A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #2)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

In this extract from Chapter 3: Iconic and Emerging Foodways, we outline the remarkable culinary impact made by a small group of ethnic Russians who arrived in Taipei during the chaos of 1949, and how it was made possible by supplies of US flour and other agricultural commodities. At that time, Taiwan was so poor that the sacks in which flour arrived were cut up and turned into children’s clothes; the boy in this painting is wearing pants which bear the words “Sino-American Co-operation,” a slogan often stamped on US food aid to Taiwan.

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That pineapple cake has become the default food gift when Taiwanese interact with foreigners is appropriate, as the modern pineapple cake was developed in the early 1950s by a Russian working with American flour and milk powder at Astoria Confectionary and Cafe. This culinary landmark is located roughly equidistant between Taipei Main Station and the former Japanese governor-general’s office, now the Office of the President of the Republic of China. Founded in 1949 by six White Russian former residents of Shanghai with the help of Archibald Chien, who was not yet 20, Astoria became a pioneering Western-style bakery. “We practically introduced birthday cakes to Taiwan,” Taiwan Today quoted Chien as saying in an October 16, 2009 online report titled, “Astoria, a corner of Taipei’s history.”

The Russians, who had fled to Taiwan as the Communists tightened their grip on the mainland, are long gone, and Chien (who eventually became sole owner) handed control of the business over to his daughter some years ago. Nevertheless, Astoria continues to sell borscht, Russian soft candy, mazurka cake, and other items seldom seen in East Asia. But few Taiwanese know the real significance of the place.

Donuts did not come to Taiwan from the US, as many assume; Astoria was the first bakery to sell both freshly baked and deep-fried donuts. The Russians could not find cranberries or blueberries, and rejected Chien’s suggestion that they use candied fruit. In the end, they made fruit jam using oranges from Yangmingshan, the range of mountains immediately north of the capital. Chien later found papayas and carambolas suitable for jams. Astoria’s seasonal fruit jams are still star items today.

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Along with vanilla biscuits and almond flakes, one of the three most popular handmade cookies was a Taiwanese-style macaron. While French macarons are made using egg whites, for Astoria’s early Taiwanese-style macarons (which have a drier texture) the entire egg was used; the white and the yolk were separated, then each was whisked with granulated sugar. In that era, no Taiwanese (or Russian resident of Taiwan) would have contemplated wasting anything as valuable as a yolk. What is more, the eggs available then came from native tǔjī hens and were fairly small, so a recipe using only whites would have been a shocking misuse of resources. Making one butter sponge cake required eight tǔjī eggs.

European macarons did not catch on until some years into the 21st century, with the manager of the Taipei branch of a Parisian pâtatisserie reporting that families were buying the confections for shōuxián ceremonies. This ritual involves the relatives (and often their friends) of a four-month-old baby stringing cookies around the baby’s neck, breaking off pieces, and then rubbing them on the youngster’s lips in the belief the infant will then stop drooling. Macarons are thought to be ideal for this because they come in different colors, making for appealing photos of the event.

A shortage of walnuts and blueberries stymied the Russians’ efforts to recreate the rich fruit cakes they had baked before reaching Taiwan, but Chien persisted, eventually making a longan-and-raisin version. He brought a chocolate cake to market in 1961. And, within a few years, Astoria was offering Taipei gourmets croissants, chiffon cake, and Taiwanese-style Swiss rolls.

Speaking to a New York Times reporter for a March 30, 2008 feature, Chien admitted that much of what Astoria has sold over the decades was Russian by inspiration, if not replication, and that this truth had to be disguised for political reasons. In the 1950s, Taiwan was on the Cold War frontline, and ruled by a paranoid dictatorship that saw the Soviet Union as an implacable foe. Astoria’s Russian presence – and the frequent gatherings of intellectuals – invited state surveillance. But perhaps the organs of state were simply ensuring the safety of two regular VIP customers who had a taste for Russian fare: Soviet-educated Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor), and his wife, an ethnic Russian born in what is now Belarus.

 

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