Some years ago, I walked into a new “Taiwanese” restaurant in London’s Chinatown with my friend Andy. The waitress shuffled over and imperiously announced that Taiwanese food wasn’t like any other food we had ever had.
“I doubt that,” said Andy to her in Mandarin. “We both lived in Taipei when we were students.”
The waitress visibly blanched and called over her colleague.
“We’re both from Shanghai,” she confessed, huddling closer. “We don’t know what any of this stuff is!”
She could have used a copy of Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Heng’s A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, a truly exhaustive account of the multiple cuisines of China’s famously rogue province, from the various delicacies of its aboriginal peoples, through the foods and crops brought in by various settlers – including the Dutch, Spanish, Cantonese, Fujianese and Hakka – and local food’s many modern transformations. Their book takes in the powerful, enduring influence of Taiwan’s fifty years as a Japanese colony, as well as the austerity era of the mid-twentieth century juan cun emergency housing, when Taiwan was flooded with refugees from the mainland, and the modern logistics of everything from pork transportation to convenience-store microwave cookery.
“Those who live in the mountains eat what they can find in the mountains; those who live by the sea eat from the sea.” Crook and Heng begin with subsistence foods, before delving deep into indigenous folklore in search of reasons for multiple conflicting tribal taboos. When the Chinese first arrived on the shores of Taiwan, they were disgusted at the natives’ penchant for deer’s intestines, while the aborigines were aghast that the Chinese ate chicken. They are nicely focussed on etymologies, including a long discourse on why the humble frog became known as the “water chicken.” The natural assumption, they suggest, is that it is a euphemism designed to conceal the origins of an icky food from disapproving diners. But Taiwanese diners love frogs’ legs – it is far more likely that the new name arose to get around a Song-dynasty government ban on killing frogs, not because they were taboo, but because they were of higher value in eating insects in the rice paddies.
Of particular interest is the sudden rediscovery of indigenous dishes in the 1990s, after the rise to power of the nativist Democratic Progressive Party pushed the mainland-focussed Chinese agenda aside. At the inauguration banquet of president Chen Shui-bian, diners were treated to milkfish ball soup and óaⁿ kóe (“bowl pudding”), a savoury porridge. Both were common dishes in Chen ‘s hometown, and the president would go on to troll his guests in later dinners by pointedly serving taro to represent those who were not native to Taiwan (i.e. the descendants of 1940s refugees), and sweet potatoes to represent the Chinese who had lived there for hundreds of years previously.
Except, of course, the sweet potato is itself a new arrival, only showing up in south-east China in the 16th century, a New World food arriving via the Spanish Philippines. It, along with hundreds of other foodstuffs, was entirely alien to the island, but now forms part of Taiwan’s vibrant food culture, which incorporates vast swathes of Cantonese and Fujianese foodways, but also vestiges of the home cultures of multiple groups of refugees. Crook and Heng explain why Taiwanese bread is so sweet – it only really arrived with the Japanese, who tended to regard it as a dessert rather than staple. They detail the menu of a standard military breakfast, the transformations of sushi brought about by the availability of local fresh fish, and the impact of Western food franchises in the late twentieth century.
They are also fantastically informative on the metadata of Chinese food. When Taiwan joins the World Trade Organisation in 2002, one of the unexpected fall-outs is a sudden, five-fold leap in the price of cooking wine, an entirely benign and vital condiment, now classed as an alcoholic beverage and subject to a tax hike. Crook and Heng chronicle the ripple effect this has, not only on the family kitchen, but on the black economy, as gangsters and spivs rush to fill the hole in the market with ersatz replacements. Similarly, the authors devote an impressive page-count to the multiple puns and euphonies of festive dining, explaining just why certain foods are popular with superstitious locals on particular family occasions and festivals.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Heng’s A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai is published by Rowman and Littlefield.