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Clarissa’s Wei’s ‘Made in Taiwan’ Is the Taiwanese Cookbook I’ve Always Wanted

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A spread of homestyle Taiwanese dishes laid out on a pink and white checked tablecloth.
A spread of family-style Taiwanese dishes from Clarissa Wei’s cookbook, ‘Made in Taiwan.’ (Ryan Chen and Yen Wei)

As a homesick Taiwanese American, I spent years scouring the Asian strip malls of Fremont and Milpitas for passable versions of my favorite Taiwanese dishes — beef noodle soup and fat-slicked lu rou fan — before I came to what might seem like an obvious realization: I could just try cooking the dishes myself.

And in the eight months since I started cooking my way through Clarissa Wei’s wonderful, James Beard Award–nominated cookbook, Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation, which was published this past September, I’ve been eating nostalgic dishes from my childhood more frequently than ever. Thanks to the careful and precise instruction from Wei and her co-author, the Taiwanese cooking instructor Ivy Chen, I’ve been frying up pork chops that taste just like the bento boxes I remember buying at the train station in Taipei. I cooked a plate of wok-kissed clams and basil that reminded me of seaside day trips on the island.

And in the process, I’ve learned so many things I never knew about my native country’s cuisine — about the vast differences between Chinese and Taiwanese soy sauces, and the island’s rich culture of beer-friendly outdoor “rechao” restaurants I’d always walked past but felt too out of my depth to patronize.

The green cover of the cookbook 'Made in Taiwan,' which shows a spread of beer-friendly dishes This came as no surprise. Over the past decade, Wei, who grew up in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, has built a reputation as one of English-language media’s foremost experts on Taiwanese food — someone who, in her writing about the cuisine, has always expanded the conversation beyond the most obvious handful of dishes.

Since moving to Taipei in 2020, Wei says her first-hand experience with the island’s highly globalized, ever-evolving food scene has dispelled any notion she had that there’s such a thing as “authentic” Taiwanese cuisine. At the same time, Made in Taiwan reads differently from the current wave of Asian American cookbooks that lean into a more diasporic, Americanized point of view. In addition to enlisting Chen, an ace local chef, as her co-author, Wei recruited an all-local team of Taiwanese researchers, food stylists and photographers. She often traveled to distant corners of the island to track down a chef’s authoritative, regionally specific recipe for a dish.

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And at this political moment, when the Chinese government’s refusal to recognize Taiwanese sovereignty and cultural identity makes daily headlines, Made in Taiwan makes an eloquent “soft power” argument by elucidating, from cover to cover, the breadth and beauty of Taiwan’s own distinct cuisine — a cuisine shaped by centuries of colonization, migration and cultural intermingling that isn’t “just another provincial expression of Chinese food at large.”

“All I can do is celebrate our humanity through the lens of food,” Wei writes in the book’s introduction. “I hope the world can see Taiwan as more than just a geopolitical chess piece or a controversial island near China with great night markets.”

Ahead of Wei’s two in-person Bay Area appearances on June 10 and 11, in Cupertino and Emeryville respectively, I chatted with her about cookbook diplomacy, Taiwan’s distinct “kou wei,” and the next step in the evolution of Taiwanese restaurants in the U.S.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

***

Luke Tsai: It seems like something every Taiwanese cookbook for a U.S. audience needs to do is to delineate what Taiwanese food is and how it’s distinct from Chinese food. How much of a political act do you feel it is to write a book like Made in Taiwan that, at this particular moment, essentially argues, “Taiwanese food is its own separate thing.”

Clarissa Wei: I think if one is subscribing to the China narrative, anything that talks about Taiwanese identity is inherently political. Because I had to write the book for an international audience, and because Taiwan’s standing on the international stage is murky, I have to inhabit that stance.

But as a Taiwanese person living here in Taiwan, talking about how these different strains or influences are what makes up Taiwanese cuisine is completely normal and not a political thing.

For the average person here, it’s just reality.

So it is kind of fascinating when I’m talking about my book to people here versus when I have to present it to the outside world. It’s a very different tone.

Headshot portrait of food writer Clarissa Wei, in her kitchen wearing a yellow apron.
Wei, who has lived in Taipei since 2020, wrote ‘Made in Taiwan’ in collaboration with an all-local Taiwanese team. (Ryan Chen and Yen Wei)

How has the book been received in Taiwan?

It has surprisingly been received really well. I didn’t think people here would read it or care because, again, this isn’t news here — and it’s obviously not written in Chinese. But there are food writers and food influencers here who will recommend it, and some restaurants will have it in their store. Anyone here who’s trying to promote Taiwanese cuisine on the international stage seems to be aware of the book.

I was just at the Taiwanese presidential inauguration, and one of the staffers for the Democratic Progressive Party [which won the presidential election] told me that the Vice President, Hsiao Bi-khim, really likes my book and that she’s been showing it to foreign dignitaries and giving it to them as a gift.

One of the big themes in your work is how there is so much more to Taiwanese food than just the most obvious things — more than beef noodle soup and boba and soymilk breakfasts. Why is that important to you, and how did that affect the way you approached the cookbook?

I think it’s important to have the greatest hits because if I didn’t include tapioca pearls or beef noodle soup or xiaolongbao, I think the average person would be confused. But I also tried to push the conversation a little bit more by including dishes that I think are much more influential here in Taiwan. For example, I do a lot of rice-based pastries, or kueh, and the braised pork belly over rice, which I guess now that’s pretty common in the States.

One thing I didn’t include in the book is the Southeast Asian influences on modern Taiwanese cuisine, which has been prevalent since the ’90s but hasn’t made it abroad yet. Southeast Asian immigrants make up 80% of our foreign population, and they’ve opened a lot of restaurants. So there are dishes like a sweet-and-sour cold-poached chicken or a Thai-style shrimp cake that’s served at every single Thai restaurant here, but that they don’t really have in Thailand. It’s very special and just as Taiwanese as any other dish.

In Taiwan, people will alter their dishes so it caters to the tastes here. Things become sweeter or less spicy, or ingredients change a little bit, so everything has a Taiwan “kou wei,” or Taiwanese flavor.

How do you see the cuisine evolving in the Bay Area or more broadly in the U.S.? Are there places that are starting to serve more regional things, or things that are more in line with what’s new and popular in Taiwan right now?

If anything, people are better at storytelling or identifying the origins of their food. Good to Eat in Emeryville, where I’m doing one of my events, is such a good example. It’s so fascinating how the owners moved over from Taiwan, and now they’re specializing in bando. Bando is a very niche subset of Taiwanese cuisine — a style of outdoor banquet food that’s been around for hundreds of years. Chef Tony will come to Taiwan, she’ll study with these bando chefs, and then she’ll bring that spirit to the Bay Area and do these tasting menus.

So I think they’re really good at telling the story of Taiwan. Because I think when people think about Taiwanese food as a whole, they default to street food, or cheap eats, or big hearty bowls of things. But this style of bando is very refined. When people got married, they would shut down their streets and have a block party, and these banquet chefs would whip up these multicourse meals, completely outdoors. It’s so crazy to me that there’s a restaurant in the Bay Area that does this. You don’t even have restaurants in Taipei that specialize in this very esoteric but specialized type of dining.

Small bowl of lu rou fan next to a plate of grilled chicken.
Lu rou fan and Taiwanese-style grilled chicken served at a Taiwanese barbecue event on Good to Eat’s outdoor patio in Emeryville. (Luke Tsai)

In terms of storytelling, places like Liang’s Village in Cupertino, they’ve been around for a long time. But now the second generation, when they tell their story, they say, “We’re military village cuisine,” or cuisine that came over to Taiwan post-1949. Because Taiwan is a nation of immigrants, and depending on when people came over [from China], they brought very different styles of food. So Liang’s Village is talking about how their family’s food is post-1949 cuisine. No one did this when I was growing up in California.

In Chicago, now there’s a place that just specializes in this military cuisine. In New York, there’s 886, which does rechao food, which is stir-fried food that’s cooked in large woks and usually eaten outdoors.

The marketing for a lot of these restaurants might not outright say what they are, but if you talk to the chefs, they’re able to tell you which facet of Taiwanese cuisine they were the most inspired by. And I think that’s so special and something that’s only been apparent in the last decade.

Wei’s Taiwanese-style daikon and pork soup, from ‘Made in Taiwan.’ (Ryan Chen and Yen Wei)

My favorite recipes in Made in Taiwan that I keep coming back to all fall into the comfort food category — fried pork chops over rice, which I make along with your Taiwanese pickled cabbage. Or your daikon and pork rib soup, which got me through the winter. Do you have a favorite recipe, or a recipe that’s especially meaningful to you in the book?

I always do the rou zao fan or lu rou fan [braised minced pork belly over rice], which is so easy to do. You can just put it in the Instant Pot. Growing up in Los Angeles, when I went to restaurants that served this dish, it seemed too complicated. People put too much stuff in it. When I was developing the recipe for the cookbook, I really wanted to channel that sort of flavor profile from the south of Taiwan, where this braise is just very simple: sugar, soy sauce, garlic, maybe a little bit of rice wine, and of course the main ingredient is pork belly. I feel like I figured it out because I went down south and found a chef that just specializes in this dish and, like, stared at him for a very long time and tried to figure out the proportions.

That’s a very comforting dish to me. I have really complicated recipes in the book that take a very long time or can be technically quite difficult. But I think the dishes that people will come back to are the comfort dishes their parents made for them, or their Taiwanese friend made, because that’s what you want. I just did the complicated dishes because I felt like if I didn’t document them, they might not ever be recorded in the English language.


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Wei will host a meet-and-greet at Liang’s Village on Monday, June 10, 5:30–7:30 p.m. (A $25 meal set inspired by ‘Made in Taiwan’ is already sold out, but the restaurant will still be open for regular dinner service.) On Tuesday, June 11, 7:30–9 p.m., Wei will participate in a free — but already fully sold out — panel discussion that addresses the question, “What is Taiwanese cuisine?” at Good to Eat (1298 65th St., Emeryville).

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