This is Yun Hai Taiwan Stories, a newsletter about Taiwanese food and culture by Lisa Cheng Smith 鄭衍莉, founder of Yun Hai. If you aren’t yet a subscriber, sign up here.
This week, I write with a heavy heart as we all reel from the news of the shootings that took place in California over Lunar New Year Weekend. And it is with this heart that I introduce QQ Rabbit, our annual collection of Chinese zodiac merchandise. We will be donating the proceeds from this collection to Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay victims’ funds. In the face of such tragedy, I hope that the Year of the Rabbit can still bring good tidings and change our prospects for the better.
In brighter news, our dear friends at Win Son have come out with a cookbook. Win Son has been a big part of the Yun Hai story, and I’m so excited for this long-anticipated addition to the Taiwanese-American cookbook canon. I contributed a few things to the book, too! Read on for details.
The Year of the Water Rabbit is promised to be full of prosperity and calm. It may well still be, but not without deep sadness. The tragic shootings that have occurred in California during a sacred cultural holiday have resulted in the lost and shattered lives of many. Gun violence continues to rip apart the fabric of peace and tranquility in this country.
Does the rabbit live in fear? Or a state of constant alertness, prepared for any given moment? I prefer to think the latter, as I refuse to be afraid. The humble hare is an unlikely symbol for courage, but it is with the rabbit that we bound forward.
And so, yet again, we have ourselves a mascot.
Meet the New Face of Yun Hai
Introducing QQ Rabbit, the Yun Hai Lunar New Year QQ QT of 2023. The rabbit has letters for eyes, referencing "Q"—a Taiwanese word that describes food with a chewy or bouncy texture, like a boba pearl or the perfect fried sesame ball.
This bunny’s a softie—a cuddly companion in powder puff pink set on a natural background as if in a nest of dry grass. QQ Rabbit is a steward of our collective wish that the world might yet become a gentler place. But don’t let the demure visage fool you. Its gently downcast gaze may appear distracted and carefree, but it knows where you stand. Long ears are alert, taking in all the secrets that patient observation unlocks. Its sweet smile is—yes—friendly and lovable, but its big bunny hindquarters are wound up like a spring, ready to bounce at a moment’s notice to better prospects, greener pastures, or more shadowy thickets. Peace be with you but don’t come too close, rabbit says. Time to let baby QQ reign supreme.
This year, we’ve put QQ Rabbit (ok, QQ Bunny) on totes and short sleeve t-shirts for kids and adults. The adult tees have the Yun Hai calligraphy on the front and QQ Rabbit on the back. The kids shirts and totes are a slightly darker color and have QQ Rabbit on the front.
We’re donating all the profits from this limited edition production to Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay victims’ funds. We’re still identifying the best place to donate to; we’ll share the details of the organizations at a future date. Merchandise will start to ship out Monday, January 30th.
Illustration by Christopher Roeleveld. Design by Christopher Roeleveld and Lisa Cheng Smith. Printed on a Gildan Heavyweight Cotton Tee. Silkscreened by Works in Progress, who operate nonprofit educational programs and internships for teens in NYC.
Win Son, a Taiwanese-American Restaurant
Girl walks into a bar with a bottle of soy sauce…
Ok, it was seven bottles of soy sauce and the bar was the restaurant Win Son, which hadn’t yet opened for the evening. I had messaged them a few days before asking if they would sample the soy sauce I was thinking of importing and give me their opinion. They replied immediately. And the rest is the story of Yun Hai.
Win Son and co-owners Trigg Brown and Josh Ku are about as entwined with our comeuppance as you could be without actually being a part of Yun Hai. They were our first restaurant customer, incorporating Yu Ding Xing soy paste and fermented black beans into their menu in our early days. And not without incident, because I was still very much new to it all. They had to wait something like six extra weeks for their first delivery. When the truck finally arrived, I was mistakenly given a pallet of lanyard components and had to chase down the proper merchandise.
When they opened the bakery across the street in 2019, Josh fabricated steel shelves for our first retail presentation. And, for Lunar New Year 2020, I popped-up at the restaurant and served scallion oil noodles, wood ear salad, and fried Taiwanese pork cutlet, recipes from the Lunar New Year feature I contributed to Bon Appetit that year. I’m not a professional chef, but these guys made it easy for me. Throughout it all, I remember how rare it was to be treated this way. No “sign here” mentality. Just a passion for Taiwanese food and sharing what everyone was up to.
Now, our storefront is in front of their commissary kitchen, just a few doors down from the bakery. We sell Win Son frozen pork buns and scallion pancakes out of our freezer, and collaborate on pineapple cakes and ice cream flavors with Danielle Spencer, the Win Son pastry chef. We’re so close, we often get confused for an offshoot of the restaurant. The corner is known to some as Little Taiwan, though, truthfully, we need a few more businesses to secure that title (calling all boba shops).
I remember visiting the restaurant in 2017, before Yun Hai was a fully formed idea, and marveling that the menu used romanization of Taiwanese dish names, like o-a jian (oyster omelet) and lu rou fan (Taiwanese braised pork rice). They weren’t the first or only ones to do it, but as a Taiwanese American, it was so exciting to see familiar dishes (and their names) presented in the context of New American Dining. And the food …! It’s a mixture of Taiwanese and personal influences, not fusion nor fully Taiwanese; it’s just Win Son.
Win Son Presents a Taiwanese-American Cookbook
Just published, Win Son Presents a Taiwanese-American Cookbook is a celebration of that restaurant and the community that's come up around it, with contributions from folks who have been integral to the Win Son story over the past half-decade, like Josh's mom (Auntie Leah) and HoChie Tsai, who leads TaiwaneseAmerican.org. In it, you'll find recipes that are both on- and off-menu, like a classic Flies’ Head dish (finely chopped chives, chilis, and fermented black beans) and a take on pasta con la bottarga with Taiwanese mullet roe (or wu yu zi).
Josh Ku and Trigg Brown of Win Son co-authored this book with Cathy Erway, who wrote The Food of Taiwan, one of the earlier English-language Taiwanese cookbooks, published in 2015. Cathy is an expert in Taiwanese cuisine, a James Beard Award Winner, podcast host (Heritage Radio Network and Gimlet Media), and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Taste, Saveur, Serious Eats, and Bon Appetit. She's been an inspiration in the world of Taiwanese food, and has given us a boost many times.
We're excited to be stocking the Win Son Cookbook online, and are also honored to have contributed to it. Look for a few recipes from Lisa Cheng Smith (Tea Eggs, Scallion Oil Noodles) and a conversation with Trigg, Josh, and Cathy on our favorite Taiwanese ingredients.
Other Great Cookbook Recommendations
I’ve been waiting for Win Son Presents for a long time. Work on this started before my second child was born. Said second child is now almost three. It’s one exciting release in a string of releases over the next year or two that will significantly beef up the English-language library available to the Taiwanese American cook. Look out for forthcoming titles from Clarissa Wei and George Lee, as well.
For those looking to really dig in to Taiwanese cooking, I’d also recommend adding the following classics to your shelf:
The Food of Taiwan by Cathy Erway
A comprehensive English language resource that documents Taiwanese food from a traditional angle. Full of primary research from a trip to Taiwan and essays on the historical and cultural background of many of the dishes.
First Generation: Recipes from My Taiwanese-American Home by Frankie Gaw
A fun, beautiful take on what it means to cook as a Taiwanese American. Come for the duotone dumplings and stay for the scallion mac and cheese.
Blue Eye Dragon by Jade and Muriel Chen
This is out of print, but is one of the first titles I know of that openly celebrated Taiwanese food. It’s by the owners of the restaurant Blue Eye Dragon, a Taiwanese spot in Australia. Published in 2008.
Taiwanese Homestyle Cooking by the North America Taiwanese Women’s Association and the Taiwanese American Citizens League
This cult classic was first published in the mid ‘90s as a fundraiser for a Taiwanese youth camp. It was recently reprinted and is available again. No more reddit thread lurking if you’re looking for a copy— you can now buy direct.
Yun Hai Tatung Family Cookbook by yours truly with Cat Yeh and Lillian Lin
Of course, I have to mention our little lightweight of a book that was written to demystify the most ubiquitous Taiwanese appliance of all: the Tatung electric steamer. Within are traditional recipes meant to showcase the full range of the appliance’s functionality in the Taiwanese kitchen.
Lisa Cheng Smith
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Which of the cookbooks would be best if I'm looking for more dishes for my steam cooker?