Burt Wolf's Table: The Island of Formosa - #224

BURT WOLF:   The island of Formosa...  where some of the most interesting temples of China show us how the teachings of Buddha and instructions of Confucius have changed the way the Chinese cook.  We'll see how seventeenth- century Europeans came here to control the spice trade, and accidentally influenced the course of Western art.  We'll take a look at the story of tea, and learn some great-tasting and easy recipes.  So join me on the Island of Formosa for Burt Wolf's Table.

The time period between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance is often described as the Dark Ages.  From the point of view of food, much of that time period could also be described as the Dull Ages.  The ancient Romans had a big spice trade going with Asia ... and they used an enormous amount of spice in their cooking.  But with the fall of Rome you also see the fall of those commercial systems that brought the rare spices from Asia to Europe. 

With the Renaissance you find the real awakening of the interest in spices.  And those spices became so rare and so important that many of them were worth their weight in gold.  Every spice trader in Europe was looking for a direct deal with the suppliers in Asia.  But getting one wasn't so easy.

Between Europe and the spices of India and China lay the vast Muslim world.  The Islamic nations controlled the spice trade, and the European nations felt a constant frustration over the issue.  Every European monarch was interested in eliminating the Arab middleman ... and that is precisely why the Portuguese government sent out Vasco DeGama and the Spanish sent out Fernando Magellan, and of course, Christopher Columbus.

The first great European explorers were the Portuguese ... their navigators were charting distant oceans long before everyone else.   And they were the first Europeans to really start doing business in Asia.  They sailed along the coast of China and made a series of early charts showing the mainland, and the island of Taiwan. 

They gave the land the name Formosa which is Portuguese for “beautiful island” ... but they never actually set foot on the territory or considered building a colony.  The Portuguese ran their business out of Macao in the same way the Spanish ran theirs out of Manila.  The real action was in the Chinese coastal cities.

But then in 1602 the Dutch set up the Dutch East India Company with the express purpose of getting a piece of the spice action from the Portuguese and the Spanish.

One of the locations that the Dutch used to develop this trade was Fort Zeelandia ... it was constructed in the 1620's on a protected sand bank along the southwest coast.  The area was called Taiwan which means “terraced bay” ... and the Dutch began to use that word to describe the entire island. 

The site of the fort is at the edge of the present Taiwanese city of Tainan.  One of the original walls is still standing.  The bricks were held together with a mixture of sugar syrup, rice and oysters.  Makes a nice recipe, and a great wall.  It's thirty feet thick and high in complex carbohydrates. 

There's a small museum on the top of the hill that will show you what the fort looked like in its good old days.

Having come from an agricultural nation, the Dutch were quick to spot the high quality soil locally ... and set up a system of farms.  They were able to grow and successfully export wheat, ginger, and tobacco.  They also had a thriving trade with the mainland in sugar and porcelain. 

During the 1600's, the Dutch East Indian company exported fifty million pieces of porcelain to their customers back in Europe.  The center of the Dutch trade in Asia was right here on Fort Zeelandia ... and they used this fort to make an enormous fortune for their shareholders back in Amsterdam.

When you look at the amazing canal houses that stand in Amsterdam today ... the great furniture inside them ... or the fabulous art of the 1600's from people like Rembrandt or the VanLoons ... you're looking at things that came from the wealth created in Asia.  And to a particular extent, with the aid of Fort Zeelandia.

The bay that fronted on Fort Zeelandia has silted up ... and the fort now sits on the edge of the city of Tainan. 

Tainan is the cultural center of Taiwan and for over two hundred years it was the island's capital.  The local government has followed a policy of preservation that presents the visitor the a unique look at Chinese tradition and lifestyle.

Tainan has also had a long history as a gastronomic center.  One of Tainan's most famous dishes is called dan-dan noodles.  The recipe was described to me as combing the best qualities of pasta bolognase and noodle soup in one dish.   And that turned out to be pretty accurate.   Here's how it's prepared by the chefs in the kitchens on the Grand Formosa Regent.

First, the sauce is made by heating some oil in a wok ... adding a little chopped fresh ginger ... a few mushrooms ... and a cup of ground pork.  A little soy sauce ... a pinch of cinnamon ... a half cup of chicken stock.  That simmers for thirty minutes.  Then into the restaurant for the final presentation.

Pre-cooked noodles are heated and turned out into a serving bowl ... the shrimp on top ... a touch of soy sauce ... the pork sauce ... a little cilantro ... and the chicken stock.

Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past I actually made my chicken stock from scratch ... but as time’s winged chariot has drawn on I have reorganized my priorities.  And quite frankly, homemade chicken stock just doesn't have the thrill that it used to.  These days I use canned chicken stock ... it's pretty good ... and it's a lot faster ... one tip, however, that I'd like to pass on.  I do not store my canned chicken stock in a cabinet at room temperature.  I keep it in the refrigerator.   I take them out and open them up just before I'm gonna use the stock.  The cold air has turned the fat in the stock to a solid ... and you'll find it floating on top ... spoon it off ... and you'll have saved yourself at least a hundred calories.  And those were fat calories too.  Easy thing to do ... and quite healthful.

Of all the philosophies and teachings that have been developed in China ... none has been more powerful than the work of Confucius.  He was born in 551 B.C. during a period of political and moral chaos.  The ruling dynasty was crumbling, and petty factions were at war throughout the country.   Confucius wanted to reestablish the ethical principals that had guided much of China during an earlier time. 

He spent his life trying to teach people that true happiness could only be found in acts of generosity and the promotion of peace and friendship.  By the time he died at the age of seventy-two, over three thousand students had been trained in his teachings.

He wrote a series of books that recommended the proper behavior for just about every situation that might come up in life.  He told his students to be tough with themselves but easy- going and benevolent with other people.

He believed that the government was designed for the benefit of the people ... not the benefit of other government officials.  What an amazing concept.  Too bad no one has heard of Confucius in Washington. 

From the second century B.C. until 1905, the teachings of Confucius were literally the official body of moral and intellectual information for China.  He established what is known as the Five Cardinal Relationships ... and explained how each should be handled.  They cover the relationships between the individual and the government ... between husband and wife ... parent and child ... older and younger siblings ... and friends.


Today, some two thousand five hundred years after Confucious lived ... the people of Taiwan still follow his teachings ... and hold a giant birthday party for him each year on September 28th.

I'm particularly interested in that celebration because my birthday is also on September 28th ... and my Chinese name ... Wu Bor Da ... is associated with travelling scholars.  Two fortuitous facts that get me a lot of extra mileage when I'm working in China.  Though I must admit that the first time I heard of Confucius was in one of the old Charlie Chan movies when he was theoretically quoted by the great philosopher/detective Mr. Chan.

Chan would wait for a key moment in the film ... and then say something like ... “old Chinese philosopher Confucius say ‘to hide stone, place stone with other stones.  To hide man, place man with other men.’  We must look for killer in crowd.”


Confucius was clearly one of the world's great thinkers when it came to morals.  But it was also a big deal when it came to meals.  Many of the texts associated with him have large sections that are devoted to the proper preparation and consumption of various foods.

He was also an expert on the gastronomic hygiene of the time ... and particularly interested in the relationship of good food to good health.  Many historians actually give Confucius credit for the devotion of Chinese cooks to fresh ingredients.

And nowhere is that Confucian devotion to freshness more pronounced than in the area of seafood.  If it is at all possible, the Chinese chef will select his seafood while it is still alive.  And that way he can determine its true level of good health.

Most of the original Chinese immigrants to the island of Taiwan came over from the main land province of Fukien.  They started arriving over 400 years ago and they have come to represent a major portion of the present population.  Their ancestral province is famous for its seafood cookery.   And this dish of squid with sesame oil is an example of the Fukienese influence in Taiwanese cooking.

Chef Lee starts this recipe by heating a cup of vegetable oil in a wok.  In go two cups of squid that have been cut into bite-size pieces.  Two minutes of cooking ... and they're drained of the oil.  And all of the oil is removed from the wok except for two tablespoons’ worth.  Those are reheated.  Then in go a few garlic cloves, some fresh minced ginger, coarsely-chopped red bell pepper, and some sliced bamboo shoots.

A few moments of stir-frying and the squid comes back into the wok.  A tablespoon of sesame oil is added.   A little more stir-frying.  And then the final ingredient.  A cup of basil leaves.  One more minute of stir-fry and the dish is ready to be served.  It's turned out onto a warm serving dish ... and heads for the table.

It's usually pretty hard to find fresh bamboo shoots in the average North American market.  But if you have a market with an Asian section you ought to be able to find canned bamboo shots.  They come whole and chunked and sliced and pre-minced.  When you get them home, separate the bamboo shoots from the liquid that they come in in the can.  Give them a wash under fresh running water.  Any bamboo shoots that you don't use in the recipe should be stored in a glass jar tightly closed in the refrigerator.

You change the water every couple of days; the bamboo shoots will last for about two weeks.  Traditionally, bamboo shoots are used to lighten a recipe and that's what they're doing in this dish.

There are a number of Chinese folk legends that tell the story of the origin of tea.  They all describe it as an accident in which a tea leaf drops into someone's boiling water ... and they seem to date the drinking of tea back some four thousand years.  After the Chinese scholar Lu Yu published his book on tea in the year 780 A.D. ... tea became the most important beverage in Asia. 

Yu told his readers that tea would temper the spirit ... calm and harmonize the mind ... arouse thought ... prevent drowsiness ... and enlighten and refresh the body.

They also believed that tea would break down the protein and fat in a meal in a way that made that meal more digestible.  Obviously, in those days there was nothing like our federal Food And Drug Administration requiring scientific proof for all medical claims on food.  If there had been, it might have been a very small book with maybe one lovely page that contained the Chinese tea equivalent of “good to the last drop.”

Tea also appears to have the ability to remove stains and grease from various surfaces.  That is why in an old traditional Chinese restaurant ... you may see a waiter pour the remaining tea out of a teapot onto the surface of the table and the wipe it up to remove the grease.

Sunpoling is the tea producing area of Taiwan ... and though Sunpoling translates into English as “pine bluff” ... there are no pine trees in the district.  Just rolling hills covered with bamboo groves and giant palm trees that were planted to shade acre after acre of tea plants.

Sunpoling produces some of the finest tea in the world.  Part of its success comes from the unique climate in the region ... and part from the unusual soil.  But there's also an ancient tradition of exceptional craftsmanship that follows the techniques that have always resulted in the highest grades of tea.

The pickers move through the fields, selecting only those leaves that are at the perfect point of growth.  In the center of the district is the village of Sunpoling.  The main street of the town is literally lined with shops selling tea that was grown in the nearby fields.  Shop after shop ... street after street.  And each one offering a service called “old folks’ tea” that takes a full hour to perform.  It's called “old folks’ tea” because these days it seems that only old folks and television food reporters have the time to enjoy it. 

Actually I could qualify for the service based on my chronological age but I'm gonna use my press pass instead.

Their finest teas come from little leaves that are grown on the top of mountains.  If you want to taste it you can probably get some in a good shop in a Chinatown.  The manufacturers of tea in Taiwan do an enormous export business with their fellow tea lovers in Chinatowns all over the world.  But if you get to Sunpoling you can get it wholesale.

There are over four thousand species of crab ... all appear to be edible.  And Chinese cooks have known this for over four thousand years.  The succulent taste of the crab's meat has attracted the Chinese cook ... but he's also been drawn to the crab because of its visual beauty.  Many of the most popular crab recipes of China present the crab whole in order to show off its dramatic appearance.

This recipe steams the crab over fried rice ... the flavors blend together and the dish is sent to the table in the steamer basket.  It tastes as good as it looks.  First, the rice is prepared by heating two tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok.  Half cup of shrimp go in ... a few sliced mushrooms ... quarter cup of ground pork ... a little soy sauce ... a few shakes of white pepper ... a half cup of chicken stock ... two cups of pre-cooked glutinous rice ... and a few minutes of stir-frying.

A leaf is used to line a Chinese steamer basket and the rice goes in.  The crab goes on top.  The basket is covered and the ingredients are steamed over hot water for six minutes, at which point it's ready to serve.

Glutinous rice is a round-grain rice which gets very soft when its cooked.  But also develops a glutinous surface that makes the individual grains stick together.  In Chinese cooking it's traditionally used for stuffings and desserts.  In this recipe it's used very much the way we would use stovetop stuffing in Western cooking.  The rice is cooked and instead of being placed into something ... it's served as a bed by itself. 

What's particularly interesting about this recipe is that the rice stuffing is used as a base on top of which the crab is steamed.  So the flavor of the cooking crab is added to the rice.

I tested this recipe substituting shrimp for the crab and it worked quite well.  I also tested it with regular long-grain rice instead of the glutinous rice, and though obviously I lost the glutinous quality it still tasted wonderful.

When you're buying whole crabs in the market make sure they're alive and moving about.  That's the only way to be sure that they're fresh.

The people of Taiwan have managed to blend together three philosophies and an assortment of folk religions in order to produce a body of beliefs and customs that appear to satisfy the spiritual needs of the community.

Two of these systems ... Taoism and Confucianism were developed in China during the sixth century B.C.  The third, Buddhism, also began in the sixth century B.C. but was imported to China from India.

Buddhism is based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha is though to have been born about five hundred and fifty B.C. in a small town in Nepal.  He was a local prince and lived in great luxury.  But in his twenties he left his family and their palace in search of spiritual enlightenment.  For years he wandered the countryside, avoiding all material comforts.  At one point he began a long meditation under a fig tree ... and eventually found the enlightenment that he had been searching for.

From then on he was known as the Buddha ... the Enlightened One.  And he traveled about teaching his philosophy.  His teachings revolve around the Four Noble Truths.  The first is that all life contains suffering.  The second is that the suffering comes from desire.  The third is that if you can get rid of the desire you can get rid of the suffering ... and if you do that you end up enlightened.  And fourth, enlightenment is available to everybody.

Buddha rejected the difficult life of the ascetic, but he also opposed the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.  He recommended what he called the Middle Way.  The same trade routes that brought Chinese spices, silks and potteries to the west brought Buddhist monks to China. 

For centuries Buddhist monks had been vegetarians.  And they introduced vegetarianism as a formal food style to China.  But the idea of a mostly vegetable diet had been around in China for a long time... not as a basis of a religious principal but out of simple necessity.  China's always been short on land for cattle ... and poultry and fish were not the easiest things to come by.  So vegetables were always on the top of the shopping list.

These days there's a constant stream of scientific information that clearly shows that a diet high in fresh vegetables is better for our health.  As a general rule you should get fifty percent of your daily calories in form of complex carbohydrates from fresh fruits and vegetables.  And Buddha knew it all along.

The vegetarian diet of Buddhist monks may have gotten started out of necessity, or it may have originated in the Buddhist philosophy of “responsibility to all living things.”  Most likely it was a little bit of both.  The result, however, is that the kitchens of Buddhist temples have some of the world's best vegetarian cooking. 

An example of this style is this dish of sauteed eggplant with basil.  Chef Lee starts by heating a cup of vegetable oil in his wok ... then in go two cups of eggplant that have been cut into bite-sized pieces.  Chinese eggplant is thinner than our traditional North American variety.  If you can't find it in your local market, you can substitute our standard eggplant and the recipe will still work fine.

A minute of cooking and the eggplant is drained from the oil.  All the oil is then removed from the wok except for two tablespoons.  In goes a quarter cup of green onion.  A sliced clove of garlic.  A few pieces of red pepper ... a little soy sauce ... a touch of sugar ... and an ounce of chicken stock. 

The eggplant returns, followed by a quarter cup of basil leaves ... another movement of stir- frying and it's ready to serve.

The eggplant is a native of Southeastern Asia where it has been cultivated for over four thousand years.  It probably got its start somewhere near or actually in India and moved east from there to China.  It shows up in Chinese paintings and recipes somewhere around 600 B.C., and was a common ingredient in cooked dishes.  But it was also eaten raw as a fruit.

In the the thirteenth century it became one of the foods that was specifically recommended as an offering at the shrines of royal Chinese ancestors.

It was also used as a cosmetic.  At that time it was fashionable for Chinese women of social standing to stain their teeth black ... and they used the skin of the eggplant to do the job.  About fifteen hundred years ago, Arab traders brought the eggplant from Asia to the mediterranean area ... and it looks like the Spanish were the first people in Europe to take a real interest in eggplant cookery.

Most of the eggplant dishes that we see in North America today come from countries that border on the Mediterranean Sea.  The French like to slice it and grill it.  Or make it into ratatouille.  Whatever the eggplant recipe, it usually tastes better if you start with young, thin plants.  As they get bigger and older they lose their best texture and taste.

Of all the Chinese seasonings, the single most important is soy sauce ... it's made from fermented soy beans ... wheat ... yeast ... and salt.  There are two types.  One is called dark soy sauce ... the other's called light.

The light sauce is thinner and is used for delicate dishes and as a dipping sauce.  The dark sauce is a bit darker in color ... thicker, and has a slightly sweeter smell.  It's used to give a dish a rich color and for marinating.  Both forms of soy sauce have the ability to tenderize meat and poultry and no matter which form you use, if you're gonna store for any length of time, store it in a glass container with a tight closing lid.

And as the great chefs of Taiwan point out to me over and over again ... never substitute Japanese soy sauce for Chinese soy sauce ... it won't give you the same flavor and it's politically incorrect.

The Sung emperors ruled China from the mid-900's to the middle of the 1200's.  It was a time of peace and prosperity, which gave the royal families an opportunity to devote a considerable amount of their time and money to eating and drinking.  Thousands of people worked in the imperial kitchens and produced meals that offered hundreds of different dishes.  This was going on every day. 

Not only did the cooks do the cooking for the royal family, their guests and the supporting staff ... but they also prepared the dishes that were offered at the temples to appease the gods and honored ancestors. 

If it's true that a nation must decide between guns and butter, then a period without war could easily raise the national cholesterol level.  And that seems to be what happened with the Sung dynasty.  Their imperial court was right smack in the middle of a fabulous agricultural area near the port of Shanghai.  If you could catch it, raise it, grow it or import it ... a Sung chef would make a deal with you.

It was also the time when the first Chinese cookbook was published with very specific amounts to the ingredients.  It was written by a a Madame Wu, and because the Chinese had already invented printing, it had a pretty good distribution.  In the West we had to wait until the 1800's before we got a cookbook with really specific amounts.

It was during the last years of the Sung dynasty that Marco Polo showed up in China and took note of what was going on in the Asian kitchen.  His accounts give us a second and confirming opinion as to the opulence of Chinese food at the time. 

After the Sung rulers came the Ming dynasty.  And they just made everything bigger and better.  They even established a ministerial position to oversee court banquets.  This was also the time that European trade began to pick up.  Spanish and Portuguese ships sailed into the neighborhood and introduced an entirely new collection of foods, including potatoes, corn and chili.  I was quite surprised to find out that the hot dishes of China, including those from Seczhuan and Hunan, got their heat from chili peppers that had come from South and Central America with European traders.


Before I shove off for my next report I wanted to say a few words about my Chinese pronunciation.  Actually, I want to apologize.  I thought it would be more interesting for me to use my limited Chinese vocabulary rather than the words that have been invented to make life easier for English speaking tourists.  But if you speak Chinese and from time to time my pronunciation has made your ears hurt ... bow chen.  Which means, “sorry about that.” 

I hope you'll still join us next time ... as we travel around the world ... looking for good things to eat and drink.  From Taiwan, the Republic of China ... I'm Burt Wolf.