Sharing tastes of Taiwan

Ming-Cheau Lin

“Food is politics,” says Ming-Cheau Lin, author of the cookbook Just Add Rice and the food blog Butterfingers.

Her statement is as bold as her purple hair.

Ms Lin, 30, a copy writer and patisserie-lover, moved to Bloemfontein with her family when she was three. Between the late 1970s and early 1990s South Africa saw an influx of Taiwanese immigrants, approximately 2 000 plus, who started manufacturing businesses across the country.

Ms Lin said the then government had offered Taiwanese people incentives to move to South Africa because Taiwan was not part of the UN, which had boycotted all relations with South Africa due to apartheid.

In her book, she admits the situation was not ideal but she also credits her parents’ for their bravery in starting afresh in a foreign land, all to provide opportunities for their children.

In the early 90s, her father, Kingha, a qualified pharmacist, started working in a plastic factory. Ms Lin said growing up as a Taiwanese immigrant in a largely Afrikaans culture was like “sticking out like a sore thumb”.

She speaks candidly about the trials and tribulations they faced as a family. Seeing her mother mocked for not speaking proper English made her work harder at perfecting her accent, she said. Being mocked herself for the “foreign food” in her school lunch box is another painful memory.

But it wasn’t all bad. Ms Lin’s childhood memories are also filled with family dinners where quality time was spent over bowls of rice and communal dishes. “Culturally we’re all connected to our families through food,” she said.

She said when you’re an immigrant you have to work harder at preserving that food culture. She moved to Cape Town to study brand communication between 2007 and 2009 and specialised in copy writing.

She has also obtained an international diploma in patisserie. It was during her time studying that she started asking her parents for recipes of meals she had grown up eating. She found Taiwanese cuisine was not well represented in South Africa and if she was going to enjoy some of her favourite dishes she would have to cook it herself. She started the blog for recording the recipes and this is how, which eventually evolved into a cookbook, Just Add Rice, was born.

“I had to unpack my own identity to start loving my own food,” said Ms Lin. During this time she combined her passion for writing and her passion for food to create a platform to teach people about her culture and heritage.

“Food is politics. Food is part of our culture and ‘culture food’ is not the norm of a European society,” she says.

Just Add Rice has been a revelation for Ms Lin who has received heart-felt messages from people who relate to the stories in her book. Two years ago Ms Lin married her best friend, Kyle van der Holst. Having a husband of Dutch origin has expanded her palate as she also dabbles in Dutch recipes from time to time.

As for being a “third culture kid”, Ms Lin says she’s learnt to embrace it. She currently works as a freelance copywriter, specialising in food content and concepts in both digital and traditional media.

She also offers talks on being mindful in a multi-cultural environment, which focuses on the harms of cultural appropriation and stereotyping.

Add three dogs to the mix and it’s safe to say she’s got a full plate.

Just Add Rice

Ming-Cheau Lin


Review: Summer Jacobs

The further one reads into Just Add Rice the more one’s own ignorance is revealed on the subject of eastern cuisine and even more so on Taiwanese cooking.

How many South Africans, save for those who have Chinese or Taiwanese friends or family, really know about Asian cooking…Asian cooking that extends beyond sushi, spring rolls and sweet and sour pork?

If you are looking to expand your knowledge on Taiwanese cuisine, who better to teach you than a Taiwanese South African who speaks Afrikaans?

Ming-Cheau Lin has managed to hold on to the traditions of her own culture while simultaneously embracing South African culture.

The colourful cookbook has over 60 easy to follow recipes that include soups, mains, desserts and more.

But Ms Lin does not take credit for the user-friendly instructions. “Taiwanese home-cooking tends to be humble and thrifty, almost rural,” she explains in Just Add Rice.

She writes about how food is perceived and what it stands for in Taiwanese culture. She says, for example, that the common greeting for “how are you” in Taiwan is “have you eaten yet”.

“That, for me, encapsulates the heart and soul of our culinary tradition. It hints at the communal sharing of food.”

The book also reveals the prejudice and ignorance the author suffered growing up in a marginalised culture. She shares a painful memory that surfaces every time she makes kimbap – a kind of deconstructed sushi. She recalls opening her lunch box at break time and having to endure rude comments and bullying from children who said the dish “smelled gross”. Painful as the memory is, it has not deterred her from making it and she counters this memory with another of her mother preparing kimbap and her as a young girl eagerly awaiting for the “ugly edges” to be trimmed off and disposed of “immediately into her mouth”. Another of her favourites is Three Cup Chicken: a classic Chinese dish which derives its name from the three most dominant flavourings. The soy and rice wine allow the chicken and sauce to develop a beautiful colour and taste, she explains.

Ming-Cheau Lin also goes one step further in helping you prepare the perfect dish by listing supermarkets for East and Southeast Asian ingredients in South Africa. The areas listed include Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Durban.