For 30 years, culinary instructor Chuang Pao-hua has owned and operated the Chung-hua Culinary Teaching Center, the longest running school of its kind in Taipei, Taiwan. At 67 years old, Chuang has witnessed the country's evolving taste and the highs and lows of its growing economy through the changing demographic of students coming through her door, all seeking the knowledge to make traditional Taiwanese fare with a coveted old-school flavor known as gu zhao wei.
Today, her class size averages anywhere from three to ten students a day. Traditional gu zhao wei took a momentary back seat to new Western influences in the early 2000s with the onset of new food trends and fusion influences. Recently, however, more diners are seeking out familiar flavors that evoke family recipes.
"Defining what qualifies as Taiwanese old-school flavor is difficult, but the flavor—once you taste it, to anyone who grew up knowing it—is unmistakable," says Chuang.
The distinctiveness of gu zhao wei is in the details, she explained, and it manifests in different ways: in a light broth that highlights the ingredients in noodles; in seafood so lightly touched by heat that it tastes sweet and buttery; in the buoyant, chewy texture described as "Q" and in the warm permeating smell of fried shallots. The type of soy sauce you use is also critical: not too sweet, not too strong. Every dish has a strict process, she explains. Take shortcuts and you lose that authentic flavor.
"People used to pass down these recipes from one generation to the next. Our elders were more apt to stick to the old ways and traditional tastes with recipes passed down throughout generations, but young people's tastes are changing and they don't have the patience to do the research for it," Chuang said.
The stagnant economy has brought more students young and old to Chuang's teaching center, where she teaches Taiwanese cuisine six days a week. Millennials facing stiff competition for limited corporate job and retirees seeking added security look to peddle xiao ci ("small eats," or traditional street food) as a source of steady income.
At her upstairs studio classroom, Chuang demonstrated the process for making a ginger braised duck to five students. She gripped a glistening whole duck by the neck, its limp head slumped over her fingers. She instructed the students to dunk the lower half of the body three times into hot broth to allow the steam from the liquid to penetrate the cavity and between the skin in order to cook the duck completely through.
Three decades ago, a lack of employment opportunities in her rural hometown brought Chuang, a single mother of two children, to Taipei after her husband went abroad to seek work. She grew up working in the family catering business alongside her mother, and in Taipei she found work at a food stall selling slack season noodles, a signature dish from Tainan that's also one of Taiwan's most celebrated xiao ci offerings. She felt that her boss's recipe wasn't up to snuff and was determined to improve upon it, but found that there was a shortage of resources for food proprietors and restaurant operators.
"At the time, there weren't these types of business-oriented cooking classes." said Chuang. "I realized that there were a lot of people in my situation trying to sustain their business or start a business that would allow them to support their families, but there wasn't a proper road for them to take. If they were to ask a successful store owner to teach them a family recipe, it's unlikely any store owner would be willing to do so."
In the last few years, the culinary teaching center has attracted restaurant operators from the United States, Germany, India, Brazil, and China. Consequently, Chuang has had to expand her syllabus to cover the technicalities of recreating Taiwanese flavors abroad. The Wei-Chuan brand of soy sauce in China tastes different than in Taiwan, she'll tell you. If you're cooking soup with rice wine, use filtered water to avoid a bitter aftertaste. If it's hard to find goose meat in the States, use duck.
"You might have trouble finding these fatty pork knuckles," Chuang said to one American student. "But you shouldn't have a problem. The Germans love pig knuckle," she gestured to another student, Min-Fan Wu, who owns and operates Ilha Formosa Gourmet in Germany.
Wu left his work in textiles to fulfill a dream of running a Taiwanese restaurant in Germany, where he felt authentic Taiwanese food was underrepresented. He opened Ilha Formosa in 2006 after taking a few of Chuang's classes and has returned to Taiwan each year since then to extend his education, and thereby his menu. Wu proudly shared photos and videos of his restaurant with classmates. In one video, German reporter Klaus Bardenhagen interviews Wu before sitting down to try the food. Wu didn't want to bother with tracking down rare items or substitutions, he explained. Everything in his restaurant—including cooking utensils, condiments, and décor—was bought in Taiwan and shipped to Germany to create an authentic experience.
As Chuang moved on from the duck to the soy-braised pork knuckle, an elderly man whom other students fondly referred to as "Grandpa Egg Waffle" returned for a third day that week to practice making egg waffles on the griddle. The room quickly filled up with the overwhelming smell of vanilla custard and students would occasionally walk over to grab a taste from his bowl of rejects. His first few tries stuck to the grill because it didn't get hot enough, he admitted. Grandpa Egg Waffle is retired but in need of extra money, so he sells egg waffles off a portable cart outside a busy metro station after 7 PM.
"It's after the police have gone home," he explained.
During a routine stroll around a neighborhood night market, Chuang encountered a line of people waiting to purchase smoked and marinated meats from a popular food vendor. She approached the front of the line and saw that the vendor was in fact one of her students. He met her gaze and nodded. She smiled, nodded back, and continued walking, past the vendor's sign advertising " gu zhao wei, based on secret recipes passed down from generations."
"There are stores that advertise that their product is based off family recipes, and they don't like to publicize the fact that they're learning it from a school. I understand that feeling. I tell them if they're having trouble, they can bring in their product and I can try it and help them to make adjustments," she said.
Chuang spent two months researching 60 classic recipes before opening the teaching center. Today, her curriculum offers more than 300 different recipes that stay true to old-school flavor.
"I used to go to the night markets regularly to purchase food and try each of them, then try to make each recipe and adjust the proportions. Each dish on the curriculum required 50 to 100 times of making and experimenting. Back then, I'd wake up in the middle of the night realizing something I can change and I'd immediately rush back to the classroom to try it. It made me very neurotic. I still take sleeping pills regularly just to sleep well at night," she said.
After a nine-hour day, she paused to sit at a table lined with dishes she made in class: kidneys with sesame oil, soy-braised pork knuckle, ginger-braised duck, and fish soup with goji berries. She's tasted each dish so many times that she could barely stand to eat them.
"They want to make enough money to support themselves and their children but they don't have the money to open a large restaurant—they can only sell xiao ci. If I were to stop teaching, I wouldn't be able to help them. I think as long as I can move and stand, I'll keep teaching. The current economy is poor and there are many who need this resource," she said, gazing at the still-warm waffle griddle "Like the old man today, selling egg waffles."
Today, the roughly 70,000 students who have passed through her doors make up a worldwide web of entrepreneurs, cookbook writers, and cooking instructors, but Chuang seems unfazed by the lack of credit she receives.
"I've taught a lot of students who end up becoming teachers. They may put their own spin on [the recipes] or make alterations to better suit their business. It's not easy to recreate it just by watching me make it. If you learn it here, you must practice to perfect it and then, you'll truly own it. If they reach a level where they can teach it, sell it, and craft it, that requires dedication."
The recipe takes on its own life, she explained. It's a modern evolution of oral tradition, however unconventional, that has spread across the world to wherever a homesick Taiwanese might be.