If you’ve never had thin-sliced pork chops fried in ketchup, trust me—you’re not missing out.
Sweet-and-sour pork is one of my brother’s favorite dishes, as Americanized Chinese as we kids were. But because my brother loved it so, whenever thin-sliced pork chops went on sale, my mother would attempt to make the dish by pan-frying the chops, then drowning them in ketchup whisked with cornstarch, sugar, and water. The final result on the plate looked like a slimy, pink version of Soylent Green.
Nevertheless, we kids ate it without complaint because my mother had made it. Also because we were taught never to waste food, or we’d be punished later in life by karma. And because, as with so many other cultures, the making and serving and consuming of food is the primary love language in our family.
So many immigrants have fond memories surrounding food—meals their parents dished up that were an amalgamation of the fare from their old home with the ingredients they had on hand in their new home; meals their relatives served, when they could visit the countries and familial ties left behind; meals they found in street markets, in dives, in corner kitchens run by the aunties and uncles of their heritage, if not of their blood.
But I didn’t have many. I often wondered if I was missing out on some key part of the immigrant experience because while I love food (I mean, seriously, the only reason I exercise is so that I can eat more), I didn’t have anyone to cook the delicious food of my parents’ culture and share it with a story about what it is, where it came from, why we eat it.
My father’s a traditionalist who doesn’t cook unless absolutely necessary, leaving that sort of thing to his wife. And—I say this with much love and respect—my mother is not a good cook. To her, food was then just a necessity, fuel for the body and mind. Taste was not high on the priority list because she simply didn’t have time to think about it, never mind the budget to procure all of the ingredients. She’d been working since she was old enough to walk and talk, picking the discarded sweet potatoes as a child from the farms near her hometown of Lukang, Taiwan, after the farmers had harvested the main crop. The discards were too small or misshapen or damaged to market, but her family was so poor that they depended on these leftovers for sustenance; stewed with a handful of rice in a pot of water, it became sweet potato rice porridge—simple, nutritious, filling.
These days, my mother informs me with ironic laughter, you can find sweet potato rice porridge on the menu of chichi, froufrou restaurants in Southern California and all over the world, right alongside the handmade soup dumplings and knife-cut noodles for which folks queue for hours to savor. Poor folks’ food has become a curiosity for those who can afford to be curious. But that seems to be how these things go—the better off we become, the more we look back on where we came from with fondness and nostalgia.
• • •
When I was ten, my mother took me and my brother home to Taipei for the first time since we’d emigrated. My relatives had never met my brother, who’d been born in the States, and hadn’t seen me since I was a nearly two-year-old toddler attempting to leap off bookcases and tumble off fourth-floor fire escapes. (Nowadays, I keep both feet firmly planted on the ground, thank you very much.)
From the moment we stepped off that plane at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport (now renamed Taoyuan), my mother’s entire mood and demeanor changed. She was no longer the exhausted woman in a failing marriage, living in a country whose faces and languages were so unlike her own, and trying to raise two children while holding down one unskilled laborer job after another to put whatever food she could manage on our table. In the States, she had few friends, and our closest relatives lived thousands of miles away.
But in Taiwan, all of a sudden she had her mother, all six of her siblings, and nine nieces and nephews (with number ten on the way). She was surrounded by an ocean of family. And that wasn’t even counting her in-laws, who comprised a veritable horde (my father is the youngest of twelve siblings) that my mother still needed to pay her respects to, since marriage troubles were not something that one simply talked about—especially with family.
My most vivid memories of that three-week trip revolve around food—and the pure joy on my mother’s face every time she shared something with us from her youth. As we ate our way through the country, my mother fed us all the history and stories about Taiwan and her childhood that she could, and then some.
“Look,” she said, dragging us through Shìlín Yèshì, one of Taipei’s biggest and most bustling night markets. “O-a-tsian!”
O-a-tsian is one of my mother’s favorite foods. A street-cart vendor would throw a handful of small, fresh oysters onto a hot, greased griddle, where they sizzled and filled the air—already laden with humidity and the odor of too many human bodies milling underneath a too-small roof and the pungent smell of used fryer oil—with the smell of salt and sea. A sprinkle of chopped spring onions would follow, then it was all covered in a mixture of egg whisked with tapioca or sweet potato starch, and fried lightly on both sides.
This oyster omelet has become one of Taiwan’s signature dishes (and no one refers to it in Mandarin—instead, it is pronounced “oh-ah-jen” in the Taigi dialect, whether you normally speak the dialect or not), but to my mother, it was one of the few simple, nutritious, and filling foods that her family had easy access to. Watching her devour the omelet (my brother and I wrinkled our noses at it, neither being a fan of oysters) was like watching her transform into a child, a transformation that so rarely happened in the driven, serious, and utterly practical woman I know as my mother.
Stinky tofu came next (another dish my brother and I did not like), then tofu pudding (dòuhuā literally translates into bean or tofu flower, which was how the pudding looked in our bowls) ladled from big metal canisters and topped with a thin, sweet syrup and chopped peanuts, and hand-pulled dragon’s beard candy filled with sugar and peanuts ground into fine sand.
Of course, none of these summer delights came close to bàobīng—a foundation laid with fresh fruits, grass jellies, sweet potato and taro and tapioca balls, sweet beans, and whatever our little hearts desired, covered by a towering mountain of light, fluffy ice and drizzled with sweetened, condensed milk. We couldn’t look in any direction in the night market without seeing a giant block of ice glistening in the balmy air or hearing the whir of the ice machines shaving snow into Styrofoam bowls. I’ve tasted a glacier’s worth of different icy treats since then, but nothing brings me back to that culinary summer the way red beans and condensed milk do.
We visited vendor after vendor. Sometimes, we got to try something new, marveling at its novelty. But many times, we walked away with goodies we had eaten before in the States, marveling at how much better it tasted here in Taipei, seasoned as it was by our mother’s love and delight.
We also visited the county of her birth, Changhua, for the ba-wan that put the county on the global foodie map. Made of sweet potato starch filled with a meat and veggie mixture (often heavy on the bamboo shoots), then topped with a sweet and savory sauce, these giant meatballs were meals in and of themselves. Even though one was more than plenty to fill the belly of a growing ten-year-old child, I ate one after another with as much relish as my mother did.
We took a plastic grocery bag filled with extra meatballs back to Taipei to eat later. Along the way, we stopped to visit my grandmother, who was living with her oldest son’s family, as was custom. Several meatballs disappeared—though into whose bellies I don’t remember (or maybe I never knew)—while my mother chatted with her mother, brother, and sister-in-law, and my brother and I played video games with our cousins.
When she discovered the missing meatballs, my mother railed at her family. “You can eat meatballs any time you want,” she protested, “but how rare is it for my children to taste the real thing here. What a shame that you ate them all!” The tongue-lashing elicited a few shameful looks and mumbles of regret, but alas, no more meatballs appeared.
Also that summer, my mother’s younger sister took me to a Mongolian BBQ for the first time in my life—back then, Mongolian grills hadn’t quite made it to the American mainstream culinary scene yet, so I watched the cooks go round and round and round the grill with eyes almost as hungry as my grumbling stomach. One of my mother’s older sisters blitzed fresh avocado shakes for us (which my mother tricked me into drinking, knowing my dislike of the fruit). My grandmother always had food sitting on the table or the counter, covered with nets and baskets to protect the dishes from flies, and would urge us, “Eat! Eat!” in the Taigi dialect that was her only tongue. (She understood the gist of basic Mandarin, but didn’t speak it. Later in life, she would utter a phrase or two in Mandarin for my benefit when communicating with me, to make sure I was still well fed.) And everywhere we went, no matter which relative we visited, on either side of the family, the first question they asked as soon as we stepped over the transom was, “Have you eaten yet?”
We tasted milk that coated our tongues with the richest and creamiest mouthfeel I’ve ever known, marveling in how much more like milk it actually tasted. We chewed through plank after plank of glistening, sticky-sweet pork jerky fetched from a bulk bin at the local bodega, as common as bulk nuts and grain in the grocery stores back home in the States. We ate pineapple cakes—another famous Taiwanese snack—fresh-made in local bakeries. For the first time, I tasted real pineapple chunks in the thick filling encased by rich, crumbly, buttery shortbread, so much more fragrant than the prepackaged cakes imported by our Californian grocery stores. By the time we went home, I felt more Taiwanese than I ever had in my life.
It didn’t last long. Soon, we were back to cheap meal deals at McDonald’s (the 2-for-$2 Big Mac special was a particular favorite of my mother’s, as it fed us and kept us quiet for dirt cheap).
But for a little while, I’d tasted what it meant to be Taiwanese.
• • •
If there was a national food that represents the country like a national flag, bird, flower, etc., then it would be the sweet potato. The crop is native to Central and South America but made its way to the Philippines via Spanish colonization, then spread throughout Asia and to China’s Fujian province. From there, it made the short hop across the Taiwan Strait more than four hundred years ago and found fertile ground in Taiwan, where the sweet potato was cultivated and became part of the aboriginal diet because of the ease with which it grew on mountainous slopes. There isn’t a lot of arable land on a tropical island dominated by mountains, so what little there is must be used efficiently. And the humble sweet potato is nothing if not efficient, requiring little water to grow (unlike rice) and providing a rich source of starch, fiber, and vitamins A and C. Even its greens are more nutritious than other common leafy vegetables, which makes the whole plant that much more valuable. Simple, nutritious, filling.
Combined with the fact that the island of Taiwan itself resembles the shape of the tuber—wide and thick in the middle, and tapered to narrow points at both ends—it is little wonder that the Taiwanese refer to themselves as the children of the sweet potato, owing much of their survival and cultural identity to the food. The tuber is renowned in Taiwanese cuisine as a frozen baked snack (eaten whole), in chewy sweet potato balls served with bàobīng (which has even made its way here to my home in Utah), in the ubiquitous starch that thickens everything from soups to desserts to my beloved ba-wan meatballs. (The only reason my mother used cornstarch instead of the sweet potato starch she’d grown up with was because she learned very quickly after immigrating here that in the States, corn is king and found everywhere, and therefore much cheaper.) You can find sweet potato in every type of dish, served in snacks and meals throughout the day.
So I was taken aback when I learned that the name I knew for sweet potato in Mandarin, the name my mother called it by—fānshǔ—translates into “barbarian potatoes” or “foreign potatoes,” in part because of how the cultivar had arrived on the island—as an import, just like the people who’d brought it over while colonizing the island. The tuber is also known by a slew of other names, depending on regional dialect, the way one might say “soda” or “pop” or “cola” in the States. (A common name shared on both sides of the Strait is dìguā, which translates to “earth melon.”)
But both sides of my family—from the side that grew up scrabbling in the dirt of Lukang to the side that built and lost a fortune in the black markets of Taipei—still refer to the tuber as fānshǔ. It reflects what it means to be of Taiwan, to be Taiwanese. To be both a foreigner of Han Chinese ethnicity and a native born on an island buffeted by colonization. (Some of my father’s side of the family still speak fluent Japanese from growing up under the Japanese occupation at the turn of the twentieth century. And I often think of Pinoy food as kissing cousins, as we share so many common ingredients and preferences thanks to our shared histories of colonization. For example, their version of shaved ice, called halo-halo, comes with toppings recognizably similar to the Taiwanese bàobīng.) We children of the sweet potato are not simple, not one homogenous identity, but a mix of all who came before, with chunky, recognizable bits of our influences spread throughout our cuisine.
So when people ask me what Taiwanese food is like, I tell them—it’s a lot like ketchup pork chops. It’s adaptation in culinary form, an amalgamation of opportunities found, adjusted for fondness and nostalgia, served without pretension. It’s o-a-tsian, earth and sea in one bite, around a mouthful of native dialect spoken by 70 percent of the population. It’s bàobīng, disparate ingredients lashed together by snow and milk to form a cohesive dessert that everyone loves. It’s beef noodle soup and minced pork rice and fried dough sticks dipped in warm soybean milk and, and, and…
…and I realize, I haven’t missed out after all. My mother may not have known how to cook her favorite foods, but she knew how to share them. As our family became better off and we could afford to eat better, she sought out restaurants that served the dishes she’d loved from her upbringing. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s anymore. We ate in dive restaurants run by mom-and-pop immigrants who knew the value of simple, nutritious, and filling meals. As we fed our stomachs, my mother would feed our ears with her memories of sharing that food with her family, so that every dish came with a story, every ingredient a history, from the island full of mixed cultures that had birthed my parents and had birthed me.
Now, with the advent of the Internet and with online translation tools, I’ve been able to find recipes to make at home. I text my mother, asking for the Chinese words so that I can match them to find the proper ingredients, or as close to them as I can find, in the deserts of Utah.
When she responds, I can hear her joy across the distance of geography, overlaid with the characters on the screen: “You haven’t forgotten where we came from.” And that joy is like the taste of sugary ketchup on my tongue, sweet and not the least bit sour.