Taiwan now has supermarkets with neatly packaged food, and today there are a couple of Costco stores on the island, but when I first went there in 1982, the government had not even allowed the McDonald’s franchise to enter its borders. Very soon after our arrival, I was scheduled to cook breakfast for the 30 to 40 people living in student center housing. We had to have breakfast ready by 6:45 so that people with early morning classes could get to school on time. That meant we had to get up a little after 5 to go to the market.
In those days, when you wanted to buy food, you went before noon to the market. Even today, every neighborhood has its market. Some vendors drive their trucks in from the outlying farms, park along the alleys near the market entrance, and sell their wares out of the backs of their trucks. These are usually the fresh fruit and vegetable vendors, although I have seen butchers’ trucks with pig carcasses hanging from wire frames along the sides and a chopping block on the tail gate. Another truck had a nanny goat tethered in the back, and you could buy goat’s milk fresh from the source. The alleys near the market were even more crowded than the alley between our apartment and the student center. Once again, my Chinese guides and co-cooks grabbed my hand and led me along like a child. I was 21 years old, but I felt like a two year old. I couldn’t understand anything people were saying, and I couldn’t read a word on any of the signs. The alleys twisted and turned, and the trucks now became permanent stalls with awnings along one side of the street. Then there was a sharp turn into a dark alley that was jam-packed with women and totally roofed over. My guides led me into this alley.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, the thing that struck me most was the stench. The stench even overpowered the noise for a moment. It was all I could do to keep from retching. Up and down the aisles were fishmongers, pork butchers, chicken butchers, fruit and vegetable stands, booths that sold spices, and here and there a cloth merchant or a tailor thrown in. As my nose accustomed to the stench of blood from freshly slaughtered meat, my ears began buzzing with the constant drone of vendors hawking their wares, customers asking for help, and bartering and haggling going on everywhere.
One of my guides was an English-speaker from Hong Kong, and she had ascertained that Lynne and I did not eat well at all the day before because we were so slow using chopsticks the boys kept beating us to the food. My cohorts decided to make a pork, dumpling, and vegetable stew that would give us more in our bellies than watery rice, a peanut, and a bite of tofu. Later, I noticed that for the next month or so, even the congee had some meat and vegetables in it to give us a fighting chance at getting full, so I guess someone relayed the message that we had left the table hungry.
We had 300NT to spend for everybody’s breakfast. In those days the exchange rate was 40NT to 1USD; we were going to feed about 35 people on $9.50. The biggest expense was going to be the meat, so we first went up and down the aisle with butcher stalls. My friend from Hong Kong taught me how to look for stalls that washed down their cutting blocks after serving every customer and that had fans with swatters twirling around the meat to keep the flies from laying eggs in it. The butcher stall aisle had flies everywhere, and the floor was red and sticky with blood from the freshly butchered meat. We decided that we would spend 100NT on the meat and use the other 200NT to buy vegetables, flour, eggs, and herbs for flavoring. The kitchen provided oil, salt, soy sauce, and hot sauce, but we needed to buy things like garlic, ginger and green onions fresh each day.
We found a nice, clean piece of pork shoulder without too much fat, and the butcher sold us a 600 gram chunk for our 100NT. I remember thinking that it looked a little smaller than the pork roasts my mom made for our family of four; I thought, “Well we have enough for the girls at my table, but what are those hungry boys going to eat?” I soon found out that we would all fill up on veggies. For our 200NT we got 600 grams of flour, 5 potatoes, 3 cabbages, 4 monster-sized carrots, and several bags full of other vegetables that I had never seen before. By the time we were finished washing, chopping, and stirring, we had an industrial-sized pot full of stew. Everyone got full, and there was still some left over. I think that was when I realized that from now on, meat was going to be a condiment to give flavoring to dishes, and it would no longer be my main food source.