Taiwanese Cuisine — Bok Choy and Shiitake Mushrooms

Taiwan, like many other nations in the Pacific, has been under the rule of several different flags over the course of its history.  The aboriginal Taiwanese people, related most closely to the aboriginal groups of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Polynesia, are thought to have first arrived on the island around eight thousand years ago.  Dutch colonization in the seventeenth century opened up the transportation routes for Han Chinese (from whom the majority of modern-day Taiwanese are descended) to emigrate to the island.  Japanese conquest in the late nineteenth century, which lasted until the conclusion of World War 2, created another wave of influence.  Today’s Taiwanese government is the direct continuation of the pre-Communist Republic of China (a name still in use by the Taiwanese government), which fled to the island after the Chinese Civil War of 1949.  Most recently, immigrants from Southeast Asia have made their mark on Taiwanese culture.

Taiwan quick facts:

  • Capital: Taipei
  • Population: 23,340,136
  • Notable Taiwanese: Ang Lee, Chien-Ming Wang, Momofuku Ando (founder of Nissin Corporation and inventor of ramen noodles)

All the different influences on Taiwanese culture have resulted in a cuisine that in many ways is reminiscent of its neighbors.  Miso and nori were brought by the Japanese.  Stir-frying methods arrived with the first Chinese settlers, and together these influences have come together to form modern Taiwanese cuisine.  One dish that represents different Taiwanese influences that has been exported worldwide is the sweet, spicy, garlicky General Tso’s Chicken, which can trace its origins to post-Chinese Civil War, Republic of China-ruled Taiwan.  Chef Peng Jia, the Republic of China government’s banquet chef at the time of the civil war, fled to Taiwan with the rest of the government.  There he invented General Tso’s Chicken before he moved to New York in the early 1970s, bringing the dish with him.

General Tso’s Chicken is certainly an iconic Taiwanese culinary contribution, but it is the exception rather than the rule there.  Taiwan is a market food culture; foods are very fresh and prepared quickly and without fuss and definitely without cloying, heavy sauces like some of the famous dishes of its Chinese neighbors.  The market culture also drives a thriving street food scene, where locals buy noodles, omelets, or fresh grilled seafood into the very late hours of the night.

Bok choy and shiitake mushrooms are as popular in Taiwan as they are throughout East Asia and have probably been enjoyed on the island throughout its Chinese-influenced history. Our stir fry was incredibly simple; in addition to the principal ingredients, only oil, salt, and just a bit of water and sugar were added, instead depending on the mushrooms’ and bok choy’s flavors to carry the dish.

Stir-Fried Bok Choy and Shiitake Mushrooms

adapted from Saveur’s feature “A Stir-Fry Education,” May 2010

SERVES 2 TO 4

  • about 1 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
  • about 8 small heads bok choy
  • 1 Tbs plus 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • about 2 Tbs water
  • 1 pinch each sugar and salt

The first and most time-consuming step was to reconstitute the mushrooms in hot water for about an hour, until they had swelled and darkened in color:

mushroomssoaked

The mushrooms were removed and sliced thinly and the water discarded.  If we had been a little more heads-up we could have reserved some of the mushroom water to steam the bok choy and add a little more mushroom flavor to the dish.

Next we turned out attention to the bok choy.  Hong Phat Market in Lacey, Washington had a selection of small bok choy that had small, broccoli-like florets in the center of some of the tiny cabbages that looked delicious:

bokchoycloseup

Each bok choy was sliced in half lengthwise and carefully cleaned under running water, making sure to remove any dirt from the interior crevices of the vegetable:

bokchoycut

The prep work at this point was completed, and we were ready to cook.  First one of our trusty cast iron pans was put over medium-high heat with the tablespoon of oil.  The pan and oil were heated until the oil started to smoke, then the mushroom slices were added.  Stirring constantly, the mushrooms were cooked for about two minutes until their fragrance filled the kitchen:

mushroomsdone
Opening the windows and disabling the smoke detectors at this point is advised.

The mushrooms were removed from the pan and reserved.  About a teaspoon of extra oil was added to the pan to coat the bottom, then the bok choy slices were placed in a single layer, cut side down, on the bottom of the pan with the water.  The bok choy were left undisturbed for about a minute in the hot pan until the water had evaporated and the bok choy had started to char slightly:

bokchoycharred

The mushrooms were reintroduced to the pan with the sugar and salt, and everything was stirred and cooked for about another minute for the flavors to come together:

bokchoyandmushrooms

The bok choy had remained crisp, and the pinch of sugar helped reduce the natural bitterness of the vegetable.  The mushroom flavor was strong but not overpowering and was an ideal complement to the bok choy:

bokchoyserved

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