Pretty recently, I found myself looking through photos I had taken in Taiwan months ago after failing to fall back asleep after waking up way too early at around six in the morning. This may not have been the best idea, because it really kept me from going back to sleep and made me too hungry for things I couldn’t have. But I’ll cut myself some slack and call it a case of the quarantine crazies, since I’ve really been missing my family in both California and Taiwan.
Exhibit A below:
Taiwan is definitely known for its food as the birthplace of famous snacks and drinks like giant fried chicken cutlets and bubble tea. But if you ask me what some of my favorite street foods are, I’d have to tell you things like blood pudding, stinky tofu, chicken heart skewers, tea eggs from the local 7-Eleven, fried sweet potato balls, oyster omelettes, fresh grilled squids, and shaved ice topped with chewy taro balls.
Yeah, I get it – some of those things sound pretty gross. The true tragedy is if you are actually unwilling to try them if given the chance. I grew up with most of these foods, never really questioning whether it was weird to eat jellyfish salad or the innards of animals. I was taught that consuming chicken livers and fish eyeballs was normal, and even beneficial to my health. Stinky tofu was never stinky to me and we drank soup brewed from animals bones and various herbs, sweet and savory and bitter.
I was taught by my aunts and uncles how to make dumplings from scratch, kneading the dough, rolling out each individual wrapper, then filling them and delicately pinching them closed with moist fingertips. I remember standing by the stove as my mother cooked chicken soup, naming and explaining to me the function of each medicinal herb. My family used to gather around my grandma’s small dining table, picking at anchovies, devouring fresh sticky rice, and drinking down her homemade sweet fermented rice soup.
Some nights, my cousins, my sister, and I would stroll the night markets, admiring the seemingly endless food vendors, delicious smells emanating from every direction. We would return with our bellies full, the smell of sweet soy glaze in our hair, and some grease still remaining on our lips.
Of course, there were also the massive family reunion dinners, in which we all sat around a massive round table, a spinning jenny in the center crowded with far too many colorful dishes. The food would just keep coming, even after we thought we were done about three dishes ago, and without fail, we’d all anxiously wait for our grandma, the matriarch, to take the first bite before digging into our own dishes.
This was meant to be a light post about some of the best food experiences I had in Taiwan, the country my family and I are from. Inevitably, it’s turned into a much more verbose reminiscence about my childhood and a place that I love but will likely never live at again. For me, there’s something about the smell of certain things that brings back memories in a massive rush of nostalgia in the most unexpected, yet tangible manner. The smell of foods is no exception.
To some, the stench of chives is repulsive. I, like many other Asian children, faced the innocent trauma of opening up my lunchbox in elementary and immediately being greeted by the scrunched faces of my peers as the smell of dumplings immediately filled the vicinity. “What is that smell?” they would ask. To my horror, it was me, or rather the meal my mother had packed and I had been so excited to eat. After that, I avoided packing any foods that had potentially polarizing or offending smells. This is an age-old tale that haunts countless Asian children.
A younger me would have continued to be embarrassed by such an incident, and proudly proclaimed that I was “American,” not “Asian American.” These memories can seem insignificant, but I think many others can attest to their importance, especially in the mind of a growing adolescent whose household can be so different from the world around them.
Anyway, now you couldn’t pay me to give up stinky tofu, and you’d better not call my food gross. It took me a while to recognize just how incredible and important my cultural background was to me. Now that you’ve sat through all of that, here are well-deserved food shots.
You thought I was done. Below are pork blood and rooster testicles:
You’re welcome. 🙂