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Taiwan and Its Foods
Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) pages: 28 to 32
Meaning ‘terraced bay,’ Taiwan was, for a long time, known as Formosa which means ‘beautiful island;’ and beautiful it is. Both names for this once protectorate of the Chinese empire, was since 1206 CE when it was a traditional fishing and hunting society where indigenous folk ate wild plants, mountain animals, and foods from the sea.
Taiwan’s past included multi-cultural influences such as those in the 1600's when the Dutch invaded and stayed for thirty-seven years until they were defeated by Ming Dynasty warriors. Two years later the Spanish barged in, did not stay long, just occupied a small area in the north before they were booted out shortly after their arrival. In 1884, the French came; they also occupied a small portion to stay only a few months.
In 1887, this island and the almost sixty smaller islands near it were made a prefecture of China’s Fujian Province. The European and Chinese influences did help foreign foods mix easily with Chinese ones. In 1894, the Japanese took over the Pescadore islands, known at Peng Hu. The big island of Taiwan was ceded to them, and they stayed until 1945 after World War II. Then Taiwan and the smaller islands were returned to the Chinese.
Before, during, and after World War II, fourteen thousand square miles of bug-infested swampland in the island were reclaimed. In 1949, they became Taipei, the country’s capital. A bit later, the financial center was built which is now one of the world’s tallest buildings. They call it ‘Taipei 101' because that is the number of floors above ground; with five more below ground.
In 1948 and 1949, some two million Han Chinese and fewer non-Han Chinese arrived led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army. They had ruled or tried to rule China since 1911 after they toppled China’s Qing Dynasty. They came across the Taiwan Straits wanting to avoid living under Mao Zedong and communist domination.
These newcomers, most Buddhists, a few Daoists, and a lesser number of Christians and Muslims, joined local Republic of China (ROC) Chinese and fourteen different aborigine tribes called Gaoshan in this Republic of China. The aborigines multiplied and there are now some one million of them. They and the huge influx of Han Chinese certainly changed this country, now a bastion of Chinese culture. Go to a restaurant and learn there are two types of conversations, one a discussion of what is being eaten, the other what they hope to eat next.
Taipei now has more than three million folk in Taiwan where a total of twenty-four million live. The capital city is the largest, population-wise, Tainan, Kaoshing (now written as Gaoxiang), and Taichung follow. Since 1949, the city of Taipei has became the political, cultural, economic, and transportation capital of the country.
The government of the PRC sees Taiwan as the twenty-third province of the PRC while the Taiwanese see themselves as living in a country with nineteen provincial regions. No matter that argument, food in Taiwan is the number one thing on most people’s minds. The country overflows with great food, morning to night, and also overflows with good fast food 24/7.
How did their food begin? Rice in bamboo was an important traditional food among the indigenous peoples. It was popular at their festivals and on ordinary days. They actually had few things to prepare their foods in, little to use to tote them in when hunting or on fishing journeys, therefore they used their imagination, copied the indigenous folk, and used whatever was available.
At home they used the same pieces of bamboo, and they flavored and mixed their foods with bamboo shoots and sugar cane. These were particularly popular among the Ami, one of the indigenous peoples here. They used a swa or another sharp tool to cut them up with and they prepared them including wild boar and other large animals. These they grilled over a fire or on hot stone slabs. They also used large leaves such as 'angelica,' and they fried many of their foods with eggs. They liked these leaves for their aroma, not unlike scallions, and for the fact they are said to scare off evil spirits. They added them to ground Sichuan peppercorns and sugar when using them, also copied their nearest neighbors, the Fujianese, and did mimic their foods called ‘Min.’ That is why so many Taiwanese and Fujianese foods have the same heritage.
They also like and make flat meatballs which they wrap in pounded glutinous rice, and they serve them with a sweet sauce if they lived in the north, with soy sauce or garlic sauce if living in the south. Locals caught mullet, sliced it and sold its eggs, found daikon and garlic to make wuyuzi, a dish everyone there loves.
Many sea creatures were collected or caught including crayfish they steamed, and oysters they cooked with black beans or soy sauce. They ate these along with a drink with black balls of tapioca or sweet potato starch. They call this boba or bubble tea. In hot weather they often have it with shaved ice and one or more sweet cold sauces and some corn or barley.
At meals, the locals eat lots of dried tofu braised in spices or sweet sauces and called this dougani. Sometimes they made it with lots of soy sauce. Many restaurants reviewed in this magazine speak of dishes now popular in Taipei and its outer islands. When planning to go there, check these resources and the dishes they discuss on this magazine’s website: www.flavorandfortune.com.
For breakfast, some eateries serve chui ping, a dish that came to China during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) and to Taiwan in the late 1940's. Now served around the clock, it is popular. Afternoons and evenings zhuxie gao is too, though not everyone likes this pig blood cake. Those that do, adore it.
Lunch, if not a business meal, is when fast food prevails for those under the age of forty. It includes burgers, pizza, fried chicken, even a lunch box. Older folk and those with more time prefer yum cha. The Southern and Cantonese there adore dim sum delights, too. At lunch, some indulge in a big buffet and manage to select quality dishes quickly and efficiently, most of them are Chinese newcomers. For workers, lunch might be a snack of noodles, rice, or wheat in any form from spring rolls, peach buns, steamed or fried dumplings, or breads, filled or not. Another is Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, a rice or noodle dish often made with chicken. Other fast things include zongzi. This stuffed food is wrapped in lotus or bamboo leaves with anything one can think of, needs no chopsticks, and can be and is eaten while walking or shopping.
Dinner in winter is often huo kuo, known as hot pot, or it might be another cook-it-yourself dish with or without white rice, sweet potatoes, noodles, or steamed bread, or rice stuffed into a duck or a chicken, rice balls in or around one, even rice showing up as Eight Treasures at the meal’s end.
Though fast food and western foods are everywhere, traditional Chinese food is still the important hallmark of Taiwanese food. It can include abalone, shark’s fins, frogs, turtle, or fish lips, all available at almost all Chinese restaurants, and always available at festival and celebrations meals. Fresh foods of the sea, fresh fruits of the regions–papaya to pomegranate, wild animals from the mountains or items imported from all over the world are available for every festive and ordinary meal when price is no object.
Taiwan has regional dishes and delights, and tea is one of them. Teahouses are everywhere, bubble or boba tea, they say, originated here. Teahouses serve and sell it as do all highway rest stops. Loved with meals, and before or after them, this island has its own tea food called lei cha which can be solid or liquid, served not only with Hakka food where it originated, but also with anything else. It is made by pounding sesame seeds and peanuts with dried tea leaves, then serving it dry, baked, even with added hot water.
There are many snacks in Taiwan found on the streets, in tea houses, in restaurants, and in karaoke bars. The latter are successful popular businesses where folks go to eat, hear, and participate in sing-alongs. These and bars are all over the country, many restaurants also feature them before, during, and after the dinner hour.
Readers have asked: What is a typical Taiwanese menu? We respond: That depends upon where in the country and for whom? Not wanting to use that as a cop-out, we once copied a Taiwanese cookbook suggestion from a book whose cover is long gone and whose name is long forgotten. The pages remaining say a typical Taiwanese meal can include: Three-cup Chicken and/or Three-cup Squid, Braised Beef, Shrimp Cutlets, salted Small Fish with Peanuts, Tanzi Noodles, and Buddha Jumps Over the Wall made Taiwanese-style with tendons, shark’s fins, and lots of green vegetables; and Eight Treasure Rice for dessert, with tea served throughout the meal.
So that you can cook typical Taiwanese food, we have gathered a few recipes for you to try before or after going to Taiwan. While there, visit some of their aborigine cultural places. Many call these folk ‘mountain people.’ There you can taste many of their earlier foods. They are in Wulai, near Taipei, near Sun Moon lake, and at the Aboriginal Culture Park in Peiyeh in Pingtung County.
For your information, there are fourteen different aboriginal groups, though some anthropologists report only nine of them including the Ami, Atayai, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiat, Tsou, and Yami. One major festival celebrates all of them; it is called the Ami Harvest Festival or Hualien. and held near the end of summer. Also, on Orchid Island, the Yami hold an annual Flying Fish Festival; that is during the second or third month of their lunar year.
In Taipei fifty years ago, there were rice paddies, now there are very tall buildings, the tallest–101 Taipei--some say is the most posh; it is a mall and so do visit it. There are also gorgeous condominiums and classic temples such as Lungshan which is known as the Dragon Mountain Temple. Do go to the top of the Taipei World Trade Center where an exhilarating exhibition hall often has great things to see. Dragon Mountain Temple is nearby and was originally built in 1740. Several natural and man-made disasters did require several reconstructions, the most recent in 1957. Also, be sure to visit two streets nearby that at night are the Huasi Night Markets.
Get to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and see its gorgeous gardens, and do see the National Theater and the National Palace Museum. We had great food in places near them, also near the National Museum of History. The Fine Arts Museum is near the Grand Hotel and this Qing Dynasty-style building has great restaurants, too. So go see it and try them, too.
In Taiwan, go north to Tansui and south to Kaishiung. There and in between are many things to see, many delicacies to taste. We did adore a long day in Alishan in south-central Taiwan. This national park has a great restaurant in its namesake hotel, and it is the gateway to Yushan (Jade Mountain), the highest peak in Northeast Asia.
We also had superb noodles in Tainan City at Tu Hsiao Yeh. This eatery has more than a hundred years of history; and when here, try their Scalded Milkfish Ball in thick soup, and their Xiaoxijiao Bowl Rice Cake. In Tainan, Fengshan, or Kaihsiung, visit one of the Meinung Hakka restaurants where they cook on charcoal, use licorice and rock sugar in their marinades, and prepare delicious Hakka food.
If you are a vegetarian or just love vegetables, then in Taipei do visit the Jen Dow Vegtarian Buffet; it is most unusual. They serve wine, have lots of different steamed dumplings, many made with konjac and herbs. A talented chef there also makes many wonderful to-order dishes. Not a vegetarian, then try pig’s knuckles at Hsiung’s Wanlun Pig Knuckle place in Pingtung County. Aside from bringing good luck, the thirteen herbs in it are said to be a secret, but anyone eating them truly is lucky.
In every city and most towns, check out their night markets and their many bakeries. We now know to look for and get one or more fengli su, their pineapple cakes. On one visit, Taiwanese ex-pats brought hundreds of them to back to the US for themselves and their friends. They bought up every one they could find, and on that trip we were not among their best fiends so we did not get to taste even one. Now we know to get to the front of every bakery line.
Elsewhere in Taiwan, there is lots of terrific Chinese food. Check out past articles such as the one in Volume 13(4) and others. Always plan a culinary trip to this many-faceted food-filled country. Do not blame us if you gain weight there; we always do. And in the meantime, try any or all of the Taiwanese recipes that follow and any or all others in earlier issues and elsewhere.
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