Thursday, March 1, 2012

Flavors of Taiwan


I have been fascinated with the food of Taiwan, as you already know by my many accounts of restaurants.  Looking through my array of pictures, I realized I have taken almost as many pictures of food as I have of temples.  I decided that this must mean food is an important subject and I should dedicate one whole blog entry to it.  Where to begin?  I think I will first make a distinction between "indigenous food" and common Taiwanese food.  These two cuisines overlap, but to the locals, they have distinctions.

Indigenous food is the food of the native tribes.  They use food that is found within their geographical regions of the mountains.  Of what I have eaten, this includes mountain rice in bamboo tubes.  I felt honored that we had had this dish when I read in a magazine (bi-lingual, I must say), "There is a dish strongly recommended by gourmets for visitors interested in Taiwanese cuisine.  If they haven't expereieced "zhutong fan" ("fan"=rice), rice in a bamboo tube, it means they haven't visited Alishan (the mountains)!"  Eating mountain rice in a bamboo tube was one the most memorable experiences of our day in the Ali-shan ("shan"=mountains).

Another statement in the magazine says what we discovered to be true about what the Taiwanese like about their food.  "They prefer plain flavors."  This is what has caused me to remark, "There's nothing not to like about it.  It has very little taste."

The article in the magazine also made this statement:  "The Amis (an indigenous group) love soup; they believe the best way to use good ingredients, whether vegetables or meat, is to put them in soup."  We have found this to be true, period.  Whether indigenous or not, soup(s) is at every meal in every form.

Again, to quote the article, "Most indigenous foods come from the earth, especially the sometimes bitter-tasting wild vegetables."  Again, we are either eating a lot of indigenous food or it is combined with our local dishes, but we've eaten a lot of bitter-tasting vegetables...also a part of every meal.

Considering the indigenous people groups have been banished to the mountain country for probably 200 years, the difference in low land cuisine is the abundance of seafood.  I need not mention, again, the oysters of Dongshih.  These are a staple in our area of Chia-yi.  Also prawns/ shrimp, squid of many sizes and colors, and any number of large ocean fish.   Seaweed is common and made into many varieties of food, including "seaweed" Lays potato chips.

Vegetables of many kinds grow in the lowland that are not of the bitter variety as in the mountains.  They are common vegetables that we see in our produce sections in America.  However, the carrots are gigantic and the cauliflower is thin, not full and dense.  There are many radishes, gourds, cabbages, cucumbers and tomatoes along with bean sprouts, corn, onions and lettuce.  All of these will end up in soup.  The one thing that I can't get used to is putting lettuce leaves in soup.

I have already expressed my love of dumplings in at least one other entry so I will not repost a picture of this favorite local food.  But, I'm also fond of green onion pancakes and prawns.  I have also mentioned the prawns before, how they are served with their heads attached.  After I got used to this custom I have come to regard them as an attractive dish as well as tasty.

A very common traditional meal in Taiwan is the biandang or "lunchbox."  Don had biandang for lunch every day at the factory.  We eat biandang for Sunday lunch at church.  These are cardboard boxes with separations for the different foods of the meal.  The main compartment is always filled with rice or noodles with some form of meat, such as a thin slice of pork, chicken, a chicken leg or fish along with a hard boiled egg or piece of tofu.  The smaller divisions are filled with vegetables.  These lunch boxes can be ordered from just about any store front eatery on any street in town.  The box is secured with rubber bands and comes with a set of chop sticks.

Another very common food item is the "brown" egg.  These are hard boiled eggs that are soaked in soy sauce and vinegar while still in the shell.  I assume the soy sauce mixture seeps through the shell because when they are cracked and peeled, the whites and the yolk are brown.  These are very popular.  You may see a pot of "brown" eggs on the counter near the cash register of just about any convenience store anywhere in Taiwan.

I am going to conclude my discussion of the flavors of Taiwan by mentioning the street vendors.  Taiwan is famous for its many food vendors.  They sell soup and rice and piles of food.  I must be truthful, I have not eaten from the street vendors, but they are an essential part of the Taiwanese diet and culture.

Note:  I have not talked about Taiwan's most famous food group, fruit.  That is because it is so plentiful and beautiful that I am going to write another page dedicated just to fruit.

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