Monday, September 23, 2013

About Taiwanese Food And Humans

It's been a while since I read such a gorgeous book. This is a kinda like a food guide, and novel lumped together. I like how the stories are titled- of popular Taiwanese street food and desserts. 焦桐's《臺灣舌頭》.

I've no idea what the author Jiao Tung's latest book is titled in English. But this is the third and final one in a series about Taiwanese food. First with《台湾味道》、then《 台湾肚皮》and finally this《台湾舌頭》to comprise a trilogy “台湾味道三部曲”. I love his writing and observations. Need to hunt down the other two books.

Each story is titled and centred around 46 types of food associated with Taiwan. Food, emotions and humans are all inextricably linked. The titles are awesome, say, 《菜脯蛋》、《地瓜粥》、《魚丸湯》、《棺材板》、《牛舌餅》、《木瓜牛奶》et cetera. At the end of each story, there're a few addresses listed for the good ones in a particular region. Not as though I'm going to hunt them down. I probably like reading about food more than eating it. (If you read Chinese, reviews are here, here and here.)

These 46 stories, while talking about a certain kind of food, are fairly reflective and centred about humans too. The author wishes to mesh the flavors of food to the experiences of life, in Chinese, poetically referred to as the sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty and astringent. 所謂“酸甜苦辣咸、涩”。In an interview, the author said“我在书写的时候就想到食物的性格,会有一些东西自己跑来找我,我就回想起来或联想到一些事情,可能是文学掌故、文化故事、某些文化的脉络、或我的生活经验,刚好可以结合在一起。”

It's a beautifully written book. Simple language, poignant experiences that could only have been lived through. Thoroughly enjoyable. The first story is titled 《臺灣啤酒》('Taiwan beer'), which already made me chuckle. He wrote about his memories of writers' gatherings and beer, preferably finishing beer in one shot once it was out of the chiller. Towards the end of the book, he reminisces, thinking that the foam head of the beer ought to be treasured, like all good things that had to be seized in time and don't let it pass by.

Was so curious about《棺材板》. Haven't heard of it. Had to google. Obviously after I learnt what it is, I've zero interest in eating it. Apparently it's called 'coffin bread', a Hakka-style interpretation of French toast or bread bowl soups. The Taiwan version is filled with savory stuffings, often chicken liver, or any kind of meat. The writer also goes into a rhetoric about dining etiquette, reinterpretations of western food and influences, and made vague references to Taiwan politics and social culture.

The book touched on tea too. Hehehe. What a surprise! In fact, the author's most private memories also include tea. It ends with two stories- 《日月紅茶》和《文山包種茶》, of the famous recent new red tea (made in 1926, the Hong Yu) from Sun Moon Lake, and the lightest oolong ever known in the tea world- the Wenshan Pouchong. He remembers the sort of memories recalled from drinking tea in school and with his family, and oddly, the last story of the book, is really sad. It closes with《文山包種茶》, a story remembering his wife of 33 years- 秀麗 'Xiuli', whom he lost to lung cancer. He writes of brewing the Wenshan Pouchong for her in a special white porcelain teacup, a tea purportedly chockful of antioxidants good for cancer patients.

As the last page was flipped, I realized that I don't recall very much about the food. What's stuck in my mind are his memories, little bits here and there. Most of all, I was struck with an incredibly strong craving for a brew of Wenshan Pouchong and Ping Lin's Oriental Beauty. So I dug out tea leaves and assorted paraphernalia, brewed tea, and re-read certain passages. :)

No comments: