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Food Focus: Taiwan

Tips on Taiwanese cooking from Chef Ivy Chen

Chef Ivy Chen

Chef Ivy Chen

Taiwan sits between southeast Asia, China and Japan—three pow­er­­houses of culi­nary tradition. While the island’s cuisine draws from them all, it still shines with its distinct taste. “We have our own unique flavor. The local ingredients make it ours,” says private chef Ivy Chen, who runs hands-on cooking classes out of her cozy, Taipei apartment. Having mastered the art of Taiwanese food with nearly 20 years of teaching experience, two cookbooks, and countless media appearances (including BBC’s “Ainsley Eats the Streets” with British celebrity Chef Ainsley Harriott), Chen is the go-to expert for her nation’s cuisine.

But what is Taiwanese food? “There are lots of Chinese dishes and influences,” says Chen, “but here, it’s lighter and brighter with more fresh vegetables and seafood. Plus lots of herbs, such as Taiwan basil, cilantro, and shallots.” Braised and minced pork over rice, a classically Taiwanese dish, is lightened up with a topping of pickled cucumbers or preserved yellow daikon. Oyster omelettes finished off with a gooey, sweet potato starch pancake are a snack favorite combining the island’s bounty of sea and soil. Deep-fried taro balls with salt-cured eggs and pork floss, rich beef noodle soups, and steamed bun sandwiches of pork belly, greens, peanuts, and cilantro (the “Taiwanese Big Mac”) are other favorites of Taipei’s famous night markets.

Chen says the country’s signature dish, however, is Three-Cup Chicken—a comfort food that derives its name from a Chinese folk recipe calling for “one cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine.” But unless you’re planning to cook a lot of chicken, that ratio will probably result in an oily mess. The Taiwanese version is lighter and brighter—but no less comforting.

Three Cup Chicken

Stir-frying in the basil and chiles right before serving

Three-Cup Chicken From Chef Ivy Chen

serves three

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
6 slices ginger, unpeeled*
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1-1/2 lbs bone-in chicken legs, thighs, and wings, chopped
4 Tbsp rice wine
4 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsps sugar
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/3 c water
1 Tbsp sesame oil
(black sesame oil is best)
1 handful Thai basil
1 red chile, chopped
cooked white rice, for serving
* No need to peel the ginger; just give it a good scrub. It’s used mostly as an aromatic.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok until shimmery, and then lower the heat to add the ginger and garlic cloves. Cook until golden; remove and set aside.

Add the chicken to the infused oil and increase heat to medium-high. Fry the chicken until golden, and then add the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, black pepper, and water and the reserved ginger and garlic. Bring to a boil and then cover the wok and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the chicken is cooked through, simmer until the sauce has thickened and the wok is almost dry. Increase heat to high and add the sesame oil, Thai basil, and red chile. Toss for 10 seconds until the basil is just wilted and serve with white rice.

Want to book a private meal, a market tour, and/or a cooking class with Chef Chen—or a culinary ambassador from 18 other countries? Check out the Traveling Spoon, which pairs adventurous travelers with vetted, home cooks for a delicious cultural exchange.

By Sharon McGill, Contributing Writer