The Most Basic of Basic Foodstuffs
Rice is rice, right? The fluffy white grains underneath the meat and vegetables on your plate or in your lunchbox. Choosing a Taiwanese meal starts with the question "rice or noodles?" - but after that, what more is there to say? Well, quite a lot, it seems. Rice is indeed the people's major source of carbohydrates, and most Taiwanese, even those slurping down a bowl of soupy beef noodles, will tell you that for a really satisfying meal there is no alternative to rice. But rice goes much further than that; it underpins the island's history, culture, and language, as well as its cuisine.
By Mark Caltonhill
At every meal from breakfast to bedtime…
Starting with breakfast, two common dishes are rice gruel and rice rolls. The former, often called congee by speakers of English, is zhou to northern Chinese and xifan ("liquid rice") to southern Chinese. It is flavored with all manner of additions such as salted eggs, pickled vegetables, meat, or seafood. Rice rolls made from glutinous rice are traditionally flavored with shredded fried pork, deep-fried dough sticks, and a fried egg. Farmers and laborers are more likely to start the day with regular steamed rice.
All three dishes are usually available at the breakfast buffets of hotels, and can also be bought at street stalls or small restaurants. Like the many non-rice breakfast dishes, they may be washed down with "rice milk" (mijiang), a concoction similar to soymilk but made from rice.
At lunch and dinner, rice may be steamed, fried or served with meat, vegetables, and water as "gravy rice" (huifan).
Rice is also ground into flour used for numerous culinary purposes and most common in Taiwan are noodles, such as rice vermicelli (mifen) and the broader, aptly named "plank noodles" (bantiao) native to Hakka people; dumplings such as vegetable buns (caibao); and the skin of spring rolls (chunjuan) and the similar but softer skin of lumpia (runbing) sold in night markets.
Desserts include glutinous rice-flour dumplings mwaji in Taiwanese; chiba in Hakka; mochi in Japanese. The Hakka, to whom they are often attributed, although they are also possibly a creation of Taiwan's aborigines, eat them as an appetizer flavored with sesame or peanut paste.
Rice, like other grains, can be popped, and the resulting food, mipang in Taiwanese, is used to concoct a variety of snacks sold freshly made at the side of the road or in night markets, as well as in packaged form in supermarkets.
Other rice-based night-market snacks with which to end the day are "pig's-blood pudding" (zhuxie gao), made simply by adding cooked sticky rice and seasoning to pig's blood, and pyramid-shaped leaf-wrapped tamales (zongzi), made of sticky rice and flavorings such as meat, water chestnuts, and egg yolks.
…and in every season
Zongzi are eaten year-round but are particularly associated with the Dragon Boat Festival of the fifth lunar month, while lumpia are especially popular during the annual Tomb-Sweeping Festival in early April. Other rice-based seasonal dishes include the "New Year rice patties" (niangao) and sweet, stuffed dumplings in soup (tangyuan) eaten at
the Lantern Festival two weeks after the Chinese New Year.
Most of the traditional festival foods, such as the New Year rice patties, soup dumplings, zongzi, and oil rice, are made using glutinous rice, also known in English as sticky rice. A common mistake regarding "glutinous" (presumably because of the similar pronunciations, is that its stickiness is caused by gluten). The various glutinous strains do not contain gluten, however, and so are generally safe for people on gluten-free diets.
In China, rice has traditionally been grown and consumed in the south, while the north has relied more on cereals like wheat and millet. This specialization is clearly evident in Taiwan's restaurants, where those selling northern cuisine have noodles, dumplings, steamed breads, griddled pancakes, and millet zhou on their menus, while a Cantonese restaurant, for example, sells various meats with rice, fried rice, gravy rice, rice-based noodles, and dim sum, much of which includes rice.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in Taiwan, which is located off China's southeast coast and has tropical and subtropical environments, rice is almost always the basis of a good meal.
In today's Taiwan, rice is an indispensible part of cooking, as is shown by the idiom "the most ingenious woman cannot cook without rice."
Rice appears in a wide range of idioms and expressions. For example, a person's means of filling his or her bowl, that is, his or her job, is known as a "rice bowl," so an "iron rice bowl" refers to an "unbreakable" government job-for-life, while a "golden rice bowl" is any well-paid job. Someone who eats a lot is called a "rice bucket," while someone who eats but does little work is a "rice worm." As Shakespeare's Juliet almost said, "rice, by any other name, would taste as good."
|Deep-fried dough sticks
|Dragon Boat Festival
|Glutinous rice-flour dumplings
|Golden rice bowl
|Iron rice bowl
|New Year rice patties
|Rice gruel (Xifan/Zhou)
|Sesame oil chicken
|Shredded fried pork
|Sweet stuffed dumplings in soup
|"The most ingenious woman
cannot cook without rice"