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Handing Down Traditions : 3 Generations of Taiwanese Women Share a Book of Recipes

February 15, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN

If novelist Amy Tan were to produce a cookbook, it might be something like "Homestyle Cooking of Taiwan" (North American Taiwanese Women's Assn.; 218 pp.).

Tan writes about generational differences among Chinese women, and this book, which represents three generations of Taiwanese cooking, preserves traditional recipes for young women immersed in Western culture. The authors are San Francisco Bay Area women who belong to the North American Taiwanese Women's Assn. and the Taiwanese American Citizens League.

To illustrate the Taiwanese cultural gap: Tsai-feng Wu of Palo Alto, one of the project's coordinators, speaks two dialects of Chinese, Taiwanese (more exactly, Hoklo or Minnan) and Mandarin. Her parents, raised when Japan governed Taiwan (1895 to 1945), were trained to speak Japanese. Her children speak English.

To bridge such language barriers, the book is trilingual--the recipes are printed in both Chinese and English, with the Taiwanese pronunciation indicated for recipe titles.

The recipes, while traditional, are designed for busy young cooks. Few are complicated. "We wanted to make it easy," Wu says. "We want our second generation to be able to [cook the recipes] themselves."

It is interesting to see how often dishes that are not essentially Japanese incorporate such Japanese ingredients as mirin, miso, hondashi and dried bonito flakes. One of the desserts is yokan, a firm gelatinous red bean paste that the Taiwanese evidently share with the Japanese.

When preparing Japanese food, the Taiwanese add their own touch. "We like sushi," Wu says, "but we make it different from the Japanese, just as pizza in the United States is different from pizza in Italy."

There are no Western recipes in the book, but some are adapted to American ingredients. Wu recalls the tiny, sweet Taiwanese oysters embedded in pancakes cooked at food stalls in temple courtyards. Because she can't get such oysters fresh here, she chops up the larger oysters available in jars. The pancake recipe offers two sauce alternatives--catsup or white miso seasoned with sugar and cayenne.

Western influence is not foreign to Taiwan, however. The Portuguese gave the island its previous name, Formosa, which means beautiful island. The Dutch ruled from 1646 until 1661, when they were pushed out by Chinese from the mainland.

The Chinese brought along their customs and festivals, and several are described in the book's opening chapter.

The Lunar New Year celebration, which starts Monday, lasts two weeks. The Taiwanese get ready by cleaning house, decorating with water lily, plum and peach blossoms and posting red banners printed with blessings.

Cooking starts five days in advance. Important dishes include rice cakes, which symbolize prosperity, and mustard greens, which are known as the longevity vegetable and are eaten during holidays for good luck. Special foods are offered first to the deities and then consumed by celebrants.

On New Year's Eve, many Taiwanese families gather around a hot pot, then conduct an all-night vigil to promote long life for their parents. When the night ends, they light firecrackers and dance in the streets, wishing each other happy New Year.

Lunar New Year recipes from the book include the mustard greens soup and several versions of the auspicious rice cake. The oyster pancakes appear in a chapter of traditional Taiwanese dishes.

* To order a copy of "Homestyle Cooking of Taiwan," send a check for $18, which covers shipping, to NATWA, 4170 Alta Mesa Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306. Make checks payable to NATWA.

BAKED SWEET RICE CAKE

Sweet rice flour, also known as glutinous rice flour, is available in Asian grocery stores.

1 teaspoon white or black sesame seeds

3 eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 (1-pound) box sweet rice flour

2 1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Lightly toast sesame seeds in wok or skillet without oil at low heat.

Combine eggs, sugar, oil and vanilla in large bowl. Stir until sugar is dissolved.

Place rice flour in another bowl, add egg mixture and milk and mix well. Break up any lumps with hands or force batter through wire strainer with spoon. Add sesame seeds and coconut. Pour batter into greased 13x9-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 40 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool. Cut into squares to serve.

Makes about 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

479 calories; 50 mg sodium; 68 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 70 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.51 grams fiber.

LONG YEAR VEGETABLE SOUP

1 pound mustard greens

1/2 pound pork spare ribs, rinsed

1 teaspoon salt

2 quarts water

Cut mustard greens into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

Bring large pot half-filled with water to boil. Add spare ribs and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and rinse ribs. Return to pot. Add salt and 2 quarts water; boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes. Add mustard greens, increase heat to high and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer longer, if desired, for flavor.

Makes 6 servings.

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