Since young, we learnt to eat simply. Not only were the dishes whipped up in our kitchen simple, but more importantly, we are taught to be contented with whatever is provided on the dining table. Thankfully, mom and grandma were both excellent cooks, able to conjure up a range of yummy food with the simplest of all ingredients. Eggs, the cheapest source of protein are a common sight for our meals but despite being so common, the dishes were never boring. From an assortment of omelettes to sunny side up soups, my mom knew exactly what makes us happy and our tummies filled. Sometimes our dinners were just a simple one-rice cooker or one wok meals, simplified versions of claypot rice, cabbage rice and even chicken rice all done within the comforts of one pot. One wok meals were also something worth looking forward too, first sending aromatic wafts from char kway teow, mee goreng, SPAM fried rice from the kitchen that permeated our small flat, whetting our appetites as we rushed to finish our homework, before tickling our palates. One particular one-wok dish stands out being most memorable, so simple to cook yet so immensely gratifying, and that is Mom’s 猪脚罐头炒米粉 Canned Braised Pig Trotters Bee Hoon.
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…