Is Taiwanese Food a Delicacy, or a Mere Dish?

Debates over whether Taiwan's cuisine is "provincial"

FocusTaiwan reported on the Grand Hotel’s reopening of a restaurant. I’ve always hated the place, a triumphant eyesore in a faux Chinese style that broods over Taipei, the architectural equivalent of heads impaled on spikes in front of the city gates. But that wasn’t what caught several pairs of eyes:

The Grand Hotel reopened its Yuan Yuan restaurant on March 11 with an expanded menu of Jiangsu and Zhejiang delicacies and Taiwanese dishes.

That’s right. Jiangsu and Zhejiang have delicacies, but Taiwan? Just dishes. After raving about delicacies for the emperor and favorite foods of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the article does an “oh yeah” at the bottom and mentions that there are “Taiwanese dishes” for foreign guests. The mindset behind the article is rather obvious.

Food is one of the most important sites for KMT colonization of Taiwan, and it is probably its greatest victory. Whereas almost all other KMT strategies for colonizing Taiwanese minds, from the claim that Taiwanese are Chinese to the rewriting of Taiwan’s history, have generated resistance from locals, there has been no resistance to the KMT’s exploitation of food and food tourism.

Taiwanese cuisine was invented in the Japanese period. Prior to that period there was no such thing as Taiwanese cuisine, it was all Chinese food. Colonizers all face the same problem: having colonized X, they must define what X is. They must define it so that it is intelligible to the colonized and to the citizens of the colonizer’s homeland, and it must be defined as inferior to the colonizer’s own culture. Early on in the Japanese period restaurant menus were referring to Taiwanese cuisine — it first appeared in 1898 in the print media — and state banquets offered “Taiwanese” dishes as a way to help construct and define what Taiwan was, because, as officials reported, Chinese and Taiwanese foods were not easily distinguished. The colonial government even published a Taiwan kanshu kiki (Records of Taiwanese Customs) monthly from Jan 1901 to Aug 1907, which contained Taiwanese banquet menus and other menus as evidence of what Taiwan culture was.

This evolution began officially with the Taiwan Pavilion erected at the Fifth National Exhibition in Osaka in 1903, for which 6,000 items were shipped over from Taiwan to ensure “authenticity.” Chefs were brought over from Taiwan to prepare the dishes, and young ladies were brought over to keep the diners company, young women being a significant feature of Taiwanese restaurants during the Japanese colonial period (for details, see Embodying Nation in Food Consumption, a PHD thesis for Leiden by Chen Yu-ren).

This creation of a Taiwanese cuisine was a fait accompli when the KMT came over and recolonized Taiwan with a faux Chinese culture. The KMT followed the same strategy it followed with Taiwan culture in general: it subsumed Taiwanese cuisine as a regional and provincial cuisine. That is the strategy followed in the Grand Hotel PR handout above, where Taiwanese dishes are placed on a level as one more provincial style food like that of Zhejiang or Jiangsu, except not as good.

As the KMT lost its grip on society, the idea of Taiwanese food has become slippery and contested. It was promoted under the Chen Administration and in State Banquets during the Chen Shui-bian administrations. For KMT True Believers, it remains a provincial cuisine. For other locals, it has many meanings. As Chen’s PHD thesis notes, even when people cannot define Taiwanese cuisine, they still say this or that dish is a Taiwanese dish. They identify Taiwanese cuisine as foods of home or of their childhood. Others can articulate a detailed and defensible view — note that articulating a “national” cuisine is a project that nationalists of all stripes believe they must engage in, hence for Taiwan nationalists a “national cuisine” must be defined. In response, Hakkas frequently assert their own cuisine against Hoklo/Taiwanese cuisine. We manufacture identities to fight the imposition of identities…

The KMT lost the battle to define Taiwanese cuisine as a mere provincial cuisine, though that reflex remains, as the Grand Hotel PR piece above shows. But it won the war. All over Taiwan, if you say a city name, like Changhua or Hsinchu, people associate a food with it automatically (ba wan and mi fen). Even foreigners know many of these associations. This attitude is common in Taiwan, but it is rare in the rest of the world. You can associate foods with cities or locations, of course, but it is usually not the first thing thought of. If you say Los Angeles most people will mentionHollywood. You have to press them for a food association. But in Taiwan it is quite the opposite. Few places are first associated with a particular industry or historical site or famous building. If you ask people about Taichung they will say sun cookies, but you have to press them to divulge what industries are associated with the city.

Why? It’s political, of course. In most countries tourism consists of local history and nature. I grew up in Michigan, where we visited the Upper Peninsula and state parks for nature, and local battlefields and forts for history. No one ever suggested that the state’s prodigious cherry production should be its key association. But in Taiwan, the food association functions to keep locals from associating places with their history, and thus, developing associations with local history that in turn would support and build local identities… Hence, in Taiwan, local domestic tourism is not historical tourism, but food tourism.

Congrats on the victory, KMT.

UPDATE: A commenter noted below:

Through the 1970’s there were strict restrictions on accurate public maps of Taiwan (for security purposes). School children were taught to view Taiwan as merely one part of “our glorious China”.

Even through the 1990’s, much of Taiwan’s history and civics curriculum was China-centered.

The KMT, on a central level, decided to avoid addressing their problematic narrative as the government of all China while occupying a former Japanese colony, an experience that was fresh in the minds of the Taiwanese.

They decided to invent and deploy “local foods” as a means to teach Taiwanese geography to avoid political differences and to avoid local identification in favor of the Chinese Nationalist identification.

It was a way to reconcile obvious cultural differences with the nationalist narrative, while dismissing cultural differences as either regional, or in terms of a portrayal of an area’s “development”. This took the conversation away from ideas of ethnic differences. In China this was a means to defuse different nationalisms after the fall of the Ching.

This is not accidental.

Michael Turton

A long time expat in Taiwan.