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May 24, 2012 03:24 PM

"Why Pork Chop Over Rice Isn’t Classically Taiwanese"

Very enlightening blog post about Taiwanese cuisine:

Particularly relevant to the SGV, so mods, please don't move to "Media" or "General" board!

(ClarissaW is everywhere today!)

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  1. The rebuttal below it sounds pretty dismissive of Clarissa's opinion.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ernie

      I don't know enough about Taiwanese cuisine to agree or disagree with her view, but attempts at food taxonomy are rarely without controversy.

      What was particularly interesting to me was the historical overview.

    2. When you're a food journalist, and you have ample time to devote to writing about food during your 9-5, prolific output is no surprise.

      24 Replies
      1. re: J.L.

        The recent output is prolific even by full-time journo standards, and I believe she's still enrolled at NYU journalism school. I'd be surprised if she's getting credits or $$$ for the blog posts, so this is all "extra credit" (though of course they contribute to her portfolio.) I've been impressed with her recent work, with the notable exception of the CNN "50 best Chinese restaurants in the United States" article that was justifiably derided at length here:


        (Perhaps she had limited editorial control over that one, though.)

        I think it's a huge plus that she's now engaging the CH community. JG used to do that, but no longer. I don't think it's a coincidence that his contributions are often too little/too late compared to the wealth of info available on CH.

        1. re: Peripatetic

          I wish I had gotten to try out various noodle houses during my days as a grad student...

          I suspect JG still lurks...

          1. re: J.L.

            > I suspect JG still lurks.

            I'd be astonished if he didn't. But I wonder if it's a missed opportunity that he doesn't interact.

          2. re: Peripatetic

            Haha Peripatetic. It's not "extra credit" -- trust me. I'm well past working for free. But thank you all for your comments. I enjoy reading them. Truth be told, I realize that authenticity isn't an exact science.

            But it pushes buttons and gets people to think about traditions. I'm not against fusion. I'm an admirer of innovators and the such -- but someone has to represent the "old" that tends to be forgotten.


            1. re: ClarissaW

              Welcome Clarissa. I'm a relative newcomer to (posting on) CH as well (lurking, I've done for years). My mom's family from Tainan too, and my dad's from Kaohsiung (ah Wade-Giles, how I love/loathe thee).

              I asked this in another comment, but I'll ask here again, not having grown up in L.A., is your lament for "classic" dishes fading away an indication that those dishes and places that served them were more plentiful in the past and are dying out?

              It seems to me that for any ethnic cuisine, if you plot on a graph authenticity (however it's defined) over number of restaurants, that you'd get an inverse proportion every time. That is, since we're not in the native country that the cuisine comes from, more restaurants will naturally exist that offer food that "bridge the gap" versus more "authentic" places. So is the issue that there's fewer places in general, or is it that you think they're overlooked, or is it that those places are actually going out of business?

              1. re: PeterCC

                Nice to meet another Taiwanese southerner :)

                Here's my take on this: Yes as time goes on, restaurants are bound to change in an attempt to accommodate their customers. I'm not against that at all. Who could be? I'm a frequenter of these "fusion restaurants." So none of the above is the issue. "Classic" dishes are fading away and that's the reality.

                The entire point is awareness -- to point out the places that stick to tradition and broaden media coverage on Chinese food. The SGV food scene is being slowly infiltrated with media. But rarely are the chefs and owners given a voice and rarely do people figure out the motivation behind the menu. People are on the outside looking in. But the experts on Chinese cuisine aren't the journalists or the writer. It's the chefs. That's what is lacking in Chinese food coverage.

                I've talked to Chinese restauranteurs who admit they scrapped a lot of their original dishes because of a growing number of "lao wais" in their customer base. What are those dishes? Are they disappearing because of a lack of understanding of the cuisine, or are they just not palatable?

                Everyone knows about niu rou mian and pai gu fan. But who's really covering those dishes that are lesser known and slowly fading?

                I'm really not trying to advocate any type of Chinese restaurant. That's really not my job. I just want to tell the stories of the people who tend to be overlooked.

                1. re: ClarissaW

                  >>I've talked to Chinese restauranteurs who admit they scrapped a lot of their original dishes because of a growing number of "lao wais" in their customer base.<<

                  I'm surprised to hear this, specifically in regards to places in the SGV. Is the lao wai influence that strong at some of the restaurants that would otherwise offer more original or traditional dishes on their menu? I don't live in SGV and am almost always there only during the weekends (I guess I'm lao wai but still get approached like I'm Mandarin or Cantonese speaking), but casual observation doesn't make me think the lao wai segment is that significant. The overwhelming majority of the customers I see definitely draw their roots from Chinese Asia. But does "lao wai" also include second and third generation of Asian immigrants?

                  Also, as opposed to dropping original dishes from their menu because of the lao wai influence, might these chefs be trying to draw or keep a broader segment's business? The competitiveness of the restaurant industry in SGV is unrivaled in SoCal. imho, it is so because it is immigrant driven, both in terms of supply and demand - the lao wai come here to partake in food that resembles what is more typical in Asia, at least I do. What is offered in local restaurants here seems to be more to draw business from the local community, regardless of the lao wai. If things like offal or snails are on the decline, I'd think it's an erosion in demand from the local community.

                  1. re: bulavinaka

                    It seems to me that restaurants would drop dishes only if the cost exceeds the benefits. You normally don't get rid of popular dishes because the regulars want it.

                    Sometimes, restaurants get rid of dishes because they require too many ingredients and/or too much effort to make.

                    1. re: raytamsgv

                      I think her main concern is exposure and visibility. Say a restaurant makes really good [insert "authentic" hard to find Taiwanese dish here], but not a lot of people who would be interested in that dish know about it, so they don't go.

                      Regardless of how good it is, the restaurant may decide to stop serving it because keeping the ingredients in stock isn't worth the handful of people who still order it. Instead, to get their name out there, they start branching out into more "fusion/new-wave" dishes, but then they can't compete with the restaurants that have already established a name for themselves serving those types of dishes, so they lose even more business.

                      At least that's one grim scenario I am picturing. So she wants to raise awareness of the places that do serve those hard-to-find Taiwanese dishes, and I am all for that.

                    2. re: bulavinaka

                      The "lao wai" reference puzzles me too, especially when citing Old Country Cafe and Lee's Garden. I've been in Old Country dozens of times, and I've only seen 1 other white person. In several visits to Lee's, I've never seen another white person.

                      Could it be more generational? That OCC and Lee's tailored to the community one generation earlier than Clarissa? They both opened by the mid-1980's and are the two oldest continually operating Taiwanese places in the SGV.

                      I wholeheartedly agree with Clarissa that the chefs and owners should have more of a voice and that the chefs are the true experts on Chinese cuisine. I would love to do so, but there is the language barrier, and sometimes simply lack of interest. I once was declined an interview, even with using a translator. So, I do what I can. Which is attempt to describe dishes to those unfamiliar with them, where the best versions of those dishes are, why they're worth checking out and hopefully, provide a bit of history or context when possible. It's also why I'm taking Mandarin, in hopes of communicating better.

                      1. re: JThur01

                        Sorry when I said "lao wai" I also meant Asian-Americans. [Grew up being called a 'lao wai']

                        1. re: JThur01

                          >>Could it be more generational?<<

                          >>Sorry when I said "lao wai" I also meant Asian-Americans. [Grew up being called a 'lao wai']<<

                          That was my fear. It doesn't take but one or two generations removed from the first to become more disassociated from the deeper aspects of their culture. When I see younger ones (who I'm guessing are second generation) running around SGV who are speaking broken Mandarin (kinda like Chinese version of Singlish) and listening to Canto-pop, I can't help but think that they are the ones who are at least partially responsible for diluting the appreciation for such things that Clarissa is so passionate about.

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            Those damn kids and their boba drinks! :-)

                            I also should add that when the interview was declined, it was politely and I've continued to frequent the place.

                            I too wonder about dishes disappearing from menus and fading away from the scene.

                            1. re: JThur01

                              I've never had the honor of meeting the chefs who prepare the Chinese (Chinese as in cultural not politcal) dishes I've eaten, nor have I had the luck to step into the kitchen to experience the (what I assume to be) amazing skills that even the typical Chinese (again as in cultural not political) line cook must have to make our meals. But what I also don't get is, as de facto foodies as many seem to be in the Chinese cultures, these amazing athletes who are blessed with both talent and artistry - why aren't they on cable, have their own shows, lauded in books, magazines, etc., like their counterparts in Japan, America and Europe? Are their culinary talents somewhat taken for granted?

                              1. re: bulavinaka

                                Not every chef craves the limelight.

                                1. re: J.L.

                                  From Clarissa's response to PeterCC:
                                  >>But rarely are the chefs and owners given a voice and rarely do people figure out the motivation behind the menu. People are on the outside looking in. But the experts on Chinese cuisine aren't the journalists or the writer. It's the chefs. That's what is lacking in Chinese food coverage.<<

                                  Thus, my question...

                                2. re: bulavinaka

                                  But what I also don't get is, as de facto foodies as many seem to be in the Chinese cultures, these amazing athletes who are blessed with both talent and artistry - why aren't they on cable, have their own shows, lauded in books, magazines, etc., like their counterparts in Japan, America and Europe?

                                  They are. Just not in the American media.

                                  1. re: bulavinaka

                                    "why aren't they on cable, have their own shows, lauded in books, magazines, etc., like their counterparts in Japan, America and Europe? Are their culinary talents somewhat taken for granted?"

                                    The food media and industry is much larger (and competitive) over there....e.g. Hong Kong board of Tourism has a vested interest in marketing HK's culinary scene to tourists as a strong selling point across Japan, Taiwan, SE Asia, China. Thus it is also a cultural thing for business people (and executive chefs) to be very cut throat in wanting maximum exposure and profits.... those who rise to celebrity chef status get to publish books, write articles, host TV shows (including some cases where exec chefs who are also high up on the corporate ladder of their business, can travel to exotic locations, including Japan, to purchase raw materials and is documented for TV viewers...mostly in the name of more publicity).

                                    Most Chinese/Taiwanese (even Cantonese seafood) restaurants in the USA are not owned by the chef de cuisines/executive chefs themselves, but rather hired locally or from abroad, who aren't making all the key decisions about the menus or direction, unless they open their own restaurants.

                                    Also, the average Chinese food "foodie" blogger type here simply does not go overboard the way their overseas counterparts do in terms of research, history, knowledge of the dish/product, or dedication/promotion of traditional dishes that are fading away (an especially strong movement in Hong Kong food culture, whereas in Taiwan or Tainan, 100 year old receipes are still being preserved and carried on). Part of it is language barrier (for the Americanized and those who don't read/speak/write), the other part is cultural (especially for the Asian Americans detached 1 generation who did not grow up overseas and do not achieve the understanding regardless of multiple visits). Last but not least is the access to knowledge and history...a lot of food culture and history in the English media is just extremely limited. To really get to know it properly, one has to go into Chinese media, or even dive into the archives of a library in said country. All this information is out there scattered to some extent if you search online, and even youtube clips if you are lucky.

                                    In terms of the Taiwanese media (in TW and also TW media operating in SGV/SoCal area) chefs/restaurants/dishes being promoted on the telly or newsprint is either done in the name of advertising (ie a cost involvement by the restaurant) or a journalistic discovery of something newsworthy (e.g. if a restaurant does some publicity stunt or mayor of Taichung visits his favorite SGV noodle shop). In some cases it could be like a political game thing of establishing mutually beneficial relationships.

                                3. re: bulavinaka

                                  Partially responsible? I agree. Is it a bad thing? Not necessarily. Food evolves over time and while some want to hold on to what they love dear I'm rather like to watch from the sidelines and see what the masses move onto.

                                  Besides availability of ingredients is usually what determines what the masses will eat. It's likely the cost of meat will keep going up so this could possibly have an effect in the near future of what is served on menus if owners are not willing to raise prices any higher.

                                  1. re: Johnny L

                                    The food in Taiwan today is probably tastier than that from 100 years ago.

                                    1. re: Johnny L

                                      Completely agree on the evolution of food and all, but from Clarissa's perspective, I think her point seems to be to dig her heals into the sand and sort of resist the tide.

                                      I've briefly referred above to the issue about things like offal in traditional Taiwanese cuisine. I normally don't purchase those cuts so prices are ? to me. But I'd think that per unit, offal in general would be some of the more economical cuts? If this is so, I would think it might bode well for many of the more traditional homey dishes in the long run, at least from the supply side. The demand side is obviously at issue.

                                      I'm familiar with a trend in Japan is not far off - maybe not dissimilar in some ways as to how offal became integrated into Taiwanese cuisine. Consumption of land proteins in Japan was very limited until more recent times (Post Meiji Restoration) relative to other parts of east Asia. I think eating products from pork and beef has been limited to the non-offal cuts for the most part. A third uncle saw an opportunity with beef offal since it was for the most part being disregarded in general. He grew up eating pork and beef offal as poor post-WWII teenager. He personally liked the various "undesirable" parts and thought others would if given a chance - called horumono. So he opened up a night stand serving these parts grilled or in various stews and soups that were Japonified versions of Korean cuisine. It eventually caught on, he opened up more stands, which eventually evolved into brick & mortars. Horumono is probably most popular in places doing yakiniku, but I don't know if this type of food will ever be as popular as some of the other more popular dishes found in traditional or contemporary Japanese cuisine. Regardless, he has carved out a solid niche.

                              2. re: ClarissaW

                                "But who's really covering those dishes that are lesser known and slowly fading? "

                                Can you give examples of dishes that were once offered in SGV Taiwanese restaurants but are no longer or slowly fading? And what are they being replaced with?

                                1. re: ClarissaW

                                  As a non-Asian who spends an awful lot of time in the SGV, I've got to say: OG Taiwanese food, at least as it's presented here, is as off-putting as any cuisine on earth - often to the point of seeming intentionally so. The style of cooking is a cultural marker, an aggressive yet acceptable way of saying: We do this; you don't. I don't tend to agree with Mr. Dixit, but when he implies it is a political thing, he is on the mark.

                                  Except in boba shops or porkchop rice restaurants like Sinbala, you almost never see non-Chinese - or probably non-Taiwanese - in specifically Taiwanese restaurants. It seems to be strictly a generational joint.

                                  1. re: condiment

                                    Been to Simbala a couple of times. Even there - the number of Asians far outnumber non-Asians. But most of the Asians seem to be younger first- or second-generation, or young families.

                        2. >> mods, please don't...<< The call of certain death...

                          Can someone establish a baseline for folks like me who don't really know what classic would be for Taiwanese cuisine? Being that Taiwan has been in pretty constant change for so long, defining "classically Taiwanese," seems to be a relative term to the unitiated like me. If memory serves me correctly, Taiwan as we know it today has been so for a relatively short time. Thanks

                          12 Replies
                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            I think the OP must be talking about Taiwan post-1949.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              That's my point I guess... I have a rough mental outline of Taiwan's history, and the post-1949 period is the beginning of modern Taiwan. It would seem that with the changes over the 20th century, that some for of cultural melding and synergism probably occurred. And since 1949 was such a critical point in time for modern Taiwan, I would think that this would be the beginning of their modern era. That doesn't seem very long relative to cultural timelines, especially from the perspective of various Chinese cultures through history.

                              1. re: bulavinaka

                                It seems like the author is drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, like anything that wasn't around in Taiwan when her grandmother was growing up is automatically considered "fusion/new-wave" to her. As arbitrary lines go, that's not a bad one to start with to explore the changes in Taiwanese cuisine over the last five or six decades, but to call anything more recent than the mid-twentieth century "inauthentic" is a stretch. (I'm not even going to bother with her use of the word "classic", as that has no inherent meaning, unlike "authentic".)

                                (Also, if the author's grandmother is _so_ Taiwanese that she barely understands Mandarin, than Taiwanese is likely _not_ the only language she speaks. She probably also speaks Japanese, as my grandparents did, since Japan occupied Taiwan until the 1940s.)

                                I grew up in New England, so the only Taiwanese food around were from my mom's kitchen, and in Flushing, Queens, several hours away. I don't know if these "classic" dishes that the author loves (and I do as well) were more commonly found in Taiwanese restaurants in L.A. and are starting to fade. If that's the case, that is a sad state of affairs, but there's no need to create antagonism by classifying them as authentic and excluding other iconic Taiwanese dishes with an "inauthentic" label.

                                Strangely, looking at her "10 Classic Taiwanese Dishes" list, I'm not sure I've ever had beef rolls. I would also put ma you yao hua (pork kidney in sesame oil), zhu xue gao (pork blood cake), yang rou mi fen (goat/lamb with rice vermicelli), "wah guei" (glutinous rice paste with pork), eel noodles, and you yu geng (cuttlefish in fish paste in starchy soup) on the list (though I understand it's _her_ top ten, so maybe these don't rank as high for her). I could go on and on about my favorites, but I'm no expert in Taiwanese culinary history, so for all I know I'm listing things that are "inauthentic" in the author's mind.

                                I know I've become known more as a sushi/omakase poster, and living on the westsided has been great for that, but one thing I regret is how far away I am from SGV. I've only been to a handful of Taiwanese restaurants, and haven't even been to Happy Garden yet. I will have to focus my attention on remedying that in the future.

                                1. re: PeterCC

                                  I agree that making pronouncements about what is "authentic" and "inauthentic" is probably oversimplistitic and a little inflammatory. hanbāgu (ハンバーグ) is a recent addition to Japanese cuisine that's probably analogous to pork chop rice in Taiwan, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it's not authentically Japanese. So I'm not sure I agree with the _premise_ of the blog post, but the post itself represents an interesting traversal of the history of Taiwanese cuisine.

                                  1. re: Peripatetic

                                    The "authentic" issue has been hashed over so many times and usually ends up being locked by the mods for fear of civil war. I agree that it seems overly simplistic and it can become very inflammatory. Terms oftentimes can be hard to pin on things, and when one tries, another disputes it to the death. Authenticity is always a moving target, and everyone trying to claim truth has a different perspective. Relative to Taiwan, the piece implicates the author's elders and grand elders as points of reference, but what about those before them - far before them? Those that fled with General Chan aren't that long ago, but what about the first Han? The Austronesians? The Dutch, Spanish and Japanese would probably be counted in as well...

                                    Getting caught up with "Authentic" or even "classical" to me is futile in the present day - things have changed too fast post-WWII to pin on terms like this in their intended sense (e.g., classical music of a certain era that might span centuries). I think classic to some point in time or period might be more relevant but even then, dissenters line up deep.

                                    Dishes like pork chop rice and hanbāgu - ハンバーグ have their places in their respective cultures and I'm guessing many would consider them as borderline staples or standards relative to CURRENT times. Prior to WWII? Probably not innovated yet.

                                  2. re: PeterCC

                                    SGV exploration: Now THERE's a quest that won't break the bank!

                                    1. re: J.L.

                                      Except for the gas money. :-) But yes, getting out of a place for $25 vs. $65 (or $105) will be a refreshing change.

                                    2. re: PeterCC

                                      I frequently associate with some folks who are from Taiwan. It will be interesting to touch on this thread with them. And as for pork blood cake, they get this giddy look and start licking their chops when I start naming off things that I'd have a hard time trying. Thanks for the detailed input.

                                      imho, the best time to head out to SGV from the Westside for food is on the weekends starting in the morning. Traffic is very smooth - about 30 minutes from door to door - west-half of the SGV. The trip back can be tough depending on what time you return - 1-3PM can be tough on the return. Of course, throw in any sporting event and the expectations are out the window.

                                      1. re: bulavinaka

                                        I think my record for travel time was 25 minutes. I had to get from Santa Monica to Rosemead for an appointment at 1 PM on a weekday. I left at noon and got there at 12:25 PM (freeway entrance to freeway exit). There just happened to be little-to-no traffic on the 10 that day, and I didn't go too much over the speed limit. :-)

                                        Would you ever try pig heart? No idea if that's Taiwanese, just knew growing up that it was a rare treat to have it.

                                        1. re: PeterCC

                                          Hmmm - pig heart... I've taken to chicken heart and beef heart over the past years, why not...

                                    3. re: bulavinaka

                                      Trust me, if you polled 9 out of 10 Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party (Mínzhǔ dǎng) members they'd say pork chop rice is traditional classic Taiwanese dish, and it's the best thing on earth.

                                      Conversely, if you polled 9 out of 10 Taiwanese Nationalist (Kuomintang) party members, they'd say there is no such thing as a traditional classical Taiwanese dish, and if there was such a thing the original dish from China is better.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        Can't the greens and blues ever agree on anything?!

                                2. I have a feeling dear clarissa in 10 years won't recognize the writings of clarissa present day. That's not an indictment on her content or potential, but I think your worldview changes radically post college. It will be interesting to watch her career progress.

                                  1. Eh the whole article is a bunch of nostalgia asking for a good waxing.

                                    Seriously let's consider what is authentic? It leads to questions of where is authentic and when is it?

                                    Go back far enough and nothing is authentic.

                                    -Tomatoes which are so associated with the cuisine of Spain and Italy were imported in the 1500's during the age of exploration.
                                    -Sushi, tempura, ramen: all came from different regions of the world and yet they are synonymous with Japan today.

                                    The way I see it, nothing and everything is authentic at the same time past, present, and future. This writer wants to preserve her regional and cultural food, I am for that and support that idea.

                                    The idea that her image of authentic "Taiwanese" food is basically set in her own microcosm of space and time, I find rather annoying at the least. There is nothing wrong with fusion (despite the bad connotation the word gets these days), authenticity is chosen by the money in the wallets of the common people. What is authentic now is what the masses will be seen eating presently when viewed decades later. What is new will become old and probably become new again one day.