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Of Oyster Omelets and Fried Noodles

  Of Oyster Omelets and Fried Noodles

Fried noodles can be served many different ways (photo by Creative Commons user JMRosenfeld)

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

Taiwanese cuisine grew out of poverty. Though Taipei is a metropolis now, where the visitor can command any pleasure, it wasn’t always so. And large swaths of the island continue today in a state that most Americans would consider “underdeveloped.” There are many reasons for Taiwan’s poverty, chief among them, perhaps, is the island’s uncertain status as a colonial possession. Since the late Ming dynasty, the island has passed hand to hand, between a host of colonial powers. The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Chinese, and Japanese have all staked their claims on this small piece of land. The island has had, it seems, as many names as it has had masters, from the fanciful Portuguese name of “Ilha Formosa,” or beautiful island, to the more mundane “Taiwan.” For some, it was a convenient way-station in the Japan trade. For others, it served as a military base. The Ming general Zheng Chengkong had hoped to use Taiwan as a base for the Ming re-conquest of China. And before all of them, there were the aborigines, various groups, probably of Polynesian descent, who traveled to the island from the South Pacific.

A place with such a checkered past cannot help but be poor. Wealth is always en route to some other place, some other center or metropolis. Anywhere, it seems, but here. In the 20th century, the KMT funneled money out of the island in preparation for the day when the Nationalists would “re-take” Communist China. So, while the KMT’s coffers grew fat, Taiwan went hungry.

The cuisine developed under such circumstances, bound by poverty and necessity. My parents’ generation still remembers a time when meat was scarce, and families ate rice mixed with soy sauce and lard, to sate their hunger. My grandmother kept a kitchen garden. Vegetables, tended with one’s own labor, were ostensibly “free,” but for the initial start-up costs (a few packets of seeds). The Taiwanese “street foods” reflect the island’s lean history. Consider a typical Taiwanese “snack”–an oyster omelet, a plate of fried noodles, and a dish of fresh vegetables.

These are not the large, succulent oysters found in California where I live now. They are tiny, only the size of a quarter. They once grew wild–as oysters do–along Taiwan’s western coast (the side that fronts China and the Taiwan Strait). Oyster omelets are peasant dishes, designed to stretch the protein supply. The eggs are “extended” using starches. Yet the omelet contains no rice, or rice-related products. Rice, in lean times, is an immense luxury. As a crop, rice demands labor, reliable irrigation, and land. The eggs are bound, instead, by a starch made from sweet potatoes, or yams, and stretched with bok choy. These days, oyster omelets are always served with a sweet and slightly spicy tomato sauce, to heighten the oysters’ flavor.