We recently came back from a trip to Taiwan. It was Colin and Cailya's first visit to Taiwan, and the first time Cassie and I visited the island together. I hadn't been back since 1997, when I participated in a summer program affectionately referred to as, "The Love Boat". Taiwanese Americans refer to this summer program as the love boat because Taiwanese parents supposedly expect their American sons to come back from this study tour with a wife. I happily took part in this program, but I didn't find love…or a boat.
On this recent trip back, in an attempt to expose my kids to their cultural heritage, I inadvertently gained a better understanding of my own cultural heritage and a more profound love for Taiwan. I reflect about what it means to me to be Taiwanese American in the following featured article:
As a child, I remember many instances where I thought my parents were a bit idiosyncratic. My dad cares little about brand name clothes and buys three sets of the same thing at a time. My mom wears a sweater and jacket when it's 75 degrees outside, and she keeps all the original boxes and packaging from purchases stacked in her room. But as I traveled around Taiwan, I began to notice how an entire population regularly does arm exercises in the park, wears their backpacks on their chest, and keeps their furniture hidden under protective shrink wrap. Now I realize how idiosyncratic I must appear to my parents.
One culture's norms is another culture's idiosyncrasies. The same can be said about food. In Taiwan, pickled vegetables find their way onto breakfast tables, oysters find their way into pancakes, and beans find themselves featured in desserts. Many people can be found doing their grocery shopping at local open air morning markets such as these:
Taiwan is also famous for its beef noodle soup and its vibrant night market scene, which I feature in the following video (I cut down on the saturated fat by using eye round beef instead of shank).
One prototypical Taiwanese dish found at night markets is "stinky tofu"(pictured above), so named because of its strong odor. Walking down the streets of Taiwan's night markets, you can smell stinky tofu well before you see it or taste it. The smell is a by-product of a natural process of fermentation. The fermentation also confers a complex flavor to the tofu, which is why it is a treasured Taiwanese dish.
Although naturally fermented foods are not commonly eaten in America, they are historically common across many cultures (i.e. German sauerkraut, Korean kim-chi, and European sourdough bread). In fact, before refrigeration, fermentation was the primary method of both flavoring and preserving beverages in the form of alcohol. Fermented foods are healthy because they are full of healthy bacteria that delay the absorption of foods.
While stinky tofu may be the norm in Taiwan, it certainly would be an acquired smell in America. But at least when I smell stinky tofu, I can recognize it as good food that is good for me. I can't say the same about American made, odorless, processed food. I hope that when my kids are old enough to appreciate the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of Taiwan, they will fully embrace the food culture of Taiwan, idiosyncrasies and all.
Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. New York: Penguin Press. 2013.