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May 28, 2015

The Food of Taiwan

Celia Sin-Tien Cheng

For a good introduction to the history, culture, people and food of my native country, check out Cathy Erway’s cookbook, “The Food of Taiwan.” While most people seem to know that Taiwan has great food, I’m not sure they know exactly what constitutes Taiwanese cuisine. Erway’s introductory inclusion of the history of the island is extremely important to understanding the cuisine. Taiwanese food consists of a lot of “little eats” and street food; it’s more casual compared with the banquets of Canton or other Chinese provinces. Also known as Formosa, Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese and Japanese at different points in history, so there are some of these countries’ influences (especially Japan’s) in the cuisine. Also, as part of the Republic of China, the island saw an influx of mainland Chinese during the communist takeover of China in 1949, an event that has influenced the cuisine as well. There are distinctly local Taiwanese dishes like pork meat sauce over rice and oyster omelets, but over the years, some of the foods the mainlanders brought over have become Taiwanese staples as well. The foods in this cookbook are all the comfort foods I grew up with, and it is with great enthusiasm that I can reference it to cook my favorite homestyle dishes, including beef noodle soup, flaky daikon radish pastries and pork belly buns. Some of the flavors are a bit heavy for my palate, usually in the use of white pepper, so I cut that in half. Feel free to play around and modify the recipes to your taste.

Growing up in Taipei, I loved eating pork chop over rice. The Taiwanese bone-in pork chop (recipe at right) is pounded extremely thin and coated in a sweet-potato starch batter, which makes for a particular kind of crispiness you don’t find in the U.S. It is delicious. With rice or noodles, it’s the equivalent of American fried chicken — to me, pure comfort. It’s a must-try recipe.

Fried Pork Chop Noodle Soup

Fried Pork Chop Noodle Soup

Cathy Erway

Recipes and photography from THE FOOD OF TAIWAN by Cathy Erway. Copyright © 2015 by Cathy Erway. Photography © 2015 by Pete Lee. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Makes 4 servings

Pounded thin and marinated overnight, Taiwanese pork chop cutlets are always juicy and flavorful. These crispy, fried pork chops are the main entrée of many on-the-go meals, often served atop a mound of plain rice alongside sautéed greens or a few pickled vegetables for tangy contrast. Served with a simple noodle soup instead, one can dip their pork chop into the soup as they alternate between bites. It’s a fun meal that kids and adults both treasure.

For the pork chops
  • 4 bone-in pork chops (about ¼ pound each)
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 3 to 4 cups vegetable or peanut oil, or more as needed, for frying
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup sweet potato starch
For the soup

6 cups pork stock
Salt and ground white pepper to taste

To continue

1 pound wheat or rice noodles
Fresh chopped scallions (optional)
Pickled mustard greens (optional)
Tea eggs (optional)

For the pork chops

Place the pork chops one at a time on a cutting board and cover with a layer of plastic wrap. Pound with a meat pounder, avoiding the bone, until the chop is no thicker than ¼ inch. Rub each pounded pork chop with the soy sauce, garlic, sugar, five-spice powder, salt, white pepper, and sesame oil. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours (preferably overnight, or up to 1 day ahead).

Add the vegetable oil to a saucepan or wok that it is deep enough to completely submerge the pork chops (use more oil if necessary). Heat over medium-high heat until a candy thermometer inserted into the oil (but not touching the pan) reads between 350[dg] to 375[dg]F. Combine the eggs with the water in a bowl and place beside a bowl of the sweet potato starch. Dip each pork chop into the egg wash to coat thoroughly, followed by the starch to coat thoroughly. Shake off any excess starch. Carefully lower a pork chop into the oil. Fry until very golden-brown on one side, 2 to 3 minutes, then carefully flip and fry to brown the opposite side, about 2 minutes more. Transfer with tongs to paper towels immediately and repeat with the rest of the chops.

For the soup

Bring the stock to a boil in a large soup pot. Season the soup with salt and white pepper to taste.

To continue

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Drain and divide among 4 serving bowls. Ladle the hot soup into each bowl. For ease of eating, the pork chops may be cut into long strips to serve alongside or on top of the noodle soup.

For the optional garnish and side dishes: If desired, garnish with the scallions and serve with the pickled mustard greens and tea eggs on the side.