How American Aid and Trade Changed the Taiwanese Diet

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US influence pervades the modern Taiwanese diet.

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A culinary gulf separates the typical Taiwanese and the average American, yet the United States has had an underappreciated impact on the Taiwanese diet. The influence is profound, and goes beyond the ways in which the U.S., the world’s topmost food exporter, has changed eating patterns on every continent.

Much of the economic assistance Taiwan received from the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s came in the form of food or technology that helped Taiwan boost local food production. In 1954, the U.S. government began buying surplus crops from American farmers and making them available to Taiwan and other allies at artificially low prices. The same year, the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction introduced the Irwin mango. Now known to every Taiwanese as the aiwen (愛文芒果), this cultivar has largely replaced the smaller, greener so-called “native mango.”

After 1959, the U.S. funded the introduction of Yorkshire, Landrace and Duroc boars to improve local swine. Because the latter two breeds are accustomed to eating corn, not the sweet potatoes leaf and sundry leftovers traditionally used to fatten pigs in Taiwan, the promotion of hybrids led to a dependence on U.S. feed grains.

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Rice with minced pork is a Taiwanese staple.

The US$82,574 USAID provided for the development of sanitary harvesting and canning practices, and the building of processing facilities for mushrooms was economic touchpaper: Large-scale mushroom production took off in 1960, and by 1963 Taiwan was the world’s number one supplier of canned and bottled mushrooms.

Mushroom exporters prospered by growing white-button mushrooms for North American and European markets; by the late 1970s, they were earning more than US$100 million each year. They later benefited from, and to some extent stimulated, domestic demand. It is unlikely that Taiwanese per capita consumption of edible fungi – a key ingredient in local vegetarian cuisine – would have more than quadrupled in the decade after the mid-1990s if local farmers had not found themselves undercut by Chinese and South Korean suppliers, and switched over to straw mushrooms, shiitake, shimeji and other species popular with local shoppers.

In not much longer than a generation, the typical Taiwanese household went from cooking on a wood-burning hearth made of brick or clay, to using charcoal briquettes instead of firewood, to the now near ubiquitous gas stove. For a period, some folks used kerosene stoves, sometimes burning fuel obtained on the black market from American servicemen. The barrels in which kerosene was shipped to Taiwan were used by mainland Chinese refugees to bake shaobing (燒餅).

Kerosene was not the only commodity that found its way from U.S. bases into the local economy. After 1949, beef-noodle stands proliferated as mainland Chinese soldiers who had arrived in Taiwan with the Kuomintang (KMT) left the army and worked as vendors to support themselves. Some of the meat they cooked was American, having arrived on the island in cans intended for U.S. military mess halls.

In “The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island”, Cathy Erway points out that before mainlanders arrived en masse after World War II, “noodles in Taiwan were typically made of rice flour, and there were few dumpling or buns, with the exception of glutinous, rice starch-based ones.” This is true, but Taiwan’s wheat harvest has always been miniscule. Had it not been for flour donated or subsidized by the U.S., wheat-based foods could not have become staples as rapidly as they did.

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Imagine a Taiwan without wheat noodles...

Food aid created a permanent taste for wheat and other foreign commodities; when it was phased out, U.S. commercial food exports to Taiwan surged. These days, up to 90 percent of the solids in a serving of beef noodles may have come from American farms. Taiwanese beef production has more than doubled since 1960, but because the population has risen and annual per capita beef consumption has grown 20-fold, the country has gone from being almost self-sufficient to importing more than 95 percent of the bovine meat consumed each year.

Due to its political situation, Taipei is seldom able to resist pressure from Washington to open its markets to American imports. Domestic turkey production grew more than tenfold between 1945 and 1976 because it was cheaper, pound for pound, than chicken. By 1995, however, it had declined to less than a third of its peak, after Taiwan lifted restrictions on U.S. turkey. More recently, imports of broiler meat from the U.S. have grown apace, and this may be one reason why chicken consumption in Taiwan is high by Asian standards (yet lower than in the U.S.).

Soldiers who diverted military supplies were not the only individual Americans who impacted local diets. In 1953, Dr. Harry W. Miller – a surgeon-missionary from Ohio better remembered for founding Taipei Adventist Hospital – set up what was until the mid-1960s Taipei’s only soy milk production line.

Soy sauce and tofu have had a place on Taiwanese dinner tables for almost as long as Han people have been living on the island, but frying with soybean oil is a far newer habit. Before industrialization, rural Taiwanese fried with lard, often obtained from a pig they had raised themselves. This is why lard is nowadays regarded as a key ingredient for chefs attempting to recreate the distinct food fragrance (香味) and flavors of earlier times (古早味). Urban folk, on the other hand, preferred non-refined peanut oil. Soybean oil was deemed inferior; it was usually relegated to burning in lamps or blended with peanut or rapeseed oil.

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Lard is considered a necessity when cooking some traditional Taiwanese dishes.

This began to change in the ‘70s, when the American Soybean Association coordinated efforts to market the surplus oil that was a consequence of increased soybean crushing to feed the country’s rapidly expanding swine herds and poultry flocks. The association worked with domestic vegetable-oil manufacturers to enhance refining facilities, and by the early ‘80s, they were claiming considerable success in winning over local consumers.

At the end of the 20th century, annual total U.S. shipments of soybeans to Taiwan were almost 20 times higher than they had been in 1950. Taiwanese farmers are not allowed to grow any genetically modified (GM) crops, and a 2015 amendment to the School Health Act bans GM and heavily processed foods in educational institutions. However, almost all of the soy - and nearly 40 percent of all bulk food - imported by Taiwan from the U.S. in recent years has been GM.

A 1992 private-sector initiative, devised by the makers of Green Giant canned sweetcorn to encourage Taiwanese people to make corn soup at home, offered substantial cash prizes for the best recipes. A 2009 USDA report noted that, “the vast majority of demand for corn in Taiwan is met by imports” and that the U.S. share of corn imports had dropped to 80 percent, “a record low, compared with its historic near-monopoly position.” Were it not for American imports, sweetcorn egg-drop soup would never have become a breakfast staple throughout Taiwan, or a common appetizer at cheap steak restaurants.

The impact of American fast-food chains goes far beyond popularizing hamburgers, fried chicken and French fries. According to Roger Mark Selya, a University of Cincinnati geographer who did research in Taiwan, the rapid improvements in food-handling practices that helped reduce the island’s high incidence of the hepatitis B virus was not so much a result of government action, but more due to changing consumer expectations. Better practices, he theorizes, “were adopted because during the mid-1980s Taiwan experienced an invasion of multinational fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, and since these new establishments handled and served food in these ways, native restaurateurs and food sellers had to adapt in order to compete.”

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Strong demand for rare brews like this 'Monkey Coffee', roasted with the aid of Formosan rock monkeys, can be traced back to McDonald's introduction of cheap cups of joe in the '80s.

A McDonald’s meal is pricier than a rice-and-pork lunchbox, yet its hot beverages have always been very affordable by local standards. University of South Carolina anthropologist Marc L. Moskowitz explains how the chain nurtured local coffee-drinking culture: “In 1984, the first McDonald’s opened in Taipei, featuring a NT$35 cup of coffee with free refills. For the first time, coffee shop culture thereby became accessible to Taiwan’s steadily growing middle class.”

Despite the efforts of American food corporations, and in some instances the Taiwanese authorities, certain local eating habits show no sign of becoming more Americanized. Breakfast cereals, for instance, have not really caught on. Nor has the appetite for beef been matched by a thirst for milk.

Before the Japanese takeover, Western missionaries in south Taiwan kept a handful of dairy cows to supply themselves and their families, and in 1896 the colonial authorities began establishing dairy farms to supply milk to their soldiers, especially those who had been wounded. However, per capita consumption of dairy products has never been more than a third of that in the U.S. Despite the urgings of public health bodies, which fear an osteoporosis epidemic as the population gets older, it seems many adults drink milk only when having a coffee, and eat cheese only if it appears atop a pizza or a gratin dish. This is surprising: Fresh milk is available everywhere, and few respondents to government-sponsored surveys cite cost or lactose intolerance as reasons for not drinking milk.

New Zealand is the now dominant supplier of milk powder to Taiwan, yet in previous decades American milk powder and butter played a role in the development of the modern shortbread crust pineapple cake. Old-time pineapple cakes, by contrast, had fluffy pastry made using lard.

The modern doughnut certainly evolved in the U.S., and many Taiwanese assume it was introduced to the island, if not when there was a sizable American military presence, then more recently by U.S.-owned chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Mister Donut. In fact, the first bakery to make and sell these high-fat, sugar-rich indulgences in Taipei was Cafe Astoria, founded in 1949 by Russians from Shanghai who had joined the KMT exodus from the Chinese mainland.

Taiwan’s culinary history is nothing if not tangled.

Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung are the authors of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018.

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Editor: David Green

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