Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

“The Food of Taiwan” and Taiwanese Red-Braised Pork Belly (红烧肉) Recipe

food of taiwan book cover

Taiwanese cuisine has languished under the culinary radar in the U.S. for far too long. To be honest, even I was unsure how Taiwanese food distinguishes from mainstream Chinese. Fortunately, I came across The Food of Taiwan—Recipes from the Beautiful Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) by Cathy Erway, published one year ago in March.

Cathy’s cookbook is one of the first comprehensive U.S.-published Taiwanese cookbooks and offers myriad recipes ranging from traditional homestyle dishes to street food snacks. In addition, she explores the republic’s checkered social and political history and migration patterns, all of which have impacted the evolution of Taiwanese food and made the cuisine what it is today.

Drawing from her mother’s Taiwanese heritage, Cathy has culled nearly 100 recipes showcasing well-known favorites like Pork Belly Buns, Three-Cup Chicken and Noodles with Minced Pork and Fermented Bean Sauce, as well as many traditional dishes such as Danzai Noodle Soup and Meatball Mochi just waiting to be discovered.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway examines the social factors behind and overseas influences impacting Taiwanese cuisine in her seminal cook book. (Photo Credit: Pete Lee)

In this Q+A, Cathy gives us an insight into her book and shares some tidbits on Taiwanese cuisine in general. 

  1. What made you first think about writing a Taiwanese cookbook?

I’ve been wanting to write the cookbook ever since I spent a semester abroad in Taipei during college. I thought it made absolutely no sense that there wasn’t a book or even any significant discussion — any definition — of the food in Taiwan in US food media. That’s been mostly the case in major media outlets up until maybe a year or so ago.

2. Did your mom or grandma teach you how to make any quintessential Taiwanese dishes?

I wish! I would simply watch in the kitchen, and learn that way. My mom doesn’t “teach” or profess to know the best way to cook anything. Okay, maybe she taught me how to fold dumplings, but that’s about it. However, I believe I learned a lot from this casual approach to cooking. You don’t need to follow any recipe, and you don’t even need to know what dish you’re making until it’s all done. I appreciate that.

 

Sweet and bitter flavors mingle in this nourishing Chicken, Pineapple, and Bitter Melon Soup--thought to be the perfect fix when you have a cold. (Photo credit: Pete Lee)

Sweet and bitter flavors mingle in this nourishing Chicken, Pineapple, and Bitter Melon Soup–thought to be the perfect fix when you have a cold. (Photo credit: Pete Lee)

3. Aside from the popular three-cup chicken, pork belly buns, and beef noodles, what other dishes do you think deserve recognition and why?

I think Hakka Stir-Fry, since it’s such a fast and delicious dish. The traditional version incorporates dried (and reconstituted) squid along with twice-cooked strips of pork belly — it’s such a tasty combination, and it’s easy to make.

4. What is considered a true-blue traditional Taiwanese dish?

A true-blue traditional Taiwanese dish is Danzai noodles, a tradition from fisherman during the off-season for their catch. Another more-old fashioned Taiwanese dish is the chewy, dumpling-like snack, ba-wan.

5. Do you think the emergence of Taiwanese restaurants over the last few years has contributed to an increase in interest in Taiwanese cuisine? Why else do you think this has happened?

I think the new crop of Taiwanese restaurants we’ve seen is a result of the younger Taiwanese generation, or Taiwanese Americans, proudly embracing their heritage — and calling themselves (and their restaurants) Taiwanese. There have been Taiwanese restaurants in the US for decades, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that they were Taiwanese since this word wasn’t always used in its descriptions of the cuisine. Today’s younger Taiwanese Americans, however, are calling their foods Taiwanese – from casual bento lunches to shaved ice to steamed buns.

6. What dish do you recommend a newbie try making first? What dish is a must-try even if it may or may not be a little challenging?

I think people should try making the Chicken with Rice! It’s all about the subtlety of flavors so it might seem a little intimidating to get right if you’ve only tried it in a restaurant. But it’s so easy, and the results are great!

Cathy saying 'hi' to a water buffalo on a farm in Ilan county, Taiwan.

Cathy saying ‘hi’ to a water buffalo on a farm in Ilan county, Taiwan.

7. In compiling the recipes, how did you decide what to include or not?

I wanted to capture a range of dishes, from popular street foods to home cooking. But I wanted to be sure people could actually cook these foods easily, so I didn’t include really impractical dishes that you’d never see made at home, like blood pudding on a stick!

8. Considering that Taiwan is made up of immigrants from the mainland, why do you think Taiwanese cooking has evolved so differently?

It’s actually several groups of immigrants from different time periods. The majority of Taiwanese came from Fujian province in the 16th century or later, but there was also aboriginals who had their own cuisines using wild vegetables and game, which is reflected in the foods in Taiwan today. Then there were Japanese influences from 50 years of being a colony of Japan, followed by an influx of people from all over mainland China in the late 1940’s. The various unique groups have evolved on the island to make it what it is today – I basically dedicated the entire book to answer this very question!  

9. Tell me the truth, do you like stinky tofu?

I do! But only mildly stinky ones. It’s a very fine line when it crosses over into too-stinky territory for me, though, and then I hate it!

Thank you, Cathy!

~~~

Red Braised Pork Belly
Serves 4
Who needs bacon when pork belly can be cut to sizable chunks, with its fat rendered to gelatinous layers in between tender meat all stained with a savory, soy sauce–based broth? This dish is often found as an addition to a large, multicourse meal, as it’s too rich and potently flavored without plenty of contrasting sides. Still, it is a highlight of the table whenever served. It'ssometimes cut to large, square chunks and served with a small pool of rbaising liquids ina version known as "dong po rou." Here,Erway hraised the porkbelly in a fashion associated most closely with Hunanese homestyle cooking, which her mother often made. Slight variations on spices and preparation techniques can be found throughout Taiwan, but it's a highlight at the table whenever served.
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Ingredients
  1. 1 pound pork belly
  2. 2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
  3. 2 whole scallions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
  4. 4 garlic cloves, smashed
  5. 4 to 6 thick discs peeled fresh ginger
  6. 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  7. 1/4 cup rice wine
  8. 2 cups water
  9. 1/2 cup light soy sauce
  10. 1/4 cup dark soy sauce
  11. 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
Instructions
  1. Remove any bone and cut the pork belly into thick pieces about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long.
  2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or wok over medium-high heat. Arrange the pork belly pieces in a single layer in the pan so that each piece has direct contact with the bottom of the pan. Cook without turning until just lightly browned on one side, about 30 seconds. Flip the pieces over and brown on the opposite sides for just 1 to 2 minutes more. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  3. To the same pan, add the scallions, garlic, and ginger and stir until just sizzling and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar and cook, stirring, until bubbling, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the rice wine and bring just to a boil, stirring to incorporate the sugar. Add the water, light and dark soy sauces, and the five-spice powder and return to a boil. Return the pork belly pieces to the pan. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for until the pork is very tender and red-stained, at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours.
Notes
  1. Photograph credit: Pete Lee
  2. Recipe and photograph used with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.
Adapted from The Food of Taiwan
Adapted from The Food of Taiwan
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