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FEATURE/Storytelling through food: 'Made in Taiwan' goes well beyond recipes

10/11/2023 11:24 AM
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To showcase diverse culinary landscape of Taiwan, Clarissa Wei (standing, left) and her all-Taiwanese team traverse the country, conducting interviews with individuals from all walks of life, with the goal of capturing the full spectrum of what Taiwan has to offer. (Photo courtesy of Yen Wei and Ryan Chen)
To showcase diverse culinary landscape of Taiwan, Clarissa Wei (standing, left) and her all-Taiwanese team traverse the country, conducting interviews with individuals from all walks of life, with the goal of capturing the full spectrum of what Taiwan has to offer. (Photo courtesy of Yen Wei and Ryan Chen)

By Chung Yu-chen, CNA staff reporter

Frustrated by seeing Taiwan's culinary scene often reduced to simplistic perceptions, veteran food journalist Clarissa Wei (魏貝珊) has decided to do something about it, writing a book called "Made in Taiwan" that takes an incredibly deep dive into the island's cuisine.

Wei bristles at the idea of Taiwanese food being described simply as an extension of Chinese cuisine or reduced to bubble tea and night market food, arguing in the book that waves of immigration, diplomatic isolation, and a Taiwan identity movement have given shape to an extremely diverse and unique food culture.

"I just don't think the stories [of Taiwanese cuisine] have been told very well for the international audience," Wei told CNA when asked what motivated her to write her book -- at its core a cookbook that tells a far broader story than just recipes.

Indeed, the conversation surrounding Taiwan has been long filtered either through politics or through talking points that officials in Taiwan peddle around the world, Wei said.

"The Tourism Bureau only pushes night markets and bubble tea, but there's so much more to our country than that," she said.

A history of food

Summarizing Taiwanese cuisine concisely can be elusive after evolving over centuries, but as Wei shows in her book, it is that history that defines it.

The book cover of “Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation.” (Photo courtesy of Clarissa Wei.)
The book cover of “Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation.” (Photo courtesy of Clarissa Wei.)

In fact, she has matched various recipes to the historical periods in which they emerged, illustrating how Taiwanese food reflects a blend of the food culture of Taiwan's Indigenous people and various colonial influences, she said.

Those influences go back to the Dutch in the 16th century and the arrival of Koxinga from China, credit for the discovery of the oyster omelet (蚵仔煎), according to Wei.

Then there were Chinese who arrived during the Qing dynasty, credited with braised minced pork belly (肉燥飯), the Japanese during the era of colonization, who created Taiwanese tempura (甜不辣), and the Chinese who came after World War II and the Chinese Civil War, who brought beef noodle soup (紅燒牛肉麵) and soup dumplings (小籠包).

It also reflects American influence that came when the United States supported Taiwan during the Cold War, resulting in turkey rice and fried chicken cutlets, Wei wrote.

As Taiwan began to embrace democracy in the 1980s, a new breed of open-air beer restaurants, referred to as "stir-fried" (熱炒), emerged.

These establishments offered affordable lagers paired with speedy dishes that seamlessly melded regional Chinese elements, Japanese seasonings, and locally sourced seafood, a fusion entirely distinctive to the island, she said.

To showcase this diversity, Wei and her all-Taiwanese team traveled the country and interviewed people from all walks of life, aiming to capture the full spectrum of what Taiwan has to offer.

Is flour just flour?

"We interviewed a war veteran who came during the Chinese Civil War. He gave us his scallion pancake (蔥油餅) recipe," Wei said.

"We also spoke with a grandmother who shared her sesame oil chicken soup (麻油雞湯) recipe and a young rapper who is the third-generation owner of Lin Family Braised Pork Over Rice (林家肉燥飯) in Tainan."

Translating these recipes for an English-speaking audience, especially readers in the United States, posed a major challenge, however, due to important differences even in basic ingredients, Wei said.

Even something as standard as Taiwanese wheat flour posed issues, for example, because while most of Taiwan's wheat flour is imported from the U.S., the milling process differs.

Figuring it out and nailing down the texture was so satisfying for Wei, because these recipes could not be found in English, and mastering the nuances was even difficult in Chinese.

The diversity of Taiwanese cuisine

As insistent as Wei is that Taiwanese food is more than just Chinese-influenced dishes or night market treats like oyster omelets, her book fully acknowledges they are parts of the bigger picture.

Her book's 11 chapters with recipes ranging from "Breakfast" and "Family Style" to "Beer Food," "Night Market" and "Basics & Sauces" takes the reader on a culinary journey that spans rice noodle soup (米苔目) and popcorn chicken (鹽酥雞) to the railway bento box.

There are even soup dumplings, though they were not invented in Taiwan. 

Soup dumplings are not originally from Taiwan, but they are one of the most popular dishes that attract tourists to visit Taiwan. (CNA file photo)
Soup dumplings are not originally from Taiwan, but they are one of the most popular dishes that attract tourists to visit Taiwan. (CNA file photo)

Wei explains that the soup dumpling is from Shanghai and the surrounding province of Jiangsu, but they are included "because it was Din Tai Fung, a soup dumpling powerhouse headquartered in Taipei that has introduced the dish to the world."

In fact, each chapter and many of the recipes are accompanied by a story that connects readers to the cultural significance of the dishes, underpinning Wei's main theme that Taiwan has a unique identity and food culture.

That driving force that runs throughout Wei's work is summarized in a quote by the late Taiwanese democracy activist Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) shown in the book's opening pages: "[Neither] race, language, nor culture form a nation, but rather a deeply felt sense of community and shared destiny."

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