Mouthfuls of Happiness
TEXT / AMI BARNES
PHOTOS / YANG JEN PO
In the early 2000s, prompted by a drop in the price of betel nuts, some of Pingtung County’s farmers began planting cacao trees. This new crop flourished, fuelling a growing domestic interest in the sweet stuff that comes from them and paving the way for a boom in Taiwan’s home-grown chocolate industry.
Despite its newcomer status, Taiwan punches well above its weight in the world of chocolate – a fact attested to by the numerous local brands gilded with international awards. In the pages that follow, you’ll meet a trio of Taiwanese chocolatiers and chocolate makers based in Taipei City’s Da’an District, each with grand plans to center Taiwanese chocolate on the global stage.
It’s the Saturday before the Western Valentine’s Day (the Chinese world has a different traditional date, and celebrates both) when I meet Queenie Wu in her store, Q sweet, and it’s clear that I could probably have chosen a better time. There is a mass of overlapping pink order slips on one wall, and the staff attends to a constant stream of online inquiries in between fending off male customers on the hunt for the perfect gift for their loved ones. Despite this, I have Wu’s undivided attention as she shares her passion for the craft.
Born with chocolate in her veins (almost literally, since according to family legend her mother developed an appetite for chocolate during pregnancy), Wu’s childhood sweet tooth was indulged by a father who brought home exotic chocolates from his travels, and these little souvenirs would set her on the path to becoming an award-winning chocolatier.
Wu describes establishing an artisanal chocolate company in Taiwan as feeling like she “was planting flowers in a desert.” Taiwan lacks a history of consuming such delicacies, and few people were interested in understanding the philosophy behind her culinary choices. Despite the challenge, she was unwilling to compromise, as evidenced by her attention to detail, like her insistence on using traceable, single-origin cacao beans. While it’s easy to see why bean-to-bar producers would place high importance on this element, Wu believes it is equally important for those wishing to craft fine chocolates. The overall quality of artisanal chocolates comes from two parts – of course, the chocolatier’s own creative flair is vital, but the variety of the cacao beans chosen is the canvas upon which their artistry is displayed.
Wu’s personal artistic touch, along with this commitment to quality raw ingredients, has borne fruit, and her little store is now an oasis for those discerning chocoholics who take their chocolate seriously. Between 2019 and 2021, she claimed no less than 17 awards in the International Chocolate Awards (ICA), catapulting her into the position of most-awarded chocolatier in Asia. Indeed, so esteemed are her creations that when former U.S. Speaker of the House and self-proclaimed “dark chocolate connoisseur” Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei last August, she was gifted a box of Wu’s creative chocolate offerings, demonstrating the craftswomanship of Taiwan.
A particular source of pride is her “White Chocolate Comfort Fruits” series. This creation was a huge hit at the 2022 ICA World Finals in the category of white chocolate enrobed whole fruit, winning one gold and two silver awards. Cheng Yu Hsuan, the owner of Yu Chocolatier (see below), described his moment of chocolate epiphany to me, likening the experience of tasting good chocolate to listening to a melody or hearing a symphony. I nodded at the time, fearing I would never experience it the same way he does. Later encountering Wu’s comfort fruit series, I finally got it. Wu’s series is like an LP, a mini album of the most exquisitely crafted tunes. Thematic connections tie the overall project together (the silken white chocolate, the tender fruits), but each creation has its unique refrain that lingers (the summer-scent of passion fruit, the invigorating herbs), mingling on the tongue as the full depth of each layer reveals itself. This is chocolate as an art form.
If Queenie Wu is the artist of Taiwan’s chocolate scene, Yang Feng-Hsu, with his self-styled chocolate lab and analytical approach to flavor profiles, is its scientist. Yang is the founder of Terra, a bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer with a store in Taipei.
A bean-to-bar manufacturer, as the name implies, focuses on taking cacao beans and working them into bars of chocolate. Currently, Terra works with cacao beans from nine growing regions, and Yang estimates his store offers the greatest variety of single-origin bars in Taipei. For bean-to-bar chocolate makers, the origin of their beans is a matter of utmost importance. Much like coffee or wine, chocolate is affected by the terroir of its growing region (terroir being a French term encompassing soil quality, climate, and geography – the whole gamut of environmental conditions). And just as with fine wine or coffee, for chocolate fans there is a certain pleasure to be derived from decoding these nuances in flavor.
In addition to its single-origin bars, Terra’s signature item is its velvety nitrogen-infused chocolate drinks. Nitrogen coffee shops may have become a dime a dozen in recent years, but within the world of chocolate, Terra’s offerings are rather unique. “I’m afraid it sounds a little bit like a chemistry class, doesn’t it?” Yang apologizes after explaining how the chemical composition of nitrogen imparts a smoother, fluffier mouth feel. He has high hopes for the drink and dreams of exhibiting it at Salon du Chocolat – the world’s most prestigious chocolate exhibition – among the crème de la crème of the industry. For Yang, although these drinks may be somewhat avant-garde in the way the raw materials are treated, they are firmly rooted in the traditions of chocolate consumption – after all, chocolate’s entry point into the human diet was as a beverage.
Asked how he tries to entice customers more at home sipping coffee, Yang shrugs and gestures expansively at the store’s interior: “That’s what the design is for.” Drawing on impressions gathered from his time spent in South and Central America, he has surrounded the store with leafy tropical plants and incorporated organic shapes and earth tones – a smooth boulder supports the display of chocolate bars, and the arc of the serving counter echoes the form of a cacao pod – all elements that fare well in this age of visuals-first consumption.
Those who prefer their chocolate in solid form should try Terra’s Choco Flight – an NT$380 spread that includes a square of chocolate from each of the growing regions the store works with. Served on a wooden platter, the flight comes with a sheet of paper giving visual flavor profiles for each piece. Nine squares of dark chocolate in one sitting may seem like a lot – but tasting side-by-side in this way really allows the distinct flavors to stand out. Some have a brightly astringent quality, others are moodier and spicier, and my personal favorite, the Columbian one, has a slightly burnt note.
Anyone wishing to take their chocolate knowledge to the next level can sign up for one of Terra’s tasting classes. Guests are encouraged to explore the variations in taste and feel between different types of chocolate, including selections made by other well-known brands. “Of course we get students to sample chocolate made by other enterprises as well,” Yang says, smiling. “How can you learn to differentiate if you only try the good stuff we create?”
With the roles of chocolate scientist and artist taken, Cheng Yu Hsuan seems a good fit for the position of bard. For the past eight years, this chocolatier has dedicated himself to creating the kind of exquisite handcrafted chocolates that tell stories once they hit the tongue.
“It was coming up to Chinese Valentine’s Day and there was someone I wanted to impress,” he recalls when talking about what kick-started his exploration into the realm of fine chocolates. At the time, he was pursuing a degree in English literature, and while his classmates were preoccupied with consideration of literary techniques, Cheng was busy falling in love with the culinary arts.
He says that there’s little obvious connection between his degree and his current profession, but it’s clear that something from his student days has lingered. English literature majors famously have a propensity for thinking deeply and imparting meaning to everything – a tendency that is certainly true of Cheng. He talks about the “profundity of flavor”, of the transformative experience of tasting truly inspirational chocolate as being “like a journey, or a song,” and refers to his confections as being “spiritual”, the word carefully chosen to impart the dual meaning of containing alcoholic ingredients and of having a greater depth of flavor revealed by said additions.
Cheng’s lyrical approach has taken him into unchartered frontiers in the world of chocolate. More specifically, he has embarked on an adventure to discover Taiwan’s place in the confectionary cosmos, forging a path that is both a recognizable continuation of the European chocolatier tradition and also leading to something uniquely Taiwanese. A quick glance at the names of the bonbons on offer reveals some curious ingredients. Longan, sesame oil, jasmine, marinated plum, black tea, soy sauce – the flavors are not unfamiliar to the Taiwanese palate, but tasting them through the prism of chocolate opens up new dimensions.
Customers of Yu Chocolatier’s store are presented with an enticing array of pastries and chocolates under the counter’s polished glass. Those unsure of where to start might want to opt for the store’s signature Shibusa, a dark-chocolate mousse cake. This glistening disc is a chocoholic’s heaven – layers of crumble, ganache, sponge, and mousse are coated with chocolate glaze, each component taking a different plain dark chocolate as its starting point. Cheng describes it as being a world tour, and even with my own uncultivated palate, I sense what he means. Savoring each bite, I discern a vaguely spiced, warming note to the sponge and a bolder, maybe nuttier flavor profile to the crumble. And for chocolates, Cheng suggests starting with the eponymous “Yu”. This was the first chocolate bonbon recipe that he perfected – the distillation of over two years and one thousand attempts.
Cheng’s creative vision has earned him multiple accolades. Yu Chocolatier was the very first Taiwanese brand to receive an award in the International Chocolate Awards in the Asia Pacific cohort, and the first to represent Taiwan at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. More recently, he was included in 50 Next’s list of 50 Gamechanging Producers for his flair in delivering the beauty of Taiwanese culture through the medium of chocolate. Cheng, it seems, is already well on the way to achieving his goal of establishing a new Taiwanese chocolate tradition.