Taiwan's modernization has led to a change in eating habits, and to the introduction of some foreign influences in Chinese cooking.
By Brian Asmus
While many have blamed the "Clash of Civilizations" for creating a host of world tensions, the meeting of different cultures and traditions has had many positive effects -- nowhere more evident than with food.
China's rich culinary tradition, which dates back to the beginning of its history nearly 3,000 years ago, picked up new techniques and tastes during subsequent dynasties. Meanwhile, Western cooking really got its start when Italy's exacting Catherine de Medici brought her kitchen staff along with her to Paris, following her marriage to the French king in the 16th century.
Given the central importance of French culinary traditions in Western cooking, it is somewhat ironic that most Taiwanese first became acquainted with Western cooking techniques via fast food restaurants such as McDonalds. According to Tseng Hsiu-pao, Chinese Kitchen executive chef at The Landis Taipei hotel, the hamburger chain not only introduced the Taiwan public to dairy products, but also was instrumental in the standardization of food preparation.
"Among Chinese people in Taiwan, maybe only 5 percent of those over the age of 65 eat cheese," says Tseng. 'This rises to 25 percent for those over 35, but for the younger generation, which has grown up with Western fast food, maybe 70 percent to 80 percent eat cheese and other dairy products. This is important since Western cooking uses a lot of cheese, milk, and butter. Chinese cooking, on the other hand, is based on soybeans. That means soy sauce and tofu."
"While Chinese have a long history, they are very traditional and not very experimental. That's why in many respects Chinese culinary arts have not changed much over the generations. Take for example, cooking utensils. In the West, you have a special knife for cutting meat this way, another one to cut it that way. You may even have different knives to cut different kinds of meat, seafood or cheese," Tseng explained.
Another of the West's big contributions to Chinese cooking has been the introduction of the oven and an assortment of pots and pans. "In China, we just have a fire and we stir-fry. With an oven, you can steam, broil, fry, stir-fry, deep fry, boil, simmer, and saut?. Western ovens are multifunctional and this gives Western chefs a much greater range," said Tseng.
The chef defines standardization as fixed measurements of ingredients and cooking temperatures. "In China, everyone had different sized woks and when you look at Chinese recipes, it's a pinch of this, a little of that, a dollop of something else. In Western cooking, amounts and cooking temperatures are much more of an exact science."
One problem with Chinese recipes is that often only the chef knew how to cook certain dishes. He used his own wok and measured out the ingredients himself. Furthermore, these were often closely guarded secrets. "No one wanted to share his or her information with anyone else," Tseng noted.
Far fewer culinary contributions have occurred in the other direction -- from China to the West, said Tseng, because of the different approaches to eating. "In China, everyone sits at a round table and shares the same dishes. In the West, everything is served individually. Since Chinese cuisine is made to serve large numbers of people, the serving style and cooking methods have not been readily adopted in the West. People would have to learn to eat a whole new way."
"Many Westerners know certain Chinese dishes, but they usually aren't familiar with cooking styles," commented Tseng. "Everyone knows Peking duck or spring rolls or sweet-and-sour pork, but few know what hong-shao is or how to prepare fish and seafood the Chinese way." Hong-shao involves first marinating meat in soy sauce and then braising it.
Tseng believes that the Chinese approach to seafood is superior. Western cooking methods cause fish and seafood to lose the firmness they have when prepared the Chinese way. Also unknown to many Westerners is the variety of desserts that exist in Chinese food. "Most Westerners have a hard time seeing beans as the main ingredient for a dessert," said Tseng. "Yet chocolate comes from a cocoa bean, so they are really not that different after all."
Among the dishes that Tseng points to as combining Western and Eastern cooking -- while at the same time highlighting the differences between them -- is steak with shark fin. Chinese people love shark fin because it is rare and expensive, not because it has any inherent taste or texture. When Westerners value certain rare delicacies like caviar, it is because of the taste, said Tseng. "It bursts right on the tip of your tongue. Wow!"
Preparing shark fin is quite an effort. First, the dried shark fin is soaked in hot water for a day to rehydrate it. Then you cook it for four hours, let it soak again for another day, and finally cook it in thick chicken soup that has been simmering for a long time. Add pork -- the kind that looks like bacon. This adds a gelatin-like elasticity to the shark fin, while giving it flavor.
Meanwhile, the steak is first pan-fried to seal in the juices and then cooked to preference. According to Tseng, Chinese people traditionally eat beef that has been sliced or shredded, never in steak form. When you eat a steak, the quality of the meat is much more important.
The sauce also marries East and West by mixing soy sauce, chicken soup, and ham juice. "The presentation is entirely Western. Chinese people never use square plates. Everything is always round. Westerners like to turn everything into a picture. It is very elegant, refined, and artistic. Chinese generally just add some cut vegetables around the edges. In addition, everything on Western plates can be eaten, including the garnishes," said Tseng.
Some other "East Meets West" dishes he has developed -- often served as a trio -- are steamed fresh lobster with scrambled egg, fried shrimp with ginko and apple, and bamboo shoots with mushrooms.
Western spices such as orange peel and mint leaf, as well as Chinese shredded chili, are added to the scrambled eggs, while stir-fried apples are paired with the shrimp. "I like the sweetness of apples. It goes very well with seafood," said Tseng. Finally, the Chinese mushrooms are pan-fried Western style and served with French Dijon mustard.
Tseng's boss, Landis president Stanley Yen, is one of the foremost exponents of Western-inspired innovations in Chinese cooking. "Most of the Chinese chefs in Taiwan don't have an opportunity to travel abroad very much, and so they aren't coming into contact regularly with new ideas," he says. "As a result, they tend to keep turning out the same dishes as they always have."
When Yen is on overseas trips, he pays attention to the food preparation in other countries, and tries to think of ways in which cooking styles or combinations of ingredients could be adapted to Chinese cooking. "When I come up with an idea, I pass it along to our chefs. I just use my mouth -- they do the work of actually turning it into a new dish," says Yen. A recent example is a dish of baby shrimp sauteed with garlic, inspired by a meal he enjoyed in Spain, that has been a hit with banqueters at the Landis.
The efforts by Yen and others to introduce fresh concepts have helped ensure that the long and proud tradition of Chinese cuisine continues to evolve in new and exciting directions.