CHEF AH CHI – BEITOU MARKET IS A TRAINING GROUND FOR CHEFS
Article: Shi Ruide
Photos: Lin Weikai
Early one morning, Chef Ah Chi went shopping at Beitou Market. He tried to keep a low profile, but many people still recognized him. He smiled and said “Hi” to them, and when he started to worry that the crowd around him was getting so big it might affect the vendor’s business, he thoughtfully picked up produce and helped to sell it. Gestures such as this, and his cooking skills, of course, have made him one of the most popular chefs in Taiwan!
Beitou Market’s main building is a two-story structure that was built back in the day, and small wooden stools are still a significant feature here. As with Xinfu Market, this public emporium was established in the Japanese era. It has a large sales area, plenty of vending stands, all sorts of vegetables and fruits, and many other low-priced groceries. It’s most famous for its fresh oysters, rice pudding, braised pork on rice, and other local dishes. Tea culture is featured here. Beitou is the biggest public market in Taipei City, and also the center of life for the good denizens of Beitou.
Using Ingredients From Local Markets to Exhibit Excellent Culinary Skills
All great chefs start with the basics. Chef Ah Chi likes Beitou Market for what it can offer – so many options for ingredients that it’s the perfect training ground for chefs. “My first impression of local markets was all about eating. When I was a kid, the adults often brought me there, and while they shopped for groceries, I devoured Taiwanese snacks. After a time, I learned to tell good taste from bad, and then traced those tastes back to the ingredients. The first thing you need to know about cooking is what each ingredient’s special features are. Next, you need to train your brain and eyes to be able to properly select them. Moreover, instead of memorizing recipes and sticking to them, you need to learn how to match different elements,” says Chef Ah Chi.
After all these years, does he still have a passion for cooking? Chef Ah Chi raises his voice, “Oh, yes, of course. I love cooking for people.” Whether at the hotel where he works, or in his kitchen at home, Chef Ah Chi sets up a “lab base” and designs all his unique dishes personally.
He states forthrightly, “My number one entertainment is watching foreign cooking shows on TV; and, as you can see, every chef there asserts the importance of local markets. By visiting such a place, whether it’s in his own country or abroad, a chef gets to know the particular culture of a region, and then can apply the skills he has learned to make delicious dishes.”
“I appreciate their spontaneity and creativity, although for me, I like to combine my creativity with local features, and never skip the basics. If you just cook with any ideas that pop up in your head and goof around with it, I don’t consider that creative.” Accordingly, Chef Ah Chi draws on Beitou Market’s friendliness and hospitality, adds some flavors from the Japanese era, and thus creates his unique Taiwanese delicacies.
He gives an example, “Japanese Dorayaki (a dessert with a sweet filling sandwiched between pancakes) usually is stuffed with adzuki bean paste. One time, I tried to make it the Hakka way and used preserved mustard greens as stuffing instead. This vegetable must be simmered with colloid-rich pork skin until it becomes mushy, otherwise it will fall apart and lose its texture. Then you drain the extra oil out of the cooked vegetable and leave it to cool. As to the pancake part, you need to add sugar and soy sauce to bring out the flavor, then broil it. This creates a new flavor combining Japanese dessert and traditional Hakka style.
Satisfying Both Host and Guests; Caring for Taste and Relationship
Chef Ah Chi believes that the best Taiwanese cuisine should be simple but tasty. Sautéed Salted Mustard Greens With Tofu Skin (雪菜炒腐包) seems basic enough, but there’s some life philosophy accompanying the rich texture of this dish. Salted mustard greens are a common ingredient in Taiwanese cuisine, but there’s also a little Hakka in its background. Its saltier taste goes very well with plain rice. In the bygone days when life was difficult for Taiwanese people, this was considered a gourmet dish on the dining table.
Chef Ah Chi stresses the importance of being a person who takes care of everything. “Besides the menu, a chef needs to be aware of the personal relationships at the dining table. For example: What’s the purpose of this gathering? Who are the guests? Furthermore, you need to take course preparation and order into consideration. There’s more to think about than just whether the food on the stove is well cooked or not,” says Chef Ah Chi.
Chef Ah Chi believes that being a good chef also involves bonding with people. You are sharing “the taste of happiness with your customers,” and passing on a fulfilling warmth and hospitality. “On special Chinese holidays, after I finish cooking, I always go to each table to say hi. People are so happy to see me and want to take pictures with me. I make fun by saying that my photo is as good as a credit card with a very high limit. Take as many as you want and put it to good use!”
That day at Beitou Market, Chef Ah Chi helped vendors sell products, and filled the place with the warmth of humanity.
Sautéed Salted Mustard Greens With Tofu Skin
4 fresh tofu skin sheets
300 grams of salted mustard greens
1 green onion
1 piece of ginger (chopped)
2 tablespoons of minced garlic
1 red chili
3 tablespoons of sesame oil
Wash tofu skin thoroughly, sauté and then cut into small pieces.
Fry salted mustard greens and set aside.
Add the following ingredients to the frying pan in this order: three tablespoons of sesame oil, tofu skin, salted mustard greens, green onions, ginger, garlic and red chili, and stir fry them.
Add water and simmer until the liquid is fully reduced. Stir thoroughly and serve.
Mustard greens are salted, so wash them first before using, but save the salt water. You can add it to the frying pan while cooking, so there’s no need for extra salt.