2014年12月31日 星期三

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 7 Oily noodles)

This is 切仔麵, noodle soup prepared with 油麵oily noodles:

"Oily" noodles are in fact neither oily nor greasy, not at all, so called because canola oil is used during noodle-making. Salt is the other main ingredient. As a result of the salt addition, the noodles can be kept for a long time without the need for refrigeration.

The best way of serving oily noodle soup is (1) put a handful of noodles in a oblong basket (weaved with bamboo strips, left) with a long handle, dip the whole thing in boiling water, and move the basket up and down a few times to ensure even cooking of the noodles, (2) at the same time, melt some lard in a wok, place a teaspoonful of the liquefied lard in a soup bowl, (3) drain cooked noodles and decant into the bowl without disturbing the form, (4) add soup, some bean sprouts, chopped green scallions, slices of lean pork, and (5) dig in.

This noodle soup was typically served on pushcarts, sometimes in a shop. There was one such shop diagonally across the street from 媽祖宮MaZu Temple on the storefront side of the old Fish Market. The Market is now demolished to make way for a public square that allows 媽祖 a direct view of Guan-yin Mountain. Local lore has always tied this divine visual access with the prosperity of Tamsui. Now it is a reality.

This legend was probably started during the Japanese colonial era when the Fish Market was built to revive the sagging town economy. It was an attempt to resuscitate Port Tamsui. Unfortunately, by the 1920s, Tamsui River was choked by the accumulating silts, large steam-engine ships could no longer enter the Port and went to dock in Keelung Harbor instead. Tamsui locals had a different priority, spiritually speaking, hence the legend.

During the Japanese rule, there was also a noodle shop serving udon/soba in Tamsui, operated by a Japanese immigrant. Much like other Taiwanese traditions that had remained intact, these Japanese noodles also had failed to overtake the local favorite, 切仔麵.

As a midnight snack, nothing beats the 油麵 soup, topped with small pieces of salty lean pork. In the winter cold, this is also the snack-meal to go for.

2014年12月30日 星期二

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 6 New Year's cake)

Fried sweet New Year's cake 甜稞
年糕, or New Year's Rice Cake, was traditionally home-made, Tamsui was no exception. It was a big deal that often required the efforts of women folks of the whole household. The final products came in two flavors, salty and sweet. Each slab measured 3x3 feet and 4 fingers thick. In the winter cold, they last a long long time. You could cut off a little slice and roast it over a hibachi. Ideal snack in the winter time.

To make the cakes, first, sweet/sticky rice was soaked in water overnight. Then came the most labor-intensive part, the grinding, using a 磨 or a two-piece round stone mill with one on top of the other. The larger one at the bottom had an open circular groove carved out with the inner diameter matching the diameter of the top one. For efficiency, usually a woman did the circular pushing and a girl ladled rice-water mixture into a hole at the top portion of the millstone, rice was then crushed between the two stones.

Photo by 礼荷莲 (Lilias Graham) taken in 1893 in 鼓浪屿, Amoy.
The rice slurry was collected through the circular groove and spouted into a flour sac (for its fine meshes), and the opening of the sac tied. It was then laid onto a long wooden bench and a long bamboo pole put on top with both ends tied down to squeeze out the water. The resulting rice-dough was further flavored with sugar or salt (plus other ingredients if desired). The mix was then loaded into a square mold and steamed in a huge wooden/bamboo steamer until done.

During Lunar New Year, not only rice cakes were made, a whole lot of dishes, of chicken, duck, fish, and pork, were also prepared for a New Year's Eve feast. And New Year's Day was, still is, when kids go around collecting red envelops (紅包, with real money inside!) from all family members.

2014年12月29日 星期一

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 5 Street vendors)

A variety of snack food was available only from traveling street vendors. The b&w photos shown below were taken in the early 1960s or in fact even earlier [photographer(s) unknown]:

(1) Candy plums: These bright red candy plums were made with crunchy 桃接李 (produced from plum twigs grafted onto peach trees), i.e., plums strung on a bamboo stick dipped in melted cane sugar with red dye No 2 added, and let cool to form a hard shell. These plums with orange-colored flesh were a bit on the sour side, usually eaten with grain sugar or after marination in 甘草licorice root flavored juice. Sugar coating similar to that of candy apples in the US was a wonderful idea (tooth decays aside) and certainly a huge hit among the children. Still available in Tamsui now except they are made with cherry tomatoes.

(2) Rice puffs: 爆米香 - This is a two-step process. First the rice-popping part (operated by man with a hat in photo below) and then the cake-making part (man in white at the rear of the cart). You were supposed to bring your own rice. Children with their own rice in a pot queued up to wait for their turns:

Rice-popping was done by using a iron sphere/cylinder with a one-way air-outlet valve. With the rice inside, the sphere was rotated slowly over charcoal fire to create a vacuum inside for the rice grains to pop. A remarkably loud boom was heard from opening the decompressed roaster when it is done. The popped rice would explode into a collecting net. It was then mixed with caramelized sugarcane sugar and molded into a slab. Little rectangles were then cut to make mouth-watering 米香 (pronounced Bi-Pang).
味香 in the making
(3) Little dough figurines:  Strictly speaking, this is more a street art than a snack food. Delicately crafted colorful 小麵人representing famous characters from folklore. The artist-vendors were usually equipped with a mixture of wheat flour and sweet rice, 9 or more different dyes, some bee's wax, and little tools to create life-like figurines. Even though edible, not many kids ate them at all.

A vendor usually peddled his masterpieces at the small Triangular Park in Tamsui
This folk art is still hanging around, not for too long, though (above).

2014年12月28日 星期日

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 4 Winter melon meat pie)

This delicious winter melon meat pie by 三協成餅舖 SanXieChen Bakeries has retain its popularity for over 70 years:
No 81 Chung Cheng Road
It is actually a wedding cake, Taiwanese style, customarily distributed in batches to friends and families of the bride and groom. Interestingly, it has a British origin. From a great post on the 三協成餅舖 website:

"古早淡水人有一句名諺「娶某不娶八里坌」,這句話提醒年輕人,八里人嫁女兒的風俗是要送喜餅給全村村民的,所以娶他們的女兒要自量其力;而李水清先生就從這句諺語中看到廣大的喜餅市場。為了攻佔喜餅市場,李水清先生首先透過前台大婦產科主任-歐陽培銓先生,認識了英國領事館的主廚-涂彩和先生,然後向他學做英國水果派(派皮較鬆脆)以為改進傳統水晶餅外皮軟趴趴的缺點。而其女婿-林銅洲先生也因為在英國領事館任職商務秘書,從而進口英國老牌子Bush Boake Allen香料,以為改進水晶餅內餡的香味(當時台灣還沒有奶粉、奶精等原料)自此中西合併,改良後的冬瓜肉餅一炮而紅,成為「三協成」維持七十年不墜的招牌餅。"

Translation: "There was a proverb in old Tamsui that went "Never marry a girl from Bali", a warning to the prospective groom on the heavy financial burden since expensive wedding cakes would be required to distribute to ALL the bride's fellow villagers (i.e., easily the whole Bali). The founder of SanXieChen Mr Li Shui-ching, realizing a vast potential market, had, through the introduction of NTU Ob-Gyn chairman Dr AuYang Pei-chuan, got to know and learn from the chief chef of the British Consulate Mr Tu Chai-he on how to make a better pie crust than the old soggy ones. And through his son-in-law, Mr Lin Tung-chou who was Commerce Secretary at the Consulate, Mr Li had imported the famed English Bush Boake Allen spices to improve the flavor of the fillings. Combining East and West, the winter melon meat pie became an instant hit which made SanXieChen Bakeries a well-known brand name since that had lasted for the past 70 years."

At some point in the 50s, winter melon in the cake was replaced with chocolate. For those who disliked the overly sweet, sugar-cured winter melon bits (left, bite-size chunks), Hallelujah! Too bad it was discontinued after a short while. Current owner Mr 李志仁 is too young to remember chocolate meat pie. We'll try to convince him for a revival. Incidentally, Mr Li's aunt was one of the Japanese immigrants who stayed behind in 1946 when everyone else was sent back to Japan. As kids, we were often puzzled by her heavily accented Taiwanese.

2014年12月27日 星期六

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 3 Fish crisps)

Teng-feng Fish Crisps

淡水魚酥 [Tamsui fish crisps] was invented in Tamsui by Mr 林水木 Lin Shui-Mu & Co of the fishball fame. They are made from fish harvested from Taiwan Strait, such as lizardfish, hairtail, and croaker. It is little known, however, that the choice of the ingredient fish in fact depends on catch of the season and the texture and flavor of the crisps therefore vary with each season.

Also, freshly ground whole fishes (with the heads and guts removed) are used in the manufacturing process. The paste is then mixed thoroughly with potato starch. Unlike cake-making, no baking soda or the like is added, since the fish flesh itself is a natural leavening agent. The fish pastes are mechanically extruded through a sieve to make short sticks which are then fried in palm oil and drained.

For decades, fish crisps have remained popular that have indeed withstood the test of times. Indeed, economically speaking, it was not always smooth sailing in Tamsui, and yet fish crisps have been on the market for nearly 50 years, Modernized by automated production, they are now even more widely available. For example, in addition to local sales and distribution in Taiwan, Mr Lin Shui-Mu's own Teng-feng Tamsui Fish Crisps are also available in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, and the US.

The locals usually enjoy them over tea, with Taiwan Beer, or even at breakfast. Of course, one can simply munch on them out of a bag:

Teng-feng Tamsui Fish Crisps

2014年12月26日 星期五

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 2 Fishball)

魚丸Fishball is made from fish pastes. In the old days, the little white solid spheres were produced, one at a time, by squeezing a handful of fish pastes through the opening between the thumb and the fingers, then scooped off with a spoon and quickly dropped into boiling water. Usually a bucketful was made. Starting in Tamsui in about 60 years ago, fishball became machine-manufactured (see below), hence the ellipsoid shape complete with pork-fillings rarely seen before. [Incidentally, for the misguided few, it has always been 魚丸, not 魚圓, since the beginning of time.]

When the time comes, piping hot clear broth is added to a set of 4 in a shallow porcelain bowl, then sprinkled with chopped celery. In an instant, a satisfying bowl of fishball soup is created. 

Fishball is available throughout Taiwan. It is the ingredient-fish that gives rise to the distinct flavor of each locale.
Four different types of fishball in Taiwan (source: 東森新聞)
In fact, there are 4 major types of fishball in Taiwan, marlin fishball available in Kaohsiung高雄旗魚丸, milkfish in Tainan台南虱目魚丸, mahi mahi in Yi-lan南方澳鬼頭刀魚丸, and shark in Tamsui淡水鯊魚魚丸.

There is an old saying in Tamsui, "六月鯊,狗不拖 [rotten] sharks in June, even dogs spurn". This is a description of the once abundant shark harvests hauled back to port, ship after ship, ca 5-6 decades ago. Refrigeration at that time was reserved for high-value fishes only, not the lowly sharks. By the 6th month on the lunar calendar ("June"), in the summer heat, the surplus sharks began to smell, even hungry stray dogs found them unappetizing indeed.

A Tamsui native, 林水木先生Mr Lin Shui-Mu noticing the wasteful loss, came up with the idea of machine-producing fishball. It was at a time when hand-made fishball was still quite pricey. The machine was a Japanese contraption, originally designed for making 蒟蒻konjak jelly. Mr Lin converted the power supply from electricity to the much less expensive diesel, and a new fishball industry was born. In 1950, together with his business partner 許炳松 (aka 許義)先生Mr Shu Yi, they rented a storefront owned by MaZu Temple, christened it 味香魚丸店 Wei-shiang Fishball Shop and begin selling bagfuls of mass-produced Tamsui Shark Fishball.

Tamsui is no longer a major seaport and its fishing industry has long declined. Even fresh fish must now be imported from Tainan or Yi-lan. So, next time when you visit Tamsui, do enjoy fishball soup knowing that it is actually a symbol of Tamsui's rise and fall of its fishing industry past. Then, go visit Teng-feng Fishball Museum, across the street from MaZu Temple, that came on the scene in 2004. This is the first and only of its kind in Taiwan with central theme on the manufacturing evolution of fishball. The museum, open to the public free of charge, is also where visitors can participate in the do-it-yourself fishball making:

Exhibits at Teng-feng Fishball Museum

2014年12月25日 星期四

Traditional snack food in Tamsui (Part 1 Lard)

The mention of lard often conjures up an alarming image of clogged arteries leading up to cardiovascular catastrophes. Lard has also been unwitting involved in the recent food safety scandal in Taiwan where mass-produced lard was found to be adulterated with used oil, originally destined for industrial or animal use.

In simpler times prior to the 1960s, everyone consumed lard, freshly home-made from pork loin, not sold in wet markets anywhere. Lard preparation was in fact a requisite skill of all housewives. First, fatty pork was sliced into 1-inch cubes. A batch of them were then placed into an iron wok. Over a slow fire, oil was pressed out from the cubes. Eventually these cubes were fried in their own "juice" and more oil was extracted thus. The oil was then ladled into a ceramic jar, let cool and it would solidify into lard. The meaty residues were known as 豬油渣 (below):

豬油渣 was one of the two favorite snacks for children, e.g., EyeDoc and his cousins, who grew up in Tamsui. Sprinkled with sea salt, it was absolutely delicious, a real treat, as a matter of fact.

The other one was 豬油拌飯 or steamed white rice stirred in with a teaspoonful each of lard and soy sauce; simple after-school snack, yet it truly hit the spot:

Quality fatty pork was on the expensive side and lard was relatively time-consuming to make. So when cheap peanut oil came into being, largely through the 配給 ration system starting in the 50s, housewives began to switch. Now, just like its cousin butter, lard has more or less been banished from our menus. No one vouches for lard any more, even though we all know that traditional Chinese dishes prepared without lard simply taste wrong. Perhaps we need an advocate, someone like the famed TV chef and author, Julia Child (1912-2004) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She had never shied away from liberal use of butter, the foundation of French cooking; a direct quote from Julia:.

"In the 1960s, you could eat anything you wanted, and of course, people were smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, and there was no talk about fat and anything like that, and butter and cream were rife. Those were lovely days for gastronomy, I must say."

Although, as a result of the present lard scandal, home-made lard seems to be making a comeback. There is hope.

2014年12月23日 星期二

Tamsui landmarks 1935

This was a bird's eye view map of Tamsui made in 1935, 2 years before the 2nd Sino-Japanese war (1937-45), when Tamsui was still a thriving seaport:
A pseudo-3D map of Tamsui looking from the mouth of Tamsui River

A cropped version is shown above. Major landmarks: from Sha-lun Beach (bottom left), going up and right to Hobe Gun Fort/Tamsui Golf course, and next to it, Ft San Domingo/British Consulate. And along the whole stretch of now Chung Cheng Road, various shipping companies, gov't agencies and town offices. All the schools, from elementary school to college, together with the Public Meeting Hall 公會堂 can also be seen. Notice the long-vanished delta was still there.

Also found on the map were rural areas where watermelon (most important summer crop at that time), rice (probably the native 在來 strain), and oranges (the famed bucket oranges 桶柑) were produced.

2014年12月18日 星期四

Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells, one of the most popular Christmas songs, also has a Taiwanese version. Since there is no White Christmas in Taiwan, ever, so the sleigh-ride-inspired lyrics have been reasonably changed to Santa Claus and his presents:

Not many in Taiwan knew who Santa was, not until the 1950s anyway. Then all of a sudden, pictures of a jolly Santa Claus appeared everywhere. In 1963, Christmas Day became a national holiday; although it was officially the Constitution Day. It was scrapped in 2001, now observed only in Protestant and Catholic schools.

According to Medford Historical Society (see photos below), the birthplace of Jingle Bells is Medford, Massachusetts, a tiny town 6 miles northwest of Boston, off I-93, and 7,694 miles from Tamsui:
A plaque seen on 19 High Street, Medford Square
Simpson Tavern ca 1884, now an empty brick storefront
James Pierpont composed the song at Simpson Tavern and first performed it in 1850. He later moved to Savannah, Georgia, and published the song in 1857 (hence the persistent misunderstanding that the song was first written there). He passed away in Savannah, although was buried back in his hometown, Medford.
Sleigh races on Salem St in East Medford, ca 1883
Temporal and spatial connection through a song? You bet. Merry Christmas, everyone!

2014年12月12日 星期五

The first expat in Tamsui - Pedro Florentino

Pedro Florentino (1815-1884) was a Spanish sailor of the Philippines nationality. Around 1856 when his ship was sailing by the coastline of Tamsui, he had carelessly fallen overboard. Rescued by fishermen from Tamsui, he had no other choice but to stay put in town. He actually soon married 黃春, daughter of another sailor from QuanChou, Hokkien, and their only son was born in 1858 (畢金桂Bi King-guei was his Taiwanese name, more later).

The arrival of Pedro Florentino in Tamsui actually predated that of Dr George Leslie Mackay (in 1872), he therefore can be regarded as the first ever foreign permanent resident of Tamsui, at least in the modern era. His family was also the first of the Catholic faith in Northern Tamsui. The family had purchased a house on 清水街崎仔頂 and converted it into a church (see photo above).

This family has kept Pedro as their surname (and the nationality as well), 畢Bi was a loose phonetic translation of Pedro, chosen and officialized when they were naturalized as Taiwan citizens in 1955.

During the Japanese colonial era, all foreigners including the Pedros must report their whereabouts as a matter of routine. The Pedros, for example, were required to apply for permission from the Foreign Ministry for any and all trips out of Tamsui. The daughter of the third son of 畢金桂 finally adopted her mother's maiden name 馮Feng, just so that at least some family members could move around freely. And 10 years after the war, the entire Pedro clan by then had already lived in Tamsui for 4-5 generations indistinguishable from the locals, finally elected to become Taiwanese. The Pedro/畢 family still reside on 新民街, near Tamsui Foreigners Cemetery, today.

It is unclear if Pedro Florentino had ever gone back to his home country for a visit. For a drifting Spaniard-Filipino, what better place than Tamsui to settle down in? And he indeed had found it.

[Source: 淡水鎮志 Sec 10, Ch 6, p 345, ed 周宗賢教授]

2014年12月7日 星期日

Tamsui Elementary School 2014

The annual celebration of the establishment of Tamsui Elementary School was held recently. This school was founded in 1895 soon after Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Initially it was a language school with only a handful of pupils. It was formalized as an elementary school in 1902 at the present site.

The festivities included demonstration of boat-rowing exercise 【漕艇体操】, a century-old tradition passed down from the Japanese colonial era. And this year, it was performed by 4th grade pupils:

2014年 淡水國小校慶
Courtesy of Mr N Hirokawa
In these 1939 photos, the top one shows the same occasion and the same exercise. The only difference is that before the 1950s, this school was for boys only.