A gourmand's visit to Meinong

Thursday, January 8, 2009
By Steven Crook, Special to The China Post

The lepidopteran inhabitants of the Yellow Butterfly Valley have yet to emerge, you already have a hand-painted oil-paper parasol, and disused tobacco-curing barns hold no interest for you. Or, just as you arrive in the picturesque town of Meinong (美濃), the skies open and the rain comes pouring down.

What then is there to do in Kaohsiung (高雄) County's Hakka(客家) heartland?

The answer, of course, is eating. Meinong is one of the best places in Taiwan to enjoy authentic Hakka food. There are several unpretentious eateries in the downtown, places where the customers get to sit on plastic stools, and where the food is slapped down in front of you with the minimum of ceremony.

Hakka cooking isn't to everyone's liking, because it's saltier, greasier and more vinegary than mainstream Taiwanese cuisine.

These characteristics are usually attributed to the fact that Hakka people have often engaged in hard physical work, and so have needed foods that replace the salt lost through sweating and the calories burned through working. However, I've not seen any explanation of why the same shouldn't be true for non-Hakka Taiwanese, most of whom also led hardscrabble lives as recently as the 1960s.

Taiwanese and Chinese family meals are usually based around steamed white rice. Hakka cooking is much the same, although it happens that Meinong's most famous form of sustenance is a noodle dish: 'Ban-tiao' (粄條) are thick – five to seven millimeters wide – white noodles made from rice flour. Some of Meinong's noodle-makers add yam flour to the mixture. Conventional Taiwanese noodles, by contrast, are made from wheat.

'Ban-tiao' may be fried with slivers of pork and carrot, or boiled and then served either in soup or 'dry' with a few small slices of pork on top.

Many traditional Hakka dishes include 'fu-cai' (福菜), which is fresh leaf mustard that has been dried under the sun, then stored in a sealed jar for at least four and usually six months. The resulting pickle is sweet and sour, and added to stir fries and soups.

'Fu-cai' that hasn't been stored in a jar, but rather tied into bundles after drying, is called 'mei-gan-cai' (梅干菜). It's often stewed with meat, or added to soups and savory cakes.

Here are two dishes you'll find on many menus in Meinong:

'Ke-jia-xiao-chao' (客家小炒) consists of strips of dried squid and dried tofu stir-fried with peppery bits of pork and seasonal greens. 'Jiang-si-chao-da-chang' (薑絲炒大腸) is pig's intestine cooked with ginger and white vinegar. The ginger may come in thin shreds or chunks as thick as your finger; chilies also make an appearance. The pieces of intestine – pinky-gray in color, and cut into sections about two centimeters long – are occasionally crispy, but usually not.

At least one restaurant in Meinong calls the latter dish by a slightly different name:

'Zhao-pai chao-da-chang' (招牌炒大腸), literally 'signboard pig's intestine.' In this case, 'signboard' means something like 'signature' or 'trademark.' In other words, the restaurant boss is especially proud of the way they do this dish, and regards it as the best thing on their menu.

If you want vegetables, order 'gao-li-cai-feng' (高麗菜封), a cabbage dish, or a portion of bitter melon, 'ku-gua-feng' (苦瓜封).

Several places in Meinong sell fresh 'ban-tiao' for you to take home and cook there. A portion big enough to feed two typically costs NT$45.

If you want to try some Hakka-style dishes at home, you can find recipes (some in English, many more in Chinese) on the website of the Council of Hakka Affairs, the Cabinet-level agency that promotes Hakka culture (http://www.hakka.gov.tw)

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