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.


The Holidays: Science or Emotion (Part 1)

Welcome back readers (and to myself). The holiday season and the few weeks in January after them have been a whirlwind!

The holidays are when we really feel the emotional value and cultural traditions ingrained in eating and preparing these meals with family. This emotional connection is what we crave to create with our communal sharing of food and is also what we find most interesting when we hear others talk about their food traditions– much more so than how to create the perfect souffle.

Food can be very scientific. There are thousands of blogs out there with recipes that measure flour to the last gram and seasonings to the last teaspoon. This blog is not one of those; I’ll leave those up to the experts. In Top Chef, food is an objective standard based on a report card list of what is right or wrong – “not enough acid”, “did not render the fat long enough”, “halibut needed 2 more minutes on the pan”. Science has its place in the creation of food and drives great progress in terms of the types of well prepared cuisines and ingredients we can have today.

Food is also social and emotional. And this not only applies to food. In branding, we know that the brands and their associated products offer some sort of functionality but we also know that brands are also largely emotional. The merging of excellent functionality and an emotional connection that resonates with the consumer is apparent in every successful brand.

My favorite bakery in Boston is Flour Bakery. Not only does the bakery have the best sandwiches in town, it was the bakery I visited on the last day I was in Boston looking for an apartment in preparation for my move. The wide communal tables and cozy, rounded interior decor prompted me to stay an hour for a meal that probably would have taken me ten minutes. As I was finishing my sandwich, I recognized a familiar face from Princeton, same class but never met when we were in school. I made a new friend that day. When I moved to Boston permanently, I decided to visit the bakery again. A five year old girl shared her rice krispie treat with me and her parents were embarrassed at how talkative she was. Who  knew that a few pieces of baked rice could create a whole morning of laughter.

In honor of the holidays now that they seem like a distant memory, below are photos of meals I shared with my family and the stories behind them:

Cantonese Seafood Tofu Pot. My family is Cantonese. This Seafood Tofu Pot is a decadent dish you would order at a nice Cantonese restaurant and my parents would have never dreamed of having something like this as children. They have really come a long way from their humble beginnings.

Taiwanese 3 Cups Chicken-– one cup of sesame oil, one cup of soy sauce, one cup of rice wine. I decided to cook this dish and juxtapose  it alongside the Cantonese Seafood Tofu Pot on Christmas Eve. It was only fitting because this was one of the dishes that my parents and I were introduced to when we moved from Malaysia to Taiwan (where we call home now). It seemed utterly strange to them you would bring basil (a non-Cantonese ingredient), soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine together. It is now a family favorite. This was our “Welcome to Taiwan”.

Our Christmas Eve Dinner. My mom is a great cook and I watched her growing up. When my sister and I went to college, she threw out her pots and pans.

“I’m retired!” she said.

She puts on that scrunched up ‘bullshit’ face and laughs when celebrity chefs on TV say “cooking is about love”, “cooking is therapeutic”. She is a practical woman– cooking was a mission to her. It was about making sure my sister and I got tasty, healthy food on the table so we could grow properly into productive adults. Her mission is now accomplished.

Now this Christmas was my turn to cook for the family.

Christmas Day Dinner. Garlic Shrimp Pasta and Pigs in a Blanket. For a while, the only time I had western food was at the Taipei American School I attended as a kid from an expatriate family in Taiwan. Western cuisines slowly trickled into Taiwan around the time I was in the 5th grade. There was a dinky restaurant on a street that led up to the little expatriate community on a hill close to the American School. The restaurant served Italian food and was constantly packed. It was the only Italian place in town. 

My family decided to try this place since we knew that spaghetti would be involved. We could deal with that: they would be like Chinese noodles and we wouldn’t have to deal with any “foreign” ingredients.

Ever since then, our family has been hooked on Italian food. Today, Italian food continues to be the dominant and most loved western cuisine consumed by Taiwanese.  Italian food is so similar in many ways to Chinese food with its pastas, risottos and less meat-based dishes. We were always taught in school that Marco Polo brought back noodles from China and didn’t know how to make a sauce. He decided to use tomatoes instead of soy sauce and thus pasta was born.

On Christmas day, I decided it would be nice to have an Italian dish that any Chinese would love.

My sister also made some pigs in a blanket. She says she uses them to 1) say sorry 2) get people to like her 3) seem like a nice person without putting in too much effort.  What a deal.

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