Food Stall at a Taiwanese Nightmarket [SOURCE]
In order to truly understand a culture, you need to taste its food. A country's cuisine has always been an important part of cultural identity, and Taiwan is no exception. In this installment of ourFood in Four Courses series, we'll share with you three of the most beloved Taiwanese dishes, a starter, main course and dessert. And to keep things interesting, we'll add on a dish that's definitely not for the faint of heart.
The Chinese have had acultural influence in Hawai'i since the 1800's. The language that we speak at home, called Hawaiian Pidgin English (HCE), is heavily influenced by the grammar and vocabulary of Chinese dialects. The Chinese were one of the the first immigrant populations to intermarry and quickly assimilate with the Native Hawaiians, and many of us today can trace our genealogy back to at least one Chinese ancestor, if not more.
This cultural influence has also carried over into our modern Hawaiian cuisine, where many common dishes that are thought of in Hawai'i as being traditional and local, such as manapua, crispy gau gee mein, lup cheong sausage, steamed siu mai (pork hash), braised kau yuuk, shrimp canton and chicken or turkey jook, are all originally Chinese in origin. Even our snack addiction to li hing mui, or crack seed, something unique to Hawai'i alone, was brought over by the Chinese.
Not to say that Taiwanese food isn't delicious, of course, it's just a different kind of Chinese inspired food from what we were used to eating.
It was only a matter of time, though, before I found many tasty and unique Taiwanese dishes to enjoy.
Here are just three that I've come to LOVE! And as usual, just for fun, I've also thrown in one dish that may take a little more time to get accustomed to.
FIRST COURSE: 肉圓（RouYuan or “Meat Sphere") A Unique Blend of Sticky, Salty and Sweet!
This dish is a good example of traditional Taiwanese snack food.
My first taste of rouyuan, also referred to in the Taiwanese language as ba-wan, was a mistake. A GREAT mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.
My friend had originally taken us to a specific night market to try out a famous dish that they specialized in there. The shop was closed, so he introduced us to rouyuan instead.
The salty, savory stuffing of pork or shrimp with bamboo shoots and mushrooms is stuffed into a semi-transluscent dough made out of corn starch, sweet potato starch and flour, then steamed or poached in oil.
The sticky, chewy dumpling is then served hot and smothered in a sweet and savory sauce, garnished with fresh Chinese parsley or sliced ginger!
There are many varieties of rouyuan, all of which share the same characteristics mentioned above. Many consider this treat to be the quintessential icon of Taiwanese street market food.
SECOND COURSE 滷/魯肉飯 （LuRouFan or "Braised Pork Rice") Melt-in-Your-Mouth Pork Belly Perfection in a Bowl
Made out of pork belly, this is definitely not for those who like to eat 'light' or who have a fear of anything oily.
The northern variety makes use of minced meat, so it is less oily. The southern variation, however, uses a cut referred to here as 三成肉，san cheng rou, or 'three-layers of pork', the skin, fat and meat. The use of this cut leads to a dish that is tender and delicate yet greasy and fatty at the same time.
In preparation for cooking, a piece of pork belly is toothpicked from the skin through to the meat in order to prevent it from falling apart. This is then slowly braised in a brine of oil, shallots, mushrooms and soy sauce, until it is soft, tender, and falls apart at the touch. The delicately braised piece of pork is then served, minus the toothpick, over a pile of steaming white rice and with a side of pickled vegetables. I like to top mine off with a heaping spoonful of hot chili oil and chili sauce.
This has become, hands down, my personal favorite of all traditional Taiwanese dishes. I drive out of my way every week just to get a taste of this amazing, melt in your mouth dish.
THIRD COURSE: 芒果冰 (MangGuoBing or "Mango Ice") A Chillingly Ideal Choice to Cut Through the Summer Heat
Living through thesummertime in Southern Taiwan can be a brutal exercise of balancing mental will against physical discomfort. Temperatures rise, sweat falls profusely and you find yourself lying motionless for hours on end, trying to conserve whatever tiny ounce of energy you may have left. This is where the chilly Taiwanese dessert made up of flakes of freshly shaved ice saves the day!
It's a simple dessert, really, very basic in its structure and form. It's a mound of shaved ice, packed tightly and served in a large bowl. Condensed milk and fruit syrup are then drizzled over the ice, and then it's topped off with a blend of your own choice, fresh fruit chunks, tapioca balls, ginger or almond flavored tofu pudding, adzuki or mung beans and any other sweet treat you can think of. Of course, as the name implies, I prefer the mango!
There is also a variation of ice referred to as 雪花, or xue hua, which means 'snowflake', and is softer, sweeter and milkier in texture compared to the typically crunchier shaved ice.
OPTIONAL: 臭豆腐 (ChouDouFu or "Stinky Tofu") True To It's Namesake...This Dish STINKS!
Lest you think Taiwanese cuisine is all in flavorful fun, let me introduce you to a rude awakening of the senses with a dish straightforwardly named choudoufu, or stinky tofu. It may look innocent, but do not be fooled, this dish can be deadly to the untrained nose!
There are many descriptive adjectives that Westerners use to describe their first scent of this malodorous dish. For me, it was the scent of pig offal that first came to mind. Yes, the fetid smell of a freshly butchered sow, sliced open at the belly, hot and steamy innards exposed and wafting into the air, is what hit me as I walked down the street at a crowded night market and smelled stinky tofu for the first time. I am not being sarcastic at all. I truly, honestly thought someone had just butchered a pig.
Of course, upon closer inspection, the dish itself is nothing more than chunks of fermented soy bean cake. But who knew how rancid those little bean cakes could get! Traditionally, the blocks of tofu are soaked, sometimes for months, in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables, meat, dried shrimp, and Chinese herbs, until they are pungent and rank. As they are prepared and served on the street, the distinct odor of these delicate treats waft through the air and repulse, or even entice, passersby.
There are several options in preparing this traditional and country-wide embraced Taiwanese dish, but whether it's boiled, deep fried, stewed or served in soup, stinky tofu is definitely an acquired taste. But soldier on my fellow drifters, there is hope! I am a living example of someone who has come to love the savory pungency of this traditional dish!
For authentic ideas on traditional recipes, check out these books:
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...