Saturday, February 05, 2011

About Taiwan food

taiwan dishes-menu

Steamed asparagus with sweet mayonnaise

chilled mixed sashimi with the obligatory wasabi,soy sauce dip and white radish

chau ha ma (fried clams in soya sauce flavoured with chilli and garlic and chinese basil)

Taiwan has a fascinating history. It has been in the possession of 5 colonial powers during different periods: The Spanish, Dutch, Chinese (under the Ming and Qing dynasties), the Japanese and the Chinese again under the KMT (since democratization and free elections in 1996, it is no longer considered a colony of the KMT). There are therefore many subtle influences in Taiwanese food.

Interestingly, the introduction of asparagus to Taiwan predates all but the earliest Chinese settlers as it was introduced by the Dutch in the very early 1640's, a time when only 1 - 2% of the population were Chinese, the remainder being aboriginal tribes people. The Dutch of course brought the asparagus along with other European vegetables to grow alongside native varieties in order to make it feel a bit more like home. They also introduced mayonnaise to Taiwan ... and the Dutch and Belgiums still eat their chips (American English: french fries, 'french' being a verb meaning 'to slice thinly' , not a noun referring to anything from France) with mayonnaise rather than ketchup.

However, I have never heard of a Dutchman eating asparagus with sweet mayonnaise, so yes, I would have to say that it IS a Taiwanese invention - and I must say, a very delicious one at that.

As a footnote - you can also get bamboo root with sweet mayonnaise (the more popular of the two dishes) and both are served chilled and come highly recommended.

by fabian graham

Yu sheng -- a Singaporean New Year Tradition

By Michelle Chan
For the Bay Area News Group

When Singaporean families reunite for Lunar New Year, dinner often starts with yu sheng, a dish made with strips of raw fish and a riot of finely julienned vegetables. The dish is brought to the table as a composed salad, each ingredient placed demurely in its own pile.

Then the fun begins.

The host tears open lucky red envelopes to reveal not money, but chopped peanuts and sesame seeds. With a flourish, she scatters them atop the dish, and pours dressing over the whole lot. Then the gathering digs in with chopsticks, tossing the salad while chanting "lo-hei" -- or "mix it up!" -- seven times.

In the Mandarin language, one of the four official languages of Singapore, "yu sheng" means raw fish. But yu sheng also sounds like the word for "increased abundance," so the dish, which is only served during the new year festivities, symbolizes abundance and prosperity. And the higher you toss the ingredients, the luckier you'll be.

Expect culinary mayhem.

"The mess that you make, if everything flops on the table, is OK," Chris Yeo, the executive chef of Straits and Sino restaurants, says fondly. "It's more festive."

Yeo opened his first Straits restaurant in San Francisco in 1987 (and later in Burlingame and San Jose), because he missed the Singaporean food of his youth -- especially yu sheng.

"You're always craving that dish during the new year because it's fun," he says. "It's about everyone being together and in harmony." Naturally, raw fish is the star ingredient in yu sheng, but it can be supplemented with jellyfish, lobster or other more exotic seafood. It's traditionally accompanied by carrots and daikon radish, which represent good luck and prosperity. For sweetness, Singaporeans add fruits, such as pomelo, which represents good fortune, or candied melon. And the entire affair is topped with crunchy, toasty garnishes: crackers or fried wonton crisps, chopped peanuts resembling gold nuggets, and sesame seeds to bring prosperity.

"There's no secret to making it," says Yeo. "But everything has to be fresh."

Legend has it that yu sheng was invented in southern China, when a couple found themselves stranded at a temple during a bout of bad weather. According to Bonny Tan, of the National Library of Singapore, their only food was a freshly-caught fish, which they ate with vinegar.

But yu sheng, which is a beloved tradition across Malaysia and Singapore, is virtually unheard of in southern China. A more plausible, albeit less romantic, explanation comes from Singapore's Lai Wah Cantonese restaurant, which claims to have created the dish in 1964.

These days, the dish is so famous in Southeast Asia, no dignitary or high-ranking government official would think of hosting a Lunar New Year celebration without yu sheng as a first course, says Singaporean executive chef Willin Low. The chef and owner of Wild Rocket restaurant is considered one of the rising stars of that city's dining scene. He specializes in what's known as "Mod Sin" -- or Modern Singapore -- cuisine, a fusion of traditional dishes and flavors with Western inspiration.

It's not unheard of, he says, for yu sheng to include more than two dozen ingredients, including red pickled ginger, sun-dried oranges, and even, occasionally, abalone. Low's version takes a more streamlined, Mod Sin approach, with salmon carpaccio, mesclun and an orange and shallot oil vinaigrette.

Whether you use a traditional or new wave approach, serving and eating yu sheng is an elaborate procedure, steeped in ceremony. Each component is added in sequence, while reciting a specific series of good wishes. When adding golden wonton crisps, for example, the customary blessing is "Pang di huang jin" -- may your floor be covered in gold. But the real fun comes from the bevy of chopstick-wielding enthusiasts who are not afraid to shout lustily and toss food around.

And the salad and sauce are open to infinite variation. With so much culinary license, it's easy to go overboard when riffing on yu sheng. Santa Rosa resident Stacey Ariel, who lived for several years in Singapore, says that each year it seemed that restaurants got more creative, and not always for the better.

"The worst yu sheng I ever tried -- but one with interesting add-ins -- was a Tex-Mex version with crumbled tortilla chips instead of the fried wonton strips, and a salsa fresca instead of the plum sauce," she says. "To mix metaphors, not my cup of tea at all."

Yu Sheng Tips

This iconic Singaporean dish is served only during Lunar New Year. It traditionally includes raw fish and a variety of shredded vegetables, many chosen for their symbolism. Here are a few tips if you're making this at home:

Fish: Traditional choices include grass carp and salmon, but you can also use tuna or mackerel, or substitute pressed tofu for a vegetarian version. If using a strong-tasting fish, such as mackerel, marinate it in ginger slices for 15 minutes, then discard the ginger.

Vegetables: Use a mandolin or Japanese shredder to create long, fine strands.

Toppings: Use toppings and add-ins, such as crisply fried wonton strips, peanuts, sesame seeds, pickled ginger and finely shredded kaffir lime leaves, to add texture and flavor.


TODAYonline News Alert for January 29, 2011

How the Four Heavenly Kings of the culinary scene in '60s Singapore brought 'rising abundance' to the masses
by Teo Xuanwei

SEATED on wooden stools at a roadside hawker stall, the four friends watched the fish porridge seller slice off pieces of the ikan parang (swordfish) hanging on hooks at his pushcart.

On the raw fish slices, finely sprinkled with the black dust of vehicles driving by the Chinatown alley, the hawker scattered some chopped carrots and pickles. He then drizzled some lime juice on it. Customers then drenched the dish with vinegar, oil and sugar before slurping away.

As fellow apprentices under master chef Lo Seng at the Cathay Restaurant, the four friends often went out together on recipe-scouting missions.

This particular meal in 1963, however, would forever change the lives of Mr Tham Yui Kai, Mr Sin Leong, Mr Lau Yoke Pui, and Mr Hooi Kok Wai - the Four Heavenly Kings of the culinary world in '60s Singapore.

One of the two surviving master chefs, Mr Sin, 83, recalled: "There were houseflies swarming around the fish and also smoke and dust because of the cars and motorcycles: It was bad. So we thought, 'Why don't we do something about this dish and bring it to the restaurants?'"

Drawing inspiration from the rojak sold by hawkers and the salad served in Western restaurants, the Fab Four turned the traditional Cantonese dish into what is today - a must-have during Chinese New Year: Yu sheng, or raw fish salad.

Yu sheng is wildly popular because its Cantonese pronunciation sounds like "rising abundance" or prosperity. The tradition of "lo hei", or tossing the salad high into the air while shouting auspicious greetings, also symbolises good luck.


In the past, the consumption of raw fish was common among fishermen in Guangdong province, China, when they celebrated Humankind's Birthday on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year. Immigrants brought this practice with them when they came here.

The other surviving master chef, Mr Hooi, 73, says the four of them wanted to spread this Cantonese tradition to all Chinese here.

But Mr Sin revealed another more pragmatic reason: Better business for each of their restaurants.

"Back in those days, people only went to restaurants on special occasions like birthdays or weddings. When we modified the dish, we wanted to draw customers to our restaurants throughout the Chinese New Year," Mr Sin said with a hearty chuckle.

Their genius, however, extended only as far as giving yu sheng an auspicious-sounding name (Lucky Yu sheng), a consistent taste and an appealing look, both men said.

The symbolic meanings behind each of the more than 20 ingredients and the practice of "lo hei" were started by customers naturally over the years.

Said Mr Hooi: "The chanting of auspicious greetings just started naturally among diners. I guess they were in a celebratory mood and just wanted to wish each other good luck for the new year. Our focus was to make it as colourful as possible so that it would be appealing."

So they added more ingredients, such as julienned radish, cucumber and preserved red and white ginger, to give the dish a dizzying array of bright colours. To improve the texture, they included toppings like candied peel, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and fried dough bits.

They also concocted a pre-mixed sauce to change the way raw fish was eaten.

"It used to be that customers had to experiment with the sauce which meant that the fish wasn't always tasty. You can't do that in restaurants because you need to make sure your food is nice all the time, so that customers will keep coming back," said Mr Hooi.


Yu sheng was first served in Lai Wah Restaurant in Jalan Besar (and later, another branch at Bendemeer Road) - where the late Mr Tham and Mr Lau were partners - during Chinese New Year in 1964. It is now run by Mr Wong Kah Onn, the son of one of the original shareholders.

Soon after, both Mr Sin and Mr Hooi also started serving it in their restaurants - the now-defunct Sin Leong Restaurant at Macpherson Road and the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant at Tanjong Pagar (now at Novotel Clarke Quay Hotel) respectively.

In the early days, they used to have to make "money-back guarantee" promises to cajole diners to try yu sheng, said Mr Sin. "Not many of them knew about eating raw fish so we had to tell them: 'If you don't find it nice, we won't take your money'. Luckily they all liked it!"

It is now standard fare in every Chinese restaurant in Singapore and, in recent years, it has even started appearing in many other countries, such as Japan, China, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

While the yu sheng recipe at Lai Wah Restaurant, Dragon Phoenix Restaurant and Red Star Restaurant - jointly set up by the four kings - has not changed one bit for more than 30 years, other restaurants have since come up with various versions, such as raw fish with braised pig's trotters and beef.

It is something both Mr Sin and Mr Hooi are sceptical about.

Said Mr Hooi: "I understand that many youngsters want innovation and fusion but yu sheng is taken just once a year, why take away the most important ingredient? I think it takes away the tradition and the symbolic reasons for using fish."

Added Mr Sin: "It's not the same without fish. Only fish has the same pronunciation as abundance for Chinese."

Three generations of customers and restaurants still going strong Teo XuanweiScowling middle-aged waitresses with beehive hairdos pushing steaming baskets of dim sum across the sprawling dining floor, mouldy-looking carpeted floors, and weather-beaten curtains.

These charming sights still greet you when you step into Red Star Restaurant at Chin Swee Road today.

But what really keeps three generations of customers going back to Red Star - started by the Four Heavenly Kings of the culinary world in '60s Singapore - is the familiar food.

Little wonder that, since two of the surviving kings, Mr Sin Leong, 83, and Mr Hooi Kok Wai, 73, still go back every day to keep a watchful eye in the kitchens. Occasionally, they even hit the stoves themselves when old-time customers request special dishes.

Over at Lai Wah Restaurant, the first restaurant where the Fab Four's creation, yu sheng, was served, the owners, too, have a similar insistence about keeping with "tradition".

The Bendemeer Road restaurant still retains the familiar half-mirror, half-wooden panel walls.

The maroon-fabric cushioned chairs, the 14 wooden tables and battered aluminium kettles make one feel like it's a trip down memory lane, to the Chinese restaurant scene of yore.

And, of course, the recipes, passed down by the late Mr Tham Yui Kai and Mr Lau Yoke Pui, have not changed too for more than 40 years.