22. Taiwan

Taiwan is an island off the coast of China, which has had a long history of alternating rulership. It was first populated by indigenous people, after which it was part of China, Japan and then eventually primarily self-governing. As you might imagine, this has led to many influences on Taiwanese cuisine. Being a highly-populated island has also resulted in a reliance upon seafood of all varieties. A famous aspect of Taiwanese cuisine is “ xiǎochī”, which is a tapas-like tradition of serving a variety of substantial snacks. There are national celebrations of xiǎochī, and they are served in homes and restaurants alike, although they are most famously enjoyed at night markets. I love the idea of bustling night markets full of incredible exotic food, especially in a very hot place where I wouldn’t last long in an uncovered outdoor setting during the day… I must make plans to visit Taiwan!

Niu rou mian

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Niu rou mian is an aromatic beef noodle soup that is considered a national dish to the extent that there is an annual festival where chefs and restaurants compete for the title of best dish. Although similar types of beef noodle soups also exist in China, the addition of soy sauce makes a version reputedly invented by Chinese veterans who fled to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. I included slow-cooked beef brisket in a stock made with a lot of flavours, including scallions, ginger, garlic, star anise, cinnamon, pepper, fennel, cumin, onion, chilli, bay leaf, Sichuan pepper, five spice powder, ground coriander, sugar, rice wine, rice vinegar and soy sauce. The bad news is that this mix is a little overwhelming if you’re just starting out with Asian flavours, but the good news is that these ingredients are repeated a lot in Asian cooking, so I already had pretty much everything and it wasn’t difficult. I strained the stock after all of the flavours had been imparted, and then added the beef, fresh thin-egg noodles, bok choy, pickled mustard greens, scallions and chilli.

Gua bao

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Gua bao is a typical Taiwanese snack, which consists of a piece of meat and other fillings inside a steamed flat white bun in a clam shape (a folded circle). The most traditional filling is pork belly, although other fillings such as fried chicken, seafood, eggs and beef are also used, drawing the frequent comparison of gua bao as Taiwanese sandwiches or burgers. Gua bao is sometimes called by the nickname “hó͘-kā-ti”, meaning “tiger bites pig”, which comes from the bun creating a tiger mouth shape, with a piece of pork inside. I made my gua bao with pork belly, which I braised with shallots, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, white pepper, ginger, sugar and five spice. I also included home-pickled carrots, pickled mustard greens, fresh coriander and ground peanuts and a sauce made from the reduced liquid that the pork was cooked in. To make the buns, I mixed plain flour, milk, yeast, salt, sugar and water and let the dough rise. I then shaped them into ovals and folded them, waited a little longer for them to fluff up again, then steamed them. I was very impressed with the buns; they were delicious and fluffy and very easy to make. In fact, I enjoyed the whole gua bao very much – there’s something about the combination of complementary textures and flavours that’s incredibly satisfying. No wonder gua bao are so popular!

Ba wan, oyster omelette, mixed mushrooms and Asian greens

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Ba wan is a type of very large dumpling made in a bowl as a mould. The dough is made with rice flour, corn starch and sweet potato starch, resulting in a grey and translucent skin when cooked. The dough is painted into the side of a bowl, filled with a precooked filling, then the top is covered with dough and the whole thing is steamed, and then finally turned out of the mould. I filled mine with pork, shiitake mushroom and bamboo shoots and served it with a red chilli sauce. I liked the ba wan because it was tasty and moist as a dumpling should be, but very very easy to make, as most dumplings aren’t. The oyster omelette is an extremely popular dish in Taiwan, commonly ranked as a top favourite of tourists.  Small oysters are cooked with whisked eggs and sweet potato starch to make a thick consistency, which is then garnished with spring onions. Mushrooms are a particular favourite of mine, and Asian mushrooms are always wonderful in their texture, flavour and variety. I stir fried a mixture of Asian mushrooms, including enoki, shiitake,  king brown and wood ear, as well as mixed Asian greens such as bok choy and pak choi.

Taiwanese fried chicken, cucumber salad and stir-fried greens

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Fried chicken is always a crowd pleaser, whether it be battered or crumbed, from the USA, Asia or Eastern European Schnitzel. Taiwanese fried chicken is a night-market favourite in Taiwan, and has more recently become renowned internationally. It’s made from a large flattened fillet of chicken (I used breast), marinated for at least a few hours in a mix of soy sauce, garlic, ginger, white pepper, spring onion, rice vinegar, chilli powder, sugar and five spice. The chicken is coated in plain flour, then egg, and a mix of sweet potato flour and rice flour and deep fried or shallow fried in piping hot oil. The result is an incredibly crunchy crust surrounding a tender piece of chicken. I haven’t tried to make fried chicken often before, but this had the crispiest crust I’ve ever made or eaten. I think the secret may lie in the final coating of sweet potato flour and rice flour, which for reasons unknown to me might impart a particularly crunchy quality. The final step of preparation is the seasoning powder, which is made by combining salt, white pepper, sugar, five-spice and chilli powder. Aside from the superior texture, I also thought the cumulative flavour profile of this fried chicken was better than other fried chicken I’ve had – aromatic, sweet and salty, and subtly spicy in ways that only Asian cooking can achieve. I served it with mixed Asian greens and a Taiwanese cucumber salad, flavoured with rice vinegar, soy sauce, oil, garlic, sugar and sesame seeds.