A Head Chef’s Homestyle Take on Taiwanese Cuisine
【WORDS BY Wayne】
【PHOTOS BY Yenyi Lin】
You might know Taipei for its distinguishing food culture. When it comes to Taiwanese food, xiaolongbao, beef noodles and stinky tofu may immediately spring to mind. But what about the ingredients and other creative dishes that really make Taiwanese cuisine shine under the international spotlight? Last year, out of the 24 restaurants in Taipei that were starred by the Michelin Guild, at least half of them are proudly known for their innovative style. Restaurants like Impromptu by Paul Lee and Shoun RyuGin use local ingredients, curating a traditional menu with unique recipes and serving Taiwanese food in their own special ways. It almost goes without saying that a new and trendy food culture in Taipei is ready to bloom.
As spring is right around the corner, I’ve designed three alternative recipes for Taiwanese dishes featuring three traditional spring ingredients — sweet potato, spinach and asparagus. These ingredients are commonly seen in Taiwanese cooking and can be utilized in numerous ways to make amazing dishes. I have also converted what would normally be a complicated restaurant menu into something anyone can easily make at home. Finally, I hope that with a few unique twists, such as adding very common ingredients like Asian basil and shallots, will make the flavor of the dishes “truly Taiwanese!” Here we go.
SWEET POTATO TAPIOCA BALLS WITH CONDENSED MILK
Sweet potato balls are the most common dessert in Taiwan other than the world-famous bubble tea. The texture and the look are similar to Italian gnocchi. Instead of regular flour, sweet potato flour is used to make them softer and puffier. The recipe I demonstrate here comes from my mother. She used to make this for family gatherings. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, try this and you’ll definitely enjoy it. The process is a fun activity for kids, too.
Serves 3~4 people
180g mashed sweet potato
70g sweet potato starch
3 tbsp condensed milk
1 cup of milk (optional)
Wash one sweet potato thoroughly and peel the skin. Dice it roughly into 3x3 cm pieces and microwave for 3 to 4 minutes. Add sweet potato starch and 1 tbsp of condensed milk.
Smash the potato with a spoon. Mix everything well until the dough is moist but firm.
(Tip: add some water if the dough is too dry.)
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Make each piece into a long cigar shape. Cut them into 2 cm pieces and reshape them into round balls or any shape you desire. Don’t be too fussy.
Boil the sweet potato balls for a couple of minutes until they float on the surface.
(Tip: After they float, boil them for another 30 seconds to make sure they’re well cooked.)
Drain the water and toss them straight into a bowl with 2 tbsp of condensed milk.
Serve with some chilled or warm plain milk. It’ll be the kids’ favorite afternoon snack!
HEARTY SPINACH SOUP WITH CHICKEN AND TOFU
The hearty spinach soup is usually part of a full course dinner in high-end Chinese restaurants. I have simplified the cooking process without losing any taste, yet more nutrition is preserved. If you are trying this dish at home, you can also add some seafood, such as fresh anchovies or prawns, to enhance the flavor even more. It’s a perfect appetizer to warm up your stomach, and maybe your romantic date too!
Serves 3~4 people
250g baby spinach
1 box of soft tofu
1 chicken breast
1 tbsp finely diced shallots
1,000ml chicken stock
1.5 tbsp Chinese rice wine
2 tsp tapioca flour + 2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 tsp sugar
Dash of vegetable oil
Dash of sesame oil
Dash of white pepper
Prepare all the ingredients first. Finely chop the spinach, cut the soft tofu into cubes and cut the chicken breast into 5 cm strips, then finely mince the shallots.
Heat the pan with vegetable oil and stir-fry minced shallots on medium heat for 1 minute. Add the chopped spinach into the pan and stir-fry them for another minute. While waiting,
mix the tapioca flour and water in a small bowel for later use.
Pour the chicken stock into the pan and keep cooking on medium heat. Add tofu and chicken breast.
Once the aforementioned ingredients are added, drizzle rice wine and pre-mixed tapioca flour water to thicken the soup.
(Tip: Quickly stir the soup when adding the tapioca flour water to prevent lumps.)
At this moment, the soup should soon be boiling or close to it. Season the soup with salt and sugar. Don’t forget to taste it to make sure it’s well-seasoned. Drizzle beaten eggs in the soup and wait for 5 seconds. Then gently stir the soup clockwise a couple of times.
Turn the heat off and garnish the soup with extra white pepper powder and sesame oil. Serve immediately to keep it fresh!
ASPARAGUS AND PRAWNS WARM SALAD BOWL
The prawn warm salad bowl is quite popular and often seen in proper Chinese restaurants. The dish is known for using ingredients with crispy texture, such as water chestnuts and deep-fried youtiao, but they are not always available in other countries. So, why not use asparagus and cashews? They have a similar texture and, more importantly, asparagus cannot be more “spring” for this season. Asian basil is added to enhance the flavor. If you are having a party at home, definitely try this flavorful and mouthwatering dish to kick off the night.
Serves 3~4 people
10 deshelled prawns
1 cup of cashews
1/2 egg white
1/2 tsp white pepper powder
1 tsp tapioca flour
4 pieces lettuce
1/2 diced onion
1/2 tsp minced ginger
1 minced scallion
3 minced garlic cloves
2 tbsp roughly chopped basil
Dash of salt
Prepare all the vegetables first. Crush cashews, dice the asparagus, scallions, onion, garlic, and ginger, and set aside.
Rinse lettuce thoroughly and cut the head from top to bottom in half, making the lettuce into a bowl-shape.
(Tip: Soak them in a bowl of ice water for 1 minute to make the texture crispy. Drain and set aside afterward.)
Dry the prawns with paper towel. Cut into small pieces and marinate with the egg white, white pepper, salt and tapioca flour. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Heat the oil in your pan, then stir-fry the prawns until they are 80% cooked.
(Tip: Do not stir fry until it’s well-done. Take the prawns out of the pan and set aside. Leave that 20% to cook later.)
Re-heat the pan and use the remaining oil from the previous step to stir-fry the diced onions until browned and softened. Then add garlic and ginger into the pan to stir-fry too.
(Tip: to avoid burning the pan, add some water when stir-frying the onions.)
Step 6 Add all the diced asparagus along with the almost-cooked prawns and fry on high heat for another minute.
(Tip: Time control is very important here. The prawns should be cooked very soon as they have already been stir-fried. Asparagus should not be over-cooked as you’ll want to keep the crispy texture.)
Turn the heat off and sprinkle some cashews, scallions, white pepper, basil and salt. Taste it to make sure it’s well seasoned.
Serve them in the lettuce bowl. Enjoy!
About the Author
Wayne is the head chef and instructor at Make My Day Cooking Lab. He started learning to cook when he lived in Melbourne as an overseas student and established the cooking studio after coming back to Taipei in 2015. Wayne’s main expertise is fusion cuisines featuring Italian food and Taiwanese homestyle dishes. To Wayne, the vision of his cooking career is to “exchange culture” by sharing Taiwanese food with visitors from all over the world.
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