I was quite taken by Xin Dai's (心岱) essay about stewed ducks, her parents and herself in a separate compilation. Went out to buy her recently published book 《鹿港尋味》(loosely translated into 'Searching for Flavors in Lugang', or Lukang, a township in Changhua County, Taiwan).
I like this sort of books about food when it also takes the trouble to introduce the historical development of cuisines. Xin Dai explains how Lugang got its notable dishes and how the town built its bonds with homegrown chefs and foods. She talks more about her father who is a learned businessman, and how she became intimately acquainted with foods and flavors as a young child following her father around in the kitchen and restaurants, and observing his friendship flourish with his friends who were chefs.
Her book holds photos of the dishes she talks about, together with recipes. Hahaha. Definitely saved me from a lot of googling for food photos while reading. Often, I have no idea of what the foods are till I see the images online, and the recipes give it an additional boost in case I somehow feel like re-creating any of the dishes. :P
In 《最草根的筵席文化：辦桌》, it's quite an educational read about those 'town banquets' (辦桌) that temples or village heads host. The chefs who provide the food are often cooking in open-air kitchens over charcoal stoves. I guess this is a familiar sight in Singapore about a decade ago? I've seen those Chinese temples' festivities which do banquets that way. Too young to have known kampung feasts which would have been similar. Now because of the convenience of catering and hygiene, it's easy to simply cater from a central kitchen. The last time I ate a meal like that, was in northern Yunnan during a village festival. There's something really charming about it, and those memories last a lifetime.
Lugang is next to the sea, so seafood is plentiful. Mantis shrimp (蝦蛄) are in season during spring festival but mainly eaten by the poorer folks with porridge because of its natural saltiness, discussed at length in the chapter 《非蝦非蟹：蝦蛄（蝦猴）》. Apparently prawn balls and shrimp cakes (用沙蝦做蝦丸、閩南語稱‘熗蝦’) are popular in Lugang. Those make interesting points to know. But I'm hot about deep fried items. Not even if they're done in an air-fryer. Also less keen on the noodle or pork dishes. Of course the local small oysters are popular too, not eaten raw, but cooked in all forms of soup, omelette, noodles and fried patties (蚵仔煎、蚵仔湯). The stomach of the drum fish (鮸魚) is a delicacy, meticulously recounted in 《乾貨中的鑽石：鮸魚肚》.
There's a number of other dishes that piqued my interest. In this book, Xin Dai talks about stewed duck (燉鴨) again, and gave a detailed recipe on how to cook it. It's the same essay as the one published in Jiao Tong and Hong Huishan's 'Best Taiwanese Food Writing 2015', 焦桐和洪珊慧主編的《飲食文選》. In this book, she wrote a variation with a ginger-based gravy as well, 薑母鴨. Those look good. Unfortunately I don't get very good quality ducks in Singapore, unless I order them specially from say...Huber's and other similar butchers. The cost of the ingredients is going to be slightly daunting; that means I can't afford to screw up the cooking process. Ugh.
Then there's the chapter 《一年一次的天賜佳餚：烏魚子》which talks about Taiwan's high quality mullets (烏魚). Or rather their roe, 烏魚子 or what we call 'bottarga'. The fish is in season for the 10 days before and after winter solstice, and Lugang is right along the southwest Taiwan seas where they spawn. The fish is bursting with rich roe by the time they move into the seas off Lugang. The chapter included a paragraph on how to bake/grill your roe. Mmmmm, what I love, karasumi. I make a note to hit Japanese restaurants during this season to eat all I want, and I try to get a few pieces from Taiwan as well to prep it at home for awesome nibbling. The Taiwanese make expensive gifts out of this luxury product. The author also mentioned about rampant corruption in the town in the early days when she was a child, by way of trading in mullet roe.
The book included a map of Lugang. I'm almost tempted to make a trip to visit the area. I'm still not impressed with what I ate in Taipei on all those trips. Perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough because these books about Taiwanese food have told me all about those yummy food that I couldn't easily find in Taipei if routes on work trips don't lead me there. Somehow, I feel that the best Taiwanese dishes (especially non-pork based) are found in the small towns.