What it means to be a Taiwanese foodie in South Africa

I was born in the late eighties in Tainan in the south of the country Taiwan (originally known as Formosa), an island off the coast of China and south of Japan. Before I had any clear memories, we immigrated to South Africa. I was three. Why did we move? I never really questioned it as a child, nor was it explained to me but it’s actually quite interesting — my family was part of the group of 2 000+ Taiwanese people that immigrated to South Africa for better opportunities that were presented to them by the old government to bring about better international relations between the two countries and new businesses (which also meant employment opportunities).

Growing up in Bloemfontein, and spending my fundamental years being an immigrant in a strong Afrikaans culture was humbling. I found out what it meant to be different from a very young age — I was teased for bringing strange foods to school and for having different customs. I was embarrassed, and now as an adult, I’m embarrassed again. But this time, because I’m sad to admit I steered away from my culture in my youth when there’s so much depth and beauty behind it.

I can only really speak and understand Mandarin-Chinese, as well as tidbits of Taiwanese-Hokkien — a tad far removed from being able to call myself a true Taiwanese woman. But because of that I needed to make an effort to learn, understand and experience more of the Taiwanese culture through research and holidays hanging out with my folks.

It’s been almost two years since my parents relocated back to Taiwan and even though I’ve been in Cape Town since I left school, the distance makes it more apparent. I miss them, and when I do, the only thing that soothes the ache is food. It’s the one thing in my culture I can truly connect with and have a relationship with that takes me back to Bloemfontein. We’d sit as a family around the table folding dumplings together or preparing ingredients for big cooks — there’s a story behind every meal, there’s an intricate process it follows before completion, there are different ways to enjoy them and of course, different ingredients prepared in different ways able to reveal hints of its original district.

Taiwan’s cultural cuisine is a hybrid of cultures — originating in its use of settlers’ knowledge, recipes and skills and that allowed them to adapt and evolve. This dates back to the 17th century when Taiwan was colonised by the Dutch (another stop for the Dutch East India Company). Taiwanese cuisine draws its major influences from southern China, Japan and the indigenous tribes in the mountainous areas, with hints from Spain and Portugal. Soon after World War II, the Chinese Nationalists of Fujian Province immigrated to Taiwan in 1949 after Chinese communists took over mainland China. All of these unique groups played an important role in shaping Taiwanese cuisine into what it is today — a culture famous for its high mountain green tea, vegetarian variety and street food. My heritage is of the Han Chinese, that settled in the 16th century.

Even though presentation is often simple; flavour is always balanced and good cooks know just how to showcase the best features of the local produce. Traditional meals mostly include seafood since the island is surrounded by ocean, but there’s also chicken and pork. Beef is seen on menus, but there’s less of this meat variety than others due to the Buddhist reverence, as they rely on the animal for agriculture. Important staples include rice, sweet potato and taro roots with cooking styles leaning towards the quick and effective so as to save energy.

Taiwan’s cuisine has evolved over time, and with its unique geography of coastal lowlands, tall mountain ranges responsible for its claim to the world’s fourth’s highest island, forests that span over the Tropic of Cancer and submarine volcanoes in the Taiwan Straits — what better garden could you ask for to grow and develop produce?

Living in in Cape Town, my Asian resources are limited but it makes it more fun when you need to rely on creativity for substitutions. In the past decade my cooking has transformed and I’ve begun to share and explore these adventures on my blog, Butterfingers, where my worlds of freelance copywriter and the food writer who spends too much time in the kitchen collide. I enjoy taking the time and care to learn more about my culture’s cuisine, while exploring Cape Town for ingredients and ideas.

The South African palate has developed greatly over the years. One can see the locals are a cautious yet curious bunch and it’s wonderful when curiosity overwhelms caution. A perfect example is evident in how people here couldn’t understand how Asians were able to eat this strange fishy seaweed to sushi now being one of the trendiest foods in the country (one that’s even available at supermarkets). That one change alone shows how eager South Africans are to expand their food experiences. And that’s why I want to share my journey in search of my culture — by enriching my relationship with Taiwanese food, through experimentation, memories, research and recommendations.

Written by by Ming-Cheau Lin for Yuppiechef.com

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