Written by Madeleine Loose, (University of Texas at Austin) Student Correspondent CET Taiwan, Summer 2018
I wasn’t sure who I was expecting to open the door.
Wariness—that was my first reaction when, weeks before, my friend invited me to a Taiwanese cooking class. At the time, various images ran through my head. I imagined a room full of locals, with me falling behind as I struggled to overcome a language barrier and a lack of cooking skills. I pictured a tough teacher, hardened over years of slaving over a hot stove. My friend assured me it would be fine, and my love of good food convinced me to say yes, but I made sure to memorize the train route back home, just in case I needed to leave early to avoid complete humiliation.
When the door opened, however, all my assumptions and worries evaporated. The woman at the door smiled kindly and welcomed us into her home, a warmly lit apartment with a pot of tea steaming on the coffee table. She introduced herself as Ivy, and as we sat in her living room, chatting and drinking tea, I learned she had been teaching Chinese to foreign students as well as hosting cooking classes like this.
Ivy’s plan for the night? Teach us three Taiwanese staples: beef noodle soup, soup dumplings, and pineapple cakes.We began with the beef noodle soup, with Ivy leading us through the steps of chopping and seasoning the beef and vegetables. Once the vegetables, beef, and broth sat cooking on the stove top, she turned our attention to the soup dumplings. We mixed and kneaded the dough for the dumpling wrappers, alternating between us four students so our arms didn’t tire out. (I peeked at Ivy’s arms—if she did this regularly by herself, her triceps weren’t telling). As soon as all four of us finished our exercise, we began shaping the individual dumpling wrappers—rolling and stretching the dough into paper-thin circles the size of your palm.
While we worked, Ivy explained to us how to mix the pork, broth, and gelatin, adding that it needed several hours in the refrigerator to turn into the jelly needed for the recipe. With that she went to the refrigerator and pulled out the final product, she had made and placed there hours earlier. Spoon in hand, she then showed us how to fill and shape the dumplings. She made it look easy and graceful, but she had years more practice than we had. I wrestled with the dumplings, amazed that something so small could best me. I folded and twisted and folded again, ending up with a final product that looked like the sad, deformed version of Ivy’s. But I knew that even if the dumplings didn’t look quite as perfect as I had hoped, they would still taste delicious.
Finally, we set the dumplings aside and moved on to the pineapple cakes. We mixed and kneaded this dough, which was sweeter and a bit tougher than the dumpling wrapper dough, similar to a piecrust dough. While we kneaded, Ivy told us that pineapple cakes have been traditionally used as wedding cakes in Taiwan. Because Taiwan used to export the majority of their pineapples, however, it eventually became common to make pineapple cakes from winter melon instead.
Our cakes would be the real deal. Ivy brought out a homemade pineapple jam, a rather unappetizing-looking lumpy golden-brown mixture that still smelled fresh and delicious. We set to work, rolling and flattening the dough, scooping in a dollop of jam, then pressing them into little molds. Ivy seemed to have these molds by the dozen, in various shapes, with the island of Taiwan itself being the preeminent shape.
Into the oven for the pineapple cakes! Onto the cook-top for the dumplings! Then began the wait.
A twenty-minute-long decade dragged by in which my only companion was the hunger I worked up from hours of cooking. Finally, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. And what joy it was. I slurped down the beef noodle soup, and would have gorged on the dumplings if the pineapple cake hadn’t started singing to me. Knowing I had taught it to sing only made the song sweeter.While we ate, we chatted with Ivy, talking about her life in Taipei, our lives in the US, and our experience studying here in Taiwan.
By the time we finished dinner, we were already planning to come back for another class. I really look forward to another chance to learn more about Taiwanese culture while eating delicious food!