Taiwan and Japan as Lunchroom Buddies:Taste-Testing Each Other’s Foods
Cathy Teng /photo byChuang Kung-ju /tr. byDavid Mayer
After finishing a meal in Japan, one expresses appreciation to the chef with folded hands and a customary phrase: “go chi sou sama.” A meal is a form of sharing. It communicates the chef’s wish to share delicious food with friends. For a long time, Taiwan and Japan have shared the tastes of their respective cuisines, and these exchanges provide the mainstay of the culinary relationship between our two countries.
Two chefs from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture, Shiho Fujiyabu and Akiko Shinohara, have combined Taiwanese ingredients with the spirit of Japanese cuisine. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
By pure coincidence, this July two chefs from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture, Shiho Fujiyabu and Akiko Shinohara, came to Taiwan to teach cooking classes in Yilan and Kaohsiung, where they have combined Taiwanese ingredients with the spirit of Japanese cuisine. So, without further ado, itadakimasu (“let’s dig in”)!
Shiho Fujiyabu (right) attended courses on Taiwanese farm cuisine in 2015 under Miyazaki’s Taiwan Juku project. She took an interest in Taiwan and met Lai Cing-soong (left), who arranged for her to teach cooking classes in Taiwan in 2019.
The cooking classes that Shiho Fujiyabu taught in Taiwan were a huge success.
Connecting through cuisine
Whoever said that no kitchen was big enough for two women?! Fully 14 women squeezed happily into the kitchen at a cooking class organized by Island Time, a forum recently launched by Lai Cing-soong, co-founder of the Ko-Tong Rice Club in Yilan County. With Lai’s wife Chu Mei-hung serving as interpreter, Shiho Fujiyabu taught the students how to do Japanese-style home cooking using local Yilan ingredients.
One of the dishes made by Ms. Fujiyabu was chicken nanbanzuke, which features fried chicken smothered in sweet and sour sauce and topped with tartar sauce. This dish, which originated in her hometown of Miyazaki, is now all the rage throughout Japan. For cold hors d’oeuvres she went with shira-ae (mashed tofu salad), using in-season bamboo shoots and her favorite Taiwanese pineapple. It was outstanding.
Fujiyabu demonstrated how to fry up a beautiful tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet), then handed a frying pan to a student so the latter could give it a try. Next she took rice produced this year by the Ko-Tong Rice Club and had the students use it to make vegetable sushi from shiso, bell peppers, shiitake mushrooms, avocado, eggplant, and edamame.
Despite the language barrier, laughter rang out continually during the cooking class. In the none-too-spacious kitchen, the students busily shaped sushi balls, taste tested, laid out sushi platters, and took photos. Their work complete, they all sat down to eat, and before starting they said in unison: “itadakimasu!”
The roots of this scintillating culinary experience trace back to Taiwan Juku, a 2015 course on Taiwanese farm cuisine which was held in Kyushu and funded by the government of Miyazaki Prefecture.
Fujiyabu, who has a distinct “girl next door” air about her, quit her job as a journalist in 2010 and switched to cooking, for which she has had a passion since childhood. “It was like I had switched to using cooking as my journalistic medium,” she says. She returned from Tokyo to her hometown and joined in the Taiwan Juku project promoted by the Miyazaki Enterprise Promotion Organization. This marked the beginning of a deeper relationship with Taiwan.
In 2018, Fujiyabu opened a cooking studio called Syoku Sekkei (“food design and coordination”), and in the summer of 2019 she approached Lai Cing-soong with a proposal to come and teach cooking classes in Taiwan. Lai, for his part, already had a dream of maintaining strong ties with farm cuisine partners in Kyushu, and so accepted the proposal with alacrity. “We’re using dreams to support our dreams,” says Lai.
The government-sponsored Taiwan Juku project was only set to run for a year, and has now come to an end, but in the meantime, its emphasis on “making friends above all else” has led to a lot more people-to-people ties than anyone ever anticipated.
Akiko Shinohara describes the fruits and vegetables of Taiwan as genki—“healthy and cheerful.”
The Chill Chill Kaohsiung Project’s “farm to table” cooking workshops are now in their fifth year. Lots of the participants come back year after year, and are now old friends.
The Farm to Table Project, a cooking workshop that Akiko Shinohara developed for the Chill Chill Kaohsiung Project, is yet another outstanding activity that has resulted from the Taiwan Juku program in Miyazaki.
A native of Japan’s Kansai region, Ms. Shinohara is in every way the proverbial Yamato nadeshiko, the personification of an idealized Japanese woman. Many years ago, she moved to Miyazaki because of her husband’s job there. As a vegetable sommelier, she was hired by the Miyazaki Enterprise Promotion Organization to help local farmers develop a new cookbook. Taking the farmers’ perspective, she set about finding ways to bring the delicious tastes of food ingredients to the fore. As a result of the Taiwan Juku program, she got to know Nato and Trista, the organizers of Chill Chill Kaohsiung, with whom she joined hands to roll out her workshop.
In explaining the origins of the Chill Chill Kaohsiung Project, Trista commented as follows: “If I were to use one English word to describe my hometown of Kaohsiung, I think that word would be ‘chill.’ I feel that the people of Kaohsiung don’t pay attention to what’s in fashion. We just do our own thing.” As the proprietors of a bed and breakfast where most of the guests are from overseas, Nato and Trista often think about how to present Taiwan to foreigners. They lead foreign visitors through traditional markets and point them to cooking classes so they can appreciate the feel of Kaohsiung, and they use Akiko Shinohara’s cooking workshop to do deep-dive explorations into Kaohsiung’s food and seasonality, and to look at the stories behind the foods.
For each workshop, Nato and Trista suggest particular seasonal vegetables, and explain how the Taiwanese prefer to have them prepared, while Shinohara thinks about how to take them and use Japanese cooking methods to create dishes that will prove popular in Taiwan. She says: “Japanese cuisine is meant to be appreciated with all five senses. The feeling of Taiwanese cuisine, meanwhile, is one of vigor and energy.”
Earlier this year, they responded to the summer heat by making ginger the focal ingredient of the workshop. Nato started things off by explaining how one sources ginger from small local farming operations, then Shinohara showed the students how to thin-slice the ginger then blanch and dry the slices, resulting in a ginger relish that can be put up in jars. During the same session, students tasted ginger on rice, ginger ale, and salad with ginger and carrot juice.
For the past five-plus years, Nato and Trista have gotten a new appreciation for their hometown’s charm by looking at it through Shinohara’s eyes. Trista states: “Akiko’s cooking style is deeply influenced by the Japanese tea ceremony. She cares deeply about ‘the current moment,’ which has prompted me to drop some of my emphasis on delicious taste and understand things instead through the lens of seasonality.”
This year marks year five of the seasonal cooking workshop. Together they’ve tried tomatoes in the spring, mandarin oranges and lemons in the summer, chestnuts in the autumn, and daikon radishes in the winter. In the future, they’re hoping to try out some fruits not grown in Japan, such as papaya and pomelo. One can’t help but feel a buzz of anticipation as each new workshop draws near and a unique combination of Taiwanese ingredients and Japanese cooking pops up on the radar.
Taiwan’s bubble milk tea has become hugely popular in Japan.
Much the same as Taiwanese kids like to trade lunch boxes at school, so it goes between Japan and Taiwan when we try out each other’s foods. Japanese chefs come to Taiwan to learn about the things we eat, and to make friends in the process. And, distinctively Taiwanese foods get introduced in Japan and make a big splash there.
Taiwan’s famous bubble milk tea (or boba, as it is often called) was originally invented by the Taiwanese restaurant chain Chun Shui Tang, which opened a shop two and a half years ago in Fukuoka’s bustling Hakata District.
Shop manager Miho Shimotanida tells us that when the shop first opened, most of the customers drank their tea inside, but business increased and she opened a “take out” window. This only increased her business all the more. The Japanese are rather proper with their eating habits. The only time they eat while walking in the street is during certain festivals, but the incursion of Taiwanese bubble milk tea is quietly changing all that. Ms. Shimotanida reports that her business is up by more than 40% over last year.
3 Coins Restaurant, which has been doing business in Taiwan for over 60 years and last year was awarded a Michelin star, has now embarked upon the Japan market under the name of Daisangen. In addition to the Hong-Kong-style dim sum dishes that have long been a mainstay of its business, Daisangen has now added xiaolongbao steamed dumplings and bubble milk tea to its menu, giving it a distinctly Taiwanese flavor.
Restaurant manager Yu Chi-chen, who has worked many years in Japan, notes that Japanese people used to consider Taiwanese cuisine to be virtually the same thing as Chinese cuisine. But the number of Japanese tourists visiting Taiwan has risen in recent years, and Japanese news media have started to report extensively on all things Taiwanese. As a result, the Japanese have gotten to where they can identify bubble milk tea, braised pork over rice, fried chicken fillets, and other typically Taiwanese food items. Today, people in Taiwan and Japan understand each other better.
According to Yu Chi-chen, the recent bubble milk tea craze has familiarized the Japanese with this quintessentially Taiwanese treat. Meanwhile, Daisangen is the first restaurant in Japan to sell Taiwan-style tea shakes. Part of the product’s charm lies in the fact the customer chooses the type of tea, the degree of sweetness, and how many ice cubes to put in. Allowing the buyer this level of customization came as a real eye-opener for consumers in Japan.
If a flavor is indeed the extension of a memory, then I daresay that interest among the people of Taiwan and Japan in each other’s cuisines will spur all of us to travel back and forth and create indelible memories as we experience the unforgettable flavors that are out there to be discovered and enjoyed.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama