Cong zhua bing: a Taiwanese art object
To an European arrival, Taiwan is a very exotic place and Taiwanese are a surprising people in many ways, but probably the most noticeable feature of the Taiwanese and one which strikes the visitor earliest is their dedication to – indeed, to some European minds – obsession with — food.
The most common greeting on the island is Chi baole mei? — Have you eaten? (And God forbid you should ever answer truthfully “No”, since your confession will be treated as an emergency requiring immediate remediation). Many, perhaps most, idiomatic expressions refer to eating — a solid job is a “steel rice bowl” (i.e. safe source of food), prurient interest is “eating tofu”, jealousy “eating vinegar”, suffering is “eating bitter”.
Life is entirely organized around the three main meals of the day – after 11:45 no business can be transacted anywhere as the whole island goes into a kind of high level emergency with absolutely everyone heading at high speed for the troughs. People eat or snack constantly, throughout the day and night. Food is available cheaply and instantly everywhere and around the clock: whole armies of outdoor cooks grill, steam, boil, and fry at every street intersection 24/7 making sure no one goes hungry unnecessarily. One of the most commonly listed hobbies is “going out to eat” (which may be going to a specific restaurant to eat something; or just wondering aimlessly through the night market and eating this and that along the way).
Food is constanlty discussed – one of the most common conversation fillers (the sort of remark which in Europe might be made about the weather) is “I feel like eating x”; but most food oriented conversation, and there is a lot of it, is on a very sophisticated level:
A: Yesterday I have eaten x and it was unlike any x I have ever had, because the cook did this and that.
B: Ah, yes, there is a place like that in y; it is very famous, they have been there for three generations; what they do is z.
C: Yes, yes. I have had something like that once, but if you eat it with w, it is especially good.
A: You can also make it with v, a completely different feeling.
Pre-prandial conversations (the complex conversation-negotiation regarding choice of food style and venue which takes place in any group who decides to lunch together prior to them setting out in a particular direction) are especially notable:
A: How about x?
B: No, no, I have had that yesterday. How about z instead?
C: Z is good, but let’s not go to y to eat z, because I went there about a week ago and have been really disappointed.
D: Yes, yes. The old owner has retired and his son has taken over and I don’t think he is as good. It tends to be a little oily and the spicing is off. But how about t, they do a very good z.
A: I find t a little too heavily flavored. It’s good if you want to eat more rice, but that makes for a very filling meal. What about v, they do a good z.
In some sense, to a Taiwanese, the whole world is a place one experiences through his mouth. Tourists returning from Europe – or Japan – will be asked about how their trip went and the first comment ouf of their mouths will be about how they did (or did not) enjoy the food. My four year old nephew’s response to his first sight of snow (on TV) was: is it tasty?
This explains sights like this:
No, these are not people lining up for a brand name sale; or to collect free gifts; or visa to the United States. These are people waiting to eat at famous establishments. (The first photo is in front of a Cantonese restaurant Ding Tai Fong in Hsinyi Road, the second at a cong zhua bing – shredded onion cake – stand in Yongkang Street, the third at Hei Tang Qin Wa, a black-pearl milk tea stand in Gongguan).
Now, take a look at these photos: this is a side street off Yong Kang Street;
every single shop sign you see in these photos — absolutely every one of them — is a place to eat. Both neighborhoods are flooded from early morning till very late at night by whole rivers of humanity out to “have fun” (i.e. to eat). Taiwanese beat all world statistics for consuming the largest number of calories per day of all nations on earth: 4000 calories per capita on average.
Why should this be so?
Partly, it is simply lack of prohibition. No religion in China prohibits or slights enjoyment of eating. On the contrary, popular wholistic theories of the world stress the importance of correct diet for personal well-being, social harmony and even — balancing of all forces of the universe. Daoists will tell you that correct diet will fix an aching belly, restlessness, joint pains, and excessive venerity. Chinese medicine practitioners’ first advice to their patients invariably concerns diet.
But there are special local factors: in contrast to the rest of China, throughout its history Taiwan has had low levels of literacy and a high abundance of food. Although today the Taiwanese are among the best educated nations on earth, the old habits remain: Taiwanese don’t really read for pleasure, or attend theater, or discuss philosophy, or practice calligraphy; they eat.
Which is a manifestation of a certain interesting fact of life: that nations do not develop all aspects of culture equally, but tend to focus on certain areas. This is in part because life – with its requirements for work and sleep — does not leave us enough time to do everything we would like to do; and in part because it is more rewarding to explore one kind – or at most several kinds — of activity in greater depth than many kinds of activity but only a little. Cultural activity in a particular area feeds on itself: the more people engage in x, the more interesting and rewarding and fun it is to engage in x, the more people engage in x, and so on. And the fewer people engage in other kinds of activity.
The illustrative contrast here is between the eating nation – Taiwan – and the dancing nation – Bali. Although Balinese like the food they eat and will never concede that it is in any way inferior, it is: it is remarkably unvaried, taste and texture-wise uninteresting, and generally indifferently cooked with few spices and generally inferior ingredients. Compared to the richness of food in Taiwan, Bali’s fare is almost incredibly poor. I believe the reason for this is that the Balinese dance – all Balinese dance, and all Balinese view and critique dances; and they do it with a passion, and very well. Dance, not eating, is where their time and energy is invested – and to very good purpose.
Taiwanese intense interest in food does not just prevent the Taiwanese from dancing or practicing calligraphy. It also prevents them from enjoying other pleasures in life. Leisurely walks in nature occupy a remarkably small part of Taiwanese consciousness; interest in sex is at best cursory; interior design is uniformly abysmal; on the national map of pursuits, dance appreciation scores big fat zero.
But they eat like almost no other nation on earth.
Now, one way of looking at art — the way this website promotes — is that art is a set of especially developed techniques used to manipulate human pleasure. In which case, cooking is an art, and consuming it is a matter of connoisseurship. In which case looking at the way cooking and eating operates in Taiwan is well worth the while of any aesthete.
Sheng Yuan Dojiang, on the corner of Hangzhou South Road and Aiguo East Road in Taipei, just across from the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial (sarcastically called by some — ever since the formerly Chiang Kai Shek International Airport was renamed Taoyuan Airport — The Taoyuan Memorial), is one of the very many places in Taipei serving… North Chinese breakfast.
The ubiquity of North Chinese breakfast establishments in this once South Chinese town is perhaps the most visible sign of Taipei’s specialness among all cities where Chinese live and eat: not only has Taiwan, then perhaps 10 million strong, received nearly 3 million Mainland Chinese in 1947 when the Nationalists, defeated by Mao, evacuated to the island; and is therefore one of the most “mixed” of all places in the world where the Chinese reside – food of all eighteen provinces of China is represented here; but it has also received proportionally more cooks than almost any other profession: for although the official histories of the revolution will tell you that rivers of blood of evil Chinese landowners were shed by Mao, the truth is that most landowners were not stupid enough to hang around for him to get them; unable to kill the landowners, Mao had to content themselves with killing whoever he could instead – and settled on the “hangers-on of the ruling class” — “natural allies of the enemy” — butlers, tailors, shoemakers, florists, jewelers, and — yes — cooks.
Which is why Taiwan, and especially Taipei, has ended up with nearly all the good chefs of China; and why mainland China has hardly any decent cooking left. Today, moneyed and eager to spend and represent themselves, mainland Chinese are paying astronomical sums to woo Tapei’s chefs back. But it will be a long time yet before anywhere in mainland China comes close to Taipei’s culinary excellence; and, barring another Mao, no place on earth will ever have its variety.
Add to this the fifty year occupation by the other food-fixated nation of Asia – Japan — which has left the island with the legacy of some of the best Japanese cooking in the world — Japanese gourmet tours regularly visit the island to try its famous, special variety of Japanese — and you will begin to understand why of all places in the world this provincial, out of the way, ugly-duckling of a city would just happen be one of the best places in the world to eat.
A few notes on the food:
Two principal aspects differentiate North Chinese from South Chinese cooking: a) North Chinese are wheat-eaters; and b) they bake. Here are two examples of baked North Chinese foods at Sheng Yuan:
1. xiake huang (“crab-cake yellow”), made with a kind of philo (layered) dough and stuffed with green onions fried in duck fat:
2. conghua bing, made with rolled yeast-dough and stuffed with green onions fried in duck fat:
The shop also serves xiaolongbao (“small steamer buns”), filled with meat and fat; the skin is supposed to be very soft (the bun feels like a loose bag); and during steaming the fat melts: when you bite the bun, the melted fat explodes in your mouth for an added sensation:
Some also swear by its shuijianbao (water fried buns). The term jian describes a cooking technique whereby the food is placed on a lightly oiled hot metal surface and allowed to sear on one side only. Shuijian describes an aspect of the same cooking technique: food is placed in a deep skillet, a little water is added and the skillet it heated until the water first boils and then eventually evaporates (thereby steaming the food); at which point oil is added to the pot to produce food which is partly boiled, partly steamed but which has a crispy-fried bottom:
Both the xiaolongbao and the shuijianbao illustrate Chinese interest in food texture: good food should not merely taste good; it should also feel interesting in the mouth — a variation of chewy and crunchy, for instance, is better than just chewy or just crunchy.
Sheng Yuan is a very busy place. It serves breakfast from 6.00 till 12.00 or until food runs out (usually a little before noon). It is always busy, but busier on weekends than it is on weekdays — a sign of its having become a destination in its own right (rather than just a functional convenience). On weekends, people come here from outside of the city to eat and it has recently been featured in Japanese gourmet guidebooks. Today, Japanese food tourists, arriving early Saturday morning, will take a taxi directly to Sheng Yuan to start a day of sight… -eating.
Chiang Kai Shek, a.k.a. Zhong Zheng, the fairly brutal authoritarian generalissimo of Nationalist China, defeated by Mao’s communists, fled to Taiwan where he set up for himself the usual personality cult. The Chiang Dynasty was deposed in late 80’s and Taiwan is today a vibrant democracy, but the Zhong Zheng Memorial, featuring a monumental statue of The Boss complete with daily change of guard, remains. The Airport, located near the town of Taoyuan, was once named after the generalissimo, but, in a sign of changing times, was renamed after the town which it disfigures. No friends of the generalissimo hope the Memorial will likewise one day be renamed.
The aesthetisist in me wants to understand just what is going on with Chiang Mai food.
It has never been great — traditionally Chiang Mai-ites have been gourmands (big eaters) rather than gourmets (epicures); but it has always been far better than almost anywhere else in Thailand. Foreign food in Chiang Mai — including Chinese — has always ranged from bad to indifferent — reflecting perhaps the ignorance of the public — you can sell anything to the ignorant in small quantities; but Thai food has always been at least adequate. Yet, in the last two years I have repeatedly had what I have never had here in the preceding eight years: bad Thai food. And what is far, far worse: all my favorite restaurants — all the places I used to eat in daily — are, one by one, going bad.
I really dread the approach of the lunch hour. Where can I go to eat and not be disappointed? I delay the decision and sometimes don’t dare make one at all: skip lunch, eat fruit instead (pomello and mango are still good though prices have risen dramatically), or eat nothing. More often than ever, if I do go out, I find myself poking at the animal feed I am presented instead of the food I ordered, and, unable to force myself to lift it to my lips, leave hungry and with the feeling of being undeservedly persecuted.
And one has begun to experience the heretofore unheard of: the — occasional, so far, and mild, so far, but all the same — food poisoning.
One explanation must clearly lie in the ingredients: there has been a marked decline in the quality and flavor of fruits, vegetables and meat, in a kind of variation of Gresham’s Law: Chinese imports and new hybrid crops developed for crop yields and long shelf-lives rather than flavor and texture are taking over the market (“Americanization”); the recent run up in food prices (between 50% and 100%) has probably only accelerated the process: unable to cope with the price hikes, people (and businesses) are going down the quality ladder.
But this does not explain the sudden prevalence of bad cooking: food that’s overcooked, or under-cooked, or over-spiced, or over-greasy. Sometimes the failures are shocking: how can one explain hard rice in a self-respecting (supposedly) restaurant in a nation of rice-eaters? Perhaps, in an environment of rapidly rising wages, restaurants are having hard time holding on to their kitchen staff and are forced to replace them with the ever-less skilled; but the consumers share large part of the guilt: they fail to drive home the market message that bad food is not acceptable: the quality-wise declining restaurants are as full as they were in their better-cooking days.
How is that possible?
The only explanation I can think of is that the current customers are not the old customers. In a city whose population has grown ten fold in ten years, this is not surprising: 90% of the eaters are people raised on the less-good food common in other parts of Thailand. Indeed, many immigrants are from the country-side where poor ingredients and total absence of fancy foods have been the norm — even in the villages near Mae Rim — a mere 30 minute drive out of town, only low quality ingredients can be had at the market, the farmers habitually selling all their “premium” products into the city. These immigrants are therefore, literally, food-wise speaking, know-nothings.
This no doubt accounts for the proliferation of “fancy restaurants”, with glass, black decor, halogen spot lights, pointy logos — and bad food. Their customers — and they have plenty of them — are not there to enjoy the food: they want to experience the atmosphere, the decor and the service — feel rich, modern, and fashionable — and could not anyhow tell a good dish (from a bad one) if it hit them in the face. It explains the rise in tipping, too: traditionally, one has not tipped in Thailand, as one does not generally throughout the Far East — Asia uses a different economic model for restaurants, one in which the boss pays his workers; but the hommes nouveaux only a few years out of the sticks, have never been served in their lives and, given their low self-esteem, being served makes them feel awkward; the only reason why anyone would ever serve them must surely be — money; and so they tip.
Come to think about it, one can clearly see the same phenomena — poorer ingredients, poorer cooking, less knowledgeable customers, decor-over-flavor, tipping — at work in the restaurant scene of New Delhi.
The beast that ate New Delhi
An alarming trend in Indian cuisine
Indian cooking has always been very aromatic – as long ago as the Mohenjo Daro. Blending a different combination of aromatic spices into every dish is an excellent way to create variety and enhance the flavor of the food – an aspect of cooking which has gained in importance as the quality and taste of food-stuffs have generally declined since Independence as a result of poor farming conditions/ low investments in agriculture.
Unlike Mexican, or Thai, or Korean food, Indian upper and middle-class food has not been traditionally spicy-hot. While the poor of India have eaten spicy-hot dishes (using mainly cayenne pepper lal mirch) because other spices have been out of their reach: few farmers in India can afford the seven or eight spices, some of them pricey, which go into a middle-class Indian dish; or the time required to marinate/ roast/ cure /blend the spices prior to preparation of every meal. But the middle-and upper-class Indian homes were able to enjoy a variety of spices and retain a specialized servant — the spice-walla — to perform this laborious task three times a day. They were not spicy-hot dependent.
Indian food began to grow spicy around 2005: the first appearances of prik chillies in some dishes prepared in private homes in Delhi was welcome by several of my foodie friends as a creative nouveau cuisine touch. I do not believe my friends realized those instances were a harbinger of a larger trend and I wonder if they would have praised them as liberally then if they knew what was to come.
I believe the use of prik chillies in Indian cooking can be traced to the discovery of Thailand as an accessible/ fashionable tourist destination for the Indian middle class. Indians returning from Thailand would adopt aspects of Thai interior design, clothing and – prik chillies. Adding a handful of prik chillies to a home-made curry was a Delhite’s way of feeling cosmopolitan, fashionable, with it. It also helped to mask any minor short-comings of the cuisine: while two or three shavings of a prik chilli can introduce an interesting note to a dish normally had milder, a more plentiful use of prik chillis obscures other flavors, making it possible for not so great cooks to mask their shortcomings.
By march 2011 prik chillies have invaded all North Indian cousine, including such traditional kashmiri stalwarts as Chor Bizarre in Old Delhi, whose palate as recently as 2005 was delightfully (and authentically) mild, creamy, fruity, and sweet. (In short – Kashmiri).
An extensive, semi-professional sampling of New Delhi restaurants conducted by yours truly (a bit of a masala-whiz himself, if he says so himself) in March 2011 has failed to turn up a single North Indian restaurant which did not engage in massive over-use of prik chillies; which in itself would be bad enough, making, as it was, the entire meal (which normally consists of 3 or more different dishes) harsher, flatter, more single-dimensional and – frankly, boring, than it would have been in olden days.
Alas, in nearly all instances, the prikification of the food also went hand in hand with general lowering of standards: less use of other spices, more frequent use of poorer quality spice, and very frequent incorrect use of spices (insufficient roasting / marinating/ curing/ blending). Use of whole cardamom-nut, for instance – formerly common in the better sort of establishments – has by now practically disappeared from New Delhi repertoire.
Luckily, in March 2011, Delhi’s South Indian food still offered a refuge form mass prikification; and, after some time, bitterly disappointed by the prik-adulterated Northern fare, yours truly switched to an entirely-Southern diet. Yet, South India is not immune to trends, merely slower to adopt them: by November 2011 five of the eight dishes served as part of the set Thali at the Sagar Ratna restaurant in Ashok Hotel (formerly the proud flagship of southern cooking in the North) were rather harshly prik-spiked, preventing some diners like myself from enjoying the traditional bitterness of Tamil food. Ten years ago a spicy-hot Ghassem was unheard of. Indeed, it seems such a thing would have brought out Tam-Brams, barechested and be-stringed, protesting violently in the streets. As of last week, that other Southern redoubt in the North,Saravana Bhavan (Janpath) still served a properly, authentically Tamil Tamil Thali, but observers like myself feared that it was only a matter of time before it, too, would lower its standards and go for prik.