Taiwan is a small island located just off the coast of mainland China, just south of Japan and north of the Philippines. Taiwan's cuisine encompasses a blend of many styles, including dishes from the Hoklo ethnic group (which makes up about 60% of Taiwan’s population), the aboriginal Taiwanese, Hakka (southern Chinese cooking) as well as influences from China’s Fujian, Guangdang, Jiangxi, Shanghai, Hunan, Sichuan and Beijing provinces.
The island's dense population and mountainous terrain (only 20% of the land is arable) limits the amount of farmable land. Seafood of all types, from large fishes like grouper or tuna to sardines, crustaceans, oysters, clams, and squid is a major source of protein in Taiwan, as are chicken, pork and soy. Beef is rarely eaten, partly due to the traditional perception of cattle as precious farm animals needed for agriculture. Duck, goose, snails, frog and turkey are also commonly eaten in Taiwan.
The Taiwanese are fond of fruit – everyday meals often include a large communal plate of fruit. The island’s subtropical climate allows for an abundance of fruits such as papayas, melons, plums, Asian pears, guavas, bananas, lychees and citrus. Taiwan also produces a great amount of green and leafy vegetables, including water spinach, onions, leeks, cilantro, bok choy, bean spouts, cabbage and Chinese celery, as well as tubers like sweet potatoes, potatoes and taro.
The cuisine of Taiwan is heavily influenced by the food of mainland China. For more on China’s Cuisine, please see our January newsletter, located in our Newsletter archives. Traditional Taiwanese cooking is light and simple, using fresh ingredients and natural flavors. The Taiwanese are also known for “tonic foods,” which are prepared using medicinal and seasonal ingredients. For example, nourishing soups such as tang kuei, which is made from duck or lamb are said to improve blood flow and circulation.
In general, Taiwanese food tends to be less spicy than western Chinese (Sichuan) cooking, but hotter than Northern Chinese cooking. Here, most dishes are prepared simply, with seasonings such as soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Other flavorings include black beans, pickled radishes, peanuts, chili peppers, parsley, and a local variety of basil. One famous Taiwanese dish is san bei ji (“three cup chicken”) because the recipe calls for one cup of soy sauce, one cup of sesame oil and one cup of rice wine.
Here is a recipe for San bei ji:
1 small chicken, cut into small bite-sized pieces
6 cloves garlic, crushed
10 slices ginger
1 cup sesame oil
1 cup rice wine
1 cup soy sauce
4 stalks fresh basil (optional)
Brown chicken pieces in a little of the sesame oil. Add garlic and ginger towards the end of browning. Add the rest of the sesame oil, rice wine and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Uncover, add basil and serve with rice.
The Japanese, who occupied Taiwan for a short time (1895-1945), have also influenced Taiwanese cuisine. Instead of using shaoxing wine, which is typical of mainland Chinese cooking, many Taiwanese dishes are flavored using a clear rice wine that is similar to mirin, a sweet Japanese cooking wine. Typical Japanese dishes, such as sushi and sashimi are also popular in Taiwan. Mild curries, often flavored with chicken and potatoes, as well as the use of seaweed also seem to be the result of Japanese influence. The Taiwanese even have a version of tempura, a popular deep-fried dish, and often use miso, a salty condiment made of soybeans. And restaurants that feature teppanyaki, a Japanese style of cooking where food is cooked in front of diners on an open grill, has become popular in Taiwan as well.
As in most Asian countries, rice is eaten regularly. Taiwanese rice is a hybrid of short and long grain rice, which was developed during the Japanese rule. For breakfast, one of Taiwan’s traditional dishes is “xi fan,” or congee, a porridge-style soup made with rice that is eaten for breakfast or lunch and served with side dishes. Here is a recipe for basic Taiwanese congee.
1 cup rice (long, medium or short grain)
6 cups water
Rinse rice until water is clear, then drain. Boil water and add the rice. Stir the rice as you bring to a second boil. Simmer uncovered on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Turn off heat. Replace the lid on pot and let rest for 10 minutes. Serve with accompaniments. Typical accompaniments include Chinese sausage, fermented tofu, pickled vegetables, sliced ginger, stewed peanuts or salty duck eggs.
Taiwan is also known for its appetizers. Called xiao cai, appetizers are almost always a part of an everyday Taiwanese meal. Popular starter dishes include pickled cucumber salad, cold jellyfish salad, stir-fried fish with peanuts and tofu with thousand-year old eggs, which are duck or chicken eggs that have been preserved in clay for a number of days.
Soups and stews are also common courses with Taiwanese meals. Favorite Taiwanese soups include hot & sour soup, seaweed soup and beef noodle soup. Dumplings are also quite popular. Jaozi, or steamed dumplings are eaten often, as well as potstickers and xiao long bao, or steamed bread dumplings.
Also popular in Taiwan are vegetarian dishes, in Taipei alone there are over 300 vegetarian restaurants. Many Taiwanese have adapted vegetarianism as influenced by Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. The Taiwanese are known for its style of cooking using vegetarian ingredients to re-create meat dishes, cleverly imitating the taste, flavor and texture of meat. For example, a dish called “noble ham” is actually made from tofu and cabbage greens, and an “abalone” dish is made from tofu and mushrooms.
Taiwan is also known for the snacks of the night markets. Night markets are commonly bustling marketplaces with vendors selling clothing, goods and food. Best known for xiaochi, which means “small eats,” the markets are packed with food stalls serving popular snacks and fast food. Popular xiaochi include tea eggs, dumplings, omelets, fruit ices and dou hua, a sweet dessert. One of the most famous night market dishes is chou do fu, also known as “stinky tofu.” Definitely for the adventurous, this dish consists of tofu that has been fermented and can be served steamed, stewed or deep-fried. As the name implies, its odor is quite pungent, but the flavor is surprisingly mild.
Tea eggs, one of the popular night market snacks, is surprisingly easy to make. Here is a recipe:
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
2 pieces Star Anise
1 tablespoon black tea leaves or tea bag
Bring the eggs to the boil and simmer for 3-5 minutes.
Drain and cool. When cool enough to handle, gently tap the egg's shell all over without removing the shell.
Place back in the pan, cover the eggs with water, add the remaining ingredients and bring back to boil, turn down and simmer on low heat for an hour or more, this helps the flavors infuse the egg.
Drain once more. Eggs can be eaten hot or cold and should have an attractive marble effect.
With meals, the Taiwanese usually drink tea. Though black and green teas are common, the most famous tea in Taiwan is oolong. Oolong tea leaves have been partially oxidized, giving it the qualities of both black and green teas. Alcoholic beverages include kaoliang (sorghum) liquor and Taiwanese beer.
Another popular Taiwanese beverage is boba, or bubble teas. The boba refers to the small balls of tapioca, which are usually made from cassava flour. The gelatinous balls are then covered with green or black tea, milk or fruit and sipped through a large straw. Served hot or cold, this beverage has become quite popular with both Asians and Americans alike. Boba is said to have originated from a store in Taichung, Taiwan in the 80s, and became popular in the United States in the 90s. Another popular sweet snack is Taiwanese shaved ice. Served in a large bowl or cup – the shaved ice is added to a variety of ingredients such as adzuki or mung beans, fruit, gelatin, nuts or boba and covered with syrupy condensed milk.
Whether you are able to travel to Taiwan, or maybe just to your local Taiwanese restaurant, Taiwanese food is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. For those who’d like to prepare an authentic Taiwanese meal at home, peruse the pages Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen for equipment, ideas and inspiration.
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