Chefs Tim Teng and Christine Liu revisit their Taiwanese roots at Telus TaiwanFest

Two chefs on-stage at this weekend’s Telus TaiwanFest mix their North American experience with their cultural heritage.
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When chef Tim Teng came to Canada at the age of 15 to attend Glenlyon Norfolk School, he didn’t expect to be working at his father’s restaurant in his hometown of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, a decade later. After graduating from the Victoria private school, Teng moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to attend Davenport University, where he studied hospitality and learned to cook. He thought he might open a small Italian restaurant after graduation—even when he moved back to Kaohsiung.

“I wasn’t really into Chinese food,” Teng told the Georgia Straight on the line from Toronto, where he was preparing for that city’s Telus TaiwanFest. “But once I got back home, I found it to be very fascinating.…Chinese food is broad. Different provinces have their own unique cuisine and own unique way of doing things, so it’s impossible to learn all of it. That’s why I find it so interesting.”

After appearing at TaiwanFest in Toronto, the 36-year-old chef will travel to the West Coast for Vancouver’s 23rd annual Telus TaiwanFest, which runs from Saturday to Monday (September 1 to 3). The three-day festival organized by the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association celebrates Taiwanese arts and culture and takes place in the plaza behind the Vancouver Art Gallery (at West Georgia and Howe streets), the Robson Square plaza (800 Robson Street), and the 600 to 800 blocks of Granville Street.

In Vancouver, Teng will be demonstrating how to make Taiwanese stewed pork shank, which is one of his favourite dishes and a specialty at his family’s award-winning restaurant in Kaohsiung—Chef Teng Restaurant, which his father, Wen-Yu Teng, opened in 1984.

“When I went back to Taiwan in 2000, my dad wasn’t cooking anymore. He was managing the restaurant, so I actually learned [stewing] from his apprentices,” Teng recalled. “I started at the bottom, doing dishes and scrubbing pans.…I was there for, like, three years before I moved up to executive chef.”

Since then, Teng has continued to defend his father’s title of “Stewing Master” and has won numerous awards and accolades, including being named the top chef in Taiwan in 2008 and 2010. Chef Teng Restaurant specializes in stewing, which Teng says has been a popular cooking method in Taiwanese culture for nearly a century.

“In the old times, lots of farmers working in the fields would use stewing methods with pork, beef, or chicken in soy sauce,” he said. “It was an easy way to preserve the food so they could bring it all the way down to their fields. The stew could sit there for four or five hours and they could have lunch or even dinner.”

While farmers used to make stews in clay bowls, Teng uses deep stainless-steel pots in his kitchen. To add flavour to the meat, which includes pork knuckles and pork tenderloin, he adds varying amounts of ginger, green onion, star anise, white pepper, and chili peppers. What makes Taiwanese stews different from other types of stew is the lack of greens and broth.

“There are no vegetables. It’s like braising meat,” Teng said, estimating that the entire cooking process takes around three hours. “We reduce the sauce until it’s almost dry, so it has a nice thickness all over the meat and has a strong flavour to it.”

Most Taiwanese stews are eaten over a bed of rice with a side of pickles or cabbage, but at TaiwanFest, Teng will be serving audience members stewed pork shank with noodles, which symbolize long life and usually signify a celebration.

“In Taiwan, it’s only when you have a birthday or something, you eat it with mian xian—‘life noodles’. It’s very thin and kind of like angel hair [pasta],” Teng said. “We’re going to serve it dry with a little special-made sauce, bamboo shoots, and slices of pork shank.”

Teng isn’t the only chef featured at this year’s TaiwanFest—or the only chef who has returned to his Taiwanese roots. Christine Liu moved with her family from Taipei to Toronto when she was just two years old. While she grew up eating Taiwanese food at home and visited relatives in Taiwan a handful of times, the 27-year-old has always identified more with North American cuisine.

“Growing up, if it was home-cooked, it was mainly Taiwanese, but I think that home-cooked Asian food in general is very simple—it’s sautéed vegetables, rice, and braised meats,” Liu told the Straight from her home in Toronto. “To be honest, even now, I don’t cook much Asian food.”

After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a degree in recreation and leisure studies, Liu worked at Toronto-area hotels for a year before realizing that what she really wanted to pursue was culinary arts. She moved to Australia in 2010 to attend Le Cordon Bleu, but quickly realized that the program, which was focused more on restaurant management than on cooking, wasn’t for her.

“After six months, I dropped out and went to New York to the French Culinary Institute. I figured a lot of basic skills were based on French food…and I could expand on it afterwards,” she said. “During my program, I interned at one of the Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] restaurants called Mercer Kitchen, and I got really lucky because I got to help out with recreational cooking classes and lots of other events that the school held.”

When Liu graduated at the top of her class in 2011, she wanted to stay in New York but couldn’t obtain a visa. She returned home to Toronto and worked at French restaurant Scaramouche for a year before being approached by TaiwanFest organizers to accompany a Toronto-based food writer on a culinary tour of Taiwan. The duo travelled for three weeks this spring, stopping in Kaohsiung and Tainan in the south, Taichung in Taiwan’s middle region, and Taipei up north.

“Every time I had gone back previously, I had been exposed to the more commercial, the more tourist side of it [Taiwanese food], like night markets and hot-pot places, stuff like that,” Liu said. “This time, I was exposed to a lot more organic farms, aboriginal villages that did tasting menus, more interesting off-the-beaten-path-type places. I went to an organic bamboo farm, we went to a litchi farm, and just got to see a lot more of how local Taiwanese stuff is produced.”

Since her return to Canada in June, inspired by what she saw in Taiwan, Liu has started to grow some of her own produce.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that my parents have a pretty big property north of Toronto, so I’ve been trying to get into growing my own vegetables and doing small-scale organic farming,” she said. Liu noted that she would like to open her own culinary-lifestyle studio one day to teach others how to cook homegrown produce, “something that can be easily incorporated into people’s lives instead of just doing food that they would occasionally cook, to educate kids on health foods and how they can make dishes out of things they grow at home”.

Like Teng, Liu will be sharing her knowledge of Taiwanese food during two demonstrations at TaiwanFest, teaching audiences how to make gua bao, a pork-belly-filled bun. While the traditional version of gua bao contains crushed peanuts and pickled vegetables, Liu says her version is a fusion of Taiwanese and western cultures and is more similar to a burger.

“The pork belly is braised in a soy-based sauce for about two-and-a-half hours, so it’s extra tender, and when you put it in the bun, it’s almost a melt-in-your-mouth texture,” Liu explained. “The bun is a white bun that is very, very fluffy.…It’s pretty common to buy at Chinese supermarkets, and they’re just steamed. With mine, I do it with a Japanese mayo and then I glaze the pork with a soy-chili glaze, which helps balance out the fattiness of the pork.”

While Vancouver audiences won’t be able to try samples of Liu’s dish, there will be many authentic Taiwanese snacks for sale at the Tainan Street Banquet, running on Granville Street from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday. Food stalls run by UBC’s Reality Club will feature 12 dishes from Tainan, Taiwan’s former capital, including ji juan, a crispy roll containing minced chicken; sweet mung bean soup; and milkfish balls in thick broth. Next to the street fair, more food vendors will be selling Taiwanese street-food favourites such as grilled pork sausages on sticky-rice buns, barbecued squid, and stinky tofu.

The variety of food at TaiwanFest may be overwhelming to diners who are new to Taiwanese cuisine, but Liu had this advice:

“Be willing to try anything—even if it’s parts of animals you would never have thought of eating, even if it smells funny at first, it might be surprising to you how good it tastes.…Give everything one try, and if you don’t like it, don’t try it again. If you do like it, you might just fall in love with a different dish that you didn’t think you’d ever like.”

 

Tim Teng will be at the Robson Square plaza stage from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. Christine Liu will be at the same stage from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.

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