Thu, Nov 01, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Eating their way through Taiwan’s complex culinary history

Katy Hui-wen Hung and Steven Crook discuss their latest book about the nation’s food history, touching on the sparse attention paid to its delicacies, interesting food trends and, inevitably, politics

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

An eatery selling luwei, a type of soy-sauce marinated braised snack food.

Photo courtesy of Rich John Matheson

Katy Hui-wen Hung (洪惠文) was growing tired of Taiwan being hailed as the “new food destination” every year for more than a decade. It meant that Taiwan was somewhat on the map, but always treated as a sort of novelty, with writers constantly revisiting the same foods such as stinky tofu and touting them as the next big thing.

She was again disheartened four years ago when she learned that the Tourism Bureau had provided an all-expenses paid nationwide tour to a number of prominent European food writers on condition that they write an article about Taiwan.

“I thought, ‘How sad … that we have to literally pay for people to write about us,’” she says, while noting that the situation has improved.

She got in touch with one of the writers, Marlena Spieler, who confirmed her concerns by telling her that she had no idea about Taiwan’s vibrant food culture and thought it was “no more than a regional Chinese food” before she visited. But what Spieler suggested next was unexpected: Hung should write a semi-academic book on Taiwan’s foodways.

Hung panicked. She wasn’t a writer or a foodie. But earlier this month, her book, Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, co-authored with longtime Taiwan resident, prolific writer and Taipei Times contributor Steven Crook, hit the shelves. It is a comprehensive and immensely-detailed look at Taiwan’s foodways from prehistoric times to modern high-end cuisine.

Crook doesn’t expect the book to become a bestseller, but he hopes it becomes a useful resource that gives visitors and residents more insight into Taiwan’s culinary delights.

“Hopefully the next time someone is sent by a magazine or publication to write about Taiwan, whether it’s specifically about food or a general thing … if they pick up our book beforehand, then I’d be very pleased,” he says.

BIRTH OF A BOOK

Hung says that while writers who visit Taiwan are generally pleasantly surprised, very few make it back because it’s simply not a popular destination for international editors.

US food writer Robyn Eckhardt, who once spent three years convincing the New York Times to include Taipei in its annual “52 places to go” feature, told Hung that a reputable editor once laughed in her face when she pitched Taipei for a food assignment, asking, “Why does anyone want to go to Taiwan when they can go to China?”

Hung agreed with Spieler that the book should be semi-academic, wanting to provide something for the serious visitor. Spieler put Hung in touch with Ken Albala, who edits Rowman and Littlefield’s Big City Food Biography series, which covers gastronomically-famous metropolises in the Americas, Europe and Australia, but had yet to expand into Asia.

As expected, Albala knew nothing about Taiwan. But he was happy to give Hung a chance to make Taipei the first Asian city in the series. She eventually found Crook, also a novice in food writing (he typically writes about Taiwan’s culture, sights and religion), and the two submitted the proposal for the book in January 2016.

Having lived abroad since the mid-1980s, for Hung it was an opportunity to reacquaint herself with her native country, especially after the dramatic political and societal changes that had taken place since her departure. The mission to promote Taiwan would come later.

Crook, who has lived in Taiwan since the early 1990s, admits that when Hung first approached him, he was more interested in the history portion than the food. But he was curious, and he also thought it would benefit his writing career to expand his expertise.

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