About a month ago, I came across something kind of atrocious yet oddly beautiful trending on Twitter. It was a photo from a Domino’s in Taiwan of its new boba milk tea pizza. It looked like it could taste…OK? A cheap crust topped with milk-tea sauce, mozzarella, honey, and tapioca pearls: As fast-food dessert pizzas go, it looked stickily inviting.
I kept scrolling and, along with this tasty corporate advertising, saw updates about the Hong Kong protests, South Park’s parody of Chinese Communist Party censorship, and the food world’s latest obsession with a new trend called Q. Somewhere amid this eclectic mix of desserts and international conflict, I found another story: one of Taiwanese democratic freedom in the face of the Chinese Communist Party.
This probably isn’t the time or place to get into the lengthy and complicated history of why Taiwan is or is not a part of China, but the gist of it is, Taiwan today is an autonomous, self-governed nation with its own distinct politics, culture, language, and identity. The CCP disagrees with this, as it does with Hong Kong attempting to do the same. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan fights for its autonomy, democratic freedoms, and human rights. Unlike Hong Kong, the issue has yet to be pushed to a dangerous breaking point, but the central conflict remains closely related, and ever more pressing, as Taiwan edges toward January’s presidential elections.
In many ways, the CCP has gone out of its way to try and censor Taiwan out of existence, by either barring participation in the United Nations and other international organizations or forcing Taiwan to work under a different, misleading name. They even bullied a Taiwanese youth choir out of performing at the World Peace Choral Festival. This might sound incredibly petty and insidious, but remember this is from the government that banned a beloved, rotund cartoon bear because of his resemblance to Xi Jinping.
“Food is almost always the first and foremost driver of any culture. … All it takes is to put something in your mouth, chew, and swallow.”
However, one Taiwanese ambassador cannot be stopped: The Delegate of Boba. Everywhere you go in the world, you can find Taiwanese bubble tea, and by extension, other Taiwanese foods and snacks. In New York alone, 886, Ho Foods, and Zai Lai are just some of the many popular Taiwanese restaurants. Furthermore, Milk Street, The New York Times, Vice, and even the Michelin guide have been giddy with excitement over the xiaochi (small eats) and bouncy textures the island has to offer. When international attention could help protect Taiwan’s autonomy on the global stage, food pop culture might just be Taiwan’s political savior.
“Taiwanese people have always been pretty close to the mainstream of American culture,” said Richard Ho, owner of Ho Foods in the East Village. “We may not broadcast it, but most people in established media know what Taiwan is.” Ho’s shop specializes in Taiwanese beef noodle soup and Taiwanese breakfast on the weekends. Beef noodle soup is a rich beef broth simmered for hours with aromatics and spices, then finished with tender meat, QQ noodles, and pickled mustard greens. It’s a perfect dish for harsh winters, whether in Taipei or New York City.
Ho mentioned Ang Lee and Panda Express, and that even his high school cafeteria served bubble tea, but added that perhaps because of cultural humility — or maybe practical business reasons — Taiwan doesn’t receive much name recognition. But Ho Foods is clear about where its food comes from — it’s a “Taiwan Beef Noodle Shop,” whereas other restaurants might identify as simply Chinese. “I want Taiwanese people to say they are Taiwanese,” he said, adding that, however, he shies away from making any hard-hitting political statements. His focus is on sharing Taiwanese culture through serving good food, which is a pillar of Taiwanese society. “I don’t want it to be political.”
Edward Huang, owner of Zai Lai at the Turnstyle Underground Market, also maneuvers carefully around political debates. His restaurant specializes in Taiwanese homestyle dishes, such as steamed pork gua baos and hearty rice bowls. When asked about Taiwan and China, he tries to get to the root of people’s curiosity. “If they are unclear on the history of Taiwan and China and looking for knowledge, I’m happy to educate. If they’re curious about Taiwanese food history, I’m happy to delve into all the different influences Taiwanese food has benefited from,” Huang said. “If they’re looking for conflict, I generally demur.”
Instead, he tries to impart upon his visitors the strong culture of hospitality in Taiwan. His guests are often greeted by name, and each dish is named after a family member — as if welcoming patrons into his own home. Taiwan as a country often tops the list of friendliest travel destinations, and many universities have hospitality organizations. Ironically, Taiwan is somewhat of an international orphan, with only 17 other countries recognizing its democratic government.
This is a shame considering how much Taiwan has to offer. As a progressive, economically developed Asian democracy, Taiwan could provide valuable insight, research, and support to the world. Unlike China, Taiwan is connected to the world through social media and has always been open to new ideas, cultures, and customs. This is true not only in its food, which combines elements of Chinese, Japanese, and other outside influences but in its human rights record. Just this past May, Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
The restaurant 886 on St. Marks Place reflects this progressive, modern Taiwan. Owners Eric Sze and Andy Chuang grew up in Taiwan and only moved to the U.S. in adulthood. Among the more traditional Taiwanese restaurants run by Asian Americans, 886 encapsulates what Taiwan is like now, what it tastes like now, and all the exciting culinary changes taking place right now (like boba pizza and cheese tea). With dishes like “The Notorious TFC” and “Sausage Party,” the menu has as many twists and turns as the Taipei night markets from which they draw their inspiration.
“Taiwanese food is such an amalgamation of different cuisines, resulting from decades of imperialism and the Kuomintang arriving in Taiwan back in the 1950s,” Sze said when asked to describe Taiwanese cuisine. “We’re still constantly trying to answer that question. I honestly don’t think we will ever be able to answer it, because Taiwanese food is always evolving.”
For him, 886 is not just about sharing delicious xiaochi-like oyster omelets and three-cup chicken, it’s about communicating the role food plays in Taiwanese culture of bringing people together in a fun atmosphere through communal eating and plenty of alcohol. “Food is almost always the first and foremost driver of any culture. It isn’t like movies where you’d have to sit down for two hours and really dedicate yourself to a foreign film to understand the culture,” Sze said. “All it takes is to put something in your mouth, chew, and swallow.” He wants people to know that Taiwanese people are fun and creative — and so is their food.
There’s nothing more creative than adding chewy tapioca balls to milk tea, spreading it around the world, then saying — hey, why don’t we put it on pizza? Creativity is the reason Taiwanese food has taken the world by storm, and although boba pizza is only available in Taiwan for now, beef noodles, baos, and street food can be found all over the U.S.
As protesters continue to march in Hong Kong and Taiwanese citizens focus on an election that could have major ramifications on cross-strait relations with China, maybe we can pause a moment as we slurp our bubble tea and noodles. Behind the food trends, amazing flavors, and delicious meals, there is culture, country, and people deserving of our international attention as well.