Talent: Clarissa Wei @dearclarissa
Publisher: Simon Element @_simonelement
Sporting a baby blue blouse, Clarissa Wei greets me from her home in Taipei. Her calm, warm, and inviting demeanor immediately puts me at ease as she walks Timid through the creation of Made in Taiwan, a cookbook that she wrote in collaboration with culinary instructor Ivy Chen. Throughout our conversation, it's clear that Wei’s love for storytelling is deeply rooted in the lens of food and how it connects to her heritage.
This love is easily felt through every, well-thought out detail of the book. Before diving into the recipes, it opens with a culinary history, showcasing the flavors and dishes influenced by different eras. There is also an introduction on typical Taiwanese pantry staples, as well as the different equipment used in preparing the dishes. The recipes that follow are divided thematically, ranging from breakfast to family style, beer food, night market food, and more—another unique and thoughtful decision by Wei. “By [dividing the chapters up] by themes, people can travel through Taiwan and realize the different types of food that we have,” Wei explains. “The settings in which food is shared and takes place will determine what type of dishes are served. It's not just this big, monolithic, flat, 2D cuisine.”
Describing Made in Taiwan as merely a cookbook would be inadequate. It’s a history book, a collection of essays, and more importantly, Wei’s love letter to Taiwan.
Clarissa Wei: I was a journalism major in college, and I started writing about food when I was studying abroad in Shanghai. Funnily enough, I was writing about American or Western restaurants in China because back then there weren't a lot. When I moved back to New York, I started writing about Chinese food in New York and then Los Angeles, which is where I'm from. I gravitated towards food because it was a fun and convenient way to tell the story of communities that I feel very close to. I had interned at a lot of mainstream media outlets, and I just knew that type of lifestyle wasn't for me. Food was just a natural way for me to tell the stories about the communities I care about. I've obviously written about other elements, like culture, politics, tech, but it's something I constantly go back to. This cookbook was just a very natural segue into telling the story of Taiwan.
CW: While there have been Taiwanese cookbooks, none of them have ever talked about Taiwanese cuisine as its own entity. It's always sort of been like, “This is a part of Chinese food or another regional cuisine of China.” I saw this vacuum that I could fill. The timing worked out perfectly. By the time I sold it in 2021, COVID had happened. The Stop Asian Hate movement happened in the States, and people saw what happened in Hong Kong with the pro-democracy protests. My editor and publisher in New York realized my vision and [saw an urgency to tell Taiwan’s story]. Maybe this wasn't true five, ten years ago, where people were like, “What's Taiwan?” or a lot of people would be like, “Oh, we already have an author of Taiwanese heritage. We don't need another Taiwanese cookbook.” But by 2021, it was clear that this book was very much needed. So that's how I came across this project.
CW: I was a student of Ivy’s about ten years ago, right when I graduated college. Since then, she was always a source I turned to. Whenever I was writing about Taiwanese food, I would interview her, and we just kept in touch sporadically throughout the years. When I interviewed her, I mentioned, “Hey, I'm pitching this Taiwanese cookbook.” After our conversation ended, she called me back and said, “I have to be a part of this project.” I said yes because I was born and raised in the States, but Ivy has been teaching Taiwanese cuisine for over two decades. She can contextualize dishes in a way that I cannot. She has more experience than I do. With her as my recipe developer, it was an incredible partnership. I did all the research and the writing and made sure the recipes worked for the American kitchen because I grew up in America. Ivy, [however], really isolated the flavor profiles and techniques that make these dishes Taiwanese. You'll see thousands of recipes for oyster omelet, beef noodle soup, or three cup chicken, but Ivy would say, “This is how we do it in Taiwan.” There's a million ways to make these dishes, but Ivy gave me that perspective and showed me how things are done there.
CW: I hired a part-time researcher, and I would give her prompts. If you look through the book, you’ll find essays. I would give her the rough idea of an essay I wanted, and she would just comb through books or online material and compile a research document for me. I read this book called A New Illustrated History of Taiwan, and I put it all together based on my assistant’s research documents and what I learned from this book.
Sometimes when people write things online, they just say shit with no fact checking, or they just wax poetic about things and you're like, “Where does this come from?” For some of those dishes, that's okay because they come with tall tales and myths, and no one actually knows, and that's fine. But the historical and political portions are really important to get right. So I decided to hire a historian, James Lin, to read over the essays and fact check it. If there was a sentence that was questionable, he would be like, “Hey, where did this come from?” and if I couldn’t provide my source material, I would have to rethink the way I phrased that. There's not a lot of information about Taiwanese history, let alone Taiwanese food, and I wanted to do it right. So I spent a lot of my money making sure I didn't lie. I hope it's a worthwhile investment, because I didn't want to mislead people or tell a false narrative. I hope I told this story as accurately as possible.
CW: The easiest and most beloved one is rou zao fan, which in the north we call lu rou fan, because it's just pork belly and then a couple of ingredients like soy sauce, rice, wine, shallots, and sugar that make it, and you can do it in an instant pot, in a pot, in a steamer. That's a really good entry point. Another one, probably the shacha beef with water spinach stir fry, because that's a flavor that is very unique to Taiwan and is actually quite easy to do with just the sauce. Even though they have satay sauce all over Southeast Asia, shacha sauce is a very specific Taiwanese flavor. That dish will help you understand another aspect of Taiwanese food. For the last one, we'll go into dessert with mochi, which is easy to do. All you have to do is sprinkle some sugar and black sesame powder or peanut powder. For all the rice recipes, we included instructions on how to make it with rice flour or with raw rice. Rice is so fundamental to traditional Taiwanese cuisine. If you make it with raw rice, you can really tell the difference. It has this nutty, earthy taste to it. That's another one of my favorites that I would recommend. It can be a bit finicky, but with these three dishes, you'll get a semi-comprehensive outlook of what Taiwanese food is at its basics.
CW: Generally speaking, Taiwanese food in America tends to be more geared towards waishengren—people who came over to Taiwan from China post-1949. There’s a lot of noodles. Beef noodle soup is something you see everywhere. Something that you see a lot in America is the scallion roll with the beef tendon and cucumbers inside, but we don't have that all that much in Taiwan unless you go to a dumpling shop. Dumplings, and then people love their fan tuan—the rice roll—and you tiao [fried dough], which exist here in Taiwan but is a very specific subset. Most people here, when we do breakfast, we go to [breakfast chain] Mei Er Mei instead of [breakfast chain] Yonghe Doujiang, depending on where you live.
I think that is what has characterized Taiwanese food in America for a very long time, and as a result, some of the benshengren dishes that were here in Taiwan pre-1949 don't get as much of a playtime in menus in America. For example, things like ba-wan, which I love—it's a crystal dumpling, and inside there's meat and bamboo shoots that you rarely see in the States. Or oyster omelets. I love that texture, the sweet potato starch that we don't really get in the States, or something as famous as the danzai noodles with shrimp. It's so flavorful, but we don't get that in the States as well. With this book, I hope to expand that definition of Taiwanese food outside of the realm of the food of waishengren, which are obviously just as Taiwanese and just as authentic and legit as any other types of food here, but it is interesting how limited the repertoire is in Los Angeles.
CW: It was really stressful, but there was a two-week photoshoot we did with my team where we went down to Tainan where my food photographer and stylist have their studio. All five of us—me, the researcher, Ivy, food photographer, and stylist—we were just there, deliriously cooking. But it just felt like magic and organic, where we didn't have to talk to each other. We all knew our roles. Ivy is the master chef, she can work things out quickly, and the food photographer and stylist planned everything ahead of time. It was like a play. Every dish had a different set and scene change, and they would move things so fast. Basically Xin-yun [the researcher] and I were the interns and assistants at that point. I was with people who are so skilled, and it was so cool to see how it all came through. You can see that mastery in the cooking and the level of detail by the photographer and stylist. All of the lighting that you see in the book, that's all artificial lights. They closed the curtain, and we were in this dark little room, but it was really magical, organic, and just a fun two weeks.
CW: The main thing is that Taiwan is unique. Our food is unique. We are an island, and because we had all of these different waves of governance—the colonial history is unique to us and because of that our food culture is unique. You see that in the food. A lot of people will be like, “Oh, but you guys have woks and you stir fry, you use the same ingredients, and they have the same or similar dishes in China.” But people in Malaysia of Chinese descent don't say that their food is the same as Chinese food, or people of Singaporean Chinese descent don't say that their food is Chinese food. Yes, we have Chinese influences, and it's such an integral part of our cuisine and culture, but it is not the sole thing that defines us. I hope people who are Taiwanese who read this book will be proud of being Taiwanese. So many of us have had an identity crisis in the midst of all these cross strait relations. But through this, people can find the tidbits that make us unique, and I hope I have done that through the lens of food.
Made in Taiwan is scheduled to be released on September 19, 2023.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.