Among other things, this year’s TAIWANfest promises to be a mouthwatering celebration of the cultural diversity and creativity of Taiwanese cooking. “CNN had this online poll in which Taiwan ranked as the top culinary hot spot in the world,” explains Charlie Wu, the festival’s managing director, in a phone interview. “Taiwan is known for its variety of food, since there are so many things that the Taiwanese have adopted and reinvented. It’s all about taking what’s given to us and making something better out of that tradition.”
During the event (which runs from this Saturday to Monday [September 5 to 7] along the 400 to 800 blocks of Granville Street, you can stuff yourself at the very popular Street Banquet. Here, vendors will offer original dishes that showcase Taiwanese history. These include a version of poutine called 1949, which references the year Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Nationalist Party exiled themselves to Taiwan. Locals nicknamed the newcomers “taros” and themselves “sweet potatoes”. The dish playfully recognizes this historical moment with taro and sweet potato fries topped with ground-pork sauce.
Another option is a steamed sweet potato ball that’s filled with mashed taro; it’s called a “Taiwanese Mandarin”, also inspired by the Chinese/Taiwanese juxtaposition. The name references the snack’s orange exterior as well as the fact that the Taiwanese speak Mandarin with an accent different than that of people in mainland China.
Another creation is a wheel cake filled with kung pao chicken instead of the typical Japanese sweet azuki bean paste. Joanne Chu, who sells wheel cakes at the International Summer Night Market in Richmond, came up with the idea while eating kung pao chicken on a break one day. During a phone chat, she explains that this special wheel cake highlights Taiwanese people’s love of street food, as well as the island’s Chinese and Japanese culinary influences.
Festival attendees can expect an array of other food and drink options, including deep-fried squid stuffed with rice, oyster omelettes, deep-fried fish cakes, pork intestine and vermicelli soup, vegetarian sticky rice, honey garlic shrimp skewers, tofu pudding, and bubble tea.
Wu is looking forward to the Friendship Bento lunch on Monday (September 7). This new initiative will bring together 100 Taiwanese Canadians with 100 non-Taiwanese Canadians to enjoy a meal together. “Taiwanese love to treat their friends to food. What better way to meet someone new?” asks Wu.
The boxes will be prepared by visiting Taiwanese chefs Wei-Pin Wang, Chun-Liang Liu, and Chun-Nan Lu, and the hope is that they will spark conversation about the history and culture of Taiwan. For example, bento boxes were introduced to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation period, and a salmon rice ball is a common on-the-go snack for many Taiwanese Canadians. Although the lunch is already sold-out, bystanders can take part in the cultural exchange by watching the chefs demonstrate the dishes on the Formosa Kitchen cooking stage.
Stephanie Yuen, a well-known local food journalist and chef, will also be on-stage, sharing Asian-influenced recipes she came up with for the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Originally from Hong Kong, Yuen likes the community focus of TAIWANfest and the fact that festival organizers are so willing to embrace new ideas and different culinary influences. “Dairy has never been in the Chinese diet. A lot of people are still uncomfortable with it, even if they want to bring dairy into their daily eating,” she says during a phone interview.
Yuen will be demonstrating accessible dishes that are a snap to prepare. These include rice cakes sautéed with strips of lean pork, green beans, red bell pepper, and shiitake mushrooms in a marble Cheddar sauce. Another is a mango, dragon fruit, yogurt, and milk smoothie for back-to-school breakfasts. She also likes to make a dessert of pears poached in milk that’s infused with cinnamon and star anise, and topped with shaved chocolate.
Photographs and illustrations by artist Chia Hui Chien (aka CHiA) will round out TAIWANfest’s culinary program. Chien spent six months capturing and producing images of Taiwanese sun-drying, a traditional food-preservation technique. Her exhibition “The Gifts of the Sun” is a reminder of how Taiwanese people are constantly reinventing their culinary culture—even as they pay tribute to the past.
TAIWANfest kicks off this Friday (September 4). For a full schedule, see the Taiwanfest website.