'Brutta ma Buona' in Taiwan, Part 3: Leng Re Bing
My previous two posts focused on Taiwanese specialties that Western eyes mightn't find stunningly attractive but that have much to offer in the way of flavor and satisfaction. Today we'll consider one final item.
Leng Re Bing: Dessert of Champions!
At the periphery of a hectic traffic circle in the southern Taiwanese town of Chaozhou sits a bright, open-air eatery called Zheng Lao Pai Leng Re Bing (正老牌冷熱冰). Loosely translated, the name means "authentic, original cold-hot bing," and the stock in trade of this establishment is a sweet snack as formidable as any you'll ever encounter.
So, first question: What's a bing? The word itself simply means "ice," shorthand for one of Taiwan's favorite sweet offerings, well suited to the island's semitropical climate. The classic bing consists of a bowl of various things, primarily beans, in a sugary soup, all topped with shaved ice.
Question number two: Beans?! It's important to understand that Chinese cuisine treats the legume as a sweet, not a savory, food (except for two notable exceptions—the rendering of soybeans into the "milk" to make tofu, and beans' inclusion in a range of pungent condiments). Whether pulverized into a pastry filling, cooked down into jelly, or floated whole in sugary soup, the typical red, mung, or kidney bean, even the split pea, is unlikely to find its way into a savory dish. Instead, it will end up as a component of some type of sweet snack.
Zheng Lao Pai doesn't stint on the legumes, in this case red beans and husked mung beans. But there's plenty more to the house special bing, the one they're known for far and wide. Partnering the beans in the slightly thickened, caramelized-sugar syrup are cooked peanuts, sticky rice grains, chewy little knuckles of cooked rice dough, round rice-dough balls stuffed with sweet peanut paste, and—supplying the real muscle here—chunks of starchy stewed taro.
It's a bold, impressive assortment, but the dish goes a step further: Zheng Lao Pai's chief innovation is to serve this hodgepodge hot, hence the "cold-hot" in the name. The maker ladles the individual ingredients into a bowl, slides it under a spinning gizmo that caps it with a shapely alp of shaved ice, adds a quick splash of extra syrup, and delivers it to your table. As you might imagine, it's a race against time to dig in before the ice melts. Furthermore, the management informs me that the proper eating method resembles mining, as you excavate into the lode at the bottom while also managing to heap some ice on your spoon.
And there you have it: No zesty colors or dainty presentation or rarefied ingredients. Just the sweet (but not cloyingly so), honest, robust thing itself, with its entertaining melange of textures and tastes. Great fun, and nutritious to boot. Folks, this ain't Baskin-Robbins.