Taiwanese Flavors: Science or Emotion (Part 3)

This is the last part of the “stories” series. Of course, we are not over the topic of emotion and tradition. We will be talking about why we form these emotional connections from psychological and biological perspectives later.

Chinese Bolognese? Fried Sauce Noodles? Exploding Sauce Noodles (Zha Jiang Mian 炸醬麵): After not seeing my sister for half a year, I could not wait to pick her up from the Boston airport and serve her these homey noodles for dinner. Such a simple dish has so much meaning to me. The history of this dish, my personal memories and the ethnic connotations of the dish intertwine to create a space that places my family within the greater Taiwanese community and within Chinese history.

Before delving into the stories, what is in the “exploding” sauce? Dried tofu which is actually not dried but has had a lot of water pressed out of it, so it has a dense, chewy texture. Minced pork, every Chinese’s favorite type of meat, provides the fattiness. Sweet flour sauce (Tian Mian Jiang 甜麵醬), a thick black syrupy sauce commonly used in its uncooked form as a dressing for Peking Duck. It is made out of flour, salt and sugar. The more you cook it, the sweeter it becomes. Soy Bean Paste (豆瓣醬), an extremely salty, umami paste made from fermented soybeans. Unlike Miso, which is a paste made from both rice and soy, this Chinese version of Miso is more aggressive and does not offer much sweetness. Before all these ingredients are stir fried together, the sauce starts off with a sofrito of minced garlic and onions just like any bolognese sauce (If you’re thinking what I am thinking, you’re probably right: Once again, Marco Polo stole a few ideas here and there).

Outsiders and Insiders

Many cultures have ways of creating invisible lines between the outsiders and the insiders, the foreigners and the natives. Food is one way in which it happens, creating that line which still marks my parents as foreigners in Taiwan but my sister and I as fully-integrated individuals. Ethnic dishes have their quirky traditions that are only known to insiders. For example, Spaniards never eat Paella in the evening. Likewise, Zha Jiang Mian is a pretentious work of art that asks for strict adherence to its cultural oddities.

1) At the very end, the sauce is NEVER stir fried with the noodles. It is ladled on top of a bowl of piping hot high-gluten noodles that have a super chewy texture. Dressing the noodles any other way is sacrilegious.

2) You must pronounce the name of this dish correctly to be eligible to eat it. Knowing proper Mandarin does not help. The first character 炸 zha is always pronounced with the 4th tone … unless you’re eating this dish. Then the character is pronounced with the 2nd tone. My Malaysian Chinese parents continue to bastardize the pronunciation of zha jiang mian and forever they remain foreigners in Taiwan.

Memories

When my father was on his long business trips, my mom in Taiwan would not know where to take us for food if she did not cook.  She was not the type to be adventurous, especially with two unruly children in a foreign land. My sister and I were so excited when one day we took a ten minute walk to a little dumpling store called 周胖子or Mr. Fatty Chou.  Today, Taipei is littered with Mr. Fatty Chou stores. Their dumplings are fatty, as promised, bursting at the seams with juicy pork filling.  Dumpling stores have a vibe similar to your local taqueria or deli: approachable, friendly and inexpensive.

My mother did not know what to order. Water-boiled dumplings 水餃 do not exist in Malaysia or in Southern Chinese Cantonese cooking. Wheat based food was anathema to my mother’s tropical diet which was full of rice and strong spices. She ordered what the next table had. Little did she know a little less than two decades later, I was doing the same thing but at an American deli in Princeton.

That day was one of the happiest days of my life, because the three of us shared umami filled dumplings and a big, hearty bowl of zha jiang mian with its soothing but foreign northern Chinese flavors: sweet and never tangy, salty and never spicy, thick and never light.

It didn’t matter that we were the only foreigners in the room, my mom was so proud of herself for taking her babies out that all her happiness spilled into the whole meal. Baby steps.

I have never had zha jiang mian from my mother’s kitchen in my life, but to me, zha jiang mian is homecooking. Sometimes, a food tradition adopts you. It shapes the memories you have with your family, regardless of where that food is prepared.

I always prefer my zha jiang noodles with contrasting strips of fresh cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts. My sister prefers minimalist flavor profiles, meat sauce and noodles, just like how she can stand John Mayer’s simple stylings while I chase down the next jazz piano virtuoso.

When my sister and I sat down for bowls of Zha Jiang Mian in my Cambridge apartment after her flight, I started to laugh. I remembered how I used to make chewing motions with my hands to remind my baby sister to move her jaws so she would not forget to chew her zha jiang mian.

Mixing Cultures: Science or Emotion (Part 2)

Continuing on from my previous post about stories and emotions behind the food we eat, here are some more stories from dishes cooked during the holidays. They represent the mixed cultural background that shaped my childhood.

Malaysian style Pad Thai/ Pad See Ew (Char Kway Teow): Most people are familiar with the Thai dish Pad Thai or its close counterpart that uses dark soy sauce, Pad See Ew. This is similar and a signature Malaysian dish that combines Thai, Malay, Indian, Dutch and Chinese cuisines. You have the dark soy sauce, lard (which I did not use), and wok cooking influence from the Chinese. The chili sauce from the South Indians. The ketchup from the Dutch. The wide rice noodles from the Thai (which are dry and what I used) and Cantonese (which are fresh and hard to find in even non-Cantonese Chinese areas like Taiwan). The proteins are Muslim-influenced since seafood and chicken breast are the safest bets for keeping a dish Halal.

My family moved to Taiwan when I was 5 years old, but every year we would head back to Malaysia for Chinese New Year. When the plane landed it would be the family’s mission to seek out Char Kway Teow first thing. It is one of the dishes my mom misses the most from Malaysia. Understandably so given the fattiness from the oil, sweetness of ketchup, saltiness of the dark soy, fragrance of the chinese chives, and the chewy rice noodles.

To me, Char Kway Teow represents the flavor profile of Malaysia. I can smell it a mile away. It brings me back to 90 degree weather, dirty coffee shops that show no separation between al fresco and indoor dining, sundry shops that block out the afternoon sun using their oversized bamboo shades, crazy shopping centers, and the messiest, busiest Chinese restaurants I have ever been in my life.

Smoked Salmon Fried Rice: So many culinary discoveries come from mistakes. There are so many things wrong with this dish that it is probably the best mix-up story in the world of cooking. Regardless, smoked salmon fried rice is comfort food from my childhood and is probably for anyone who grew up in Taiwan. If it’s strange to you, it probably is: my parents do not understand it either having grown up in Malaysia where salmon was not available let alone smoked salmon.

Smoked salmon fried rice combines Western (or an Asian conception of Western food), Japanese, and Chinese influences, which aptly sums up my experience in Taiwan. One day, researchers are going to document the history of this dish and this blog post will be in it. I was there from the beginning.

As Taiwan was in the process of modernizing right when I arrived at 5, many foreign influences came streaming in. Japanese food has always been part of Taiwanese culture but at that time, Japanese-influenced Western food (Yoshoku) started to become popular. We got spaghetti with ketchup napoletano (naporitan), angel hair with mentaiko (the roe of pollock which is absolutely salty and delicious), and of course, omurice (ketchup rice wrapped in an omellete skin). Around 1998 (I was 10) I first ate at Cafe Onion, the trending  Taiwanese-adapted Yoshoku restaurant of the time. They served this smoked salmon fried rice. The saltiness of the cooked smoked salmon offered little bites of flavor along with the umami of the eggs and wok-charred mixed veggies.

Smoked salmon is not native to Japanese cuisine (fresh sashimi salmon is the norm) but is from the Scandinavian tradition. Smoked salmon is also not native to Chinese cuisine. Salmon is seen as a Japanese fish and does not tend to do well when steamed, the preferred method for Chinese fish preparation.

Here’s probably what happened in the kitchen of Cafe Onion: 

Chef 1: Let’s put a fried rice dish with a twist on our menu so our more “Chinese” customers will be happy. Salmon is big in Japan. I think it would be nice to have a salmon fried rice. Could you get me some salmon from the market and we’ll try the recipe out.

Chef 2: I’m back from the market. The salmon from Japan is so expensive. I found this new western thing called smoked salmon and it’s less expensive. It’s also western which fits in with our restaurant brand image.

Chef 1: What is this? I probably shouldn’t taste it until I cook it.

The last comment aptly captures the ignorance of a chef from a Chinese cooking tradition and how it probably sparked the creation of this dish.

What’s wrong with this dish?

1) Scandinavians would cringe at the thought of smoked salmon being cooked through under high heat as required for any fried rice dish.

2) Japanese would cringe at the thought of smoking salmon in the first place. Fish should be fresh!

The Taiwanese invented a bastard of a dish that stemmed from misguided perceptions of the Japanese’s misguided perceptions of Western food. After two levels of cultural misunderstandings, I bring you one of my childhood favorites:

A fried rice flavored lightly with soy, scallions, mixed vegetables, smoked salmon pieces mixed and heated through at the end with a touch of sesame oil.


Tofu Cuisine

Warning: food porn with absolutely no psychological substance in sight.

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This is a comfort food for me on a wintry day. It’s called mapo tofu and is a combination of nutty (from the sesame oil), salty (oyster sauce), spicy (chili bean sauce) and numbing ( from the secret ingredient Sichuan pepper corns which impart a tangy lemony bite to the dish). Spoon this over some hot rice and I’m in heaven. My mom would never order this dish at restaurants because she thought it would be too hot for a kid to handle. And ever since I learned to cook I have been making myself this dish at least once a month. I have fallen in love with what I couldn’t have (I heard they make movies about stuff like this).

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This is a Cantonese seafood tofu pot and is full of flavor from cooking in a clay pot traditionally. Seafood and soft tofu is a combination I love and can’t really be found in Americanized Chinese food.

A psychology post will follow this food porn post soon! Stay tuned.

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