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

“Nobody writes about Taiwan to make money,” he says. “It was more that I’d learn a lot, and it would be a step up career-wise [to write a book for such a major publisher]. If I got a good grasp of the food scene, we could also get a lot of articles out of it.”

Albala couldn’t promise anything at first, as he acknowledged US editors’ reluctance to publish just about Taiwan. But the proposal went through.

NEW DISCOVERIES

The two started out simply pursuing areas they were interested in — for Crook it was the prehistoric foodways and the rise and fall of agriculture, while for Hung it was offerings and festival foods and the people who work to promote Taiwanese cuisine.

“We would follow our interests and compare notes,” Crook says. “That sounds very inefficient but it worked out well. I don’t think we overlapped much ... It wasn’t systematic.”

Crook says that about 90 percent of the material was either new to him or something that he had heard about but had never confirmed.

Hung enjoyed connecting food to history, such as which fruits and plants were brought in by Dutch colonizers. After she learned that Hungarians boast a pork-heavy cuisine due to the ruling Muslim Ottomans taking away all the meat except for pork, it brought her back to the question of why Taiwan shares the same features. Apparently, goat meat was too stinky and cows were used for farm labor instead of consumption.

Crook liked to analyze food trends, such as the drastic decline of rice consumption despite rice being one of the few crops Taiwan is self-sufficient in, and how people are willing to shell out to buy more expensive foreign fruits even though Taiwan has a rich variety of native ones.

Another phenomena he found was that while food is very important to Taiwanese culture, those who do the cooking often go unacknowledged — although this is starting to change with the rise of “superstar chefs” such as RAW’s Andre Chiang (江振誠).

“People are very passionate about food, but they don’t really think that the skill in producing the food is worthy of respect. In Japan, there’s a culture of apprenticeship and craftsmanship,” he says. “All the elements were already in my knowledge, but I just didn’t make this connection.”

FREE FROM POLITICS?

When Albala reviewed the final draft, he was completely lost because he didn’t have any understanding of Taiwan’s complicated politics and history. So the two had to put together a brief history of the nation, which isn’t included in most of the other books in the series.

One has to take a political stance here — for example, they refer to Taiwan as a country that has never been controlled by the People’s Republic of China — but Crook says the interesting thing is that while people are able to politicize just about anything in Taiwan, food is one of the areas where it’s not so much, at least in recent years.

“We didn’t go out of our way to minimize Chinese influence on Taiwanese cuisine because there are so many non-Chinese influences anyway,” Crook says. “But it’s something accepted by every Taiwanese. As far as I can tell, even people who would never consider voting blue (pro-China politicians) are happy to eat Chinese food. They can, however, refuse to speak Mandarin.”

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