Burt Wolf's Table: Taipei - #201

BURT WOLF:  The Taipei Chinese Food Festival -- an annual event that brings together the superstars of Chinese gastronomy. It's the place to get a look at the relationship of food to Chinese  culture. We'll also learn some of the easiest and best tasting recipes in Chinese cooking and tour Taiwan's beautiful northeast coast. So join me at the Taipei food festival at Burt Wolf's Table.

WOLF:  The idea of a food festival goes back for thousands of years.  They began as annual street fairs where farmers, merchants, producers and traders displayed their products in the hope of getting new customers.  These are the opening ceremonies for the Taipei Chinese Food Festival on the island of Taiwan. Because of China's extensive interest in food and food's symbolic relationship to Chinese culture, this is not just another trade show. This is a major social event where the skills of master chefs are on display.

WOLF:  Chang Hung Yu is one of the chefs at Taipei's Lai Lai Sheraton Hotel. He's demonstrating the Chinese technique for making noodles by hand. He holds the world's record in this event, having made eight thousand one hundred and ninety two strands of noodles in four minutes.  His noodles are so thin that he is actually able to thread one through the eye of a needle. He certainly has this skill sewn up. Chef Munusami is making Indonesian pancakes. The objective is to get the dough as thin as possible. You should be able to read a book through it, or at least watch television. His footwork is fantastic; the second most difficult part of this recipe is picking out the right music. Dick Clark would love this. Give it a ninety-five; you can dance to it and you can eat it too. 

WOLF:  Carving is probably the most important skill demonstrated at this festival.The chef at the Howard Plaza Hotel has made this flower arrangement, but he's made it from vegetables. 

WOLF:  The chefs from the Lai Lai Sheraton constructed some of the most spectacular presentations; shrimps as birds returning to a nest of lotus nuts; a peacock that spreads its feathers into cold cuts (not exactly your standard delicatessen style). The Gallery is an art gallery with a restaurant.  You can sit in a Chang dynasty chair and watch the shrimp sail by in a three- masted watermelon. The Regent Hotel's display included a detailed farm village made of flour.

WOLF:  They also showed a group of eggs that have been emptied of their whites and yolks through a pinhole and refilled with jello.   And if you think that pickling your watermelon rind is too much trouble, check this out.

WOLF:  The Howard Hotel built its area in the style of a traditional Chinese house. In the center is a mythical being:  half-dragon, half-turtle, with smoke coming out of it's nostrils. They tell me it's a symbol of good luck, and entirely constructed of sugar.  Extra good luck for dentists.

The Dream Of The Red Chamber is the greatest and the most important of the classical Chinese novels.  It was written during the middle of the 1700's and it tells the story of two lovers who unfortunately come to a tragic end. It's a huge novel. There are nine hundred and seventy five different characters wending their way through the narrative, but when you read it you get a perfect picture of what life was like in China during the time period -- especially when it comes to food.  There are one hundred and ninety seven different scenes in the novel that deal with eating or drinking. They even have a cookbook with just the recipes from the stories. The Dream Of The Red Chamber became the theme of the Taipei Chinese Food Festival, with chefs creating many of the dishes described in the book. There are a number of general themes that run through the Red Chamber recipes. One is the desire to have attractive presentations for a single serving. This dish, made up of a whole crab steamed in a bamboo basket, is a perfect example. There's also a great interest in foods that illustrate the delicate skills of carving and shaping. This one is called a Red Goose. The emphasis on knifework is also carried out in the table decorations. These flowers are actually carved from sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkins. This one has flowers cut from onions. Chinese respect for the older generation is presented in the novel and also in the recipes. This pork dish is boiled to tenderness with the specific intent of making it easier for older people to chew. The Dream Of The Red Chamber is clearly the most important novel in Chinese literature, but it also the basis of an entire school of cooking. It is the only work of fiction that comes with a companion cookbook and a team of culinary professionals who travel around the world teaching the recipes of the dishes described in the original works.  Many of those recipes are for soups which were and still are an essential part of every Chinese meal.  This beef soup prepared by Chef Kow is an excellent example.  Chef starts by heating four cups of water; then in goes a cup of chopped beef.  That cooks for two minutes and the beef is removed from the wok and doused with water. It's a technique that greatly reduces the fat and calorie content of the meat.  Next, two cups of beef stock go into the cleaned wok. The beef returns, plus a quarter teaspoon of cornstarch mixed into a little water. Everything is brought to a boil. Two beaten egg whites are stirred in, and as soon as the egg whites are cooked, the soup goes into a serving bowl.  Some chopped broccoli or other green-colored garnish goes on top. 

Chinese children, like children all over the world, start eating with their fingers. After awhile the spoon is introduced.  At about the age of four, chopstick training begins. Chopsticks appear to have been developed specifically for use with a type of rice prepared by the Chinese. The Chinese word for chopstick actually means something like “fast helpers.”  Great description. The meal at a Chinese home starts with everybody receiving a bowl of rice. This is the real food of China. The  meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and fruits are almost considered as a relish. You receive the bowl with two hands as a mark of respect. All of the other foods come to the table in big serving dishes. You pick out the piece you want to munch and you put it on your rice bowl. It is impolite to go poking around in the serving dish. Pick your targets carefully. What you touch you should take. If you take a piece that is too big and you can't finish it in one bite, bite what you can and put the remainder down on your rice bowl. You can come back to it later.  The rice bowl is held up near your mouth and the chopsticks help you cover the distance between the two. It is a disaster to leave any rice in your rice bowl at the end of the meal. It means that you did not know how much food you needed from the beginning -- and that means waste.  And waste is unacceptable in Chinese culture. 

A dish which would be almost impossible to waste, based purely on it's irresistible flavor, is this wok-fried chicken with pineapple. The idea of putting meat and fruit together in the same recipe is pretty unusual in today's Western cooking but in earlier times it was standard operational procedure. Recipes from the ancient Romans to the Renaissance regularly combined meat, fish, poultry and fruit but the masters of this art are the Chinese.  Chef Kow at the Regent Hotel in Taipei makes the point with wok-fried chicken and pineapple. First he makes the sauce.  A little water is heated in the wok, a little ketchup goes in.  Don't laugh.  Ketchup was invented in China.  A little vinegar, and a little sugar.  That cooks together for thirty seconds and it's held aside. Bite- size pieces of skinless, boneless chicken breast are mixed with egg yolk or egg white and dipped into cornstarch. Some vegetable oil is heated. The chicken goes in; two minutes later, a half cup of  pineapple pieces are added plus a half cup of green peppers. Thirty seconds of cooking and everything is drained and held aside.  Quarter  cup of green onion, quarter cup of red pepper go into the wok;  then the ketchup mixture. The chicken is back. Thirty seconds of cooking and it's ready for the plate. 

WOLF:  Experts on Chinese food tell me that the supernatural spirits of the other world have a special affinity for chicken recipes and that this is definitely a dish for the deities, very important to Chinese cooks.  Popular Chinese folk  religion is a blend of Taoist ideas, Confucian custom and Buddhist beliefs. It a recipe designed to meet the everyday needs of the people. Perhaps the best place to see these forces interact is the Island of Taiwan. They have over ten thousand Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian places of worship. They're busy places, filled with the smoke of incense and the clicking sound of the wooden divining blocks;  interesting piece of equipment.  If you have a question for one of the deities, you stand in front of the diety's statue, ask the  question and throw down the blocks. If the blocks are one up and one down the answer is yes, both down the answer is no. Both up means “I don't get it; please rephrase your question.”  It's an okay system, but I was hoping for something where I could get a more detailed response. So I  could ask  questions like “how do you make love last?”

Nevertheless, the temples have a very big following and almost everyone who comes in here has a food offering for one of the deities.  But the gods here are very practical.  They don't actually eat the food.  They just inhale the essence of the food.  So the food sits here for a little while and then the people who brought it in actually get to take it home and eat it.  It's a wonderful system, and everybody gets satisfied and the deities are never overweight.  What a wonderful example for all of us.

The Chinese folk religions of Taiwan believe that the human world and the supernatural world exist right next to each other.  And the people who live in the human world are responsible for sending the supernatural  beings what they need in the form of offerings.  When it comes to food, you can learn a lot about the supernatural being by taking a look at the food that's being offered. 

If  the relationship between the person offering the food and the supernatural being is very close, then the food offered is very common, the kind of stuff that the person making the offering would normally eat at home.  If you're making an offering to a deceased relative that you knew, you'd send along foods that are fully prepared and ready to eat.  If it's a processed food it might still be in the manufacturer's package.  The common food shows the closeness of the relationship.

If you're making an offering to a very important god, the food will be totally unprocessed.  A whole pig, raw, or a vegetable ripped out of the ground with its roots still hanging on.  Not the kind of food that you would find on your dining room table.  The reason that the food is offered in an unedible form is to show the distance between the human making the offering and the deity on the receiving end.  It shows the god's power to feed himself.  Moo shu and McDonald's for the mortals, an unprocessed diet for the deities.  I guess somewhere along the line the gods learned that the less a food is processed, the more nutrients remain in.

Though I think even the most powerful god in Chinese folk religion might make an exception to his or her normal eating pattern for a dish of sliced pork with spicy garlic sauce.

In proportion to its size and population, China has very little land available for farming and even less for grazing cattle.  As a result, when Chinese cooks talk about meat, they usually mean pork.  Pork is found in many soups and main dishes and as a stuffing for rolls and dumplings.  One of its easiest presentations is in a recipe for pork with spicy garlic sauce.

Chef Yeh of Taipei's Regent Hotel starts the dish with a piece of lean pork that has been steamed, but you could just as easily make the dish with a loin that has been roasted.  Most important point is that the pork should be free of all visible fat. 

The pork is cut into a block with a four-inch by one-inch side, and then to half-inch thick sheets.  Each sheet is then rolled into a little cylinder and placed on a presentation plate.  And a sauce is made by mixing together a little bit of chopped garlic, some sugar, a little chili oil, some chili paste, and a tablespoon of soy sauce, plus some red wine vinegar.   The sauce gets spooned onto the rolled-up pork and the dish is ready to serve.

The annual Taipei Chinese Food Festival always includes a series of competitive events designed to test the talents of the young chefs.  The contest that draws the biggest audience is the hour-long ice-carving classic.  Each team gets a uniform block of ice and 60 minutes to do their thing.  Electric chain saws are used to cut the block into the general shape of the sculpture.  The gloves are safety gloves designed to protect the carver from the blades. 

Once a basic outline has been formed, the artist gets into the detail using the traditional tools of a wood carver.  Being picky is central to an ice carver's personality.  They prepare for the event by designing the work and cutting a prototype.  Once they have the major pattern, they practice the sculpture over and over again, so they can reproduce it within the time limit.  They constantly readjust the form to get the best results for the time allowed.  It's a chilling challenge, with the prospect of success often melting away right before your eyes.  Just as this event was ending, the unicorn lost one of its front legs.  It was reattached with a fistful of shaved ice and a blast of butane fuel, which comes out so cold, that it fuses the ice together.  Shaved from the agony of defeat.

The Taipei Food Festival also conducts a competition in napkin folding.  The fashion for fancy napkin folding started in the 1500s.  It was considered an art form, and the people who did it were paid big bucks.  The more elaborate the folding, the more impressive the table.  Napkins were folded into birds and flowers and boats.

Here at the annual Taipei Food Festival, napkin folding is elevated to a competitive sport on the level of the Olympics.  For over 300 years, napkin folding was considered a respectable profession.  But in the late 1800s, it fell out of fashion.  It was considered too pretentious.  The leading commentator on good manners said it was like wearing a ring over a glove.  Well, excuuuuse me.

The idea of the table napkin goes  back at least as far as the ancient Romans.  They would use two of them.  One went around their neck, the other was held aside to clean their hands.  When they'd go off to someone's house for dinner, they'd bring along at least one napkin of their own.  Not that the host didn't have enough napkins to go around.  They would use their napkin to bring home the extra food that was offered to them at the end of the meal.  It was kind of showing up with your own doggy bag, but at the time it was considered quite polite.

During the Medieval period, napkins were huge, the size of bath towels.  You'd put them over your left shoulder and clean your hands on them as the meal went along.  During the 1800s, the napkin took up residence on the lap.  Napkins never became a big deal here in China.  It was always thought of as kind of weird to have something on your lap that kept getting dirtier and dirtier as the meal went on.  They went for small cloths that were moist and warm, and you'd clean your hands on them as the meal progressed, and they would change them throughout the meal. 

During the mid-1800s, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers left China to find work in the United States and Canada.  The primary task was the construction of the transcontinental railroads that stretched across each country.  The Chinese workmen had their own camps and their own cooks, cooks who did their best to reproduce the recipes of their homeland. 

Very often, as a section of track was finished in an area of the country that a worker liked, he would drop out of the construction crew and look for work in a local town.  Very often that work was in a restaurant.  When he had saved up enough money, he would leave that restaurant and open up one of his own.  At that point, he would return to the cooking of the regional province of China from which he came.

Since most of the Chinese workers who came to North America during this period had come from the area of Canton, most of those original Chinese restaurants served, or at least tried to serve, traditional Cantonese dishes.   They didn't have most of the ingredients that they were accustomed to using in China, and they didn't have the real equipment that they had used back home, but their skill level was high enough to develop a local following.  And that is why almost every town in the United States and Canada has ended up with at least one Chinese restaurant. 

Of all the cultures on our planet, the Chinese are probably the most preoccupied with eating and drinking.  The great Chinese scholar Lin Yutang once wrote that “no food is really enjoyed unless it is keenly anticipated, discussed, eaten, and then commented upon.  Long before we have any special food, we think about it, rotate it in our minds, and anticipate it as a special pleasure to be shared with some of our closest friends.”

In Taiwan, food is part of almost every conversation.  If you meet a friend and you want to know how he's doing, you use the phrase, "Tsai fon le mayo," which actually translates as "Have you eaten lately?"  If you're curious about someone's profession, you use a series of words that translate into English as "What is it you do to eat?" 

Food is constantly used as a metaphor to tell a story or make a point.  A great Taoist teacher explained the role of government by saying that a country should be ruled the same way you fry a small fish.  Don't turn things over too much, keep the heat low, and be careful and delicate.  If that  scholar were with us today, and looking at the United States, and its national debt, he might add that it's a good idea to be able to pay for the fish before you buy it.

Food is also a basic part of Chinese art.  Some of the most important paintings deal with people eating or drinking or preparing food.  It's also central to Chinese literature.  There are poems about recipes and short stories that revolve around long meals. 

Only ten percent of China's giant land mass can be used for farming.  So for centuries, hundreds of millions of Chinese have depended on their ingenuity to get the food they needed; and when they got the food they needed, they had just as challenging a time finding some fuel to cook it.

As a result, the Chinese kitchen evolved a cooking style where most of the foods are cut into small, bite-size pieces that cook very quickly over intense heat.  The majority of dishes are made to order.  The first row of chefs do all the cutting and preparation of the ingredients.  Their primary tool for cutting, grinding, beating, and moving the components is the cleaver.  And for their cutting surface, the all-time favorite, a cross-section of a tree.  What could be easier to obtain, or more efficient?  They pass the prepared foods to the senior chefs who work at the wall of woks.

The intensity of the flame is controlled by a lever that is level with the cook's knee, and he uses his leg to adjust the heat.  The dishes are stir-fried quickly and sent out to the dining room, and you're ready to start again.  An extraordinarily efficient system. 

Given the difficulty of acquiring and preparing foods throughout the long history of China, it is all the more amazing that the Chinese have been able to develop one of the world's truly great cuisines. 

The waters around the island of Taiwan have been an ongoing source of seafood for thousands of years.  And seafood cookery has been a hallmark of Taiwanese cuisine as far back as the aborigines, who were the island's original inhabitants.  The Chinese chefs who do the cooking of the island these days have continued the tradition.  Chef Kao of the Regent Taipei demonstrates a classic dish of shrimp and orange sauce.

First the sauce.  Quarter cup of Rose's lime juice goes into a hot wok.  Plus a quarter cup of white vinegar.  Half cup of orange juice.  Three tablespoons of sugar and the juice of half a lime.  That cooks for a minute and the sauce is ready. 

Some water is heated in the wok and two cups of jumbo shrimp are blanched for 30 seconds and drained.  The wok is cleaned and some vegetable oil goes in to heat up.  Then the shrimp go in for 10 seconds of cooking.  The oil goes out of the wok and the shrimp go back in for 20 seconds of stir-frying.  Then onto the serving plate; the orange sauce goes on top, and a garnish of chopped orange.

The northeast coast recreational area is one of the most beautiful parts of Taiwan.  There's an extraordinary array of wildflowers covering mile after mile of hillside.  And a coastline that displays some of Mother Nature's more unusual designs.  The constant pounding of the surf has created a pattern of rectangular rock formations that are called bean curd rocks, because they remind people of the blocks of bean curd that are found in the local supermarkets.  There's also a series of mushroom-shaped stones that look like chessmen...  chessmen set out on a giant board and playing against the incoming sea. 

The honeycombs are also quite fascinating.  For many years, this part of Taiwan has been famous among Asian rock climbers.  If you're a beginner at this rather challenging sport, you can take advantage of the professional guides who will show you the ropes, so to speak. 

Boat tours present a dramatic view of the coastline.  There's a sizable collection of marine life, a major attraction for divers.  Trains come up regularly from the capital city of Taipei, making the area an easy day trip.  Lots of beachfront, camping facilities, bonfires every night, an international sand castle competition with instruction classes for first-timers.  Wind-surfing, wave-surfing and paragliding for the more adventurous, and magnificent walking paths for people who enjoy moving their bodies in a more subdued environment.  There's very little snowfall on Taiwan, but that doesn't seem to have prevented the development of a major skiing resort. They just use the grass instead.  And when the monsoon season begins, and the big Pacific breakers start coming in, the serious fishermen start coming out.  Quite a place.

Chinese food has the longest documented history of any cuisine on earth.  It goes back over 6,000 years.  And from the very beginning, the Chinese have always believed that there is a direct relationship between what you eat and your overall well-being.  And now 20th Century scientists are telling us that much of what they've been saying is absolutely true.  What an encouraging piece of news. 

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.