There’s soft jazz playing in the background. I wander out to the bouganvilla-framed balcony, gazing out to the red-tiled rooftops on the nearby hills. Coming in, I pause to enjoy the sight of a white Asian lily framed next to a peach-rose painted wall beside a comfortable wicker chair. Before I can sit down to enjoy the serenity, my friends from Topology Travel arrive and my cooking class begins. Welcome to Jodie’s Kitchen, a hidden secret only ten minutes by taxi from Taipei 101 yet another world away.
Given Taiwan’s discerning food culture, there are strangely few cooking classes — at least not ones taught in English showcasing local cuisine. Jodie, who teaches from her home high in the hills behind Xinyi, was one of the earliest to begin sharing the secrets of Taiwanese food to foreigners. Her hands-on cooking classes often finish with the unique experience of a two-hour walk to the summit of Elephant Mountain, where visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Taipei 101 and the surrounding city.
Our menu is simple yet distinctly Taiwanese, encaptulating the type of fresh, healthy ingredients we know we should eat regularly. A recent report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noted that Taiwanese women have the fifth longest life expectancy in the world, and if we all ate the types of food that Jodie taught us to prepare it would be no surprise. And not just the fruit and vegetables are healthy; Jodie uses quality ingredients such as naturally brewed soy sauce, cold-pressed black and white seame oil and Kaoliang vinegar, which she passes around so that we can all sniff and sample. I resolve to take note and live the healthy life.
We sit in her cosy kitchen and begin class. First up is a breakfast staple: homemade soymilk, warm and fluffy and freshly made. Mr Taiwanxifu and I had been appalled to recently discover that our shop-bought soy milk was so manufactured that it no longer had any froth when stirred or shaken. Not so this soy milk, which tasted like a milk shake only healthy. And Jodie has tips, too, for how to boost the calcium content for those who want to drink it regularly as a milk substitute.
Then we make a simple soy-sesame vinegarette, frequently used for Taiwanese style cucumber salad. We make cucumber salad, but that’s not all we use it for. Jodie demonstrates how it goes well with freshly-baked mushrooms, tofu, fish and lightly poached pork slices. Put left-overs in a jar and you have an instant meal when camping so that you can have gourmet meals in the outdoors.
My favourite dish that we made was fresh sesame paste. Sesame paste is an essential ingredient in cold noodles, a Sichuan dish that is commonly eaten in Taiwan– especially in summer. I had always previously bought hard-to-find sesame paste; if only I had known how easy yet transforming the fresh stuff could be. While delicious with noodles, Jodie served it to us with rosy Japanese Fuji apples so that we could enjoy the contrast of the crunchy apples against the nutty paste.
We relax with some freshly brewed pu-erh tea before contemplating more cooking and more food. Next up is Taiwanese hot and sour soup (suan la tang). Here Jodie uses a unique secret recipe for making a vegetarian soup base that still delivers the full flavour more usually found with a chicken-consomme base. We taste it first without seasonings before adding vinegar, white pepper and cilantro for added kick. I must confess to going back for seconds.
Finally, we made two hot sauces: spicy Sichuan flower pepper oil and Gong Bao sweet and sour sauce. Both are common restaurant sauces used in different ways. The flower pepper oil can be used as an ingredient for spicy hot pot (mala huoguo); the gong bao sauce is a common topping for Sichuan-style peanut chicken stirfry (gongbao jiding). Both can be bought in a bottle, but why buy when you can make your own quickly, cheaply, easily and without any nasty additives?
Jodie’s Kitchen is situatd at No 29-1 Ziyun St, Xinyi District, Taipei (phone 02 2720 0206). She conducts small classes by appointment. Topology Travel specialises in real Taiwan travel experiences. They organise cooking classes and food tours by arrangement, including transport.