Wilma, the President of the Edmonton Taiwanese Association met up with us to share a little bit more about Taiwanese culture through food. She brought along her sidekick and helper extraordinaire, her daughter Cassandra and we had a lovely afternoon cooking together and learning all of her tips and tricks. Let’s talk Taiwan- this is a beautiful Island just off the South-East coast of China, and has culinary influences from different parts or Asia (like China & Japan) giving it a unique cuisine. Taiwan is a small country but is filled with so much beauty- being one of the most mountainous islands in the world. Our menu for the day was 2 popular street food dishes: Taiwanese Vermicelli Stir-fry Noodles and Popcorn chicken with fried basil.
We started with getting all of the meat ready, to give it some time to marinate and soak up all of the yumminess, and trust us, this part is critical in getting that really great flavour- especially in the chicken! Chicken= bite sized pieces, and pork= thin strips (you want them to cook quick and homogenize nicely with the noodles). Both the meat for the stir-fry & popcorn chicken were marinated similarly, using a few secret ingredients. Chinese 5 spice is definitely a star in both of these dishes. If you have never tried this spice- you must add it to your spice collection! It’s a combination of Chinese cinnamon, cloves, star anise and fennel seed with the fifth spice varying between ginger, white pepper or Sichuan peppercorns. Wilma makes her own mix, as she shared many families have their own special recipe. Let’s dip into the full plethora of flavours used in this marinade. Shaoxing cooking wine, oyster sauce, light and dark soy make up this magic mix. Wilma told us that the 2 different soy sauces play different roles: Light is for the flavour, dark is for color- this mix creates more depth in flavour.
We’ve coated many pieces of chicken in our day but there are a few key things that makes this process unique. First of all, regular flour need not apply. That extra crunchy coating comes from using sweet potato starch or just tapioca starch, as this ingredient can be more tricky to find (try your local Asian grocery store like T&T Supermarket here in Edmonton). Also, once you dredge your chicken- let it rest for awhile to absorb the starch; you know it’s ready when it looks a bit moist and changes in color from that dry, powdery appearance. Wilma shared a hot tip that we will 100% be using in our meal prep plans- you can make a big batch, fry it up and freeze. Take it out, and pop it in the air fryer for fresh, easy popcorn chicken anytime, minus all of the preservatives. Also, we highly recommend that you don’t skip on the fried basil part. We thought, ok, basil with fried chicken, take it or leave it, but this peppery, fresh bite adds to the whole experience and is so worth the extra 30 seconds. Check out our popcorn chicken process below:
So after the popcorn chicken party it was time to focus on the stir-fry and of course, there are also some very special secret ingredients involved here! In addition to the way we marinated the meat (we used pork tenderloin for a lean cut, but you can use whatever you like really), there are a few prep steps that you can even do the night before if you are thinking ahead. First the cute little pink baby shrimp need to be rehydrated, so put them in some boiling water, in a bowl to sit and do their thing. Same goes for the shiitake mushrooms (use the packaged/dried ones)- but the key is to keep that liquid, as it makes up a part of the sauce and gives that oh so yummy layer of flavour you can’t get without knowing these insider methods. Once all of your ingredients are chopped, prepared and ready to go- it’s stir fry time! Wilma says in Taiwanese cooking, the process is to get everything ready, you cook on high heat, so there is no time to stop once you start. Check out how it all comes together here:
Pro Tips from Wilma:
- We used pork in our stir-fry as this is a common protein used in Asian cooking, however you can use anything you like (other than seafood). No meat? You can use egg… make an omelette separately, once cooked, cut it into thin strips and toss in to the stirfry at the end
- Marinating your meat for this dish isn’t needed but adds extra flavour- your call
- When marinating meat, you can add an egg. This creates a sort of seal and better helps the meat retain the flavours. Oil does something similar as well.
- Wilma like to remove the stems of the mushroom (as hey are a little bi more tough). Be sure to squeeze the water out of your shroom before using them, you want to redo extra liquid (especially plain old water) from the dish.
- Vermicelli noodles cook *quick*. You really only need to put them in for 2 minutes max. They may seem a little under cooked when you remove them but this is what you want. They will continue to cook after they are taken out, and once you add them back in with the sauce.
- Cooking the veggies is a layered process as they have different cook times and you want to build flavour, don’t throw everything in at once!
- Once you have your sauce ready- give it a taste, add a little bit more of this or that depending on taste preferences. Wilma suggests adding a little bit of sriracha if you like spicy.
- Once your noodles are in, just keep stirring them around, up, down, here, there, everywhere to get them to absorb the liquid evenly throughout. Keep moving them until you see that most of the liquid at the bottom of the frying pan is gone. You can cut your noodles up a bit to make this easier.
- To get your popcorn chicken extra crispy, give it a second fry. When you do the second fry, make sure oil is hot, hot, hot and don’t leave them in too long.
- Speaking of hot oil- make sure you use an oil with a high smoke point like grapeseed. Wilma uses her chopstick trick to test the oil. She puts the tip in, right down to the bottom of the pan, and it bubbles build around it, then your oil is hot.
You can try this highly addictive popcorn chicken out for yourself along with the vermicelli noodles at the Taiwan Pavilion at Heritage Festival while enjoying some cultural entertainment-is there a better way to spend your long weekend? We think not. Wash it down with some fresh fruit smoothies or bubble tea, which they will also be serving up and then you can go home and try to create these dishes yourself! Both of these recipes will become a regular menu occourence in our household as they can be customized to your taste and are also super kid friendly (my daughter’s eyes popped out of her skull when she tried this popcorn chicken and it gives me less mom guilt than the frozen or fast food version!). Taiwan (not to be confused with Thailand…. which Wilma shared is apparently a common mishap globally) is definitely worth learning more about, and we were inspired to add it to our travel bucket list. Thanks to Wilma and The Edmonton Taiwanese Association for representing this small Island in a BIG way (check out all they do by clicking here), and we hope to learn even more from Wilma in upcoming cooking classes.