Friday, September 23, 2011

Taiwanese and Italian Food Culture

A variety of dishes set out for religious purposes in Tainan

Been "away from blog" a bit.  To get things revved up again this is a light post to serve as a segue into a few posts about a topic dear to me -- food (for you non-foodies, fear not, other topics such as China's Great Firewall are on the way as well).

I remember years ago when after I returned to the US from a trip to Europe my boss commented that she thought there was nowhere in the world where food was such an integral part of the culture as Italy.  I looked at her for a few seconds and said, "You really should visit Taiwan."  She was surprised by my response, and I'm pretty sure it was the first time she had ever heard someone compare Taiwanese and Italian food culture.  However, based on my experiences in Italy and Taiwan I was convinced there was something that they held in common.

One of my most memorable food culture experiences in Italy occurred when I stayed with a friend's family in Torino over 10 years ago.  His mother prepared a simple but wonderful meal for us and I happily ate everything offered to me.  However, my friend merely pecked at his food.  When I complimented the cook she said in way that made me feel as if I was part of an Italian drama, "I communicate with people through my food.  This is how I talk to people.  You eat my food so I am able to to communicate with you.  It makes me feel good that I can communicate with you."

This was great!  Obviously I had to eat more so that she could more fully communicate with me.  But I discovered that there was more she wished to verbally communicate when she suddenly turned to her son and in a raised voice said, "But you!!! You don't eat my food! How can I communicate with you?!?"  As my friend buried his face into his hands in embarrassment his mother turned back to me and asked, "My own son won't eat my food!  I can't communicate with my own son!  I can communicate with you, but not my own son?!?  What should I do?"

I pondered for a brief moment about what I should say.  And then I realized how best to communicate my thoughts.

I ate more.

In Taiwan I also met a mother of a friend who seemed to want to "communicate" through food.  I stopped by the friend's home mid-afternoon.  Although I had just had lunch, my friend's mother insisted on immediately preparing a wide array of dishes.  Given Taiwanese culture, refusing any of the food was not a great option because if I did it could cause great offense (and I certainly didn't want to replicate the role of my Italian friend).  Every dish that came out was delicious but I was so full that it was an incredible effort to eat even small amounts.  Anyways, as far as challenges in life go this was a good problem to have.

There's more I could add on Taiwanese food culture to make my point but I'll save it for later posts.  For now I'll just simply say that I have no doubt that both Italy and Taiwan have very rich food cultures.   I'm certainly not claiming that these are the only two places, just suggesting that when you think about food, don't forget the East.

To conclude this post I'll share just a "taste" of my recent food culture explorations around Taiwan.  My experience from sharing food photos is that some people will think, "Why would you take photos of food?" while others will think, "Please, more!".  For me, getting to understand a culture includes immersing yourself into its food.  When I look at my food photos it can help bring back to life both some key aspects of the culture and the "flavor" of wherever I've been.

And then there will be some, especially Taiwanese living abroad, who will almost be in pain due to their desire to eat some of these dishes.  You've all been warned.  Scroll at your own risk.

My friend's dinner in Taipei (she gave me a fish, though)

Selection of items from a vegetarian buffet in Taipei

An icy mushroom-based (Tremella) dessert with a very slimy texture in Taipei

Vegetarian soup with mock chicken in Yuli

Fried rice, snails, and fried oysters in Yuli

Curry dumpling and black soy milk in Taitung

Stinky tofu in Taitung -- sufficiently smelly

Fried oyster rolls, fried shrimp patties, and oysters in black bean sauce in Tainan

Oyster omelet in Tainan

A taro dish, dumplings, and "coffin toast" filled with seafood in Tainan

Seafood soup in Kaohsiung

Shrimp and pork dumplings in Hualien

Healthy fresh drink in Hualien

Partially eaten ice dessert in Hualien

So, which one would you want to try the most?


  1. Thanks for the nice sharing.
    I'm totally agree about what you mentioned above.
    When I was in Germany, I faced the same as well.
    Btw, there's a Italian customer will visit our company in Taiwan soon.
    What do you think that we can bring him for lunch?
    Thanks a lot for the suggestions.
    Best wishes,