Come Shell or High Water
"Taiwanese people are obsessed with food. We take it to the next level. Eating is a national pastime," Cathy Erway says.
The writer and Heritage Radio Network host grew up visiting family on the island (Erway's mother was born and raised there), later becoming deeply enamored with the cuisine when she returned again as a college student. Erway's fascination with Taiwanese food and culture culminated in The Food of Taiwan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), her new cookbook dedicated to recipes from "the beautiful island."
Its release is significant not just because the book itself is beautiful but also because Taiwanese cuisine is generally underrepresented in America. Apart from a handful of books and restaurants (and one notoriously outspoken chef/author by the name of Eddie Huang), it hasn't swept the collective food consciousness the way, say, regional Thai or Korean cuisine has. "I felt like there was a gaping hole on the bookshelf about Taiwanese food," Erway says.
Part of that, according to Erway, has to do with the ambivalence toward Taiwan's complicated political past ("My parent's generation was still too conflicted about the Chinese Civil War to really want to broadcast their Taiwanese-ness," Erway says); another part has to do with the fact that Taiwanese immigrants to the US don't tend to open restaurants. But Taiwanese cuisine is, by and large, approachable and very delicious, and easy for home cooks to take on, requiring little in the way of pantry stocking or exotic ingredients.
In Taiwan, there's soy-sauce braised meats, noodle soups and fresh seafood galore. The warm climate means fresh produce grows in every shape, size and color; social lives are organized around a vibrant night market scene. That's where this oyster omelet (see the recipe) comes from—it's a classic street food snack with a dedicated following, and it couldn't be simpler to make at home.
Despite its name, this isn't a breakfast omelet in a traditional sense, although there's certainly nothing to stop you from eating it first thing in the morning. Fresh oysters are abundant in Taiwan (though they're rarely eaten raw), and the sweet potato starch gel that's slicked across the top of the omelet amps up the jiggly texture that Taiwanese eaters love. (You can skip it if you're really jelly averse, though it's worth trying at least once, as Erway points out, "Texture is really key to appreciating the cuisine.") Glossed with a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce akin to thin ketchup and scattered with fresh greens, it's as fun to make as it is to eat.
"It's a simple snack, but it actually has a lot of layers," Erway says. In a country where eating is something of a sport, "People spend ages searching for the best omelet vendor," she adds. Consider it your gateway to the lush world of Taiwanese cuisine, which is finally getting a chance to shine.
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