Burt Wolf's Table: The Food of China - #216

BURT WOLF:  The Republic of China.  A stronghold of traditional Chinese culture.  A place to look back at over 6,000 years of art, history and food.  We'll discover what the Chinese people do to keep hungry ghosts in the supernatural world, visit a traditional market and cook up some easy and great-tasting recipes.  Join me as we sample the food of China at Burt Wolf's Table.


BURT WOLF:  The original inhabitants of the Island of Taiwan arrived here some 10,000 years ago.  About a quarter of a million of their descendants remain on Taiwan and are called the Aborigines.  They maintain their traditional music, dances, costumes and customs.

Chinese contact with the Island goes back to about the year 200 A.D.  At that point in time the Kingdom of Wu sent about 10,000 troops over to check out the neighborhood.  I had to get the word “Wu” in because that's my Chinese name.

Anyway, since then, there have been pretty regular migrations from the mainland.  Different ethnic groups for different reasons.  Most often, however, it was to escape persecution or in search of better economic conditions.

During the late 1800s foreign trade between Taiwan and British and American businesses became a major enterprise.  European missionaries showed up and competed for areas of influence in the same way as the trading companies. 

Through it all, however, the Chinese managed to hold onto their culture and keep the island for themselves.

The most significant event in modern Taiwanese history took place in 1949 when Chaing Kai-Shek and over 2 million of his followers left mainland China and moved to Taiwan in order to avoid Communist domination. 

They brought a high level of entrepreneurial skill and transformed the island into one of the world's most successful industrialized nations.  Today Taiwan's standard of living is higher than any other Asian country with the exception of Japan.  And in two very interesting aspects of life, the people of Taiwan have a better existence than the Japanese.  They have more living space and they eat more food.

When Portuguese traders first saw the island of Taiwan in the 1600s, they called it Formosa, which is Portuguese for “beautiful.”  And that is an excellent description.  The island has a rugged beauty that is quite extraordinary.  Much of the land is covered with majestic mountains that look just like classical Chinese landscape paintings. 

There are over 700 miles of picturesque coastline with some amazing rock formations that are unlike those found anywhere else in the world. 

The natural beauty of the island has made it a favorite spot for hikers and campers.  Taiwan is also, in many ways, the most authentically Chinese society on Earth, continuing the traditions that began thousands of years ago with the stories of the legendary Yellow Emperor.

The National Palace Museum houses over 600,000 works of art from every major period of Chinese history.  Porcelains, paintings, ancient bronzes.  Taiwan also has a full range of buildings in the classic Chinese architectural styles.  The roofs are often the most interesting, with ornate detail provided by the most skilled craftsmen.  They're alive with mythological heroes who have reputations for bringing good luck and preventing evil.

The dragon is a symbol of strength, intelligence and good luck.  The pagoda represents a stairway to Heaven.  You'll often see the depiction of a magic gourd designed to capture and hold onto evil spirits.  Kind of the original Ghostbuster.

Some of their buildings are truly astonishing.  Taiwan is also very busy preserving classical Chinese theatre and music.  Every day throughout the island, people are practicing the arts that have made Chinese culture the longest-running show on earth.

And much of the art is available for purchase.  From its very beginning, the story of Taiwan has been a story of trade.  The artists and craftsmen of Taiwan produce their work for a very appreciative audience.  The result has made the island a favorite spot for shopping.

The Taiwanese capital city of Taipei is today's epicenter of Chinese Gastronomy.  This city, more than any other city in the world, offers the resident or the visitor the widest selection possible of Chinese food... food from all of the great regions of China.

There are, however, a couple of dishes that you should not miss.  These are the classics of Chinese food and their preparation is better and more interesting right here. 

My favorite is Peking Duck, an exceptional dish that is made by inflating the duck with air between the meat and the skin which produces a space for the fat to drip out...  then tightening the skin with boiling water, coating it with sugar water and then roasting it.

The duck is served with a sweet sauce, green onions and fresh pancakes.  The making of Peking Duck is an art form, and some of the finest artists are found in Taipei. 

Another must is Dim Sum.  The words mean “point to your heart,” suggesting you eat to your heart's content.  When you sit down, tea is brought to your table.  All around you there are rolling carts with small portions of food:  steamed buns, baked dishes, fried specialties.  You point to what you want and you eat 'til you've had enough.

You might also include a taste of Shark Fin Soup.  It's said to have the ability to revive a man's youthful strength.  You also owe yourself a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles.  It's reminiscent of a perfect noodle soup topped off with a spicy marinara sauce.  Excellent stuff.

Finally, any of the traditional hot and spicy dishes.  They're usually prepared in Taiwan with the height of gastronomic skill.

It is a longstanding tradition in classic Chinese cooking to serve at least one soup at every meal.  Very often at the end of that meal.  At breakfast, it is always a simple rice recipe called Congee.  At lunch and dinner you can select from some 10,000 classic soup recipes.  Talk about over-choice.

An old favorite in the Chinese restaurants of North America is Chicken Egg Drop Soup.  Here's how it's prepared by Chef Kow at Taipei's T’sai Fun Schwei Restaurant.

Two cups of chicken stock go into a hot wok to heat up.  A little salt and white pepper are added in.  As soon as the stock comes to a boil, the chef pours in two eggs that have been well beaten.  Just to see if it worked as well without the egg yolks, I tested the recipe with egg whites only.  No problem in terms of taste and texture.  As a matter of fact, when I tasted the two side by side, they were virtually identical. 

The hot chicken stock turns the eggs into solid strands and it's soup.  Into a serving bowl, a few slices of scallion, some chopped cilantro on top and it's ready to go.

A group of scientists have been studying the history of Chinese cooking and they have been able to document their work as far back as 5,000 B.C.  The result is a food tradition that has been going on longer than any other eating system that we know.

From the very beginning, the Chinese believed that there was a direct relationship between food and health.  What you ate at any particular moment in time, determined your health at that particular time.  A couple of hundred years ago they set up a group of general rules that are quite fascinating.  Fascinating because our medical research today is proving that these rules are correct.  Take the ancient concept of fan and t’sai.

The word fan is used to describe grains and starches.  T’sai is the word that is used primarily for fish, meat and poultry, mixed with fruits and vegetables.  A properly balanced Chinese meal combines specific proportions of Fan and T’sai.  The result is a 7,000 year old recipe that gives the eaters about 70 percent of their calories from complex carbohydrates in the form of grains, fruits and vegetables, and about 30 percent from meat, fish or poultry mixed with the fruits.

And most of the time, that last thirty percent is low in fat.  Sounds pretty modern to me.

The ancient Chinese system of balancing Fan foods,which are primarily grains, with T’sai foods which are usually meat, fish or poultry, makes much of  Chinese home cooking extremely healthful.  Lots of complex carbohydrates, very few saturated fats.  It's a great way to eat.

An excellent example of a recipe using the Fan and T’sai balance is Cantonese Shrimp and fried rice.  Chef Kow uses a 2,000 year-old recipe as he cooks in Taipei's T’sai Fun Schwen Restaurant. 

Vegetable oil is heated in the wok to a proper temperature of 375 degrees, which is ideal for frying.  Then in goes a half cup of ham that's been cut into small cubes, and a half cup of shrimp. 

Those cook for twenty seconds, then they are drained of the oil.  The wok is back on the heat with about a tablespoon of hot oil inside.  In go two beaten eggs.  As soon as the eggs are solid, a cup of pre-cooked cold rice goes in.  That's stir-fried for a minute.  Then the shrimp and the ham return.  A little salt and pepper, a quarter cup of shredded lettuce, a quarter cup of sliced green onions, and that's it.


BURT WOLF:  For thousands of years the Chinese have believed that the universe follows the principles of Yin and Yang.  Yang is hot and masculine.  Yin is cool and feminine.

It's believed that when Yin and Yang forces in your body are out of balance, you're in for physical and emotional  problems.  One of the ways of correcting that balance is the use of food.  If there's too much Yin in your body, then you start eating foods that are high in Yang.  If there's too much Yang in your body, you eat foods that are high in Yin.  As a result, there are extensive lists of foods that are high in Yin and others that are high in Yang.

Yang, the masculine foods, include chicken, chilies and ginger.

Yin, the feminine powers, are found in cabbage, seafood and spinach.

To eat more than you need or to waste food is a vice of major proportions.  The Chinese believe that you should stop eating when you are only 70 percent full.

I don't know how you tell when you are precisely 70 percent full so I'm implementing a program by reducing the size of my food portions by 30 percent.  The math works and I think the meal does too.  You know, in North America, the size of restaurant food portions is much bigger than it has to be and we tend to overeat in restaurants.  So sharing that restaurant food or bringing some home for later makes good sense.


BURT WOLF:  It was during China's Tang Dynasty in the 600's that a group of herbal pharmacologists decided what was good to eat in terms of health.  The cosmic forces of Yin and Yang set the recipes and told you what you should eat and when you should eat it, and the proper amounts, in order to achieve internal harmony.

Chef Yeh at Taipei's T’sai Fun Schwen Restaurant demonstrates a recipe in perfect Yin / Yang balance:  Beef with broccoli.  Some oil is heated in a wok, two cups of broccoli are cooked for five seconds and taken out.  Water goes into the wok to heat up and the broccoli goes back in to cook for thirty seconds more.  The water gets drained, the broccoli goes back in, a little salt, then off to be plated.  Oil goes into the wok, two cups of beef cut into bite-sized pieces.  Thirty seconds of cooking and it’s drained, then back into the wok.  Slices of green onions, carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and chopped garlic, a little oyster sauce.  The beef returns, thirty seconds of tossing and turning and its ready to go into the ring of broccoli.

According to Chinese folk religion, the world that one goes to after life is very similar to the world one lives in during life.  And many of the same needs exist.  Food, clothing, money, all are required in the other world.  And it is the responsibility of the remaining family members to send those things along to the deceased.  Fortunately they can be delivered in symbolic form.  There's a special spirit money that gets transferred by burning, and similar substitutes for just about everything else.  Every year during the seventh lunar month, which usually falls in August and September, there is a Festival Of The Hungry Ghosts.  It's your last chance to properly feed and care for your deceased family members.  Miss this and you are letting hungry ghosts loose in the world.  And the fewer hungry ghosts in your town, the better off you are.  During the festival period, everybody makes a great effort to feed their own ancestors, as well as any hungry ghosts that just may be wandering around.  As you walk through the cities of Taiwan these days, you'll actually see plates set out in front of homes and businesses to feed these ghosts.  It's thought if they are not fed properly, they will group up in bands and cause an enormous amount of damage as they search for sustenance.  On the other hand, if they are well-fed, they feel content and return to the other world without causing any trouble.  Sounds like a great idea to me.

People who are knowledgeable in the art of feeding hungry ghosts tell me that chicken recipes are always popular with beings in the supernatural world.  So after you find out who you're gonna call, here's the recipe for what you're gonna cook.  It's chicken with a lemon sauce.

Almond coated chicken with lemon sauce is one of the classics of Chinese cookery; it's a combination of different textures and flavors and shapes that show you what a Chinese recipe is all about. 

Chef Kow at Taipei's T’sai Fun Schwen Restaurant starts by sprinkling a little salt on two chicken breasts that have had the skin and bone removed and the fat cut off.  Two egg yolks are then added; I tested the dish with four egg whites instead and it worked just as well.  A little cornstarch is added as a thickener.  And a half cup of sliced almonds.  The chicken is turned around and around until it has a good coating of the almonds.  Some vegetable oil goes into a hot wok.  As soon as it gets to a temperature of 375 degrees Fahrenheit, in goes the chicken.  Two minutes of cooking and it's drained away from the oil.  The chicken goes onto a cutting board, where it's sliced into bite-sized pieces, then onto a serving plate... at which point the lemon sauce goes on top.  The lemon sauce is actually a very simple mixture.  You just put together a little lemon juice, white vinegar, sugar and cornstarch; that's it.

One of the things that accounts for the worldwide reputation of the Chinese cooks of Taipei is their ability to get the freshest and the highest quality ingredients on a reliable basis.  The relationship between the local farmers and the markets make that possible.

The Nanmen Market in Taiwan's capital city of Taipei is a traditional Chinese market.  And though Taipei has all the modern supermarkets you would expect to find in an industrialized metropolis, this old-style marketplace is still very popular.  One reason for its continued success is the enormous selection of fresh vegetables that come in daily from the local farms.  Vegetables are very important to the Chinese cooks of Taiwan; almost every Chinese dish includes at least one vegetable and it's extremely unusual for any meat, fish or poultry to be served without some vegetables as part of the finished dish.  On average, a typical family style meal will include five to seven different vegetables, and they are all very well prepared. 

The soggy, tasteless and overcooked vegetables which were so much a part of the food of my youth never had a chance here.  A Taiwanese mother never has to say “eat your vegetables.”  And unlike many other parts of the world, Taiwan is devoting more of its land to vegetable farming, not housing developments.  As consumers here earn more disposable income, they confirm their society's ancient love of good vegetables and demand even higher quality and greater variety.

When I came to this stand I was really surprised; I thought I had discovered somebody in Taiwan baking American bagels.  They even do a sesame seed version.  But in talking to the owner, I discovered that this was a bread developed in the Ming Dynasty in the 1500's by a famous general.  He wanted his troops to be fed all of the time.  So he had this bread baked, put a hole in it, and then would give it to the men on a necklace.  They'd wear it around their neck.  And whenever they were hungry they'd pull one off and eat it.  Fortunately the general did not have access to smoked salmon or cream cheese, or he might have ruled the world.  (taking a bite)  Pretty good.         Richard Vuylsteke is an American editor and journalist who's been based in Taiwan for a number of years.  His special area of interest is food and he makes the Nanmen market scrutable. 

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  Ah, this is a good place to stop.  These are things that are used in all Chinese cooking.  But the ...  baitai, or the Chinese cabbage ...

BURT WOLF:  Bok choy is like Chinese cabbage.

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  Bok Choy, Chinese cabbage. 

BURT WOLF:  Right.

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  Ah, the mushrooms, both these style of mushrooms are very popular to use. 

BURT WOLF: What's that? 

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  Ah, this is ... this is something that I think Americans have seen, Europeans have seen, in its later form, this is loofah gourd.

BURT WOLF: Loofah gourd ...

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  Loofah gourd...

BURT WOLF:  ... and you use it as a food?

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  Yeah.  When it’s young like this, you cut it in small pieces, they're great in soup, great in soup.  Inside's white, very ... very tender taste.  But you let it dry out, then it becomes a sponge.  The inside fiber of this becomes ... has a nice spongy coarse sponge kind of feel to it.  They re-use it many, many times. (LAUGHS)

BURT WOLF:  So in a way it's really efficient --  anything you don't eat goes into the shower for later.

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  That's right, that's right.

BURT WOLF:  This is a great looking thing.  What is this little baby?

RICHARD VUYLSTEKE:  This is an East Indian lotus and it's a major symbol of Buddhist imagery.  The lotus plant grows in the mud.  Stem comes up through the water, the flower comes out below the surface of the water.  It's not spoiled by the mud, it's a pure beautiful blossom. Like the Buddha right?  Pure, clean, unsullied, above the sludge and mud of everyday existence.  The Buddha rises above it all.  And quite frankly the taste rises above it all too as far as I’m concerned.

This is winter melon.  The whole vegetable is three feet, four feet, five feet long, fifty pounds, maybe more.  So you buy it by the slice obviously.  Big slices for big families, small slices for small meals and families.  Used in soups, primarily.  A very delicate soup ... soothing soup, I might add.  When the white part is cooked, it becomes somewhat transparent; it's very popular here.

BURT WOLF:  There are over a hundred different vegetables available in this market, and the home cooks of Taiwan use them all.  That gives them a great variety of vitamins and minerals.  Variety is the spice of life, but it is also the key to good nutrition.

A good place to put some of those fresh vegetables  to perfect use, is in this recipe for chicken with cashew nuts and a spicy sauce.

The rules that govern what a proper Chinese recipe should be, go back for thousands of years. They really have searched for the right balance and contrast.  And in the area of texture, the Chinese are the absolute masters.

A good example is this recipe for chicken with cashews.  The Chef at Taipei's Regent Hotel heats a little water in a wok, then in goes a half cup each of bamboo shoots, celery, carrots and mushrooms; they cook for a minute and they're drained.  The wok is cleaned and some oil goes in.  A cup of cashew nuts are fried for fifteen seconds.  A boneless skinless chicken breast cut into bite- size pieces cooks in the oil for thirty seconds.  The wok is cleaned out and in goes a quarter cup each of sliced green onion and red pepper, plus a few tablespoons of garlic.  The other vegetables return.  A tablespoon of Chinese chili paste, the chicken, a teaspoon of sesame oil, a half teaspoon of cornstarch mixed into water to thicken things up.  The cashew nuts come back, everything heats up for another half minute, and its ready.

Chinese food is probably the most well- travelled cuisine in the world.  As a matter of fact, Chinese food has been available on a high level to so many people in so many cities around the world, that there has been very little interest in Chinese home cooking, except in the Chinese communities.  But in 1960, all that began to change.  Since then there has been an increasing interest in Chinese home cooking in the western home kitchens.

Our supermarkets offer all of the basics in terms of Chinese ingredients, and there are really only a few items that are needed in the area of condiments.  Chili sauce or paste made from crushed fresh chile peppers; it'll last for a year in the refrigerator. 

Hoi-sin sauce made from soybeans, flour, sugar, salt and garlic.  Gives food a sweet peppery flavor and a reddish brown color.

Oyster sauce is made primarily from ground oysters. 

Sesame oil from roasted sesame seeds is a flavoring agent, and sesame paste is also a general flavoring agent.  Star anise, which has a licorice like flavor, and of course soy sauce. 

Those are only seven different ingredients but they should give you just about all the flavors that you need to give a dish its Chinese taste.  Remember though you're not going to use them every day, so buy them in small quantities.

Tea is not an ingredient, but it is clearly the single most important element in Chinese gastronomy, and some of the world's finest examples are produced here in the mountains.


The mountains of Taiwan are wrapped in mist and gently heated by the sun.  The result is a warm and moist climate that is perfect for growing tea.  Tea is a basic part of Chinese culture and goes back in Chinese history for hundreds of years.  Tea to the Chinese is very much like wine to the French.  Very serious stuff.  They want to know what variety of bush was used.  Where on the island it was planted, what time of year was the leaf plucked?  How long was the leaf allowed to dry in the sun after harvest?  Did it go inside for fermentation, and for what period of time?  Was it crumpled by hand or by machine?  Was it baked? 

And to think there was a time in my life where the only question I could ask about tea was, is it loose or in a bag?

The Chinese attribute some interesting medical benefits to tea.  They take it at the end of their meals because they think it breaks down fat, reduces the pressure on the liver and helps with digestion.  They feel that the high vitamin C content in green tea helps prevent illness and improves your physical and mental energies.

The medical claims for tea may not be scientifically proven at this point in time, but there is such a wide body of folklore in its favor that it’s something to think about.  Especially if you consider its real purpose is to give us a few moments of quiet relaxation in our very busy and confusing world.

So what we have we seen here in Taipei in connection with eating well?  Okay:  the ancient idea of balance between fan, made up of grains and starch and t’sai, made up of meat, fish, poultry fruits and vegetables.  It reminds us that more than half our daily calories should come from complex carbohydrates and that our saturated fat intake should be as low as possible.  There's also the Chinese belief that you should stop eating when you are seventy percent full.  A good way to start doing that is to reduce portion size.  Vegetables: they're one of our best sources of important vitamins and nutrients and the greater variety we eat, the better off we are.

The Ancient Chinese sage Kwan Su lived some two thousand seven hundred years ago.  And he had some interesting observations about life.  He said that to a ruler, the people were heaven, but to the people, food was heaven.  It does really remind you of what the actual priorities in life are, doesn't it? 

Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good and make it easier to eat well.  I'm Burt Wolf.