When Americans think of Taiwanese food, they’re likely to think of bubble tea, shaved ice or niu rou mian, the beef noodle soup that surfaces on Xiao Bao Biscuit’s menu in cold winter months.
Yet all of those items are 20th century inventions: Prior to the 1940s, when civil war in China led to the swift construction of military villages on the island, almost nobody ate beef. The Taiwanese diet was distinguished primarily by rice, seafood, sesame oil, pickled mustard greens and peanuts. In short, traditional Taiwanese cuisine has an astounding number of overlaps with Lowcountry cooking.
Maybe astounding is too strong a word. Taiwan is located just a few hundred miles south of Charleston (albeit on the opposite side of the globe), and shares a history of hosting international ships in its harbors. Still, the affinity adds an interesting dimension to a bian dang, or bento box, of salt-and-pepper fried chicken and sautéed greens over rice crusted with pork sauce, such as the one I sampled this weekend at Ping’s Place near Atlanta.
The rice bowl was definitely Asian: A preserved egg, tofu and soy sauce are pretty much giveaways in that department. It deviated from standard notions of mainland Chinese cooking, though. For one thing, it was drier. All of the Taiwanese dishes I tried over the course of a three-stop tasting tour were lubricated by oil, pickles or pork fat, rather than broths or thick sauces. And it seemed crunchier and bitterer than the dishes I tend to order in big city Chinese food courts and dim sum parlors.
Am I generalizing wildly? Of course. But with its salt and leafy greens, the bian dang seemed perfectly suited to the coastal Southeast.
“Taiwanese food is very separate from China,” says Cathy Erway, author of the recently-published cookbook, The Food of Taiwan.
Erway this weekend was the featured speaker at a festival sponsored by the Taiwanese School of Atlanta, where the menu included freshly-made red bean pancakes and pork belly buns that organizers purchased out of the back of an entrepreneurial cook’s car.
According to Erway, Taiwanese food culture was deeply influenced by immigrants from Fujian province and Japan, as well as the availability of tropical fruits, herbs, fish and oysters.
“There’s an overall amplification of flavor,” Erway says. “It’s very richly flavored.”
The latest development in Taiwanese cooking revolves around night markets, an outgrowth of the food stands that popped up around Buddhist temples. Worshippers got hungry, so vendors sold snacks: Now the sausages, meatballs, popcorn chicken and skewered squid constitute a stand-alone attraction.
“There’s a whole lot of innovation and competition,” Erway says. “Every time I go to Taiwan, I see something I didn’t see before. Last time, it was a fried chicken wing stuffed under its skin with sticky rice.”
Sounds like a dish that could sell at a Lowcountry county fair.