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Fish Face in the Morning Is Worth a Little Effort

Photo by: Angel Wong.

Fish Face in the Morning Is Worth a Little Effort

Milkfish Soup in Tainan

“Why would you want to go to Wuming? It’s really gone downhill in the last couple years.”

We’re on our way to eat milkfish soup in the southern Taiwan city of Tainan when our taxi driver asks us quizzically about our breakfast shop of choice. A pang of anxiety washes over me. How could this be? Every Chinese-language food blog gave Wuming glowing reviews.

“It used to be the best,” says the driver “but the taste has really changed since it passed to the second and third generation. A-Tang is the best now.”

I should have asked a local in town right from the get go. The people of Tainan are known for being picky eaters, like our shrewd taxi driver.

Tainan has eaten milkfish since the city’s founding nearly four hundred years ago, and is one of the region’s primary staple food items. It often seems like the people of Tainan have developed extra-sensory sensitivity for picking out the freshest milkfish, as well as a finicky attitude to anything but the most perfectly prepared.

Tainan is the only city in Taiwan that eats milkfish for breakfast, and the people claim they’ve historically eaten the dish in the morning in order to prepare for a long day working the sugar cane and rice fields.

Just like Taiwan’s other oddball breakfast eatery, beef soup shops, there are a sundry of dedicated milkfish breakfast joints found throughout the city.

As the taxi pulls up to our internet-approved milkfish eatery, we’re surprised to find the inside-lights dimmed, and the front door shuttered. “Sorry,” says a woman beating a floor mat with a broom outside the shop, “we don’t open until nine in the morning.”

“We’re saved!” I whispered to my partner. We then hop back in the taxi and take up the driver’s suggestion.

“It looks like you and A-Tang were destined to be together after all!” chuckled the driver.

It could be said that destiny brought the humble milkfish to the city of Tainan as well. It was likely introduced to Taiwan by the Dutch East India company, who may have brought the salt-water fish along with them from their base of operations in Jakarta, Indonesia.

How the fish got its name in the local language is also wrapped in the city’s history. It’s believed that the fish got its name from a rebel Chinese naval commander named Koxinga. One day, Koxinga was enjoying a hearty serving of milkfish soup after a long naval campaign to expel the Dutch from Taiwan. He enjoyed his serving of milkfish stew so much, he exclaimed excitedly to his man-servant, “What fish is this?” or “siánn‑mih-hî?”

Unfortunately, Koxinga’s man-servant didn’t understand his thick Hokkien accent, and thought he was giving a name to the fish: “sat‑ba̍k‑hî.” The story has stuck since, leaving the milkfish with a gaffe of a name.

Taiwan’s obsession with milkfish is made all the more unique by it’s East Asian neighbors’ reluctance to embrace it. The fish is incredibly difficult to fillet, having more bones than most people can bear. For those willing to endure the de-boning, they should expect fish meat that has a tender but firm texture. Milkfish has a relatively high fat content, with a mild flavor. Most milkfish joints in Tainan are experienced with deboning the fish, and our order at A-Tang was completely bone-free.

My partner and I decide to order milkfish skin served in soup, along with pieces of stomach meat served alongside oily breadsticks. There are dozens of other ways milkfish can be served, and I hear a woman behind me ordering a fresh cut of milkfish head in her soup. “The meat around the eyes and face is really delicious,” says my partner.

As I begin eating, I’m amazed by how delicate and soft the milkfish skin is. It’s no wonder it hasn’t left the Tainan breakfast table in over three centuries.

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