Exclusive Comfort Food Recommendations
In earlier times, Huaxi Street (華西街) near Guiyang Street (貴陽街) was a most active area filled with organized crime and brothels. Today, it is a quieter place, perhaps somewhat distant from the MRT Longshan Temple Station (捷運龍山寺站), and most tourists do not walk to the end of it. A Cai Ma Sweet Soups (阿猜嬤甜湯) has seen a decline in customers. Before I even had the chance to sit down and think about what to order, the owner’s wife recognized me and asked, “Aren’t you Mr. Jiao Tong (焦桐)?” The eatery’s founder, A Cai Ma, is suffering from dementia, and her son Ke De-Long (柯得隆) and his wife have taken over. I didn’t know that they were among my readers and had purchased several of my books.
The Secret to Eating at A Cai Ma Sweet Soups
The A Cai Ma Sweet Soups menu is not extensive. All of the selections are written on wooden plaques hung at the front of the stall. Red bean soup (紅豆湯), peanut soup (花生湯), tangyuan (glutinous rice dumplings; 湯圓), and rock sugar with white fungus and lotus seeds soup (冰糖白木耳蓮子湯), can all be ordered in combination to create different dishes. I ordered longan and rice pudding congee (米糕桂圓粥) There are longans in every spoon of congee and they were a great match! Longan and glutinous rice are simmered to create a sweet porridge. It is more than sweet; the dried longan and brown sugar enhance the different layers of sweetness, elevating the whole taste to a new type of sweet sensation. In the combination of glutinous rice and dried longan, the rice absorbs the fragrant aroma and color of the fruit. The two become one in an expression of great culinary love!
After finishing half, the owner cut two pieces of you tiao (deep fried dough sticks; 油條) and placed them in my congee. He asked me to try it and see how it tastes. Just as expected, it was great! The unimpressive, cold you tiao, when added to the bowl, worked wonder and altered the texture of the rice pudding. As a third party to the rice pudding and longan congee combo, I was initially worried that the you tiao would leave an oily taste and destroy the overall harmony of the ingredients. On the contrary, it added warmth, reduced sweetness, and enriched the aroma.
I thought that if the large pot of longan and rice pudding congee had not been completely sold out, it could be frozen to make especially great popsicles! When I was almost finished, the owner rewarded me again with a spoonful of red bean soup. The combination of longan, rice pudding congee and red bean soup, in addition to being delicious, revived pleasant emotions in me, such as the guilty pleasure of a love affair! When it came the time to pay the check, I asked how much. It should have been NT$60 but, the owner only charged me NT$50. Eating at this stall, I had not only met one of my readers and enjoyed some delicious food, but had also received a discount. As I left, I almost burst into song!
Sampling Sweet Soups, Experiencing the Lifestyles of Everyday People
About 50 meters from A Cai Ma Sweet Soups is another place along Huaxi Street worth visiting: Beigang Sweet Soup (北港甜湯). The rice pudding congee, taro root soup (芋頭湯) and grilled mochi (sticky rice ball; 麻糬) are nutritious and tasty. Not far from Beigang Sweet Soup, next to Bangka Park (艋舺公園), is 36 Tangyuan Shop (三六圓仔店) (Rice-based Foods Shop; 粿店). It also serves grilled mochi with a generous filling and is a must-try. The peanut soup and puff cookies (凸餅) are also very good. The cookies contain maltose on the inside, so that when added to the peanut soup, a wonderful fusion is created in an alternative style. The result is filled with the flavors of everyday life of common people. In addition to various sweet soups, other items associated with past agricultural society can be found here, such as red tortoise cake (紅龜粿), mingtou cake (冥頭粿), tortoise bun (麵龜), birthday peach bun (壽桃), fong-pen rice cake (鳳片糕) and feng yan cake (鳳眼糕). With one bite, it was as if I had returned to earlier times, the days of water buffalo, rickshaws, guilds, tea shops, sweets shops, textile mills, Kenban (geisha offices)....
This article is an excerpt from Tastes of Taipei’s Old City Areas (味道臺北舊城區), published by the Department of Information and Tourism, Taipei City Government. Jiao Tong, the author, has spent more than a decade carrying out in-depth explorations and research into food. He has tracked the historical development of Taipei with the evolution of traditional cuisine, and describes the different dishes in a warm and elegant style, while providing an introduction to treats from Taipei’s old neighborhoods. To complete this book, Jiao Tong spent nearly half a year visiting the areas of Bangka (艋舺), Dadaocheng and Dalongdong (大龍峒), where he sampled different food and beverage items at hundreds of eateries, finally selecting 167 to include in his study. He leads travelers on an exploration of Taipei’s traditional flavors.