December 07, 2013

Taiwanese cooking - soon lost knowledge?

Taiwanese and the food – a generation lost

Or We need to make an effort to keep the knowledge alive! 

It bothers me to no end.

I am currently in Taiwan, a magical country with amazing history, and a country that takes great pride in their food – for a good reason. Taiwan is a tropical island, with warm and humid climate the bigger part of the year, it only really dries up and cools down in the winter, and mainly winter nights. On the other hand Taiwan have many high mountains, and up on the hills the climate is quite different from down on the plains. Furthermore Taiwan is in an earthquake area, and is volcanic, which means the soil is full of minerals. All things together makes Taiwan a very green island, an island where basically anything can grow – and does.

A crab I raced on the beach up north
Also, Taiwan is an island, surrounded by very deep sea – some say that Taiwan is a mountain in the sea, and it is. Unlike Thailand, a country that Taiwan often gets mixed up with, merely for the name, Taiwan doesn't have the long shallow waters ideal for families with children, around Taiwan the sea is deep – you don't have to very far out to find the deeper waters. There are beautiful beaches for families with children too, but not quite the same way as in some other countries known to the west as beach resorts.  The deep sea surrounding the island means there is plenty of seafood and exceptionally good fish.

Going to the morning market in Taiwan is food experience in itself, also if you are just a tourist and don't want to cook, and for  a foodie like myself pure pleasure; Exceptionally good quality, remarkably fresh – often coming in from the farmer the same morning - and, as long as you stick to what's in season, very inexpensive, you certainly get amazing quality for what you pay, there is no supermarket that could ever even get close to this, considering a supermarket will always, without exception, have longer transports, they store more food and hence have to think about shelf life. In the small local markets they sell what they have and when they run out: Well, then they ran out. 

Meat, fish and poultry is also of good quality and unlike the supermarket you get to chose yourself – which piece to you want, how do you want it cut. Having lived in Germany for too long, far away from the sea that I love, it is almost as if I had forgotten how good fish can taste and how much fun it is to prepare it – and, not the least, how easy it actually is to cook fish well, just use low temperatures and go easy on the time.

In short: I love the Taiwanese food markets. It is extra special to me now, after three months in Taiwan without a kitchen, cooking only with friends when I had the chance; My first place I rented through school, and it was merely a room with a bathroom and a balcony, and a shared common space, the lobby, where you could sit and study, or watch TV if it wasn't late - but no kitchen. The market was something I could only visit to dream, or to buy fruits which I could keep in my room – now that I finally can cook, I do it excessively. I am at the market every day; There is always some little fruit or vegetable to look for, or I'll just go there for inspiration, take in the smell, the sounds, the feeling – everything. I cook Taiwan inspired food, I cook Thailand inspired food, I cook western food, I cook cross-over; I cook things I have missed and things I would like to try, with all the fresh fruits and vegetables you can really experiment a lot, should you wish. And I do. 

Taiwanese food markets are something special. I can walk around for a long long time, just watching what they have in store and what they do with it, let myself be inspired. In Taiwan you can really make magic - with ingredients like that it is easy to succeed. 

And that's why I am so concerned.

Fruits and vegetables
Because with these amazing ingredients, the fantastic possibilities to cook, the Taiwanese have fantastic possibilities to eat really really well, cook the most delicious meals themselves. And yet they don't. I fear that generations of knowledge is at risk of getting lost, as is the quality awareness – and from my unscientific study, it has already started to happen. Many Taiwanese flats today don't even come with a kitchen, something that seems to be especially true for Taipei where the rents are higher than in the rest of the country. Having a kitchen is simply not priority.

I hear the excuses; It is so cheap to eat out that it just doesn't make sense to cook at home. And maybe there is some truth to that; It isn't very expensive to eat out, at least not from a European perspective, if you make money in Europe, or in America for that matter; And it is easier to get a nutritious meal for not so much money in Taiwan than it is in many parts of the world, if you chose to eat out. That is true. And maybe the cost for eating out isn't ridiculously high like elsewhere, but how a whole generation of Taiwanese - or many generations because I have heard it from people all ages – have fallen for the lie that eating out would be even less expensive than cooking at home I don't understand.

It isn't.

Taipei food market
No matter how you count, it is not less expensive to eat out than cooking at home. It is not even the same, it is actually not even close, not if you know how to cook and you do what I anyhow recommend; Stick to what's in season.

And even if it WAS as inexpensive to eat out as it is to eat in, there are many other reasons to cook at home; Enjoy the time together, being able to go for seconds, composing your meal based on your needs, to mention just a few. 

I do understand that one sometimes doesn't feel like cooking, I really do. Also, the Taiwanese are quite busy and hardworking, and sometimes you just want to be able to eat straight away after work, and not wait for the food to get ready; Of course it is then more easy to just go out for a meal. But I don't think a society where no one cooks is a healthy society with a good quality of life. I really don't.

I am concerned that the knowledge that still is out there, the knowledge that it has taken years and generations to build up, may soon be lost; There are not many cookbooks with the Taiwanese dishes, the people I know that cook well all cook the dishes they were taught to cook, they have been doing the same things for years, and the only way to learn their special signature dishes is to eat them, watch them beeing prepared, and try yourself. All this knowledge that used to be there; It is going to vanish unless the Taiwanese do something about it. I am not saying that this is unique for Taiwan, but for a country where food is so important and means so much, it is quite dramatic.

Because what are the Taiwanese without their amazing food? The food is sometimes what keeps  them together - it is the thing they all have in common and can talk about, whatever other political views you may have on things. 

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