'Brutta ma Buona' in Taiwan, Part 1: Fan Tuan

Say hello to Barry Foy, author of The Devil's Food Dictionary: A Pioneering Culinary Reference Work Consisting Entirely of Lies. Barry's stopping by the next few days with a quick series called Brutta ma Buona in Taiwan, about some unphotogenic food. We'll get out of the way and let him explain. —The Mgmt.


[Photograph: Barry Foy]

Devotees of Italian cuisine will recognize that phrase: brutta ma buona—"ugly but good." It applies to foods that are tasty and satisfying, even if they're unlikely to win any beauty contests.

I suppose it's asking for trouble even to bring up the topic of unphotogenic foods at the moment. After all, we're living in a time when a restaurantgoer's biggest hazard is not salmonella or a lap full of scalding coffee but blindness induced by flashes from all the foodie cameras at the adjacent tables. The consensus seems to be that food's supposed to be beautiful. But even the finest snapshot doesn't alter the fact that the taste buds reside in the mouth and not in the lens.

Taiwan, one of the world's premier patches of culinary real estate, has its own share of ugly-but-goods. Be it a meal or a snack, there's always a chance that the item you get from a restaurant, night-market stall, or street cart will—by Western standards, at least—have a face only a mother could love. But don't be fooled: Steer clear of the various edible lumps, bumps, heaps, gummy bits, and viscous puddles on offer, and you risk missing out on much of the good stuff.

In this posting and a couple more to follow, I'll zero in on a handful of brutta-licious foods enjoyed on a recent Taiwan visit, highlighting their uncomely virtues as best I can. But be warned: Things could get ugly.

Fan Tuan


[Photograph: Barry Foy]

For today, we'll start with breakfast. If you haven't heard, Taiwan is an Asian breakfast paradise, with offerings from nearly every regional Chinese cuisine, as well as a range of local takes (sometimes bizarre) on Western fare. Both sides of the classic north/south, wheat/rice divide are well represented, and your morning walk is as likely to bring you within range of some form of bread, whether steamed or roasted or fried, as of something based on rice.

Occupying the latter category, the fan tuan (飯糰) has a reassuringly homely look. Fillings vary from one maker to the next, generally dividing into savory and sweet. But the fairly standard assortment in the specimen pictured here, from a curbside vendor in a small southern Taiwanese town, situates it firmly on the savory side.

The exterior is sticky rice with a scattershot garnish of black sesame seeds. The maker presses out a thick pad of this rice, then plunks down some pickled vegetables, a chunk or two of the cruller known as youtiao, a few roasted peanuts, and some rousong, a sort of desiccated pork fiber. Somewhere in there as well, probably in the rousong, is a little sugar, satisfying a common Taiwanese penchant for a sweetish finish.

The whole thing then gets rolled up in a bundle, rice side out. It's held together principally by the plastic sheet wrapped around it—none of your prim, precisely triangular Japanese onigiri here!—and at the first bite it begins to fall apart. The range of textures is huge, from the toothy rice to the crunchy vegetables to the very slightly soggy cruller, plus the peanuts' snap and the rousong's sandiness. Very filling, very satisfying. Brutta? Perhaps. Buona? Definitely!

Next installment: Gobs, guts, and geng