Instead of a Caffeine Kick, Try Curdled Soy Milk in the Morning
Soy Milk in Taiwan
A few days before Dr. Tsai Ing-wen took the oath of office to become Taiwan’s first woman president—and the first female national leader in Asia who wasn’t the widow, daughter or sister of a previous leader—I went back to Kaohsiung to witness the scattering of a friend’s ashes.
A decade earlier, he’d told us he wanted his remains sprinkled in the shade of a huge banyan tree that overlooks the harbor. He eventually passed after years of ill health, some of which could be attributed to bad habits when younger. En route to the ceremony, I made a slightly dubious lifestyle choice of my own. I detoured to a breakfast establishment famous in Taiwan’s second city for adulterated soy milk. Once hailed as a protein-rich, low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk, unfermented soy products like soy milk are now linked to health problems including hypothyroidism, kidney stones, and male infertility. And if that isn’t bad enough, at Guo Mao Lai Lai the beverage is best enjoyed when it’s slathered with oily condiments and salty toppings.
But it’s fresh, meaning the beans are soaked the evening before, steamed before sunrise, blended, then pressed through a cheesecloth. Drunk hot and neat, just-made soy milk is quite unlike—and quite a bit stronger than—its bottled, refrigerated supermarket counterpart. For first-timers, the experience is akin to trying coffee prepared by a good barista after a lifetime of drinking instant. But raw soy milk isn’t to everyone’s taste, so many Taiwanese stir in sugar. In Mandarin Chinese, the non-sugared variant is called xian doujiang. This means “salty soy milk,” but at Guo Mao Lai Lai, only the finest of palates can detect brackishness beneath the various pungencies.
The eatery is in a neighborhood so nondescript people grab whatever excitement comes their way, on a plate or otherwise. I arrived just before nine am, when most folks are at work or school. Yet none of the staff were slacking off; the queue was a dozen deep, and moving fast. The soy milk connoisseur ahead of me ordered a bowl seasoned with finely chopped scallions, browned shallots, tiny dried shrimps, a dollop of sesame oil, a few drops of rice vinegar, and a squirt of red chili oil. I turned down the shrimps, instead opting for youtiao—Chinese savory crullers—as both a side dish and a topping.
Then I waited, and not just for the mix to cool to a drinkable temperature. The vinegar causes the soy milk to curdle; the final consistency is similar to cottage cheese. Despite its lumpy, foamy appearance—it looks like something you’d throw away if you found it in your refrigerator—this concoction is as satisfying as a good stew.
Sometimes it’s good to commence the day with a capsaicin kick instead of a caffeine jolt. And if you’re still nervous about the health effects of unfermented soy, dwell on this: The Ohio surgeon-missionary who set up Taipei’s first soy milk bottling plant in 1953 practiced medicine until he was 94. Soy fanatic Dr. Harry W. Miller then spent three years trying to perfect tofu-based cheeses. By all accounts he failed. What am I likely to achieve in my nineties?