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The history of Taiwan's turkey dish

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today turkey will be at the center of many Thanksgiving day tables here in the U.S. In Taiwan, the bird has also become a popular dish, though it's cooked a little differently. NPR's Emily Feng gave it a try.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Yang Bianhua has been working around turkeys for his entire life. His father first began raising them in the 1970s in Taiwan's Chiayi County. The males have these bright blue heads and fleshy snoods - yes, they're called snoods - that droop from their beaks.

Wow.

YANG BIANHUA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And, Mr. Yang explains, the longest snoods denote the alpha males.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

YANG: (Imitating turkey gobble).

FENG: Turkeys are native to North America, but they've been on Taiwan since the 17th century, brought over by the Dutch, who briefly colonized the island. But turkeys didn't take off in Taiwan until the 20th century as living standards improved. Turkey was even once a source of tension with the U.S. Yan Gaojin, the chair of Taiwan's ROC Turkey Raising Association, an industry group for breeders, explains.

YAN GAOJIN: (Through interpreter) Because of a U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement in the 1970s, Taiwan once opened its market to American turkey meat, which had a big impact on local farmers.

FENG: Local farmers protested. U.S. turkey meat imports stopped. But American white-feather turkeys are still the dominant breed on the island. How they're raised and prepped is thoroughly Taiwanese, though, per Mr. Yang. He professionally roasts turkeys for local clients.

YANG: (Through interpreter) I roast the turkeys like Chinese roast duck. In the U.S., you bake a turkey in an oven on a tray. I hang my turkeys inside the oven so they heat evenly.

FENG: And he says he will only use Taiwan-raised turkeys, which he says have firmer flesh and smell better.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Mr. Yang's turkey is an exception, though. Most Turkey in Taiwan is not roasted whole. It's most commonly consumed chopped up into succulent morsels and scattered across chewy, short-grained rice. The dish is called Chiayi turkey rice. It's inspired by a similar popular dish with pork.

LIU ZHONGYUAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: I met turkey rice maestro Liu Zhongyuan to learn more at his restaurant, Liu Li Zhang, a shop his father began more than 50 years ago. The dish has become a classic in Taiwan, and Mr. Liu says turkey is much healthier for you than pork.

LIU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says he goes to the hospital every month, then comes back with a clean bill of health each time.

LIU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And, he says, Americans have been cooking turkey wrong this entire time.

LIU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Turkey should not be baked, he emphasizes. It must be slowly boiled or steamed to lock in the juices. Roasting a bird can make its meat really dry, he says. His turkey is chewy and moist. Mr. Liu swears by using only the flesh of male turkeys. He claims it's got a better texture and is less fatty. It's then drizzled with soy sauce and rendered turkey fat, and at Mr. Liu's restaurant, it's also topped with crispy fried shallots and pickles. The combination totally works, and I wasn't the only one who thought so.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Those are my parents. They happened to be visiting Taiwan for the first time ever, and they loved it - so much so that Chiayi turkey rice might be what we're having for our Thanksgiving dinner, too. Emily Feng, NPR News, Chiayi, Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF EEVEE'S "SAKURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.