Jewel Tsai’s (蔡珠兒) “homemade banquet” is a conversation piece among her friends. She considers having banquets a grand event, so she gives each one a good mulling over and plans it weeks in advance. She is ever aware of the harvest time of each type of farm produce, and then designs her menu accordingly. Anything can play a role in her menu. For example, once, on her weekend hike at Maokong (貓空), she saw some fresh, green bamboo leaves and asked for a few to take home. She washed them carefully, and later used them to underlay her dishes. As for having to make several trips to local markets to find ingredients, Tsai believes it’s the only way to prepare a nice, homey meal.
“For every banquet, I probably will shop at 2 or 3 local markets – this is my basic “must-do.” For some ingredients, you just have to go to a particular vendor at a certain market; that’s how you satisfy your needs,” Tsai says with a smile. People might think this process is mired in minor details, but she’s used to it. “Having a nice meal is very important; it is what I call quality time.” To achieve her goals, she even uses different salts and oils with different ingredients.
On the day before our interview, she spotted a type of shallot shoot that only appears in the coldest depths of winter, so she bought a big bunch as a delightful surprise. After several tries, she found that goose fat brought out the greatest sweetness and tenderness from this vegetable. She then cooked it with some spear shrimps she had shelled and deveined herself. This combination made a pretty green and red dish that filled the space with a strong yet refreshing aroma, which was just amazing.
“Use a different oil or sauce to compliment each ingredient’s special qualities, and you’ll get a nice variety of results and tastes,” she said as she placed the food on the plate.
The Land of Abundant Flavors
Tsai had lived in Hong Kong for many years before she finally moved back to Taiwan a couple of years ago. She says that the range of ingredients in Taiwan is completely different from that of Hong Kong. For her, this is a challenge.
“In Hong Kong, about 90% of ingredients are imported. Although all year round, you can get things from all over the world, still – there isn’t a lot of variety, nor a lot of natural fragrance. In Taiwan, after two centuries of introducing and improving alien species, there are plenty of ingredients to choose from." As she talked, she handed over a plate of dark green vegetables. It looked partly like asparagus, and partly like cypress leaves. It tasted salty and crunchy, and kind of reminded me of the sea breeze. “This is samphire from the coast of central Taiwan,” she informed me. “It has a natural salty taste, so all you need to do is add a little fresh lily bulb for the color.”
When talking about ingredients, former farmer Tsai just can’t hold back her excitement. Take the taro rice noodle soup she was cooking as an example. To make this dish, she must start preparing a day ahead. The preparation requires finely chopping shallots, mushrooms, dried shrimps and flatfish, and then blanching them in hot oil. Then she moves on to the carrots, little octopus from Penghu (澎湖), and the shredded pork with bean sprouts. Taiwanese dishes usually contain an abundance of good quality ingredients, so each step is crucial. Tsai worked on the recipe with quick moves and told me, “Taro in season has a great taste. To bring out its texture in the rice noodle soup, you need to add fried and also raw pieces. It won’t be long until we serve the mullet rice noodle soup!”
A few moments later, the boiling soup Tsai had prepared was in front of us. She asked everyone to enjoy it while it was hot, keeping in mind that it was at its perfect serving temperature that moment.
“Every dish must always be served at its peak condition, with just the right temperature and taste. Life is just the same, you need to grasp the moment,” Tsai said, while ladling soup for everyone. It was plain to see that she insists on her guests enjoying each dish at its perfect temperature.
When Tsai plans a menu, she considers the diners’ ages and occupations as well. For example, with young men with robust appetites at the table, Tsai prepared a fulfilling dish – Shio Koji Mountain Pepper Pork Neck with Baked Butter Cabbage (鹽麴馬告松阪烤奶油萵苣). This was marinated in shio koji to bring out the aroma and taste of the pork neck, and also enhance its texture. The baked butter cabbage added a light, refreshing note. In addition, since agaricus Brazil mushroom (also called “blaze mushroom”) happened to be in season, she pan-fried a few in rice bran oil with a little red pepper to add some color. When this dish was served, the whole room filled with a mouthwatering aroma, causing real excitement among the diners!
Make a Dish for People You Love
In addition to finding out her friends’ food preferences, Tsai always likes to prepare the appetizer, Liu Fu Kao Fu (六福烤麩), baked wheat gluten with six ingredients, a treat she makes for her husband as well. She takes mushroom, baked wheat gluten, winter bamboo shoots, daylily, jelly fungus, and her in-laws must-have ingredient: blanched peanuts. Then, she adds sugar, star anise, and soy sauce and simmers at a low heat until it’s well flavored. The precise layers of flavor create a homemade taste that will make you savor every morsel. It’s light and delicate, yet filling, and is the most common dish on Tsai’s family table. And while our dishes were served, we all bonded with each other, served each other her marvelous culinary creations, laughed and chatted. Everyone felt the warmth of the food, the emotions, and the happiness.