, on the right is the wooden main bar seating facing the open kitchen, on the left is the high top bar against the wall, and the far end is the small table/booth for a party of 4-5, with the lavatories behind the far wall. When facing the kitchen, the two beautiful wood-fire brick ovens are on the far right wall. The walls are black. Lighting is semi-dim, just dim enough to create atmosphere but bright enough to see things and take good pictures.

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Mom and I are seated at the far left of the kitchen bar with a wonderfully expansive view of all the action. Immediately upon sitting they offer still or sparkling water and water the wet wipe (you know the one that expands when water touches it). The only minor hiccup was the initial ordering process. The waiter was busy attending to a few other guests seated before us, which is fine. We then hailed him down and he asked what we wanted to order, but no one had walked through or introduced us to the dishes yet. So he did so and we asked him to return later to order. When we were ready, we ordered. He was good in the sense that he knew around how many dishes to recommend 2 people order, but he did accidentally put down the wrong beef order for us as we would later discover, but not the end of the world as the beef we had was still fantastic. The rest of the night the service was great. It is casual, familial, genuine and yet professional. Water and wine glasses consistently topped off and the pacing of each dish was also very good, not rushed nor was it lethargically slow.

Plates, napkin, menus and beverage list all await at your seat. The wine list is one-page but offers a nice range. Taiwan’s own Weightstone Winery in Puli, Nantou central Taiwan is heavily featured on the list along with a few French and German wines. I love this. I had until that night not heard of Weightstone so I had to order a bottle. Another wonderful feature is the small Indigenous details. The copper utensil holder with local traditional patterns and most importantly the Rukai knife, modeled after the knives young male warriors use for their adulthood initiation hunt and ceremony.

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The menu is a-la-carte, with the dishes priced at NT$280-$400 being appetizers. Dishes priced at $480 and above being the main courses. There is a list of daily seafood catches that can feed a number of people. One the evening of our dinner there just happened to be no fish for only 2 people, so we did not order, and we were not that interested in the lobster.  

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The Meal

I am not sure if they have an English menu, I did not think to ask, which tends to happen to me in Taiwan. I now realize I should probably ask next time for sake of writing these blogs. Nonetheless, some items are staple and dont really change from their menu. But some items will change seasonally. Either way, I have included the mandarin names of the dishes below just in case, as well as the pictures.

First up was the bread, served in a traditional Rukai woven basket. Butter knife a traditional Indigenous wooden knife. Rose infused bread with home whipped butter topped with smoked seeds (I believe pine seeds)

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Amuse Bouche: Millet egg roll (crepe) with ground Peking duck leg, shredded Dried winter melon leaf 

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Weightstone 2018 Musann Blanc. Surprisingly delicious. At first very citrus and light. But as the night went on, it got smoother and fruitier and more bold. Very nice wine.

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Bamboo Shoot and Seaweed Salad (烏榖筍 海藻沙拉 ): Sakura shrimp mayo (Sakura shrimp smoked and grilled then shredded and whipped into mayo).

Eventually after a few chews and bites the full taste of the sea comes through between the seaweed and the hint of sakura shrimp in the mayo.

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Baby Corn Husks, Tuna Based Mayo (similar to the Sakura shrimp mayo above, except using local Donggang tuna), Slow Smoked Bonito (有機玉米筍,鮪魚蛋黃醬,慢燻柴魚片)

Over all this dish was ok, but it was pretty cool to be able to get the slight hint of fishy tuna in the mayo.

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Hay Smoked Pingtung Pigeon (稻燻屏東乳鴿 ): topped with shaved Magao leaf (馬告 ) known as aromatic litsea, more commonly referred to as Mountain Pepper

Tasty dish, the aromatic hay and smokiness could be tasted. Makao has a very unique zesty spicy bitter flavor profile that helps bring out the natural sweetness of the pigeon.

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Miaoli 60 Day Old Silkie (苗栗養殖60天烏骨雞): glazed with 馬告 Mountain pepper miso smoked; smoked with 五葉松 Taiwan White Pine, 紫蘇 shiso, and 山當歸葉Angelica leaf

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The most amazing dish of the night, and one of Chef Andre Chiang’s favorites. The Silkie was juicy, tender and bursting with flavors, with a lightly crisped skin for that extra texture. It was smokey but herbal but neither was overpowering. It was sweet, savory, and a bit bitter at the same time. You could smell and taste each of the leaves and miso used in creating the dish and their flavor profiles revealed themselves at different times and occasionally coming together. Just full of balance, subtlety and complexity yet it is simply a herbal smoked silkie. 

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Smoked Pingtung 50 Day Old Peking Duck Species Duck Breast (屏東養殖50天北京鴨種鴨胸): Cucumber flower, 蜜漬洛神花 honeydew Roselle flower,洛神粉 roselle powder、洛神醬 roselle sauce, 小米樹豆味增醬 millet pigeon pea miso.

The duck itself was tasty albeit a bit too salty, but with the entire flavor profile from the accompaniments added together in one bite, you had a perfect match because the sweet and citrus balanced out the salt and savoy of the duck.

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10 oz Kinmen Sirloin (10oz 金門黃牛莎朗) with veggie beef broth, pumpkin, fig, cucumber, champagne vinegar, 石蒜花 red spider lily, and water leaf 八篸

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Broiled Calcot/Green Onion and Calf Tongue Salad (炙烤大蔥 小牛舌沙拉): millet miso, salted fish oil, China pink flower (石竹花)

Originally we did not order this fearing we had ordered too much, but we saw others order it and it looked so good. They also said the season for the large Taiwanese Calcots was almost done, so we added it to our order. No regrets, second best dish of the night. The green onion itself was naturally sweet, juicy and full of flavor and texture. With savory, creaminess coming from the miso and melt in your mouth calf tongue salad, and the bitter saltiness from the fish oil, with the tangy zest of the flower. It also just looked pretty. 

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Churros (吉拿棒): 五葉松針 shaved Taiwan White pine needle,Donggang 62% Dark Chocolate.

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Also fantastic. Traditional Spanish churros but with the shave pine needle you had an extra layer of earthy zesty citrus sourness and bitterness complementing the sweetness of the cinnamon sugar, and then you dip it into the thick creamy, slightly sour slightly bitter but aromatic 62% dark chocolate and you have a perfect dessert.

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Throughout the evening, both Chef Alex’s wife and sister-in-law served us and were so friendly and there was some small talk and conversation throughout. We were the last of the 6PM seating to leave and as such briefly chatted and complimented Chef Alex and took a picture with him as well. The entire family/staff is just so humble and kind, and AKAME is like their home and they welcome you in with open arms.

Conclusion

Worthy of your time and effort to get here. Without a doubt. 

8 dishes, not including amuse bouche and bread, along with a bottle of wine came down to a total of around NTD$8300 (USD$281) for 2 people.

I was blown away by the amount of flavors, tastes and textures I was able to experience with such simple techniques and minimal use of ingredients. But it goes to show that Chef Alex Peng truly took Chef Andre’s words to heart. He is proving and showing that Indigenous Taiwanese culture, food, and heritage is something Taiwan should be proud of and is something that can be elevated beyond the museum or Cultural park setting. Taiwan street food is world famous. Many chefs in Taipei have been able to use local ingredients and create wonderful cuisine. But many still infuse international ingredients or fancy culinary techniques. But here you are pretty much eating finely presented true 100% Taiwanese ingredients. 

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Michelin and World’s or Asia’s 50 best have not come through here yet I believe. Maybe they will maybe they wont, maybe it is not worthy of a spot of a star in their supposedly objective but nonetheless subjective eyes. At the end, I dont think it will matter, and it should not matter for AKAME. I dont think Chef Alex Peng needs those accolades. But that being said, we live in a world where certainly receiving such accolades would help put AKAME’s story and mission on the global map and shed light into another realm of Taiwanese food. But that just means reservations will become even harder! So, secretly I just want this to be Taiwan’s best kept fine culinary secret.

 

Information

Akame

18:00-00:00

#8, Lane 17,  Gu Cha Bo An Street, Wutai Township, Haocha village, Pingtung County, Taiwan

屏東霧台鄉好茶村古茶伯安街17巷8號

Online Reservations ONLY; opens midnight first of each month for the 2nd following month (August 1 opens October reservations): https://inline.app/booking/-LzoDiSgrwoz1PHLtibz:inline-live-1/-LzoDjNruO8RBsVIMQ9W?fbclid=IwAR2pjhLkqVVWUUMQgGf6RoLPQXESeZgb8LAQxCQyEHW1heQnGoMZHkn4QUM

TIP (according to the restaurant): Its unlikely you will score a seat right at midnight on the first of the month. However, they told us a majority of folks who end up scoring a reservation do so by sporadically checking the inline website. Often times those who successfully get a reservation at midnight cannot make their trip a reality and as such will cancel. Thus, at random moments, likely in my case as well, you will see an opening pop up somewhere. I would grab it, if what is available is 1 less than your party size, I’d book it then Facebook message them to add 1 seat.

Children of all ages welcome.

No specific dress code, shorts are allowed, but I would say avoid flip flops/tanks.

They can arrange bookings for nearby bed and breakfasts and can also arrange for taxi to and from the restaurant to accommodations in Pingtung, Kaohsiung or the Kaohsiung High Speed Rail station.

They are responsive to Facebook messages for any inquires or special requests.

 

Bon Appetit, and Godspeed on the Reservations!

TheGastronomicTraveler  

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