Disclaimer: We're going real deep into an esoteric chapter of turkey history with this one. Feel free to annoy people with this info at your Thanksgiving dinners. Some controversy surrounds the history of the turkey in Taiwan, and this is one dude's take on the story. He is originally from Taipei.
is just around the corner, meaning turkey will suddenly appear on menus all over town. But at the Jiayi Water Fountain Turkey Rice
restaurant out in Minhang, their turkey game is strong year round.
While contemplating this article and making the rounds on the factory floor at my day job, I asked some of the workers on the assembly line what they thought of turkey, or huoji
(fire chicken). They all knew what it was, what it looked like, and had the same response -- "that's what laowai eat on Christmas right?" But none of them had tried it.
Perhaps I was speaking to the wrong demographic. So I ventured up into the marketing / sales department in the adjacent building to ask their thoughts on turkey. Surely upwardly mobile white-collar locals have at least had a turkey club sandwich?
Nope. Again, they all knew what turkey was, all believed it to have tough meat, and none had ever come in contact with it in person. This is a bit strange
, I thought.
I walked into the office of the head of technical design, a bespectacled nerdy fellow with an English name. “Eric,” I asked, “tell me you’ve had turkey before in your life.” He looked up from the CAD drawings on his dual screen setup, and leaned back in his Aeron chair. "Yes, I’ve seen them at Western supermarkets around Christmas time...But I’ve never tried it…"
What the fuck…
It finally dawned upon me: most Mainland Chinese people have never eaten turkey.
To be fair, turkey as we know today was originally found only in North America, specifically Mexico (the "land chicken"). European settlers brought this new world bird back to the old world, and it eventually came back to the US centuries later. The bird got associated with Thanksgiving in the mid 1800s
, shortly after turkey dinner got famous in A Christmas Carol
. There is a partially true myth
that Ben Franklin envisioned the turkey as the national bird, and believed bald eagles had poor character.
All of which makes Jiayi Water Fountain Turkey Rice, in the outskirts of Shanghai's Koreatown, kind of an interesting story. Originating in Jiayi, turkey rice is a classic dish known to all on the island. Some sources cite Mr. Ling Tianshou as the first to sell this dish, back in 1949, at his chicken rice restaurant next to the central water fountain in Jiayi (hence many turkey rice establishments today bearing the same name). [Other sources
say that turkey rice was actually invented when Ling Zhaozheng (the 2nd generation) took over the business, because chicken prices had skyrocketed.]
As the story goes, when the KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949, resources were scarce and chicken became a delicacy meant only for holiday dinners, not something one could afford to eat often. Prior to the invention of turkey rice, a variation on Hainan chicken rice had been around for quite some time.
So with the rising cost in chicken, Mr. Ling decided to use shredded turkey instead, and served it in the same way as the traditional chicken rice -- with a sauce mixture of lardo, chicken fat, soy sauce, rice wine and other seasonings. Additional toppings typically consisted of crisped red onion and pickled yellow daikon. Turkey was underutilized at the time because it is a tougher bird than chicken, especially when brining and slow roasting techniques were lost on a population that had a different approach to cooking fowl. However, when turkey was chopped down and shredded, its gamier profile actually gave a satisfying savory bite when paired with the well-oiled rice. The dish became an instant hit with the locals.
This story is all fine on the surface, and certainly gives street cred to Mr. Ling’s now third generation shop for having served turkey rice for over 60 years, but I don’t buy that length in history. Here’s why.
First off, how did this American bird end up in the forests of central Taiwan? Tracing back through its history, one would guess that the Dutch brought them over in the 1600s. An email to a local turkey association confirmed that indeed, Dutch settlers brought over the first turkeys to Taiwan, but they were never farmed on any significant scale. The focus at that time was opening trade routes with the mainland, fighting the Portuguese, growing sugar cane, and avoiding aboriginal headhunters. Next up were the Japanese, who colonized Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. They too were not fans of the turkey. So when the KMT took to Taiwan in 1949 -- the same year Mr. Ling allegedly started to make turkey rice -- there was only one way for him to procure the meat: hunting. This also, would be bullshit.
Turkeys have excellent vision and motion detection and are notoriously hard to hunt even with modern camouflage and techniques (check the Joe Rogan podcast). Back in 1949 people were not allowed to own guns, so unless Mr. Ling also employed a team of aboriginal hunters that went out to hunt wild turkeys with arrows, there was no way he was using turkey meat. If he had the industrious mindset to actually raise fowl, then surely he would have done so with the proven cash crop in chicken. He sold chicken rice after all
So why the eventual shift to turkey? I believe it all goes back to America...
Lyndon B. Johnson in Taipei, 1961. Photo credit: Joseph Rudzinski
From 1950 to 1965, Taiwan received a total of 1.5 billion USD in economic aid and 2.4 billion USD in military aid from the United States. Yep, they were real chummy back then. From 1953 onwards, local farms worked in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture to introduce a hybrid turkey to the masses, with the ultimate introduction of the Beltsville small white turkey in 1963. This particular breed of turkey had all white feathers, so when you plucked them naked it didn’t leave any unsightly black dots on the skin. Presumably, the people who would most want access to turkeys during that period would be Americans, or American G.I.’s to be precise. The miracle of the Internet made it easy to track them down as well via a Facebook group where numerous veterans including Master Chief John T Quinn confirmed that even up to the '60s, turkey was a rarity in Taiwan. In fact, turkey would not be commonly found in the Army mess halls until the late '70s.
When the US military left in 1979, the turkey-farming infrastructure remained and a new outlet was needed for those birds. This is where to the shift to using turkey meat in the traditional chicken rice probably occurred, sometime around the early '80s. Partly to differentiate one’s establishment from the plethora of other chicken rice shops, partially due to lower costs, and partly because turkey is delicious as fuck and it finally took with the local palate. Further anecdotal evidence from Jiayi residents I contacted confirms this timeline: Turkey rice wasn’t really a thang until the early 1990s. Sorry Mr. Ling.
So, from North America, the humble turkey journeys to Europe with Old World settlers, catches a Dutch ship to Taiwan, and roams the mountains until it gets mated with hybrids destined for the mess halls of the US military. Said bird then gets abandoned by the G.I.’s and becomes a popular dish through necessity and evolution, and then finally gets brought over to Shanghai by an entrepreneurial fellow from Taiwan. That is one hell of a journey.
At Jiayi Water Fountain Turkey Rice, they farm their own turkey just outside of Shanghai. Both locations are way the fuck out in Minghang and are consistently filled with folks from Taiwan, Koreans, and locals alike who are fans of the turkey. There is no plan to open up a third shop closer downtown because "rent's too expensive", the proprietors say.
A bowl of the marquee dish runs just 12rmb, but if you are a carnivore like me, you will want to order a 30rmb side plate of turkey meat (white and dark meat) drizzled with the sweet soy mixture and topped with shredded ginger to accompany the rice. All the other side dishes range from mediocre to good, but certainly worth picking off the menu to round off your meal. Two people can stuff their faces with turkey and homey Taiwan cuisine for about 100rmb (plus your 60rmb Uber), and that is certainly a win in this town.
Jiayi Water Fountain Turkey Rice has two locations in Shanghai, both in Minhang:
Hongxin Lu Shop: 3787 Hongxin Lu, near Wuzhong Lu
Qixing Lu Shop: 1760 Qixing Lu, near Gudai Lu