Eira Lee – Taiwan TongueA blending wit and insider expertise, Taiwan Tongue is an online magazine that aims to share a love of Taiwanese food with the world. taiwantongue.com
The greatest flavors are layered, with each layer revealing a little more character than the next. To borrow a term from the tea sommelier’s lexicon, they possess “complexity.”
address – № 8, lane 17, guchabaian street, haocha village, wutai township, pingtung county 90241, taiwan
opening hours – 6 p.m. — 2 a.m., closed on tuesdays
website – facebook.com/akame.in
Alex Peng, who apprenticed under star chef André Chiang at Restaurant André in Singapore, invited us to his restaurant, AKAME, to learn how he has been using a traditional wood-fired kiln to coax out complexity from the simplest of ingredients. We headed to Pingtung County, Taiwan’s southernmost county, to learn about a cooking technique on the precipice of cultural extinction—and the way it’s being combined with indigenous produce to create a culinary revolution.
Taiwan Tongue: Alex, when you hear the phrase “Taiwanese food,” what do you think of?’
Alex Peng: For me, the answer is easy. You get the spirit of Taiwanese food when the island’s produce is the star of the show. We can use classically Taiwanese ingredients and flavors without having to stick to traditional methods of cooking, which is where things get interesting.
As part of the Rukia tribe, I grew up with flavors that are unfamiliar to most Taiwanese. For instance, many people are unfamiliar with millet, red quinoa, and mountain spices, but they’re very common in indigenous food. They’re the flavors of the mountains, so naturally, they represent the flavors of Taiwan.
One of the more unusual pieces of equipment in your kitchen is your kiln. Can you explain how you use it in your cooking?
In the old days, tribes didn’t pay attention to the temperature of the fire or the scent of the smoke. They would bake ingredients like taro to remove the water and then preserve it, simply for the purpose of cooking the food, not flavoring the food.
I’m continuously trying to refine the traditional firewood grilling process to change the face of the craft and reveal the details hidden within. One way in which I try to do this is by raising the temperature. A common aboriginal method is to sandwich the meat or fish between stone plates, stack clay bricks on top, and then cook in a kiln. With the accuracy of temperature-controlled, Western-style kilns, we can now reach temperatures as high as 700-800℃ and have more control.
When done correctly, wood and smoke can enhance the flavors, but ultimately, it’s all down to the fresh ingredients and flavors you want to deliver.
How do you select the wood to use in your kiln?
My dishes are mainly grilled with koa wood, which is what surrounds the restaurant. Occasionally, friends will send me some sweet apple wood. I also like to pre-smoke the kiln with rice stalk or red quinoa. Smoking with red quinoa brings out the sweetness of the millet grains, whereas rice stalk evokes a milky aroma. Smoking this way pairs great with delicate ingredients like duck breast. As for seasoning, I roast dry spices with woodchips and turn them into a powder for grilling. There really aren’t that many patterns to follow here. I don’t really collect or purchase wood. It’s about using what’s around you.
From European “foraging” to Japanese “hand-picking” cuisine, the trends of the new
culinary era appear to be turning the natural land into the chef’s pantry. Can you describe how different culinary traditions have influenced you?
Chinese cooking was what I started with, but then I became intrigued by Western methods, mainly because the spirit of
Western food is closer to my philosophy. However, I don’t consider myself to be cooking French or Western food in general. I refer to myself as an innovative indigenous cuisine chef.
Western cooking allows the ingredients themselves to shine while using various methods to reveal deeper sensations of taste. I think this cooking concept follows principles similar to indigenous cuisine. I don’t consider myself a Western cuisine chef because I only cook with Taiwanese local ingredients. All the fish, vegetables, and spices are grown on this island. For example, the Danish restaurant Noma applies a mainly French cooking style. However, they say they lead the new wave of Scandinavian cuisine since they use ingredients exclusively from their native land. They create the authentic Danish experience with their meal, allowing customers to taste unique flavors that don’t exist anywhere else.
What would you describe as a quintessentially
Taiwanese culinary experience?
You could say it’s a taste of my home. Wild
vegetables from Taitung, spice from Nantou, organic produce from Tainan, and seafood from Yilan:
you’ll find all of these on the AKAME menu. All of the spices you see here are locally grown. However, the majority of the population has yet to
experience them. Extracting salt from sumac, using handpicked herbs and flower from east Taiwan,
using millet-based alcohol—these are just a couple ways that we’re trying to be creative with ingredients we’ve been accustomed to since childhood. The fire pit and the hearth have been replaced by gas and electronic appliances.
How can we wind back time and incorporate more traditional cooking methods in a home kitchen?
You’ll have a hard time trying to replicate a kiln at home, but smoking is a nice alternative. Spread woodchips along the bottom of the pan, spray some water, and cover it so it smolders and the wood scent develops. Set up a grilling grate and let
the games begin. It’s important to spray water to cool down the process, since the dry wood is too hot to produce the scent of wood smoke.
“I grew up eating a dish called ‘pigeon pea pork rib soup.’ Blending the dry pigeon pea seed with the pork rib soup creates a very home-cooked flavor. Although the idea is far from traditional, I wanted to transform the dish with a wood-fire kiln. ”
Pork Ribeye with Millet Wine Cheese and Pigeon Pea
110 g millet wine cheese
60 g pork ribeye or pork cheek olive oil
180 gmaqaw (mountain pepper) pigeon pea
1 slice pork stock
1. Rub ribeye with olive oil and maqaw and marinate for 24 hours.
2. In a large pot, add pigeon peas to pork stock and cook until softened. Season with salt and set aside for 1 hour.
3. Remove ribeye from marinade and grill at 80℃ for 40 minutes, then sear both sides for 2 minutes.
4. Cover ribeye with millet wine cheese. Blowtorch until cheese melts and aroma emerges before plating with pigeon pea.