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Feast your eyes on Taiwan's distinct food (and understand a history of colonization)

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Feast your eyes on Taiwan's distinct food (and understand a history of colonization)

Ivy Chen (left) and Clarissa Wei browse Shuixian Gong Market in Tainan, Taiwan, in January.

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Ivy Chen (left) and Clarissa Wei browse Shuixian Gong Market in Tainan, Taiwan, in January.

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TAINAN, Taiwan — On a Friday morning in the southern city of Tainan, Shuixian Gong Market overflows with displays of shiny orange and silver fish, stacks of glistening pork ribs and crates of dragon fruit and guavas. Vendors wash out their stands with hoses, and Taiwanese cooks ask for parcels of raw drumsticks or breasts. People on motorized scooters ride carefully through the market’s corridors, laden with bags of dried goods.

It’s easy to think of Taiwanese food as a subset of Chinese food — after all, the island’s food shares many culinary traditions and techniques with those from mainland China. Yet Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen would argue that Taiwanese food is distinct. They’re the creators of the cookbook Made in Taiwan.

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That title declares something: Even though about 90% of people in Taiwan have Chinese ancestry, they have forged a cuisine that is, in many ways, their own.

A set of traditional Taiwanese cuisine staples: oyster omelet, lu rou fan, oyster soup and fish ball soup.

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A set of traditional Taiwanese cuisine staples: oyster omelet, lu rou fan, oyster soup and fish ball soup.

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Fresh seafood is sorted at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Fresh seafood is sorted at Shuixian Gong Market.

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“Taiwanese food is quite distinct in that we have our own pantry items that are made in and unique to Taiwan,” Wei says. “So the way that soy sauce and rice wine and rice vinegar are made in Taiwan are not made similarly elsewhere in the world.”

Another key difference: Taiwanese food is sweet. In Tainan, which used to be a sugar-cane-producing hub, it’s even more pronounced.

Chen also points out that Taiwanese food doesn’t tend to rely on a lot of spices. “When our ancestors moved here, they found we have so many fresh ingredients in this small island, so it’s very easy to get food very fresh, so we don’t over-season it,” she says.

These differences are all products of Taiwan’s unique history.

“Taiwanese food is, I would say, a combination of all of our waves of colonization and governance,” Wei says.

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Dried goods on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Dried goods on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Vendors at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Vendors at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Take sugar. In the 1600s, the Dutch came to southern Taiwan, where they established a couple of forts and the sugar cane industry, bringing Chinese farmers to help raise the crops. During Japanese occupation from the late 1800s through World War II, Taiwan was Japan’s main source of sugar production.

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“At one point, two-thirds of all Taiwanese families were in the sugar cane industry,” Wei says. “So it was a huge part of our culture.”

Sugar is so important in Taiwan that it shows up even in its savory dishes, like Taiwanese sausages or braised pork over rice. It’s also a key ingredient in some of the island’s religious offerings, like ang ku kueh, or “red turtle kueh,” which are bright-pink sticky rice sweets stuffed with fillings like red bean and black sesame and shaped to resemble a turtle’s shell.

And just like sugar, the types of rice help tell the story of colonization on the island.

A bowl of traditional wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.

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A bowl of traditional wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.

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Tapiocas on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Tapiocas on sale at Shuixian Gong Market.

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“The type of rice that Taiwanese people eat on a daily basis has changed really depending on who has governed Taiwan, which I find is a really fascinating reflection of Taiwanese colonial history,” Wei says. “Taiwan is the only subtropical country in the world where short-grain rice are the grain of choice.”

Wei explains that early Chinese settlers who came to Taiwan hundreds of years ago brought over long-grain rice, which was commonly grown in mainland China. When Japanese colonizers came, she says, they craved the short-grain rice they were accustomed to eating. The problem: Short-grain rice doesn’t grow very well in Taiwan’s subtropical climate.

“They spent 10 years trying to cultivate short-grain rice on Yangmingshan, which is a mountain hill-ish area in Taipei,” Wei says. “After 10 years, they finally succeeded, and that has become our rice of choice.”

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Order a rice dish from any restaurant in Taiwan, and your bowl will be filled with bright, sticky, short-grain rice. “And that was really through the efforts of the Japanese,” says Wei.

A selection of pastries on sale at the market.

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A selection of pastries on sale at the market.

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Fresh wheel cakes being made at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Fresh wheel cakes being made at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Foods like kueh are made using time- and labor-intensive crops, like sugar and sticky rice, so that makes them special and a worthy offering to one’s gods and ancestors. Chen says food culture in Taiwan is inextricable from religion.

“During the worship time [which could be] two or three hours, people are hungry, so they are hanging out in the neighborhood and looking for food. And that’s [why] the many small vendors [began] gathering in the neighborhood and start doing their business,” she said.

In fact, in Taiwan, temples and food markets often appear side by side. Shuixian Gong Market is also home to Shuixian Temple — a structure that is hundreds of years old. The temple is dedicated to water gods, with intricately carved stone pillars, red-painted wooden beams and gold dragons flanking its entrance. Paintings above the temple’s entrance depict scenes of maritime life, paying homage to the ocean that surrounds the island.

Just a few yards away from the temple stands a fish ball vendor. Trays of ice in front of her display neat rows of balls made from varieties of seafood: shrimp, flounder and milkfish.

Fish balls vendors serve up the goods at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Fish balls vendors serve up the goods at Shuixian Gong Market.

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Just some of the fresh fish on display at the market.

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Just some of the fresh fish on display at the market.

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“The milkfish is a very important aquaculture in the Tainan area,” Chen explains. The bony white fish also has a connection to the Dutch colonization of the island.

“The milkfish [has] been here for centuries,” Wei says. “When the Dutch came in, they started the aquaculture industry where they were breeding the fish, and this has become a staple of the Taiwanese diet ever since.”

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Seafood makes up a huge portion of the Taiwanese diet — from fish balls in soups, to a dried flounder used by many Taiwanese cooks to make stock, to Pacific oysters, which are found in a variety of dishes.

Chinese migrants started farming these oysters along the island’s west coast hundreds of years ago. They’re smaller than the oysters seen in North America, and most of the time, they are not eaten raw. Most farmers lack the infrastructure to closely monitor the water quality, so they show up in cooked dishes, like o-a-tsian, oyster omelets.

These eggs are thickened with sweet potato starch and studded with oysters before being slathered in a sweet and tangy sauce made from pickled vegetables. Wei says the ingredients in this dish can show a lot about the island.

An oyster omelet.

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An oyster omelet.

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Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen share wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.

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Clarissa Wei and Ivy Chen share wa gui, a savory steamed rice cake.

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“It describes what Taiwanese food was 200, 300 years ago. It’s very simple. The bulk of it really is sweet potato starch, because sweet potatoes thrive [here in Taiwan] — it’s kind of like a weed,” she says. “And this isn’t a dish you associate with Chinese food at all. It’s something that’s very, very Taiwanese and unique to Taiwan.”

What distinguishes Chinese food from the unique flavors in Taiwanese food is a bit of a nebulous thing. Chen is a cooking instructor and has taught students from all over the world. She says they’d often ask her, “What is Taiwanese food? What is Chinese food? What’s the difference?” Figuring out the difference was a process for her.

“I can tell [the difference],” Chen says. “But I never think that people will ask me that way, that I need to give a definition about Chinese food and Taiwanese food.”

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There isn’t a black-and-white definition of Taiwanese food. Wei and Chen argue that the food is unique because the flavors in Taiwan’s cooking, as well as its produce and seafood, are the historical record of colonialism and migration on this island.

And to them, that means the island’s cuisine deserves to stand on its own.

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Kim Kardashian Posts Photo with Taylor Swift's Frenemy Karlie Kloss

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After years of documenting Jewish food traditions, Joan Nathan focuses on her family's

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After years of documenting Jewish food traditions, Joan Nathan focuses on her family's

After decades creating and publishing recipes, cookbook author Joan Nathan has released what she said is likely her final book, a cookbook and memoir called “My Life in Recipes.”

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After decades creating and publishing recipes, cookbook author Joan Nathan has released what she said is likely her final book, a cookbook and memoir called “My Life in Recipes.”

Michael Zamora/NPR

Joan Nathan has spent her life exploring in the kitchen, trying new dishes and recipes all year. But every spring, for the Passover Seder, she sticks with a menu that follows her own family’s traditions. The holiday starts tonight.

“I think Passover tells us who we are, and it tells us, this is my family sharing with other families. I get chills every year at Passover, because I realized that it started in ancient Israel. I mean, it’s in the Bible!”

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Joan Nathan chops up fresh herbs for her soup and rolls matzo balls in her kitchen in Washington, D.C.

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Joan Nathan chops up fresh herbs for her soup and rolls matzo balls in her kitchen in Washington, D.C.

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Nathan has written a dozen cookbooks, documenting how food traditions evolved as Jews wandered all over the world through the centuries. Now in her 80s, her new book is her most personal work yet, excavating her own culinary history in a combination memoir and cookbook called My Life in Recipes.

“I’ve been more nervous about this book than any book… It’s sort of going into my life, you know?”

Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks through old family recipe books.

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Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks through old family recipe books.

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Nathan spoke with All Things Considered in her Washington, D.C. kitchen on a late March day, while she prepped a version of a dish she’s been eating since childhood: chicken matzo ball soup. And, like many Jewish mothers and grandmothers before her, that afternoon, she fretted over whether the matzo balls would turn out the way she wanted them to. Every family has their own recipe, whether they’re light, fluffy, hard, dense.

“So my mother’s, hers were al dente,” Nathan said. “And my mother-in-law’s were very light. You know, she was straight from Poland.”

As with every immigration story, these family recipes evolved as people relocated, fleeing wars or seeking a better life for their kids. One example is a special combination Nathan adds to her own matzo balls.

Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in her kitchen.

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Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in her kitchen.

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“I’d added ginger [and] nutmeg, which I knew was what my father’s family would have used in Germany,” she explained. “Ginger nutmeg was a very common condiment combination in the 19th and early 20th century.”

For Nathan, cooking matzo ball soup for Passover, or any Jewish holiday, just feels comfortable – like home.

“It’s the smell,” she said. “You just know that smell. Like my mother’s brisket, I know; like challah, I know. I love those smells. It knows that you’re at home, that there are people that care.”

Nathan pulls two loaves of challah out of the oven at her home in Washington, D.C.

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Nathan pulls two loaves of challah out of the oven at her home in Washington, D.C.

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While the soup simmers, Joan walks over to the living room where boxes of letters and books are laid out. They’re some of the artifacts that she’s uncovered from her family, including handwritten recipe books in German. One from her great-grandmother dates back to 1927, written in purple ink full of recipes for desserts like kuchen and caramel pudding. Nathan’s new book is full of her letters, diary entries and parts of these family artifacts.

Nathan looks through old family recipe books including one that dates back to 1927.

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Nathan looks through old family recipe books including one that dates back to 1927.

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This book is also a love story. Joan Nathan writes about her courtship and marriage of 45 years to her late husband, Allan Gerson. He died just before the pandemic. She says writing this book felt almost like a form of therapy.

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“It was my savior. I would just write. And I would include him in my life, you know? So it was a way of really making him part of my life. And I think it was really helpful to me. It really gave me strength.”

A photo of her family hangs in the living rooms as cookbook author Joan Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C.

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A photo of her family hangs in the living rooms as cookbook author Joan Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C.

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My Life in Recipes also includes anecdotes from Nathan’s prolific career, her world travels and stories of her collaborations with food luminaries that include Julia Child.

“Julia – I had her 90th birthday in this – she was sitting right here on this couch. I had a party for her. She’s somebody who just kept living,” Nathan remembered.

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“And she said to me, at 90, why should I quit if I’m doing what I like to do? And she made me realize a few things: Have people that are younger around you as you get older, be positive, don’t talk about being uncomfortable or whatever. And also, to write thank-you notes to everybody.”

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