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Savoring a Taste of Taiwan

The dinner party. (Courtesy TECRO)
The dinner party. (Courtesy TECRO)

“Edelweiss, Edelweiss/Bless my homeland forever.”

— “Edelweiss” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as sung by Lyushun Shen.

Things one learns at Taste of Taiwan: Even the healthiest foods benefit from putting something fried on top, Taiwan’s top man in Washington loves to croon show tunes and former Rep. Lester Wolff has a connection to “Mad Men.”

For its May 21 dinner at Twin Oaks Estate in Northwest Washington, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office pulled together some of its favorite chefs, musicians, friends and allies for a little sorghum liquor, island food and song. Along with Wolff, Congress was represented at dinner by Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., and Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I.

Fried Up, Ready to Go

“All I can say about this dinner is, ‘Wow,’” said Wolff, a New York Democrat and longtime supporter of Taiwan. He could have been referring to any number of dishes by Chef Meng-Jen Pan and his assistant, Chef Wan-Li Tsai, Taiwanese toques brought to Twin Oaks for the occasion.

Rice, anyone? (Courtesy TECRO)
Rice, anyone? (Courtesy TECRO)

Perhaps the grilled lobster with honey mustard? Or the sticky rick with sakura shrimp and stir-fried rice noodles? Maybe the night’s standout, roast beef a la Taiwanese. Marinated with soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and chili powder, the dish was topped for good measure with a dollop of crispy fried garlic.

Then again, maybe he was talking about the Napa cabbage au gratin. How to make cabbage, revered for its restorative powers, better? Top it with fried bread!

And it all went down well with Shaoxing rice wine and Kinmen Kaoliang (sorghum) liquor, a substance likened variously to jet fuel, turpentine and fermented licorice. “Kambay!” (Traditional Taiwanese drinking cry.) Those interested in imbiding have only to go to Maketto at 1351 H St. NE, where asking about Taiwan’s own firewater will elicit a shudder from the employees.

I Could Have Sung All Night

In between courses, violinist Shu-Ting Yao and pianist Huai-En Tsai played traditional Chinese music, each time accompanied by a familiar Western tune.

The first time around, it was “Edelweiss.” For the second musical course, the accompanying tune was “Moon River,” the Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer classic immortalized in the Blake Edwards film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The final musical interlude was rounded out with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe from “My Fair Lady.”

And Shen, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Washington, was there with a microphone at the ready for the three outside-the-box selections. Aside from Chevy Chase’s abbreviated version in “Fletch,” Audrey Hepburn might have provided the most iconic rendition of “Moon River” in Edwards’ 1961 movie. But hearing Shen’s version — “We’re after that same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ’round the bend/My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me” — certainly gives one pause.

For the send-off, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” was perhaps appropriate. Eliza’s (non) bedtime song was an interesting choice for a dinner party with no dancing — “I only know when he began to dance with me/I could have danced, danced, danced all night” — but the guests seemed to sign off on the sentiment, if not quite ready to use it as a prescription. While most cheered Shen on or sang along, more than a few flipped through their smartphones, perhaps checking email, perhaps sending texts, perhaps checking the score of the Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets game. (Golden State in a squeaker, 99-98).

Regardless, it was a good night for fans of Hepburn and Julie Andrews.

The Wolff of Madison Avenue

Meanwhile, the 96-year-old Wolff, who keeps a firm handshake and a busy schedule, couldn’t resist a little self-deprecation. “People ask a 96-year-old-man, ‘How do you feel?’ And you say, ‘Well, you know, at 96, you can’t feel anything!’”

Addressing his fellow guests on the grounds that were previously the Republic of China’s ambassador’s residence before the United States pulled its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of recognizing the People’s Republic of China, Wolff said “You have lived up to every expectation” of the island’s supporters since the Taiwan Relations Act was approved in 1979.

Wolff’s position toward Taiwan was not a surprise. What was a surprise, though, was some trivia revealed by his grandson, Mike Yorg, who was also attending the dinner.

Wolff worked on the White Rock Ginger Ale account, seen at the upper right of the this screenshot from the opening credits of
Wolff worked on the White Rock Ginger Ale account, seen at the upper right of the this screenshot from the opening credits of “Mad Men.”

“He was a Mad Men,” said Yorg, referring to Wolff’s pre-congressional career. According to Wolff’s congressional biography, he led his own firm, Coordinated Marketing Agency from 1950 to 1964. He was elected to Congress in 1964, beating Republican Steven B. Derounian, and served until losing his re-election bid in 1980 to Republican John LeBoutillier.

Wolff in his pre-Congress days. (Courtesy Lester Wolff)

He claims a bit of pop culture history as well, as someone who worked on White Rock Ginger Ale and its iconic image of Psyche gazing into a stream. Look closely and you can see the image in the opening credits of “Mad Men,” as the analogue of Don Draper falls amid mid-century advertising images.

“Yes, did it as part of my own agency,” Wolff said after dinner. Considering the number of years those credits have been rolling by, all we can say is, “Wow.”

The Sound of One Diplomat Singing

“What does ‘Edelweiss’ have to do with Taiwan?” asked one guest at my table, in between verses he himself was singing along to. The song, written for “The Sound of Music” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, is a particularly poignant point of the production, when Captain von Trapp is bidding farewell to his home of Austria as it is getting subsumed by the Third Reich.

More than a few fans assumed it was an actual Austrian folk song. But the paean to a simple time was the creation of two showmen for a Tony-award winning play and Oscar-winning movie. That doesn’t make its sentiment any less authentic.

And so it makes perfect sense a senior diplomat from what was previously a country and which now occupies a unique and precarious diplomatic position would sing a melancholy song about a lost homeland. That’s what “Edelweiss” has to do with Taiwan.

Correction 1:27 p.m.

A previous version of this post mischaracterized the Twin Oaks estate. It was previously the Republic of China’s ambassador’s residence.


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