Why and How We Wrote a Culinary History of Taipei

Co-author Katy Hui-wen Hung in New York, 2018. Co-author Steven Crook enjoys dump-lings and noodles at a restaurant in Tainan.

Katy Hui-wen Hung and Steven Crook discuss their newly published book.

By Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018, 256 pages.

Katy Hui-wen Hung:

I grew up in Taipei, studied in the U.S. from 1984 to 1986, and have lived in the UK since the late 1980s. Some years ago in the UK, I got to know Marlena Spieler, the acclaimed cookbook writer. Marlena, an American who has lived in England for a number of years, is central to the story of how this book came to be written.

Without her support, I would never have pursued what started out as “just an idea.”

I first contacted Marlena after she and other food writers based in Europe were brought to Taiwan by the Tourism Bureau. The title Marlena chose for her December 7, 2012 blog post gives you a good idea of how she felt and continues to feel about the food scene in Taiwan: “I fell in love with Taiwan within minutes of landing in Taipei.”

In that blog post, Marlena gushed about “the sheer exuberance of eating… Each meal was amazing, so many tastes and traditions, philosophies, and histories involved with each dish; and for this certified garlic-lover the appearance of thinly sliced garlic in so many places was enough to grab my heart.”

She soon introduced me to Ken Albala, a history professor at the University of the Pacific whose specialty is food studies. Ken, who has written or edited two dozen books of his own, is in charge of Rowman & Littlefield’s Big City Food Biographies series. He was immediately receptive to the possibility of a volume about Taipei, briefing me that it should be semi-academic in character because food researchers are a primary market for books in this series. That’s why the book has a 21-page bibliography and 534 endnotes.

The series now covers 13 cities, including seven in the U.S. and Marlena’s recently published book on Naples. Taipei is the only Asian city featured thus far.

In the weeks since A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai was published, the warmest reception has come from Taiwanese-Americans and Americans interested in Taiwan. People who can read Chinese have long had access to a great deal of food-related scholarship and opinion. But our book is the first English-language title that sets out to explain what Taiwanese people eat, but also why they eat what they do and how their perceive their foods.

For me, taking on this project had a lot to do with having lived abroad for so long. After 2015, I began spending more time in Taipei, and I quickly realized just how much Taiwan had changed since I’d moved away. Writing a book that would bring together history and culture – as well as contemporary attitudes to food, politics, and other aspects of life – seemed like a fantastic way to reacquaint myself with my country. I was not disappointed.

Kitchen staff prepare lobster dishes for a large outdoor banquet catered by bando master Lin Ming-tsan, one of several chefs interviewed for the book. Photo: Katy Hui-Wen Hung

During the research stage, I was especially impressed by four discoveries. One was that so many fruits (such as guava) and vegetables were introduced to Taiwan by the Dutch, mostly via Indonesia but some from China. What is more, the names of many fruits are derived from indigenous languages. That is something people of my generation, growing up under martial law, were never taught.

Another is that the intermingling of Hakka and indigenous Austronesian foodways has been far greater and deeper than I had thought; there seems to be a significant overlap between Hakka cooking and indigenous cuisines. In addition, few Taiwanese realize just how great an influence the U.S. has had on postwar culinary development in Taiwan. The Japanese may have introduced beef-eating habits, but it was the Americans who helped turn it into a mainstream food.

A soup made with chicken, sweet potato, and goji berries, served at an Amis indigenous restaurant near Liyu Lake, Hualien. Photo: Steven Crook

Finally, I was amazed by the number of vegetarians in Taiwan. I had assumed there would be far more vegetarians in the UK than in Taiwan, but the statistics suggest the percentage is even higher here than there.

Although I am probably one of the rare non-celebrities who was able to sign a book contract with a major publisher without having a single bylined article to her name, I did not feel like a complete novice. In recent years, I have helped a number of food writers and historians – among them Robyn Eckhardt, Rachel Laudan, and Ong Jin Teong – with magazine assignments or book projects.

When Andrea Nguyen came to Taiwan to do research for her book Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home, I organized a team of friends to help her get around, try out restaurants, and attend workshops. I learned a few tricks of the trade from these professionals, and gained confidence, because they treated me like I knew what I was talking about.

Coming up with a title that properly reflected the breadth of the book took some time. Steven’s first suggestion, Sweet Potatoes and Ponlai: How Hunters, Colonists and Refugees Shaped the Food History of Taipei, was rejected by the publisher on the very reasonable grounds that the city’s name should be front and center. After the text was finalized, we discussed a few alternatives, including one that included the word “Kavalan” (the whiskey maker has been one of the great Taiwan success stories of the 21st century), before agreeing that “beyond” implies there is a great deal more to Taiwanese cuisine than outsiders might think.

The background of street foods such as tǒngzaǐ mǐgāo (savory rice topped with pork) is described in A Culinary History of Taipei. Photo: Steven Crook

One of the most gratifying and humbling messages of support we have received came from the food historian Rachel Laudan just before publication: “Katy, they sent me a pdf of the proofs and asked for a blurb for the back. I sent them this. ‘This wonderful book made me yearn to take a plane to Taiwan immediately so I could eat my way through the country’s tumultuous recent history: moist castella sponge cakes from the Japanese era, seasonal jams of Russian ancestry, beef noodle soups brought by Muslim soldiers from northern China, flying squirrel in the traditional style of the original inhabitants, fine restaurants specializing in Chinese cuisine, and breakfasts of crullers and hot soy milk with twin origins in China and the U.S. Even those who can’t take the trip will be fascinated by the multifarious contributions to this booming gastronomic center.’ It’s a fascinating book.”

Friends have been asking me: “What’s next?” One answer would be: “More of the same!” The response of our readers has inspired me to continue learning about Taiwan, its food, and its history – and to share the interesting stories I find on my blog.

Steven Crook:

When Katy first mentioned this project to me, I had known her through the internet for three or four years. She originally got in touch with me after seeing my interview-profile of David Landsborough IV, the Taiwan-born missionary doctor. Landsborough had been a close friend of Katy’s parents, and she was curious how I had got to know him. After that, from time to time we would exchange emails, discussing interesting places in Taiwan or curious episodes in the island’s history. For a features writer always seeking ideas, she was clearly a person worth knowing.

In 2015, Katy told me that Marlena and Ken were encouraging her to put together a proposal for a Taipei food book, and that she was looking for someone to partner with her on the project. She said she was already talking to another writer, a person I know and respect, and who at that time had certainly done a lot more food writing than me. He recognized the potential importance of such a book and was interested, but fully committed to a non-writing project of his own.

She asked if I might be interested in joining the project if he were to turn down her invitation. As someone who has been told more than once, “We think you’re the ideal person for the job!” – only to later find out I was actually the third choice – I appreciated this transparency. When writing non-fiction, few things matter more than clarity, and I sensed Katy was someone who would willingly provide and eagerly receive the honest feedback that is needed if a co-authoring project is to succeed.

The fact that I knew very little about food in Taiwan, despite living on and enjoying it for more than 20 years, did not deter me for a moment. Previously, I had put together articles about hot-pot cuisine and Hakka food in Meinong, as well as three or four articles introducing indigenous cuisine. But that – apart from a couple of pieces about night markets, reluctantly written to keep editors happy – was about it.

For various reasons, finalizing the proposal took us several months, even though we had a couple of templates to work from. The version we submitted was nearly 4,800 words long; it included some of the recipes that eventually appeared in the book, as well as two or three paragraphs outlining each of the 10 chapters we planned to write.

After sending it in, we did not have to wait very long at all for it to be accepted. I was staying on a houseboat in the south of England when I got the email.

At no point did we sit down to hammer out a masterplan. It never seemed necessary. Instead, we each took on a few of the themes listed in the outline and began to do research. This worked very well, because there were no topics that neither of us wanted to touch.

It turned out I knew a bit more than I had assumed. My wife comes from a family of fruit farmers, and having kicked around the countryside for a good while, I was already familiar with some of the challenges faced by Taiwanese farmers.

For me, few things are more engrossing than finding out what makes a particular industry tick. While researching the special characteristics of the local pork trade – learning, for example, that Taiwan’s piggeries are far smaller than in the U.S., that consumers prefer fresh pork to frozen meat, and that most pigs are slaughtered in the cities where their meat will be sold, even though transporting them alive is expensive and results in thousands of premature animal deaths each year – I was happier than a pig in mud.

We gathered a great deal of information by reading, of course. Taiwanese scholars have produced superb books devoted to topics we deal with in a few paragraphs. One who has written in both English and Chinese is Yujen Chen, an associate professor at National Taiwan Normal University. We also did a lot of primary research, talking to chefs, farmers, restaurateurs, and one of Taiwan’s most successful brewers.

Katy, I soon discovered, thinks and behaves like a reporter. Given a choice between staying at home or going out and learning something new, she’ll opt for the latter every time.

Of the 24 full interviews we conducted, eight were done via email and one was a telephone conversation. The others were face-to-face sessions. Both Katy and I were present for six of the personal interviews. Of the others, she did 10 while I handled eight. Every exchange was an education, and several interviews provided material for more than one chapter.

Anecdotes generously shared by H.M. Cheng – his blog, The Battle of Fisherman’s Wharf (https://danshuihistory.blogspot.com), well known to Taiwan history mavens – appear in four different chapters. Cheng was also a crucial source of encouragement and feedback during the writing phase.

I wish I had kept count of just how many emails we sent out as we sought to arrange interviews, track down academic papers, and confirm some of the less likely facts people had related to us. More than a thousand, maybe? Many went unanswered, but among the busy individuals who took the time to help us were an archaeologist at Academia Sinica and a sweet-potato exporter.

We found a huge amount of useful information on local Chinese-language blogs, and I concluded that there is no aspect of Taiwanese food that hasn’t been covered by bloggers. The nearest I came to finding an exception to this rule was during the writing of chapter eight, which covers alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. I wanted to introduce the practice of steeping bee pupae in kaoliang to create a supposedly medicinal concoction.

I have seen big jars of kaoliang filled with bee pupae for sale in the countryside, but when I searched online for details of the preparation process, I struck out again and again. I finally found a few scraps of information, but only then did it occur to me that the type of person who soaks bee pupae in liquor – I picture an old farmer in a sānhéyuàn (a three-sided, single-story brick house) – probably does not spend much time online.

Since finishing A Culinary History of Taipei, some people have said to me: “Surely co-authoring makes writing a book quicker and easier.” To this I always reply: “I’m not sure about that, but compared to doing it all by yourself, I’m convinced you end up with a book that’s twice as good.”