For a Super Vigorous Morning Try Raw Beef for Breakfast
Beef Soup in Tainan
When I first arrive at Ah Cun’s Beef Soup shop, I almost can’t believe my eyes. There’s no line. Mind you, it’s the Lunar New Year, Taiwan’s most important holiday, and everyone has likely returned to their hometown to spend time with family. It’s also seven in the morning, which may seem like an unusual time of the day to encounter a line for beef soup.
But not for Ah-Cun’s. Not for the Southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. The city is well known for its habit of eating beef soup at early hours. At Ah-Cun, Tainan’s most famous beef soup shop, customers begin to appear as early as four in the morning, when freshly slaughtered beef from Tainan’s Shanhua District is delivered to the shop.
I grab one of the metal stools at an outside table and ask the laoban, Mandarin for “boss,” to give me a bowl of beef soup. He plops a bowl of long leathery strips of raw beef halfway cooked in a soup broth down in front of me, along with a small dipping bowl with ginger slices and soy paste to marinate the beef. The experience of eating fresh beef in the early morning is similar to eating fresh tuna at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market; the earlier you arrive, the fresher and more tender the meat.
But when I ask people in Tainan why they eat beef soup in the morning, I’m left with more questions than answers. Chao youjingshen a! is the answer I usually get, which means “super vigorous!” It’s an extra dose of energy before you head off to work.
Then why doesn’t anyone else in Taiwan eat it for breakfast?
Moreover, Taiwan historically doesn’t have a history of beef consumption. Before Taiwan’s industrialization in the 20th century, the island was primarily an agricultural society, and a cow was far more valuable alive helping out in the fields than in a bowl of beef broth. Taiwan’s farmers respected their bovine friends so much that they received a proper burial after their passing.
Beef-soup enthusiast Chang Chia-chun, who has extensively researched Tainan’s peculiar breakfast habits, points to a seemingly unlikely culprit: Japan.
Taiwan was formerly Japan’s first overseas colony, and the island was heavily influenced by cultural trends occurring on the Japanese mainland. One of those trends was picking up Western eating habits, which meant beef consumption. “Tainan’s first bowl of beef soup was likely served at Tainan’s then 5-star hotel, the Four Seasons Inn,” said Chang in a recent interview.
But details are still light on how beef soup made it from Japanese colonial boutique hotels to tiny street-side shops on the side of the road, much less on how it became a breakfast dining habit. Nevertheless, shops like Tainan’s Ah-Cun have thrived on the morning beef soup trade. I ask the boss for his theory on the people of Tainan’s love of morning beef soup. He replies: “Chao youjingshen a!” Indeed, super vigorous.