Clarissa Wei is a Taiwanese-American journalist who describes herself as ‘obsessed with traditional ecological knowledge, and trying to learn as much as I can about the plants and foods that indigenous Taiwanese people ate, and how they processed them’.
Over the past ten years, Wei has written dozens of articles about the cuisines and culinary traditions of Greater China for publications including Vice and Eater. She is currently based in Hong Kong as a senior reporter for Goldthread, a video-led venture that covers food, culture, travel and identity in Greater China. Goldthread is backed by South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper.
While growing up in Los Angeles, Wei returned annually to her parents’ hometown of Tainan. ‘For the longest time, I thought Tainan was the center of Taiwanese culture and cuisine, which I suppose it once was, being the old capital. I was spoiled by the street food there and didn’t really frequent Taipei until my teens. I was honestly shocked by how much better Tainan’s street food is compared to Taipei’s. As a kid, I thought Taiwanese food was mostly sweet and seafood-centric, because those are characteristics of Tainan street food’, she says.
Having dug deep into the food of Taiwan and various regions of China, Wei is a good person to answer a question we at Life of Taiwan are sometimes asked: Is Taiwanese cooking a subset of Chinese cuisine, or a tradition in its own right?
‘It’s really its own thing’, she replies. ‘There’s a mix of Fujianese, Hakka, Japanese, and indigenous elements. Other mainland influences such as Sichuanese cuisine have made their way over, but are much more subtle and mostly confined to northern Taiwan. In the last decade, I’ve seen more international influences in Taiwanese cuisine as a whole. In a way, that’s quite sad because I feel like it’s diluting some of the uniqueness of the island’s food’.
Asked which places in Taiwan offer foodies the greatest excitement, Wei doesn’t hesitate to answer: ‘Tainan has the best street food. I love the oyster pancakes sold near Anping Fort. And if you want to be exposed to indigenous Taiwanese cooking, the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung are great places to visit’.
Wei also has some reassuring words for those who worry about food hygiene far from home: ‘Based on my own experiences while traveling, I’d say Taiwan’s food scene is far safer than those in China or much of Southeast Asia’.