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Taiwan's long history of colonization has forged its distinct cuisine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And I'm Ailsa Chang in Tainan, Taiwan, which, you know, hasn't been the seat of government in Taiwan in quite a while. But there is a very good case to be made that this city is still the culinary capital of this entire island. A lot of cooks in Tainan begin their days right here in a market called Shuixian Gong Market. And if you look at all the displays of shiny orange and silver fish, bright rows of glistening pork ribs and overflowing crates of dragon fruit and guava, what you really see in this place is a portrait of all the forces, both Indigenous and from external colonizers, that have shaped modern Taiwan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: So to better understand what the Dutch, the Chinese and the Japanese imprinted on the Taiwanese palate, we met up with Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen who've just written a cookbook called "Made In Taiwan."

IVY CHEN: Hi.

CLARISSA WEI: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. Thank you so much for making time...

Now, that title declares something. Even though about 90% of the people here have Chinese ancestry, they have forged a cuisine that is all their own.

I grew up where my mom cooked both Taiwanese and Chinese food, so I kind of thought both cuisines were the same thing when I was a kid. Clarissa, how would you explain the difference between Taiwanese and Chinese food?

WEI: So in terms of, like, cooking techniques and ingredients, it's very similar. But Taiwanese food is quite distinct in that we have our own pantry items that are unique to Taiwan. Taiwanese cuisine tends to be more sweet. Here in Tainan, the food is very, very sweet because this used to be a sugarcane-producing hub. And when Taiwan was a Japanese colony, Taiwan produced most of the sugar for the Japanese Empire. And at one point, like, two-thirds of all Taiwanese families were in the sugarcane-producing business. So it was a huge part of our culture.

CHANG: To show us this Taiwanese love of sugar, Ivy leads us to a stand full of bright pink sweets. It's a fixture at this market.

CHEN: They establish hundred years almost.

CHANG: You have been here...

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: ...A hundred years?

CHEN: Third generation.

CHANG: Ivy hands me a hot-pink, gooey pancake.

CHEN: That's ang ku kueh.

CHANG: It's called ang ku kueh. They're decorated to look like the top of a turtle shell.

I want to try ang dao a (ph) - red bean.

CHEN: Ang dao a, ang dao a...

CHANG: Oh, I love how sticky this is.

That is from sticky rice, which is a short-grain rice. Clarissa says short-grain rice had to fight its way onto this island after Chinese settlers had been growing long-grain for centuries.

WEI: When the Japanese came, they sort of craved their short-grain rice. That's the rice you have in sushi, which is really sticky. But short-grain rice does not grow well in a subtropical climate, so they spent 10 years trying to cultivate a short-grain rice on Yangmingshan, which is a mountain hill-ish area in Taipei. After 10 years, they finally succeeded, and that has become our rice of choice.

CHANG: And because it's so laborious to cultivate rice, it was deemed a worthy offering to the gods and ancestors. That's why people will take sticky rice sweets like ang ku kueh to temples, such as one just steps away from this vendor. It's called Shuixian Gong Temple, and, you know, you will often see temples and food markets appear side by side in Taiwan.

CHEN: During the worship time - two, three hours - people are hungry, so they are hanging out in the neighborhood. They're looking for food. And that's how many small vendor gathering in the neighborhood and start doing their business.

CHANG: I love how, like, mopeds and motorcycles and scooters are just driving through the market stands.

WEI: Yeah. It's chaos.

CHANG: Shuixian Gong Temple is hundreds of years old. It's dedicated to the water gods, and paintings above the entrance pay homage to the ocean that surrounds this island.

Yeah, you see one man pulling an octopus from the sea?

WEI: Yeah, it looks like it - or a squid. And to the left, there's, like, an old man fishing.

CHANG: And then I spot one of my favorite delicacies of the ocean - fish balls.

Oh, it smells so good. What are the different fish here?

CHEN: Oh, they have flounder fish ball. They have shrimp ball. So on the top left, that's the milk fish ball. So the milk fish is very important agriculture in Tainan area.

CHANG: Milk fish.

CHEN: Milk fish.

CHANG: And milk fish also has a connection to the Dutch colonization on this island, right, Clarissa?

WEI: Yeah. So the milk fish, it's been here for centuries. The Indigenous, their name for it was ma ta (ph) because of their beady eyes. And when the Dutch came, they started the aquaculture industry where they were breeding the milk fish. And this has become a staple in the Taiwanese diet ever since.

CHANG: To plunge further into the aquaculture of this island, we head closer to the shore to another neighborhood in Tainan called Anping. You can see groups of people shucking oysters on street corners here - Taiwanese oysters. Chinese migrants started growing these along the west coast of this island more than 200 years ago. And these oysters, they show up in a dish my mom used to cook all through my childhood - o-a-tsian (ph). We order some at a small street restaurant.

WEI: This place is called Old Dutch Fort Oyster Omelet, and behind us is another Dutch fort.

CHANG: So o-a-tsian is basically an omelet that's studded with Taiwanese oysters, which are smaller than those you might see in North America. The omelet's thickened with sweet potato starch and then slathered in a sweet and tangy sauce. I take a bite, and...

Man, now I'm wondering if my mom's been cooking o-a-tsian wrong my entire childhood. This tastes so different. So as we're, like, looking at all the different ingredients in this oyster omelet, what do you think these ingredients tell us about the island?

WEI: Yeah. So I really like this dish because it describes what Taiwanese food was 200, 300 years ago. It's very simple, and, like, the bulk of it really is sweet potato starch because sweet potatoes thrive. There's a little bit of egg for protein - but not much - and then oysters, which grow in abundance because we're located right next to the shore, some bean sprouts and some greens for texture. And it looks very gooey and gelatinous...

CHANG: I love it.

WEI: But this is very much poor man's food. It's very filling as well because of all the starch. And this isn't a dish you associate with Chinese food at all. It's something that is very, very Taiwanese and unique to Taiwan.

CHANG: And I totally grew up thinking this was Chinese. So this is - I'm just kind of like, whoa, right now (laughter).

And understanding what distinguishes Chinese food from Taiwanese food - well, that was something even Ivy slowly discovered on her own, and she had been a cooking instructor for years. Her students are usually from other parts of the world.

CHEN: My customer keep asking me, what is the Taiwanese food, and what is the Chinese food? What's the difference? So then I need to ask myself. So I studied and I figure out.

CHANG: Oh, so that was a process for you. It's not like you knew the answer right away, what is the difference between Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine?

CHEN: No, no. I - yeah, I can tell, but I never think that people will ask me that way. I need to give a definition about the Chinese food and Taiwanese food.

CHANG: Here's the thing, though. There can't be a black-and-white definition of Taiwanese food. But Clarissa and Ivy argue the food is unique. The flavors, the produce, the seafood - they are the historical record of colonialism and migration on this island. And that's why they say this island's cuisine deserves to stand on its own.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This story was produced by Mallory Yu and Jonaki Mehta. Patrick Jarenwattananon was the editor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.