Chinese food is something I live for, and this has been the case for over thirty years. I lived in Taiwan for eight of those years, and during that time I was given an incredible gift: entree into the world of authentic Chinese food.
The things that real Chinese foodies devour with a passion have to been seen and tasted to be believed, because they are nothing like what has ever been offered anywhere but on Chinese soil. Until now.
When I lived in Taipei during the late seventies and early eighties, the city abounded with night markets, street stalls, and palaces dedicated to extreme dining. It was the perfect time and the perfect place to savor all that China had to offer because all the essential requirements for ideal dining came together at exactly the same time. And I just happened to be there, mouth at the ready.
I mean, it was amazing. It had been only thirty years since a massive wave of Mainlanders had followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. People who had grown up all over China were still in the complicated process of evolving into part of the local culture of Taiwan while retaining their own unique traditions. Pride as well as hunger for a taste of home was leading restaurants all over downtown Taipei to feature the foods of almost every locale, and the denizens of Taiwan responded with enthusiasm, as did I. The final factor that turned this into culinary kismet was that Taiwan’s economy roared at just about the same time as I first set foot on the island. With this new-found prosperity, the local great chefs finally had knowledgeable diners who could afford and appreciate the best these restaurants could offer.
I fell in love with the place mouth-first, which was not very hard to do at all. The Chinese family that boarded me my first year fed me very well, and soon I was working for two great gourmands. As the translator for the directors of the National Museum of History and the National Central Library, I learned about China’s Eight Great Cuisines while interpreting for them over state dinners.
These kind gentlemen introduced me to the gentle and savory eastern cuisines of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui, the suave and delectable southern dishes of Fujian and Guangdong, the spicy central delights of Sichuan and Hunan, and the hearty foods of Shandong in northern China. Many dinners later I learned how each one of these great cuisines was part of a splendid patchwork of cooking styles that could be narrowed down even further into smaller provinces, areas, and even individual restaurants.
My mind boggled, my taste buds delighted, and my senses were turned inside out. This was a culinary education beyond my wildest dreams, and it made China and its culture accessible because it taught me how the Chinese see, understand, and taste in ways that I otherwise would not have been able to grasp. These foods fed more than my body, though. As I ate my way through the Eight Great Cuisines and reveled in their wide-ranging flavors, China and her people came into sharp focus. It was as if someone had slipped me a magic decoder ring in a bowl of rice. Life became simple and delicious.
Before long I was taking my impressions of these dishes home and preparing them for my Chinese husband, who encouraged this growing enthusiasm by buying me old Chinese cookbooks. I soon had infatuations with the wet markets and farmers markets that dotted every neighborhood, the farmers and fishermen who spread their tarps on the sidewalks each morning with freshly harvested mushrooms and rainbow-hued tropical fish, the dry-goods merchants with their bursting sacks of spices and salted seafood, the tea masters who educated my palate with their bitter and floral brews, and finally the great cooks and epicures who opened their homes and their kitchens to me.
Living on the outskirts of bustling Taipei, my heart soon belonged to the familiar hawkers who pushed their jerry-rigged carts past my home and called out their wares, the little mom 'n pop holes-in-the-walls that each sold one achingly delicious specialty, and the tiny restaurants staffed by gruff old retired soldiers who would ferociously plonk heavenly fare in front of me. Hunger turns out to be a constant problem when you are as surrounded by ravenously beautiful aromas as I was. Fortunately, it was a problem that was easily solved.
But nothing lasts forever, and after I returned to the States in 1985, I started to spend serious time on learning how to cook all of the foods that I missed.
I look forward to having you join me!