I’m hosting #LetsLunch today in honor of Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage month. #LetsLunch is a monthly virtual potluck on Twitter with participants from all over the world. If you’d like to join, tweet a post with the hashtag #LetsLunch and we’ll welcome you to the party!
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My heritage is firmly rooted in Taiwan. While I wasn’t born there, I have visited around a dozen times, and each time, I discover more. My favorite city in Taiwan is not the modern-day glitz and glam (OK, grit, too) of Taipei, but Tainan, in Southern Taiwan. Tainan was Taiwan’s original capital and captures the essence of traditional Taiwanese culture. Tainan’s feel is very different from Taipei’s— it’s tropical, more languid and relaxed, and a place where you’re likely to hear more Taiwanese spoken than Mandarin.
The city has a well-preserved historic district, which includes forts recalling Taiwan’s previous occupancy by the Dutch in the 17th century. It’s also crammed with Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples both old and new, all of which are very much alive and active.
Tainan is just a few kilometers from the Southwest coast of the island, and its city streets ease quickly into sprawling countryside filled with palm trees and pineapple and banana plantations. It’s relaxed in every way that Taipei is frenetic. As if that weren’t enough, Taiwan’s best snack foods (xiaochi) come from Tainan, too—including danzi mian, shrimp rolls and wa guei.
Wa guei (Taiwanese for “bowl rice cake”) is a savory rice cake steamed and served in a rice bowl, topped with a very umami pork and shitake ragu. The topping varies—many places will make it with chunks of fatty pork belly, though I prefer to make it with leaner ground pork. Some places will serve it swimming in a brown sauce with very little meat, and some places also garnish it with a lot of freshly minced garlic and cilantro. The most important criteria by which I judge a wa guei is not the topping, though, but the rice cake itself. Less skillful places make it so firm and dense that it is more like the more commonly available law bok gow, the Cantonese pan-fried turnip cake you might know from dim sum. Wa guei, on the other hand, should have a rice cake that is soft, light and custardy.
When I was growing up my mother made wa guei very occasionally, because of the many steps involved. She even ground her own rice flour, which was probably the main stumbling block to making the wa guei. Thankfully, these days it’s easy enough to buy pre-ground rice flour in Asian groceries, and the recipe I’ve created is very simple. You could easily make this vegetarian/vegan by leaving out the pork and increasing the amount of tofu.
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Tainan-Style Wa Guei
(Savory Steamed Rice Cake with Pork and Shitake Ragu)
Makes: 4 to 6 bowls
Special equipment: a 2 layer steamer, porcelain Chinese rice bowls (not melamine)
For the rice cake:
1 cup of rice flour (NOT glutinous rice)
½ cup cold water
2 ½ cups hot water
pinch of salt
few drops of sesame oil
For the topping:
½ lb ground pork (or pork shoulder, if you prefer, cut into small chunks)
¼ pound firm tofu, drained and minced into ¼ inch chunks
1 scallion, sliced into small rings
3 cloves of garlic, minced
¾ teaspoon minced ginger
4 dried black Chinese (shitake) mushrooms, softened for 30 minutes in cold water, cut into small chunks
½ cup water chestnuts, chopped
2 tablespoons salted turnip/radish (available in Chinese and Asian markets), minced
1/2 tablespoon light soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon vegetarian stir fry sauce or oyster sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola oil
For the sauce:
1/2 cup vegetarian stir-fry sauce (or oyster sauce)
1 cup water
2 tsp sugar
4 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp cornstarch
optional garnishes: cilantro, minced garlic
For the topping:
1. Warm canola oil in a large sauté pan or wok. Add all topping ingredients and cook, stirring often, until pork is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
For the sauce:
1. Whisk together all sauce ingredients in a small sauce pan.
2. Warm over low heat, stirring slowly, and simmer for about a minute, until thickened. Set aside.
For the rice cake:
1. In a medium sauce pan, whisk together rice flour and cold water. Make sure it is smooth before adding hot water. Add the hot water and mix with the whisk. Add in a pinch of salt and a few drops of sesame oil. Keep stirring—depending on how warm the room is, the mixture may thicken at this point. If it doesn’t, warm pan over very low heat and stir continuously with the whisk until you have a paste-like consistency. (To test, see if it drips off of the whisk. It’s not ready until it sticks to the whisk.)
2. Once the rice mixture is at a paste-like consistency, use a large spoon to fill rice bowls up to ¾.
3. Top with desired amount of topping, then place bowls into a steamer.
4. Steam for 20 minutes. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes before serving. Top with sauce before serving. Serve with sweet chili sauce, if desired. Garnish with cilantro and minced garlic, to taste.
If you’d like to read more about Taiwan and its food, please visit these posts:
Jiufen, Taiwan’s Gold Country and Taro Sticky Rice Balls
Taiwanese Breakfast: Scallion Pancakes and Soy Milk
Maokong Gondola and Papaya Milk
Thanks so much for visiting! If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and/or share it with your friends.
Here are the other wonderful posts from this month’s #LetsLunch:
Cheryl’s Spicy Korean Tofu at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Karen’s Wonton Soup at GeoFooding
Lucy’s Chinese Chicken Salad at A Cook and Her Books
Emma’s quick and dirty guide to Korean BBQ at Dreaming of Pots and Pans
Lisa’s Asian Sesame, Eggplant and Noodle Salad at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Bulgogi Lettuce Wraps with Kimchi Chips and Fried Rice at Sandwich Surprise
Grace’s Mama’s Tips for Stir Fry at Hapa Mama
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How cool, I love the steamed rice cake topped with the pork. Sounds delicious1
It is so good– I’ve never had a version I’ve liked in the US, so I had to learn to make my own! Thanks for coming by!
Thanks for sharing some history of Taiwan and wa guei, it was fascinating. I’ve never had this in HK, so must be unique to Taiwan?
Thanks Eleanor– I think it is very unique to Taiwan, specifically the South.
Lovely travelogue & recipe. Wishing I had a Taiwanese neighbor to make these for me…
Thanks, Lucy! Come visit!
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