From Taboo to Treasure: Beef in Taiwan

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Until relatively recently, eating beef was frowned on in Taiwan.

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By Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung

At the beginning of the 20th century, Taiwan was a society where the eating of beef was not merely frowned upon, but seen as so despicably disloyal as to invite karmic retribution. Well before the century was over, however, hamburgers and steaks were available in the smallest towns. And in 2005, beef noodles were – to use the words of the Michelin Guide – “officially canonized” as one of “Taiwan’s gastronomic treasures” when Taipei City Government launched its annual beef-noodles festival.

Among the generation of Taiwanese now passing are many who grew up on farms, and who regarded bovids as loyal co-workers. Without draft animals, 17th- and 18th-century Han pioneers would have struggled to convert Taiwan’s plains into rice paddies. Literature and folk songs from that era celebrate cattle which saved the lives of their owners by warning of impending earthquakes or other disasters.

In other stories, farmers who butchered a buffalo for food are plagued by nightmares in which the animal takes revenge. A lingering aversion to bovine meat continues to influence perhaps one in 10 non-vegetarian Taiwanese, and is a reason why local steakhouses typically offer a few pork and chicken alternatives.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
A bowl of Royal Beef Noodles, priced at NT$10,000, is displayed at Niou Ba Ba restaurant in Taipei Dec. 13, 2013.

According to Sun Yin-rui, whose 2001 thesis for a master’s degree at National Central University’s Graduate Institute of History was titled “History of Beef as a Food for Taiwanese,” cattle were occasionally rustled and slaughtered for their meat in the second half of the 19th century, but mainstream attitudes to the eating of beef did not begin to change until after Japan’s 1895 takeover of Taiwan.

The Japanese themselves did not have a strong meat-eating tradition; between the 7th and 17th centuries, Buddhist and Shinto food taboos led to formal prohibitions against the consumption of various animals. But after 1872, Emperor Meiji and his reformist administration encouraged meat consumption, in part because they wanted a stronger male population from which they could build a more effective army.

Prior to 1895, bovids in Taiwan were bred for physical strength, not edibility. The Japanese authorities introduced foreign cattle suitable for meat production, and established a network of hygienic slaughterhouses. By the 1930s, domestic production made possible not only the canning and export of Taiwanese beef, but also beef consumption by both Han city-dwellers and Japanese immigrants.

Since the Democratic Progressive Party’s 2016 election victory, the opposition Kuomintang has used controversy surrounding the loosening of controls on U.S. and Canadian beef imports to attack the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), criticizing the president for not following thorough on her food safety policy.

Back when the KMT exercised dictatorial control over Taiwan, the party’s stance was thoroughly pro-beef. The regime oversaw the introduction of Angus, Brahman, Hereford and other strains from the U.S., and senior officials like Hsieh Tung-min (謝東閔, Taiwan provincial governor from 1972 to 1978 and later ROC vice-president) urged people to eat more beef and drink milk. In that era, conscripts had to eat what they were given, and many Taiwanese males tasted beef for the first time after they were drafted into the armed forces.

Rapid economic growth and changing attitudes pushed per capita beef consumption in Taiwan from 0.65 kg in 1968 to 2.43 kg in 1991, and to 5.07 kg in 2015. Once able to meet most of its beef needs, Taiwan is now hugely dependent on imports. Ultra-fresh local beef in a clear soup is a breakfast food in Tainan.

Taiwan’s water buffalo population fell from nearly 330,000 in 1956 to below 20,000 in 1991. (Since then it has declined to a few thousand.) During the 1960s and 1970s, many of the animals replaced by machinery were slaughtered for their meat, and it is highly likely some customers ordering beef in cheaper eateries were instead served the darker meat of a buffalo. As far as the writers of this article can tell, the number of restaurants in Taiwan currently serving buffalo meat can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and none of them are in the capital.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
A disease control official gives an injection to eunthanize a water buffalo to prevent the spread of the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease in Tainan in 1991. Taiwan destroyed 315 head of cattle infected with the disease at three ranches in the southern county to try to stop the deadly virus from spreading to other areas.

The postwar emergence of beef noodles as an iconic local dish is often attributed to the arrival of the defeated KMT army. Sun Yin-rui writes: “Many of these soldiers were from north China… After leaving the army, they had to support themselves. Because they had no other skills, they made noodles, and soon dominated the stalls selling beef noodles and dumplings. Many were Muslims who brought their beef-eating heritage to Taiwan.”

The postwar emergence of beef noodles as an iconic local dish is often attributed to the arrival of the defeated KMT army.

According to Sun, in the early days, different parts of the city were associated with particular flavors. Certain streets near Taipei Main Station were dominated by families originally from Shandong, so beef noodles sold hereabouts tended to come in a semi-clear qīngdùn (清燉) stew, the broth being flavored with nothing but salt, soy sauce and sometimes a little rice wine. Gastrophiles looking for Sichuan-style beef noodles headed to Yongkang Street – then as now a foodie destination – or to Taoyuan Street.

The late historian Lu Yao-dong (逯耀東) argued that beef noodle soup as it is usually enjoyed in Taiwan first emerged in Gangshan, now part of Kaohsiung City. Air force families which relocated there from the Chinese mainland in the late 1940s are said to have created Taiwanese beef noodles by adding locally-made hot soybean paste to a Sichuanese beef dish. The noodles, of course, were made from American wheat. Beef noodle soup is therefore a perfect example of juàn cūn cài (眷村菜, “military village cuisine”), new twists on old recipes created by the wives of mainland-born servicemen trying to replicate hometown dishes.

As we put it in our forthcoming book, juàn cūn cooks learned how to “integrate mainland flavors with the characteristics of Taiwanese ingredients.” But outside those cantonments, the disinclination to eat beef resulted in a localized version of mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) made with pork; the original Sichuan classic is typically beef.

Sun Yin-rui is right to say that “the full acceptance of beef is an important milestone” in local culinary history, yet Taiwan is just one of many countries to have recorded a great increase in beef consumption over the past half century. People in China and the Philippines now eat almost as much beef as Taiwanese. Globalization, not colonization by Japan, would seem to be the principal reason for this shift in eating patterns.

More surprising than Taiwan’s growing appetite for beef is the lack of any matching thirst for milk. At around 22 kg, annual per person consumption of dairy products in Taiwan is less than a tenth of that in the U.S. and many European countries. Despite the urgings of public health organizations, which foresee an osteoporosis epidemic as the population ages, the public has shown no inclination to drink more milk since the 1990s.

According to government-sponsored surveys, doing without milk appears to be a matter of preference, not cost or availability. In "From far Formosa," his classic account of Taiwan just before the Japanese takeover, George L. Mackay grumbled, “No butter, milk or cheese is made in north Formosa.”

Nowadays, fresh milk can be had at every convenience store and supermarket on the island. Around one in four Taiwanese cite lactose intolerance as a reason for not drinking milk, a low proportion considering an estimated 68 percent of the world’s adults aren’t able to digest it. Fewer than one in five respondents claim to dislike milk.

Starting with ranches the Japanese colonial authorities established from 1896 onward to supply milk to sick and wounded soldiers, Taiwan has gradually developed a domestic dairy industry. Holsteins dairy cattle are kept in barns, out of the sun and rain, and cooled through the summer by enormous electric fans. These herds are able to supply more than 90 percent of the fluid milk drunk in the country because, statistics suggest, many adults consume it only when it comes in a cappuccino or a bubble milk tea.

Read Next: How American Aid and Trade Changed the Taiwanese Diet

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.

Editor: David Green

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