Over the last few months I have written a couple of advice posts for living in Taiwan that you can find them here, here and here. Apparently, three posts was not enough to cover all the subjects I wanted write about, so here comes post number four which I believe will be the last one.
The Importance of Food
Food is undeniably an important part of any culture. Not only is food a cultural expression – the ingredients and flavors say something about the history and way of life of the people that cooked it – but the way people relate to food and talk about food is also indicative of the way their culture works. For example, French people’s love for fine foods will forever be a part of the characterization of the French people as haughty or snobbish. It is with this in mind then that I say that the Taiwanese, as a people, care more about food than your average European. Not to say that they are all foodies or that they have snobbish tastes, but the Taiwanese culture is more centered on food than most western cultures. A clear indication of this is the fact that one of the most famous cultural artifacts in Taiwan is a rock that looks like a lump of braised pork (it’s on permanent display in the National Palace Museum).
This love for food manifests in ways that can be useful for us foreigners to understand – at least if we want to have any deeper understanding of the local culture. First, when Taiwanese people go traveling, especially within Taiwan, they will always seek out the famous food at their destination. When you talk to a Taiwanese person about a trip you made, one of their first questions will be “did you like the food?” or “did you try the [insert local food here]?” Likewise, if you are planning a trip a Taiwanese person might say something along the lines of “oh [insert place here], they have very delicious food there.” Furthermore, the famous food that you have to try when you go somewhere isn’t just a certain type of food but it has to be from a certain shop or restaurant. It doesn’t matter if there’s a massive queue outside that particular shop and another shop selling the same thing just next door has no queue, people WILL stand in line to try the famous food from the famous shop. This, dare I call it obsession, with food also extends to their questions about you. After asking where you are from they will invariably ask if you like Taiwanese food. One thing I find a bit strange is when you tell someone you’ve lived here for several years and they ask if you are used to the food – of course I’m used to the food, I’ve been eating it almost daily for years.
Taiwanese people often use food as a way of telling people that they like them, or as a way of being friendly. The way this shows is that they are very concerned about whether or not you have enough food. This means that if you visit a Taiwanese person’s home they will likely offer you a lot of food, not just at meal time but in between meals as well, bringing you all manner of snacks. The first few times I visited my parents in law I always ended up going home feeling super full because I kept eating the things they offered me in order to be polite. I don’t think this is a bad thing, just be prepared to eat a lot when you go visit friends.
I find that many Taiwanese are very concerned with meals being “hot” and that they “can make you full”. To me this just means they don’t want sandwiches or salads – it needs to be proper cooked food – and that it has to be enough. Over the years I’ve learned however that things are not that simple; meals that we would consider hot and filling, such as a plate of spaghetti, doesn’t necessarily count as such by Taiwanese standards. What “hot” and “can make you full” translates too is that the meal has to contain rice and some kind of soup. For us who grow up in more or less multicultural countries eating varying food is normal but the diet here tends to be more uniform. No matter what dishes you find around the table there will almost always be rice and a pot of soup. I think many Taiwanese are so used to this uniform menu that they feel bad if they don’t get rice and soup for their meals. Of course some people are used to eating international cuisine but some really must have at least one bowl of rice and one bowl of soup a day to feel satisfied.
A couple of quick notes:
- Like I mentioned above, if you eat a traditional meal with several dishes there will be a pot of soup. Normally you drink the soup at the end of the meal, just ladle some into your empty rice bowl and drink it, don’t use a spoon.
- If you order a steak you can of course choose how you want it cooked. Unlike in the west where you say things like “medium”, “rare” or “well done”, Taiwanese use a point system where a steak is cooked to between 1 and 10 points (分). Each point corresponds to a certain degree of cooking and even numbers are never used. The following is the relation between the English and the Taiwanese scale:
Rare = 1分熟
Medium rare = 3分熟
Medium = 5分熟
Medium well = 7分熟
Well done = 10分熟
- When you are shopping for groceries, fruit and vegetables can either be sold by the kilo(公斤) or by the Taiwanese pound(斤) which is roughly 600 grams. Make sure to check the unit when looking up prices.
The Problem of Humidity
Taiwan is a very humid country and this causes some problems that we from drier climates might not be aware of. Firstly food goes bad at a much quicker rate than we are used to. Back home I can store e.g. bread in a normal cabinet for several days but here I have to put it in the fridge or it will go bad. It’s the same with a lot of fruit – if I store it in the open it will go bad after just a few days. There are exceptions of course, things with thick skin like watermelons can last for a week without problem but in general food needs to be stored in the fridge. Furthermore things might not actually go bad as in becoming inedible, but they will degrade quickly. For example, things that you want to stay crispy will become soft and/or soggy if you don’t package them well, and powders like flour or spices will start forming lumps and sticking to the jar – even if you keep the lid closed. For this reason cookies and biscuits will often come in a bag or box with little individual packages inside.
Secondly mold will grow much quicker and in more places than we westerners think is possible. I’m not just talking about food here but around the house as well. For example fixtures and fittings in the bathroom risk getting little spots of mold if you’re not careful, especially down in the corners or hard to reach places. The problem of mold also applies – at least to some degree – to things in storage. If you e.g. store winter clothing in a closed space they risk getting moldy. For this reason Taiwanese will often pack things like their thick winter duvets in plastic cases to keep the humidity out.
Thirdly, the humidity affects the rate at which things, specifically laundry, dries. In the summer the heat overpowers the humidity but in the winter it can really be a problem. I’ve had it happen that my clothes, especially thick things like jeans, take several days to dry. Not only is it inconvenient if you need to use the clothes but it also hearkens back to the last point; if your clothes stay wet for too long they can start to get moldy. The solution that my wife found is to make sure clothes get plenty of space on the drying rack and use a fan to dry them out quicker.
Many air conditioners have a demoisture mode so letting that run for a couple of hours can help with the humidity problem. That downside to that method is that the AC tends to blow out a lot of cold air in this mode which can be pretty unpleasant in the winter. My tip is to run the demoisture mode on a timer (also a common function on most ACs) while you’re at work.
All this is probably making it sound a lot worse than it really is. Yes, the humidity does cause some problems but there’s nothing you can’t deal with. It’s just a matter of knowing what problems exist and taking a few extra precautions.