Made In Taiwan by Clarissa Wei with Ivy Chen

Taiwanese food, that’s basically the same as Chinese, isn’t it?” That’s the refrain I heard from quite a few people when we planned our two holidays to Taiwan. The answer is “yes and no“, but that “no” is no small thing at all.

Yes, a large swathe of Taiwanese cuisine has similarity to Chinese dishes (though there are many divergences that have evolved over time), but there are several other major influences, not least of which is the food of indigenous peoples who inhabited Taiwan for at least five millennia. (A brief history!)

There are signs of human habitation on Taiwan that go back tens of thousands of years, with clear evidence of agricultural societies dating to 3000 BCE, when many of the now indigenous peoples settled the island. Han Chinese came into contact with those early inhabitants in the 13th century and some of them also began to settle on the island over the next few centuries.

Portuguese explorers first encountered the island in the mid-16th century and named it Formosa. In the 17th century, the Dutch and the Spanish established settlements in the south and north of Formosa, respectively and Formosa came under Dutch rule for two relatively short periods of that century. Immigrants from Fujian and Guangdon provinces also settled in significant numbers at around the same time.

In the late 17th century, Koxinga, a Southern Ming general established a base on the island as part of his resistance of the Qing conquest. When he was defeated by the Qing Dynasty, his territory on the island was annexed by the dynasty and ruled over by them for the two centuries to follow. Immigration of Han Chinese increased significantly. On winning the first Sino-Japanese War against the Qing, Japan acquired and governed Taiwan from 1895.

The island remained under Japanese rule until it returned to Nationalist Chinese control in 1945, following Japan’s defeat during World War II. In 1949, when Chinese communism defeated Nationalist forces, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan and established a separate government there, which transitioned to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 1949 there has been heated contention between the People’s Republic of China (which continues to claim jurisdiction over Taiwan) and Taiwan’s own democratic government, known as the Republic of China.

Made In Taiwan by Clarissa Wei with Ivy Chen

All of which goes to explain the many different influences on Taiwan’s cuisine and why it deserves to be considered, recognised, and appreciated in its own right.

I was aware of some of this history before our first, fairly short trip to Taiwan in 2017 and read up on the history in more detail ahead of our three weeks there last October. Whilst I have always been interested in history, I’m far more fascinated by food and culture.

Ahead of both trips, I read lots of English-language blogs about food. I followed a swathe of Taiwan-based food Instagrammers, mostly trying to parse their captions translated into English from Mandarin Chinese by the app. That’s how I came across Ivy Chen, who worked with Clarissa Wei on the recipe content for this book. Through Ivy, I came to know about Clarissa and followed her account too. And of course, I learned about the upcoming release of this book. In fact, I picked up my copy directly from Ivy during an absolutely wonderful private food tour that Pete and I enjoyed in Taipei.

Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation is a cookbook that shares, champions and celebrates Taiwan’s culinary identity, bringing together historical and modern-day perspectives that contribute to the richness and diversity of Taiwan’s food culture.

Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen with Made in Taiwan book Clarissa Wei (Photograph by Ryan Chen)

Clarissa is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Taipei, with her family. Born and raised in Los Angeles to parents who emigrated there from Taiwan, she has written about the cultures and cuisines of Taiwan and China for over a decade. Her written pieces have appeared in globally respected publications including the BBC, LA Times, New Yorker, Bon Appetit, Eater Epicurious and many more. She has also produced a large collection of documentaries and short videos on diverse topics relating to health politics, culture and food.

Ivy has been teaching Taiwanese cooking since the 1990s and has taught students from all over the world. She also writes content about food and cooking for a range of publications, organisations and shops, has written one book about the stories, recipes and friendships associated with her cooking class and co-authored another book about the produce and recipes of organic and sustainable local farmers. She has also been interviewed by domestic and international media for her expertise in Taiwanese cuisine.

The book starts with a beautiful quote:

“[Neither] race, language, nor culture form a nation, but rather a deeply felt sense of community and shared destiny.”  by Taiwanese democracy activist Peg Ming-Min, in his memoir A Taste Of Freedom

As Clarissa explains in the Introduction, the book is a collaborative effort, and although it is written in her voice, she tells us that Ivy’s guidance forms the backbone of the book as Ivy developed most of the recipes that feature within it. Clarissa’s skills and voice come into play by way of her intense determination to showcase the depth, breadth and complexity of Taiwanese food and culture against a backdrop of a world superpower determined to assert control and enforce sovereignty and cultural homogeneity on this island nation. Indeed, as she acknowledges, for many people around the world their only knowledge of Taiwan is centred around the narrative of an unrelenting threat from China. In this, Clarissa is unflinchingly honest, choosing not to shy away from the reality (of both history and modern day events). Her searing honesty alongside her typically deep and careful research and her acutely incisive writing, are a huge part of what makes this book such a treasure.

Homemade Gua Bao Homemade Gua Bao
Home made gua bao

This is a hefty book, with enough space to do all the many topics and recipes justice. Before the recipes come an Introduction, A Note on Language and Romanisation (into English), a 7 page chapter on the Culinary History of Taiwan (which takes readers through the key historical periods, relates each to their influences on the cuisine of today, and gives pointers to help you find the relevant recipes for each period throughout the book), a essay on the Status Quo (which discusses the nuances of Taiwanese identity, relating it again to key historical periods), and finally some practical guidance on The Taiwanese Pantry, Rice, and Equipment.

In The Taiwanese Pantry, you will learn both practical information about key ingredients such as lard, coarse raw sugar, soy paste, white pepper, dried flounder, shacha sauce, fermented broad bean paste, and maltose as well as information about how the products are made, and why (often for historical reasons) they differ from similar products in China–sometimes this is because traditional manufacturing methods were switched to Japanese industrialised techniques during the decades they ruled the island, in other cases it’s simply that products have evolved over time into versions that are distinctly Taiwanese.

The chapter on Rice is similarly fascinating, with a reminder that Taiwan itself grows a lot of rice, and many Taiwanese cooks hold strong opinions not only on which type of rice to use for a given dish (long grain, short grain, glutinous or not) but also which region it is grown in and which variety. Again, the Japanese colonial era left its mark on the food of Taiwan, with a locally-developed cultivar of japonica rice coming to dominate the local market.

Three-Cup Chicken

Home made three-cup chicken

Recipes are structured into chapters for Breakfast, Side Dishes, Tainan, Lunch Break, Family Style, Beer Food, Night Market, Special Occasions, Sweets & Drinks, Pickles, and Basics & Sauces.

The learning about food and culture doesn’t stop when the recipes start. Many recipes share insight into cooking and eating habits, some have lengthy summaries providing information about a dish’s origins (or the myths thereof!), how it is typically made or eaten, or personal memories from the contributor’s or the author’s experiences–my favourite might be the story of Clarissa’s second date with the man who is now her husband where she introduced him to Black Pepper Steak and Spaghetti or perhaps how a very young Ivy used to play hide and seek in her grandfather’s rice vermicelli factory, coming out of hiding instantly when Stir-Fried Rice Vermicelli was served!

Many recipes also tell the story of individual Taiwanese people such as Tung Yu-Chu (who came to Taiwan as an air force soldier aged just 16, ended up marrying and making his life in Taiwan, and contributed his recipe for scallion pancakes), or Lin Tai-Yu (rapper by night, but by day the chef and third-generation owner of the family’s braised pork over rice business in Tainan), or Hung Yu-Tou (credited with inventing the hugely popular Peddler Noodles which he sold through his business Du Xiao Yue, now an iconic and much-imitated brand in Taiwan), or Huang Shih-Kai (the third generation owner of Hai Rei Meatballs in Hsinchu), or Aeles Lrawbalrate (a restaurateur and member of the Rukai people, one of 16 recognised Austronesian indigenous groups in Taiwan), or Cheng Yi-Chu (who continues his family’s Black Pepper Buns business, launched in 1951), and many many others.

I was also rather shocked to discover in one such recipe summary that Momofuku Ando (credited as the Japanese business man who founded Nissan Food and invented instant noodle technology–we visited a museum in Osaka dedicated to his story during our first trip to Japan), was actually born and raised in Taiwan and took the concept and techniques of making instant noodles from Taiwa to Japan! His nationality was Japanese only because Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule at that time. Although he denounced Japanese citizenship on the liberation of Taiwan he moved to Japan not long after and became a naturalised Japanese citizen again many years later in order to retain ownership of his properties there. Momofuku is simply the Japanese reading of his Taiwanese name (百福Pek-hok) and Ando is the family name of his Japanese wife.

Interspersed between the recipes are additional essays on a diverse array of topics. These include (amongst others) The Morning After (which explains how the growing fondness for northern Chinese-style breakfast eateries arises from the popularity of watching baseball on TV all night), All-American Wheat (which relates how an American food aid program launched by Eisenhower in 1954 changed the prevalence of wheat in the Taiwanese diet) , The Steamer That Could (reporting how revolutionary the electric rice steamer was to Taiwanese kitchens), Why is Taiwanese Food So Sweet? (which divulges the Taiwanese fondness for sugar in what are ostensibly savoury dishes), Cost Performance Value (a now ubiquitous term meaning “good value for money” that came into common usage via food bloggers and Instagrammers in 2010), Cows Are Friends Not Food (which tells of the change in culture from a time when eating beef was almost taboo to the present day when it’s eaten en masse), Taiwan Is So Convenient (depicting the rise of now-ubiquitous convenience stores such as 7-Eleven), Railway Bento Box (which narrates some of the impacts of Japanese rule, both good and bad), The Six Part Meal (a charming tale of how Clarissa came to better understand her parents’–who emigrated from Taiwan to America–abiding love of 99 Ranch, a Taiwanese market in San Gabriel Valley through her and her husband’s appreciation of Costco after they moved to Taiwan), Indigenous Taiwan: The People Before Us (where we learn some of the history, languages, culture and culinary heritage of the indigenous people, much of which is still related to those of the people of Austronesia), Hakka Taiwan: Hakka Mama (introducing Hakka culture and food–Hakka is a term for those of Chinese ancestry who emigrated from a mountainous region of Southern China–through the introduction of Chung Kuo Ming-Chin, a chef, gardener, artist and proponent of Hakka culture), Hot and Noisy with a Crate of Cold Beers (which depicts the love of casual eateries known as rèchăo in which copious beers are enjoyed by groups of friends alongside a wide range of hot stir-fried dishes), Once Upon a Night Market (which narrates the story of how night markets evolved–with government intervention–from loud, dirty and sometimes unsettling but enormously diverse in vibe and food items into cleaner, quieter affairs, albeit with more homogeneity of food, often sold by chains), Around the Hot Pot Circle (in which we learn what sets Taiwanese hot pots apart from those across the rest of Asia), QQ (about a texture best described as elastic, bouncy, chewy, springy), and Taiwanese Bodega (which paints the picture of small, traditional corner stores which, despite their small size, are a treasure trove of key pantry items).

Photography by Ryan Chen is light, bright and appealing. Styling by Yen Wei makes use of lots of traditional crockery and props, some from her own collection but also featuring historical items loaned by the Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles and the Taiwan Dish and Bowl Museum; Clarissa provides photography notes on these and other details about the images throughout the book.

Where helpful, step-by-step process photos show how to shape and fill the dough when making recipes such as Sesame Flatbread, Fried Shrimp Rolls, Soup Dumplings, Zongzi and Tapioca Pearl Milk Tea.

The recipe images are supplemented by charming travel photography (of shops, restaurants and street food stalls, of dishes being made or served by traditional vendors, of Taiwan’s agricultural landscapes, urban spaces and food markets around the country). There are also images providing historical context (such as cherished photos from the family albums of individuals such as Tung Yu-Chu (of himself as a young soldier in the Chinese air force, of his wedding to his Taiwanese wife, and several of their life together) and plenty of bright new portraits of the many people Clarissa has interviewed and shared knowledge from.

Red-Braised Tofu Red-Braised Tofu
Home made red-braised tofu

Thus far we’ve cooked a few dishes from the book: Red-Braised Tofu, Three-Cup Chicken, and Gua Bao. Each have been straightforward to make and utterly delicious, and are recipes we will certainly enjoy again.

We have bookmarked many more that appeal including Scallion Pancakes (a popular breakfast item), Braised Egg, Beancurd and Seaweed, Braised Mince Pork Belly (one of the most ubiquitous dishes we encountered and enjoyed during our trip to Taiwan), Oyster Omelet (another dish we came across often), Savoury Rice Pudding, Coffin Bread (an unusual bread-based dish akin to a large vol-au-vent tht we specifically sought out in Tainan), Pan-Fried Milkfish Belly (if we can source milkfish in the UK), Smoked Betel Leaf Pork Sausage (a delicious sausage made by the indigenous Rukai people), Shacha Beef with Water Spinach, Dry-Fried Green Beans, Popcorn Chicken (a night market staple), and Sesame Oil Chicken Soup.

The book is written in American English, so American spellings, scallions rather than spring onions, and all purpose flour rather than plain flour. Measures are provided in both cup / Imperial as well as metric.

The Contents section is one of the more helpful ones I’ve seen, spread across four entire pages, it lists each recipe and essay within each chapter, making it so much easier to find recipes and stories both. It’s supplemented by a comprehensive index that lists recipes against alphabetised ingredients, but also includes recipe names in their alphabetical positions.

Made in Taiwan is far more than a collection of recipes (though it is excellent in that regard); it’s a primer on not only the food of Taiwan but also its history, culture, produce, people. Above all it gives a true insight into the psyche of this beautiful island nation.

Recipes from Made in Taiwan

We have permission from publisher Simon and Schuster to share some recipes with you from the book:

 

You can find more Taiwanese content here.

You may also like to see all of our East Asian recipes.

Kavey Eats bought a copy of Made in Taiwan by Clarissa Wei when visiting Taiwan in October. Images from the book reproduced courtesy of Simon and Schuster. Styling and photography by Yen Wei and Ryan Chen. Home-cooking photography by Kavita Favelle.

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One Comment to "Made In Taiwan by Clarissa Wei with Ivy Chen"

  1. NickyB

    Fascinating! Interested in whether there are suggested replacements for some of the very specific Taiwanese ingredients??

    Reply

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