Burt Wolf's Table: Cultural Southland of Taiwan - #225

BURT WOLF: The cultural southlands of Taiwan.  home to the people of Lukang, whose town looks much as it did some 200 years ago.  We'll visit the Temple of the Goddess of the Sea.  We'll find out how Taoist teachings continue to control the work of Chinese cooks.  We'll visit one of the favorite honeymoon spots in the Far East, and learn some interesting recipes.  So join me in the cultural southland of Taiwan at Burt Wolf's Table.

BURT WOLF: The Ming Dynasty of China began in the middle of the 1300s and ran for almost 300 years.  It was one of the great periods in Chinese history.  Artists, writers, poets and scientists were supported by the Ming rulers.  Their works produced one of the golden ages of Chinese culture.  But by the early 1600s the administration had become totally self-serving and corrupt, while at the same time, their Manchu neighbors to the Northeast developed a well- trained and efficient army.  When the Manchu forces attacked, the Ming defenses disintegrated and their troops retreated to the South.  The last great Ming defender was a warlord named Cheng Cheng-Kung.  With an army of over 100,000 men he tried to hold back the Manchu advance.  But by 1661 he was forced to abandon the mainland and move his troops to the island of Taiwan.  Taiwan, however, was a major trading post for the Dutch who controlled the area from Fort Zeelandia.  Under the theory that “this town ain't big enough for both of us,” Cheng Cheng-Kung laid siege to the fort.  The battle lasted for two years.  At which point the Dutch were compelled to surrender and Cheng Cheng-Kung took control of Taiwan.  This is the Cheng Cheng-Kung Shrine in the city of Tainan, just down the road from what remains of Fort Zeelandia.  It's a quiet and peaceful place, a testimony to Cheng’s cultural interest; his statue rests in the main hall.  There's an ancient plum tree in the garden which is said to have been planted by Cheng himself.  When Cheng Cheng-Kung arrived in Taiwan he brought with him his army, but he also brought thousands of painters, writers, scholars and master chefs.  He did everything he possibly could to preserve classical Chinese culture... and the lifestyle that had existed under the Ming Dynasty.  It's amazing to think about it, but some 300 years later, just about the same thing happened, when Chiang Kai-Shek arrived in Taiwan in 1948 with millions of people from the mainland who wanted to avoid Communism.  Once again these days, Taiwan is the major repository for classical Chinese culture and cooking.

Chinese noodle making seems to have gotten its official start during the Han Dynasty, which ran from roughly 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.   It was during this time that people mastered the technique for grinding wheat into flour, which made noodle production obvious and easy, since a noodle dough in its simplest form is just wheat mixed with water.  This dish is called noodles Ming Jiang style. Ming Jiang is the name of a river in the province of Fukien.  The recipe uses the common Chinese cooking technique of cooking the noodles with two different methods:  first boiling, then stir-frying.  A cup of pre-cooked noodles are heated in hot water, then drained.  The water is removed from the wok and then vegetable oil goes in.  That's followed by a quarter cup of sliced cabbage, a few mushrooms, some sliced carrots, a few green beans and some minced pre-cooked ham or pre-cooked bacon.  All that gets stir-fried for two minutes, then the noodles return, plus a quarter cup of chicken stock.  Tablespoon of soy sauce, a little white pepper, another few moments of stir-frying, and it's ready for the serving plate.

Chinese cooks are great lovers of mushrooms and they've been cultivating them on a commercial scale for about 1500 years...which gives them a thousand year lead on everyone in the West.  These days there are about 300 different types of edible mushrooms available to the Chinese chef.  But in the United States when we reproduce a Chinese recipe, we tend to focus on three:  The cloud ear, the straw mushroom and the black mushroom.  Straw mushrooms are sold in cans and should be washed under running water before they are used.  And then leftover straw mushrooms should be stored in water in an airtight jar in the refrigerator.  They'll keep there for about a week.  But it's a good idea to use these small delicate mushrooms as quickly as you can after you open the can.

The town of Lukang is one of the earliest ports in Taiwan.  The first Chinese to arrive in the area came over from the mainland in the early 1600s and by the middle of the 1700s it was a major trading center.  These days there are parts of Lukang that look very much the way they did almost 200 years ago when it was at the peak of it's commercial history.  Yaolin Street is a good example of the old architecture of the town, a narrow roadway lined with homes that open out into the street.  Some front rooms are used as family rooms, others are shops or offices.  All of them however have similar altar tables that are given over to the artifacts of worship.


Lukang's main street is Chungshan Road.  It used to be called See No Sky Street, because the roofs of the houses had been extended into the road until they met in the center.  The covered street that resulted allowed people to conduct their business from shop to shop without being inconvenienced by bad weather.  Amazing -- 200 years ago the Chinese were building covered malls.  About 50 years ago, however, they took down the road cover but it's still a great place to shop.  Lukang is also home to the Matsu Temple which was built in 1647.  It is a Taoist temple and named after the Goddess of the Sea.  She is protected by two of the most powerful guardians.  On one side is Thousand Mile Ears, who has mastered the art of listening through the wind.  On the other side is Thousand Mile Eyes, who can see for a thousand miles.  Having just increased the strength of my prescription in my reading glasses, I must say I am particularly impressed.


In front of the Temple is an area devoted to street food vendors.  After all, once you've fed the soul it is time to feed the body.  The stalls are famous for their oyster soups and oyster omelettes, and they also have moon cookies.

They also have a food specialty that I had heard a bit about before I came here.  Although I knew I would have to taste it for professional reasons, I was really not looking forward to the experience.  They had been described to me as ox tongue cookies.  Fortunately the name is based on the shape, not the ingredients.  They're kind of crispy and like a pancake, with jelly inside.  Very good!

As you can see, the Matsu Temple is very much a part of the neighborhood and it's people.  And that's very common for Taoist temples.  Taoism had its beginning in the ancient Chinese Shamanistic culture that goes back in history for well over 4000 years.  But its formation into a philosophy appears to have taken place during the 6th century B.C. and is attributed to a man called Lao Tzu, which literally translates as “the old master.”  He was the keeper of the royal archives in the Court of the Chou Dynasty Emperors.  Eventually he got fed up with the Government and decided to leave the country.  When he came to the Western border, the guards recognized him as one of the wise men of the court and would not let him pass until he wrote down the sum of his wisdom.  So the old master sat down, penned a 5000 word manuscript, handed it to the border patrol and headed off, never to be heard of again.

There's a certain similarity here with what's been going on in the United States Government.  When you're finished with your government service and you want to leave Washington, you also get to write a book with the sum of your knowledge, but unlike Lao Tzu, before you get to head west you have to stop and cash a check from your publishers for a few million bucks.

The English title of the great Taoist work is The Way of Nature.  It's not really a religious text in the Western sense but much more a short poetic statement of moral philosophy.  It talks about the way the force that is in each individual thing, and yet greater than all things.  It's very much concerned with balance, which it describes as yin and yang.  And it has had an enormous effect on the way the Chinese cook.  Yin is the feminine force.  It is the earth.  It is cool.  It is shade.  It is fruit.  Green vegetables, clear soups and, quite amazingly, in the light of modern medical information on diet, it is low-fat, low-calorie and complex carbohydrates.  Yang is the masculine force.  It is the sky.  It is hot.  It is bright white.  It is red meat, saturated fats, peanuts and beer -- and keep in mind this information was compiled over 2,500 years ago.  Today's Chinese cooks are very much concerned with finding the right balance between Yin and Yang.  This balance represents the Taoist way of nature.  And a recipe or meal that fails to find that balance is believed to cause illness.  On any single day, thousands of Chinese who are not feeling well will stop into their herbalist to try and find out what's going on.  The herbalist will check the balance of the Yin and Yang forces in their body by taking their pulse and then prescribing a diet that will bring those forces back into line with the Taoist way.  That's kind of interesting.  In the Western media we're very busy promoting the relationship of good food to good health like it was a new discovery.  Here in China, they've known about the relationship of good food to good health for over 4,000 years and worked with it very effectively.

In Chinese cooking the chicken is a symbol of good luck and has become a regular part of the offerings to the Gods.  To great and powerful Gods who can easily do their own cooking, the chicken is offered raw.  To Gods of less strength and influence, and for honored ancestors, the chicken is offered already cooked.  This dish is a casserole of chicken with Chinese sesame oil.  It has a very rich and nutty flavor and it's very simple to prepare.  First thing, a cup of vegetable oil gets heated in a wok and in go two cups of chicken that have been cut into bite-sized pieces.  A minute of cooking and the chicken is drained from the oil.  All the oil is removed from the wok except for two tablespoons.  Those are re-heated and as soon as the oil is hot, in goes a quarter cup of sliced bamboo shoots... a few cloves of garlic and a few slices of red bell pepper.  A minute of stir-frying and the chicken returns to the wok.  Two tablespoons of Chinese sesame oil are added.  Two basil leaves, a little more stir-frying and into a hot casserole dish for serving.

Chinese sesame oil is made from toasted sesame seeds.  It has a light brown color and a really rich flavor.  The thicker it is, the better the flavor.  Don't try to substitute standard cold- pressed American sesame oil in any Chinese recipe, it's just not gonna have the flavor that you want.  On the other hand, Chinese sesame oil burns at a very low temperature so we don't want to cook in it.  Chinese sesame oil is really just a flavoring agent.

Ginger is one of the most common ingredients in Chinese cooking, but remember, what Chinese recipes you're talking about is the fresh ginger root and you can't substitute powdered or dry ginger.  Fortunately, these days you can get fresh ginger in many standard North American supermarkets.  When you're picking out ginger, make sure that it is smooth, full of soft spots and generally firm to the touch. 

At the very center of Taiwan is Sun Moon Lake.  It sits 2,500 feet above sea level in the hills of the mountain range that form the backbone of the island.  It's called Sun Moon Lake because from some viewpoints it looks like a round, shining sun.  And from other vantages it takes on the shape of a crescent moon.  It is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks that are covered with dense tropical forests.  Mists float across the landscape.  Paths along the shore offer walkers a private moment in a drifting, moody, jade-colored world.  It's become one of the favorite honeymoon spots for the people of Taiwan.  Kind of like a Niagara Falls of the Far East.  It's also home to one of the great Taoist shrines.  It is called the Temple of Wen Wu.  The largest stone lions in the world guard the entrance.  The overall scale and workmanship are quite extraordinary.

On the first floor is a temple building that  contains the statues of two great warriors.  On the floor above them is the statue of the moral philosopher, Confucius.  The message is clear.  The pen is mightier than the sword.


Sun Moon Lake is also the home of the Hsuan-Tsang Temple. Hsuan-Tsang was a monk who lived during the 600s, travelled to India and spent 17 years studying Buddhist traditions.  When he returned to China, he translated the most important Buddhist teachings from Sanskrit to Chinese and was, therefore, a key figure in bringing Buddhism to China.  This is his temple and it contains some of the most valuable relics in Buddhist culture.  These little round balls are called Shou-lee-zu.  Buddhist tradition holds that when an important monk is cremated, these small stone balls will be found among the ashes.  The monks here will tell you that Shou-lee-zu cannot be destroyed and they get bigger or smaller depending on the number of people who come to worship at the shrine.  Western scientists will tell you that they're probably kidney stones.  But the Western scientists cannot tell you why an honored Buddhist monk, who died as recently as 1950, left over 10,000 of these kernels with a volume of half the size of his body.  The other day I saw a report from a group of American scientists that clearly indicated that, what you are thinking about when you are in front of your computer, even though you are not touching your computer, affects the way the computers work... so... I'm open to anything.

And one of the things that I am always open to is the cooking at the Grand Formosa Regent.


It was the European explorers of the 1600s who brought cattle to the island of Taiwan.  But it was the traditional Chinese chefs who developed the beef recipes.  Cattle raising has always required large amounts of grazing land, something that China has never had.  And beef cookery usually demands a lot of cooking fuel.  Something else that China has not had.  So when the Chinese cooks had their first contact with beef as a food, they approached it with their traditional cooking methods.  No big steaks, no heat-intensive roasts, they just cut it up into small pieces and stir-fried it.  And that's exactly what we're about to do with beef and scallions.

A quarter cup of oil is heated in a wok until it's just shimmering and in go two cups of beef that have been sliced into bite sized pieces.  Tenderloin would be the best cut of beef for this recipe.  The beef cooks for a minute, at which point it is drained of the oil and all the oil is removed from the wok except for two tablespoons’ worth.  That oil is heated up and in goes a half cup of sliced green onion and  a half of a red bell pepper that's been cut into small chunks.  That gets stir-fried for a few minutes.  Next a tablespoon of soy sauce is added, and a mixture of half a tablespoon of cornstarch that has been dissolved in two ounces of warm water.  Another minute of stir-frying and the dish is ready to go along to the serving plate.

One of the common condiments in Chinese cooking is oyster sauce.  It's made by grinding oysters together with an assortment of flavorings.  It's used to give a dish a darker color with a kind of a meaty flavoring.  In spite of the fact that it is made from a shellfish, it should never have a fishy smell. If it does, that's the first sign that it's a poor quality product.

The Republic of China, situated on the island of Taiwan, has thousands of miles of coastline and hundreds of rivers and lakes.  They have been a valuable source of an extraordinary variety of fish an shellfish.  Seafood has always been an important part of Chinese cooking.  But of all the seafood available, none is more popular than shrimp.  The recipe coming up is a simple combination of shrimp and vegetables that stands in the perfect balance of yin and yang that is recommended in the ancient gastronomic instructions of the Taoists.

The green leafy spinach is one of the cool foods in the female yin group.  The high protein shrimp is one of the male foods, the yang group.  There is also a balancing of cooking techniques.  The shrimp is first deep-fried and removed from the oil and finally stir-fried.

Chef Lee starts by heating a cup of oil in his wok.  In goes a cup of shrimp.  A minute of cooking and they're out.  Then the oil is removed from the wok, except for two tablespoons’ worth.  Some spinach arrives for a minute of stir-frying, after which it goes off to a serving plate.  Then the oil comes back into the wok.  Followed by a sliced clove of garlic.  A few pieces of red bell pepper, green onion and the return of the shrimp.  A teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in some warm water.  Another moment of stir-frying and the dish is finished.

The idea of cooking a food with two or three different types of heating is a specialty of Chinese chefs.  In the West we usually decide to heat the food with one system, and that's it.  We roast it or fry it or saute it.  But normally only one cooking method is used.  The Chinese will use two or three different techniques in order to vary the taste in textures.  It's a little more work, but not much, and the results are quite interesting.  And even though many of the recipes start out with deep- frying you can contain your general fear of frying to some extent, because these dishes don't cover the foods with batters or coatings.  And that is normally where all the extra fat calories are held in deep frying.

Another example of a recipe that uses two heating techniques is sesame walnuts.  A few cups of water are brought to a boil and in go two cups of shelled walnuts.  A minute of cooking and they're drained from the water.  The wok is cleaned out and reheated.  Half cup of water is brought to a boil and the nuts go back in.  Cup of sugar gets mixed in.  Then the nuts are cooked and stirred until all the water has evaporated.  The nuts are taken from the wok, a tablespoon of water goes in and the nuts return.  Plus a second cup of sugar.  Stir-fry for a minute and, once again, take out the nuts.  Keep two cups of oil in the wok and deep fry the nuts for two minutes.  Drain them from the oil and mix in the sesame seeds.  It's kind of a nutty recipe with the walnuts constantly going in and out of the wok, but they end up tasting fantastic.

Anthropologists tell us that when a society starts to develop a written language, the first form is usually based on a picture of the thing being described.  As a written language develops, the lines are modified so that the words are easier to write.  There are some 50,000 images in the Chinese language, but only about 5,000 are in common use.  When they first developed, they were written on thin strips of bamboo, which is why the Chinese got into the habit of writing from top to bottom.  People who have mastered the technique of writing these words are considered major artists in Chinese society.  One of the leading practitioners of this art form is Milo Chang.  He works in the only major writing system in the world that has continued its pictographic development without interruption.  Which means that the average Chinese student can read manuscript that was written over 4,000 years ago.  And that includes cook books.  Milo is demonstrating the style "cursive script".  Chinese cursive script is thought of as a part of the mainstream of Chinese art.  But it is also a practical tool of everday life.  You will find examples of cursive script in major art collections.  But you will also find it on the menus of restaurants.

Each time I visit the Republic of China in Taiwan, I spend a little time with a friend of mine named Richard Vuylsteke.  For the past 30 years he has been studying and writing about Chinese culture.  This time I went to see him about my total failure to understand how traffic works in this country.

For me, and most Western visitors to Taiwan, the local traffic is utterly chaotic.  But it is really just another example of how Chinese thought patterns, and their physical manifestations, differ from those of the West.  Local traffic is totally understandable once you view it in the light of Taoist doctrine.  Central to Taoist teaching is the idea of flow.  Free, yet disciplined movement.  A good metaphor would be a young and quickly flowing river, a rapid mountain stream.  The water fills the space between the banks racing over rocks, under fallen trees and around any obstacle in its path.  Similar to the traffic in Taiwan.  Just a stream fills its banks, so do the vehicles fill the space between the curbs, and between other objects on the road.  Instead of the Western idea of parallel streams of traffic clearly marked by lines that can only be crossed under rigidly defined rules, the Chinese draw upon... different... less legalistic traditions.  Anywhere there is room there is a vehicle.  This means faster flow, and more effective utilization of space.  And a better chance of ultimately reaching your destination within a reasonable time.  The Taiwanese driver also has a different idea of what constitutes a near-miss.  The Western measures in feet, the Chinese mind in inches.  What would send the average North American motorist into a fit is totally ignored here, or at the very worst gets a honk of a horn.  Ancient Chinese concepts of flow and space have been adopted to modern traffic.  But it is also an illustration of the Taoist idea of balance.  The ability of two totally opposite forces to co-exist in one object at the identical moment.  Clearly, the drivers of Taiwan are at the same time the best, and the worst, drivers in the world. 

I've been reporting about food since 1965 and there really isn't a day that goes by where I don't learn something new about the relationship of food to history.  I was quite surprised to find out that the Dutch East India company centered its spice trade here in Taiwan and the enormous profits from that trade went back to Amsterdam to support Dutch artists like Rembrandt.  It's very much as the great thinkers have said, if you've got the information from the teachings of Buddha or the formulas of Einstein, it's the same.  We are all connected and everything is relative.  It's a great pleasure to follow these stories and I hope you'll join us next time as we travelled around the world looking for good things to eat and the reason why people eat them.  From the Republic of China, I'm Burt Wolf.