The Taste of Home: —Savor a Spoonful of Southeast Asian Spices


2017 / September

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Bruce Humes

Over the past decade or so, names of exotic spices such as Thai holy basil, turmeric, tamarind and lemongrass have begun to pop up in Taiwan’s culinary lingo. These aromatic plants are the oft-yearned-for homeland flavors of Southeast Asian people who have come to live and settle in Taiwan. They not only enrich our food culture, they also represent an intriguing medium through which to acquaint ourselves with mainland and maritime Southeast Asia.


From July to October, the National Taiwan Museum is hosting a special exhibition, “The Taste of Hometown: Southeast Asian Flavors.” Through common plants and spices of Southeast Asia, it introduces the unique origins of spices—and tales of immigrants—from countries throughout the region. Thus visitors are not only given a chance to savor a street full of Southeast Asian delicacies and learn to recognize the hot and tart flavors that may be combined within a single mouthful, they are also able to experience a taste of immigrants’ nostalgia for their homelands.

Flavors of home

“People familiar with Taiwan’s history know that it has always been a multicultural place, and our diverse diet demonstrates this. Since 1992, with the influx of people from Southeast Asia, cuisine with a Southeast Asian flavor has also set foot in Taiwan and become a part of our food culture,” says the director of the National Taiwan Museum, Hung Shih-yu. So the museum, which focuses on cultural diversity and has long followed issues ­surrounding immigrants, this year organized its Taste of Hometown exhibition. 

On its opening day, July 22, following docent Chen Hsin-chun around the exhibition we quickly understood that climate and environment determine how spices are employed in Southeast Asia. The peoples of mainland Southeast Asia generally add fresh spices directly to their dishes, while island residents, due to less abundant natural resources, tend to dry fruits and seeds, grind them, and mix them to serve as a preserved seasoning base. 

As Chen conducted the tour, he didn’t neglect to correct some mistaken impressions about Southeast-Asian cuisine. For instance, the Chinese term da­pao used in the context of Thai cooking refers to holy basil leaves, and not the action of “hurling” something, as the characters used to write the word suggest; and “curry” signifies “mixed seasonings,” and thus the recipe for curry in each household in Southeast Asia is unique to that family.

Varied, complex Southeast Asian flavors

“For this exhibition, we interviewed immigrants from four countries, and presented spices and dishes from seven countries in Southeast Asia,” says curator Emily Hsu-wen Yuan.

There are many kinds of Southeast Asian spices, and this results in a rich, multi-layered cuisine. On display are ten containers of spices including pepper, cloves, tamarind, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cardamom, cumin and candlenuts. “And those are just the basics!” she says.

Yuan emphasizes that a more authoritative list would also have to include the herbal plants displayed on the walls, such as mint, lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander, pandan leaves, makrut lime, sawtooth coriander, turmeric, and Thai holy basil leaves.

At times the information she gathered about the region’s aromatic plants approached explosive proportions. Prior to conducting interviews, Yuan prepared background materials on ten plants per country, and notified her interviewees of the content of their talk. But some enthusiastic respondents added another 30. “We actually use this many spices back home,” they said, leaving her almost overwhelmed. 

Ester Kartika Condro, who is from Indonesia, brought sand ginger, her favorite, to the interview. When peeled it is white, and if you taste it, it is not as hot as Taiwan ginger, which can make you choke, but it does possess a refreshing mint oil fragrance. Sand ginger is not only edible, she said, it also has medicinal properties. Her mother grinds it into a paste that she applies to the abdomen to reduce flatulence. Feng Chun-yan, from Myan­mar, revealed that her father adores lemongrass. After boiling it to make soup he likes to chew on it, and can’t bring himself to just throw it away.

The exhibition doesn’t just bring to light little-known usages for seasonings; nostalgia for the immigrants’ homelands is also revealed. “When they recount their memories about spices, their eyes often turn red, or they seem to revert to their teenage years, as if they were young girls again at their mother’s side,” describes Yuan. She admires the courage that brought these female immigrants to Taiwan on their own, and their strength and perseverance in facing the challenges of their new lives.

The enthusiastic women immigrants often went on at length, describing the delicious flavors of their hometown dishes. “During the interviews, when I didn’t feel like I was starving, then I was so moved I thought I’d cry my eyes dry,” says Yuan.

Cross-cultural dialogue

“Crossing cultures is an intriguing but complex affair,” says Yuan, and it leads you to reflection on blind spots in your own culture. For instance, the Taiwanese use rice wine to remove a fishy smell, but ingesting alcohol is forbidden in Islam, so Muslims accomplish this by grinding turmeric into a mash, adding spices and then rubbing the mixture on the fish. In Taiwan, water spinach is cut into short lengths and stir-fried with garlic, but in Vietnam, the raw leaves of water spinach are picked off the stem, sliced into strips and served as an appetizer similar to salad. Many of these innumerable differences in approach were revealed in the course of the interviews for the exhibition.

The most memorable differences are in how spices are handled. The Taiwanese like to sauté using spring onions, ginger and garlic, which are often crushed or chopped and then tossed into the wok. But in Southeast Asia, virtually every family owns a mortar and pestle for pounding spices. Spices are crushed and ground manually and then added to dishes.

The question, “Can’t you use a juicer to do that?” eli­cits an expression of disbelief from Southeast Asians. “You won’t get the same effect,” they reply in concert. You must pound and mash them by hand, otherwise it’s not the real McCoy.

Leaving the museum behind

Beyond the exhibition, on weekends the museum also arranges guided tours, led by immigrants, of the Burmese, Indonesian and Filipino quarters of Greater Tai­­pei, where the guides can tell their own stories. Back at the museum, tours of the exhibition are also given by immigrant “ambassadors” at various times on weekdays. Dressed in the traditional garb of their homeland, they provide explanations based on first-hand knowledge.

“After the exhibition closes in Tai­pei, it will tour all over Taiwan in order to enrich the cultural resources of remote areas and outlying islands, and ensure that more locals can experience and better understand the cultures of Southeast Asia,” says Hung Shih-yu.

Spices originated in ancient India and spread throughout Southeast Asia. As they did, they were adapted to the conditions and customs of each country, creating the brilliant and diverse cuisines of mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. Later, these seasonings were brought to Taiwan by the women immigrants who have settled here, helping to assuage their nostalgia for their homelands, while adding new flavors to Taiwan’s spice palette. 

These women who crossed the seas for a new life here have gradually integrated themselves into Taiwan culture, and become indispensable members of society. The people of Taiwan should also endeavor to learn about and befriend these Southeast Asian newcomers, and appreciate the wonderful cultures and diversity they bring with them.

Because once you take root, you are family.            

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