Thu, Oct 11, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Book review: A Culinary History of Taipei: From Pork to Ponlai

Big City Food Biographies’ first Asia entry is an enjoyable read for those seeking an immensely detailed look at Taiwan’s complex gastronomic history and traditions

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

As a result, presumably, while other books in the series mostly offer a brief timeline before delving into the main subject, this book begins with a four-page introduction on Taiwan’s geography and general history. It’s short and sweet, and just informative enough to not keep the hungry reader waiting.

The word “detailed” has been used several times in this review, but it is not an overstatement, as the entries contain far more information than the average Taiwanese would know about. Each ingredient, dish, industry or tradition is outlined from its scientific background and etymology in the country’s various languages, to its historic development and place in popular culture as well as modern concerns such as health-conscious eating. The last bit perhaps is what makes the book complete — as foodways constantly evolve, there’s no way to talk about a hot pot without observing that the once popular Bullhead Barbecue Sauce has recently fallen out of favor as people try to “reduce their salt and oil intake.”

The icing on the cake is probably the related folk idioms peppered throughout the book, many of them transliterated from Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) or Hakka.

As the book is academic in nature, most facts are sourced, which provides a glimpse into the research done — historic documents, academic papers, newspaper articles, Web sites such as the Ark of Taste catalog of endangered heritage foods and interviews with both Western and Taiwanese scholars, experts and chefs. While a majority of the written sources are in English, the authors, for example, seek out longtime Japanese residents in Taiwan to discuss the ubiquity of Japanese cuisine in Taiwan, and one section features an extended conversation with prominent Taiwanese “bando” banquet chef Lin Ming-tsan (林明燦), complete with a mouth-watering rundown of the 10 dishes he prepared last year in a collaboration with Le Palais restaurant — the only establishment in Taiwan to boast three Michelin stars.

Each chapter is written in this fashion, and the progression is logical, from a more general look at all the things Taiwanese eat and drink (including snake blood) to food taboos and specific festival and seasonal offerings to food production, markets and restaurants. Aboriginal, Hoklo, Hakka, those who came from China after 1949 and new immigrants from Southeast Asia and other locales are all given the space they deserve, which is not an easy feat to balance.

By the end of the book, which concludes with people who teach, develop and promote Taiwan’s food, few stones are left unturned. A Culinary History of Taipei fittingly concludes in a chat with superstar chef Andre Chiang (江振誠), whose high-end, innovative Taiwanese cuisine at RAW represents new possibilities.

In retrospect, after reading the entire book over just a few days, it should be digested bit by bit due to the sheer amount of information in each chapter as well as the lack of photos. After taking in one section, the reader, if fortunate enough to live in or visit Taiwan, should seek out the items being described, as armed with this new knowledge, even the most seasoned veteran expat will be able to make a new adventure out of it.

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