"Taiwanese food is wonderful. On the wall of my kitchen I have a picture of an incredible noodle soup I had in Tainan Taiwan during one of my two trips to the island. Nothing I ate in mainland China compares". - John Armwood
What Cuisine Means to Taiwan’s Identity and Its Clash With China
Chefs and restaurant owners are using a multiplicity of ingredients and tastes to reflect Taiwan’s roots, shaping a distinct culinary culture.
Taiwan is a self-ruling island of 24 million people that is officially known as the Republic of China. Only about a dozen countries recognize it as a nation because China claims it as one of its provinces. Taiwan is called “Chinese Taipei” by international organizations and at the Olympic Games.
The ambiguity of Taiwan’s nationhood contrasts with a growing Taiwanese claim of identity. More than 60 percent of the people living on the island identify as Taiwanese, and roughly 30 percent identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese, according to the latest results of an annual survey conducted by National Chengchi University in Taipei. Only 2.5 percent consider themselves Chinese exclusively.
But what makes them Taiwanese, not Chinese? How will they create a cohesive narrative about their identity? And how do they reconcile with their Chinese heritage?
For many people, it’s through food, one of the things the island is known for, aside from its semiconductor industry. In the past decade or so, restaurateurs, writers and scholars have started to promote the concept of Taiwanese cuisine, reviving traditional fine dining and incorporating local, especially Indigenous, produce and ingredients into cooking.
They are articulating and shaping a culinary culture that’s distinct from that of China, highlighting a Taiwanese identity that’s organic, tangible and immersed in everyday life. The food embodies Taiwan’s yearning for recognition as a nation, or at least as a culture of its own.
“For years, Taiwan’s ‘nationhood’ has been an ambiguous concept,” Yu-Jen Chen, a food historian at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, wrote in a 2020 book. “And that makes the question ‘What Taiwanese cuisine is’ particularly interesting.” She said the efforts to define and shape the cuisine allowed the Taiwanese to “taste and feel the ‘nationhood.’”
Ian Lee is the owner and executive chef of the HoSu Restaurant in Taipei. HoSu means “good island” in the Taiwanese dialect, and he uses his menu to express his love of the land of Taiwan — its produce, terrain and aroma.
One of Mr. Lee’s dishes, a smoky chargrilled fish, draws inspiration from the cooking of the Atayal, one of many Indigenous groups in Taiwan. The rice noodle soup Dingbiancuo, a famous street snack, is elevated to a main course. Taiwanese mango is presented in the shape of the terraced fields where the decorative herb for the dessert is grown.
“I want the others to see how wonderful and vibrant Taiwan is by telling the stories of our homeland,” he said.
Mr. Lee believes his food could enhance the chances that the people of Taiwan will stand up to China, whose threat to take over the island by force is looking more real than it has in many decades.
“We have to help people identify with this land so a national identity could emerge eventually,” he said. “So if something happens, we will be willing to fight for our homeland.”
Nowhere does food exist independently from politics. After Mexico’s independence from Spain two centuries ago, the Mexican cuisine helped shape a national identity. In March, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, said, “Whether the public can have vegetables on their tables is a political matter.”
In Taiwan, the idea of Taiwanese cuisine first appeared as a way to differentiate it from the cuisine of the island’s colonial Japanese rulers in the early 20th century. During the authoritarian rule of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, Taiwanese food was considered a regional cuisine like that of Shanghai and Sichuan, but it held a lower status.
After the lifting of martial law in 1987, especially after Chen Shui-bian, a Taiwanese-born nationalist, was elected president in 2000, Taiwanese snacks were served at state banquets. Cuisines of Indigenous groups and Hakka people, a Han Chinese subgroup, began to rise, reflecting the inclusiveness of a new democracy.
Today, ask a dozen Taiwanese what Taiwanese cuisine means to them and you might get a dozen answers.
Ching-yi Chen, a food writer in Taipei, asked each attendee of an event to bring a dish that the person considered to be Taiwanese cuisine. A woman in her 20s brought mapo tofu, originally from China’s Sichuan Province, because she grew up eating it. An older pro-independence politician brought a bowl of eel noodle. That is a dish from Tainan, the stronghold of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which promotes Taiwanese nationalism.
To Ms. Chen, both qualified as Taiwanese cuisines. “Anything on this land that is transformed and given a new form or life can be referred to as ‘Taiwanese cuisine,’” she said.
She pointed to the prevalence of miso soup in Taiwanese meals, a vestige of the Japanese colonial rule. In Taiwan, the soup can go with cold noodles, glutinous rice dumplings and even meatballs, she said, something that probably would not happen in Japan.
“The reinterpretation makes it a new dish and part of Taiwanese cuisine,” she said.
For both Taiwanese cuisine and identity, the trickiest aspect is how to reconcile with its Chinese heritage.
“For me, the Chinese government and my Chinese ancestors are two separate things,” Ms. Chen said. “As much as we want to stay away from the Chinese government, most people probably won’t go as far as disowning their ancestors.”
For the most part, Taiwanese people seem to be at ease with their Chinese heritage. The streets of Taipei can feel like any city in southern China. Most people speak Mandarin Chinese even though the Taiwanese dialect is gaining popularity. Many roads and places are named after Chinese provinces. I stayed at a hotel on Jilin Road and ate pork liver soup at a night market named after my home region, Ningxia.
Many restaurants in Taipei claim to offer Sichuan, Hunan and Shanghai cuisines. But for those mainland Chinese who are looking for “authentic” regional Chinese food, they’re in the wrong place.
The dishes at a Hunan restaurant are not spicy at all. The Shanghai restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel in Taipei is excellent. But the most memorable dish, for me, was steamed glutinous rice with mud crab, a signature Taiwanese dish.
A place where many Indigenous languages are spoken, and the first in Asia to allow same-sex marriage, Taiwan is an inclusive society. So is its cuisine. It’s fusion, or anything goes, said Jewel Tsai, another Taipei food writer.
“That’s why it’s difficult to define Taiwanese cuisine,” she said. “How are you going to define something that’s ever expanding like a snowball?”
One group in the movement is elevating original Taiwanese cuisine, which was diminished and looked down on during the more than half-century of political repression of Taiwanese civilians under the rule of Kuomintang. Taiwanese elites were killed or jailed. Speaking the Taiwanese dialect in schools was subject to fines. High-end Taiwanese restaurants were converted into public canteens to accommodate the two million mainlanders who evacuated to the island after the Kuomintang lost the civil war to the Communist Party in 1949.
Chefs at Mountain and Sea House, a fine dining restaurant that opened in Taipei in 2014, tracked down old recipes and reincarnated traditional Taiwanese banquet dishes from a century ago. One of its most exquisite items is a vegetable bun made of interweaving bottle gourd and carrot slices and stuffed with black pork and mushrooms.
The most audacious efforts in Taiwanese cuisine are made by those like Mr. Lee, the owner-chef of HoSu restaurant, who try to elevate the Indigenous cooking and ingredients.
In the political debate, Taiwanese nationalists often emphasize the existence of the Indigenous groups as evidence that Taiwan has its unique origins, of which the Chinese culture is only a part, Yu-Jen Chen, the food historian, wrote in her book. Even though the Indigenous groups make up only 2 percent of Taiwan’s population, she wrote, they’re an important part in the narrative of Taiwanese nationhood.
Mr. Lee believes that the Ukrainians have put up a good fight against Russia because they identify strongly with their nationhood. He wants to use his cooking to advance the sense of Taiwanese identity.
“Everyone is a small screw,” he said. “We need to tighten and fasten these screws properly for the system to function normally. When the system operates smoothly, I believe the other side will be less inclined to engage in aggression or attempts to annex.”