Made in Taiwan, published by a division of Simon & Schuster underscores the rightful place of Taiwanese food on the global culinary stage.
Admittedly, I shouldn’t be the best choice to write about a cookbook. My experience in front of a stove is largely limited to boiling water for tea or coffee, plus the occasional scrambling of a couple of eggs.
But then, Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation by freelance journalist Clarissa Wei – though packed with detailed instructions for the preparation of scores of dishes – is far more than a cookbook. For the California-born-and-raised author (now living in Taiwan), the book is nothing less than an ode to her Taiwanese heritage. In highlighting the many dishes that have made Taiwan a mecca for serious foodies around the world, she makes the case that Taiwanese food deserves separate standing among the world’s cuisines and is not just another regional subset of Chinese food.
If there is a political subtext to that message, Wei is not shy about it, as the reference to “island nation” in the book’s subtitle attests. While acknowledging that “many of our dishes have Chinese roots or were brought over by immigrants from China,” she argues that a variety of factors “have given shape to a redefined food culture that’s completely and unquestionably unique,” just as Taiwan over time has developed its own social, cultural, and political characteristics.
One of the book’s first chapters, “Culinary History of Taiwan,” traces the numerous influences that have combined to create what can now be considered Taiwanese cuisine. The food preferences of the early pioneers who crossed the Taiwan Strait during the Qing Dynasty – both Hoklo-speakers from Fujian and Hakkas who settled in hill country – formed the foundation of Taiwanese gastronomy. Other input came from early European colonists (“it’s said that the Dutch inspired our culture of deep-frying”) and from the Indigenous population of Austronesian origin.
Then came the 50 years (1895-1945) of Japanese rule, which “had a long-lasting impact on our cuisine,” Wei writes. She notes that “most of our core pantry items, including soy sauce, rice vinegar, and rice wine, are still made in the Japanese fashion today.”
With the departure of the Japanese at the end of World War II and the defeat of the Chinese Nationalist government on the mainland a few years later, more than a million soldiers and civilians from China sought refuge in Taiwan. They brought with them “a diverse spread of regional Chinese cuisine never seen before” in Taiwan, including Shanghainese soup dumplings, spicy Sichuan dishes, and the scallion pancakes and other wheat-flour products of Northern China.
Adding to that eclectic mix were influences from the close connections that post-war Taiwan developed with the United States. The import of American soybeans spurred the popularity of tofu dishes, Taiwanese chefs were trained to use American wheat to make Western-style baked goods, and the first coffee shops made their appearance. Wei further cites the Taiwanese reinterpretation during this period of classic American foods like fried chicken, inspiring creation of the now-popular popcorn chicken.
The result of those multiple stands of influence: a wholly distinctive cuisine.
The following chapter, “Status Quo,” outlines the development of domestic politics and cross-Strait relations over the past decades, placing Taiwan’s culinary status in a broader context. That “Taiwan isn’t recognized as a country by most of the world,” Wei says, “has a significant impact on how our cuisine is perceived internationally.”
Into the kitchen
Having established the social and political background in the early pages, Wei lovingly devotes the rest of the book to introducing more than 100 different dishes and how to prepare them. In this task she had the assistance of veteran Chinese-cooking instructor Ivy Chen (who among other things gives classes at the Community Services Center in Tianmu, Taipei) in assiduously testing and refining the recipes for use by home cooks. The guidance is so clear and straightforward that even a kitchen klutz like me feels tempted to give some a try – assuming my wife would ever trust me with a wok and spatula. The reader is even schooled in what types of kitchen equipment to buy and what sauces, spices, and ingredients are needed to properly stock a Taiwanese pantry.
Also encouraging is the thought that what I may lack in food-preparation experience, I make up for in food consumption – as my waistline shows. In my over 50 years of residence in Taiwan, including decades of membership in a weekly eating-out group known fondly as the Wednesday Night Old Farts, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege of sampling a wide variety of local dishes. Made in Taiwan features some of my favorites – Dry-fried Green Beans (Gan Bian Si Ji Dou, 乾扁四季豆), Three-Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji, 三杯雞), Preserved Daikon Omelet (Cai Pu Dan, 菜脯蛋), Beef Rolls (Niu Rou Juan Bing, 牛肉捲餅), Taiwanese Spring Rolls (Run Bing, 潤餅), and even Fried Stinky Tofu (Chou Doufu, 臭豆腐), to mention just a few – as well as many I wasn’t previously aware of.
The photography accompanying the recipes is so vivid you can almost taste the food, and great care has gone into the presentation, with many of the dishes shot on antique bowls and tiles borrowed from local museums and private collections.
Published by Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Made in Taiwan covers a broad swath of the food styles found on the island, with sections devoted to such subjects as breakfast items, night market delicacies, beer food, family-style dishes, and the specialties (like Oyster Omelets and the distinctive Coffin Bread) associated with the southern city of Tainan – Wei dubs it the “City of Snacks” – where the families of both Wei and Chen hail from.
As that range of topics indicates, Wei is no culinary snob. She gushes about her passion for night markets, which she learned to love during annual family visits to Taiwan – a fondness that still extends even to nostalgic chow-downs of stringy steak smothered with black pepper sauce and served teppanyaki-style over a fried egg and spaghetti. She also rhapsodizes over Taiwan’s oh-so-convenient 7-Elevens and memories of the old railway bento boxes. And she finds space to explain the continuing popularity of Taiwan Beer long after its market monopoly has ended, because “all things considered, it’s a pretty damn good lager.”
The book is also chock full of such informational nuggets as the possibility of making Vegan Blood Cake, substituting black rice for pig blood while providing the needed coloration and coagulation. We learn, too, what type of rice best suits what cooking requirement, but that the default option is short-grain japonica thanks to the success of Japanese agronomists in Taiwan who in the 1920s developed a variety able to thrive in a hot, humid climate.
Among the many other tips and trenchant observations to be found in Made in Taiwan:
• The reason Taiwanese cooking tends to be so sweet can be traced back to the 1600s when the Dutch East India Co. jumpstarted the island’s sugar industry in the area around present-day Tainan, still known to have the sweetest food on the island.
• The secret ingredient responsible for the flavor in traditional Taiwanese cooking is lard. Cholesterol-conscious younger generations may reject it in favor of vegetable oil, but the author found that “every home cook over the age of 50” that she talked to stressed the absolute necessity of lard to provide the proper taste sensation.
• The secret to getting the best deals at the wet market? Make an effort to get to know and “charm” the vendors (and it helps to speak Taiwanese).
• The advent in the 1960s of the Tatung-brand electric rice cooker – actually a steamer that can be used to prepare a variety of dishes – revolutionized Taiwanese cooking. “Home cooks no longer had to monitor an open flame for hours; all they had to do was pop in their ingredients and wait for the water in the outer pot to evaporate.”
• “Bitter melon gets a bad rap, and that’s because it’s often served out of balance – cooked with too much oil or not enough proper seasoning.”
• Even more misunderstood is Stinky Tofu. “There’s nothing rotten about this dish. The tofu itself isn’t fermented and is as hygienic as your average jar of pickles.” It’s just tofu that’s been soaked in pickle brine.
Wei also puts an end to any doubts as to whether Chiayi’s famous ji rou fan (雞肉飯) is actually made with chicken or turkey meat. She explains how the restaurants get their supplies through the centralized channel of the Taiwanese Turkey Association, and “because the turkeys here in Taiwan are bred to be absolutely massive, they wouldn’t fit in a standard home kitchen anyway.”
Dedicating her book “to the people of Taiwan, wherever you may be in the world,” Wei writes: “Despite the odds, we are an incredibly resilient people. I hope this book made you proud to be Taiwanese.”’
A Few Words from the Author
While traveling abroad, Clarissa Wei took the time to answer a few questions for TOPICS:
What initially inspired you to take on this project – and what was your objective?
I felt that the conversation about Taiwanese food has always been quite limited. Most people only think of bubble tea and beef noodle soup, but there’s so much to our culinary repertoire than that.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in putting the book together?
Distilling an entire cuisine in less than 400 pages was quite difficult. Also there’s not a lot written on Taiwanese culinary history, so we had to interview a lot of folks.
In doing the research, what did you learn that was the most surprising or most interesting?
That the Taiwanese pantry stands on its own. Most of our condiments are made with Japanese-era recipes.
What do you regard as the chief characteristics of Taiwanese cuisine?
It’s quite sweet! There’s a love for seafood and light flavors. Pork is our main protein of choice.
And why do you consider that it represents a cuisine unto itself rather than a subset of Chinese food?
Simply because Taiwan is not a part of China.
Photography by Yen Wei and Ryan Chen, copyright © 2023
Book Cover Courtesy of Simon Element.