A Cruller By Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet
Yu Char Kueh and Soy Milk in Taipei
“Let’s have a traditional Chinese breakfast,” my friend said.
I was visiting her in Taipei, where she had lived for almost a decade. She rattled off a bunch of items that I didn’t understand, including “tau chio” and “youtiao.”
“Does it involve congee?” I asked, because in Manila, where we’re both from, a Chinese breakfast always involves congee. She said no. I agreed because I love breakfast, and because I’m always willing to try anything once.
We ended up in a small all-day breakfast joint near a private hospital. Decor was sparse, functional. The storefront was dominated by a big window where passers-by could peek into an open kitchen where the cooks busily prepared a variety of dishes: omelettes, baos, Chinese buns, assorted noodles, and pastries. I found us seats while my friend ordered. I was curious to see what a traditional Chinese breakfast was like. My friend sat down and our orders followed after, my eyes getting wide and my stomach grumbling, getting louder when I realized what she had ordered. “I know what that is!” I said, excited.
Hot bowls of soy milk were placed before us alongside sticks of fried dough. It was a breakfast I has eaten every day in my grandmother’s hometown in Fujian, China. My paternal grandparents grew up on Gulangyu Island, off the coast of Xiamen City in the southernmost part of the country. They met in the Philippines, where they settled down and raised a family. When my grandmother was in her 60s, she took it upon herself to introduce her grandchildren to the city of her youth. A cousin and I spent a month in Xiamen every summer for three years, partly to learn Mandarin, partly just to take in the vibe. My cousin did great; I sucked.
I could never get the hang of the language, but I enjoyed the food immensely. Oyster omelettes, salt-and-pepper stir-fried shrimp, fish and tofu in black bean sauce, most of them variations of what we ate in Manila, but better. My favorite meal was always breakfast, and it was always the same thing: steaming hot soy milk with Chinese crullers. We would dip the cruller in the unsweetened soy milk so that the fried dough would soften. The milk covered the cruller, adding a subtle layer of flavor to the oily bread that was deeply satisfying.
It’s a breakfast that’s hard to get in Manila (partly due to the city’s horrible traffic, where a 20-minute trip can take more than an hour, but mostly because I’m rarely awake early enough to get it before it runs out), and until that morning in Taipei, had been relegated to “meals I have loved and may be lost forever, at least until I can get my butt to China again.”
It turned out that my friend had been calling them by their Mandarin names, while I only knew them by their Hokkien ones, tao din for the soy milk and yu char kueh for the crullers. Eating them once again, more than a decade after I last had them, brought me back to that little city on the coast of China, where mornings were spent in leisure, and where I was meant to learn Mandarin, but only succeeded in learning Hokkien, and only if it pertained to food.
I think those summers were well spent.