Taiwanese cuisine: Ready to be discovered

by Donna Berry
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Donna Berry

CHICAGO — With U.S. diners demanding more from the foods they purchase and eat, culinary professionals are exploring global cuisines and cooking methods, especially the many varied tastes of Asia. One of the top-10 culinary trends for the packaged food and food service industries in 2015 will be “advanced Asian,” according to Boulder, Colo.-based Sterling-Rice Group. The foods will be “spicier and funkier” and “true to region,” according to the market research firm. Taiwanese foods fit this description.

From oysters to snake and beans on everything, including shaved ice and dumplings, for gastronomic adventures, the tastes of Taiwan are sure to be part of the new Asian cuisine scene.

Coconut grilled shrimp, served at the Taste Taiwan event at Park Grill at Millennium Park in Chicago on Dec. 8, features pineapple, relish and a honey mustard drizzle.

An island between China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia, Taiwan has a climate that fosters abundant vegetation year around. With a tradition of preparing and serving fresh foods, the locals have a saying, “In Taiwan, there is a snack shop every three steps and a restaurant every five,” making every street an open-air market. This makes the biggest challenge when visiting Taiwan to stay hungry.

Taiwan’s cooking styles and foods long have been overlooked by culinary professionals in the United States. Most Americans do not understand there is a difference between Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines. This is about to change.

At Taste Taiwan, Chef Jared Case prepared a peanut noodle salad made with lo mein noodle, toasted peanut and cilantro.

This past year, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau created Taste Taiwan, a program to educate culinary professionals about the ingredients and cooking styles of the island known as “The heart of Asia.” Because of their aggressive efforts, the tastes of Taiwan are making their way to America.

Similar to the program’s inaugural year in 2013, this year, three award-winning chefs were taken on an eight-day immersive culinary journey through Taiwan to better learn its culinary landscape. The trip ended with a cook off at the Landis Taipei Hotel, where local Master Chef Kenny Liao sampled the dishes the chefs intended to bring back to their restaurants in the United States. He rated them all original and outstanding.

These grilled oysters feature flavors of sriracha, cilantro and cucumber.

Jared Case, executive chef of Park Grill in Millennium Park, Chicago, developed Drunken Oyster, which features oysters, cucumber, cilantro, Sriracha and Taiwanese beer.

“The inspiration came from our oyster farming adventure,” he told the more than 100 guests who attended a Taste Taiwan event at Park Grill on Dec. 8 in Chicago. Sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, the event included a screening of a 30-minute documentary showcasing the three chefs’ culinary tour of Taiwan. The film is set to air on CNBC at 1:00 pm CST on Dec. 28.

 

“The fisherman taught us the right way to taste the oyster is to eat it with Taiwan beer,” Mr. Case said.

The locals also taught him to boil rocks to make soup stock, which is a part of the documentary.

Anthony Jacquet, executive chef of Caruso Dining Group in Los Angeles, also participated in the tour. His experience led to the development of the Berkshire Pork Belly Bun.

A spring roll at Taste Taiwan was created with shrimp, vermicelli, lettuce, bean shoot, peanut and sweet chile.

“This Taiwanese hamburger represents the West-meets-East experience to me” he said. “I pieced all the ingredients together based on my memories.”

The dish features premium pork in bao (bun) topped with hoisin sauce, pickled Fresno peppers, five-spice candied peanuts and a fried quail egg.

His dish is modeled after coffin bread, which is fried bread cut open like a coffin and filled with anything and everything. It is made on the streets of Taiwan’s largest night market known as Garden Night Market in Tainan.

Stuart Cameron, executive chef with Icon Legacy Hospitality Group in Toronto, created Crispy House Tofu, a dish inspired by a popular street-fare dish known as stinky tofu.

“Using ingredients found in Taiwan and then putting them together with modern techniques, this dish represents my travel in Taiwan,” he said.

Crispy House Tofu is made using silken tofu, beef, red bean paste, beef tendon and stock.

His inspiration, stinky tofu, is a popular street food made with tofu that is cut into cubes and fried twice so it is extra crispy. This gets topped with soy sauce, cabbage and a spicy hot sauce.

Pork and shrimp dumplings include ginger garlic ponzu and scallion.

Other common Taiwanese street foods include seasoned taro balls, tapioca soup and tea eggs. The latter are hard-boiled eggs that get cracked and then boiled in tea or sauce with spices. The cracking allows the flavors to penetrate the egg and provides a marbling effect.

“What’s so impressive is that everything you see and eat in Taiwan is from Taiwan,” Mr. Cameron said.

The simplest of dishes are cooked in a myriad of ways for a surprising effect. The cooking techniques provide elegance to the inherent rustic nature of Taiwanese fare.

“The cooking techniques were born out of necessity,” Mr. Jacquet said.

He referenced the day the chefs spent with the Amis aborigines in Hualien in eastern Taiwan. With no woks, pans or dishes, the chefs relied on the resources provided by Mother Nature to cook dinner, which included wrapping chicken and fish in leaves prior to cooking over an open fire.

The one dish that best represents Taiwanese cuisine is the oyster omelet. Served any time of day, this dish is fried egg with oysters that gets topped with leafy greens, yen powder (monosodium glutamate), soy sauce, and sweet and spicy sauce.

There’s no doubt that the tastes of Taiwan will inspire the development of Asian cuisine this coming year. The island’s indigenous ingredients and culinary techniques provide a feast for the senses and are what today’s curious palates crave.

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