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Why I love Taiwan

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TIEN Ma’s was founded by Tien Liuyan who sold xia long bao in Taiwan night markets.

I love Taiwan for two reasons.

First, it’s one of the few countries that has so far managed to keep Covid-19 under control — not totally, but at least to manageable levels.

On 9 January, media quoted Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) reporting “11 new domestic and 49 imported Covid-19 cases, with no new deaths from the disease, and an extension of the current Covid-19 Level 2 alert to 24 January.”

Wow, just 60, repeat, 60 new cases, and zero deaths.

How come?

Representative Michael Peiyung Hsu of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) explained, in a 2021 interview on Daily Tribune’s online show Straight Talk: “The government, from the beginning of this pandemic, saw it as a national security challenge, so we dealt with it as a national security issue.”

TIEN Ma’s xiao long bao and BEEF Cold Cuts: Tender appetizer.

He recalled that on 22 January 2020, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen convened an emergency meeting with its National Security Council.

Hsu said it was agreed that there would be “strict quarantine protocols. All inbound travelers needed special permission, even our nationals. After you arrive in Taiwan, you have to be quarantined for 15 days, either at home or in a quarantine hotel, followed by a seven-day management period, or a total of 21 days. This is strictly followed.”

At present, Taiwan is open only to essential travel.

 

‘Beautiful Island’

Food is the other reason for my fondness with this East Asian country — which Portuguese sailors called Ihla Formosa or “Beautiful Island” when they first laid eyes on it in 1544.

For the past few months, I’ve been wanting to visit the restaurant Tien Ma’s along Makati Avenue. Foodie friends say, “Masarap diyan (That’s a good place to eat).”

My primary reason was to eat xiao long bao — which I tried for the first time only a few weeks ago at Din Tai Fung, which is said to make the best one — small, steamed pork bun (baozi) prepared in a xiaolong or small bamboo steaming basket.

But the xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung was, to me, underwhelming. What’s so special about this, I asked my wife, it’s just dumpling.

But I didn’t give up, resolving to keep trying to find out why it’s a popular dish.

So, I went to Tien Ma’s and ordered it. But first, a little history about the restaurant’s founder. Written on the first page of its menu:
“Tien Liyuan (Tien Ma) was born in 1932 in Fang-shan township, P’ing-tung county, Taiwan. She spent her childhood in coastal southern Taiwan helping her mother cook and prepare meals for her younger siblings for their lunch boxes to school.

“She moved to Zhongshan District in Taipei as a young adult and perfected her xiao long bao recipe while working in the kitchen at a local high school. She then opened her own stalls selling her legendary xiao long bao in the night markets of Taipei. She has then retired and has passed on her secret recipe to bring the best and most authentic xiao long bao to us in Manila.”

THREE-CUP Chicken is like Adobo.

Soup dumpling

As recommended, it should first be poked to allow a squirt of soup to flow from the dumpling. Sip the soup and then dip the dumpling in vinegar and soy sauce.

At Din Tai Fung there was hardly any soup and the dumpling turned cold easily, perhaps due to the air-con.
But at Tien Ma’s, the soup flowed, had a sweetish taste, and the bun was hot.

Beef cold cuts

The next dish was an appetizer, Beef Cold Cuts with sauce drizzled over it. The meat was very tender, crumbling between my chopsticks. The sauce, like the xiao long bao soup, was also sweetish. I liked it. This would go well with beer, I imagined.

The next day, I was back to try two more dishes considered basic Taiwanese fare: Taiwan Style Beef Noodle Soup and Three-Cup Chicken.

The first one came in a large bowl. Slurping the soup brought back memories of the beef brisket mami my high school classmate used to treat me to at a roadside eatery in Quezon City. It was sweetish, too. The meat was likewise tender. And there was tendon, yummy and nutritious.

The second one was named Three-Cup Chicken for its key ingredients of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine. It looked like chicken adobo — and, indeed, tasted like it, except that it had a more exotic, zingy flavor. I liked its tenderness, too.

Apparently, the common denominators of these food, at least at Tien Ma’s, were their sweet taste and tenderness. It’s not the diabetes-prone kind of sweetness, but rather a slight, distinct kick in the palate that awakens the senses.

Are these really part of original Taiwanese cuisine, you may ask. It’s hard to say. The locals should be able to answer it.

However, what’s certain is, a particular dish is the product of many years of evolution from its first incarnation — and even that can be the subject of much debate.

If, for instance, xiao long bao was created in mainland China, Tien Liyuan made her own version in Taiwan which many Filipinos and foreigners enjoy at Tien Ma’s, including a Caucasian who devoured two orders fast.

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