clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Clarissa Wei Knows All Too Well That Food Is Political

In her debut cookbook, ‘Made in Taiwan,’ the journalist uses recipes to tell the story of the island’s people, and take a stand on its sovereignty

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Clarissa Wei poses with a snack in an outdoor food stall in Taipei. An Rong Xu/Eater
Martha Cheng is a writer and editor based in Honolulu.

“I’m not a food influencer or a professional chef,” Clarissa Wei says. “A lot of people are really good at coming up with gorgeous new recipes that no one has ever seen before. That’s not my strong suit at all. My strong suit is the act of preservation and interviewing and reporting.”

This is clear from the beginning of Wei’s debut cookbook, Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation. One of its first recipes begins with the story of an 89-year-old former soldier. Originally from northeastern China and stationed in Taiwan when he was 16, he’s pictured with his handwritten recipe for scallion pancakes. A photography note explains that the rustic, dimly lit scene was re-created to evoke what breakfast might have looked like in a late 1940s-era military house, built out of wood with low windows.

The particulars of the recipe set the tone for the rest of the cookbook, which comes out this month. Made in Taiwan’s layers of details include an oyster omelet photographed with dappled lighting to emulate a banyan tree’s shade over a beloved Tainan street food stall; braised egg and bean curd styled on a midcentury platter on loan from the Taiwan Bowl and Dish Museum; and a profile of a couple trying to preserve the country’s kueh (rice-based pastries) tradition. A sense of nostalgia pervades the book, much as it does the island itself; the book is as much a report on how Taiwan feels as how it tastes. It’s a feat that Wei, who lives in Taipei, achieved in part by assembling an all-local team that included a recipe developer, historian, and food stylist who are as fanatical about the fine points as herself.

Made in Taiwan joins a wave of Taiwanese cookbooks published by the diaspora in the last year, cookbooks that compile the sort of “gorgeous new recipes” Wei may well have been referring to: First Generation: Recipes from My Taiwanese-American Home, by Frankie Gaw; Bao, by London restaurateurs serving Taiwanese-inspired food; Win Son Presents a Taiwanese American Cookbook, by the chefs behind the New York restaurant and bakery, written with Cathy Erway, who herself published The Food of Taiwan in 2015.

What sets Made in Taiwan apart is its journalistic sensibility and its statement from the outset that Taiwan is its own nation (it’s there, right in the title) separate from China, with its own distinct cuisine. It’s a statement that has made this cookbook political — “but it has to be,” Wei says. “You can’t divorce politics and food in Taiwan. You just cannot.” But to focus on this aspect of the book is to miss its best and most beautiful parts: the preservation of Taiwanese recipes — both the familiar and the fading — as a bulwark against an uncertain future, a feeling that comes from an island with a tenuous grasp on sovereignty.

“I started off wanting to cover politics,” Wei says of the beginnings of her journalism career. “But it was too heavy and dark for me.” She eventually gravitated toward food and began writing about Asian cuisine in America, starting with the Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants she was familiar with as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants in Los Angeles. In her 20s, she moved to Asia to “get to the source of it all.” She backpacked through China and spent time in Taiwan, and in 2018 landed in Hong Kong, where she produced videos on food and culture throughout China for Goldthread, an imprint of the South China Morning Post.

As China’s crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong grew increasingly violent throughout 2020, a sense of urgency prompted Wei to pitch a Taiwanese cookbook to American publishers. “I realized how quickly a place’s sense of identity erodes overnight, especially under the shadow of an authoritarian government,” she says. “I really wanted to preserve the stories of Taiwan through the lens of food, and I felt really frustrated that Taiwanese food is always lumped into the broad umbrella of Chinese food.”

Although Wei originally didn’t want to bring politics into the cookbook, it’s “kind of the elephant in the room,” she says. China seeks unification with Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy of 24 million people that has never been part of the People’s Republic of China, and as Wei was developing the book, tensions between China and Taiwan escalated to new levels. “China uses food to politicize, to try to fold us into their nation,” Wei says. “And to allow them to craft this story of our food is a real shame.”

Many cultures and factors have shaped Taiwanese food: the island’s Indigenous tribes, Japan’s colonial influence, America’s post-WWII soft power, and waves of immigration from China, including the Fujianese and Hakka in the 17th century and the Nationalist soldiers and refugees who began arriving in 1949. It’s these nuances that make Taiwanese cuisine hard to define, much like American food, or modern American especially. “But one thing for sure is that our cuisine is unique,” Wei says. She points to Taiwan’s condiments as evidence: Its soy sauce has both Chinese and Japanese influences, and its black vinegar more resembles Worcestershire sauce than its counterparts in China.

“In the grand context of all this history, the notion that Taiwanese cuisine is its own distinct genre is extremely new,” Wei writes in her cookbook. “But it’s an increasingly common perspective that’s being adopted by many who live on the island today, especially in light of cross-strait tensions and as we look for ways to set ourselves apart from aggressors. As China becomes more aggressive, we find ourselves becoming increasingly more Taiwanese.” An annual survey by the National Chengchi University shows 63 percent of people in Taiwan identify as Taiwanese — versus Taiwanese and Chinese, or purely Chinese. According to the survey, that number has more than tripled in the last 30 years.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a sense of urgency informed the making of Made in Taiwan. “I always feel the indescribable anxiety of losing the important bits,” Yen Wei, the book’s food stylist, wrote to me. “We just have to tell the story, make the identity before it’s too late.”

Made in Taiwan may have been a project born out of preservation, but to some, it is an act of provocation. If you scan Wei’s social media accounts, you’ll get a sense of some people’s rage at what they see as the book’s anti-China, pro-Taiwanese independence stance.

While a lot of coverage of Taiwanese culture sidesteps the politics, Wei “is not afraid to dive into [it],” Lillian Lin, the co-owner of Yun Hai, a Taiwanese grocery store in Brooklyn, said in an email. “In trying to write about Taiwanese identity, you almost necessarily need to distinguish it from a Chinese identity, which in itself becomes political. Instead of avoiding the question, she really goes the extra mile to explain and describe the differences. That then attracts lots of criticism, but she’s not afraid to shout it and even fight it.”

Wei maintains that she’s generally conflict averse (“which is very Taiwanese,” she says), but when people accuse her of not knowing history, she fights back. “Look, we” — she and a research assistant and a historian she hired for the book — “put a lot of research into this. I’m not pulling this out of my ass. When I feel the need to defend myself, I do think I’m a little bit strongheaded.”

As the book’s publication date nears, she admits to being apprehensive about the repercussions. “Just the very act of saying Taiwanese food is not Chinese food can be construed as a crime depending on who wakes up that day,” she says. It makes her unsure of when she will be able to return to China, an uncertainty she mourns. “But the drive to tell this story sort of overpowered everything,” she says. “What am I going to do? Cease to be Taiwanese or not tell the stories of people here?”

Taiwan’s situation with China is unique, but the idea of losing a food culture is not. “In every country in the world, people see the truth that many older recipes are gone,” says Ivy Chen, the book’s recipe developer and a cooking teacher for more than 20 years in Taipei. She’s identified some of the ingredients that make a dish taste like it’s from Taiwan, like a small dried flounder often added to soups and braises, but that are now being omitted in favor of convenient shortcuts, such as packets of hondashi. Made in Taiwan is an act of preservation, down to the recipes that attempt to capture the gu zao wei, or “ancient early taste,” that even in Taiwan is disappearing.

Much of Wei’s work documents what we are in danger of losing, like the fading tradition of Tomb Sweeping Day in East and Southeast Asia and the quest to save chile peppers in Taiwan. As a bilingual journalist, Wei provides the framework and platform for many voices not often heard in the West. In the cookbook, as with her reporting, personal anecdotes are minimal; she largely stays out of the way and allows her collaborators and subjects to bring heart and soul to the book. Some of the people in its pages are those she’s met after almost a decade of reporting in Taiwan. They include Chung Kuo Ming-Chin, a legendary home cook also known as Hakka Mama, who supplies some of the flavors of Taiwan’s Hakka people with recipes like steamed preserved greens and pork; the Indigenous chef Aeles Lrawbalrate, who provides the context for dishes such as abai (millet, glutinous rice, and ground pork bundled in leaves and steamed); and rapper and third-generation roadside food stall owner Lin Tai-Yu, or Gloj, who inspired the recipe for braised minced pork belly over rice, one of the most emblematic dishes of Taiwan’s food capital, the southern city of Tainan.

If Chen brings the nuances specific to Taiwan to the recipes, Yen Wei, Made in Taiwan’s stylist, is her visual counterpart. Most of the book’s props and dishes come from her own collection, which began with her grandmother’s.

Yen’s mainly Taiwanese clients will often ask for an ‘“American style,” “Danish style,” or “Japanese style” aesthetic, Yen says; she assumes that they find Taiwanese style “a bit tacky.” But she wanted that style to come through in the book, to show that “the triviality in our everyday life is still worth honoring.” To that end, she made sure to include rusty coins, used pink napkins, and cheap plastic tablecloths in the photos. In Taiwan, she says, “we are seldom elegant, because people are always busy making a living. We are rustic, bold, practical most of the time, we are resilient, so we are good at adapting.” The Taiwanese aesthetic, she adds, is “vivid, energetic, unpredictable,” but there’s still “some order within chaos.”

In some ways, the idea of order within chaos could apply to the status quo in Taiwan. The country currently exists in a gray area, not recognized as an independent country by most of the world, but also not a part of China. About 87 percent of people in Taiwan prefer to keep this status quo, as uncomfortable as it might be. Although Wei acknowledges this gray area in Made in Taiwan’s introduction, she gives the rest of the book over to a celebration of the vivid, energetic, and unpredictable turns of Taiwanese food. In doing so, the food becomes a broader celebration of Taiwan’s people, heritage, and culture.

“I wrote this with a broad American audience in mind, but the entire time I was also [thinking] about Taiwanese people, people like me, people who have a connection to the island but have never really heard these stories told in this way,” Wei says. “I really just wanted this book to be a win for us.”

An Rong Xu is a New York City- and Taipei-based photographer and director. Born in China and raised in New York City’s Chinatown, Xu explores the world around him through this unique cultural perspective.

The cover of the cookbook, ‘Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes.’

‘Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes’

  • $31

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Introducing Eater’s debut cookbook: Sourced from the best street carts to pillars of fine dining and everywhere in between, this diverse, powerhouse collection features recipes that have been carefully adapted for home cooks. Packed with expert advice from chefs, bartenders, and sommeliers on easy ways to level up your meals at home, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes is a must-have for anyone who loves to dine out and wants to bring that magic home.