From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Taste of Taiwan

Taiwan, which is abbreviated ROC for 'The Republic of China,' was once called 'Formosa.' That name means ‘beautiful’ and was given to that land by the Portuguese. Sitting about a hundred miles southeast of China, many think it one island or two, but that is far from the truth because there are many more. Closest to the Fujian province, all of them are sometimes called the 'Pacific Coast Islands.' Eons ago, the largest one was once called 'Tainan Island' by the aborigines who lived there. The name Tainan stuck until 1573, during the Ming Dynasty, when it officially became known as Taiwan. Besides that island, there are other large islands such as 'Kinmen,' formerly known as 'Quemoy,' 'Matsu,' 'Orchid,' and 'Green Island.' And, there are smaller ones.

Location, politics, visitors, and conquerors have influenced this land that was, more than a thousand years ago, home to ten or so groups of indigenous peoples, themselves from elsewhere in the region. Some may have come from Indonesia, elsewhere on the Malay peninsula, and other places in the Pacific. These original peoples included the Taiyal and Vonum aboriginal groups. Some say these two population groups actually came from China as early as the Shang Dynasty circa 1600 BCE.

Today, home to more than twenty-three million people, about fifteen percent of them are Hakka. The others are from every region in China. And there are smaller numbers of others from many other countries including Holland, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, and Spain. Thousands upon thousands of additional Chinese came in the 1940's. Before and since, many were from Guangzhou, Fujian, Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, and from the island of Hainan. Additional Japanese influence was recent. Some of Taiwan’s islands were ceded to them after the Treaty of Shinoneseki in 1895. The Japanese surrendered these islands back to General Chiang Kaishek, in 1945. It is important to note that with the influx of thousands of people and artifacts from across the Straits of Formosa, interest in all aspects of the Chinese culture heightened, including interest and expertise in Chinese cuisine.

With this bit of history, it is obvious that the culture and cuisine have had many external and internal influences. The deepest culinary roots are, however, in Fujian, with which there are many similarities. In addition to its well-developed culinary and Min heritage, Taiwan serves as a showcase for the cuisines of all the provinces of China.

Many who now visit Taiwan can learn to understand its heritage and festivals and its lifestyle, language, and cuisine, by visiting central Taiwan’s Folk Village. At this almost ten-year-old facility, it is easy to see that the people adore and eat lots of good food, show off extensive and delicate knife work, consume lots of salads and bardo, or open-air cooking, and drink a lot of soup, tea or coffee, beer or scotch.

One does not need to go there to see how many places exist for the tea and latte crowd; there are lots of tea and cake shops. They are not new, but what is a recent addition to them is lots of bubble tea called boba nai cha. For the alcoholic beverage crowd, they get their drinks in restaurants, mostly at banquet tables where Johnny Walker and other bottles stand side to side with Coke and Sprite. This is because Taiwanese meals are times for toasting. They are also times to consume many soups, as do their compatriots in Fujian. A meal and a banquet will have a few different types, such as those that are clear, congee-type, or even thicker. In Taiwan, soups can be a meal, at every meal, and at snacks. They and special dishes, many very special indeed, are part of many meals and snacks. The Taiwanese love to eat, and they do it very well!

In 1998, at a 'Taipei Food Festival' at the Sheraton LaGuardia Hotel in Flushing New York, this gala showcase was a feast for every eye. Unfortunately, most could not be tasted, but just looking at the fantastic and unusual array made every guest want to rush out and book travel to Taiwan. It was clear when looking at the gorgeous items on display, they were not only delicate but also divine.

On the streets of the capital city, Taipei, and in other cities the streets are full of vendors touting snack foods. When we were there, they were many and marvelous. It was summer, and Taiwan’s jelly-fig was in season. It was prepared refreshingly cool and called Iced Fig Jelly.

This is a special fig that grows in the mountains in and around the Chiaya Province. It is the seeds that are capable of turning water to jelly in this Ficus awkeotsang varietal. You may have seen it in pictures as its aerial roots climb up tree trunks and over rocks. Since then, it has been discovered that one wild jelly-fig plant on one large tree can produce three thousand jelly-figs with, we know not how many seeds that gelatinize water and watery foods so well. Not sure we want to get close to count because it is the fig wasp that hangs around fertilizing each flower so that they turn into fruits. The fruits have seeds, and the seeds have achenes that do the job.

Because most vendors sell but one item, and that was true with all the fig-jelly makers we saw, they pride themselves in making theirs the freshest and the best. Superb taste, simplicity, and freshness are probably their hallmarks, and standing on any corner it is a delight to watch patrons line up, purchase, smile as they take a bite, and quickly be replaced by another on their ever growing lines, until all of their wares are gone. Clearly, the food is fresh, the turnover high, and the best stuff goes quickly.

From my visit nearly 30 years ago, visions of dragon whisker candy is still on my mind. Even the taste and the texture linger in the brain as does how it was made. Once only a valuable offering to the Imperial family, this special treat is made by pulling white sugar-rice noodles. What a great way to enjoy noodles that melt in the mouth. Eating them is a regal experience; one order intended for two can be devoured by one. Once I did just that, then shared a second one with my sister, and you know who ate the larger half of that one. Me!

Barbecued items are everywhere, their aroma is so enticing that they, too, are hard to limit to one. Grilled squid brushed with sesame oil and hoisin sauce and dusted with cayenne pepper is addictive. So is barbecued pork wrapped around a scallion and similarly sauced. Fragrant minced beef stuffed into some wonderful you tiao crullers and grilled just a moment to warm them vie with a similar taste recalled of squab wrapped in lettuce and some type of grilled skin, an item I never could identify.

Fresh dumplings are everywhere on the streets, in small shops, and on the menus of large and small restaurants. The varieties available grows with each street traversed and each eatery entered. A breakfast of entrails and congealed blood sandwiches can be eaten more frequently than a Big Mac. Ears of corn, grilled sausage, and soup noodles can be commonplace lunches or before bedtime bites. Sharks fin wrapped in lotus leaf, shrimp cakes, spring rolls, and deep-fried salted duck are never too far away.

Shops that specialize in one or many types of barbecue, dumplings, and other items begging to be bitten are everywhere. And finding a place to yum cha (or take tea) is a snap. Selecting from the wheeled carts that ply these small and huge dim sum places at one in the morning is a new experience for non-Taiwanese. Not so for their regulars. In Taipei eating is a twenty-four hour opportunity indulged in by a large percentage of the population.

So is shopping. On the food side, there are shops selling only preserved fruits, others only offering sharks fins. There are huge supermarkets and minuscule mini-marts. Prices can seem exorbitant or unrealistically inexpensive. You do need to know what you want and what things are worth. The Taiwanese seem to know quality, and they are willing to pay for it.

Taipei, Kaoshang, and the many other large cities in Taiwan offer an entire range of exquisite foods from every corner of China, from almost every place in the rest of the Asian world, and beyond. Use of ancient or modern recipes and food items produce tastes and treats that can be found at the many night markets. There, and during the day, anyone can have everything from stinky tofu to terrific chicken feet.

There is a Snake Street in the capital where you can, if male, be treated to its bile to build self esteem. Merchants are serious about things herbal and rare is the one who will serve snake bile to a female, beauty or no. Everyone is serious about the betel nut. Unprocessed, they smear it with something they call lime but it tastes like limestone mixed with several spices, then they wrap it in some grass leaves and call it qing zai. This particular snack, purchasable even at newspaper stands, has origins in their indigenous roots.

As islands, fish and seafood are serious business. The island harvests hundreds of thousands of tons of salt and fresh-water fish and other sea creatures. The people consider crustaceans, mollusks, and eels as delicacies, and oysters and clams as regular parts of the diet. At restaurants, waiters bring you live fish spattering and jumping for your inspection and selection. Freshness is very serious business at meals. So is having a typical Taiwanese dish of congee with sweet potatoes for morning snack. Several times a week, sucking up clams soaked in soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar and hot pepper, is too. Some folks order oyster omelets at least every other day.

Poultry and pork are commonplace, goose, then duck and chicken make up about three-quarters of all foods consumed that are not of the sea. Health and tonic foods such as Ginseng Chicken or Dongquei Duck are popular. So is Lopokao, a health food made from rice, radish, and steamed shrimp.

Holiday foods are eaten all year, though more of them are consumed on their own festival day. On Dragon Boat Festival one can celebrate with dozens of varieties of glutinous rice dumplings stuffed in bamboo leaves. On Moon Festival, plan on trying many Moon Cakes and Rice Dumplings, lots of them filled with herbs. For the New Year ring it in mostly with sweet dumplings filled with black sesame seeds and sugar. For Double Nines there are Double Nine Cakes to enjoy made with flour, sugar, chestnuts, and pine nuts; there are other kinds, too. The locals eat Grave Cakes on Tomb Sweeping Day or any day, you can too, be they stuffed with red bean paste and red-dyed rice or any other vendor-selected interior.

Other typical dishes any and every day include Fried Oysters with fermented Soybeans, Braised Pork in Brown Sauce, Scrambled Eggs with Turnips, Crab Shells Stuffed with Egg Whites, Tea-flavored Prawns, Deep-fried Chicken with Fruit Sauce, Jellyfish and Smoked Goose, White Fungus with Rock Sugar, and Sweet Treasures made with mashed foods, be they four different taros or soybeans, rice, taro, and sweet potatoes.

A typical Taiwanese banquet can include a plate of five or fifteen cold appetizers sitting around Glutinous Rice Dumplings. Enjoying one, you might have Steamed Scallop Balls with Braised Meats, Baby Squid Soup, Shrimp-stuffed Loquats, Deep-fried Cuttle Fish Balls, Salted Small Herrings with Peanuts, Buddha Jumps the Wall Shark’s Fin Soup made with shark’s fins, beef tendons, monkey head mushrooms, abalone, chestnuts, taro, yam, and medlar, Green Tea Baked Fish, and more. An Ice Carving of Fresh Fruits served with Sweet Tremella Soup can bring to a close a creatively served meal.

The Taiwanese take great pride in their food and have from early times when its islands were only populated by Malay-Polynesian aborigines or others. They take great pride in their own history and that of China. Go see many artifacts at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Going there means putting great emphasis on and filling the stomach with ancient Chinese culinary traditions. With spring all year-'round in this ‘beautiful’ country, rich produce, unrivaled sea foods, and fantastic fruits are all prepared to perfection be they made Chinese style or in the style of any of these islands many outside influences.

In spite of all of this, staple foods are paid lots of attention to. They are rice mixed and a healthy dose of sweet potatoes. Foods in Taiwan have less oil than in most other places in China and they are a bit more sweet than where they originally hail form. The only food they do not eat much of is beef. I wonder if this may be because the temperature was often too hot for that.

I would be remiss if I did not advise about a few of the many special Taiwanese dishes. Eating in a Taiwanese restaurant there or wherever, try Stewed Shark’s Fins, Frogs and Shredded Ginger, Braised Eel, Abalone and Pork Maw, Stewed Turtle, Pineapple Jelly, Green Bean Congee, Sweet Egg Cake, Fried Spring Rols, and Salty Congee, Noodles with Shrimp and Meatballs, Phoenix-eye Cake, Sweet Potatoes Steeped in Syrup, Hsinchu Rice Noodles, and Meatballs and Meat Pies.

For those who do not live near a Taiwanese restaurant, try this following recipe. It will bring tasting Taiwan to reality. You will not care if the people in these restaurants are Taiwanese, speak Hakka, Hokkiennese, or Taiwanhua which is what those in China call their language in Mandarin. You will not care what their political allegiance is, be it to China or to their local government. You will just be delighted that they have a sense of identity and a cuisine you can enjoy. One way or another, do just that!

Pork Chop on Rice


4 pork chops, trimmed with one-inch tiny cuts all around to prevent curling

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon rice wine

1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

1 Tablespoon corn oil

1/2 cup sweet potato flour mixed with two tablespoons cornstarch

2 cups cooked rice, kept hot until needed


1. Put pork chops on flat place. Mix garlic, rice wine, and five-spice powder and spread on both sides of each chop. Set aside for fifteen minutes. 2. Heat oil slowly and dip each pork chop into the flour mixture and fry until crisp.

3. Put half cup of rice on each of four dinner plates and put one pork chop on each, and serve with or without a dipping sauce of your choice.

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