byKevin Stoda, Matsu Islands
As a global traveler (102 countries by age of 45), I have always been impressed at how much one can learn by simply reading a good guide book or a book on culture as a basis for gathering still more information about a new place with great expediency. Often by reading a good book, one can become aware of many more things than many locals are, i.e. they are often more concerned with how they live, work, and enjoy their own corners of the globeXthan taking time to contemplate and compare their experiences with others. With such information from guidebooks (plus good interview or observation skills), one can proceed to learn a lot more in a short timeXin most places.
However, until recently I had hamstrunged myself by not buying a guidebook or a book on Taiwan culture and society. This was an inadvertant experiment of mineXI had planned to buy one such book at the airport in Manila on my way here in August 2010 but it was out of stock. Sadly, until last weekend I had not gotten around to buiying either a travel book or a book on the Taiwanese cutlure.
This afternoon (5 days after my purchase), I picked up the Amy C. LiusTAIWAN A TO Z: THE ESSENTIAL CUTLURAL GUIDE-once again and read through the section on Breakfast[s].
Suddenly, I was being provided dozens of new pieces of information about my daily breakfasts at the school where I have been employed for nearly 10 months.
You see, five days a week I am not in charge of my own breakfast. This is because I am on a meal plan to eat with the local school staff in the kitchen of the school along with very good local cooks. However, because no Chinese courses for adults nor Chinese-for-foreigners are offered on this rural island to me, I have hardly been able to learn the names of well-over-the-majority of food items served up to me.
I should share this important caveat about Beigan Island (an island, which is part of the Matsu archipelagoVwhich belongs to Taiwan but until the 1940s had been part of the Fukuin Province of Mainland China) and my worplaces here: All the 3 places, where I live and work on Beigan, are multilingual and multicultural parts of Taiwan. As one colleague pointed out early-on, besides Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese, each village in the Matsu region has created a little different dialect than the others. This becomes even more noticable when one travels to the more distant islands of Matsu or to neighboring ChinaX5 miles to the West..
This means that the pronunciation of the local breakfast dishes and food items may be referred to in a multitude of languages and dialects. This is, naturally, bewildering for someone, like me, who has never even formally studied Chinese. This is why, Amy Lius book, TAIWAN A TO Z, provides for me belatedly many great basic clarifications and description of the food items which I have beeen eating almost daily for months(Xalong with their characters in Chinese). I feel so relieved to have this information
When I first had eaten a few breakfasts here at Ban Li Elementary Schools kitchen upon my arrival, I was often surprised by the farmer-style portions at breakfastX(1)because I had lived in Japan Vnortheast of TaiwanVwhere the portions at breakfast were much more modest and (2) because I had lived in the Philippines (prior to coming here)Xsouth of TaiwanVwhere again the breakfast offerings and portions and total variety offered to me were often much more modest.
When my wife arrived on Beigan in October 2010, she, too was pleasantly surprised at the breakfasts. She was especially happily surprisedt that often at breakfast on certain days of the week, we were even offered large bowls of soup. (My wife is is from the Philippines and loves soup as much as the Chinese and Taiwnese do. She had, however, never seen soup served at breakfast before.)
The portions of home-style Wanton Soup in both China and in Taiwan are humongous, i.e. as compared to what one finds in the USA at so-called Chinese restaurants. Usually a large bowel of this popular soup here is filled with at least 15 to 20 wantons piled into the soups brew. The flavor is different than Wanton Soups in the USA, too. (I prefer to eat it spicier than most people here do.)
Liu writes in her book on Taiwan, Believe me, soup is a comfort food to many TaiwaneseK.Soup features on almost every Chinese menu; it is a staple and often a meal in itself.[p. 30]
Likewise, there is a gruel-like soup,Xi Fan, to which one can add all kinds of ingrediants to ones tastes, i.e. from hot and spicy to sweet and sauer or with meats, eggs, vegetables, fish or other meats and local specialties. This soup consists orignally of chopped yam and rice. Approximately one-day a week this gruel-like soup is our breakfast staple here in MatsuXeven during the warmest and most humid months. (Its certainly an acquired taste. I hated it at first but now enjoy mixing all kinds of ingrediatns into itXadding variety to my life.)
In addition to more standard soups, once or twice a week one is provided with a large bowl filled withDoujiang(soybean milk)Xwhich tastes like no soy milk I was ever served in the USA. It is served sweet to very sweet hereXand no one on Matsu would drink it unsweetened.
Served either hot, cold, or luke-warmVsoy bean milk is often served (here on Beigan Island) along with a very large and very flat sort of breakfast burrito, which is calledDanbing. According to Liu, Danbing are prepared by beating chopped spring onions and egg, and frying the mixture on a large flate griddle. A tortilla-like pre-made pancake (now often factory-made) is placed on top of the semi-cooked egg. The cooked pancake is then folded into a burrito-like shapeK.Danbing can be eaten with soy sauce or chili sauces. [p.28]
Meanwile, almost every other day, we are also provided at breakfast time with a large steamed bun, calledMantou-[pronouncedMa-n-Tau-locally in Matsu]. These extremely large buns come in three basic colors here: brown (whole wheat onesXI suppose), white, and a shade of pinkish-purple. The latterXthe pink-purple MantouVhas a very good flavor and some nuts along with purple taro are ground up in it. Liu says, I enjoy my mantou cut open and filled with egg and pork floss, like a sandwhich. [p. 28] I concurr largely with Am C. Liu on this, but I also enjoy spreading peanut butter on the Mantou after I cut it open (after all, Im American).
Liu also notes: Steamed buns stuffed with fillngs are calledBaozi K. Fillings include meat, pork with chopped cabbage and shredded mushrooms, leeks and other types of vegetablesalthough sweet types can also be found, filled with beans or black sesame paste. Here on Beigan these Baozi seem to change with the seasonsXperhaps because they have to be imported from other islands, i.e. which means that stocking up on a particular variety from each location is the best way to have different offerings seasonally, i.e. when one supply of a particular Baozi is being finished up, a different bulk of another flavor of Baozi from a different provideer is ordered.
I am sure you are hungry by nowXand perhaps as amazed as I was that such large breakfasts are some common here in Taiwan. I wish I had bought this book by Amy c. Liu earlier. (Perhaps, I could have learned more Chinese along the way if I had.)
So, if you are ever in Taiwan, start your day off right with a large Taiwanese breakfastXand buy a good guide book or this one by Amy C. Liu. You will be glad you made the purchase and the effort to know more about the coutnry.
 Liu, Amy C.,TAIWAN A TO Z: THE ESSENTIAL CUTLURAL GUIDE, Taipei: The Community Services Center, 2009.