Celebrating Food! Celebrating Life!

Asian Food Fest #10 Aug 2014 : Taiwan

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Welcome to Taiwan! Our 10th instalment of Asian Food Fest brings us to this beautiful country which was once called “Formosa” by the Portuguese, the first “foreigners” to set their eyes on it about 500 years ago to mean “Beautiful Island”, and beautiful is truly an understatement. Rarely would one would be able to find another place on Earth where one could be enjoying the warm sea breeze by the coastal regions and within less than an hour, scale altitudes of more than 2500m above sea-level to confront the majestic mountain ranges. Having the Tropic of Cancer cutting right through the island nation, one can be chewing sugarcane in Tainan or Pingtung in the morning and in less than half a day’s drive, be admiring the majestic cypress and cherry blossoms on Alishan or even playing with snow on Yushan. It is through this complex and often strategic juxtaposition of geographical factors that brings about the rich natural and social history Taiwan has, as well as its anthropology and culture. So join us in this month-long adventure to discover the interesting aspects of her food culture, the nuances which make her distinctively different from her proximal neighbours, to become what we now know as being uniquely Taiwan!


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No discussion on the food culture of Taiwan can begin without first understanding her history. Long before anything had been written about it, Taiwan was already inhabited by whom we know of today as the “indigenous people” of Taiwan, or more commonly known as “原住民” to mean “the original inhabitants”. They migrated to Taiwan thousands of years ago and have been residing there since. They were here long before the Chinese arrived as they were the only occupants encountered by the Dutch when the latter arrived in early 17th century. Today, there are a total of 14 known and distinguishable “minority tribes” with another dozen or so more waiting to be acknowledged and recognised. The former include 阿美族 the Amis, 賽德克族 the Seediq, 泰雅族 the Atayal, 排灣族 the Paiwan and 布農族 the Bunun amongst others. They engaged in food gathering techniques like hunting which “modern man” may deem “primordial “。 As such, their culinary techniques remain very simple and somewhat primitive. In the past, wild game like pheasant (锦鸡), flying squrriels (sugar gliders) (飞鼠), wild boar (山猪), civet cat (果子狸) and various deer species (山羌,水鹿,梅花鹿) form a large part of their diet. But besides wild boar, most of the other wildlife are already been protected under strict laws and regulations now.
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Apart from wild game, the aborigines also harvest edible vegetative matter in the form of fruit, leaves and root from trees and ferns to supplement their diet. They are also fond of cultivating millet for brewing millet wine (小米酒), which is not only for consumption and enjoyment, but more importantly as an offering for ancestral and spiritual worship. Of all the tribal dishes I have encountered, one of the most intriguing is “stone soup”. Its means of cooking apparently stemmed from the days way before pottery was even known to Man. The “stock pot” is simply a hollowed out hardwood trunk. Bits of fish and shrimp caught from nearby freshwater streams are added into the trunk together with some wild vegetables and stream water. Smooth pebbles and rocks from the rivers are first heated over burning firewood until they are very hot, before being carefully added into the water. It is through the sheer heat of the stones by which the soup ingredients are being “cooked”. Other common fare amongst the tribal folks would be grilled or stir fried wild boar meat or fish, steamed rice encased in bamboo 竹筒饭, stir fried young bird’s nest or fiddle-head fern fronds 炒山苏/炒過貓 etc. Those living near the coastal regions or on the smaller islands like 兰屿 took to the sea and develop a liking for seafood, often eating them raw or preserved through drying, brining or pickling.
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The first Chinese to reside in Taiwan were on the Penghu Islands but it was not until the 1600s during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties that the Han people begin to reside on the main island. The early Chinese were largely from the Fujian province, most specifically those from Zhangshou (漳州) and Quanzhou (泉州)。 Together, they helped to shape the earliest form of “Taiwanese cuisine” (台菜)。 Dishes which have very obvious roots from Min cuisine (闽菜) including rice dumplings (台式肉粽), braised pork rice (滷肉饭), pickled radish omelette (菜脯蛋), steamed crab on glutinous rice (紅蟳米糕), oyster omelette (蚵仔煎),angkoo kueh (红龟粿) as well as spring rolls (润饼) which are more popularly known as chun juan (春卷) or simply popiah (薄饼) in the larger hokkien-speaking diaspora.
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Apart from the Hokkiens, the Hakkas are also a Chinese majority in Taiwan. The exodus of the Hakkas from Mainland China took place even before the Qing Dynasty took over control of Taiwan during the Kangxi reign in later 1600s, though a large number came during 1700s when migration regulations were lifted. They traditionally reside in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli counties as well as villages in the Kaohsiung and Pingtung areas. Like the early immigrants from Fujian, the Hakkas also took to the Taiwanese way of life and brought along their culture and food. Popular Hakka dishes in Taiwan include “Hakka Stir Fry” (客家小炒), Pig Large Intestines and Pineapple Stir Fry (大肠炒凤梨), Pig Large Intestines and Ginger Stir Fry (姜丝炒大肠), Lei Tea (擂茶), Pork Belly braised in Pickled Greens (梅菜扣肉), and of course the ever popular ”Three-Cup Chicken” (三杯鸡). Like the Hokkiens, the Hakkas too are fond of making an assortment of chewy glutinous rice based snacks called 客家粄 in both sweet and savory flavours. However, there may be some differences in preparation methods and ingredients used by the Taiwanese Hakkas compared to their counterparts from other Hakka communities around the world.
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Despite having colonised Taiwan, the Dutch and the Spanish had very little influence on the local cuisine. It was probably because the Europeans only took Taiwan as a trading post with little intention to settle down for good. It was the Japanese who came to rule over Taiwan in the 19th and early 20th century who continued to inspire the local culture, including their dietary habits. Firstly, Japanese rule was perpetual from North to South, unlike the Europeans who only dominated small pockets of the island. Japanese influence in Taiwan can be experienced from Keelung where many of them landed, all the way down to the Hengchun Peninsula. The Japanese brought their lifestyle over to Taiwan and thoroughly changed the Taiwanese ways of life, from their architecture, to social infrastructure, education system and even their food. Over time, the Taiwanese adapted the traditional Japanese foodfare to suit their local taste. For example, the popular Keelung 黑轮关东煮 includes pig’s blood glutinous rice cake(猪血米糕) on top of the other popular surimi (fish paste)-based oden ingredients, while Tian Bu La 甜不辣 is a spinoff from the Japanese tempura though the ingredients are not always coated with batter. 阿给 A-gei in Tamshui takes its name from abura-age, the Japanese name for deep-fried beancurd skin puffs which are then stuffed with surimi and mung bean starch vermicelli which is called dongfen 冬粉 in Chinese and harusame (春雨) in Japanese respectively. But by far, the strongest influence of Japanese food culture in Taiwan must surely be their takeaway/takeout meals which is popularly known as “bento” 弁当 in Japanese and colloquialised as bian dang 便当 in Taiwan. But do not expect to find 肉じゃが Nikujaga or きんぴらごぼう Kinpira Gobo in these lunchboxes. A typical Taiwanese “bento” would have blanched greens (烫青菜) instead as side dishes, together with a piece of braised pork belly (焢肉) or chicken drumstick (鸡腿) or sometimes a piece of deep fried pork chop (猪排) but unlike the Japanese tonkatsu, the latter comes without batter, And finally, there must always be the customary braised hard-boiled egg (滷蛋) which adds a touch of local flavour to it.
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The Japanese occupation in Taiwan lasted a good 50 years, and ended with the 2nd World War. When Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuo Ming Tang army retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War, he brought along with him more than two million people, including his soldiers and their family members, though most came without. Chiang’s troops came from various parts of China, most notably, Sichuan (四川), Shandong (山东), Hunan (湖南), Shanghai (上海) and of course Zhejiang (浙江) where Chiang’s native roots lie. Collectively, they are known as “外省人” by the locals to mean “folks from the outer provinces”. Many of these soldiers were settled in villages called 眷村 which were built for them. They too brought along the food culture of their hometowns and gradually infuse to become part and parcel of Taiwanese cuisine as we know of today. These include 红油抄手, 口水鸡, 炸酱面, 麻辣锅, 蒜泥白肉,牛肉面,粉蒸排骨 from Szechuan cuisine, 山东面食 like 烧饼,馒头,花卷,锅饼,烙饼 as well as 酸菜白肉锅 from Shandong cuisine, 四喜烤麸,  宁波炸排骨,生煎包, 烤方 from Zhejiang and Shanghainese cuisines, not forgetting  the most iconic of them all, 小籠包. The influx of these regional cuisines made Taiwanese cuisine so much more colourful and vibrant as we know today.

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Within Taiwan, the various counties, townships and cities also have their own unique signatures and specialties. Apart from those mentioned above, others include smelly beancurd 臭豆腐 from Shenkeng 深坑, Sun biscuits 太阳饼 and yam pastry 芋头酥 from Taichung 台中,  meatballs 贡丸 and rice vermicelli 米粉 from Hsinchu 新竹, Bakwan 肉圆 from Chunghwa 彰化, spring onion pancakes 葱油饼 from Yilan 宜兰, braised pig trotters 猪脚 from Wanluan 萬巒, stir fried eel noodles 鳝鱼意面, minced pork noodles 担仔面 and coffin toast 棺财板 from Tainan 台南, and last but not least, iced yam and sweet potato balls 芋圆 from Jiufen 九份 just to name a few!
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The night market culture 夜市文化 in Taiwan is another contributing factor to Taiwan’s vibrant food culture. Some nightmarkets are permenent fixtures, like Taipei Shilin 士林, Raohe street 饶河街, Shida 师大, Ningxia 宁夏 night markets in Taipei or Liuho Night Market 六合夜市 in Kaohsiung. whilst those in other counties like Garden Night Market 花园夜市 in Tainan or Luodong Night Market 罗东夜市 in Yilan  may only operate during certain days of the week. Which ever the case, one is never short of finding local Taiwanese delights like  crispy steamed dumplings 水煎包, assortment of braised foodstuff 滷味, oyster meesua 蚵仔面线, thick squid soup 生炒花枝羹 etc. in these night markets. Some have become so iconic that they are absolute “must-eats” for both locals and tourists alike, while others develop bizaare sounding names to attractive publicity, like 大饼包小饼,官芝林大肠包小肠, 豪大大炸鸡排, 爆蛋糕 etc. The competitive nature of these night markets caused stall owners, especially young and budding entrepreneurs to continually develop new food items to keep the interest level high…
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Apart from the savory, desserts and sweet drinks are also very popular amongst the locals. Bubble tea 珍珠奶茶 is a name held synonymous to Taiwan food culture and quickly became famous worldwide. Other popular spinoffs from the bubble tea craze include frothy tea 泡沫红茶 “violently concocted” by mechanised play dolls holding cocktail shakers and winter melon tea 冬瓜茶. Iced desserts are a favorite especially during the hot summer months, from the more traditional assorted shave ice desserts like 芋头冰,八宝冰, 爱玉冰 to the iconic  mango and milk shaved ice 芒果牛奶冰 which was dubbed by CNN as one of the “World’s Top 10 Desserts”. In the cooler months, the locals love a bowl of hot red bean soup 红豆汤, or hot grass jelly 烧仙草, hot beancurd 烧豆花 and hot glutinous rice balls coated with grated sesame 烧麻糬. In short, there is never short of something sweet whichever season it may be!
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For more inspiration and details on Taiwanese dishes, please refer to the following links.
Taiwan Duck
Taiwanese Cooking
Micky’s Favorite Taiwanese Recipes
Tiny Urban Kitchen’s Taiwanese Recipes

Apart from static websites, Youtube also has some fantastic channels showcasing Taiwanese cooking shows online. These include
jian jyun wang
楊桃美食網
Chinese Food 中華料理食譜

they are a great source of reference for me. Hope they will be for you too!

So do join in the fun this month and prepare a popular Taiwanese delight, be it sweet or savory.

To join:

1. Who can join? Anyone can join.
2. Prepare a dish (sweet or savory) that is from Taiwan, be it old time favorites, modern goodies or dishes that has been localized. Take a picture of the food or many pictures.
3. Provide recipe that is credited (from books, internet, friends or family or your own, be specific). Submissions without stating recipe sources will not be accepted for all forms of submission.
4. Submit your entry latest by 30th August 2014.

To submit:

1.Bloggers

a. Prepare a dish (sweet or savoury) that is from Taiwan.
b. Blog about it from 1st August 2014 – 30th August 2014
c. Include this caption below your blog post

“I am submitting this post to Asian Food Fest #10 Aug 2014 : Taiwan hosted by travelling-foodies.”

Submit your entry via the Linky provided at the end of this blog post (the link will be up over the next few days, so do keep a look out for it)
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2. Facebook user
a. Like the Asian Food Fest Facebook page.
b. Prepare a dish ( sweet or savoury ) from Taiwan.
c. Take a picture and upload it into Facebook on Asian Food Fest facebook page, on the timeline.
d. Provide recipe with picture.

Bloggers can submit old recipes to Facebook, but please state “OLD BLOG POST”.
Anyone that has once cooked a Taiwanese dish and have a picture and recipe can submit to Facebook. Not necessarily a recently done dish.

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24 responses

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  2. Patty

    I really love the topic about Taiwanese Food, this can last for a long time. One thing I would like to point out is the Chinese character. Please avoid using simplified Chinese character when we talk about Taiwanese culture or food.

    August 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Sorry but I don’t really see a dire need to revert to using traditional Chinese characters 繁体 be it for Taiwanese or Chinese cuisine. I use simplified Chinese characters because that was what I grew up learning here in Singapore and what I comfortable with using. I can type and read traditional Chinese characters of course but I don’t see the need to deliberate make a difference between the two. I would use if I remember but if I don’t, I don’t. As simple as that. 简繁字体的使用只是一种形式, 而不代表某种立场。

      August 5, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      • sinosoul

        If you can read/write traditional characters, why NOT use them, is the real question? Even if just to perpetuate the culture? Furthermore, Taiwan doesn’t use simplified. The local dishes are not what you’ve typed. Searching for simplified vs. traditional characters online provides varied results. Non-Chinese would not be able to find the specific dishes based on your simplified writing scheme. Think of the laowai, do it for them.

        August 9, 2014 at 12:27 am

      • Alan (travellingfoodies)

        As much as I love Taiwan, I’m not Taiwanese. Do you see websites showcasing Japanese or Indian dishes necessarily write the name of the dish in Japanese or Hindi/Tamil/Malayalam/Urdu/Punjabi? I think I’d already answered you to you “why NOT” use them in my previous reply to the above commentor. Put bluntly, I don’t see the need to do so as it is my blog and I decide what I want to write, be it traditional or simplied Chinese. In any case, the local dishes as just as what they are, be it scripted in traditional and simplified script. Try google for “蚵仔面线” and you would notice that results for “蚵仔麵線” shows up as well. This is true for most cases as google links up search results for both simplied and traditional script many a time. In any case, what is the use of a 老外/红毛 laowai/angmoh trying to google for the names of the dishes in traditional Chinese script when he/she probably can’t read the rest of the text which would logically be traditional Chinese script as well anyway. But I thank you for your feedback nonetheless :)

        August 9, 2014 at 10:42 pm

      • Goldfish

        I wasn’t going to say anything but I feel badly about letting you go around with a “kick me” sign on your back.
        First, let me say that I really enjoyed your article and the pics are great! I think the Chinese characters are a nice touch and give the article “flavor.” I appreciate the time you spent writing it, getting the images and posting it for everyone to enjoy. But that being said, you should really be using traditional characters with respect to anything Taiwanese.
        You may not be aware that Simplified Chinese was created by Mao & the Communists — the people who overthrew Chiang Kai Shek and the R.O.C and forced them to retreat to Taiwan. It wasn’t that long ago when anyone found in possession of documents in simplified Chinese in Taiwan could be executed as a “Communist spy” without trial.
        But generally speaking, for many people in Taiwan, Simplified Chinese represents a rejection of traditional Chinese values, customs and everything the R.O.C lost when they left their homeland. And to use it, without careful consideration, is offensive. No one in Taiwan is likely to say anything to you — they’re too polite. But if you’re wondering why you can’t “schmooze” a better deal, that might be the reason.

        September 8, 2014 at 7:09 am

      • Alan (travellingfoodies)

        haha thanks for the insightful reply. Yes I am well aware of the political and partisan-related motivations behind the simplified Chinese system and the whole mumbo jumbo behind the KMT retreat during the post-1949 years. I respect your views of course, about the possible connotations behind the usage of either traditional or simplified script. However, I do not necessarily agree with them. I agree that the traditional Chinese script in the traditional form does imbue much more meaning morphologically. It is a beautiful language on its own. However, to forcefully equate and label the usage of simplified Chinese script as an erosion or rejection of traditional Chinese values sounds a tad too overbearing to me.It is just most unfortunate. I read all my 唐诗宋词 and 四大名著 in simplified Chinese and I don’t think I would miss anything if I had read it in traditional Chinese or otherwise. my grandmother taught me what there is to know about 忠孝仁爱礼义廉耻 through her vivid narrations of old legends and stories, but being an illiterate, she didn’t write or read a word of Mandarin, be it in traditional or simplified script. So I don’t think the imparting of traditional values has anything to do with what script was used. I have many friends in Taiwan, whom I correspond with in Chinese, they use traditional script, I would reply in simplified script, and vice versa. I don’t see it as a hindrance whatsoever between our friendship, which is forged out of everything but what script we write in. And I thank them for being more pre-judgemental and understand me as a person, based on my qualities and not what script I write in. About the Taiwanese, I think they have more things to worry about now in their country (yes I think of Taiwan as an independent sovereignty and not part of Mainland China in case you are unaware.) like how their President Ma is about to sell the pride and dignity of the Taiwanese people away with the signing of 服贸. They would also be more concerned over how Kaohsiung’s 气爆 incident should be resolved asap, returning the lives of the poor Kaohsiung folks in normalcy, than what script I use in my blog. Their attention would be more diverted by the repeated incidents of 食安事件 over just the last few years from 塑化剂 to the use of 銅葉綠素 in olive oil and now the illegal and disgusting incorporation of 馊水油 in processed foods, living their lives in peril as to what is indeed still safely edible. But I thank you nonetheless for your invaluable input. :)

        September 9, 2014 at 12:44 am

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  5. Goldfish

    The Japanese also brought Korean dishes with them.

    August 6, 2014 at 11:26 pm

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  19. Great blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There
    are so many options out there that I’m completely
    overwhelmed .. Any tips? Thanks a lot!

    October 23, 2014 at 10:22 am

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