In the vibrant culinary landscape of Taiwan, sugar reigns supreme, infusing its dishes with a distinctive sweetness that captivates the taste buds. This deep-rooted love affair with sugar is not just a culinary quirk; it's a cultural legacy that traces its origins to the island's colonial past.
Born and raised in Tainan, the heart of Taiwan's sugar industry, Yen Wei, a food stylist for the recently published cookbook 'Made in Taiwan,' shares the secrets of her hometown's culinary tradition. A tradition so steeped in sweetness that even savoury dishes, like spring rolls, are stir-fried with an unabashed abundance of sugar, eschewing the need for salt. This is what defines the unique flavour of Taiwanese cuisine.
The island's love affair with sugar has deep historical roots, dating back to the 17th Century when the Dutch East India Company kick-started Taiwan's sugar industry.
From manually operated mills powered by oxen to the pinnacle of modernity in Japanese colonial times, sugar played a central role in the economy. Taiwan became a sugar powerhouse within the Japanese Empire.
Even as Taiwan shifted from an international sugar superpower to a smaller player on the global stage, sugar remained integral to its culinary identity.
Today, the echoes of Taiwan's sugar-rich history resonate in its cuisine. Fundamental sauces like soy paste and haishan sauce carry a heavier sweetness than salt, becoming indispensable companions to street food staples.
Even savoury dishes at night markets, like pig's blood cake skewers, receive a finishing touch of white sugar.
A whimsical sweet and sour pineapple-prawn dish, a personal favourite of the cookbook author, exemplifies the evolution of sugar in Taiwanese cuisine. Prawns, tossed in sweet mayonnaise and adorned with sugary hundreds and thousands, showcase how sugar has transformed from a rare luxury ingredient to an everyday staple.
For 'Made in Taiwan,' the culinary journey took the team to Tainan, where, over two weeks, more than 70 Taiwanese dishes were meticulously crafted and photographed in Yen Wei's studio.
Leftovers from each shoot were repurposed into family-style dinners, where Wei, embodying the spirit of southern Taiwanese epicureanism, seasoned her plate with an extra sprinkle of sugar.
In Taiwan, sugar isn't just an ingredient; it's a cultural signature, an essential element that elevates the island's cuisine to a symphony of flavours that dance on the palate.