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.

Gatherings & Celebrations: Chinese New Year in Taiwan - #101

The events that bring us together... binding the past to the present, and predicting the future.  They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.  We celebrate our contacts with the heavens, with the earth and the sea, with our families, our nations, our religions, the rituals of the table... and, most important, these events can connect us to our true feelings.  They are the GATHERINGS AND CELEBRATIONS that mark the passages of our lives.   

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The calendar used in the western world is called the Gregorian calendar.  It’s named after Pope Gregory who made it the official calendar of the church during the late 1500’s. It’s based on the amount of time that it takes the Earth to orbit around the sun, 365 and a quarter days.  China, however, uses a calendar that is based on the moon.  It is called a lunar calendar, and it’s based on the amount of time that it takes the moon to orbit around the Earth.  It’s measured  from new moon to new moon, which takes twenty-nine and a half days. For thousands of years the Chinese have used a lunar calendar to organize their lives.    

lives which for the most part centered around the farming activities of rural communities. Their moon calendar told them what had to happen to their crops at each point in the year.  When the Republic of China was founded in 1912, however, it took as its official calendar the Gregorian calendar of the west. It made perfectly good sense from a commercial point of view. Industry was displacing agriculture as the most important business activity, and so the western calendar was incorporated into the lives of the people.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In reality, however, the western calendar was only incorporated into the business life of the community. Their religious rituals are still controlled by the things that happen with the moon.  All of their gatherings and celebrations have their origins in events that take place in the heavens.  And some of the most interesting take place here in The Republic of China.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The most important festival in China is New Year’s, which takes place on the first day of the first lunar month, usually about the end of the  February in the western calendar.  It is called the “Spring Festival” because it falls at the beginning of spring. In the old days people would go into the mountains and hunt for animals and use the animal meat as offerings to the gods and their ancestors. 

These days there’s not much hunting in the mountains, but many other ancient rituals are still followed.  Everything in the home gets cleaned, an undertaking that combines the idea of a spring cleaning with the desire to rid the dwelling of any evil spirits that may have taken up residence during the past year.  Old things are replaced.  “New” is the operative word in the New Year’s preparations. 

A lucky message gets attached to the front of the outside door of the home; a second goes on the inside door.  It would be difficult for any visitor from this world or the next to miss the greeting.  A table is set up and covered with offerings for the gods.  The three main meats, pork, chicken and fish are presented.  The oranges of good luck are always part of the package, along with sweet rice cakes and spirit money.  Candles are placed in the shrine.  Incense is burned.  Family prayers are offered.  A little wine is poured, just to keep up the spirits of the spirits.

When the incense has burned down about halfway, the gods are considered to have had their meal and it’s time to burn the spirit money.  As is the case with many ancient cultures, there’s a belief that what you needed and enjoyed in this world you will need and enjoy in the next.  And the way to send things from this world to the other is to reproduce them on special paper and then burn them.  When the transfer of funds is completed, everyone returns to the home and moves the offering table a little to the left of the shrine.  This is the spot where offerings are made to ancestors, as distinct from the place where offerings are made to gods.  Gods are slightly to the right.  Now, that’s not a political statement, just an ancient ritual.  The favorite foods of the ancestors are set out along with a few glasses of rice wine.  The ancestors inhale the aroma of the food, which is all they desire.  The remaining portion of the offering is returned to the family and becomes part of everyone’s dinner. 

Just before the end of the year, the Kitchen God, who has been hanging on the kitchen wall, returns to the other world in order to report to the Jade Emperor on how the members of the family have behaved during the year.

One of the main shopping streets in town is turned into a New Year’s market. The foods of Chinese New Year, like the foods of western New Year, are selected because of their symbolic meaning.  Lotus seeds, peanuts, and pomegranates represent a hope for the birth of children during the coming year.  The use of fruit with many seeds is a common representation of the desire for many offspring.  Grapefruits, oranges and tangerines show up because of their association with good luck.  And there are lots of candies in the hope that they will produce a year filled with sweetness.

There are many green foods as markers of growth and red foods for good fortune -- the same colors that we see in the west as part of Christmas, and with very similar meanings.  The Chinese word for fish rhymes with the Chinese word for surplus.  If you eat half a fish on New Year’s Eve and the other half on New Year’s Day, you can transfer a surplus of good luck from one year to the next.

New Year’s is when you give children “lucky money” in red envelopes.  In China, red is always the color of happiness and good fortune. Old debts are paid off so you can get started on some fresh ones.  Everyone tries to get new clothing, and everyone tries to stay up through the night to welcome in the New Year.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Chinese folklore says that in ancient times “Year” was a fearsome beast who normally lived deep in the mountains.  But on New Years Eve, he would come to places where people lived and eat them.  As a result, a number of monster avoidance techniques are recommended.  First, you should stay up all night so you can keep a good lookout.  Second, put up red posters on your door. “Year” hates red.  And third, use firecrackers to make as much noise as you possibly can.  Noise gives “Year” migraine headaches that sends him back into the mountains.

When morning comes, everyone congratulates everyone else for not having become “Year’s” supper.  A ritual offering of respect is made to one’s ancestors.  The traditional gifts are luxury foods.  After the family pays its respects to their ancestors, the gods are venerated. And finally, the members of the younger generation show their respect for the older generation.  There’s always a visit to a temple where incense is burned, and rounds of visits to friends and relatives for New Year’s greetings.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   And the rituals continue as the New Year begins.  The third day of the year is thought to be a generally unlucky day for people, and many of them just stay at home.  But it’s thought to be a good day for certain animals, especially field mice -- who are thought to hold their weddings on this day.

This is an ancient print showing the Wedding Of The Field Mice. The bride is being carried to the ceremony in a traditional sedan chair.  Everybody’s having a great time.  Some humans actually put rice in the fields for the affair. And I thought Mickey was having a good life.

Things pick up on the fourth day, when the gods who have been on vacation in the other world for New Year’s return to Earth. They’re welcomed back with firecrackers and offerings of spirit money.  The welcoming ceremonies often take place at the end of the day because no one wants to offend a god who might just be getting back a little late.

On the sixth day lion and dragon dances begin, and they are quite spectacular.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The seventh day is the anniversary of the creation of mankind and it’s usually marked by dinners at which seven dishes are served, and seven candles are lit.  The rituals of Chinese New Year are the most dramatic and the most important of this culture.

Almost all of the foods at a Chinese festival meal have some symbolic meaning.  One of the most common is the dumpling, and it’s particularly important at New Year’s.

New Year dumplings are made on New Year’s Eve. The women of the family gather together in the kitchen and undertake the task according to a set of ancient rules.  Children must not be allowed in the kitchen because they might say something that would interfere with the development of good luck inside the dumpling.  If there’s been any tension or argument among the women of the family, now is the time and this is the place to work things out and return to a state of harmony.  It is widely believed that New Year dumplings will not cook properly if there is any ill will among the members of the family. It is also very important not to count the dumplings as they are being made.  The more someone counts the dumplings, the poorer that person will be during the coming year. It’s also essential to wrap the dumpling so that it does not come apart during the cooking.  If the dumpling breaks up in the boiling water, the whole year will be filled with unpleasant experiences that will break up your happiness. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For centuries it has been the custom to place a gold or copper coin inside some of the dumplings.  If you got a dumpling with a coin inside, it was a signal that you were going to have a prosperous year.  Recently, however, in order to avoid having people choking on hunks of metal in their food, that coins have been replaced with little pieces of candy.  Some of the dumplings also contain sugar coated lotus seeds.  If a married woman of child-bearing age receives a dumpling with a lotus seed inside,  it is a signal to her that during the next year she is going to have a son.  Now, I have always suspected that lotus seeds were chauvinistic -- but this really proves it.

This is Chef Tsai at the Taiwanese restaurant in the Grand Formosa Regent in Taipei.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   My vast Chinese vocabulary, which consists of “please drive to this address” as well as “thank you” has allowed me to reach the conclusion that the chefs may have agreed to demonstrate four recipes that traditional for a Chinese New Year’s meal.  I hope.

The first is a Chinese omelet. Three eggs are beaten together in a bowl, along with a half cup of chopped water chestnuts and a half cup of sliced scallions.  A little salt is added.  A half cup of oil is heated in a wok.  The egg mixture goes in and gets cooked on top of the oil. The edges of the eggs are folded in to make a round fluffy omelet. Eggs are an important symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.  Foods that are round are also meant to show completeness and goodness.  Eggs are therefore a traditional dish at a New Year’s meal in China.  A few flips and the omelet is ready to serve.

The next New Year’s recipe is for chicken with chili.  Chicken is a food that is often associated with good luck -- which is something that’s always nice to have -- but it’s especially valuable at New Year’s. Getting off on the right foot is important.

The wok is heated. A cup of oil goes in.  Then two cups of chicken are stir-fried for a minute.  The chicken’s been cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated for fifteen minutes in an egg white, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a little salt and pepper, and a half teaspoon of cornstarch.  Then the chicken is drained away from the oil, except for two tablespoons’ worth, which are added back into the wok. Two dried red peppers are tossed in and stir-fried for a minute.  A little soy sauce goes in,  followed by a little Chinese vinegar.  A teaspoon of cornstarch mixed into a little water is added, just to thicken things up.  The chicken returns to the wok.  And finally a half cup of peanuts are stirred in.

Next comes a dish of braised fish with soy sauce. Fish is a sign of good luck, so it is always a part of a New Year’s dinner. The whole fish goes in and cooks for five minutes. The oil that the fish is cooked in is heated to a temperature of 365 degrees.  When the fish is ready, it’s drained away from the oil and set aside.  Two tablespoons of oil go into a hot wok. A quarter of a cup of fresh ginger that has been cut into strips goes in... plus a quarter of a cup of scallions that have also been cut into strips. A few strips of hot red pepper.  The fish returns to the wok. A quarter of a cup of soy sauce is added.  Then a quarter of a cup of chicken stock. Two minutes of cooking and flipping. As soon as it’s warm and the sauce has thickened, the fish goes onto a serving plate and the sauce goes on top.

And then Chef Chou takes over to make the dumplings, always the most essential symbol of good luck at a New Year’s meal.  Dumpling dough, which is basically very similar to the water and flour dough used for pasta is formed into one-inch pieces.  Then each piece is floured, pressed into a disc, and rolled out into a flat three-inch round.  The rounds are filled with a mixture of vegetables and pre-cooked pork sausage meat and sealed.  Then they are set into a steamer basket that has been lined with aluminum foil to keep the dumplings from sticking to the basket.  The basket is placed on top of a wok that is filled with boiling water.  A cover goes on and the dumplings are steamed for ten minutes or until the filling is fully cooked.

Those are actually the recipes that I expected and just the kind of food that you would get at a New Year’s family meal.  And all of them were prepared within view of the Kitchen God.

The Chinese like to keep the images of their gods close at hand. Some are carved out of wood... or stone.  Some are molded out of clay.  And some are cast out of metal. But the Chinese deities that are most common are the ones made of paper.  You’ll find them in bedrooms, kitchens, offices, shops, factories and temples. They are an absolutely essential part of Chinese culture and the most popular are known as New Year’s Prints. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The oldest technique for getting something that is in this world to the other world is to burn it.  The physical aspect of the thing is destroyed in the heat of the fire.  The smoke goes up to heaven. The essence is transferred from here to there.  To do that with something that is built of stone or bronze is difficult and expensive.  To do it with something that is made of paper is a cinch. 

Paper gods are available in shops all over town, but they’re not actually purchased.  It would be impolite to try and “buy” a god. What you do is “invite” the deity to your home and pay the storekeeper for assisting you with the invitation.  You are, however, allowed to buy the candles and incense that come along with the paper gods. 

This is the home of  Huang Tien-heng, who’s a famous collector of woodblock prints that depict the gods.  He’s also the author of a book on the subject and he’s invited us in to take a look at a few examples of the art.

The tradition of decorating a home with paper prints goes all the way back to the 900s.  There are dozens of paper gods but they all fall into one of five categories. First come the Door Gods.  Each god has its own particular door.  The instruction book says that Unicorn Bringing Sons is for the bedroom door of young couples.  In the same vein is the God of A Hundred Sons and A Thousand Grandsons.   Protect and Aid the Home is always popular, and Bestow Promotions and Bring Prosperity is a big seller in the corporate world. 

The second group are the Festival Gods.  My favorite is the Kitchen God.  The Kitchen God comes in two forms:  Regular for the home and Industrial Strength for business establishments. Home style has both a god and a goddess; industry just gets the male deity. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): On the second day of the New Year, many people begin to honor The God of Wealth.  In keeping with the commercial aspect of his nature, he’s often offered by door-to-door salesmen wandering through the neighborhoods.  This can place some people in a rather awkward situation. If you already have a God of Wealth, it’s not polite to really hang out the window and say “Hey!  We don’t want any!  We already got one!”   See, a major deity will take offense at that attitude, and might just cut you out of his good will for the entire year.  So when it comes to The God of Wealth, having a couple extra is perfectly okay.

The third group is the Congratulatory Gods. If it’s your first wedding, you’ll get the God of Happiness and the Two Gods of Marital Union. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   If you’re marrying for a second time, you’re supposed to have a copy of the God and Goddess of the Bedroom, a charming couple who have had over a hundred children.  They also have the ability to protect the second wife from any evil acts on the part of the first wife.  Like all aspects of our society, what is popular changes with the changes in our values.  The paper god who would get you a hundred children is not particularly popular these days.  On the other hand, the paper god that will get you a good parking place is almost always sold out.

Travels & Traditions: Taipei - #503

BURT WOLF: Taiwan is an island that sits about 120 miles off the coast of Mainland China.

It’s 250 miles long and about 90 miles wide at its widest point.

A chain of mountains form a spine down the center of the island with more than 200 peaks rising over 10,000 feet. The rain that falls on these mountains flows into rivers that bring water and soil to the sea-level plains that make up the western part of the island.

The fields are ideal for agriculture and for hundreds of years they have attracted farmers who came to Taiwan from Mainland China.

Taiwan has held on to most of the ancient principles of Chinese culture and at the same time incorporated the most modern aspects of western society.

Taiwan’s surface is clearly western. But just beneath that surface is a bedrock of ancient Chinese culture. And it is this ancient culture that supports the western façade.

You are never more than a few blocks away from a temple where gifts are offered to the gods and the gods respond with advice about your future.

Each morning the parks are filled with people practicing the art of Tai Chi.

They are balancing their mind and body.

For hundreds of years the Taiwanese have worked to balance the modern culture of the west with the ancient wisdom of China. In the process they have become masters at balancing almost everything.

About 23 million people live in Taiwan, and nearly 98 percent of them are ethnically Chinese, which means that at some point in the past, they or their ancestors came here from Mainland China.

From the middle of the 1600s to the end of the 1800s the island of Taiwan was ruled by the emperors of Mainland China.

In 1895, China ceded Taiwan to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War.  Japan occupied Taiwan until the end of the Second World War when it was given back to China.

In 1949, the communists took control of Mainland China and hundreds of thousands of people left the Mainland and settled in Taiwan.


BURT WOLF: Very often when a community leaves its ancestral home and settles down in some other part of the world, it makes a great effort to preserve its ethnic history. The community wants to hang onto its culture, and to a great extent that is what has happened here in Taiwan.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: While the communists went through a period of trying to destroy every aspect of traditional Chinese culture, the Taiwanese were very busy preserving it. As a result, you can see more authentic features of traditional Chinese culture here in Taiwan than anywhere where else in the world. 

BURT WOLF: This is The National Palace Museum in Taipei. It opened in 1965 and holds over 700,000 works. They represent over 5,000 years of the most important arts and crafts. It is the largest collection of Chinese art in the world.

When the Japanese attacked China in 1931, the treasures were boxed and for 16 years shuttled around China to keep the Japanese from finding them. There were thousands of crates so this was a pretty serious shuttling.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945 and it looked like the communists would take over China, 4,800 crates of the most valuable works were shipped to Taiwan for safekeeping. Amazingly, not a single piece was ever lost or damaged.

There are 4,400 ancient bronzes, 24,000 pieces of porcelain, 13,000 paintings, 14,000 works of calligraphy, 4,600 pieces of jade, and 153,000 palace records.

Most of the collection is held in storage rooms that were dug out of the mountain behind the museum. The objects are periodically rotated but it would take someone twelve years to see the entire collection.


BURT WOLF: Taipei is not only the capital of Taiwan; it is the economic heart of the country. Until the mid-1960s, Taipei had few paved roads; today it is one of the most modern cities in Asia.

At the end of the Second World War, Chiang Kai-sheck led an exodus of soldiers, industrialists, craftsmen, artists and intellectuals across the Straights to Taiwan. Following Chiang’s death in 1975, a memorial was built to honor his contribution to the nation’s history. Today it’s a major tourist attraction.

Modern Taiwan is a world leader in the production of computer chips, chemicals, and hi-tech components.  It’s also the world’s leading manufacturer of laptop computers. Thirty-five percent of its university students study engineering and they are building a nation that reflects 21st century technology.

The engineers of Taiwan may be constructing some of the tallest buildings in the world but they also have their feet on the ground.

Many of the crossing lights give you a visual count down along with the image of a little green man walking. When it gets close to the end, the guy starts running, and so should you.


BURT WOLF: Intellectuals and artists were not the only ones who left the Mainland for Taiwan. Many of the great chefs of Mainland China came along too. In fact, anyone interested in Chinese cuisine will find a greater variety and a higher quality here than anywhere else.

L.F. Huang is the master chef in charge of the Chinese kitchens of The Grand Formosa Regent in Taipei. I asked him to show me a classical dish from each of the most important regional cuisines of China.

He started with Cantonese. The food of Canton is considered to be light. It’s the most expensive, elaborate and exotic of Chinese regional cuisines. It uses seafood that has been lightly steamed. Often fruit is often mixed with seafood, chicken or pork.

If you like spicy food, Sichuan is your ticket. It uses lots of chili oils, hot sauces and dried chili peppers. The spiciness is often balanced with sweet and sour flavors. Taiwanese food combines cooking traditions from the Fujian province of China and Japan. It uses lots of local seafood—clams, oysters, and freshwater shrimp.

The most famous Taiwanese recipe is a noodle dish called Dan Dan Noodles. A fisherman invented the dish in 1895 during the months when the fish were not running. It’s a bowl of fresh noodles mixed with bean sprouts and seasoned with cilantro and a pork sauce, no fish.

The Hakka people came to Taiwan from northern china. Their dishes are considered peasant food. This dish of stir-fried eggplant is a good example.

Shanghai cuisine is known for seafood which is often combined with delicate vegetables.

The most famous dish from Peking is Peking duck. It’s sometimes called duck three ways because the crispy skin is served first, then the meat, and then a rich broth made from the bones. You’ll often find dishes in Peking that come with wheat pancakes or a sesame seed bun. That’s because in northern China, wheat flour is more common than rice. 

They also have a unique approach to fast food. This is the Ting Tai Fung dumpling house and there is always a line of people waiting to get in. In order to keep your waiting to a minimum the wait-staff starts waiting on you while you are waiting outside. They give you a menu and relay your order to the kitchen on their wireless intercoms.

While you were waiting the dumpling masters are doing their thing.

Table spotters on each of the restaurant’s four floors alert the outdoor wait-staff when your waiting is over. And you arrive at your table seconds before your food.

A great dumpling is juicy, the filling is packed with flavor, and the dough is thin and light. We had hot and sour soup, shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, vegetable dumplings, crab dumplings and for dessert, dumplings filled with a mash of sweet red beans. These are great dumplings and worth waiting for.

In addition to knowing what to eat, it’s helpful to know how to eat.

Rather than greeting someone by saying “how are you?” many Taiwanese will open a conversation by saying “Tsai Fon Le Mayo”, which means, “have you eaten yet?” The theory being that if you have eaten you’re okay, if you haven’t, there’s some kind of problem.

Dishes are shared, usually one dish for every diner.

Each person gets a bowl of rice. You take what you want from the communal dishes and place it on your rice using the serving spoons rather than your chopsticks. 

It’s also polite to take the item nearest you.

Hold your rice bowl close to your face and use your chopsticks to move the food into your mouth. And never leave your chopsticks standing vertically in the rice bowl. It mimics the sticks of incense in a bowl of ashes and is considered a sign of death.

Though people will squabble over the bill, whoever invited the guests is expected to pay for the meal.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In Chinese culture, food is often used as a metaphor to make a point. A great Taoist teacher once said that a government should govern its country the way you fry a small fish.

Don’t turn things over too much. Keep the heat low. Be careful and delicate.

Considering the economic condition of some of the governments in the United States. It’s probably a good idea to add the point that it’s helpful to be able to pay for the fish before you cook it.


BURT WOLF: The word “Formosa” is Portuguese and it means “beautiful island”. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to see the island of Taiwan and Formosa was what they called it.

While I was in Taiwan, I stayed at the Grand Formosa Regent.  The hotel is part of The Four Seasons Regent Group which is the largest luxury hotel and resort group in the world.

Like other institutions in Taiwan, the Grand Formosa is faced with the challenge of balancing the traditional values of Chinese culture with the demands of modern society and it has had an interesting response. The public areas of the hotel are wide open and spacious. It’s what the ancient emperors liked to come home to after a hard day of managing the empire.

But the emperors also liked to keep in touch.

So the entire building is equipped with wireless Internet service. You can set up your computer laptop anywhere in the hotel and connect with the worldwide web.

The emperors spent a lot of time stretching out in bed or on couches so pillows were very important.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There’s a hard pillow, a tealeaf pillow, a goose down pillow, a memory pillow, a wood pillow, an air pillow, a non-allergic pillow and a feather pillow. Accordingly, the Regent offers you a selection of eight different pillows.

BURT WOLF: Emperors liked to be physically pampered.

They would have loved the Regent’s Wellspring Spa. The idea was to create a relaxing coddling environment right in the center of the city.

The emperors were into food. No problem.

The Regent has ten different restaurants.

Lan Ting offers elegant Chinese cooking with a special emphasis on the traditional foods of Shanghai.

The Brasserie has an all-day buffet. You can pop in for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner. It was originally opened for hotel guests but over the years it has become a favorite eating spot for locals who come here throughout the day.

Robin’s Teppan is a traditional teppanyaki restaurant where seafood and steaks are cooked in front of the dinners.

And let’s not forget… emperors were into stuff.

The Regent Galleria has two floors of the world’s most famous stuff.

And when the Galleria couldn’t hold any more shops they began opening in the nearby streets.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It was good to be Emperor.


BURT WOLF: Taoism tells us that the way to have a good life is to line yourself up with the ways of nature. It is an idea that constantly shows up in the daily life of the Taiwanese, even when it comes to something as simple as having a cup of tea. This is the Wistaria-House. It opened in 1981as a meeting place for artists and scholars who wanted to discuss their ideas for improving the nation. Today it is a Taipei City historical site and the perfect spot to experience the Tao of tea.

The way to start the way is to place a square tray on the table. In Chinese symbolism the earth is square, similar to the square of a rice field. The teacups, and utensils rest on the earth. You select your tea and perhaps some cookies or dried fruits to go along with it. The elegance of the room represents heaven. The quiet environment is designed to rid the drinker of the tensions of daily life. The tea will help you concentrate and gain clarity. The roundness of the cups reminds you of the roundness of life. The possibilities for completeness that should not be forgotten. The tea becomes the connection between earth and heaven.

WOMAN: How’s that?


BURT WOLF: Some of the world’s finest tea is grown in the mountains of Taiwan. The folk legends that tell of the origin of tea describe it as an accident in which a tea leaf drops into someone’s boiling water and they date that event back about 4000 years.

If you think you might enjoy buying some top quality tea you might want to stop into the Wang De Chuan Tea Shop. The setting is elegant. Antique French cabinets. Traditional red tea canisters for holding the tea. And Ming Dynasty furniture for the tasting area. They offer some of the world’s finest teas, but even if you are not interested in buying any tea it’s still worth a visit. The staff is interested in raising your interest in the subject and will gladly prepare a few samples.


BURT WOLF: In spite of Taiwan’s rapid shift from an ancient agricultural society to a modern industrial nation, or perhaps because of it, Chinese folk religion has remained an important part of the culture. Originally Taoists and Buddhists worshipped in separate temples. But between 1895 and 1945 the island was occupied by the Japanese who persecuted the Taoists. The Taoists continued to worship their gods but they did so secretly, inside the Buddhist temples. By the end of the Second World War when the Japanese were expelled from Taiwan, the two religions had blended together into a single form of worship that included Taoism, Buddhism and folk gods. In the west, we tend to think of Buddhism and Taoism as organized religions, but in reality they are much more like a set of general instructions on how to behave properly and have a happier life.

There are over 10,000 places of worship in Taiwan and they are easily accessible to the visitor. They need to be because you never know when you are going to require help from a departed ancestor or a powerful god.

This is the Paoan Kung Temple, it is over 200 years old and dedicated to the God of Medicine. As you enter the building, you’ll see carved dragons on the main support column. The Dragon is a symbol of strength, intelligence and good luck.

Inside the temple there are images of 36 different deities. They are assistants to the main god and each is responsible for a specific illness and its cure.

You stand in front of the appropriate deity, explain your problem, and make your request.

Most people come to a temple to ask a god for a favor or for some advice. They start by burning a few incense sticks while mentally repeating their names, birth date, address and the question they have or the favor they want. Then they drop two crescent-shaped pieces of wood to the floor. If they land with one round side up and the other down the answer is “yes”. Things look good, go for it. If both curved sides are up, the answer is “no” forget about it. If both flat sides are up its neutral and you should ask again later.

This is the Hsingtien Temple. It’s dedicated to the red faced, black bearded god of war, martial arts and money management. He is also the patron saint of businessmen who come here to pray and ask for guidance. Unlike most temples, it does not accept donations, and it discourages the burning of spirit money as an offering to the gods. Recently it has come out against the shredding of corporate documents.

What are the people doing over there on line?

ROBIN CHENG ON CAMERA: It’s a tradition about Chinese.  We believe that we have ten spirits.  If you get sick or get shot you lost some of your spirit.  It’s acquiring your sprit and combining it with your body.

BURT WOLF: So all of them are getting their spirits replaced.


BURT WOLF: Wonderful.

Gods, ghosts and ancestors play major roles in Chinese folk religion. When you pay your respects to an ancestor you thank them for the life they have given you. And the offering you make helps them with their life in the other world. It connects you to the past. And because the same rituals are taught to the children in your family, it connects you to the future.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Connecting the past to the future is one of the essential aspects of Chinese culture. One of the nicest things that you can take home from a visit to Taiwan is a reminder of the good feelings that can come from family traditions.