Food Field Note

Sat, 03/02/2013 – 1:00pm
Abstract: A short blurb about this article:
It’s amazing how a country’s food traditions can give a glimpse into its history and culture. The oyster omelette is a traditional Taiwanese dish that combines many major ingredients from the country’s main agricultural staples. These ingredients reveal some interesting facts about Taiwan’s history and natural landscape!

As far as eating Taiwan’s most delicious snacks, oyster omelettes never made it onto the top of my list. I had seen this traditional night market staple all over Yilan and Taipei, but always found a reason to eat a green onion pancake or some porkfinished oyster omelette with sauce and shrimp dumplings instead. Recently, I decided to bite the bullet and try one of Taiwan’s most famous traditional dishes. What I discovered was a dish filled with complex textures and flavors—a little bit chewy, a little bit crunchy, a little bit spicy, and a little bit sweet. What I learned later, after a bit of research, was that the oyster omelette did not come to be as it is today by accident. The ingredients are directly connected to Taiwan’s natural landscape, and can give insights into its past.

What food did I try?: 

The food I tried is called a Taiwanese oyster omelette. The oyster omelette—or 蚵仔煎, pronounced oh-ah-ZHEN in Taiwanese—is one of the most famous street foods, and uses ingredients commonly found throughout all of Taiwan. Street food is very big here in Taiwan, and is a major part of Taiwanese culture. People really like to wander from stall to stall in the crowded night markets, sampling all kinds of snacks from various vendors.

The Taiwanese oyster omelette is a little different from the omelettes we have in the United States. In addition to eggs, the Taiwanese version of the omelette also uses a jelly-like substance made from starch that helps give the omelette its signature chewy texture. Add in oysters and Chinese greens, top it off with a special sweet and savory sauce, and you have an interesting combination of textures and flavors that aren’t really found in omelettes in the western world.

How did I feel when I tried it?: 

When I ate my first oyster omelette, I felt amazed by the different textures and flavors combining in my mouth. Taiwanese really like to eat “chewy” ingredients in their dishes, and view texture to be just as important as taste in cooking. This “chewy” texture is described as “QQ” in Taiwan, for the “bouncy” sound the food makes when you chew it!

How is the food prepared?: 

I asked around in the night market in Luodong, and finally figured out how to make an oyster omelette for myself at home. I used a recipe from a Taiwanese friend and incorporated some tips I picked up from cooks in the night market. I am proud to say, the finished product was very tasty! The oyster omelette consists of eggs, a jelly-like pudding made from tapioca or potato starch mixed into the egg batter, Taiwanese oysters (which are smaller and sweeter than ones found in the U.S.), Chinese leafy vegetables, and a savory sauce topping. The ingredients are pan-fried over high heat, and a significant amount of oil is used to do the frying! Ingredients for four people are as follows: For the omelette, you need: 3 eggs, 1 cup bok choy, 10 ounces fresh, raw oysters, 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil, 1/4 cup tapioca starch, 1/2 cup cold water, 1/4 tsp ground white pepper, and salt to taste. For the sauce, you need 3 tablespoons of soy paste, 3 tablespoons of ketchup, 2 tablespons of sugar, and chili flakes and/or a squeeze of chili sauce, if you dare! To make the sauce, it is very easy: just combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl and mix them together. You can put it in the fridge if you want while you make the omelette. To make the omelette, follow these steps: first, crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them until combined. Add teh salt and white pepper and put the bowl aside. In a separate bowl, mix teh starch and water until well combined. Put it aside to let the paste thicken up (this should only take a few minutes). Next, chop up the bok choy into small chunks (smaller than an inch). Set aside. Now, heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large pan until the oil looks shimmery. First, add the tapioca paste, and reduce heat to medium. Cook the paste until the color changes from white to clear. Lower the heat to simmer and then add the beaten eggs. Stir the tapioca paste and the eggs together to combine them. Next, add the oysters and bok choy to set on top of the egg mixture. Let the omelette cook on this side until you see the edges turn a golden brown. After, carefully flip the omelette so that the other side can cook. Turn the heat back up to medium and let the omelette cook for just a few minutes more, until the oysters are cooked through and the omelette is set. Finally, put the finished omelette on a big plate and put however much sauce you want on top (I like a lot!). Final step: sit down (or stand up!) and enjoy your omelette!

Is this food connected to the local environment? How?: 

Oyster omelettes did not just happen by chance! All of the ingredients are readily available in Taiwan’s natural landscape. Greens are grown in abundance all over the island, the oysters are plentiful off Taiwan’s island shores, and eggs are very cheap and common commodities in all of the island’s farms.

Actually, there is some lore surrounding how the very first oyster omelette came to be. The oyster omelette originated in the city of Tainan, one of Taiwan’s oldest and most traditional cities. Legend has it that when the Dutch invaded the area near Tainan in the 1700s, a famous Chinese general named Koxinga took his army and battled for control of the city. After many days, Koxinga won. However, to get back at Koxinga and his army for their defeat, the Dutch supposedly all of their food provisions before they left, hoping their enemies would starve. Having no food provisions, Koxinga and his troops were forced to look to the local environment and see what they could scrounge up. The troops ended up making use of what was readily available in Tainan’s local environment—small, sweet oysters harvested off the coast and starch from the areas plentiful sweet potatoes. Koxinga and his troops cooked the oysters and fried the sweet potato starch to use as a wrap.

The result ended up being very tasty, and the recipe was passed down throughout history with some small changes made throughout the years. The earliest versions of the oyster omelette were flat and round and included pork and mushrooms as well as oysters. The sweet and savory sauce was added over time, as different cultural influences (such as Japanese and Korean) filtered into the island. Now, the oyster omelette is a night market staple in Taiwan, though it may look a little different from Koxinga’s time.

The oyster omelette was a staple dish in Taiwan’s earlier times when food was scarce and people had to use their local environments to find creative sources of sustenance. Because the ingredients in the oyster omelette are readily available and easily found in Taiwan, oyster omelettes are known as a “poor man’s food,” or a dish that was cooked up and served mainly to working fishermen, farmers, and working class people who needed to eat heartily and cheaply.

In sum, the oyster omelette is not just a curious traditional street food in Taiwan’s night markets. Its ingredients have roots in Taiwan’s natural and cultural history, and tell a story about how local people used their natural environments to come up with unique and delicious dishes in the face of food scarcity. So the next time you eat the oyster omelette as a delicious snack, realize you are consuming a bit of culture and history along with your eggs and spicy sauce!

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