Taipei, Taiwan — It was here in Taipei that I first realized the enormous range of Chinese cuisine. Every kind of regional Chinese food is represented on this small island , which serves as the seat of the Nationalist government of the Republic of China.
Taiwan embraces them all - the spicy, rich Szechuanese foods, the pretty little dumplings of Canton, the sophisticated Shanghai style, the sweet hams of Hunan, the wonderful soups of Fukien, and the thousands of other dishes that are imitated and reproduced in Chinese restaurants the world over.
Although I had visited mainland China on a special gourmet food trip in l979, I was more impressed there with the historic sights - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, and the charm of the people - than I was with the food.
But Taiwan is a different story. Skillful chefs here are among the highest paid professionals in Taipei. The cuisines of various regions have been perpetuated and kept authentic by master chefs, many from regions in the mainland they now represent.
And fresh vegetables, fruits, spices, meats, poultry, and fish are available and plentiful in Taiwan, with modern refrigeration and transportation facilities to ensure freshness.
Whether or not this means the very best Chinese food in the world is produced here is difficult to prove, but it is a reasonable premise.
Hong Kong, it is true, has excellent Chinese regional foods. But Taiwan is definitely in the running. There is not only the full range of Chinese cuisine, but that of other ethnic cuisines as well.
There are restaurants serving Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, and American food; also those serving just seafood, just vegetarian dishes, just Mongolian barbecue, or just Taiwanese food.
There are many first-class hotels with excellent dining rooms in Taiwan.
The Grand Hotel is one of the most famous and it is a magical sight at night. The red-and-gold rafters, decorated eaves, and gold, curving rooftops are so dramatically lit it looks like something out of an Oriental fairy tale.
It is large - the biggest building ever constructed in the classical Chinese palace style.
Mme. Chiang Kai-shek took a great interest in the details of the building's aesthetic style as it was being built, for it is unique and has become a national institution and an object of pride for both the government and the people.
Inside, the scale is also very grand. Wide stairs rise from the largest hotel lobby I've ever seen. The corridors and rooms are spacious, but warm and handsome, with tables and chairs of acacia wood, doors and panels of teak, and colorful, rich carpets.
On New Year's Eve I had dinner at the Grand with a couple who live in Taipei and know the hotel well. We had an excellent dinner with whole fish, Shanghai style, Szechuan Duck with steamed buns, and black mushrooms with green kale and fruit - a quiet dinner, beautifully served.
But food is not everything in Taiwan. Many people travel halfway around the world to visit the famous National Palace Museum here in Taipei.
It holds more than 600,000 priceless Chinese treasures, some dating back 4, 000 years, and it takes more than one visit to see even a small part of its amazing treasures.
Shopping in Taipei is excellent, with everything from Chinese opera masks to jades and jewelry, figurines and bronze, brass and chinaware.
Fine arts, scenic trips and cooking lessons are included in a culinary tour to Taiwan each year in June by Nina Simonds, a Boston teacher of Chinese cooking and food writer who studied here for several years and speaks Mandarin Chinese.
For information contact Nina Simonds, 400 Essex St.,Salem,.Ma.01970.This recipe is from her book, ''Chinese Classic Cuisine'' (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95 ).It is somewhat of a show-off dish since the rice cakes make a dramatic impression with a sizzling sound when served with the vegetables. The cakes take several hours in a low oven but are easy and can be made ahead of time. Once fried, they supply a crisp garnish similar to croutons. Sizzling Rice With Vegetables 10 dried Chinese black mushrooms 2 10-ounce cans oyster or abalone mushrooms 4 cups peanut, safflower, or corn oil Minced Seasonings: 1 tablespoon minced scallions 2 teaspoons minced gingerroot 1 cup fresh button mushrooms, quartered Sauce Base: 1 cup dried mushroom liquid 2 cups water 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon water 2 teaspoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar Thickener: 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/4 cup water 2 cups snow peas, strings and ends removed 1 teaspoon sesame oil 12 sizzling rice cakes, recipe below
Soften black mushrooms in 1 cup hot water 20 minutes. Remove and discard stems and cut caps in half. Save liquid. Plunge oyster mushrooms in boiling water, briefly; rinse in cold water, drain; and cut into quarters.
Heat a wok or casserole, add 2 tablespoons oil, and heat until very hot. Add minced seasonings and stir-fry over high heat about 10 seconds, then add fresh mushrooms and stir-fry about 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Add black and oyster mushrooms and stir, then add the sauce base, including the black mushroom soaking liquid.
Cook until boiling, then slowly add thickener, stirring constantly to prevent lumps.
When sauce has thickened, add snow peas and sesame oil. Toss lightly and turn heat to low.
Heat a wok, add remaining oil, and heat oil to 400 degrees F. Add half the rice cakes and deep fry, turning constantly, until cakes are puffed and golden.
Remove with a long-handled strainer, place in a deep serving dish or bowl, and deep-fry remaining cakes.
Pour hot vegetable mixture over rice cakes to create a sizzling sound. Serve immediately. Serves 6. Sizzling Rice Cakes 1 1/2 cups long-grain rice 2 cups cold water
Rinse rice until water runs clear. Drain and place in a 9-by-12-inch pan with water. Spread rice evenly, then cover with aluminum foil and let sit 30 minutes. Bake in oven preheated to 350 degrees F. 30 minutes.
Remove foil, flatten down rice, firmly, with a spatula, and return to oven uncovered. Set heat to lowest setting and bake 8 to 10 hours, or until rice is completely dry. Remove from pan and break into pieces roughly 2 inches square.
Sizzling rice will keep indefinitely in an airtight container. Therefore it can be made days ahead of serving with vegetables.