Anna King Shahab thought she knew Taiwanese cuisine, until she ate her way around Taipei
A rousing soundtrack, a media section equipped with multi-lingual real-time translation headsets, a somersaulting dance troupe twirling LED-pimped chef's knives, a lineup of international and local dignitaries including the country's vice president: Taipei's 2019 Culinary Exhibition sure knows how to put the ceremony in an opening. They kept it pretty short and sweet at about 30 minutes and by the end of it, I was pumped for a day of wandering around the ground floor of Taipei's World Trade Centre soaking up Taiwan's answer to The Food Show.
As a guest of Taiwan's Tourism Board, my visit was timed to coincide with this annual event, the idea being that it would offer an insight into the local food culture, both traditional and innovative, and whet my appetite for a week of eating my way around Taipei, as well as Taiwan's picturesque East Coast region of Hualien.
I thought I had a basic understanding of Taiwanese cuisine thanks to the fact I that in my former life as an English language teacher, I shared many, many meals with my Taiwanese students and their families, and from frequenting my local Taiwanese eateries with gusto. But I quickly discovered I had only scratched the surface.
Taiwan, which sits off China's southeastern coast, has a history that lends diverse influences to its food culture. The island's Austronesian indigenous population, across 16 tribes and making up around 2 per cent of the population of 22 million, has unique food traditions. Two notable waves of immigration of Han Chinese people, in the 1600s and then mid last century when Chang Kai-Shek, his Kuomintang army and 2 million compatriots retreated from mainland China, saw Chinese cuisine take root, notably Hakka and Hokkien, but also from Shanghai, Beijing, and Sichuan. Colonial forays by the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and notably Japanese who ruled for 50 years until 1945, have all left edible traces, as has the US, post-WWII. All these threads come together to offer a rich tapestry of cuisine that is particular to Taiwan.
The huge space was filled with delicious smells and sights. Scores of Taiwanese sausages sizzling away; Japanese curry being spooned over steamed rice; hungry visitors ripping into spicy prawns and grilled squid-on-a-stick; popcorn chicken (a street-food favourite here) being scooped into paper cups, and an array of fruits native to Taiwan popping colour. If there's one common theme running throughout, it would perhaps be pork — Taiwan loves it, to an extent I began to understand when we visited the National Palace Museum and saw the famous 'meat-shaped stone' — a small piece of jasper intricately carved to porcine perfection (Google it!).
One of the tenets of this year's festival was highlighting indigenous culinary traditions. Among some examples I tried at the show were millet wine (millet is a staple for most of the tribes), fantastic abai — parcels of purple rice, millet, ground pork, and bitter herbs wrapped in perilla leaves from the Puyuma culture, and delicate high mountain oolong tea. I furthered my education a few days later when, in the beautiful Taroko National Park in the east of the island, I enjoyed a lunch typical of the Taroko people's cuisine: sticky rice steamed inside bamboo, smoked kumara, grilled tilapia fish, smoked plum juice, millet wine, and red bean mochi for dessert.
Mochi are something I had previously associated only with Japan, but these chewy balls of glutinous rice paste with fillings such as red bean, black sesame or taro, or a dusting of peanut powder were on the menu in Taiwan for long before Japanese rule; this texture-driven sweet has a place in both indigenous food cultures, and that of Hakka immigrants. Mochi (sometimes spelled out "muaji" here) were popular at the festival, along with fellow Taiwanese desserts such as pineapple cakes, and shaved ice drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and topped with all sorts, from herbal jelly cubes to boiled peanuts and fresh mango. A sweet finish to a day of unexpected, but very welcome, food discoveries.
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TAIWAN China Airlines Flies daily from Auckland to Taipei via Brisbane. china-airlines.com/eng
DETAILS For more on visiting Taiwan, go to eng.taiwan.net.tw.