Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan, shares the distinctive tastes of Taiwanese cuisine.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: We need some orientation with Taiwan. First of all, where is it? What is it?

Cathy Erway
Cathy Erway (Photo: Pete Lee)

Cathy Erway​: It's an island that's situated just off the eastern coast of China. It's right below the Japanese archipelago and above the Philippines. It's a subtropical environment.

What it is is a very tricky question actually, we'd have to get into the history a bit. But it is democratically governed by itself. However, China claims that it is part of it.

LRK: Do the Taiwanese see themselves as being Chinese, or do they see themselves as being Taiwanese?

CE​: The Taiwanese people do think of themselves as Taiwanese. However, most of them are ethnically Chinese and have migrated from China from the 1600s or 1700s and up until recent history as well. Again, it's a little tricky, but it's definitely independently governed.

LRK: Are there distinctive tastes in Taiwanese food?

CE: Yes, I think so. There's a lot of use of rice wine, for instance, in braising. But there are also a lot of spices and tropical herbs like basil used in dishes. Fried shallots, chili peppers and five-spice powder are used in a lot of meat dishes. For instance, there is a minced pork meat sauce, which is very popular. It's served almost like a Sunday ragu; it's a long-simmered dish and you serve it on a scoop of rice.

Clams with Basil and Chilies
Erway's recipe: Clams with Basil and Chilies (Photo: Pete Lee)

LRK: The original people who settled in Taiwan long before anyone came from anywhere else -- is there a cuisine left from those peoples?

CE: Actually, the original people would be the aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. This group still remains in Taiwan.

But I think that when we think of the Taiwanese folks that you mentioned, we think of the people who settled in the 1500s and 1600s. Definitely a lot of their foods are still prevalent. They came mostly from Fujian province, which is directly across the Taiwan Strait.

So we see oyster omelet, for example. It's a Fujian dish, and very popular in Taiwan to this day. I mentioned minced pork sauce. We have also danzai noodles, a very traditional simple noodle dish with shrimp. This was thought of as something that fishermen made on the off-season, during the winters when they couldn't catch their fish. These are all traditions from earlier Taiwanese settlers.

LRK: Eating there now, if we were to go to Taiwan, where should we begin?

CE​: The biggest airport, the international airport, is in Taipei, so I would start there. There's plenty to see around. There's Yangmingshan mountain, or you can go see some tea farms in Taipei.

But definitely check out the cosmopolitan parts of the city and all the night markets throughout the city. It's kind of like a street fair -- there are clothing and other boutiques throughout the streets, as well as lots of food vendors. We see things like fried chicken bites tossed with some fried basil leaves and these delicious little morsels. We see things like the gua bao, which is a steamed bun with a slab of red braised pork belly. The Taiwanese signature garnishes are crushed peanuts, chopped cilantro and pickled mustard greens. It's so accessible, everyone loves it.

LRK: There's something else that I thought was really intriguing. You talk about your mother as a young woman running after the stinky tofu cart the way kids in the U.S. run after the ice cream truck.

CE​: Yes. That is true. You can smell it; you don't even have to hear it. You can smell it about a mile away.

It's fried puffy blocks of fermented tofu. This is typically served with some pickled cabbage on top for a nice contrast. It's just irresistible to a lot of Taiwanese people.

Three Cup Chicken
Erway's recipe: Three Cup Chicken (Photo: Pete Lee)

LRK: What are some of the other dishes that you would not find in China?

CE​: There's Three Cup Chicken, which is traditional to Hakka cuisine. The Hakka were a group from China who were dispersed throughout Asia due to oppression, and a lot of them went to Taiwan. This dish takes bone-in chicken pieces, and cooks them with rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce (those would be the three cups in question). It's tossed with a lot of fresh basil at the end.

You can also make this dish not just with chicken, but with squid (Three Cup Squid). You can also make eggplant or tofu in this style too.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.