Wed, Nov 20, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Feasting on the past

Read between the lines of Taiwan’s culinary heritage at the Chinese Dietary Culture Library

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

First-edition copies of classic Cantonese cookbooks by Hong Kong chef Chen Rong. The opened version contains a recipe for Chinese steamed cake.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

When Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) embarked on his fourth term as president on May 20, 1966, guests at his inauguration dinner were served regional specialties from Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan and Guangdong, as well as a traditional crispy rice and shrimp stir-fry intriguingly translated as “Bombing Moscow.”

The theme for the celebration was “China Night.” Chiang’s inauguration speech had revolved entirely around his “sacred duty” of “emancipating our compatriots from slavery” and “the evil deeds of the Chinese Communists.”

But even if you’d tuned out during that sermon, you would have gleaned its message from the dinner menu, printed on a map depicting China and Taiwan as one territory, as if to assert Chiang’s authority over all the land on the page.

Exactly 50 years later, when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was sworn in on May 20, 2016, the menu resembled something different: a farm directory, listing towns, estates and even individual farmers in Taiwan who had provided the local ingredients. A dish called “Formosa Spring,” brought together green bamboo shoots from New Taipei City and Tainan, Miaoli black-feathered chickens and Kaohsiung peaches.

“We must express our gratitude to this land for nurturing us and to the people for placing their trust in us,” Tsai said in her address earlier that day. The menu was again a sign of the times, emphasizing the bounties of Taiwan’s own land and a concern for traceability after the food safety scandals of previous years.

State banquet menus are among the more unusual artifacts in the collection of the Chinese Dietary Culture Library (中華飲食文化圖書館), tucked away in the basement of an office building in Taipei’s Zhongshan District (中山). The library, which is free and open to the public, is a little-known trove of specialized texts about Chinese cuisine, where restaurant chefs and cultural historians alike find inspiration.


Legacy sells, and many an eatery now trades in culinary heritage with claims of guzaowei (古早味), a phrase that connotes tradition and authenticity, often appearing on signboards and menus. While popular understanding stops at the geographical origins of a dish, food history asks how that dish came to be as it is today, says Tseng Pin-tsang (曾品滄), an associate research fellow and deputy director at Academia Sinica.

“What’s important are the connections that the food has to our lives and the people here,” Tseng adds. “How was it eaten and used? How did it change and become a product of their life experiences and emotions?”

Food history remains a relatively new field of study in Taiwan, with few practitioners, no systematic approach and many challenges in finding sources, Tseng says. Fieldwork to collect oral histories from first-person sources is often a race against time.

But the field is growing, as food history is one of the most incisive ways of understanding the nation’s past. Culinary habits have long been at the intersection of developments in politics, popular culture, science and trade.

An example that Tseng cites is bando (辦桌), or open-air banquet celebrations commonly held in the countryside. Bando’s popularity peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became a symbol of “ethnic group synthesis” that crossed bensheng (本省) and waisheng (外省) lines, the former referring to those who moved to Taiwan before 1949 and the latter referring to those who moved to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after 1949.

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