INTERVIEW: Steven Crook & Katy Hui-wen Hung on ‘A Culinary History of Taipei’

INTERVIEW: Steven Crook & Katy Hui-wen Hung on ‘A Culinary History of Taipei’
Credit: Katy Hui-wen Hung

What you need to know

Catch up with the authors of a seminal book introducing the surprisingly diverse culinary history of Taipei and Taiwan to a global audience.

In recent years Taipei been hailed as a gastronomic paradise, and residents both present and former have been looking forward to cementing that reputation via the publication of the Big City Food Biography series’ Taipei issue.

The book – "A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai" – is a truly fascinating read. Despite the city-focused title, the book is a wealth of information on foodways and the cuisine of Taiwan as a whole, from its Austronesian roots up to the present day. Even people who grew up in Taiwan are sure to uncover some surprises.

The co-authors, veteran writer on Taiwan Steven Crook and newcomer Katy Hui-wen Hung (洪惠文), have poured two years of research and interviews into the project. The book uncovers the historic roots of iconic dishes, discusses food and drink supply chains (including Taiwan’s vital contributions to the worldwide agricultural industry), the impact of U.S. aid on the food enjoyed today in Taiwan, the place of food in religion, and reveals secrets on everything from the roadside banquet (Bando) to landmark restaurants with in-depth interviews with some of the most celebrated chefs in the country.

Credit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group

With a final chapter dedicated to recipes from culinary professionals and home cooks this is essential reading for those who have an interest in Taiwan’s incredibly diverse culinary history. The News Lens caught up with the co-authors to find out more about their experiences along the way.

The News Lens: You spent over two years researching and writing the book. What initially inspired you to work together?

Katy Hui-wen: My initial goal was actually to relearn Taiwan. Having lived abroad since the late 1980s, I appreciated this was a fantastic (and probably a once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity to relearn my home country and to embrace the phenomenal transformations that have occurred since I left. That motivated me to take on this challenge, even though I have no background in writing, especially writing in English. I wanted a co-author to split the work with [so] approached a couple of writers who had done food-related work in Taiwan, and it took me a little while to find Steven.

Steven Crook: This project’s appeal to me was very straightforward. By doing this, I’d get to learn a huge amount about several different facets of Taiwan.

Credit: Courtesy of Rich J Matheson
Steven Crook hiking in Namasia, Kaohsiung.

TNL: The book reads seamlessly with almost a singular authorial voice, so it’s hard to distinguish which of you worked on which parts. How did you divide the labor?

KH: We divided up the work according to each other’s strengths. Mine include a rich family history and a good network. Steven’s, obviously, is his 20-plus years’ of writing about Taiwan. We worked out that my main focus should be on special foods; teaching and sharing Taiwanese cuisines; dishes and recipes. For big chapters like Chapter Four [Offerings, Festivals, and Special Foods throughout the Year], we compiled, shared info and research materials. There were a few subjects Steven had already touched on in his previous writing. I went through a lot of documents and reading materials published in Chinese, then forwarded to him what I thought was important and/or interesting. Then Steven shaped it at a final stage before submission.

SC: We didn’t plan or divide meticulously. Instead, we dove into topics which interested us, kept each other informed about what we were doing, and then shared our results. We both made suggestions regarding what the other had found out or what they’d missed. Then we went back and tried to find answers to whatever questions had been raised.

TNL: Taiwan has an extremely diverse culinary history. How did you decide on the title for the book?

KH: I didn’t think too much about titles while researching and writing, and Ieft it to Steven to suggest suitable titles that met the publisher’s guidelines. However, I always thought we should use a word like ‘beyond,’ because that single word can deliver a message: ‘There’s a great deal more to Taiwan than you think.’ It just happened that that title, with ‘beyond,’ is what the publisher also preferred. Taiwan may appear surprisingly diverse because its cuisine is so little known outside East Asia. Can we say Taiwan’s food landscape is ‘extremely diverse’? That may be unfair to our Southeast Asian neighbors. But ‘surprisingly’ diverse, for sure.

SC: My initial preference was for “Sweet Potatoes and Ponlai: How Hunters, Colonists and Refugees Shaped the Food History of Taipei.

Credit: Katy Hui-wen Hung
Katy Hui-wen Hung (L) interviews indigenous restaurateur Yabung Tally on her family’s land in Yilan County.

TNL: During the course of your research you interviewed many people, are there any particular interviews that stand out for either of you?

SC: Not a particular interview, but certain moments. One being [Taiwanese celebrity chef] Andre Chiang (江振誠)’s ultra-confident assertion that he would have become a great success even if he’d not left Taiwan at an early age.

KH: That was an interview we did together, and one of the most memorable for me, too. Another piece of ‘interview gold’ was Jen Chia-lun (任佳倫) of Hoshing 1947 saying how her experiences in London’s markets inspired her to launch a bakery business building on but separate from her parents’ traditional bakery. I’ve been living in the UK for more than 25 years, so that part resonated strongly with me. It might not be something other Taiwanese would have grasped. I felt she made an especially crucial point.

TNL: While reading your book I learned of several new dishes that I have not come across in well over a decade of eating around Taiwan. Have you tried all the foods in the book? For example, the sugar plantation rat served up in Chiayi?

SC: I think, between us, we’ve tried every single one – and a lot which aren’t in the book.

KH: I’ve tried all the foods I contributed, yes. And all the restaurants in Chapter Seven [Landmark Restaurants], and all the recipes, too. My research approach is try the food and observe first, then decide if a place should be included. The one exception to this method was Astoria Confectionary and Café, which I knew had to be included on account of its colorful history and its importance to the development of Taipei’s food landscape.

You can read an extract of the book devoted to Astoria Confectionary and Café here.

TNL: There’s plenty of discussion of indigenous food in the book. Of the indigenous dishes and beverages that you tried do you have a particular favorite?

SC: I’m not much of meat eater, so for me the highlight of any aboriginal meal is usually the yěcài (野菜, “wild vegetables”).

KH: I like the Atayal banana rice wraps in Wulai, and the 100 percent millet wine produced in Nantou (the yellowish cloudy kind), plus roast chicken seasoned with indigenous herbs, in particular tana.

Credit: Katy Hui-wen Hung
Chicken flavored with tana and a side dish of green papaya with passion fruit.

TNL: Was there anything that particularly surprised you during the process of your research?

SC: I was stunned to learn that’s Taiwan’s agricultural sector was once of global importance. On the eve of World War II, Taiwan – which accounts for just 0.00024 percent of Earth’s total land area – was the world’s number three producer of bananas and canned pineapples, and ranked number four for both sugar and sweet potatoes.

It was also the number six source of tea, number 10 for rice and peanuts, and number 13 for salt. Now, by contrast, around two-thirds of the calories consumed by Taiwanese are imported. In a typical bowl of beef noodles, everything but the scallions and the water comes from overseas. As far as I know, the only other country which has allowed its food-production capacity to wither like this is South Korea.

KH: Four things. One is that the U.S. influence on recent culinary developments goes far deeper than I had ever imagined. Several of today’s iconic foods would not exist, or at least not be so prominent, if it weren't for U.S. aid and trade. Beef noodles and pineapple cake are prime examples.

Secondly, the intermingling of Hakka and indigenous foodways has been far greater and deeper than I had thought. I believe that many of the foods served in today’s indigenous restaurants have some overlap with Hakka foods. Hakka culinary creativity has obviously been influential – look at Saisiyat mochi and Hakka mochi.

Third, and this was actually the biggest surprise, is the number of vegetarians in Taiwan [two to three times that of Japan, for instance]. My personal experiences had led me to think there would be far more vegetarians in the UK than in Taiwan, so I was surprised to find such a high percentage of vegetarians in Taiwan. I still can’t quite believe it, despite the statistics.

Fourth, I was amazed by the number of fruits and vegetables introduced by the Dutch (mostly via Indonesia but some from China) such as the guava and the water apple. Furthermore, the names of many fruits (like the names of many places in Taiwan) are derived from aboriginal languages. That’s something people of my generation weren’t taught as we grew up during the martial law period.

Credit: Steven Crook
Jijuan pork-filled rolls sold in Dadaocheng, Taipei.

TNL: Was there research that you simply didn’t have room to include?

SC: One subject we didn’t touch on at all is food poverty in 21st century Taiwan.

KH: Cuisine in Taiwan is always moving, always evolving. I would have liked to include more about the foodways of recent immigrants, such as the South African expat population. And also how immigrants find comfort (or not) in their country’s food. Not only that, but also how local Taiwanese embrace these unfamiliar foods.

TNL: I was surprised to read about the relatively short time chou dofu is produced in (around half a day – not including the six-month fermentation period for the vinegar brine). Is this a modern development?

KH: As far as I understand, it’s a Taiwanese development to allow mass production. That’s the only way a ‘tofu town’ could serves thousands of portions each day. Originally, stinky tofu needed weeks or even months of fermentation. Making the brine uses wild weeds that cost nothing to obtain; weeding them out is good for environment and cost effective. It’s also worth pointing out that I think some Taiwanese don’t really like the strong stinky fermented smell, and serving it deep-fried removes some of that stinkiness.

TNL: You quote Jen Chia-lun of Hoshing 1947 as saying that in her experience the markets in the UK are frequented by young people, whilst in Taiwan the consumers are generally older folk. To what extent do you think that this is connected to the rejection of packaging and embracing of artisanal products by young people in the UK?

SC: I think in the UK some of the interest in artisanal produce is fashion; people want to stand out from the supermarket crowd. In Taiwan, I think, it’s more driven by a desire to eat healthily, and by parents trying to ensure that what they feed their children is healthy

KH: I agree with Steven. Food safety issues are a major reason for going artisanal in Taiwan.

TNL: The final chapter of the book, Signature Dishes and Recipes, provides recipes for several classic Taiwanese dishes. Are either of you avid cooks?

KH: I cook home meals on a regular basis in the UK, but I don’t cook much when I am in Taiwan, due to limited kitchen space and the convenience of eating outside. But I take joy in cooking when I have the opportunity, and I enjoy exploring flavors. The first recipe in Chapter 10 (steamed fish using maqaw peppercorn) is ‘my’ recipe, something I cooked after hand-picking maqaw at Wulai that day and using a fish my mother had in the fridge. It was inspired by an Atayal auntie who that very day had told me maqaw goes best with fish. I do think this kind of curiosity helped a lot when writing the book.

Credit: Katy Hui-wen Hung
Fish cooked with maqaw (Taiwan mountain peppercorns) and paprika.

TNL: Chapter Eight covers Tipples and Teas. What are your personal go-to beverages in Taiwan?

SC: I’ve never got into Chinese-style teas, unlike several of my expatriate friends. I do enjoy the occasional cold Taiwan Gold Medal Beer.

KH: Very feminine fruit-flavored beers, lychee and pineapple in particular. And I love good quality traditional xingren cha (so-called ‘almond tea’, 杏仁茶), too.

TNL: If you found yourself in the unfortunate position of having to choose a last meal in Taiwan, what would you request?

SC: It would likely depend on what I’d eaten the previous few days. A good bowl of beef noodles, quite possibly.

KH: Hot and sour soup with scallion pancake beef roll. Or maybe Japanese curry rice with miso soup.

TNL: As you were writing the book who did you envisage your audience to be?

SC: This series of books is aimed at culinary students and food historians. However, while writing it, I thought more about people who are curious about Taiwan, yet not necessarily food-obsessed. I hope people will buy because they find the subject interesting and because it’ll help them understand Taiwan. Are we allowed to add that for anyone with friends into food, into Asian food, interested in Taiwan, or interested in the intersections of food, religion, international trade, and politics, our book makes an ideal Christmas gift?

KH: It’s semi-academic, as I was briefed by Ken Albala, the series editor. [Ken is a history professor at the University of the Pacific in California and the author of numerous food books.] The primary market is U.S. food researchers. I think the keywords are: food, history, and cities. Because Taipei isn’t nearly so well known as most other cities in the series, it became clear that we had to do things a little differently. We realized this early on and our focus shifted more to introducing Taiwan to the world, via the island’s food history.

Robyn Eckhardt, who’s written about food for The New York Times and others, told me that the content will probably appeal not only to North Americans and Europeans, but also to people in countries near Taiwan. We hope the information about indigenous foodways will interest those with Austronesian roots in New Zealand, Hawaii, and other places. And the Hakka foods section will likely attract Hakka people in Southeast Asia. I think we’ve chosen topics, and written in a style, that many people outside Taiwan can relate to. This is a very important mission. When people relate, people appreciate.

TNL: I feel compelled to add that I think that many native Taiwanese would also find the book a great read. Finally, where may our readers get their sticky mitts on a copy of the book?

SC: The publisher tells me it’ll be reaching bookstores in Taiwan and Hong Kong very soon.

If you don’t want to wait for the book to hit local bookstores both hard copies and e-book version – with the added bonus of color photographs in the e-book version -- may be purchased from the publisher online: priced at US$38 + delivery/ US$36 for the e-book.

Steven and Katy have been invited by Cathy Erway, author of “The Food of Taiwan,” to appear on her Heritage Radio Network show Eat Your Words in November. The podcast will be available online after airing.

Read Next: Fungus Among Us: The History of Mushrooms in Taiwan

TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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