The standout successful English-language book about Taiwan in recent years – well, other than the perennial chart-topping Lonely Planet travel guide – has been Cathy Erway’s The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island. Normally I would read such a bestseller right away, if not from interest, then at least from curiosity, but it took me three years to get around to doing so because Taiwanese food coverage is something to which I possess something of a knee-jerk hostility. Perhaps it’s all those inane Facebook pictures, or it could be the embarrassing so-called promotional material on the wonders of Taiwanese food churned out by the tourist authorities in the mistaken idea that visitors’ prime motivation for traveling is to sample the local delicacies. The emphasis on local specialties is particularly annoying. I’m nearly always underwhelmed when I try these starch-filled specialties: confirmation of my theory that if a food is sufficiently tasty it will spread. And it’s always struck me that an overemphasis on the food of a place reveals a lack of interest and knowledge in other deeper elements like history and nature.
The Food of Taiwan does a great job of going beyond the wok and bowl to incorporate Taiwan’s history and culture into the book. It is also in small part a memoir, as the author relates her family’s connection with Taiwan and her own discovery of Taiwan and its cuisine. Erway is a well-known food blogger (Not Eating Out in NY) and author of The Art of Eating In, which describes her two-year abstinence from restaurants. She was born in the United States to a Taiwanese mother and an American father, her parents having met in Taipei in the 1970s.
A first-generation American such as Erway would typically have spent several school vacations in Taiwan visiting relatives and learning Chinese, but her case was slightly different. Her mother’s side of the family didn’t have deep roots on the island, Erway’s grandparents having immigrated to Taiwan from Hunan Province in 1948. And a few decades later, all her Taiwanese relatives – her grandparents and an uncle and aunt – had moved to the United States.
Erway did, however, decide to spend the 2004 spring semester of her last year in college in Taipei studying Chinese, and this is when her love affair with Taiwanese food began. It was both an exciting new experience and a kind of homecoming:
The world of Taiwan—and especially its food—became three-dimensional to me almost from the moment I stepped off the plane. Suddenly, all the foods that I had grown up eating made so much sense to me. All the aromas and tastes were so much richer. And they were so varied! While I could recall my mother making stir-fries with slivered pork and vegetables as a go-to dinner routine at home, in Taiwan I got to taste the tender, gelatinous strips of pork belly and crisp, herbal Chinese celery tossed rapidly together in a smoking-hot wok. The Taiwanese fried chicken, its crackly, seasoned crust served atop rice and a drizzle of sauce, was something that I’d never encountered at home. Salty, soothing eggs dyed from a warm bath of soy sauce–based broth that I snacked on frequently as a child were available everywhere in Taiwan, in all different shades and sizes. One slurp of a beef noodle soup’s broth was practically enough protein for the day, so dense and satisfying it was—yet also so reminiscent of my mother’s weekend favorite red-braised beef stews.
The Food of Taiwan has a long but interesting introduction; as well as her own personal story, there are sections on the history of the island, its people, the land, and agriculture. The food section starts with “The Taiwanese Pantry,” a useful primer on common ingredients: chili bean sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms , crushed peanut powder, dried baby shrimp, five-spice powder, rice wine and so on.
The first recipe appears on page 52 in a section on Sauces and Condiments, and then we move on to Appetizers and Street Snacks, Vegetables, Noodles and Soups, Meat and Poultry, Seafood, Desserts and Drinks. Some of my favorites are the Taiwanese pork belly buns, peppery pork buns, and three-cup chicken. Whether you try any of the recipes or not, they’re still informative. Going through the recipes, I had numerous “Oh, that’s what it’s called!” and “Ah, so that’s why it tastes like that!” moments. Take a common night market snack, “fried chicken bites,” for example. Why do these small pieces of fried chicken taste so good, so distinctive? Before giving the recipe details, Erway writes in the introductory paragraph: “the meat is marinated with five-spice powder and the pieces sprinkled generously with salt and white pepper once out of the oil. They’re often served along with fried leaves of basil as an attractive garnish.”
Erway explains that she chose to focus on dishes for which ingredients – or substitutes – can be found in the United States. She describes but does not give a recipe for stinky tofu, which is dish Taiwanese themselves don’t attempt to make in there own kitchens. As Erway says: “no one would want to stink up their entire home for weeks or months to make it.”
The recipes are laid out in easy-to-follow steps and include background information about the dish. However, it’s difficult to predict how much success you’ll have in replicating them back home. My own attempts in cooking Taiwanese food for family members during trips back to New Zealand have not covered me in glory. I think it takes a bit of trial and error, such as getting a feeling for the flavors and saltiness of the soy sauce and rice wine used.
Practice will make edible, though, and through your experimentation you’ll likely find a few shortcuts. Some of the recipes in the book seem a little overcomplicated, if you’re just cooking an everyday meal as opposed to say, trying to impress a girlfriend’s parents. The list of ingredients for beef noodles, for example, could be simplified. Other than the obvious beef and noodles, Erway lists the following: vegetable or peanut oil, ginger, garlic, scallions, red chilies, a plum tomato, sugar, chili bean sauce, rice wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, five-spice powder, anise, baby bok choy (or a leafy green vegetable substitute).
Interspersed among the recipes are interesting tidbits of background information. In the case of beef noodles, we learn:
It’s widely believed that this hallmark of Taiwanese cuisine was created within the military villages set up to accommodate the influx of mainlanders at the middle of the twentieth century. There is nowhere else a noodle soup quite like it, although the dish has conspicuous influences from Sichuan province—chili bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns. Some call it Taiwan’s “national dish,” while others argue that Danzai Noodle Soup is more representative of older, more traditional Taiwanese cuisine.
The Food of Taiwan is lushly illustrated, with food pictures of course, but also ones of scenery and everyday life. Photographer Pete Lee has done a great job in capturing the essence of the country, contributing to this being more than a cookbook. Although it can be used as a cookbook, it’s very much more than a collection of recipes. It’s a cultural and culinary journey to Taiwan with a likeable guide, a book that will satisfy both foodies and those with a more general interest in Taiwan. It would make a great traveling companion and souvenir of a trip to the beautiful island.
Congratulations to Cathy Erway, not only on seeing the need for such a book and doing all the hard work to make it a reality, but also – by achieving such success – encouraging other writers; I’m confident we’ll be seeing other Taiwan food-related titles in the next few years.
The Food of Taiwan is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available from Amazon.com and various other retailers.
Cathy Erway blogs at Not Eating Out in New York.