News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Feast your eyes on Taiwan's distinct food (and understand a history of colonization)

Ivy Chen (left) and Clarissa Wei browse Shuixian Gong Market in Tainan, Taiwan, in January.
An Rong Xu for NPR
Ivy Chen (left) and Clarissa Wei browse Shuixian Gong Market in Tainan, Taiwan, in January.

TAINAN, Taiwan — On a Friday morning in the southern city of Tainan, Shuixian Gong Market overflows with displays of shiny orange and silver fish, stacks of glistening pork ribs and crates of dragon fruit and guavas. Vendors wash out their stands with hoses, and Taiwanese cooks ask for parcels of raw drumsticks or breasts. People on motorized scooters ride carefully through the market's corridors, laden with bags of dried goods.

It's easy to think of Taiwanese food as a subset of Chinese food — after all, the island's food shares many culinary traditions and techniques with those from mainland China. Yet Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen would argue that Taiwanese food is distinct. They're the creators of the cookbook Made in Taiwan.

That title declares something: Even though about 90% of people in Taiwan have Chinese ancestry, they have forged a cuisine that is, in many ways, their own.

A set of traditional Taiwanese cuisine staples: oyster omelet, lu rou fan, oyster soup and fish ball soup.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
A set of traditional Taiwanese cuisine staples: oyster omelet, lu rou fan, oyster soup and fish ball soup.
Fresh seafood is sorted at Shuixian Gong Market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Fresh seafood is sorted at Shuixian Gong Market.

"Taiwanese food is quite distinct in that we have our own pantry items that are made in and unique to Taiwan," Wei says. "So the way that soy sauce and rice wine and rice vinegar are made in Taiwan are not made similarly elsewhere in the world."

Another key difference: Taiwanese food is sweet. In Tainan, which used to be a sugar-cane-producing hub, it's even more pronounced.

Chen also points out that Taiwanese food doesn't tend to rely on a lot of spices. "When our ancestors moved here, they found we have so many fresh ingredients in this small island, so it's very easy to get food very fresh, so we don't over-season it," she says.

These differences are all products of Taiwan's unique history.

"Taiwanese food is, I would say, a combination of all of our waves of colonization and governance," Wei says.

Dried goods on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Dried goods on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.
Vendors at Shuixian Gong Market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Vendors at Shuixian Gong Market.

Take sugar. In the 1600s, the Dutch came to southern Taiwan, where they established a couple of forts and the sugar cane industry, bringing Chinese farmers to help raise the crops. During Japanese occupation from the late 1800s through World War II, Taiwan was Japan's main source of sugar production.

"At one point, two-thirds of all Taiwanese families were in the sugar cane industry," Wei says. "So it was a huge part of our culture."

Sugar is so important in Taiwan that it shows up even in its savory dishes, like Taiwanese sausages or braised pork over rice. It's also a key ingredient in some of the island's religious offerings, like ang ku kueh, or "red turtle kueh," which are bright-pink sticky rice sweets stuffed with fillings like red bean and black sesame and shaped to resemble a turtle's shell.

And just like sugar, the types of rice help tell the story of colonization on the island.

A bowl of traditional wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
A bowl of traditional wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.
Tapiocas on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Tapiocas on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.

"The type of rice that Taiwanese people eat on a daily basis has changed really depending on who has governed Taiwan, which I find is a really fascinating reflection of Taiwanese colonial history," Wei says. "Taiwan is the only subtropical country in the world where short-grain rice are the grain of choice."

Wei explains that early Chinese settlers who came to Taiwan hundreds of years ago brought over long-grain rice, which was commonly grown in mainland China. When Japanese colonizers came, she says, they craved the short-grain rice they were accustomed to eating. The problem: Short-grain rice doesn't grow very well in Taiwan's subtropical climate.

"They spent 10 years trying to cultivate short-grain rice on Yangmingshan, which is a mountain hill-ish area in Taipei," Wei says. "After 10 years, they finally succeeded, and that has become our rice of choice."

Order a rice dish from any restaurant in Taiwan, and your bowl will be filled with bright, sticky, short-grain rice. "And that was really through the efforts of the Japanese," says Wei.

A selection of pastries on sale at the market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
A selection of pastries on sale at the market.
Fresh wheel cakes being made at Shuixian Gong Market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Fresh wheel cakes being made at Shuixian Gong Market.

Foods like kueh are made using time- and labor-intensive crops, like sugar and sticky rice, so that makes them special and a worthy offering to one's gods and ancestors. Chen says food culture in Taiwan is inextricable from religion.

"During the worship time [which could be] two or three hours, people are hungry, so they are hanging out in the neighborhood and looking for food. And that's [why] the many small vendors [began] gathering in the neighborhood and start doing their business," she said.

In fact, in Taiwan, temples and food markets often appear side by side. Shuixian Gong Market is also home to Shuixian Temple — a structure that is hundreds of years old. The temple is dedicated to water gods, with intricately carved stone pillars, red-painted wooden beams and gold dragons flanking its entrance. Paintings above the temple's entrance depict scenes of maritime life, paying homage to the ocean that surrounds the island.

Just a few yards away from the temple stands a fish ball vendor. Trays of ice in front of her display neat rows of balls made from varieties of seafood: shrimp, flounder and milkfish.

Fish balls vendors serve up the goods at Shuixian Gong Market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Fish balls vendors serve up the goods at Shuixian Gong Market.
Just some of the fresh fish on display at the market.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Just some of the fresh fish on display at the market.

"The milkfish is a very important aquaculture in the Tainan area," Chen explains. The bony white fish also has a connection to the Dutch colonization of the island.

"The milkfish [has] been here for centuries," Wei says. "When the Dutch came in, they started the aquaculture industry where they were breeding the fish, and this has become a staple of the Taiwanese diet ever since."

Seafood makes up a huge portion of the Taiwanese diet — from fish balls in soups, to a dried flounder used by many Taiwanese cooks to make stock, to Pacific oysters, which are found in a variety of dishes.

Chinese migrants started farming these oysters along the island's west coast hundreds of years ago. They're smaller than the oysters seen in North America, and most of the time, they are not eaten raw. Most farmers lack the infrastructure to closely monitor the water quality, so they show up in cooked dishes, like o-a-tsian, oyster omelets.

These eggs are thickened with sweet potato starch and studded with oysters before being slathered in a sweet and tangy sauce made from pickled vegetables. Wei says the ingredients in this dish can show a lot about the island.

An oyster omelet.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
An oyster omelet.
Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen share wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
/
An Rong Xu for NPR
Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen share wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.

"It describes what Taiwanese food was 200, 300 years ago. It's very simple. The bulk of it really is sweet potato starch, because sweet potatoes thrive [here in Taiwan] — it's kind of like a weed," she says. "And this isn't a dish you associate with Chinese food at all. It's something that's very, very Taiwanese and unique to Taiwan."

What distinguishes Chinese food from the unique flavors in Taiwanese food is a bit of a nebulous thing. Chen is a cooking instructor and has taught students from all over the world. She says they'd often ask her, "What is Taiwanese food? What is Chinese food? What's the difference?" Figuring out the difference was a process for her.

"I can tell [the difference]," Chen says. "But I never think that people will ask me that way, that I need to give a definition about Chinese food and Taiwanese food."

There isn't a black-and-white definition of Taiwanese food. Wei and Chen argue that the food is unique because the flavors in Taiwan's cooking, as well as its produce and seafood, are the historical record of colonialism and migration on this island.

And to them, that means the island's cuisine deserves to stand on its own.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
Mallory Yu
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Mary Louise Kelly and Juana Summers. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.