TaiwanFest cooking competition showcases pan-Asian cuisines

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      If you think you know Taiwanese food because you’ve frequented the bubble-tea shop down the street, you may want to think again.

      The annual TaiwanFest returns to Vancouver this weekend (September 3 to 5) and will feature musical performances, arts-and-culture showcases, and perhaps the most popular category for many attendees: food.

      The main theme for this year’s festival is A Cultural Tango With Hong Kong; therefore, many programs and activities (including food-related attractions) will compare and contrast the island region and Asia’s “hub”.

      One of the main culinary highlights of the weekend-long event is the International Pan-Asian Culinary Invitational (IPACI), which is a cooking competition that will showcase flavours from across Asia—specifically, Taiwanese and Hong Kong cuisines.

      “We created this competition to showcase more pan-Asian elements to the public and to bring it into everyday cooking so more people can experience it,” Leanna Liang, the event’s project coordinator, told the Straight by phone.

      The free-admission event (September 3 and 4) takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza (650 Hamilton Street). Overseas chefs will be flying in from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and local chefs who will be representing Canada will also participate in the cook-off.

      But what’s the significance of this particular event?

      Bubble tea is a popular Taiwanese drink.
      Tammy Kwan

      When food lovers think of Taiwanese food, modern snacks such as bubble tea and fried fish cakes might pop up. In contrast, consumers may list dim sum and Hong Kong–style milk tea when asked about dishes in the Cantonese region.

      The truth is, Taiwanese and Hong Kong cuisine encompasses much more than the popular quick bites that have dominated many people’s palates.

      There is a long history of what has influenced and shaped the culinary sphere in the two different areas. Both regions were previously ruled by other nations: Hong Kong was a British colony, and Taiwan was under Japanese and Chinese rule during different periods of time.

      Besides how colonial occupation has left a mark in the two neighbouring cultures, it has also directly influenced the local cuisines.

      Traditional Taiwanese food has retained many recipes from mainland China, including dishes from Guangdong province, Shanghai, Hunan, and Beijing, among others.

      One such dish that draws from Chinese influence is “three cups chicken”, made with three different sauces: rice wine, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Popular local dishes range from gua bao, braised pork belly wrapped in a clam-shaped steamed white bun, to beef noodle soup, one of the staples in Taiwanese cuisine.

      But those looking for real “authentic” Taiwanese food are in luck.

      Chef Yi-Chien Chen says the truly authentic Taiwanese food is that cooked by the island’s aboriginal population.

      “The food cooked by the aboriginals in Taiwan is authentic Taiwanese food,” chef Yi-Chien Chen, an IPACI competitor representing Taiwan, said by phone. “They have been [in Taiwan] much longer than the people who migrated here from mainland China.”

      From native dishes cooked by Taiwanese aboriginals to traditional creations that come from mainland China, the scope of Taiwanese cuisine is vast.

      There is a lot of variety when it comes to choosing what types of Hong Kong food to try.

      “Taiwan cuisine definitely features more traditional and cultural dishes, and Hong Kong is an East-meets-West sphere, resulting in more fusion-style foods,” chef William Ma—another IPACI competitor, who will be representing Hong Kong—told the Straight in a phone interview.

      Fusion-style foods can most often be found in a Hong Kong–style of café known as cha chaan teng. These cafés are influenced by the period when Hong Kong was a British colony.

      A typical breakfast combo at a Cha Chaan Teng: Hong Kong-style milk tea and macaroni.
      Toby Kwan/Instagram

      Cha chaan tengs offer menu items that range from Hong Kong–style milk tea to French toast to dry-fried beef and rice noodles to Hong Kong–style spaghetti Bolognese.

      Even though the fusion cafés are iconic in the Hong Kong cuisine scene, there are also traditional Hong Kong foods that can be overlooked. One such dish is stir-fried crab with garlic and chili—a flavourful and tasty seafood option that can be found at most Cantonese restaurants and that highlights historic Hong Kong as a fishing village.

      Neither Taiwanese nor Hong Kong cuisine can be limited to an easy-to-understand category of food, just as Canadian food cannot be identified by a singular dish.

      “I think [Taiwan] is like Italy: a lot of the profiles are sort of similar but very different,” chef Tom Lee, an IPACI competitor representing Taiwan, told the Straight by phone. “I think Taiwan is very multicultured from its surrounding countries, like Japan and Hong Kong.…it is very diverse in every area you go.”

      Chef Tom Lee, who will compete in the International Pan-Asian Culinary Invitational, points out that Taiwan’s cuisine has diverse influences.

      The highly anticipated culinary competition at this year’s TaiwanFest will both give Vancouverites a sense of the diverse pan-Asian cooking elements and showcase the cooking styles of chefs from different cultural backgrounds.

      Not only do eventgoers get to learn about the history and culture of a different place through food, they will also get to take home some tips on how to create tasty dishes with a Taiwanese or Hong Kong flair.

      “We want to show more people within Vancouver that there are more traditional types of Hong Kong and Taiwanese cuisines,” Liang said. “We are hoping that the chefs can bring in some of their own personal elements so everyone can see their skills.”

      The International Pan-Asian Culinary Invitational takes place on Saturday and Sunday (September 3 and 4) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza (650 Hamilton Street) from 1 to 2 p.m., 3 to 4 p.m., and 5 to 6 p.m.

      Follow Tammy Kwan on Twitter @ch0c0tam and Instagram @ch0c0tam.