Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour: An Introduction to the series

Written by Po-Yi Hung

This article is the introduction to a special series of translations from 尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour). Over the following months, Taiwan Insight will publish abridged and translated versions of each chapter from the book.

Image credit: DAO-92426 新北市,坪林區,霧,山,茶葉,茶園,種植 by Chen Liang Dao 陳良道/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Where is the border of a country? To answer this question, we will often open a world atlas – or a national map of a specific country – to look at the boundaries drawn on the map. While we consult a world atlas or a national map to locate the borders of countries, we probably will also notice some “unsettled” borders between different countries. As you may have known, people have different opinions in drawing the borderline between Taiwan and China.

In Taiwan, as a result, borders are never the taken-for-granted lines on a map. Rather, people in Taiwan have to claim Taiwan’s national border with concerted effort. This is the effort in claiming territory for Taiwan’s sovereignty and in telling the world about the distinct existence of a country called Taiwan. Indeed, bordering Taiwan has not just been drawing a physical line on any map but also an effort practised through people’s everyday lives. Nevertheless, the term “everyday life” displays an overwhelming spectrum. Within the spectrum, food, in particular, has been one of the factors jumping out for articulating a distinct identity of Taiwan.

Taking food as a national symbol, however, is also prevalent worldwide. Wine and the vineyard landscape as a French symbol have probably been the most well-known case. Furthermore, behind a national symbol of food, such as French wine, is also the expression of national identity and care of food authenticity. Food as national identity and the practices in producing the alleged authentic national taste collectively constitute the force of food nationalism. Food nationalism as a force, therefore, has been a bordering process, drawing a rigid boundary to spatially define the authentic place for producing the national food. Nevertheless, notwithstanding a national symbol, food is still a commodity, which entails mobility of ingredient material, processing know-how, finance, people, and idea to forge and sustain a food industry. While drawing a concrete border to locate an authentic national food seems imperative, border-crossing mobility connecting human and nonhuman elements also needs to support a food industry associated with national identity. Paradoxically, border and mobility have been mutual enhancement in configuring and reconfiguring food nationalism.

I, together with my graduate students, have published a book尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour) to tell stories regarding the making of a variety of different Taiwanese flavours in different places, in particular, Southeast Asia and Taiwan. Instead of defining an exact meaning, border, or Taiwanese flavour, the authors of the book have switched attention to the processes of making these flavours and asked how they have been produced and by whom, in different places both inside and outside Taiwan. In other words, we have not just reconsidered the bordering forces of Taiwanese flavour, but also rethought the mobility of people, goods, and ideas in producing this flavour and then challenged the bordering forces of food nationalism. The authors followed routes of creating a specific Taiwanese food to tell these stories. They then situated themselves into food production sites to disentangle scenarios of both bordering and border-crossing actions.

In accordance, this special series has focused on different stories to reconsider Taiwan’s border based on the crossing-border mobility of Taiwanese food. Meanwhile, all the articles in this special series are rewritten by the authors of尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour) (Figure. 1) based on the original content in the book, that received the 2020 Open book Award in Taiwan. To note, when referring to the term border, the authors have suggested four dimensions for us to ponder: borders between different countries, ethnic boundaries, generational gaps, and animal-human boundaries. These four dimensions echo with geographers’ recent discussions that “borders themselves are no longer seen merely as territorial lines in the sand at a certain place in space but as symbols of the processes of social binding and exclusion that are both constructed or produced in society” (Laine, 2016: 469-70).

Figure 1. 尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour). Winner of the 2020 Open book Award.

As such, for borders between Taiwan and other countries, Vietnam and Thailand in particular, the authors use the transfer of Taiwan tea and vegetable to see the paradoxical mixture between the local protectionism inside Taiwan and the international expansion of Taiwanese food culture outside Taiwan. Next, for the ethnic boundaries, the authors convey the stories regarding how the indigenous people have tried to retain their indigeneity of Taiwan with the modern introduction of cash crops, tea, and coffee specifically, from outside their tribal borders. For the generational gap, stories about the middle-aged paddy rice farmers and the veterans’ descendants of high mountain apples inform us of conventional and organic farming struggles. Next, for the animal-human boundaries, the authors take the Taiwanese food introduced from outside Taiwan, bird’s nests from Malaysia and speciality coffee from Laos to address the co-production labours of animals and humans in making the food. Last, for this special series, we also invite the editor of Rive Gauche Publishing House, the publisher of 尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour), to address her observation on the recent publications (in Chinese) about Taiwan’s connection with the world.

Overall, through the processes of “searching for Taiwan flavour,” we have also searched for Taiwan’s positioning in the world. Indeed, the lack of international recognition of Taiwan as a country has put people in Taiwan in a collective will, even anxiety, for bordering an authentic Taiwan distinct from any other country. For food nationalism, it has become a search for a kind of purity of Taiwanese food without mixing any other elements from outside Taiwan to prove the distinctiveness of Taiwan. Nevertheless, our stories in this special series convey another perspective. The making of Taiwan flavour has been realised through the border cross mobility of people, goods, and ideas. The distinctiveness of Taiwan, both in history and modern time, has been an island with open arms to accommodate different groups of people with a different culture. In particular, Taiwan’s food culture has been thriving with a mixture of cultural diversity. As such, searching for Taiwan flavour has been more about seeking Taiwan’s connections with the world.

Last, I would like to recall the first question I raised at the beginning of this introduction: where is the border of Taiwan? To search for your own answer, I encourage you to read the stories of this special series focusing on Taiwanese food, and hopefully, you will come up with some thoughts independently. 

Po-Yi Hung is an Associate Professor in Geography at National Taiwan University. His research focuses on nature-society relations, specifically how agricultural practices and food trade can serve as a lens to investigate the relations amongst people, place, and environment. He is the editor and co-author of 尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour).

This article is the introduction to a special series of translations from 尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour). Over the following months, Taiwan Insight will publish abridged and translated versions of each chapter from the book.

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