In Barry Foy's previous posting ("'Brutta ma Buona' in Taiwan, Part 1: Fan Tuan") he conjured up a category of Taiwanese specialties that might (by Western standards, at least) fit the Italian description brutta ma buona—"ugly but good." Today he checks out a few more. Barry is the author of The Devil's Food Dictionary: A Pioneering Culinary Reference Work Consisting Entirely of Lies. Take it away, Barry! —The Mgmt.
Xiaren Rou Yuan
Take a shapeless blob of rice paste. Fold some small scraps of stewed pork and their sauce into it, along with some perky little shrimps, and steam for 20 minutes. Put two or three of these in a bowl and drench them in lightly thickened, sweetened soy sauce. The result? Xiaren rou yuan (蝦仁肉圓), a favorite delicacy of the people of Tainan, a major city in the south.
The texture is rather hard to pin down. Not being made with sticky rice, the dough doesn't resist the tooth like, say, mochi, but it's not exactly mealy either. The hint of sweetness in the soy sauce is a familiar Taiwanese note, and the optional garnishes--not-too-hot pepper sauce; potent, runny garlic paste; and thin wasabi sauce, a relative newcomer--offer zing as well as a little color. The condiments are as bold as the dish itself is mild.
Xiaren rou yuan can strike the Western palate as a jumble of odd and unexpected flavors and textures, and the Western eye as an ill-defined, semi-glossy lump of, well, who-knows-what. For southern Taiwanese, though, this is comfort food of a high order, tasty and reassuring.
Niu Za Tang
There's nothing fussy about the name. Niu za tang (牛雜湯) translates roughly as "miscellaneous beef soup," and believe me, soups don't get much more miscellaneous than this. This version, from the Niu Rou Fu (牛肉福) restaurant in the southern town of Chaozhou, makes use of every portion of the cow left after the flesh and bones have been removed, creating a bracing mixture that may strike the squeamish as a tad too challenging. By "every part" I mean every part: Some of these bits are so miscellaneous, the cow herself didn't know about them. Reports of finding a couple of old Boy Scout merit badges and a piece of Amelia Earhart's landing gear at the bottom of the bowl are entirely believable.
The broth is all murk and mystery, tasting strongly of basil, black pepper, and perhaps a medicinal herb or two. But those serve as mere adornments for the deep, unspeakable essence distilled from the sundry anatomical components. Niu za tang is rich, heady stuff, not for everyone. This is a soup to make a timorous Certified Public Accountant run off and become a brawny coal miner...or maybe a cow miner. Bruttissima!
This unpretentious Taiwanese staple is commonly found in night markets and budget shopping areas. The serving shown here came from a vendor in Taipei's Dinghao neighborhood.
Youyu (魷魚) means "squid." Geng (羹) is thick soup, and this one is indeed pretty viscous, a slightly piquant (and, once again, sweetish) suspension of cornstarch or perhaps potato starch in a fishy broth flecked with dried bonito shavings. My guess is that the inclusion of these flakes, so essential to the cuisine of a different country, Japan, reflects the influence of Japan's 50-year occupation of Taiwan (1895–1945).
The key solid ingredient is squid, of course. It's often in the form shown here, al dente chunks embedded in amorphous gobs of fish paste. But in the interest of full disclosure, I'll confess that some renditions replace the fish paste with larger squid pieces. Problem is, those smooth pink chunks render that version too attractive for the premise of my article, so I've had to leave it out.
Other contents might include, as this one did, bite-size pieces of the big radish called luobo in Chinese (you probably know it by its Japanese name, daikon). I've run across bamboo and mushrooms in there as well. Top it all off with a garnish of fresh basil or cilantro, baptize it with a little vinegar, and you're in business. Oh--and you'll probably have the option of adding noodles too.
Next installment: Dessert of Champions!