You Can Make Fast Food, Taiwan Style

The tiniest food stand or street restaurant can serve delicious, fresh food only minutes after you order, but when you try to cook in your own kitchen, it can take hours of work. Why? It's mainly because those professional chefs know how to keep things simple. Obviously, they have skill and experience, but the most important trick they've learned for amazing food is to use fast, simple techniques and minimal ingredients. They create fascinating flavors just by combining a few seasonings like white pepper, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, chili green, and coriander. Even if you don’t have as much skill or experience as these chefs, you can still benefit from these simple cooking ideas that are commonly seen throughout Taiwan and China.

If you look at a small Taiwanese noodle restaurant or stand, the first thing you’ll notice is a huge bubbling pot of boiling water. That steaming pot is their secret to making tasty, healthy food, fast. This cooking technique relies on heating prepared ingredients in very hot water for just a few minutes. This fast boiling method is quite similar to blanching, in that it preserves flavor, texture and nutrients. But it does not include the rapid cooling process used in blanching.

To make similar noodle dishes yourself, you only need to put a saucepan (or a similar container) about half full of water on a gas or electric stove and heat the water to boiling. Your main ingredients will be noodles, plus some vegetables, maybe tofu, or seafood, or meat, and of course some basic seasonings. Just choose fresh ingredients that you like and that you can easily find in your local market, and add simple flavorings. You'll discover that authentic Taiwanese dishes are quick and simple to make.

If you really want to learn fast, then this cooking process is ideal for you, because it only takes a few minutes. So you can experiment repeatedly with small amounts of various ingredients and different cooking times, and find out what’s best for you.

Ingredients to try

Noodles: The best noodles for this cooking style are wheat noodles. You can find stands selling freshly-made wheat noodles in a morning market. Dry wheat noodles are also OK, and can be found in any supermarket. You could substitute steamed rice for noodles (Use a rice cooker to make steamed rice quickly and easily).

Vegetables: Green vegetables such as cabbage, water spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and chives; and other vegetables, like bean sprouts, potatoes or sweet potatoes.

Varieties of tofu: Such as deep fried tofu or deep fried tofu skin.

Mushrooms: For example, black wood ear mushrooms or golden mushrooms.

Traditional main ingredients: Such as seafood, chicken, or pork.

Note that some denser ingredients, such as meat and potatoes, may need to be chopped or thinly sliced to ensure cook properly.

Seasonings and flavorings are important. Their subtle blend of taste and aroma is the final touch that turns good ingredients into a great meal. The seasonings you will use include salt, white pepper, chopped garlic, chopped ginger, sesame oil, and chopped chili, coriander and green onion. These are the most common Taiwanese flavoring ingredients, so they’re a good choice when you’re beginning to learn. You can find seasonings in your local supermarket and in smaller stores around fresh food markets.

Cooking method

First, prepare any chopped or sliced ingredients, to ensure the cooking process will be smooth and fast.

Bring your pan of water to the boil. If you’re cooking for a while and the water boils away, then add more water to restore the level, and bring it to the boil again. You can usually use the same water for everything, but cook noodles last to ensure they are still warm when served. The noodles also absorb a lot of water and make the remaining water starchy and likely to boil over.

When the water is boiling, add the ingredients. Generally, the cooking time is extremely short, only about one minute. You can use tongs, chopsticks, or a strainer to remove the ingredients from the water. Immediately after removing ingredients, you may use a sieve or colander to let excess water drain away, and to allow them to cool briefly. The ingredients can be put into a serving dish or on top of a bowl of noodles.

Keep the water in your pan close to boiling as you add ingredients. But do be aware that a few delicate ingredients, such as some kinds of seafood, are better cooked at slightly below boiling point to avoid damaging them.

Guidelines for fast boiling ingredients

Vegetables and tofu: Don’t cook them too long, because they’ll become soft. Vegetables usually take less than a minute to cook, tofu is even quicker. Drain away excess water after cooking.

Meat: Meat should be thinly sliced, around 0.1 cm, before cooking, so it will cook fast and thoroughly. (If you’ve been to a hotpot restaurant, you’ll have noticed they slice meat very thinly).

Seafood: When you are cooking seafood, such as shrimp and squid, you can first add a few pieces of ginger to the water, to add flavor and neutralize the fishy taste. The ideal water temperature is slightly below boiling, around 85C, because hotter water may make the seafood’s texture too hard. So if the water is already boiling, let it cool a little. Add the seafood to the water and cook it for less than one minute. After shrimp and squid are cooked, they should still be tender.

Noodles: Cook the noodles last. To cook a portion of noodles for one person, ensure there’s at least one liter of water in the pot. Two liters of water is enough to cook 2 to 3 portions. You can use the same water in which you previously cooked other ingredients – this adds flavor to the noodles.

Make sure the water is boiling before adding the noodles. When the noodles float to the top of the boiling water, they are almost cooked. Pick up a noodle from the top of the water (use chopsticks if it’s too hot), and press it between your thumb and fingernail. This way, you can get a feeling for how firm or crunchy the noodles are. Then it’s up to you if you prefer the noodles al dente or softer.

After the noodles are cooked, use a sieve or colander to drain away water, and serve them right away. You can serve the noodles plain in their own bowl with the other ingredients in separate dishes, or add the other ingredients to the noodles before serving – it’s up to you.

Seasonings and flavorings

It’s best add to add seasonings and flavorings immediately after cooking, because you’ll get the most benefit from them. But if you’re busy cooking, you could add the seasonings as you serve the dishes.

The key Taiwanese seasonings are salt, white pepper, garlic, and sesame oil. To develop the flavor a little, you can add chili to those, and for a broader, more complex flavor, try adding chili plus coriander or green onion for some color and extra fragrance.

Drizzle the sesame oil to coat the food. Add enough to feel the food is smooth – similar to the amount of olive oil you’d use on a Western dish.

If you taste the food and seasoning as you add each flavoring ingredient, you should notice the flavor changes each time. In this way, you should gradually be able to learn the secrets of Taiwanese flavors. You’ll find some flavorings are best stirred into the food, although stirring may reduce the visual impact of others.

How much of each flavoring should you use? Trust your own instincts, experiment and learn what tastes good for you and your guests. Always use as little as possible, because adding is easier than taking away.

Here are some recipes for your reference:

Taiwanese garlic and sesame oil dressing 

New potato salad with Taiwanese garlic and sesame oil dressing


Hints and tips

Remember that you’re in charge and you don’t have to just follow recipes. So if you don’t like a particular flavor, such as white pepper, then feel free to skip it. Some flavors are similar and can be substituted for each other. For example, if you don’t like garlic, replace it with ginger. You can also replace chili with chili oil.

To make these dishes a real departure from your normal dining experience, find a good bottle of pure sesame oil (not sesame oil blended with soya oil). Pure white pepper is also a key ingredient, I usually find it in Chinese herbal stores.

Good luck and happy cooking. I look forward to your questions, criticism, and comments!



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