Location: East Asia
Population: 23.5 million
Geography: A small island nation with a mix of mountain, forest, and urbanized areas
Language: Mandarin Chinese
Signature flavours: Beef, pork, rice, scallion, soy, pickled vegetables, bamboo, pineapple
I was really excited for this assignment, not only because I love Asian food, but I felt like I was going to really enjoy cooking up these dishes. The cooking ended up covering two days, as there were plenty of things to prep the day before the meal, and there were some hectic moments, but I really had fun. If you had peeked into my kitchen at any given point during my labour, you might have seen me dancing around with a few bamboo leaves in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other.
Tea Egg: Cracked hardboiled eggs soaked for hours in black tea and Chinese five spice, lending them an earthy, gently spiced flavour.
Prep and cooking time: 12 hours (includes overnight soaking)
Scallion Pancake: A favourite street food in Taiwan, these crispy, chewy pancakes are created by folding sesame oil and scallions between thin layers of dough.
Prep and cooking time: 2 hours
Bah-Tzang: Sticky rice and peanuts around a filling of pork, mushrooms, pickled radish, and shrimp, wrapped with bamboo leaves and boiled until soft.
Prep and cooking time: 2 hours (plus overnight soaking of rice and peanuts)
Feng Li Su: Shortbread cakes with a sweet pineapple filling. Pineapple is huge in Taiwan, and these cakes are commonly wrapped in colourful paper and given as gifts or taken home by tourists.
Prep and cooking time: 75 min
Bubble Tea: Squishy tapioca pearls in a mix of black tea, brown sugar syrup, and milk. Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s.
Prep and cooking time: 45 min
The Shopping List
Since Eric drew Hong Kong and I drew Taiwan next, we headed to a large international market a couple of hours away (and took all necessary COVID precautions along the way) to get everything we needed. I found bamboo leaf, dehydrated shiitake mushrooms, pickled radish, and glutinous rice there, and everything else at our local market.
Like I said, I really got into this assignment. I was filled with optimism about it, even knowing I was taking on some challenging recipes (I’m look at you, bah-tzang). Bah-tzang was one of the most ambitious dishes I have ever undertaken, from the number of ingredients to the number of steps to the execution. It amazes me how simple the method can look in capable hands, and I watched a few YouTube videos with my chin on the floor as lifelong bah-tzang makers filled, folded, and tied their rice dumplings in just a few seconds.
My first attempt at a bah-tzang unfolded and spilled all over me and the floor. I needed Eric’s help to tie the dumplings because I couldn’t hold them shut and tie a knot at the same time. The rice that goes into the bah-tzang is raw before boiling, and I had my doubts that it would really cook all the way through (from within the bamboo no less) in under an hour like the recipe promised, but 55 minutes later, upon unbinding my bah-tzang, warm, sticky rice pressed into a soft triangle was revealed, perfectly cooked. We loved them. Eric ate two.
The tea eggs, which had soaked all night, were stunning to look at with their brown and white mosaic. The flavour was subtle, and honestly, if you like hardboiled eggs, you’ll like these.
The scallion pancakes had come together in the eleventh hour. They were pretty simple to make, and they tasted incredible. Salty, greasy, and made with just a handful of ingredients — it’s no surprise they’re a popular street food. I thought they would taste plain on their own, but they are full of flavour, from the sesame oil and scallion inside to the butter they’re fried in.
The feng li su turned out rather different than their picture in A World of Cake, where they looked like perfect little rectangles. Mine spread out quite a lot in the oven — maybe my butter was too soft? — but their flavour didn’t suffer in the least. Wrapped in their pretty paper, they were a treat to look at and to scarf down with bubble tea.
Eric and I are bubble tea aficionados. We can’t get enough tapioca and sweet tea sucked through an oversized straw, to the point that we invested in our own bubble tea cups and straws to reduce the waste we were creating by hitting up Toronto’s many excellent bubble tea establishments. Now finding ourselves in the country, very far from any bubble tea café, I was excited to have two cold glasses of bubble tea on my table. The recipe I used resulted in a perfect classic milk tea that I think Taiwan would be proud of. In fact, Taiwan is so synonymous with this drink that it was once suggested that an embossed image of a bubble tea emblazon the Taiwanese passport. I’m all for it.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.