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台南擔仔麵 – Tainan Dan Zai Noodles

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Taiwan is famous for many of their local snack-like delights called “小吃” which literally means “small eats“. As the name implies, many of these snacks come in small portions which aren’t enough to fill the stomach at one go. Nor is it meant to, as that is the exact intention, i.e. to allow one to sample as many of these different local “small eats” as possible. Tainan, as I’d written previously, is the origin of many local “small eats”, largely brought over by the migration wave from China during the mid Qing Dynasty. Many of these have very humble beginnings as street food stall vendors which we call “hawkers” in this part of the world. Some of these hawkers did not even have a permanent stall, but instead, carried their food, cooking ware, and everything else wherever they go , in two large bamboo baskets delicately balanced by a thick bamboo pole called 擔仔 Dan Zai or “tah-ah” over the shoulders. This was most characteristic to those who sold glutinous rice dumplings colloquially known as “bak chang” (肉粽), often heard before they are seen walking down the alleys of residential areas peddling their bak chang late in the evening.  Wafts of aroma from these freshly steamed glutinous rice dumplings wrapped into a pyramidal shape by bamboo leaves permeated the cool air of the night as one hears the familiar calls “烧肉粽!” or “shio bak chang!” in Taiwanese Hokkien. This often set one’s tummy a rumbling, dashing down to buy a bak chang or two from the hawker before his calls fade away as he vanishes around the corner.

Like bak chang, many other street food vendors too make use of these baskets with bamboo poles to peddle their ware. Another signature “small eat” from Tainan comes in the form of small bowls of fresh noodles in piping hot soup, embellished with an assortment of condiments. The noodles were also initially peddled around the streets of Tainan with makeshift stoves and baskets carrying crockery straddled across a 擔仔 bamboo pole, and that is how its name 擔仔麵 Dan Zai Noodles came about…
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蚵仔大腸麵線 – Oyster & Braised Intestines Mee Sua

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Talk about street food in Taiwan and one cannot dispense discussing “Oh-Ah Mee Sua” 蚵仔麵線 Taiwanese Oyster Mee Sua. With humble beginnings as a “poor man’s snack”, Oh Ah Mee Sua soon became an internationally renowned dish which one would flock to eat when they visit Taiwan. That is certainly the case for me. Over time, two versions evolved, one which uses fresh oysters 蚵仔, and another with braised large pig intestines 滷大腸, both equally popular with their own loyal followers. I love ‘em both as they offer very different experience in flavours and textures. So if you like Oyster and Large Intestines Mee Sua like me, do give the recipe a try!

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上海生煎包 – Shanghainese Pan Fried Steamed Buns

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上海生煎包 Shanghai Sheng Jian Bao Shanghainese Pan Fried Steamed Buns is a local snack that originated from Shanghai in the 1920s. The novel way of pan frying the mildly proofed buns before steaming them directly in the same flat pan over a stove became extremely popular as a street food and remains so in Shanghai today, alongside 小笼汤包 Xiao Long Steamed Dumplings and other delectables in Shanghainese cuisine also known as 沪菜 or 本帮菜. Cuisines from other places in China like the neighbouring Zhejiang (浙菜), stretching northwards to Shandong (鲁菜), or southwards to Guangdong and Hong Kong (粤菜) also have very similar versions, where these buns may also also known as 水煎包 Shui Jian Bao. The culture of eating these Pan Fried Steamed Buns spread to Taiwan during the mass exodus of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT army from China to the island state in the late 1940s. A large portion of Chiang’s troops are from the Yangtze region, especially those from his hometown, 奉化 Fenghua in the Zhejiang Province 浙江省. These soldiers, together with those from Shandong, Szechuan and even Yunnan, forms up a large part of Taiwan’s migration population in the last century to become what the locals grew to call 外省人 Wai Sheng Ren. The influx of these soldiers and their families from Mainland China greatly diversified the social habits and culinary cultures in Taiwan. Many of these dishes brought along and introduced by these migrants became so deeply rooted, that they are now enjoyed by the tourists, as well as the Taiwanese, be it the locals 本省人 Ben Sheng Ren, or the 外省人 alike. 上海生煎包/水煎包 is one of those popular snacks.
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府城棺材板 – Tainan Coffin Toast Bread

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Long before the designation of Taipei 台北 as the capital city of Taiwan 台湾 by the Qing court in early 18th century, the southern city of Tainan 台南 was long regarded as the centre of administration, politics, as well as financial and economic development in this island state. Tainan was established as the base of Dutch Formosa when the Dutch East Indies company came in the early 1600s and used it as a trading post, which they’d named Fort Zeelandia at Anping 安平. This earned Tainan the name “hoo siah” 府城 in the local Min dialectal tongue, a place where the local folks in southern Taiwan, especially those in the neighbouring counties like Chiayi 嘉義, Pingtung 屏東, Kaohsiung 高雄 and Nantou 南投 looked upon as a site of social and cultural flourish back in the old days.

As the city prospered and grew, more and more people from surrounding rural regions moved into Tainan in search for a better livelihood and opportunities. As such, many aspects of Tainan also became more varied and diversified demographically, socially and culturally. Through the innovation of the locals, many Taiwanese snacks 台式小吃 and signature dishes in Taiwanese cuisine 台菜 we know today have their roots in Tainan. These include 擔仔麵 Dah-a Mee Soup Noodles with Braised Meat Sauce, 台式滷 Lor Mee Noodles in Thick Braising Sauce, 鳝 Sen-Hee Yee Mee Braised Eel Noodles, 碗粿 Wah Kueh Tainan Steamed Rice Cake in a Bowl, 蚵仔麵線 Oh-aa Mee Sua Oyster Meesua, 蚵仔煎 Oh-aa Tsen Fried Oyster Omelette  and of course, 棺材板 Gwa Tsah Pang Coffin Toast Bread.
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简易牛奶白土司麵包 Simple White Milk Loaf Bread

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Bread is part and parcel of the our lives. It is a staple for many as its versatility allows one to have it for practically all meals of the day, be it breakfast or supper. Its portability allows one to have it as a meal-on-the-go, be it on the bus or while waiting for it. Here’s a no-frills bread recipe which I’d been using for sometime now. I seldom make bread because I simply don’t have the patience for it. The multitude of waiting times as the bread goes through repeated proofing as well as time for the dough to rest. But once a while when a recipe calls for bread or when I’m in the mood, I’ll just get my Pullman tin out to make a simple loaf. It is incredibly easy to make with very reproducible results!

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滷肉飯 Lor Bak Png – Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl

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Every country has a few signature dishes which can be deemed as their “national dish” . It is a natural correlation one would form between the culinary culture of a country and the dishes they are most closely associated with. It is like when one thinks of the UK, one immediately relates to Fish ‘n Chips but for tropical Singapore, one would salivate at the thought of Chili Crab or Hainanese Chicken Rice. When it comes to Malaysia, it has to be Nasi Lemak while Adobo Manok would represent the Philippines without doubt. Look to the east in Thailand and Som Tum, Tom Yum or Phad Thai comes instantly to mind while up in Japan, it has to be Ramen and Sushi as it is Samgyetang or Kimchi for Korea. The parallelism one draws is usually as apparent and agreeable as a variable y would map onto the function f(x).

For Taiwan, there are quite a few contenders for the title of a “national dish”. Some say it is 牛肉麵 beef noodles. It is so popular they even have a “festival” 臺北牛肉麵節 for it. Others would lobby for 珍珠奶茶 bubble tea, as it was the black tapioca pearls which brought Taiwan international fame, be it for the good or the bad. But to many, 滷肉飯 Lor Bak Png (Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl), otherwise known as Lu Rou Fan in Mandarin is a dish which resonates deep within their hearts. It is a dish which everyone would have eaten before, be it at the night markets, eateries or at home. For many, it is the easiest way one would settle a meal outside. For some, the appeal 滷肉飯 runs beyond the tastebuds,  tugging their heart-strings, awakening fond memories from their own grandmother’s or mother’s cooking, adding a tinge of nostalgia, on top of the wonderful flavours and aroma exuded by this simple but yummy dish.

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炒山蘇 – Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry

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Taiwan has more than 20 distinct tribal groups, more than half of which are still awaiting to be acknowledged. Many of them have uniquely spoken languages, cultural and religious practices and of course, cuisine. But one dish which seems to perpetuate quite a number of aboriginal groups is 炒山蘇 Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry. I vividly remember having it for the first time around 10 years back during our initial trips to Taiwan. It was a cold evening in February. The rain most certainly didn’t help. Not a good time to visit night markets, so our Taiwanese friend drove us up to Yang Ming Shan 阳明山 in the outskirts of Taipei. We stopped by at what seemed to be  just a small and shabby-looking eatery forged out of makeshift material and planks. I could still hear the pitter-patter in my head as the raindrops fell on the galvanised zinc rooftop. We had several interesting dishes for dinner that day, what the locals would call a 野菜宴. The highlight for the day was a chicken soup cooked with various Chinese herbs, wild vegetables and of course a free-range chicken. The soup which was served in a blackened terracotta pot was still in a rolling boil, perfect for the weather. Then there was a wild boar meat stir fry with very simple ingredients. It was immensely peppery and gingery at the same time, presumably to musk any gamey flavours from the animal, which the boss-cum-chef purportedly claimed to have just been caught by a trap the night before. But what interest me the most, was in fact a dish of curled up leaves, glistening in oil and sauce against the florescent lamps. That was the first time I had bird’s nest fern stir fry. A memorable experience, a dish I would definitely order whenever it is available on the menu, and one which I am very keen to replicate at home for myself. I’m glad I did.
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