Environmental Impact Assessment

…is the name of my bimonthly sustainability/ecology column for Taipei Times, which formally debuted in today’s newspaper.

The column soft-launched on September 23 with an article about Buy Directly From Farmers, a social enterprise that helps consumers order organic/pesticide-free produce from Taiwanese agriculturalists. Two weeks after that, I profiled Taiwanese-German zero-waste advocate Shia Su. For the October 28 issue, I looked at the state of local avifauna with the help of the Taiwan Wild Bird Federation.

The first piece to appear under the Environmental Impact Assessment banner focused on the ragged yet crucial woodlands that struggle to survive a stone’s throw from the ocean. Two entities are working hard to protect and extend these windbreak forests: The Buddhist-oriented Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation (which provided the photo here) and the central government’s Forestry Bureau (in particular, the bureau’s Taiwan Forestry Research Institute).

Several articles and one piece of hate mail

Pretty much everything I’ve written in the past five months has been shaped by the pandemic.

I was eager to return to the subject of multi-level marketing (MLM), because in my previous article I’d not been able to cover certain aspects of this much-loathed industry. But rather than develop ideas I’d been sitting on since late last year, the editor and I thought it best to look at how MLM companies are struggling to control unscrupulous or misinformed direct sellers who see COVID-19 as a golden opportunity to promote air-filtering machines and nutritional supplements.

To research the piece, I resumed contact with the MLM managers who helped me in 2019. After the second article appeared on May 28, the spectrum of responses I got from them surprised and amused me. A manager at one told me: “The article is really incisive, I learned from you a lot. I will share it with all our members by our official FB.” Another company made no comment, while the third protested: “I must tell you that we are quite disappointed with the tone of your article, which makes [us] and the industry as a whole look bad.”

It’s been many years since I’ve received feedback like that. Perhaps I’m too kind to the people and businesses I write about…

I then covered the issue of working from home (WFH) / working remotely, which I first wrote about in late 2006. In all that time, the needle has barely moved, even though WFH could help Taiwan with its low birth-rate and serious traffic congestion.

Recalling an article I did last year on two-tier pricing in Taiwanese tourism, my editor at Taipei Times asked me to try to find out why Taiwan’s government decided that most foreign residents shouldn’t qualify for the stimulus coupons it began to issue just a few days ago. I approached several officials and various ministries, but the authorities wouldn’t tell me their reasons. We have to assume the thinking behind the exclusion would bring shame on the government, or that officials were too lazy to revise rules set way back in 2009 for a similar program. You can see what I did find out here.

The photo here is one I took in the main seafood market in Donggang, Pingtung County. It appears in A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai.




Coronavirus and Taiwan’s tourism industry

Coronavirus aka COVID-19 aka “Wuhan flu”: If there’s a bigger news story in 2020, I dread to think what it might be. Earth attacked by extraterrestrials, perhaps?

The intersection of travel and business has always interested me as much as actual destinations, so no one who knows me can have been surprised that I decided to write about the current epidemic’s disastrous impact on tourism-related businesses. This is the original (and somewhat longer) draft of my article “A lost season for the tourism industry” in today’s Taipei Times.

On February 9, licensed tour-guide George Lu realized things were likely to get worse before they’d get better. The official death toll from COVID-19 in China had topped 800, and the virus had spread to several other countries.

The previous day, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center had announced that travelers entering the country after transiting through Hong Kong or Macau would have to stay in home quarantine for 14 days. As people throughout the world reviewed their travel plans, Lu received a slew of coronavirus-related cancellations. He decided he’d have to develop another source of income.

That afternoon, he put a notice on the bulletin board in his apartment building in New Taipei City’s Tucheng District, advertising his services as an English tutor. The following day, he visited the language center in neighboring Banqiao District where he taught between 2007 and 2012.

The language center’s boss didn’t offer him any work, yet Lu left feeling somewhat reassured: “He told me that several of his students had quit because their parents didn’t want them to risk catching ‘Wuhan flu’ in the buxiban [cram school], and that they were now being tutored at home.”

Lu has found some students, but his current income is less than a quarter of what he can earn by leading tours for 20 to 25 days each month. “Unlike tourists, students never tip,” he rues.

In Taiwan, few industries are feeling the pinch from COVID-19 more than tourism. The epidemic was likely one reason behind the abrupt closure earlier this month of the Landis Taichung, a five-star hotel.

Taipei’s National Palace Museum, a must-see for both Taiwanese and foreign tourists, was visited by a mere 62,144 people in February 2020, compared to 207,677 people in January, and 407,593 in February 2019. According to a volunteer answering the telephone at the visitor center in Checheng, the number of people visiting this spot in Nantou County on weekends is “down by more than half.”

“Our first coronavirus cancellation was an Israeli couple who’d signed up for a 14-day tour. They arrived in Hong Kong on January 27, and immediately decided to head home,” says Mark Pemberton, founder and managing director of Life of Taiwan. (This reporter writes and consults for Life of Taiwan on an ad hoc basis.)

According to Pemberton, about 80% of his company’s tours between mid-January and the end of April have been scrapped, and he’s bracing for further cancellations or postponements.

Life of Taiwan has been offering full refunds or credit for those who plan to rebook at a later date. The former cost the company a significant amount of money, even if all deposits paid to secure accommodation are retrieved. “If a client pays by credit card, the card company takes at least 2% before passing the money onto us. If we give a refund through the card, the client has to receive the full amount, so we need to pay another 2% on top of the amount we send. We end up out of pocket,” Pemberton explains.

Twenty passengers on the cruise ship Celebrity Millennium booked a one-day excursion to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival through Life of Taiwan. However, as the vessel approached Keelung in early February, the authorities denied it permission to dock, because of virus fears. “That tour was sold on non-refundable terms, but we decided to give a full refund as it was an unavoidable situation,” says Pemberton.

He praises his core employees for their willingness to shift to a part-time schedule in order to cut costs, saying: “I certainly sympathize with agencies which have heavier overheads. We’re going to use this quiet period to optimize our products and refine our systems. We want to bounce back as an even better company — but this year is going to be a wipe-out. We have the resources to ride out the storm until 2021. While we’re not counting on government assistance, we do hope there’s some help for the industry as a whole.”

“We’re hoping to be back on track by September or October,” says Simon Foster, co-destinations manager (with his wife, Tot) at the Taiwan office of cycling-tour specialists Grasshopper Adventures.

“The effective job Taiwan has done so far at minimizing the impact of the virus has been noted by the international press, and may be the reason we continue to get bookings for later in the year, while operators we know in other countries are not. But we’ve written off the first half of the year, and June to September is our quiet season,” he goes on to explain. “There’s little we can do about [the situation]. We’re trying to turn this crisis into an opportunity, and use the time to get our new bikes road-ready, improve business practices, train staff, and get on with the other jobs we don’t normally have time for.”

None of the luxury or high-end hotels contacted by this reporter were willing to discuss the pandemic’s impact on occupancy rates or food-and-beverage sales. Some smaller businesses, however, are candid about the struggles they’re facing.

“Most homestays in Yilan have suffered a lot of cancellations for this month and next month,” says Chris Kuo, former chairman of the Yilan County Lodging Association. “Some were due to fights being cancelled,” he adds.

“The Tourism Bureau is offering several different loan schemes, and I’m suggesting to our members they use these tools to reduce short-term financial pressures. They can also adjust staff working-hours,” advises Kuo. Unlicensed accommodation providers — which, he estimates, account for 35% to 45% of Yilan’s B&Bs — aren’t eligible for government help.

“So far, I’ve not heard of an unusual number of homestays closing down, or their owners trying to sell them. However, if the coronavirus crisis isn’t easing by the end of April, I think we could see several going out of business,” says Kuo, who with his family owns and manages three B&Bs in the Luodong area.

“Actually, during situations like COVID-19, many travelers prefer small homestays to big hotels,” Kuo points out. He foresees that, if the epidemic gets worse, some urbanites are likely to temporarily relocate away from crowded cities: “We’re designing a long-stay program. We don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s a way to try to increase the occupancy rate. We’ll give it a shot.”


A Touch of Zen Guest House in Kaohsiung’s Zuoying District saw revenues drop by nearly 40% in February compared to the previous month. “Things dried up pretty abruptly [in February], with a bunch of cancellations and far fewer new bookings. We were fully booked the weekend of February 8 by runners joining the Kaohsiung marathon, but the event was cancelled due to COVID-19. All of our reservations that weekend were understandably canceled,” says co-owner Yueh Shu-wen.

A Touch of Zen had its soft opening last April and its grand opening in September. “In October, when we were fully booked for 12 nights and partially booked for another 11 nights… December and January were even better,” Yueh says.

At a different location, Yueh and her husband used to run Bark, a hot-dog restaurant that they permanently closed on March 15.

Because of coronavirus fears, “dine-in business has been down for everyone, but we think recently we did better than other restaurants, as we had two open-air dining areas,” she explains. “A lot of people prefer that kind of environment than in a closed place with an air-conditioner recycling air. Families with kids told us just that: They felt safe, because they could eat in our courtyard.”

“Even though business was solid for most of the four and a half years we were open, we’d been planning to close this spring due to other factors,” says Yueh. “We probably would’ve stayed open through April or May, but COVID-19 made us shrug and say, ‘why bother?’”

Some travel bloggers are having to tighten their belts. “My website’s traffic and earnings, with which I currently support my family of two adults and two infants, are down about 70%,” says Nick Kembel, owner of Spiritual Travels.

“Pre-coronavirus, I was seeing well over 200,000 page-views monthly on my site. Now it’s down to around 80,000,” says Kembel, who lived in New Taipei for more than a decade until October 2019.

The Edmonton, Canada-based writer/photographer spells out why he’s taking an especially big hit: “Normally, about 80% of my traffic is to my Taiwan content. After Taiwan, the places I mainly cover are Japan, South Korea, and Italy, some of the countries worst hit by the virus.”

“I’m a member of various blogging and travel forums, and it seems that travel bloggers covering Asia and Europe are being massively affected,” says Kembel. “Through a Facebook group I run, called ‘Taiwan Travel Planning,’ I’ve noticed that a trickle of people are still planning trips to Taiwan, but they’re all concerned about the situation on the ground — what will happen when they arrive, whether things will be open, and if unexpected travel bans or flight cancellations could wreck their trip.”

Looking for patterns in page-view numbers

More than 20 years ago, I kicked off my writing career by doing travel pieces for an English-language newspaper here in Taiwan. A few books and hundreds (possibly more than a thousand, I long ago stopped counting) of articles later, things seem to have come full circle. Since summer 2018, I’ve been taking care of the weekly travel column at Taipei Times

In 2018, I wrote 22 Highways & Byways articles. The 2019 total will be 48. I also wrote five non-travel features for the newspaper this year, one of which will appear on New Year’s Eve. Each article appears twice on the newspaper’s website — once as a conventional webpage with photos, then again in a text-only format labeled “Print Edition.” Google searches favor the former, while the latter pages don’t show how many times they’ve been viewed. Earlier this week, I decided to tally the visible viewing statistics in case I could learn something useful about readers’ preferences.

My writing doesn’t set the Internet alight. I’ve long known that. Page-view numbers are mostly four digits. In terms of online eyeballs, the most successful article I wrote for Taipei Times this year was the non-column feature “Expats play key role in boosting Taiwan’s tourism” (September 10). So far, it’s accumulated just over 12,000 views. The Highways & Byways winner, “A modest achievement in Nantou” (April 19), looks set to top 7,000 views any day now. Oddly, it’s a fair way ahead of the next five most-read travel pieces, all of which were viewed between 5,000 and 5,500 times.

TT Shrines 8So what common denominators are shared by the most popular articles? It’s very hard to say. People searching for cycling travelogs might stumble across “A modest achievement.” But of the next five? A couple are about museums (and very different museums: one focuses on insects, the other is archaelogical); one describes a hike near Alishan; the other two cover stretches of coastline seldom visited by international travelers. Is there a “slow burn” effect, with articles gradually picking up page views months after publication? I’ve no idea. Perhaps in six months’ time I’ll go back and check the numbers again, to see if certain types of article are more likely to become evergreens.

East Taiwan is many Westerners’ favorite region, yet the articles I wrote about Taitung and Hualien didn’t get much attention, typically fewer than 3,000 views. Is this because I steered cleared of famous destinations like Taroko Gorge? Perhaps. So… will I change the way I choose places to write about? No, I won’t. I’ve learned no clear lessons from this little bit of web-data analysis, and I’m very fortunate to have an editor who gives me a great deal of freedom. I’ll continue to visit and write up destinations that I think deserve coverage, be they religious sites, museums, or nuclear research reactors.

UPDATE: A few weeks after I wrote this piece, page-view counts disappeared from all Taipei Times articles! I’m told the website will be revamped in the near future.

A once-in-a-lifetime book review?

cropbtWhen my first book came out, back at the start of this millennium, I was fortunate to receive a very favorable review in Taipei Times. After that, I thought it unlikely I’d ever again have my name on a book winning such plaudits.

However, some weeks back Eugene N. Anderson, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, posted on Amazon.com a 5-star review of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, the food book I co-wrote with Katy Hui-wen Hung:

This is one of the best food books I have ever read–authoritative and densely packed with facts, but extremely readable and delightful. It is more of a food ethnography of Taiwan than a food history of Taipei, but all the better for that. One very good detail is that the linguistic transcriptions are excellent and sophisticated, not only from Mandarin (in standard Pinyin) but also from Hokkien, the usual spoken language of Taiwan. Hokkien is a most unappreciated language–beautiful, flexible, adaptable, creative, with an incredible oral literature, and I am glad to see it get some love for once (it is slowly dying out as China pushes Mandarin on everybody). There are also some words from Hakka and Cantonese, and from Austronesian languages. This book is a linguists’ and ethnobiologists’ delight.

Particularly unique and interesting is the material on the Austronesian-speaking Aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, a diverse and fascinating group almost unknown in the English-language literature. They have a range of unique crops, including a species of quinoa, independently domesticated from the South American one–a striking case of parallelism … this is an exceptionally carefully done book, in marked contrast to too many books on Chinese food. If you are at all interested in Asian food, you need this book.

Professor Anderson is himself the author of landmark books about food, such as Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture and The Food of China. Thanks to his immense experience in Taiwan and Greater China, he was able to point out two minor mis-translations in our book which no one else seems to have noticed! If we’re able to revise the book for a second edition, correcting those errors will be among the changes.

Thank you, Professor Anderson, for your kindness and support!





When God Isn’t Green

Diving deep into my email account the other week, I stumbled across some 2012 correspondence with Jay Wexler. Introducing himself as a law professor at Boston University who was working on a book about examples of religious practices harming the environment, Wexler told me: “One of the examples I’m interested in investigating is the practice of burning paper and incense in China and countries with significant Chinese populations… I came across a terrific article that you wrote about joss paper in Taiwan Today, and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions about the issue that might help me in my research.”

The commentary he referred to, published in November 2010 and now back online after a few years in the vaults, urged Taiwan’s government to act against the burning of joss paper with the decisiveness they had showed when trying to curb smoking in public places. Burning such paper (also called “ghost money”) is, I wrote, “a major cause of air pollution in urban areas, especially during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, so-called ‘ghost month.'”

A couple of emails later, I mentioned the issue of mercy release. “It’s exactly the kind of thing I want to talk about in the book. Thanks very much for pointing mewgig to it,” he told me.

We exchanged a few more messages, then all went quiet… but he did complete his book. When God Isn’t Green came out in 2016, and in it he says he first heard about mercy release from me: “Crook explained the practice to me, and although I could hardly believe it, a quick web search confirmed its reality.”

It’s nice to think I gave a fellow writer a useful lead, and it’s satisfying that credit was given where credit was due.



Full steam ahead with food writing

Building on research we did for our book, A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I produced two feature articles for the wine & dine special issue of Taiwan Business Topics published in January. One examined the role sweet potatoes have played in local foodways since the 1600s (“The Sweet Potato’s Rise and Fall – And Rise Again”). The other was a history of bento boxes (“The Biandang from Japanese Days to the Present”) which touched on the issue of recycling used lunchboxes. We actually had three items in the magazine, as the editor invited us to describe how we came to write our Taiwan food book (“Why and How We Wrote a Culinary History of Taipei”).

The day after I returned to Taiwan from a month-long visit to the UK, I traveled to a town about an hour from my home to report on a bando. What is a bando? An outdoor banquet of traditional delicacies prepared on-site, usually to celebrate a wedding, a temple anniversary, or a company’s end-of-year bash.  The online version of that article (“The Art of Managing Tables”) has just appeared; it’ll also be in the print version of Travel in Taiwan. Over the years, that magazine has sent me on several railway journeys, to explore Taiwan’s oldest neighborhoods, and in pursuit of migrating butterflies.crksp

Compiling a roundup of Tainan’s best street food (“A Culinary Walking Tour Through Taiwan’s Street Food Capital”) for Eater.com took a good amount of time, but led to me discovering several excellent little eateries, to which I’ll surely return in the future. After living in Tainan for 24 of the past 28 years, I feel I’ve no excuses for not already knowing about these places. To make partial amends, I’ve added a couple of them to my Taiwan guidebook; Bradt will publish the third edition this June. My article for Eater is just one component of their very comprehensive and beautifully structured guide for Taiwan-bound gourmets. It begins here.



A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #3)

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.

This extract from Chapter 5: The Farms That Feed Taipei describes the poor economic situation many farmers find themselves in, and some of the cultural, social, and regulatory factors that undermine agriculture across the island.


Without them, meals in Taiwan would be dull and less healthy, and the country’s food security situation much worse. Yet Taiwanese farmers are poorly rewarded. Since the early 1970s, agriculture has never accounted for more than 40% of the total income of the average farming household. In the same period, the total disposable income of farming households (one in eleven of all households in 2015) has fluctuated between 62 and 78% of that in non-farming households. When the economy boomed between the 1960s and 1990s, many farmers – male and female alike – spent as much time laboring on construction sites as cultivating their fields.

A lingering sense of gratitude to the land that fed them and their ancestors motivates members of the older generation, but rarely inspires their children to pursue a career in agriculture. At the same time, this emotional attachment means landowners are reluctant to sell or lease plots they no longer cultivate. Around half of Taiwan’s farmers are over 65, and three quarters of them think no one will take over their fields when they are gone. But agriculture is clinging on, and cultivated land still accounts for more than 6% of Greater Taipei’s surface area.

Over the past half century, an expanding population and changing eating habits have left the island dependent on foodstuff imports. Wheat, corn and soy are grown in miniscule quantities, and less than 5% of the beef eaten is local. Few countries have experienced such a rapid collapse in their ability to feed themselves. Before 1968, food production in caloric terms was roughly equal to domestic requirements, but within two decades, self-sufficiency was below 50%. Even before Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002, farmers faced foreign competition due to rampant smuggling from China of mushrooms, tea and offal. In 2014, the self-sufficiency rate recovered slightly to 34.1%, and the authorities hope to lift it to 40% by 2020.


While the cultivation of genetically modified crops is not permitted, the country imports dozens of GM food products, Taiwan Business Topics pointed out in its May 2015 issue. Because inheritance customs give the oldest son half of his father’s land, with other sons (and sometimes daughters) sharing the remainder, farms have been getting smaller and smaller. By the end of 2010, average cultivated land per enterprise was down to 1.9 acres (0.77 hectares), with just one farmer in five having more than 2.5 acres. One expert who praises Taiwan as “the world’s best exemplar of high-tech, mechanized small-plot agriculture” believes government-sponsored efforts to achieve economies of scale are crucial to the future of farming. An initiative called “Small Landlord, Big Tenant” was launched in 2008 by the Council of Agriculture, the central government agency which oversees farming, fisheries and food affairs. Despite its flaws, the policy has succeeded in making thousands of acres of land available to younger professional farmers, some of whom are applying technological skills they learned in other industries. Taiwan is unlikely to meet the majority of its food needs anytime soon, but the future which faces the island’s farmers is slightly brighter now than it has been for some years.


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.


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.


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.


A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #1)

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 9: Teaching, Sharing and Learning Taiwanese Cuisine, we describe how an Australian-trained Taiwanese chef introduces and teaches common Taiwanese dishes to foreign and local culinary enthusiasts.P_20170501_094032

Calvin Tu pitches the small group classes he teaches at GOTUCOOK in Tamsui as a travel experience. “There’s nothing better than learning about a local culture by tasting and experiencing the food. Even better is experiencing this food culture by learning how to cook local cuisine yourself,” says the chef.

Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and TAFE South Australia in Adelaide, where he specialized in modern Western and Asian cuisine, Tu worked as a chef in Australia until returning to Taiwan in 2011. At GOTUCOOK, he sets his prices so the classes are affordable by young travellers passing through Taiwan, and he endeavors to teach (in English and Chinese) in a way that is, “as hands-on as possible, with plenty of one-on-one time for questions and answers.”

“I do this to connect with people,” says Tu, who first learned to appreciate food and cook with his mother. “Food gets people together, but food is also memory. I’ve been sensitive to flavors since I was a child, and good food flavors make for good memories. Sharing good memories with people who have the same interests and passions is delightful.”

In a typical class, Tu’s students may learn how to prepare beef-shank noodle soup with tomatoes and carrots; Taiwanese-style pickled cabbage; and a platter of lǔwèi. Asked which Taiwanese dishes he most recommends to Western gourmets, he names lǔwèi, three-cup chicken, and shredded chicken with gravy on white rice. The magic ingredient in the last one, he says, is deep-fried scallions. Tu helps Westerners understand Taiwanese food by relating local dishes to items they are familiar with. For instance, he introduces ròuzào fàn as “pork Bolognese sauce on rice.”

Tu has found certain local foodways are more difficult for Westerners to accept than others. Americans, he points out, think pork gēng looks a bit like porridge, which they consider a breakfast food. Also, few of them find the concept of savory porridge appealing. A similar mental barrier stands between some people and the iconic oyster omelet. Not only do they think that eggs dishes should be served for breakfast, rather than after dark, but they find the lumpy texture off-putting. Most have eaten tofu, yet are caught off guard by the use of fermented black soybeans (dòuchǐ) as a condiment.


“In general, I think Taiwanese are pretty adventurous when it comes to food,” Tu says. He teaches culinary skills and restaurant management part-time in local vocational high schools, and concludes young people’s interest in non-Taiwanese cuisines is not driven by any particular fascination with Western culture: “They can accept different flavors, and they’re ready to explore, not just Western, but also Southeast Asian cuisines. The key thing is taste, not geography.”