What do you think of when we mention “Taiwanese food?” Maybe bubble tea and stinky tofu, or kua-pau, the original pork bun sandwich with pickled mustard greens and sweet peanut powder. You might also say that “Taiwan” itself is made up of layers of colonial and seafaring histories, and its food is a chaotic mix of everything that was left behind. But you might not know that Taiwan has had pop-up restaurants for one, or even two hundred years.
As with many things in Taiwan, there is sort of an identity crisis coupled with uncertainty for the future in food.
We watch chefs with focus and unconventional minds, like Ferran Adria and Rene Redzepi, take their native cooking histories of Catalan and Denmark, and transform them in a way that puts them at the forefront of gastronomy. We watch with envy, as Taiwan’s neighbors like Korea, Vietnam, not to mention Japan, promote their rich food cultures as part of their international soft power. We watch Taiwan struggle to build a home-grown fine dining and farming culture, while talented chefs seek opportunities elsewhere. Is Taiwanese food limited to bubble tea and stinky tofu? What are the possibilities?
To answer these questions, we asked Elizabeth Kao, who watches the food world internationally but also thinks very deeply about the food culture in Taiwan. She is the author of the popular food trends blog the Self-taught Gourmet, and her simple Japanese home recipes were published as a cookbook called “My Japanese Pantry.” She also writes for Taiwan’s lifestyle magazine Bios Monthly as well as the upcoming Taiwan edition of Lucky Peach. She has also recently started Sauce Elizabeth, a chili sauce that pretty much goes on everything.
At the end of the day, is it really just “culinary nationalism,” that we hope, through food, Taiwan can take some limelight away from other countries? That we hope our food culture beat others for international attention, and our cooking and product become more marketable?
Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe we are building something new, out of the fragmented pieces of culinary cultures, work ethic, and histories to define what Taiwan is, and what it can be. It’s not just a project for politicians and economists, but for all of us eating, cooking, and thinking about a better future.
Listen to our interview, below.
(Feature photo of Liz Kao, by Chrystal Pan, for Bios Monthly)
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