Saturday, June 20, 2009

There's No Food Like Home

Once upon a time (last month), my mother and Aunt #5 ventured to Gaoshong, the town in Taiwan where they grew up. There was some kind of seafood that was in season there, and they wanted to eat it. But more importantly they both had this decades-old craving for a special noodle - sa ca (a Taiwanese special sauce) rice noodles, to be precise - that their whole family had loved dearly when they were growing up there. They took a train from Taipei to the town, only to find their beloved childhood restaurant still in tact, but under construction. Seeing the despair on their fallen faces, a nearby witness of this tragedy informed them that the restaurant had another branch, but on the other side of town. The two of them immediately hopped in a taxi and scurried on over to said other branch, only to discover that they had just stopped serving for lunch. Desperate, they explained how they had come by train from Taipei, and before that they had flown all the way from New York -- ALL FOR THESE NOODLES, GODAMNIT! They begged and begged, and promised to eat the sa ca rice noodles only and nothing else. Pitying these poor fools, the restaurant indulged their request, and bestowed upon them two heaping bowls of noodles, making them the two happiest (grown-up) fat kids in all of Taiwan. And then they lived happily ever after.

The moral of this story is nothing will ever quite compare with the food you grew up eating. It will always have a special place in your heart, and it will always be the most delicious food you can imagine, especially when you move one gazillion miles away.

Last week I made a short trip to Taiwan and was able to confirm this phenomenon by the pure volume of food I consumed in the just 3.5 days I was there. Though I wasn't technically born there, I spent a significant part of my childhood in Taiwan and consider it home. Whenever I go back, my relatives always say I have "returned."

Of course, then, being from Taiwan makes it easy to crave desirously your childhood gastronomy -- the country is a food lover's promised land. If you visit, you will leave with the conclusion that it is the most food-obsessed place on earth. You would be correct.

Allow me now to share with you a little piece of my childhood:

First of all let me just explain my causal theory. There are no farmers' markets in Taiwan as far as I can tell. More accurately, all markets are essentially farmers' markets. All the food is fresh and largely unprocessed/preserved.

favorite breakfast food

Like a thin version of scallion pancake wrapped around an omelet. I actually got a modern version with bacon wrapped inside. Best. breakfast. ever.

beef noodle soup

Oh heavenly delight -- ordered "half beef, half tendon." Beef so tender it simply melts in your mouth, but the tendon is the real treat. Kind of like bone marrow, but more gelatinous and chewy.

loves of my life

Everyone already knows how much I love soup dumplings, but this takes love to a whole new level. Do you see the orange hue? That's crab roe (or, literally, crab yellow. a delicacy for us Chinese), so much of it you can see it through the skin. You will be a lucky son of a gun if you ever find that stateside (or anywhere else for that matter. Taiwan has arguably the best soup dumplings in the world, despite their origination in Shanghai)...

mah jong noodles

Sweet sweet mah jong noodles. Their simplicity is what makes them glorious -- just noodles coated with a sesame paste-soy sauce mixture, but this Taiwanese staple is one of my favorites. I made some tonight and threw in tomato and basil for experiment's sake. Modern day Marco Polo I am.

endangered pork buns

I'm pretty sure my brother Hans Tang actually cried tears of joy when he saw these. He used to eat FIFTY of these little water seared buns (think soup dumplings but pan steamed like potstickers) EVERY morning as a child. They are now endangered for some reason and have all gotten much larger. But cousin Arthur loves Hans Tang very much and brought him these special from one of the night markets.


Although no one in my family speaks Taiwanese, we all know these words very well. Also native to Taiwan's night markets, they are gooey, oyster filled omelets, unlike any omelet you've ever had. And better, much much better.

stinky tofu!!

Yet another species of street food, it looks about as appetizing as it smells, but it tastes INCREDIBLE. Words can't do this mystery justice, so I'll stop trying.

food psychic

You also won't find scallion pancakes this light, fluffy, and flaky anywhere near the U.S. A minute after I bought mine, I randomly ran into Hans Tang on the street. He freaked out because he had just been saying how much he wanted those same pancakes, but he had just eaten lunch (bad excuse). He promptly took a few big bites out of mine. See, it's really not my fault -- my love for food is genetically programmed into my DNA, down to the types of street food I crave.

crushed ice desserts

This immediately makes me salivate. Fresh mango and taro with grass jelly and little glutinous balls over crushed ice. Party in my mouth, baby.

Funky Fresh Fruits:
something in the apple family


passion fruit

dragon fruit

To be continued...