the most important meal of the day
— is probably every meal. the taiwanese care just as deeply about their snacks (xiao chi) as their breakfasts (lunches and dinners). i think they’re most loathe to miss a meal at all. i’d wake up around noon at my grandma’s house and help myself to some breakfast leftovers, but then 10 minutes later, my aunt would come rushing in with all the fixings for lunch and all the adults (in my grandmother’s house, i will always be one of the children) would insist that i had to have at least one bite of that as well. can’t make the relatives feel bad; how could i refuse?
he jia is my attempt to romanize the taiwanese phrase for ‘this/that tastes/is good’ (hao chi in mandarin), or literally ‘good eat’ (chinese/taiwanese depends a great deal on context). one of the few phrases i can consistently put together. whether something is he jia is a critical consideration indeed.
in taiwan, 2 out of 3 storefronts are restaurants or snack stands or noodle shops, and there’s bound to be food carts lined up at most major intersections. i exaggerate only slightly — and i haven’t even touched upon the night markets (not to mention day markets). they love eating out just as much as eating in. for breakfast, you can have cereal or oatmeal if you want, but why would you when there’s
tsao bing-youtiao with shen doujiang. tsao bing is the sesame seed-studded savory flatbread housing youtiao, crinkly churro-like deep-fried crullers on the left. this is one of my favorite breakfasts, especially with shen doujiang, or salty soy milk. most of my relatives seem to prefer the regular sweet kind (which is just plain, sweetened soy milk), but the salty kind is dosed with vinegar and scallions and has sliced up youtiao floating about in the broth. it’s like a really excellent soup. you can, of course, eat tsao bing and youtiao separately (i usually can’t manage so much you tiao, which comes in 2-foot long batons). we used to get freezer tsao bing in st. louis that we would just pop in the toaster oven. better than any pop tart. nobody really makes tsao bing-youtiao and shen doujiang at home (‘it’s too much trouble’), because it’s so readily available at the neighborhood fried bread canteen. (i don’t know what else to call them. they specialize in a whole host of bing, or flat breads and fried savory pastry.)
like the japanese and their onigiri (which is maybe the inspiration here, or the other way around), you can get your breakfast inside-out, or stuffed into a rice ball. not such a great picture, but there’s some kind of unidentifiable porky substance inside, with maybe some pickles and seaweed and a little ba hu (pork sung to some), that dried, shredded pork stuff that takes to rice like an asian adolescent to his cellphone. uncle philip swears this is best freshly made and still warm, but it was pretty good cold some 10 hours later too.
asians have a special genius for stuffing stuff in other stuff. another one of my favorites, bao-ah (mandarin: baozi), meat (or vegetables, but usually ground pork) stuffed inside steamed, slightly sweetened bread. deeeeelicious.
i guess my parents didn’t just make up this tradition of rice porridge breakfasts. they eat this at my grandmother’s house nearly every day. uncle david has even systematically taste-tested all the brands of pickled bamboo shoots, wheat gluten with peanuts and grilled eel (spicy, bbq or with black bean sauce) — all essential to muai, along with the ba hu and soy sauce pickles. (foo, he says wei chuan does the best bamboo and hsiang ting yang (or something like that) for the eel.) Ah-ma’s muai is always made with cubed sweet potatoes, taiwan’s most favored tuber.