Books about the cuisine of Taiwan, in English, rarely come by. That alone would make Cathy Erway’s new book, “The Food of Taiwan,” worth exploring.
It’s safe to say that eating is somewhat of a national pastime in Taiwan. Erway, who inherited Taiwanese tastebuds from her mother, makes a worthy guide to explore the myriad flavors, including the infamous stinky tofu and so-called Q foods. She provides context along the way, especially regarding culinary influences from the past.
For example, Erway explains how beef noodle soup (niu rou mian), considered Taiwan’s national dish, contains Sichuan influences—chili bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns—and is believed to have been created in the military villages that were set up to accommodate mainlanders starting in 1947–1949.
When cooking from the book, I looked mostly for recipes that required little hands-on time, and was amply rewarded for my own laziness (or efficiency, depending on who you ask).
For my first round of cooking, I didn’t have any Taiwanese ingredients at home and had no time for a trip to Chinatown.
Still, it was amazing to see what flavors I could cook up without specialized ingredients.
The Steamed Eggplant was ready in about 15 minutes. The garnishes—minced garlic, scallions, and chilies—along with a drizzle of soy sauce really makes this dish. It’s healthy, tasty, and quick.
Then I eyed the pan-fried salmon with a typical Taiwanese topping: cilantro and crushed peanut powder. That was also incredibly easy to whip up in a short time, and delicious, with cilantro adding a refreshing herbal note to the more familiar peanut.
For the Red-Braised Braised Pork Belly, I did have to go on a shopping run for rice wine. The local liquor shop guys seemed a bit appalled at my request. “You aren’t going to drink that, are you?” Once they understood it was for cooking, they nodded and headed to the basement, where they kept bottles of rice wine specifically for Taiwanese customers, as it turns out.
The only other item I had to make a special trip for was dark soy sauce, from a Chinese supermarket.
The hands-on time was beautifully minimal—it was quick work to cut up the pork belly and caramelize it with some aromatics before braising it for over an hour.
The result: tender, deeply fragrant, savory-sweet amber pieces of pork belly that were quickly decimated by hungry eaters. This dish worked well served with a side of greens like sautéed bok choy.
There’s plenty to explore in “The Food of Taiwan”—plenty of delicious flavors and varied textures, but just as worthwhile is Erway’s commentary, which provides rich context to understand where food in Taiwan has been and to ponder where it might be headed.
“The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island” by Cathy Erway, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, $30.