The Language of Street Food (2020)
In this piece, I discuss my acquaintance with my cultural heritage, through traditional Taiwanese street food. I have grown up in Hong Kong and America, and said cultural heritage, as stated, is my Taiwanese heritage, which has been introduced only little by little to me, in yearly visits to Taiwan every year.
The world of Raohe St. Night Market is a spinning kaleidoscope of neon flashing store lights. Posters and menus are plastered on every store window, every stall, and lanterns strung overhead form an alleyway of stars. Plastic red seats screech as friends gather at small tables to eat, and plastic spoons and forks scrape against the ground as people walk past.
Radioactive by Imagine Dragons is pumping through my brother and my shared earphones. “I'm breaking in, shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus, “ I sing along, garnering stares from passing strangers with my western tongue. Add in my bright attire and the camera slung over my right shoulder and I practically have the words tourist blinking above my head. I duck into the shadows to avoid the attention, and we continue down the street, my aunt waddling down the center of the aisle with her trusty fanny pack at her hip.
My eyes bug out as I take in the crab pancakes and barbecue sticks. I have lived in Hong Kong my entire life so although my mom has made a huge effort of incorporating beef noodle soup or chhong iû péng into our food choices, there are still plenty of Taiwanese foods I have never had. I try one Taiwanese dish after another, all of which I have only heard about from my mother’s stories of her childhood; a bucket of mango tsua-bing that sends a short, sharp pain to my temples; a plate of o-a-tsian with a distinct tangy taste that makes me crinkle my nose; a scoop of chhàu-tāu-hū that, contrary to its name, is actually quite sweet.
Per usual, we return to Taiwan the very next year. Because the night market is only a few blocks away from my parents’ first (and our holiday) home, we decide to visit again. The 100 NTD my parents had given me to spend on anything I like weigh me down with responsibility.
My aunt casts her steely gaze in my direction, sign boards staring at me through her spectacles, and asks, “Where do you want to go?”. It usually takes me a while, even in familiar territory, to decide what to eat, let alone here in a country where food items are written in a language I have only encountered in textbooks.
In the distance, I catch a flashing sign displaying what looks to be my beloved ai-yu, a sweet, jelly-like drink that I would always get from a store just a block away from my house. Xian-cao, it says.
“Doe-hsia,” I say to the shop owner, Hokkien foreign in my mouth. While my fluent mandarin would have served me well in the city, the predominant language on this street is Hokkien. My foreign tongue trips over everyday words as it clumsily replicates words my grandmother and parents have spoken my entire life.
What I don’t expect when I bite into the black gel is its tangy flavour, the taste of chewed grass and tree bark. It is not long before I feel a bile rising in my throat and make a run for a nearby trash can. My aunt gives a small nod of disapproval as she hands me a piece of tissue, her lips stretching ever-so-slightly into a grim line before she forces a grin.
She always thinks I don’t notice, but I do. She thinks I don’t hear her rant about our inability to be fluent in our native language, to spend time in our home country, to spend time with family, but I do, through my mother and my shared bedroom wall. She thinks I don’t see when she pulls my mother aside during our yearly family luncheons to make a comment about our western table etiquette. She thinks I don’t feel her deprecating glances in my direction whenever I struggle to read a street sign or talk too loud. “Bring them back home to Taiwan,” she always tells my mother, “they should live here like we did, close to our family.”
Six years later, I return to the same night market on Raohe St.. In more recent trips to the night market, I had become fluent in the language of Taiwanese cuisine; gone were the days of ordering corn on the cob or fried squid in order to avoid a conversation in Hokkien. I stand under the entryway, my friends from home peppering me with questions about bubble tea and o-a-tsian, and for that moment, under the chinese-temple-styled arches and an alleyway of stars, I feel like I belong.
: scallion pancakes
: a Taiwanese shaved ice dessert
: oyster omlette
: fermented tofu, known as "stinky tofu"
: a Taiwanese grass jelly drink
: translates to "Thank you"