Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jon Krich checks out Taiwan's 'century restaurants'


Editor's note: [Jon Krich is a Bangkok-based reporter, originally from New York City, and he recently came to Taiwan to do a story for the Wall Street Journal headlined Checking out Taiwan's 'century restaurants'. Born a day after
New Year's Day in 1951, Krich has travelled widely and written about a huge host of topics. After a trip through Asia's ''hippie trail'' in 1976, Krich wrote and published the groundbreaking anti-travelogue MUSIC IN EVERY ROOM: AROUND THE WORLD IN A BAD MOOD, and became a regular contributor to several travel magazines and newspaper travel sections, writing three more travel books centered on bis passions: EL BEISBOL (first serious US book on Latin baseball), WHY IS THIS COUNTRY DANCING? (Brazil as the country of music), WON TON LUST (A mythic search for world's best Chinese restaurant). In 1999, Krich moved permanently to Asia to be chief feature/culture/food writer for Asian Wall Street Journal. He is married to Thai journalist Montira Narkvichien and the couple have a daughter Amita Anya Beijaflor, who was born in 2004. PHOTO of Dad and Amita: www.facebook.com/people/John-Krich/524065134. Krich's parents were Aron Krich, a poet, sexologist, marriage counselor in NYC and
Toby Cole, who was a theatrical agent and an author of texts on acting, playwrighting.]

Checking out Taiwan's 'century restaurants'

by Jon Krich

(c) 2009 Wall Street Journal

ILAN CITY, YILAN COUNTY, Taiwan, NOT CHINA -- The Chen family is preparing for the opening of
what will be this provincial town's fanciest restaurant. Its name,
Link, is appropriate: Three generations are working together to build
on a culinary tradition begun with a single street stall. The
presentation will be Western-style, with individual plating, rather
than the usual shared bowls of Chinese fare. But much of the menu
takes its inspiration from the family's Du Hsiaw Uyea, one of Taiwan's
"hundred-year-old restaurants."

"It's the old dishes, deeply imprinted in memories, that catch
people's stomachs," grandfather Chen Ching-Hsiang insists.

Chinese cuisine has long had its "century eggs," and in Taiwan the
idea of the century restaurant has gained popularity. It reflects the
coming centennial of Sun Yat-sen's Republic of China -- the founding
year, 1912, is still used as the starting point of official calendars
in the modern nation of Taiwan -- and also asserts the value of an independent Taiwanese
cuisine that long predates the 1949 arrival of the exiled KMT
regime and its KMT tastes.

The Chinese-language term for these old establishments translates more
literally as "100-year-old shops," and can extend to bakeries, cracker
or meatball factories, single-dish noodle or soup purveyors, even tea
or incense sellers. And, like the preserved eggs of similar name, many
are not strictly centenarians; it's more an honorary designation,
attached to a traditional establishment by local fame and government
tourist authorities. Dating to unrecorded periods when the island was
a remote and exceedingly humble outpost, the businesses began as
simple stands. Their age is best measured not in years but in
generations. (As for the preserved eggs, their age is best measured in
weeks or months.)

Still, the old establishments do open a window on local history,
cultures and tastes. Du Hsiaw Uyea roughly means "slack season," a
reference to the need in bygone days for the likes of fishermen and
farmers to have backup livelihoods for when there wasn't work in the
fields or on the sea. For the Chens of Yilan, an agricultural area an
hour's drive east of Taipei, that meant getting the early patent on
si-lu pork, a tasty snack of noodle-like strands of meat and cabbage
bathed in duck-egg yolks, and dou gang, soft lard coated in a sugary
batter, that on the restaurant's elaborate menu is now listed as
"I-lan Minced Pork Cake."

"At the time my great-great-great grandfather started selling this,"
explains Joy Chen, who returned after graduation from college in the
U.S. to carry on the business, "all most people ate were sweet
potatoes, and few trades were available because the Japanese didn't
allow us to become educated." Taiwan was a Japanese colony fron 1895
until 1945.

Now tour buses pull up to the family's two-story establishment, where
nostalgic items are supplemented by luxury seafood like local abalone
served on tender luffa gourd, scallop cakes or the exceptional
butterfly shrimp deep-fried in a wrapping of sweet green onions, the
Yilan area's best-known produce.

But the most famed hundred-year-old of all is another Tu Hsiao Yueh
(same name, different Romanization), founded in Taiwan's most historic
city, Tainan. Back in 1895, as legend has it, a fisherman named Hong
began selling noodles out of portable pots hanging from a bamboo pole
across his shoulders, a device called a tan tsi. Now tan tsi noodles
(also rendered as "dan zai") are the "must" pasta for visitors to
Tainan, where the restaurant has three branches (there are two more in
Taipei).

The dish -- chewy noodles bathed in a meat sauce, made pleasingly
tangy with vinegar and mashed garlic and topped with a bit of lively
green onion and a single steamed shrimp -- is amazingly filling and
perfectly balanced. Tu Hsiao Yueh also offers traditional plates like
pig knuckles and grilled fish stomach (both a lot tastier than they
sound).

Taiwan's Century Restaurants
Du Hsiaw Uyea

58 Fuxing Rd., Sec. 3, Yilan City

886-3-932-4414

Noon to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Tu Hsiao Yueh

16 Zhongzheng Rd., Tainan

886-6-223-1744

Web: www.iddi.com.tw

11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.

Hau Wei Fish Soup

186 Guohua St., Section 3, Tainan

886-6-224-1880

8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Zai Fa Hao

71 Minquan Rd., Section 2, Tainan

886-6-222-3577

9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Tainan Yungle Market

Guohua St., West Central District, Tainan

A-Zen Bakery

71 Zhongshan Rd., Lugang

886-4-777-2754

Web: www.a-zen.com.tw

9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Longji Restaurant

1 Lane 101, Yanping South Road, Taipei

886-2-2331-5078

11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; closed the third Sunday of each month
Much of the old core of Tainan, Taiwan's capital from 1661 to 1887, is
a veritable food museum. Many open-fronted food shops along the
pleasantly arcaded Guohua Street can lay claim to long lineage. Many
other lunch counters worth testing can be found just blocks away in
the city's oldest covered market. (It would take weeks to trace all
the Tainan specialties found there, from crunchy shrimp rolls to
"coffin boards" -- thickened soup poured on Western toast.)

Another Tainan hole-in-the-wall is so storied that it has turned to
same-day delivery of its singular food item, frozen and ready for
steaming, to almost anywhere on the island. It has been in operation
as Zai Fa Hao since 1872, during which time there has apparently been
little opportunity to work on the d├ęcor, which is heavy on aluminum
fan hoods and grimy tiles. But the hearty zongzi -- steamed triangles
of rice wrapped in bamboo leaf, a common treat across southern Chinese
realms -- are justly celebrated for their rich stuffing of steamed
meat, mushrooms, egg yolks and shrimp. A Tainan specialty of
fish-paste dumplings in soup makes a fine accompaniment.


On the way north, many Taiwanese stop in Lugang, which was once
Taiwan's main port and still boasts a brace of old, though
unfortunately "improved," shophouses. Judging by the lines in front,
most come to purchase the special buns and breads at A-Zen. Friendly
owner T.K. Cheng, the seventh generation of Cheng in charge, boasts
that "fillings of love and kindness" explain the lasting popularity of
his light and gingery ground-pork baozi. If not entirely worth an hour
detour off Taiwan's main north-south highway or high-speed rails, the
crisp cookies called "cow's tongues" (for their shape) are
exceptional, as are the fresh mantou rolls. With a daughter studying
at Paris's Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, A-Zen promises to get even
better under an eighth generation of Chengs.

In Taipei, the most reliable grazing grounds for "hundred-year" dishes
is the old city, especially the alleys surrounding the colorful Long
Shan temple (but tourism-board recommendations led to gloppy oyster
omelets and a seemingly century-steeped bowl of chopped cuttlefish).
Stretching the definition of "old" to make things more tasty, the
alleys surrounding Taipei's main government buildings still contain
eateries founded by those first apostles of mainland cooking who
arrived in 1949 to cater to Kuomintang officials and troops in nearby
dormitories.

One of the finest is the humble Longji, a mere 58 years in operation.
From ham in tofu skin to rice cakes, the food honors the founding Zhu
family's Zhejiang ancestry in a way that can hardly be found in
Zhejiang anymore.

—John Krich is a writer based in Bangkok.

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