Taste explosion in Taiwan
Chinese people plan their lives around meal times. Having a good meal is so important that the common way to greet someone is to ask if he or she has eaten or is full. Some say this goes back to the days of famine. Food is never far from one's mind and topic of conversation.
Having complained relentlessly about not being able to buy a bottle of Chinese soya sauce in the little Dutch village I live, I am now ashamed that I don't have enough time to eat all the varieties of Chinese cuisines I find in Taiwan. In fact, ever since I stepped off the plane on 8th April, I have been eating like there's no tomorrow.
Food in Taiwan is not only good and plentiful, it is extremely affordable. The equivalent of one American dollar can buy a big bowl of handmade wonton soup or a big bowl of freshly made soya bean milk and a glutinous rice packet for breakfast. Freshly made soya bean milk is one of those things that I've yet to find in Holland, including Amsterdam.
Taichung's sunset markets are bustling with sellers offering all kinds of delicacies, from the dry to the wet, from the steamed to the fried, from the raw to the cooked. Night markets are popular in every town, featuring tasty delicacies to accompany a cold bottle of beer. To accommodate the number of meals one can have, it's not uncommon to have four meals a day, the last being just before bedtime.
Being able to discern truly good food is the hallmark of a mature person. My father is horrified that I am content to eat what he considers substandard. My aunt almost screamed when she discovered that I was gulping down yesterday's fried vermicelli without heating it up first. I explained that I was in a rush to catch the coach. To her, it was simply not acceptable because she had cooked the vermicelli and never intended to allow a guest to eat it cold.
When I asked my 25-year old cousin whether he was afraid of doing military service in Taiwan, he remarked that he's suffered so much in college in the USA that he was not afraid of anything. "Suffered?" I enquired. He meant that he had to cook his own meals because he couldn't face eating sandwiches.
My late grandmother took pity on me when she learned that the staple diet in the Western world was bread. "How much taste is there in a slice of bread? Don't you go hungry?" If she were alive today, I would tell her that I've advanced to eating cheese and herring now. It just sounds so bland and boring, I suppose, when compared to the poetic sounding Chinese dishes like "ants climbing up a tree" or "Sister-in-law Soong's thick fish soup" or "red stewed lion's head" or "pock-marked old woman's tofu."
My oldest aunt, now 71 but forever "sixty-something", has a steady boyfriend and tango partner who wants to marry her desperately. But she has a good excuse, "Who will cook for my sons?" Surely if she doesn't live with them and cook for them, my forty-something cousins would be motivated to find wives by now. Or it could be a catch-22 situation.
It's a sign of great disrespect if a daughter-in-law buys box-lunches for her in-laws and family instead of performing her duties in the kitchen. Left-over food eaten cold is another insult. Being able to cook for your grown-up children is a sign of love and devotion, and for your ageing parents a duty.
Indeed the best thing about visiting my mother, my aunts, and all those female relatives is to get a home-cooked meal. And the best thing about visiting my male relatives, including my father, is to go to a restaurant.
As a guest in Taiwan for almost two weeks now, I have been delighted by the heavenly meals that leave me overwhelmingly satiated. Perhaps only an overdose of this taste explosion will remedy any future longing for cuisines from my roots.
19 April 2004 Monday