We’re at the night market, my mother and I, strolling in the hot air, inhaling the scent of roasted meat. Though it’s ten o’clock, late for Taiwan, everyone is still eating, consumers sampling from vendors who slurp their own noodles on the side. This is my first trip to Tainan, on Taiwan’s southwestern coast, and it is my mother’s first time back since she left at the age of 11.
Her father was an architect, and his former student Huang Chiu-yeh is with us. She is small and round, with eyes downturned from too much smiling, and has a mysterious habit of vanishing and then rematerializing with something new to give us—six grapefruits, a sack of shrimp chips, a cell phone.
In 1948, my northern Chinese grandfather was invited to teach architecture at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, and he settled here with his wife and one daughter. A year later, Chiang Kai-shek, China’s Nationalist leader, fled to this island after the Communist Chinese declared victory over his government. My mother was born in 1950 in the suburb of Anping, now a Tainan neighborhood. She immediately contracted tetanus, and, perhaps in part because she survived, she was christened Annping, after the place that almost became her grave.
Tainan in those days was a broken-down place, both its economy and its identity in ruins after World War II, 50 years of Japanese rule, and now Chiang’s regime. My mother’s family lived in a house with a dugout toilet and a garden wall through which she and her sisters spied on the local hurly-burly—mutts howling on the way to the dog meat shop, wives chasing deadbeat spouses with butcher knives. It was a military, melancholy time. On the mainland, my grandfather’s father, a historian, ended his own life during the Communist persecution of academics. My grandmother’s mother—an elegant, stern noblewoman—simply vanished, and it was rumored that she eventually sold cigarettes on the street. But my mother was just a child, so her memories of Tainan are happy. There were trips to the East Gate market, with its smells of dried shrimp and pickled radishes; temple festivals; and Sundays spent in tippling with renegade uncles, followed, perhaps, by Hitchcock or Billy Wilder at the cinema. My grandfather Chin Chang-ming was the center of this world. He was a swashbuckler, an intellectual, and a reckless giver of gifts. As an architect, he was a pioneer of the new and angular (when he raised pigeons, he painted their coop in Mondrian style). He smoked a pipe, wore black-rimmed glasses, and spoke in the northern Chinese accent that is gruff, gravelly, and, to me, still one of the most comforting sounds in the world. He was also a brilliant cook. He would encase crab roe in handmade wrappers for wonton, and his you-tiao (Chinese crullers) were as light as clouds.
On a side street, we come across pigs’ feet glistening with maltose and sticky with fat. Aside from his voice, what I most associate with my grandfather is the flavor of pigs’ feet. He always had a potful simmering with star anise and soy because I always requested it. It is also a food that, since he died 20 years ago, my mother has neither cooked nor eaten.
“Here,” the vendor woman says, “try a piece. On the house.” My mother protests, but the woman ignores her and breaks off two dripping hunks. My mother bites down through the perfumed, oily, silky treat. “Oh, God,” she says, a little throatily. “Pigs’ feet,” and she eats it for the rest of the trip.
From my mother’s descriptions of Tainan, I was expecting a somewhat battered and laid-back place, with old ladies cooking octopus on grills in alleyways. Instead, the main strips are dominated by gleaming department stores. Even many of the historic landmarks are largely facsimiles.
Ultimately, it is Tainan’s strangeness that seduces me, particularly the nonchalant way in which sex, death, and old-fashioned cordiality mingle. Half-dressed beer girls wearing the Heineken logo across their breasts navigate brightly lit family restaurants. Vendors hawk coffin-shaped breads, and children munch on the cold meats set on shrines to honor the dead. Meanwhile, ladies wear hats and carry parasols in the sun, and their faces are as pale as the moon.
Food here is ubiquitous and casual. Everywhere, street stalls sell cheap, snack-size eats: you can pick up an egg for 15 cents, a bowl of soup for 50. Chic young things sit on benches with their designer bags, spitting out crab shells. Flavors stray toward the sweet, with little salt. Much of the food is deep-fried, and noodles—particularly the deep-fried yi-mian—are as plentiful as rice, if not more so. The shallot is widespread, infusing every dish with its mellow flavor; so is the duck egg, stewed, preserved, or salted. Buddhist vegetarian cooking is influential, as this is a religious town and many laypeople follow the Buddhist diet, shunning not only meat and eggs but also the “unclean” ingredients onion and garlic. Instead, they rely on ginger for seasoning, as well as on heaps of sugar, commercial sauces, and MSG—21st-century shortcuts to an enlightened palate.
Because Tainan is a fishing town, seafood is the main order of the day. O-a-chian (oysters with scrambled eggs) is a standard snack, as is hsia-chuan (shrimp wrapped in caul fat and deep-fried); my mother and I eat many, especially at Anping’s Ching Ping restaurant. We visit a commercial fishery to have lunch with the owner, and we watch his wife, Huang Jung-chin, toss tubs of oysters and shrimp into a bubbling pot of soup, where they are left to steep with rice until the grains have become swollen with the sweet, ocean-scented broth. This we consume with neighbors and friends, together with plates of steamed crab, shrimp, and fried fish.
The noodle dish called tan-tzu mian is another representative Tainan snack, in part because it reflects the town’s Fukien origins (the first large wave of immigrants from that province arrived in the 17th century). During typhoon months, when seas were lethal, Fukien fishermen made their living peddling these noodles. They were first sold in Taiwan in 1895, and the original vendors’ descendants have been making them at their shop Tu-hsiao-yueh (Slow Season) since the 1950s. There they are sprinkled with vegetables and pork ragout and doused with shrimp broth.
My mother remembers the shop as a dingy lair with a greasy red lamp in the window. There is nothing impoverished about the current Tu-hsiao-yueh, however. The old red lamp still hangs, but there are now lacquered chairs and bilingual menus. The daughter of the shop brushes past in pink lipstick, with hyper-cool hair. “It’s so clean,” says my mother helplessly. “It’s so new and bright.”
Tainan people are nice, so nice that they are famous for it. But their niceness is not sunshiny or polite; it’s informal and bossy. At A-Ming Chu-hsin Tong-fen (A-Ming’s Pig Heart Stall), which is packed with people craving offal, the woman to my right is eating something white, translucent, and glistening with sesame oil (later I find out that it is intestine). I express my curiosity, only to have her insist that I finish the entire plate.
Commanding the booth is a man with real showstopping bravura. He tosses pigs’ feet and tails into a cauldron of soup with one hand, ladles out the broth with another, and then, with what apparently would have to be a third hand, slices up hearts and livers and plops them into bowls. We order the pig liver and noodle soup. Even though the noodles cost extra, the man attempts to dissuade us. “The noodles take all the flavor,” he says. “What’s the point?”
Much has changed in this city since my mother was a girl. Buddhist nuns hail cabs on cell phones; boutiques sell Gucci. The shi-mu, or milkfish (Chanos chanos), is Taiwan’s culinary symbol, for, like its country, it has been transformed. Forty years ago these naturally saltwater fish were kept in dirty freshwater pens and tasted muddy, but now pristine sea tides flow into most nurseries. They are gallant fish, long and silver, and, when the fishermen come with their nets, can spring to great heights above the water.
Cheng Lee Chin-o, professional housewife, native Tainanese, and entrepreneur, loves shi-mu. In fact, Mrs. Cheng, as I call her, is like a little shi-mu herself. She is a proud product of her native land, a champion of her impoverished roots who has become sophisticated, no longer tasting of the soil. “You see?” she tells us as she finishes a pork and shrimp sauce, or pa-hsin-a, with soy. “You learn how to make this, and you can open a restaurant anywhere and become a success.” She wiggles a finger. “I am telling you secrets.”
Belying her birdlike appearance and soft, lisping voice, Mrs. Cheng is a strong-willed lady. Ever since her husband, a prominent surgeon, retired, she has been redeveloping his old offices as a local cultural center where she will teach traditional Tainanese cooking. Now that she’s seen her husband and her children through to success, it is, she says, her time to shine; and shine, in shi-mu fish fashion, she certainly does.
The night we visit, Mrs. Cheng has invited some important guests for dinner—a professor, a photographer, the head of the YMCA. She is a marvelous cook, one who believes in culinary purity; she uses no MSG and buys from local fisheries and farms. In a way, she is also the anti-Buddhist. She slams live eels and crabs into the freezer and dumps writhing shrimp into the pan. Whereas vegetables are all that Taiwanese Buddhists cook, every ingredient in Mrs. Cheng’s kitchen has a soul. “Ho, ho,” she chuckles to the crabs as they lie on their backs with their claws bound, “you won’t run away now.” At the same time, the act of cooking works upon Mrs. Cheng as a transformation, in the same way that, according to Buddhist belief, the most everyday activities bring the most enlightenment. She stirs the sauce, and suddenly her hardness evaporates like the hiss of wine in a wok.
Mrs. Cheng’s pa-hsin-a is peerless; it consists of pork belly, dried shrimp, dried shiitake mushrooms, and shallots—ingredients that are cheap and readily available. “Tainan cooking,” she explains, “is humble food.” She uses every last edible bit of an ingredient—gristle, hoof, bone. The pa-hsin-a, which sauces an enormous centerpiece of steamed crab and rice, reappears the next day molded in tiny cups with the leftover rice. She browns the bellies of shi-mu, her favorite fish, for company, and saves their skeletons for broth. But her pet part of that animal is the head, which she stews in great quantities with vinegar and seaweed and serves to her loftiest guests. It is Mrs. Cheng’s most emblematic dish: heads for the heads.
I can sense some perplexity, perhaps even heartbreak, from my mother during our first few days here. We go to her old primary school to find it has been torn down and rebuilt, and there is nothing left of her former home. This is her opportunity to show me all the things she loved as a child, and yet the first thing her daughter sees is her mother lost in her own hometown.
Thankfully, we are with Huang Chiu-yeh the entire time. Despite her 70 years and the fact that she has her own architecture firm to run, Huang Chiu-yeh has insisted on keeping us company. She is an unflagging figure in the mopeds and the heat, mischievous and merry. When Huang Chiu-yeh laughs, she rocks, slaps her knees, and chuckles until her eyes are wet. No sound could be more infectious, and before long my mother is laughing raucously alongside, drinking liter bottles of the local lager and breakfasting on salted duck eggs.
Huang Chiu-yeh is constantly on a deadline; often her cell phone rings and she rushes off to a meeting, only to rejoin us later, panting. She insists upon this because, as she says, how could work be of any significance if Teacher Chin’s family is in town? It is perhaps fair to say that Huang Chiu-yeh considers her work to be a small art and values it chiefly because it is my grandfather’s testament. I think about the boss in the pig heart stall, juggling organ meats and joshing. His, too, is a small art, yet he performs it with bravado. My grandfather had his own art—teaching—and the quiet practice of classroom exchange was dearer to him than all the edifices he erected in metal and stone.
It is an art that has endured, for his students—most of them now well into their 60s and 70s—still speak about him with a passion usually reserved for the present. At dinner one night, Huang Chiu-yeh announces, “He never played favorites, Teacher Chin. He was good to everyone.”
“Hear, hear,” says Lin I-chen, who at 73 also still practices, is as frail as a songbird, and can drink anyone under the table.
“And then he died so young,” says Huang Chiu-yeh. She starts to tremble. My grandfather passed away at 67; his students are alive and all older. “And sometimes people say mean things about him because they’re jealous. He’s not there to defend himself. It isn’t fair.” She holds her handkerchief up to her face and starts to cry into her soup.
Lin I-chen smacks her chopsticks against her bowl and calls for more beer. “To Teacher Chin,” she says, toasting. Glasses are refilled, emptied; my mother refuses another glass and then accepts it. Then I hear her laugh. It is the sound I identify when she is at her happiest. It’s the same sound she made the other night, when the woman near the market offered us a morsel of pigs’ feet. Again, something was urged upon us by someone with the instinct for knowing exactly what we needed. It is a sound slightly astonished, without pretense, and with just the faintest trace of tears.