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Leaving a Bite-Sized Mark in Taiwan

By: Alara Karahan

August 29, 2023

My love language is food, felt in the iftar nights (when Muslims gather to break their daily fast during Ramadan) hosted by my neighborhood in Istanbul or the sliced fruit my grandma brings during hectic exam weeks. In Taiwan, I have connected with people through that same love. Although a small country, it is exploding with flavor—literally and figuratively. The population is made up of waves of Chinese immigrants coming to Taiwan since the seventeenth century, as well as indigenous Malayo-Polynesian peoples and immigrants from around the world. Taiwan was also a Japanese colony from the late 1800s to 1949, so historical tea houses and kaiseki restaurants can be found all over, applying Japanese techniques to a Taiwanese palette. As a result, the food truly embodies the concept of “fusion.”

The food here crosses generations. The vendors do not run mere restaurants but institutions, passing down their “signature dishes” from grandparents to grandchildren. When I asked for directions to the famous Yongkang Beef Noodle Soup stall, a Taiwanese uncle told me he can “do me one better,” bringing me to the stand he had frequented for 40 years. After greeting all the waiters and ordering on my behalf, he settled me on a window seat and bid me farewell. I never got to thank him for the best soup of my life.

Taiwan taught me that food is nostalgic. I visited restaurants at odd times, giving me the chance to talk with the shop owners during their lulls. Once, the proprietress pulled out her photo album, flipping through photos of her days in the corporate world, her Japanese husband, and their three children. Two were close to home, but her youngest had moved to Canada—too cold and far for her to visit. Much to the boss’ dismay, I had no photos of a boyfriend/children to reciprocate. Thus, she decided she would be the one to cure my relationship woes, forcing every young man who entered her shop to sit across from me and ask me questions. While my love life mission was a failure, I enjoyed hearing more about her family dynamics. After all, her youngest daughter and I were similar in that we were both alone in foreign countries. The proprietress told me she was not worried for either of us: “You have a Taiwanese aunty now.” I hoped her daughter would feel similar comforts.

Food is personalized. On my morning trips to Taiwan’s wet markets, I strolled through rows upon rows of mango baskets, cabbage heads, and iced fish. I reveled in the happy chaos. I was often asked where I was from. As per usual, I gave the “I’m Turkish and go to school in America” spiel. One time, the vendor’s face lit up; he scurried to the back, washed something in the sink, and returned with a small red sphere. “This is a Taiwanese delicacy,” he told me (it was a cherry tomato). Yet, my heart warmed at this tomato, and the thought this man had put into sharing a part of his island while helping me discover “new” tastes.

These markets are not just places to buy food: they often incorporate religion to anchor communities. Originally, Taiwan’s street food scene revolved around temples, thus explaining why popular food streets all have a shrine nearby. As people immigrated to Taiwan, the local temple became the primary community gathering place. It was only natural that food would follow. Throughout my study abroad, I enjoyed visiting the gods of these various temples: Yue Lao for relationships, Baosheng for health, and Wenchang for wisdom (and good exam scores).

Various foods on red plates laid out as offerings for Yue Lao the “Love God” at a temple.
Various foods on red plates laid out as offerings for Yue Lao the “Love God” at a temple.

When I first started paying my respects, I was extremely worried that I would mess up the temple ritual. One must first give a sacrifice, then bow and introduce themselves, and finally burn their spirit money, with many more details throughout. I had asked the temple’s overseers for guidance: “What should I sacrifice? Do the gods have a favorite food I can bring? Is there anything I must stay away from?” The director laughed, put her hand on my shoulder, and said: “The gods eat whatever you eat, and like whatever you like.” I felt so comforted. I was trying to have a “textbook” experience, but my perfectionism was stopping me from experiencing Taiwanese culture. Food is not something you can get right or wrong, but it is about intention. In the temple, you are not offering food, but the love, devotion, and honor that it carries.

Food is fleeting. It has the power to bond people and then ceases to exist. So, spend a day in the thick of a market and eat everything that looks good. Make conversation. Compliment the taste. How else could you experience Taiwan, if not for the universal love language of food?