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The Other China

Real Chinese cooking flourishes on Taiwan.

November 28, 2001|JONATHAN KANDELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chiang Kai-shek always provoked rabid controversies. He was China's nationalist hero against the Japanese invaders and the inept dictator who lost his country to the Communists; the savior who turned Taiwan into an Asian economic model and the jailer of democratic dissidents; the preserver of Chinese culture and the defender of reactionary values.

But when I think of the generalissimo, I think of great Chinese food. Let me explain.

As the Communist flood swept over China in 1949, Chiang assembled a fleet of Noah's arks for the elites in every field, with the avowed intention of keeping alive all that was best about Chinese civilization in Taiwan, a hundred miles off the mainland. And since the Chinese have always held cuisine in such lofty esteem, scores of the leading chefs were invited to join the generalissimo in his island exile, along with artists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

As a result, on tiny Taiwan--and especially in its capital, Taipei--more regional cuisines have been brought into close proximity than ever before in Chinese history. On the mainland, gastronomy has only recently recovered from the dark ages of Maoism, and food remains largely linked to geography. In Hong Kong, dishes from any region have become readily available in the last couple of decades, but Cantonese cooking still reigns supreme.

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In Taipei, by contrast, veterans of Chiang's flight into exile and their disciples have been rubbing elbows with fellow master chefs from all over China for half a century. Inevitably, they have enriched and modernized their native recipes by borrowing ingredients and techniques from other provinces--the fiery earthiness of Hunan's dishes; the complex layers of oils, garlic, peppers and chiles typical of Sichuan; the incomparable diversity, clarity and freshness of Cantonese cooking; the rich, strong flavors preferred in Shanghai; the lightness and elegance of Hangzhou cuisine.

It is no idle metaphor to call Taipei a culinary bazaar. Window-shopping some months ago along Chongqing Road South, a bustling thoroughfare of antiquarians and electronics stores in the old downtown district, I turned down an alley and found myself in a smoky maze of food stands offering food from every Chinese province. The fare included freshly fried finger-length pieces of yellow fish with dry seaweed, a Shanghai specialty, crisp and briny on the outside, delicately ginger-flavored on the inside; from Canton, salt-roasted chicken, its almost translucent skin tasting of wine, pepper and salt, its flesh of green onions and anise; from Sichuan, spicy beef tendon, in chewy strips explosively flavored with chile oils, sesame, pepper and vinegar; and loofah rice porridge, a comforting Taiwanese specialty of slivered pork and shrimp with slices of a pale-green gourd that tastes like a sweet, spongy cucumber.

There was food for the soul as well. At dusk, I walked along the edge of the coffee-colored Tamsui River to the city's oldest and most famous temple, Lung-Shan. Stone dragons on the dozen pillars holding up the central hall seemed to writhe in the unsteady glimmer of lanterns. Hundreds of faithful prostrated themselves in front of the altars and thrust forward offerings of buns and cakes of sweet red beans, sesame, date paste or nuts to their ancestors.

Dusk is the moment when the spirits of the dead rush up from the underworld to rekindle ties with living relatives and share a symbolic feast with them. The different shapes and fillings of the pastries hint at the regional diversity of the bereaved. Taiwan, Sichuan, Shanghai, Canton--each lays competing claims even on meals for the afterlife.

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The following evening I'd arranged for some friends to join me in a banquet at a Hunanese restaurant named Peng Yuan. Its floors are marble, its upholstery pink, and the framed calligraphy on the walls has a contemporary flourish. We'd eaten there before. But on this occasion, we were hoping the owner--Peng Chang-kuei, one of the few surviving master chefs (and the only one still active) brought over by Chiang--would explain the principles behind some of our favorite dishes on the menu. Unfortunately, Peng, in his 80s, was ill, and his story was told instead by his son, Chuck Peng.

A slim, modishly tailored 48-year-old with oversized glasses, Chuck cut short his own career as a real estate developer in Texas--where he picked up his nickname and the twang of his English--to join his father's restaurant business. "I didn't like the idea, but my father was struggling," he said. Resentment softened into admiration as he learned his father's innovative kitchen techniques. "The more I appreciated his food, the more I became fascinated by his story," Chuck said.

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