Looking for something exotic and different to try out in your kitchen? Turn your eyes (and your taste buds) towards the tiny island nation of Taiwan.
While Taiwan is only about the size of Massachusetts, its food reflects its richly layered past, with influences from China, Japan, the Netherlands and Portugal. Like most cuisines, traditional Taiwanese food traces its origins to humble peasant dishes, but is now enjoyed by people all over the country and around the world, including here in the U.S.
Until now, though, there’s never been a book that reveals the rich background of the country and its singular culinary history. That all changed with the publication of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island by Cathy Erway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Erway, author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove and the blog Not Eating Out in New York, has collected a volume of historical insights, dazzling pictures and delicious recipes from Taiwan. With this insider’s look at the nation’s cuisine and a visual journey through the country itself, Erway (who is half Taiwanese) introduces the reader to a country as unique as it is gastronomically tantalizing.
Recently, BookTrib caught up with Erway, who talked about her new book and provided a delectable recipe for us to enjoy.
BookTrib: What drew you to Taiwanese food as the subject of a book? What is it about Taiwanese food and culture that you find particularly fascinating?
Cathy Erway: My fascination with Taiwanese food has been building since as long as I can remember, since my mother was born and raised in Taiwan and most of the food she cooked stemmed from it. After spending a semester of college in Taiwan, I realized how unique its culture and especially its food was thanks to its history and geography as an island just off Southern China. A broad range of flavors, often crystallized with the liberal use of fresh herbs, were the result of these factors and I just wanted to discover all the [food] ways they had had created over the years.
BT: What do you feel is people’s greatest misunderstanding of Taiwanese cuisine? What don’t people understand about Taiwanese food, both in the dishes themselves and the degree of difficulty in preparation of these dishes?
CE: I believe that to understand Taiwanese cuisine, we have to understand what Taiwan is and how it came to have a culture in and of itself. That includes popular lifestyle tropes such as religion and social recreation as well as history and landscape. Many people do not know these facts, so I think it is helpful to advise on those, and then we might begin to realize just how different the food is from Chinese, Japanese and other cuisines.
BT: As the author of the Not Eating Out in New York blog, what other unfamiliar cuisines might you recommend for people to try cooking at home?
For a few decades in the U.S., we have been fascinated by the cuisines of the Mediterranean. This makes sense because it’s very vibrant in flavor and color and the techniques employed are often rustic, minimalist and overall friendly to home cooking. I think that the food of Taiwan and other warm climates often share these homestyle-friendly characteristics, and you need fewer ingredients than you might expect in most cases. Currently, I am very interested in the food of South India for three reasons: it’s been foreign to me for so many years, Northern Indian food has had prevalence in most American restaurants, and its simplicity is so attractive to me.
SESAME-SCENTED THIN NOODLES (Ma You Mian Xian)
1 cup sesame oil
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, sliced into 10 to 12 discs
1 pound very thin Asian wheat noodles
2 tablespoons fried shallots
In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat for two to three minutes, or until a piece of ginger sizzles a little when dropped in. Drop in all the ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, three to four minutes; reduce the heat if necessary to prevent the ginger from burning. Remove the pan from the heat. Carefully remove the ginger with tongs and discard.
Cook the noodles according to the package instructions and drain.
Toss the noodles thoroughly with the warm oil to coat. Divide among four to six serving bowls and top with the fried shallots.