Sat, Jul 13, 2019 - Page 13 News List

A Taiwanese pantry opens in New York

Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry joins a wave of Taiwanese-American businesses reshaping the cultural conversation around food, race and identity

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Su Spicy Chili Crisp was the first product launched by Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry in February this year.

Photo courtesy of Su Spicy Chili Crisp

Taiwanese food was always a significant part of Lisa Cheng Smith’s childhood in Texas, where she grew up in a multicultural household with a Taiwanese mother and American father.

In a metropolis like Houston, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the US, their search for Taiwanese food never took long, and often ended in the kitchens of home cooks.

“It was easy because my mom had her own community, so we’d just go to her friend’s house and they’d be making zongzi (粽子),” Smith says, referring to the dumplings made of glutinous rice and fillings wrapped and cooked in leaves.

This early immersion among Taiwanese immigrants reproducing the food of their homeland came full circle in February this year, when Smith, now based in New York, opened Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry (雲海). The online boutique offers a handpicked selection of gourmet foods made in Taiwan, and will soon occupy a retail space in Win Son Bakery in Brooklyn.

“My number one goal is to make ingredients and packaged foods and things like that available to home cooks,” says Smith, 36, who runs Yun Hai as a “passion project” alongside her full-time job as a wholesale director at a Danish design brand.

For now, the shop’s selection is intentionally limited. Smith works directly with just three small-batch producers that are able to meet her exacting standards for delicious Taiwanese condiments crafted with natural ingredients and methods.

Take for example Su Spicy Chili Crisp (甦香麻辣油), made in Taipei. It is a fragrant and tingly crispy chili oil laced with Sichuan peppercorns, red chili peppers and star anise. It’s a connoisseur’s alternative to Lao Gan Ma (老乾媽) chili crisp, the almighty condiment from China’s Guizhou Province now almost as widely available in the US as it is here.

Yun Hai’s premise sounds straightforward, and it is. But Smith’s choice to focus on artisanal ingredients (inevitably costing more than mass-produced versions) and assertively identify them as Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) also means her business is at the forefront of an evolving cultural conversation around food, race and identity.

FANCY FOODS

While European fine foods abound in American groceries, their Asian equivalents can be elusive. Even when these are available, Smith says, most American consumers balk at paying a premium for high-quality Asian ingredients (with the notable exception of Japanese imports).

“I think the biggest challenge is convincing the public that products that are Chinese can and should cost more, because they’re so used to bottom-of-the-barrel prices,” Smith says. Among non-Asians, this thinking can be so ingrained that “there’s a whole discussion about, if it’s expensive, it’s not authentic,” she adds.

On a brief sourcing trip to Taiwan last month, Smith made sure to vet for authenticity. After touching base with her local operations team — consisting of Ivan Wu (伍摘虹), a peripatetic businessman, and his assistant Hsieh Wen-feng (謝文鳳), a young Changhua native — the trio made site visits to their producers.

The most expensive item in Yun Hai’s inventory is a bottle of soy sauce made by the Hsieh (謝) family of Yu Ding Shing (御鼎興) brewery, which has operated in the agricultural heartland of Yunlin County for more than 60 years.

A visit confirms that the Hsiehs make their soy sauce in the laborious, time-tested way: using locally-grown, organic black soy beans; cooking the beans over wood fires; and fermenting them for at least six months in custom-made vats.

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