What you need to know
Dip into a mouthwatering smorgasbord of Taiwanese meat dishes and their histories.
Few societies are more vegetarian-friendly than Taiwan. Buddhism and [ I-Kuan Tao (一貫道) encourage meat-free eating habits, and not long ago PETA called Taipei “the new vegan Mecca of Asia.”
At the same time, at least four out of every five Taiwanese eat meat regularly. Per capita pork consumption doubled between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s – by which time the average Taiwanese person could afford to eat meat every day of the week – but has plateaued since then. The 2015 figure was 38.1 kg per year, more than double that in Canada.
Taiwanese eat almost as much poultry (32.2 kg per person per year) as Canadians, although not quite as much as Americans. In terms of per capita beef consumption, Taiwan is way behind North America, Europe, and even relatively poor countries in Latin America – but that is hardly surprising, as beef was anathema to the majority until a few generations ago.
The importance of pork to local consumers was underscored by a Council of Agriculture (COA) announcement on June 3 this year, which sought to reassure the public that sufficient swine would reach local markets ahead of Dragon Boat Festival (June 18 this year). Demand for pork always rises ahead of the festival because several million zongzi (粽子) are made, a custom that began with the rice dumplings hurled into the Miluo River nearly 2,300 years ago by supporters of the poet Qu Yuan. (Qu had drowned himself; his friends hoped the rice balls would satisfy the fish, so they would not eat his body.) These glutinous rice dumplings have traditionally contained pork, although vegetarian iterations are catching on.
As recently as the mid-1960s in Taiwan, four out of every five rural households kept a pig, fed it sweet potatoes leaves and leftovers, and slaughtered it just before a special occasion.
As anyone who has studied written Chinese knows, the logogram meaning “family” or “home,” jia (家) is a roof over the old character for “pig.” In the China of old, almost every household that was able to raised a hog or two below or behind their sleeping quarters. As recently as the mid-1960s in Taiwan, four out of every five rural households kept a pig, fed it sweet potatoes leaves and leftovers, and slaughtered it just before a special occasion. Fresh meat was not the only benefit; an estimated one sixth of each animal’s economic value in that era came in the form of the manure it produced.
Government-backed hog-breeding efforts began during the Japanese colonial period and continued after World War II. From 1959 on, U.S. economic aid saw the introduction of Yorkshire, Landrace and Duroc boars. Because the latter two breeds are fattened with corn, local piggeries became dependent on U.S. feed grains.
Thanks to modern husbandry techniques, animals are market-ready far earlier than used to be the case. The meat may be more tender, but bando chef Lin Ming-tsan (林明燦) is one of those who feels recreating traditional flavors has become much more difficult as a result.
Zongzi is not the pork-flavored food associated with a major festival. Around Tomb Sweeping Day, many families sit down to a lunch of spring rolls (in Mandarin runbing, 潤餅, but often referred to by the name in Taiwanese, lumpia). The usual filling is slivers of pork with shredded cabbage, julienned carrot, bean sprouts, powdered peanut, and crushed sugar. Unlike the spring rolls served in many Asian restaurants in the West, lumpia are not deep fried, but assembled using precooked ingredients and eaten at room temperature.
Among people of Han origin, pork has been the default meat for so long that, unless prefixed by the character for a different animal, the character for meat (肉, rou) indicates pork. The dish probably served more often than any other in local roadside eateries is a good example: Rouzao fan (肉燥飯, also called lurou fan, 滷肉飯), is white rice with pork that has been minced and braised. A key ingredient is pigskin; added near the end of the cooking, the collagen in it gives the sauce an ideal level of viscidity.
Total pork consumption may be stable, and rouzao fan shows no signs of disappearing, but the form in which people eat pork has changed in the past couple of decades. Homecooks are less likely than before to braise indulgently large chunks of pork belly with hard-boiled eggs and chunks of turnip or carrot. But it seems people are eating more dumplings than ever, and many of these jiaozi (餃子) and shuijiao (水餃) contain pork.
If any one person can take credit for the ubiquity of dumplings, it is Lin Jia-yu (林家鈺). Lin, founder of the Bafang Yunji (八方雲集) chain, has over the past 20 years done for potstickers in Taiwan what Ray Kroc did for hamburgers in the U.S. Bafang Yunji’s 800-plus branches outnumber those of McDonald’s by more than 2:1, making it the country’s most ubiquitous fast-food brand. The standardized menu goes beyond pan-fried and steamed dumplings (all handmade) with traditional pork-and-leek fillings; the kimchi- and curry-flavored jiaozi are popular, and there are soups, noodles, and side dishes of vegetables.
That Taiwanese ate more of their favorite meat as the island gradually became more prosperous is not surprising. More dramatic has been the emergence of chicken meat as an everyday food. In 1966, Taiwanese ate just over 4 kg of chicken per person per year. By 1991, the figure was 23.3 kg. The amount of chicken eaten relative to the amount of pork has changed over the past half century from around 1:4 to 4:5
As with pigs, people are now eating different breeds of chicken. According to Y. P. Lee (李淵百), a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Animal Science at National Chung Hsing University, before the 1963 introduction of the modern broiler, the majority of chickens were raised in backyards. Around the time Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization, tariff and quota restrictions on imported chicken were abolished, and in 2003, broiler consumption overtook that of tuji (土雞) for the first time.
Tuji is often translated as “native chicken,” but Lee prefers the term “country chicken.” He points out that it is “not the pure native chicken, and is defined as the locally developed slow-growth type of chicken.” Compared to many broilers, this type of bird has “heavy fleshy legs… better resistance against heat stress and many diseases, and their eggs and meat possess better eating qualities.”
A broiler takes around 35 days to reach a weight of 2 kg; by contrast a tuji needs 77 days. A lot of broiler meat ends up as popcorn-style deep-fried chicken (鹽酥雞, yansuji) or in the form of hand-sized cutlets. The former is breaded and seasoned with liberal amounts of garlic, soy and five-spice powder. The latter are often marinated overnight in a blend of soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, onion and minced garlic; using sweet-potato flour rather than wheat flour gives the cutlets a more Taiwanese flavor.
The somewhat tougher meat of tuji and other non-broilers wuguji (“black-boned chicken”), and fangshanji (“free-range [in the mountains] chicken”) is preferred for dishes like sesame oil chicken, and soups in which the meat, skin and bones are simmered with herbs. Taiwanese women who have just given birth are often fed chicken with sesame oil (mayou tuji) as part of their zuoyuezi (坐月子, “sitting out the month”) postpartum recovery.
Goose excrement repels the snakes that populate Taiwan’s foothills.
Post-war Taiwan saw the rise and decline of a domestic turkey industry. Turkey production grew more than tenfold between 1945 and 1976 because the meat was a cheaper alternative to chicken. By 1995, however, it had declined to less than a third of its peak, after Taipei was pressured by Washington to accept American imports to restore balance to the U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship. Shredded turkey with gravy on white rice continues to be a dish associated with Chiayi (火雞肉飯, huojirou fan), but nowadays much of the meat is imported.
Taiwan’s chicken, duck, and goose populations have declined since 2004, and imports have grown apace. Just as many rural families used to fatten a pig at home, some raised a few geese on scraps, and not simply to provide additional food. Having a goose or two patrol the perimeter of your homestead was thought to be even better than keeping a guard dog. What is more, goose excrement repels the snakes that populate Taiwan’s foothills.
Ducks are raised for both meat and eggs, with Yilan County being especially famous for smoked and dried duck meat. This foodway developed when there was a need to preserve older, tougher duck meat. The county is notoriously wet, and in the early days of Han settlement, flooding often frustrated farmers’ efforts to grow rice. Whenever this happened, farmers released ducklings into their inundated fields. Thanks to the shrimp, fish and insects that abound if pesticides are not sprayed, the birds thrived without human feeding, and their excrement nourished the land.
So they could store or sell surplus meat, Yilan families developed a special preservation process which some still follow today. Once they have been defeathered and the internal organs removed, the carcasses are washed, flattened and stretched on bamboo frames, then pickled in salt for seven days. After a period of outdoor drying, avoiding bright sunshine, the birds are dried in a charcoal oven, then finally baked with sugarcane to give them a sweet taste and an appealing golden color.
Duck cooked with old ginger and sesame chicken in wine are two of what Taiwanese gourmands call “the three best friends in winter.” The other is lamb hotpot. Despite being categorized as a “warming food” in ancient Chinese medical theory, lamb was unpopular before the 1980s because many found its stench off-putting. Selective breeding and changes to the way the meat is prepared have remedied this. Even so, because they have a reputation for being malodorous, neither lamb nor goat are served at wedding banquets. Nobody wants their marriage to begin with a bad smell.
Read Next: From Taboo to Treasure: Beef in Taiwan
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.