Eating Our Way Through Hualien

Photo: Steven Crook

The scenic eastern county offers a wide variety of Hakka, Hoklo, and indigenous foods.

By Steven Crook & Katy Hui-wen Hung

Like other tourists, foodies often begin and end their visits to Taiwan in Taipei. Some go as far south as Tainan to try that city’s “little eats” (小吃, xiaochi). If they do head over to Hualien or Taitung in the east, their culinary focus is likely to be on dishes prepared by the Austronesian indigenous minority.

Indigenous people account for just 2.4% of Taiwan’s total population, but they are about 28% of Hualien County’s 327,000 residents. Yet they are slightly outnumbered by residents of Hakka descent, and it was with a Hakka clan that we began our exploration of the county’s diverse yet overlapping culinary traditions.

The snail statues and emblems that greet visitors to Fenglin, 33 kilometers south of Hualien City, are highly appropriate — and not just because Fenglin is home to what may well be Taiwan’s biggest snail farm (see “Not Your Traditional Agriculture” in this issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS). In 2014, the township was declared the island’s first “slow community” by Cittaslow International (CI), the symbol of which is a snail.

Hakka pioneers began settling in Fenglin in the final few decades of the Qing era. More Hakka families came after Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895, recruited by the colonial authorities or Japanese-owned corporations.

Changqiao Village at the southern end of Fenglin is said to be the most authentically Hakka community in the East Rift Valley, but we headed to the township’s northwestern corner to meet a married couple who would give us a mouthwatering introduction to local foodways.

Mr. and Mrs. Chen have lived in Fenglin their entire lives, and when they say they built their own home, they mean it literally. In the early 1980s, they mixed concrete, laid bricks, and installed plumbing. They did everything but the wiring. The front of the house bears the Chinese inscription Yingchuan Tang (潁川堂), an allusion to the clan’s origins in the mainland province of Henan. Mr. Chen’s Hakka ancestors migrated south to Fujian and Guangdong, then onto Taiwan. “I built that important piece of history into the house, so it’ll be preserved for the next few generations,” he says.

Taiwan’s ethnic boundaries are often blurred. A case in point: Mrs. Chen, who in her heyday was hailed as “the best cook in the village,” is not actually Hakka. Like approximately three-quarters of Taiwan’s population, she is Hoklo, or what Mandarin-speakers call Minnanren (閩南人), those descended from migrants from the southern portion of China’s Fujian Province.

Thanks to her Hakka neighbors, Mrs. Chen became familiar with the ethnic group’s cuisine from an early age, but it was her mother-in-law who provided crucial instruction. Soon her culinary skills were such that between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, she was often asked to organize bando – the jolly roadside banquets at which Taiwanese celebrate weddings, deities’ birthdays, and other happy events. Mrs. Chen still uses her outdoor wood-burning stove when cooking for a large number of people.

Mrs. Chen cooked six items for her visitors, using scallions and other ingredients from her vegetable patch. The first dish was a variant of Shochu Chicken (燒酒雞), the soup component of which is usually light brown. Proud of how good the lees (紅糟, hongzao) from her homemade red rice wine taste, Mrs. Chen added a tablespoon to the liquid, changing its color, while making it somewhat thicker and its flavor more nuanced.

Shochu Chicken. Photo: Steven Crook

Next up was Pork Belly on Dried Bamboo Shoots (筍乾大封肉). One of Mrs. Chen’s signature dishes and the highlight of many of her bando, this featured a huge chunk of meat. The layer of skin was left in one piece, but the meat below it was sliced into 12 segments to allow for quicker marinating and more thorough cooking. After soaking overnight in a blend of soy sauce, rice wine, salt, and a little sugar, the pork was steamed. 

The bamboo shoots on which the cooked pork was placed had been purchased fresh from a market vendor, dried at home, then prepared in a way that softened them while removing sourness. The bamboo – which was absolutely delicious – soaks up juices from the pork, which seemed to us far too fatty for metropolitan fine-diners to accept. Mrs. Chen’s family sees nothing unusual in this amount of fat. After all, Hakka food in Taiwan is often characterized as “salty, fragrant, and oily.”

Mrs. Chen’s Hakka Stir-Fry (客家小炒) combined pork, squid, shallots, and dried tofu, seasoned with garlic, rice wine, white pepper, and soy sauce. The strips of meat were thicker than the toothpick-sized fragments that often appear in restaurant stir-fries. The Taipei-based half of this writing team was struck by the greasiness of the dish compared to commercial versions served in the capital – and also by the absence of celery. A local twist on a classic recipe? No, admits Mrs. Chen. She simply didn’t have any celery on hand.

Reflecting traditional waste-not, want-not thinking, her Pig Intestines Fried with Ginger (薑絲炒豬肚) also included much of the fatty meat that modern, health-conscious consumers would expect to be trimmed. But what is unrefined to one person is delightfully hearty to another.

There is a Hakka saying, yit khoài pán tí sâm vón fan – “a single glutinous rice ‘cake’ is as good as three bowls of plain rice.” We kept that in mind as Mrs. Chen prepared Hakka Tea Cakes (茶粿) for us. After using an electric rice-grinder (an appliance often seen in rural Hakka households) to blend glutinous and ponlai rice, she divided and hand-kneaded the dough so each cake was somewhat larger than a credit card and shaped like a turtle’s shell. The cakes were then filled with grated daikon that had been pre-cooked with other savory ingredients. Sweet fillings are common in Hakka fare, Mrs. Chen pointed out.

She placed each cake on a pomelo leaf before steaming them for ten minutes, while explaining that banana or taro leaves are just as good. Compared to baozi, these steamed tea cakes are much stickier.

The final item – a variation on mochi – was a food served only during festivals and on special occasions such as weddings. Oddly, what is known among Hakka people in northwest Taiwan as ngiù vún súi (牛汶水, “cattle bathing in water”) is here called by its Hoklo name, la thng sî (攪湯匙, “stir with a spoon”). Mrs. Chen brought it to the table in a warm brown-sugar-and-ginger soup with a sprinkling of peanuts.

Many Hakka say “cattle bathing in water” is so named because these oval glutinous-rice treats resemble the backs of wallowing water buffalo. But the Chens insist that it is an affectionate description of the hollow a buffalo leaves in the ground after resting there. 

Asked about culinary differences between Hualien’s Hakka residents and their indigenous neighbors, Mrs. Chen explains that two types of taro are grown in her neighborhood. Hakka and Hoklo farmers introduced and continue to cultivate Binlangxin taro (檳榔心芋頭, “betel-nut heart taro”), which gets its name from the red dots that speckle the leaves. Indigenous households, however, prefer the Arrowleaf Elephant Ear variety (南洋芋頭).

Both types produce large and small corms or bulbotubers. While the Arrowleaf Elephant Ear’s large corms are inedible, its smaller corms are palatable and plentiful. The tendency of a particular ethnic group to mainly eat just one type is simply a matter of what people are used to, says Mrs. Chen, adding that the stems of both are suitable for stir-frying.

Indigenous offerings

The first Han settlers to reach eastern Taiwan may well have picked up foraging, food preservation, and preparation skills from local indigenous people. Today, such influences are not obvious. To us, it seems that the flow has been in the other direction, and that 21st-century indigenous cuisine is mostly mainstream Han cooking methods applied to mountain vegetables and meats like wild boar. There are exceptions, however, such as the traditional “hot stone” technique for making soup and stews that survives in the isolated Amis community of Kiwit in Ruisui Township.

In Kiwit, only uncracked meaical stones (known to Mandarin speakers asas maifan shi; 麥飯石) of the right size are used for cooking. Other types of stone tend to split and contaminate the soup. The stones are gathered from the Xiuguluan River, placed in a cauldron, and heated over an open fire. 

At least two rectangular soup pots improvised by folding and tying the sheet-like part of betel-nut leaves are needed. Scorching hot stones are first dunked into one of the “pots,” which holds nothing but water, to remove any ashes. The stones are then quickly moved to the second pot, where they retain enough heat to cook shrimp, fish, and other ingredients.

Just a few generations ago, the consumption of bovine meat was anathema to Taiwanese of Han descent. The only ethnic group on the island with any tradition of killing cattle for food is the indigenous Amis tribe, which began raising buffalo in 1929 at the behest of the Japanese colonial authorities. Niumama’s Shop (牛媽媽的店; 120 Nanhai 1st St.) in Ji’an Township is an Amis-run restaurant that has been specializing in buffalo meat for more than 25 years.

Buffalo Meat. Photo: Steven Crook

“I source my buffalo from Taitung or from Yuli here in Hualien. They’re killed when they’re three or four years old,” says boss-cum-chef Mr. Su, before showing us a buffalo he keeps in a marshy field behind the restaurant. A licensed butcher, he takes each animal to a nearby slaughterhouse where he does the slaughtering himself. The meat is then frozen and used within a few weeks.

According to Su, buffalo meat is less oily than ordinary beef, but is a bit tougher and chewier. In his opinion, buffalo bones make a better, clearer stock than those of beef cattle. The best dishes at Niumama include buffalo meat cooked teppanyaki-style and buffalo-offal soup. Diners can also enjoy vegetables foraged from the hills, such as kakorot (山苦瓜, “mountain bitter squash”).

Mr. Goose (鵝肉先生; 259 Zhongshan Rd.) in Hualien City is by far the oldest goose restaurant in this part of Taiwan, says manager Mr. Liu, whose father founded the eatery elsewhere in the city’s downtown 36 years ago. “When my parents started their business, goose meat was not at all popular, because it was triple the price of duck. But after eight or nine years, their hard work began to pay off, so other people began selling goose meat,” he says, adding that none of those early rivals has survived.

Liu holds a degree in mechanical engineering, but has never pursued a career in that field. After completing his education, he jumped eagerly into the family business. He adheres strictly to his parents’ principles, such as never keeping cooked goose meat from one day to the next. “It doesn’t taste as nice,” he says. For the same reason, when visitors from Taipei want to take cooked goose meat home, rather than simply ringing up a sale he advises them against buying takeout. “This way, we earn not just money, but also trust,” he says.

A goose dinner at Mr. Goose and some Hualien chilies.

A key feature of geese, Liu explains, is that they are vegetarian. Chickens and ducks are omnivorous, and as a result some find that their meat has what Taiwanese call xingsao wei (腥臊味), an unappetizing odor, which is why fowl are often smoked. Liu’s family used to raise the White Danish Roman geese that they cook, but when they became too busy, they handed that side of the business over to friends. On a busy day, the two branches of Mr. Goose get through as many as 40 geese.

The warm goose breast we sampled was both tender and juicy. The menu at Mr. Goose offers a far broader selection of foods than you might expect given the restaurant’s name. In addition to the goose (including goose offal), there are chicken, beef, mutton, pork, fish, oyster, and shrimp dishes. As at Niumama, the menu is better suited to small groups rather than couples or solo travelers. At both establishments, it would be hard to spend more than NT$500 per person. 

Mr. Goose also serves dishes that reflect Hualien City’s proximity to the Amis and Truku indigenous communities. Liu classifies these items as shanchan (山產, “mountain produce”). One of these is Seasoned Hogs’ Skin (涼拌脆皮), a cold dish. The skin is thinly sliced and lightly drizzled with a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, shredded chili peppers, and sesame oil. Others are scrumptious greens: Seasoned Bracken Fern Buds (涼拌過貓; the Mandarin name, guo mao, sometimes appears in English) and Stir-Fried Bird-Nest Fern Tips (炒山蘇).

Two eateries in Hualien City are renowned for bianshi (扁食) dumplings in soup. The history of this dish in this part of Taiwan is unclear, but there is one thing which, over the course of a few visits, we have found to be true: Unlike the slightly more famous Dai Ji Bianshi (戴記扁食; 120 Zhonghua Rd.), you can depend on Yexiang Bianshi (液香扁食; 42 Xinyi St.) to be open.

There’s no menu at Yexiang, the only option being a paper bowl of soup containing 10 heavenly wontons (NT$70 per portion). Depending on whom you believe, Yexiang has been doing this for between 70 and 90 years. Long enough, in any case, to have perfected the making of dumplings with, as some people put it, “lots of skirts.” Bloggers report that the tricks of their trade include using ground pig’s leg for the filling, boiling large bones for stock, and not adding MSG.

Baozi at Zhou Family Xiaolongbao. Photo: Steven Crook

When the city is packed with tourists, Yexiang often sells out early. Those in need of a dumpling fix can head over to Zhou Family Xiaolongbao (周家小籠包蒸餃; 4-20 Gongzheng St.). At the time of its founding in 1975, it was Hua-lien’s first 24-hour eatery. These days, it is somewhat overshadowed by the busier Gongzheng Baozi Shop (公正包子店) right next door. The former, in fact, used to operate on what is now the site of the latter, but shifted one storefront down a decade ago. Both are excellent options for travelers on tight budgets.

According to a supervisor at Zhou Family, the store continues the baozi-making tradition carried to Taiwan by mainland Chinese after World War II. Asked to compare their dumplings to those sold next door, she says: “The skin here is thinner, and we only use pork hock.” The dumplings and baozi we sampled were enjoyably fluffy, and much enhanced by a house sauce made using “facing-heaven chilis” (朝天椒, chaotian jiao). Zhou Family, as much as Yexiang Bianshi, deserves to be a stop on any foodie tour of Hualien.