Ivy is beaming. I am at her apartment and with a group of ladies about to start a cooking class, and she is so excited.
Meet Ivy. She runs a cooking school from her home in Tienmu, minutes walk from the Community Services Centre (where she has also conducted classes for years). She is passionate about good food, local produce, international cuisine and especially Taiwan food and culture. And she is also one of the friendliest and welcoming people you will ever meet.
In fact, if you have been in Taiwan for a while you have probably met her already, read her articles in the Centered on Taipei magazine and perhaps attended one or more of her classes. She enjoys interpreting European food for Taiwanese clients, but her talents really come to the fore when she conducts tailored classes to introduce Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine to people from all over out the world. So it was fitting that I attended Ivy’s cooking class with a visiting friend from Okinawa, an American Taiwanese who had organised a girls weekend away for a group of military wives. Ivy specially developed a menu based on their requests, throwing in a few extra and surprise dishes for good measure.
Ivy’s recently renovated kitchen is organised so that participants can sit around a large kitchen table and be engaged in the cooking and preparation process. And from that vantage point, students can also watch new creations bake in the oven and take their turn at cooking things on the stove. On one wall is a long blackboard with chalk drawings of many of the dishes she has created. If you have seen her Facebook or website posts you would know just what a broad repertoire of dishes she has … you name it, she has cooked it or knows how to do so.
Before the class began, the group participated in a tour of the local market. This is a local, Taiwan-style wet market. Ivy is a regular, and although I was not able to attend, a member of the group told me how they appreciated her primer on all the different vegetables, fruit, meat, dried and baked goods on sale: and how to buy and use the produce. For example, she gave tips on how to talk with your fishmonger. Rather than just buying something, you can engage with the fishmonger about how you want to prepare the fish, how much you want to spend and they will recommend and prepare accordingly.
Before beginning the cooking part of the class, we washed our hands in readiness of a hands-on experiment — making dough for shallot pancake (蔥油餅, congyoubing). I must admit that I hadn’t been all that excited about making congyoubing. While I love eating it (probably a bit too much, as the name indicates there is lots of oil), I didn’t think it was hard to make. Mr Taiwanxifu can reproduce a mean shallot pancake and it was a staple dinner party item when we were students because the ingredients are cheap and easy to procure. But within five minutes, Ivy taught me several tips I didn’t know about how to make shallot pancakes (separate blog post to follow).
We became quickly immersed in the fun taste of working with the congyoubing dough, rolling and shaping and rolling some more, all the while chatting and laughing and comparing our culinary creations. We came up with some inventive shapes, and there was quite a bit of competition as to who could get the most exact rectangle and roundest disc. Time was ticking on and Ivy gently cautioned us to hurry. “We have a few things still to make, and I won’t let you leave until you have eaten until you are full,” she said.
And she meant it, because soon some special snacks, procured at a recent visit to an indigenous eco-farm appeared. “You are lucky because I just happened to buy these yesterday at the farm visit and they are still fresh,” she said. But I suspect that Ivy has a naturally generous spirit and that she regularly goes that one step extra when looking after her visitors.
Then onto beef with mango. Oh, Taiwan mangos in summertime. Ivy knew that choice Taiwan mangos are almost prohibitively expensive in Japan, so she found a special recipe combining plump, ripe mangos with stir-fried beef. It sounds like an odd combination, but Ivy advises the trick is not to over cook the fruit.
And then another request — gongbao chicken (宮保雞丁, gōngbǎo jī dīng), a Sichuan speciality. Ivy has travelled widely in China, including Sichuan, and was able to explain the difference between Taiwanese-interpreted gongbao chicken and the original. “In Sichuan they like to cut the chicken into smaller pieces, almost the same size as the peanuts, but in Taiwan they it is more usual to have larger pieces,” she explains. As she talks, she deftly wields a large cleaver on a sturdy wooden block, slicing the chicken into small pieces.
Somehow, in between showing us how to cook the congyoubing and preparing two dishes, she also manages to whip up Taiwanese style cucumber salad and steam freshly picked bamboo shoots. While teaching us how to make the dishes, of course. Cucumber salad is a simple but deliciously refreshing summertime staple of Taiwan food, made by first salting the cucumbers and allowing them to sit for a while before dressing them with a vinaigrette.
And if you are shopping for bamboo shoots, look for a curved shape instead of straight. Tell your vendor what you want to use the bamboo shoots for (soup or salad) and that way they can cut and prepare them for you accordingly. Ivy showed her fusion influences with this dish, serving them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt. The end result was something you would expect to eat in Italy, showing that the bamboo shoots tasted surprisingly like artichokes.
Cooking finished with sitting down to a feast of all the creations made that day. Everyone was too full for dinner afterwards. As Ivy promised, she did not let anyone leave until they had had enough to eat.