I remember enjoying my first bowl of 四神汤 Si Shen Soup about 10 years back during my initial trips to Taiwan. It was the period before Chinese New Year and my friends brought us to 寧夏夜市 before visiting 迪化街 for the Chinese New Year bazaar. Just gotten off the plane, we hadn’t eaten dinner so my Taiwanese friends suggested going to 阿桐阿寶四神湯 located near the night market first. Being largely a “herbal soup”, it tasted rather plain and smooth, with a lingering sweetness in the mouth. Void of pungent odours and bitter aftertaste, the flavours of Si Shen Soup defies what I had expected Chinese herbal soups are traditionally like. The soup was a relief, not only against the fattiness of the bak chang and large steamed pork buns we had, it also helped to warm our constitution amidst the cold and rainy weather.
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…