I first learned of Cathy Erway’s “The Food Of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island” shortly after I found out that I would be in Taiwan for several months for business, so I was excited to delve into this unfamiliar (for me) cuisine. I received my review copy shortly before landing in Taiwan, and took the book with me on a 7,000-mile journey so could use it as a guide as I cooked (and ate) my way around Taiwan.
Erway’s book gorgeously captures the essence and nuance of Taiwanese cuisine. Along the way, the recipes are interspersed with history lessons on various aspects of Taiwanese food, food production, and tea culture. An island the size of Massachusetts, Taiwan features a rich cuisine influenced by Chinese regional cuisine as well as Japanese, Dutch, and Portuguese cuisines, and is well known for its tea culture and night markets. The book opens with the basics of the Taiwanese pantry, sauces and condiments that provide the foundation for later recipes.
One of the great pleasures of visiting or living in Taiwan is the huge variety of appetizers and street snacks, including pork belly buns (gua bao), daikon radish pastries (luo bo si bing), tea eggs, potstickers, oyster omelets, and coffin cake. Night markets have their own repertoire of fan favorites such as fried chicken, pork knuckle, fried sweet potato balls, and grilled corn, all of which are chronicled here.
Like Chinese cuisine, vegetables hold a starring role and the popularity of organic farming is on the rise in Taiwan. Due to the influence of Buddhism, a large number of Taiwanese are vegetarians, and Taiwanese cuisine features many vegetarian-friendly dishes such as steamed eggplant with garlic and chilies, sautéed mushrooms with ginger, sautéed water spinach, and my personal favorite, the crisp dragon beard fern, which is sold at an organic grocery around the corner from me. Dragon beard fern is a wild green popularized by Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities; the greens are blanched then served with a soy-based liquid.
Having been vegetarian for more than 10 years and having lived in different Buddhist countries in Asia, I am fairly well-versed in the art of tofu and its many preparations, but I loved Cathy’s recipe for pan-fried tofu with date sauce (gan mei dou fu). Another favorite of mine is stinky tofu; it was one of the first foods I wanted to try in Taiwan, and it didn’t disappoint. There is an overview of stinky tofu production and lore on pages 121-124. The stinky tofu cart holds the same mesmerizing appeal that ice cream trucks do for children in the United States, and the pungent odor has the power to stop grown adults in their tracks with anticipation.
For those who eat meat, dishes like three cup chicken (san bei ji) and numerous beef, pork and chicken dishes are highlighted, along with preparations for pan-fried fish with peanuts and cilantro, and squid, oysters, clams and shrimp dishes, all of which appear abundantly on local menus. Iconic Taiwanese dishes such as beef noodle soup (niu rou mian), Danzai noodle soup, and pineapple tarts are discussed in detail; you’ll even find a recipe for bubble tea.
Gorgeous photography by Pete Lee brings Taiwan’s markets and kitchens to vibrant life. Most appealingly, the recipes in “The Food of Taiwan” are readily approachable by American home cooks and use ingredients that should be widely available at most American supermarkets.
“The Food of Taiwan” is a long-overdue paen to Taiwan’s vibrant food and tea culture, which up until now has not been widely written about in the United States. Erway is a wonderful guide; as a Taiwanese-American, she experienced Taiwanese food first through the lens of her immigrant parents in the United States, and later as an exchange student living in Taiwan, when the dishes of her childhood suddenly took on a clarity and depth that was missing.
“The Food of Taiwan” is an excellent (and approachable) introduction to this versatile, delicious cuisine and I look forward to cooking my way through it as I travel around Taiwan!
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher)