EMERYVILLE, California — In the bustling open kitchen of Good to Eat Dumplings, Chef Tony Tung makes long, evenly stretched, generously filled Taiwanese dumplings. The bottoms are crispy and golden and the filling is unadorned but irresistible – a succulent mix of pork, shrimp and shredded cabbage, lightly scented with scallions and sesame oil.
Ms. Tung was born and raised in Taichung City, Taiwan, and when she started cooking pop-ups here five years ago, she was surprised to find that so many diners outside the Taiwanese American community were unaware of Taiwanese food. Oh you mean Thai food!
Sir, no. It sounds disheartening, but Mrs. Tung and her wife and business partner, Angie Lin, decided to treat any question, no matter how stupid, as an opening. Perhaps explaining their ingredients, techniques and flavors can deepen the context and customer appreciation for Taiwan. Perhaps the delight of the food can spark one’s curiosity.
In their new restaurant, which opened in May, Ms. Tung cooks while Ms. Lin jumps from table to table and chats with the guests. You could hear her explain that earlier versions of Taiwanese cuisine focused more on rice, before Chinese immigrants brought wheat cultivation to the island, and before the United States transferred wheat en masse, as part of a 15-year program after World War II. .
Here’s one way to look at Ms. Tung’s work: she simply cooks the food she knows and loves, with great care and attention to detail. And here’s another: Taiwan is making headlines and being threatened with violence from the Chinese government, as it has been since Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit, Taiwanese food could be one way to lighten the nuances obscured by that news .
Ms. Tung’s cuisine is bright, delicate and constantly changing with dishes such as pickled bitter melon and pumpkin leaves with sesame paste. “Beef noodle soup, stinky tofu — people know those dishes,” she said. “But in Taiwan we don’t eat it every day.”
About once a month, the couple sells prepaid tickets for a multi-course dinner featuring more elaborate and labor-intensive dishes, many of which come from Taiwanese banquet traditions. They say they rarely have to start the conversation about Taiwan from scratch anymore.
The complexity of Taiwanese identity makes it both unique and difficult to delineate in the United States.
That’s because it could be more than a shared birthplace, language, race or lineage, and because the Census Bureau still doesn’t offer “Taiwanese” as an option on its forms. Experts struggle to report the exact number of people who identify as Taiwanese here, but the Pew Research Center approached a very broad range in 2019, somewhere between 195,000 and 697,000.
Taiwanese cuisine – layered, distinctive, multi-ethnic – faces similar visibility issues. The food of Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that was never part of the People’s Republic of China, is often subsumed under the umbrella description of Chinese. For the Chinese government, which is pursuing unification, the merger is convenient and even strategic.
But considering Taiwan only in terms of its relationship with China is limiting. Taiwan’s cuisine has been shaped by many cultural forces, including the island’s indigenous tribes, who have lived and cooked with the native ingredients for thousands of years; long-standing groups of Fujianese and Hakka people; a period of Japanese colonial rule; and the wave of refugees who arrived from China in 1949, bringing with them regional foods that they modified over time.
“Even the dishes that came from Chinese immigrants have evolved over the past 70 years to be completely unique to our island,” said Clarissa Wei, a Taiwanese American journalist living in Taipei and working on a Taiwanese cookbook. “It’s the products of refugees who have merged their culinary practices.”
Vivian Ku, a Los Angeles chef and restaurateur, grew up in Bakersfield, where her parents, who emigrated from Taiwan, grew vegetables such as garlic, chives, amaranth, and honeydew melons.
“I always tell our team that Taiwanese food is a representation of so many styles, on an island with so many people together,” said Ms. Ku. “Yeah, it can get complicated – can you call it Taiwanese, where is it originally from? – but when it hits Taiwan, it’s different. And here too it is different.”
An influx of Taiwanese immigrants arrived in the Los Angeles area after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, settling in such neighborhoods as Monterey Park, the San Gabriel Valley, and parts of Orange County. The region is now home to one of the largest Taiwanese American diasporas in the country.
Ms. Ku opened Pine & Crane in 2014, after working with relatives in a beef noodle shop and cooking at a banquet restaurant in Taiwan. Her small group of Taiwanese restaurants now employs about 180 people.
At Pine & Crane’s second location, recently opened in downtown Los Angeles, a team of chefs serves up some of the most delicious breakfasts in town.
The fan tuan are hefty, compact, wearable exhibits of texture: sweet, delicate pork silk, crunchy pickles, crunchy youtiao, and soy-braised eggs. The warm, salty soy milk, which turns into delicate curds when spiked with black vinegar, is a comfort.
Ms. Ku has never considered her job serving Taiwanese food as a form of representation, or any form of political statement, but rather as an extension of her love for it. “It’s just hard not to seem political when you’re connected to Taiwan,” she said.
In her research, Ms. Wei found that the idea of differentiating Taiwanese cuisine really took off on the island in the 1980s, when the country transitioned from a military dictatorship to a democracy.
She noted a major turning point in 2000, when Chen Shui-bian was elected president and celebrated his inaugural feast of Taiwanese small dishes, such as Tainan City’s milk fish ball soup, among Chinese banquet foods.
But it’s not that Taiwanese food didn’t flourish before that. “In my parents’ time, Taiwan was under martial law, and they were… told they were culturally Chinese. Before that, during my grandparents’ time, Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule,” said Ms. Wei. “We had no control over our story.”
Now revisiting that story and unearthing its multiples and erasures is an essential part of the work of so many chefs and writers. At Good to Eat Dumplings, Ms. Lin and Ms. Tung have found that through research, phone calls, and even talking extensively about their food with other Taiwanese diners, they learn more on their own.
“The more we do this,” Ms. Tung said, “the more stories we have to tell.”
On the patio, Mrs. Lin weaves around the tables to greet guests, making empty plates of her wife’s minced pork noodles disappear. Someone marvels at Taiwan’s golden kimchi – a crunchy, sweet, addictive pile of sauerkraut in an almost creamy lick of fermented tofu and carrots.
There are questions about the taste of the fried peanuts, and there are always questions about Taiwanese cuisine and how to define it. “It’s hard to explain,” Ms. Lin says at one point. The diners go quiet, waiting for her to move on.
Good to Eat Dumplings, 1298 65th Street, Suite 1, Emeryville, California; 510-922-9885; goodtoeatdumplings.com
Pine & Crane, 1120 South Grand Avenue, Unit 101, Los Angeles; 213-536-5292; pineandcrane.com