When I was younger, I thought of Taiwan as an inconvenience. I spent summers there with my mother and brothers—a month of vacation in an unfamiliar land with the intimate strangers that are my extended family.
I remember the humidity, stagnant and oppressive with the smell of wanton tropical growth and rot; clouds of sunbaked dust mingling with sweet moped exhaust; the mosquitoes, large, vicious, and persistent. I remember sweating in our stillness as we sat in wicker chairs listening to the clatter of diesel trucks and the shouts of merchants in the alleys outside. I remember laying on tatami mats with my brothers as a window air conditioner choked on the summer air. I find it peculiar that I don’t remember much of the food, for my brothers and I ate often and well as young imposters in our parents’ homeland. I know this because it is impossible not to eat well in Taiwan.
I learned that fact when I first returned to Taiwan as an adult. I was an unemployed college graduate, and I went abroad to find myself. I didn’t. But I lived in Taiwan for six months, and in six months, there is a lot of eating to do. So I ate, and in the process, I learned about this place that could have been home.
I learned how this tiny island country has an incredibly dense and diverse concentration of food influences: a heavy dose of Japanese from Taiwan’s former colonial administration; plenty of regional Chinese from the vast mainland only 100 miles to the west across the Taiwan Strait; Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia from foreign workers; and, of course, the aboriginal inhabitants. (If you were into reductive labels, you might say Taiwan was the origin of Asian fusion.)
I learned that Taiwanese people love eating perhaps more than breathing, sleeping, and making love. Street-side fruit and vegetable stands bustle with shoppers deep into the night, and light spills into dark tiny lanes from equally tiny food stalls selling dumplings, noodles, and stir-fry to a steady stream of nighthawks. On occasion, the constant glow of these stalls flares with the glow of flames leaping up and around hot woks and clanging ladles.
I learned that if you don’t know what to eat, you should go to a night market, because there is nothing you shouldn’t try at a night market. In the bigger ones, hundreds of food stalls crowd the streets with grilled squid, fried shrimp, steam-fried buns, stinky tofu, oyster omelets, fresh fruit smoothies, bubble tea, spring rolls . . .
Night markets are no place for shrinking violets. If you want peace and refinement, go home. You will hate it. But if you are a habitual and passionate snacker, this is what paradise looks like: crowded, noisy, hot, and colored in shades of neon and rich vermilion. The textures, flavors, and aromas are no different: intense, chaotic, and bold.
I also learned to eat strange fruits—wax apples, custard apples, dragonfruit, longans, lychees; and familiar fruits that were undeniably sweeter, bigger, and better in Taiwan—pineapples, bananas, guavas, papayas, mangos.
I learned that the cliché of the “amazing hole-in-the-wall joint” is alive and well, except that every tiny town in Taiwan only has amazing hole-in-the-wall joints. Like the family-owned, 15-seat stall in Hualien that has served transcendent wonton soup, and only wonton soup, for three generations.
Or A Huo Rouyuan a stall in my mother’s hometown of Lunbei. Their specialty is the greasy-chewy-savory-sweet-herbal combination that is bawan / rouyuan / Taiwanese meatballs. This extra-large dumpling of steam-set, deep-fried, glutinous rice flour is stuffed with braised pork, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and onions topped with a thick, sweet-and-savory sauce and fresh cilantro. It is something I crave despite an inexact memory, although my mother remembers. It is the same stall she frequented as an elementary school student, and to her, those bawan taste the same 50 years later.
I learned that, in the States, we are being deceived by how bad soy milk and tofu are here, and that is a tremendous shame.
And perhaps most importantly, I learned that food is the strongest connection I have with the place my parents call home, and the people I call aunt, uncle, and cousin. I know the older my family and I get, there will be fewer opportunities and reasons to return. So when my little brother graduated from medical school in May, we went to Taiwan with our mother—the first time in five years for me, the last time for the foreseeable future for my brother as he enters his profession. We ate well because it is impossible to do otherwise in Taiwan. But I ate desperately, too, because desperation is what a fading identity demands.
Originally published July 2017.