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Tasting Taiwan

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Summer Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(3) page(s): 13, 14, 15, and 19

Taiwan, which is abbreviated ROC for 'The Republic of China,' was once called 'Formosa.' That name means ‘beautiful’ and was given to that land by the Portuguese. Sitting about a hundred miles southeast of China, many think it one island or two, but that is far from the truth because there are many more. Closest to the Fujian province, all of them are sometimes called the 'Pacific Coast Islands.' Eons ago, the largest one was once called 'Tainan Island' by the aborigines who lived there. The name Tainan stuck until 1573, during the Ming Dynasty, when it officially became known as Taiwan. Besides that island, there are other large islands such as 'Kinmen,' formerly known as 'Quemoy,' 'Matsu,' 'Orchid,' and 'Green Island.' And, there are smaller ones.

Location, politics, visitors, and conquerors have influenced this land that was, more than a thousand years ago, home to ten or so groups of indigenous peoples, themselves from elsewhere in the region. Some may have come from Indonesia, elsewhere on the Malay peninsula, and other places in the Pacific. These original peoples included the Taiyal and Vonum aboriginal groups. Some say these two population groups actually came from China as early as the Shang Dynasty circa 1600 BCE.

Today, home to more than twenty-two million people, about fifteen percent of them are Hakka. The others are from every region in China. And there are smaller numbers of others from many other countries including Holland, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, and Spain. Thousands upon thousands of additional Chinese came in the 1940's. Before and since, many were from Guangzhou, Fujian, Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, and from the island of Hainan. Additional Japanese influence was recent. Some of Taiwan’s islands were ceded to them after the Treaty of Shinoneseki in 1895. The Japanese surrendered these islands back to General Chiang Kaishek, in 1945. It is important to note that with the influx of thousands of people and artifacts from across the Straits of Formosa, interest in all aspects of the Chinese culture heightened, including interest and expertise in Chinese cuisine.

With this bit of history, it is obvious that the culture and cuisine have had many external and internal influences. The deepest culinary roots are, however, in Fujian, with which there are many similarities. In addition to its well-developed culinary and Min heritage, Taiwan serves as a showcase for the cuisines of all the provinces of China.

Many who now visit Taiwan can learn to understand its heritage and festivals and its lifestyle, language, and cuisine, by visiting central Taiwan’s Folk Village. At this almost ten-year-old facility, it is easy to see that the people adore and eat lots of good food, show off extensive and delicate knife work, consume lots of salads and bardo, or open-air cooking, and drink a lot of soup, tea or coffee, beer or scotch.

One does not need to go there to see how many places exist for the tea and latte crowd; there are lots of tea and cake shops. They are not new, but what is a recent addition to them is lots of bubble tea called boba nai cha. This Taiwanese invention was the subject of an article in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 6(4) on pages 5 and 6. For the alcoholic beverage crowd, they get their drinks in restaurants, mostly at banquet tables where Johnny Walker and other bottles stand side to side with Coke and Sprite. This is because Taiwanese meals are times for toasting. They are also times to consume many soups, as do their compatriots in Fujian. A meal and a banquet will have a few different types, such as those that are clear, congee-type, or even thicker. In Taiwan, soups can be a meal, at every meal, and at snacks. They and special dishes, many very special indeed, are part of many meals and snacks. The Taiwanese love to eat, and they do it very well!

In 1998, at a 'Taipei Food Festival' at the Sheraton LaGuardia Hotel in Flushing New York, this gala showcase was a feast for every eye. Unfortunately, most could not be tasted, but just looking at the fantastic and unusual array made every guest want to rush out and book travel to Taiwan. It was clear when looking at the gorgeous items on display, they were not only delicate but also divine.

At that festival, your editor really learned a lot about bamboo pith and all of its potential. Some ideas were shared in Flavor and Fortune, Volume 6(4) on pages 25 and 30; there and elsewhere, they are also known as 'bamboo mushrooms.' At this festival, this fungus was gorgeously displayed plain, stuffed, and also cut up and used as one of many ingredients. It was shown in many ways including creatively deep-fried in bundles wrapped with thin noodles and tied with strips of nori, a seaweed sheet. The talent of the chefs brought from Taiwan for that event was beyond belief. Just to whet the appetite, we still see a decor item made of a sweet potato in the shape of a guitar. There were chicken legs that looked like calabash squash, abalone shaped like eyes, steamed frogs, beautifully displayed as many different things, and a caterpillar fungus dish; all screamed ‘eat me.’

On the streets of the capital city, Taipei, and in other cities the streets are full of vendors touting snack foods. When we were there, they were many and marvelous. It was summer, and Taiwan’s jelly-fig was in season. It was prepared refreshingly cool and called Iced Fig Jelly. We felt refreshed after eating this new-to-us food item.

It was a long time before we knew this was a special fig that grows in the mountains in and around the Chiaya Province. It is the seeds that are capable of turning water to jelly in this Ficus awkeotsang varietal. You may have seen it there as its aerial roots climb up tree trunks and over rocks. Since then, we learned that one wild jelly-fig plant on one large tree can produce three thousand jelly-figs with, we know not how many seeds that gelatinize water and watery foods so well. Not sure we want to get close to count because it is the fig wasp that hangs around fertilizing each flower so that they turn into fruits. The fruits have seeds, and the seeds have achenes that do the job.

Because most vendors sell but one item, and that was true with all the fig-jelly makers we saw, they pride themselves in making theirs the freshest and the best. Superb taste, simplicity, and freshness are probably their hallmarks, and standing on any corner it is a delight to watch patrons line up, purchase, smile as they take a bite, and quickly be replaced by another on their ever growing lines, until all of their wares are gone. Clearly, the food is fresh, the turnover high, and the best stuff goes quickly.

In one food court, visions of dragon whisker candy is still on my mind. Even the taste and the texture linger in the brain as does how it was made. Once only a valuable offering to the Imperial family, this special treat is made by pulling white sugar-rice noodles. What a great way to enjoy noodles that melt in the mouth. Eating them is a regal experience; one order intended for two can be devoured by one. Once I did just that, then shared a second one, and you know who ate the larger half of that one. Me!

Barbecued items are everywhere, their aroma is so enticing that they, too, are hard to limit to one. Grilled squid brushed with sesame oil and hoisin sauce and dusted with cayenne pepper is addictive. So is barbecued pork wrapped around a scallion and similarly sauced. Fragrant minced beef stuffed into some wonderful yao tai crullers and grilled just a moment to warm them vie with a similar taste recalled of squab wrapped in lettuce and some type of grilled skin, an item we never did identify.

Fresh dumplings are everywhere on the streets, in small shops, and on the menus of large and small restaurants. The varieties available grows with each street traversed and each eatery entered. A breakfast of entrails and congealed blood sandwiches can be eaten more frequently than a Big Mac. Ears of corn, grilled sausage, and soup noodles can be commonplace lunches or before bedtime bites. Sharks fin wrapped in lotus leaf, shrimp cakes, spring rolls, and deep-fried salted duck are never too far away.

Shops that specialize in one or many types of barbecue, dumplings, and other items begging to be bitten are everywhere. And finding a place to yum cha (or take tea) is a snap. Selecting from the wheeled carts that ply these small and huge dim sum places at one in the morning is a new experience for non-Taiwanese. Not so for their regulars. In Taipei eating is a twenty-four hour opportunity indulged in by a large percentage of the population.

So is shopping. On the food side, there are shops selling only preserved fruits, others only offering sharks fins. There are huge supermarkets and minuscule mini-marts. Prices can seem exorbitant or unrealistically inexpensive. You do need to know what you want and what things are worth. The Taiwanese seem to know quality, and they are willing to pay for it.

Taipei, Kaoshang, and the many other large cities in Taiwan offer an entire range of exquisite foods from every corner of China, from almost every place in the rest of the Asian world, and beyond. Use of ancient or modern recipes and food items produce tastes and treats that can be found at the many night markets. There, and during the day, anyone can have everything from stinky tofu to terrific chicken feet.

There is a Snake Street in the capital where you can, if male, be treated to its bile to build self esteem. Merchants are serious about things herbal and rare is the one who will serve snake bile to a female, beauty or no. Everyone is serious about the betel nut. Unprocessed, they smear it with something they call lime but it tastes like limestone mixed with several spices, then they wrap it in some grass leaves and call it qing zai. This particular snack, purchasable even at newspaper stands, has origins in their indigenous roots.

As islands, fish and seafood are serious business. The island harvests hundreds of thousands of tons of salt and fresh-water fish and other sea creatures. The people consider crustaceans, mollusks, and eels as delicacies, and oysters and clams as regular parts of the diet. At restaurants, waiters bring you live fish spattering and jumping for your inspection and selection. Freshness is very serious business at meals. So is having a typical Taiwanese dish of congee with sweet potatoes for morning snack. Several times a week, sucking up clams soaked in soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar and hot pepper, is too. Some folks order oyster omelets at least every other day.

Poultry and pork are commonplace, goose, then duck and chicken make up about three-quarters of all foods consumed that are not of the sea. Health and tonic foods such as Ginseng Chicken or Dongquei Duck are popular. So is Lopokao, a health food made from rice, radish, and steamed shrimp.

Holiday foods are eaten all year, though more of them are consumed on their own festival day. On Dragon Boat Festival one can celebrate with dozens of varieties of glutinous rice dumplings stuffed in bamboo leaves. On Moon Festival, plan on trying many Moon Cakes and Rice Dumplings, lots of them filled with herbs. For the New Year ring it in mostly with sweet dumplings filled with black sesame seeds and sugar. For Double Nines there are Double Nine Cakes to enjoy made with flour, sugar, chestnuts, and pine nuts; there are other kinds, too. The locals eat Grave Cakes on Tomb Sweeping Day or any day, you can too, be they stuffed with red bean paste and red-dyed rice or any other vendor-selected interior.

Other typical dishes any and every day include Fried Oysters with fermented Soybeans, Braised Pork in Brown Sauce, Scrambled Eggs with Turnips, Crab Shells Stuffed with Egg Whites, Tea-flavored Prawns, Deep-fried Chicken with Fruit Sauce, Jellyfish and Smoked Goose, White Fungus with Rock Sugar, and Sweet Treasures made with mashed foods, be they four different taros or soybeans, rice, taro, and sweet potatoes.

A typical Taiwanese banquet can include a plate of five or fifteen cold appetizers sitting around Glutinous Rice Dumplings. Enjoying one, you might have Steamed Scallop Balls with Braised Meats, Baby Squid Soup, Shrimp-stuffed Loquats, Deep-fried Cuttle Fish Balls, Salted Small Herrings with Peanuts, Buddha Jumps the Wall Shark’s Fin Soup made with shark’s fins, beef tendons, monkey head mushrooms, abalone, chestnuts, taro, yam, and medlar, Green Tea Baked Fish, and more. An Ice Carving of Fresh Fruits served with Sweet Tremella Soup can culminate a creatively served one.

The Taiwanese take great pride in their food and have from early times when its islands were only populated by Malay-Polynesian aborigines or others. They take great pride in their own history and that of China. Go see many artifacts at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Going there means putting great emphasis on and filling the stomach with ancient Chinese culinary traditions. With spring all year-'round in this ‘beautiful’ country, rich produce, unrivaled sea foods, and fantastic fruits are all prepared to perfection be they made Chinese style or in the style of any of these islands many outside influences.

In spite of all of this, staple foods are paid lots of attention to. They are rice mixed and a healthy dose of sweet potatoes. Foods in Taiwan have less oil than in most other places in China and they are a bit more sweet than where they originally hail form. The only food they do not eat much of is beef. Wonder if this may be because the temperature was often too hot for that.

We would be remiss if we did not advise about a few of the many special Taiwanese dishes. Eating in a Taiwanese restaurant there or wherever, try Stewed Shark’s Fins, Frogs and Shredded Ginger, Braised Eel, Abalone and Pork Maw, Stewed Turtle, Pineapple Jelly, Green Bean Congee, Sweet Egg Cake, Fried Spring Rols, and Salty Congee, Noodles with Shrimp and Meatballs, Phoenix-eye Cake, Sweet Potatoes Steeped in Syrup, Hsinchu Rice Noodles, and Meatballs and Meat Pies.

Should it be elsewhere, you need to know that many Taiwanese have emigrated to other countries and are beginning to open restaurants that feature the foods of their island. Two that are worth trying include a favorite near where we live, and one where we recently visited. We hope you try them and the many others that are sprouting up.

Our favorite Taiwanese restaurant in Queens is Taiwan Village at 41-02 College Point Boulevard (718) 321-7309. We like their Milk Fish Soup, adore their Pork Chop over Rice, recommend their Hakka Style Sauteed Green Bean Noodle dish, can’t rave enough about their Seafood with Black Bean Sauce, their Hotpot, the Clams with Basil, and ever so many other fine dishes. It is a small restaurant, so do consider making a reservation.

When in our nation’s capital, try Taishan at 622 H Street NW, in Washington DC. (202) 639-0266. Not all dishes are Taiwanese. We recommend their Sliced Cold Pig Knuckle, the Fish Balls Noodles in Soup, the Sliced Fish Congee or the Congee with Pork & Preserved Egg, the Conch Stir Fried with Chinese Yellow Chives, and the Crab with Ginger & Spring Onion (baked), and the Goose feet and Black Mushroom (in a clay pot).

For those who do not live near a Taiwanese restaurant, try any or all of the following recipes. They will bring tasting Taiwan to reality. You will not care if the people in these restaurants are Taiwanese, speak Hakka, Hokkiennese, or Taiwanhua which is what those in China call their language in Mandarin. You will not care what their political allegiance is, be it to China or to their local government. You will just be delighted that they have a sense of identity and a cuisine you can enjoy. One way or another, do just that!
Pork Chop on Rice
4 pork chops, trimmed with one-inch tiny cuts all around to prevent curling
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon rice wine
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1/2 cup sweet potato flour mixed with two tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups cooked rice, kept hot until needed
1. Put pork chops on flat place. Mix garlic, rice wine, and five-spice powder and spread on both sides of each chop. Set aside for fifteen minutes. 2. Heat oil slowly and dip each pork chop into the flour mixture and fry until crisp.
3. Put half cup of rice on each of four dinner plates and put one pork chop on each, and serve with or without a dipping sauce of your choice.
Sweet Potato and Taro Dumplings
1/2 pound taro, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
1/2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon lard or any hydrogenated fat
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 salted egg yolks, each cut in half
8 sheets rice paper
1 sheet purple or green laver cut into eight thin strips
3 Tablespoons sweet potato flour or cornstarch
1 cup corn oil
1. Cook taro and sweet potatoes separately until soft, then mash them and mix them together adding the lard or other fat, the sugar and the salt. Flatten the mixture into a four by eight inch piece, and let them cool about ten minutes. Next, cut into eight sections.
2. Put half a salted egg yolk in the center of each section. Then take a section and cover the yolk with the mixture making the item into a sausage-shaped item about half-inch thick. Roll thin into the rice paper shaping it to resemble a small egg-roll.
3. Take the strip of seaweed and make a belt around the center, slightly wetting the end to make it stick to itself.
4. Dip eat one in the flour and deep fry in heated oil until golden, about one to two minutes. Drain and serve.
Shrimp-stuffed Loquats
1/4 pound peeled shrimp, minced fine
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sweet potato flour or cornstarch
16 well-drained canned loquats
1 Tablespoon crab roe (optional)
1 lettuce leaf as garnish for serving plate
1. Mix shrimp with ground pepper and sweet potato flour gently.
2. Stuff the loquats and put tiny bit of crab roe on the top of each one.
3. Steam over boiling water for one and a half minutes, then remove to platter siting them on a raw lettuce leaf; and serve.
Stuffed Yao Tai
4 yao tai (Chinese long deep-fried crullers), cut each into three pieces
1/4 pound peeled shrimp, finely minced
1/4 pound finely hand-minced lean beef
9 water chestnuts, minced very fine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons sweet potato flour
1 cup oil
1. Make slice the long way but not all the way through into each cut cruller piece preparing them for stuffing.
2. Mix shrimp, beef, water chestnuts, salt, and sugar and set aside.
3.Using half the flour, dust inside of each cruller piece lightly with the sweet potato flour. Sprinkle the rest of the flour on top of the shrimp/beef mixture.
4.Take one-twelfth of the shrimp mixture and stuff it into each cruller. 5. Heat oil and then oil blanch for one minute, each piece, one at a time into the oil and drain it immediately. Repeat until done, then serve.
Fish with Red Wine Lees
½ pound of fish fillets, cut into four pieces
2 Tablespoons sweet potato flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons red wine lees
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 Tablespoon minced ginger
1. Sprinkle fish with sweet potato flour, salt, and sugar.
2. Brush all sides of the fish with the red wine lees.
3. Heat oil and fry the ginger for one minute, add the fish and continue frying, about two minutes for the first side and one minute for the second one until the fish is almost cooked through. Serve.

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