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!
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!
Oyster omelette and fried chicken
The oyster omelette is an extremely popular dish in Taiwan, commonly ranked as a top favourite of tourists, especially as a treat in the famous night markets. It is thought to have originated from the Teochew diaspora out of the eastern Guangdong province of China, where it remains a popular dish. Small oysters are cooked with whisked eggs and sweet potato starch to make a thick consistency, which is then garnished with spring onions and topped with a spicy sauce. 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 another night-market favourite in Taiwan, and has more recently become renowned internationally. It’s made from pieces 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 finally 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. My final step of preparation was 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. KFC addicts of the world, heed my words – this fried chicken is superior in all ways to the Colonel’s herbs and spices, and, what’s more, its recipe isn’t a secret!
Niu rou mian
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.
Lu rou fan
Lu rou fan literally means braised pork over rice, and has its origins in Chinese traditions of finely chopped pork and rice dishes dating back to the Zhou Dynasty around 1000 BC. In China, the meal is considered to bea type of “gaifan”, meaning fast food or street food. The concept is thought to have been brought into Taiwan by immigrants from Southern Fuijan where it evolved, captured the adoration of the people and has since emerged as a novel recipe and an important national dish. Nevertheless, when researching a recipe for this dish, I discovered that, as with most things in the modern world, previous generations had already covered the basics while we frantically try to reinvent the wheel. This is particularly evident for a recipe found in The Book of Rites, a description of the Zhou Dynasty from the first century BC, which instructs: “Cook meat in a saucepan, and stir after adding seasoning until the sauce is mostly browned, then pour the meat sauce over cooked rice”. I always feel immensely humbled when I come across such an old recipe, perhaps because my contribution to cooking across space and time is suddenly revealed to be a mere blip along an immense span of human knowledge and creativity. Nevertheless, I proceeded to play my infinitesimal role in the cosmic dance, adding a few specific Taiwanese details to this ancient template, such as sautéing finely diced pork (southern Taiwan favours leaner cuts while northern Taiwan specialises in pork belly) and seasoning it with star anise, five spice powder, shallots, garlic, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce and rice wine. I also included shiitake mushrooms and hard boiled eggs, which absorbed the flavours of the sauce wonderfully. Then, just as the ancients portended, I poured the meat sauce over cooked rice, and served it with some blanched greens.