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Sunday, October 25, 2020

21st century Chinese food in Taiwan

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After a friend yesterday proposed to have dinner at Valencia´s Chinatown, for the first time in four months I went to the city center again. I agreed immediately, because of the boring pork-centeredness all over Spain I really miss the healthy variety of Chinese food very badly.

Suddenly my buddy asked what Taiwan´s national dish was and I had to think for a moment. Probably nowadays it´s beef noodles. Although this delicious soup with sliced spring onion, to which dried cabbage and spicy sauce are added afterwards, isn´t actually a genuine Taiwanese invention.

This is understandable, as even today quite a few autochthonous islanders won’t touch beef. As long as Taiwan was an agricultural society, a water buffalo that helped to make the hard work on the field easier was vital for survival. Therefore, it achieved a status comparable to a shepherd dog in Germany. So for many locals to consume beef would be like serving dog meat to a German. Inconceivable!

According to my modest knowledge, beef noodle receipts were brought over from China by some of the refugees and soldiers that fled with Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. On the island they were improved and became a very common dish. There, no Cultural Revolution would cause havoc and wipe out relevant parts of ancient Chinese civilization, of which culinary delights are a very important component.

When I was an AirBnb host in Tamsui, on the northern coast of Formosa, the huge majority of my guests came from China. From them I know that the beef noodles on the mainland taste different from those in Taiwan, not only because of the spices in the broth. There are no chunks, but only tiny strips of beef in the soup. That’s why most Chinese tourists become very fond of the Taiwanese variety, which can be considered a full meal.

On the other hand, some complained that some dishes in Taiwan have a sweet touch, especially in the south. Unfortunately, they were right! One of my few unpleasant restaurant experiences in almost 20 years was a bowl of sugary boneless river eel noodles in Tainan, the old capital, where sometimes the deep-fried chicken might remind you of a desert.

Though generally speaking, and despite the long separation and growing estrangement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, traditional Chinese food has been improved in Formosa. Probably purists consider it a little less authentic than in China, but it’s also less salty, oily or sugary, and thus much healthier, making it so enjoyable.

Due to the influx of so many people from all over China in such a short time, the concentration of very diverse regional cuisines in Taiwan was definitely unique. Regrettably, the generation that escaped from Mao Tse-tung’s “Communist bandits” is fading into history and many of these often tiny provincial restaurants and eateries have already disappeared.

It’s likely that only the better known varieties, like Cantonese, Pekinese and Sichuanese will survive in the long term. Few of them can still afford to offer a “pure” menu anyway. That’s a big loss that I find very sad, but Taiwan is a capitalist society and not a living museum for an eternal nostalgic like me.

It’s likely that only the better known varieties, like Cantonese, Pekinese and Sichuanese will survive in the long term. Few of them can still afford to offer a “pure” menu anyway. That’s a big loss that I find very sad, but Taiwan is a capitalist society and not a living museum for an eternal nostalgic like me.

If the systematic destruction caused by Communism in the political and economic field wasn’t enough, the social consequences like the ruin of the gastronomy are truly unforgivable. In Middle and Eastern Europe it was the same. Luckily, housewives in all those countries kept a “cooking” that deserves its name alive, and gastronomy rose from its ashes!

In Taiwan, resisting during the decades-long Cold War as “Free China”, that tragic rupture never happened. In the 21st century, the Chinese legacy as well as Western, Japanese and East Asian additions allow the country to offer amazing food at very reasonable prices. Treat yourself!

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