For a foreign national, learning Taiwanese cooking turned out to be not just a culinary adventure, but a life lesson.
Photos by Jules Quartly
It used to be that if foreigners could pronounce the intended destination with approximate similitude, the cab driver would in wonderment compliment them on their “excellent” Chinese. I get much the same reaction these days when claiming to be proficient in Taiwanese cooking: “Wow, you’re so amazing!”
Not really. It’s a lot easier to prepare the Buddha Jumps over the Wall soup than to master tones and remember 1,500 or more characters. Nevertheless, I have previously been cautious about cooking Asian food beyond the occasional hot pot, basic rice dish, or fried noodles, since my comfort zone is basically Western cuisine (English, French, and Mediterranean), where I have a good feel for what ingredients will go together well.
Though I’ve been eating Taiwanese food for years, I was unsure of the basic palette of herbs and spices, and had no idea there were so many different kinds of soy sauce (dark, light, lite, and thick). Even choosing the right rice was problematic: how to get that slightly sweet and glutinous offering that Taiwanese like?
I was encouraged to try a little harder when given this assignment to review four English-language Taiwanese cookbooks: The Food of Taiwan, Recipes from the Beautiful Island by Cathy Erway; Blue Eye Dragon Taiwanese Cooking by Jade and Muriel Chen; What’s for Dinner, Mama? by Amy Wu; and Carrie’s Kitchen, Entree and Dessert by Carrie Yeh.
The mission was to rely on the guidance of these books to serve up daily offerings to my test subjects: the wife, kids, and friends. After I had practiced on them, I proposed to host a banquet for my Taiwanese mother-in-law and her expanding brood. Having been treated by “Ma” to many excellent dinners over the years, it was time to return the favor. The one certainty was a brutally honest opinion, as Ma doesn’t mince her words.
I proposed to host a banquet for my Taiwanese mother-in-law and her expanding brood. Having been treated by “Ma” to many excellent dinners over the years, it was time to return the favor. The one certainty was a brutally honest opinion, as Ma doesn’t mince her words.
Before we begin, I ought here to list my bona fides as a cook. Both my mother and father were chefs and ran their own gastro pub before that became fashionable. Dad went on to provide banquets for royalty. So I was washing a lot of dishes, julienning vegetables, and frying up at a young age. As a student, I paid my way during holidays as a sous chef at a bistro in London’s Islington, working under an Austrian Michelin award-winner who was as bad tempered as he was alcoholic. I’ve worked in kindergarten kitchens and on beach barbecues, but nowadays tend to cook in-house, as my wife is better suited to her role as a bank executive and doesn’t have the time or inclination to toil at the stove.
While the above experience was useful, trying to cook authentic Taiwan fare was like using the left hand rather than the right. It was back to basics. The preparation time was longer than for Western food because of all the dicing and mixing, but the actual cooking time was a lot shorter as ingredients are thrown into the wok and cooked rapidly before being plated. You have to be more organized and plan ahead, and it’s not easy – or advisable – to stop to refer to the cookbook while the wok is bubbling like a cauldron over a high flame.
Trying to cook authentic Taiwan fare was like using the left hand rather than the right. It was back to basics… it’s not easy – or advisable – to stop to refer to the cookbook while the wok is bubbling like a cauldron over a high flame.
Apart from the focus on Taiwan’s food, the four books under consideration have a common thread set out in almost identical forwards: A Taiwan woman, now an expat but proud of her roots, reminisces about the mother who taught her to cook and likens food to an expression of familial love. (The Food of Taiwan also introduces the history, culture, and politics of the island.)
As a result, what you get in these volumes are recipes for heart-warming, home-cooked meals that have worked for generations. They also present Taiwan as a society with a unique and impressive culinary tradition. As Cathy Erway puts it in an email from New York: “The idea of Taiwan as having a distinct and unified culture is a thesis that has been gaining support in recent years,” with bubble tea popular in the Big Apple, along with popcorn chicken, beef noodle soup, and three-cup chicken.
Perhaps unavoidably, the content of the four books is often overlapping, down to the dishes selected and cooking methods recommended – and there are slim pickings for the advanced chef. Asked about this stress on relatively simple fare, Erway says she would like to “explore the high-end dining traditions as well as other facets of Taiwanese cuisine in separate volumes.”
The idea of Taiwan as having a distinct and unified culture is a thesis that has been gaining support in recent years.
As a beginner in the Taiwan kitchen, one of my first queries was inevitably what to shop for and where. Blue Eye Dragon contains a “Glossary of Unusual Ingredients” that will point the way forward, while Erway’s tome has a section on “The Taiwanese Pantry” that is handy for the novice. Here she lays out the dried spices, condiments, and herbs that need to be stocked up on, with an explanatory paragraph on their use. It’s not a super-extensive or expensive list of ingredients, but it’s best to ensure that what you need is at hand.
While Erway recommends supermarkets, I discovered there’s nothing better than a dedicated “mixed goods” (雜貨店) or “dried goods store” (乾貨店). They are the 7-Eleven’s of yesteryear. Residents and visitors have undoubtedly passed these packed, dusty, and slightly ramshackle stores. You probably smelled them first and then thought better of having a look around. The goods only make sense once you start cooking local dishes.
While the lingua franca in such stores is usually Taiwanese, I found you can get your point over effectively with a mixture of Mandarin, a translation app, and pointing. It’s here, among the filled shelves and discombobulating smells, thousand-year eggs and sacks of rice, that you should gather the essentials: your five-spice powder; fermented soy beans; the orange, sultana-like go qi (Chinese wolfberries), and XO sauce.
I discovered there’s nothing better than a dedicated “mixed goods” (雜貨店) or “dried goods store” (乾貨店). They are the 7-Eleven’s of yesteryear.
When searching for something, do ask the proprietors what brand they think is best and you will get halfway to that authentic taste you’re after. It’s obviously different from Western cooking, where time will inevitably be spent in the delicatessen salivating over cheeses, cuts of meat, or weighing the cost of extra-virgin oil. But I must say, it’s much more rewarding to go from knowing nothing to learning something, not just about food but a country’s culture.
As all chefs know, traditional markets are another great place to find local ingredients. While I’m not one for rising early to make sure of getting the best stuff, the produce is usually fresher and therefore more likely to taste better, as well as being healthier. Costs are lower and you can, for instance, get dark-bone or mountain chicken, as opposed to some processed fowl in cling film.
Having stocked up your cupboards, it’s time to decide what to cook first. If like me you are a beginner, my advice is start with the easy ones and work your way up. If you’re more experienced, feel free to jump in anywhere.
As mentioned, all four books are fairly similar in terms of the recipes, with both The Food of Taiwan and Blue Eye Dragon opting for familiar favorites, such as three-cup calamari, deep-fried shrimp rolls, and sweet-and-sour fish. Of the two, Blue Eye Dragon is a bit more adventurous, but The Food of Taiwan covers most of the bases and was more suited to my inexperience level. So, the latter was my go-to book.
Amy Wu’s offering was the least used, partly because the typography was so off-putting – a mix of typefaces, colors, underlining, and odd spacing between words that made it hard to read. If What’s for Dinner, Mama? was really geared toward kids this might be understandable, but it’s not. I also found the language unwieldy (“slippery orange gravy”), tenses mixed, grammatical rules stretched, and there was a sinful overuse of exclamation marks! “It can easily be a treat for breakfast, lunch or dinner in your hand!” “When my kids were little they called them yummy noodles anyway!”
Carrie’s Kitchen, on the other hand, is a book that children of a certain age can easily reference because of its clear type and explanatory diagrams. Together with my kids (aged 6 and 8), I tried out the sweet sago cream with taro and coconut milk, and they were happily guided by the flow diagrams and delighted by the results.
With all four books, following the instructions produced good results, so no problem there. Mostly, would-be cooks will need to decide what suits them and their home best. Before venturing to prepare the “Final Banquet,” I tried out two months’ worth of dishes on family and friends.
Regrettably, the banquet started off badly with a unanimous conclusion that the clam and daikon radish soup (蛤蜊蘿蔔湯) was too salty. I’m a low-sodium man, but the audience is never wrong, so what happened? I have to admit that it wasn’t the recipe. What I did was use an off-the-shelf stock or broth as the base – and what I should have done, as all chefs worth their whites will tell you, is make my own. Lesson learned, and a supply of broth to be frozen or refrigerated is being boiled up as I write.
My brother-in-law had requested a sweet-and-sour dish, so I plumped for pan-fried tofu with date sauce (甘梅豆腐), which got the ball rolling nicely. The sauce is a bit complicated and involves blending, but can be made in advance, so it’s easy to accomplish with a bit of time and was well received.
The three-cup chicken (三杯雞) was a little disappointing because I had done it well previously. This time, I mistakenly put in rice vinegar, when the recipe clearly calls for rice wine. I tried to ameliorate by diluting with the wine and redoing, but then the chicken was overcooked. I did tell Erway what I had done and felt a little vindicated when she replied that the “copy editor accidentally wrote vinegar in the recipe’s introduction” in the first edition — which is the one I have.
The lightly braised local vegetables – some grown on my balcony, along with basil and chilies – were Chinese leeks (jiucaihua, 韭菜花), sweet potato leaves (diguaye, 地瓜葉) and fresh peas. All good stuff. However, my penchant for Maggi seasoning rather than soy sauce was noted by the diners and considered inauthentic. Lesson learned. The brown and white rice mix was liked by all (slightly glutinous but wholesome), though the new Tatung rice cooker can take some of the credit.
My final creation, a pan-fried whole fish with garlic, ginger, and scallions (蔥薑全魚) was the crowning achievement. Enjoyed by all, even Ma waxed lyrical by saying I was doing a better job in the kitchen than her daughter. High praise indeed. She concluded with a comment that all four book writers would likely agree on: The important thing is not so much the food as the thought behind it. The evening was helped along by a bottle of red wine and Taiwan Beer, plus smoky plum juice for the kids.
The whole experience made me think back to the first Asian-style dinner I attempted, as a 13-year-old in rural England. It took me all morning and afternoon and was, I fear, overly ambitious. The fish dish turned out particularly badly when the cap on the soy sauce bottle fell off. My recovery operation only made things worse, and it ended up looking unlike any marine creature you have ever seen…unless you’ve angled in the Irish Sea and pulled out some creature deformed by nuclear waste and coated in oil from a container spill.
Understandably, perhaps, it didn’t go down very well. While my mother was polite and encouraging, my stepfather was less so. I seem to recall the dinner ending, not long after I served the fish, with him exiting the room, swearing loudly. I think he suspected that I was trying to poison him.
Clearly, I have learned a few things over the years, and I’m pleased to report that with the help of the cookbooks, my Taiwan banquet worked out far better than my youthful Chinese cooking efforts.