There are some foods that make me feel at home no matter where I happen to be in the world when I eat them. Taiwanese breakfast definitely falls right into that category. While I don't get to eat it often, there's no mistaking the familiar comfort of a nice warm bowl of xian dou jiang (soybean soup with soy sauce) seasoned with freshly deep-fried you tiao (crullers), scallions, pickled cabbage and cilantro. I know this probably doesn't sound all that appetizing if you've never had xian dou jiang before, but trust me -- if I knew of a street cart somewhere in America dishing up this delightful morning treat, I'd invest money in the operation. That's how hopeful I am that xian dou jiang is a sleeper phenomenon just waiting to take the world by storm.
My family members play chopstick wars as they try to grab at the you tiao (crullers)
I haven't visited Taiwan often enough to say that I have an established routine -- I've only ever been three times. But for two of those visits, my family has started our day by heading to breakfast at Xiao Ding, a little eatery specializing in breakfast near the hospital where one of my aunties used to work. Taiwanese breakfast is derived from Northern Chinese cuisine, with, in my biased opinion, added refinement. The crullers are deep fried but not greasy; instead, they're airy and light, and biting down into them yields a satisfyingly loud crunch. Crullers can be served as a garnish, like in xian dou jiang, or sandwiched in between shao bing, a sesame flatbread my dad likens to naan bread in Indian cuisine (as a sidenote, my dad has only been able to draw this analogy since yesterday, when he sampled Indian food for the first time in his life here in Kuala Lumpur).
Above, left: listen, don't even bother changing out of your pajamas, because getting to Xiao Ding for breakfast while it's hot is more important; right, top: Xiao Ding's simple atmosphere belies the delicious goodness inside; bottom: sesame flatbread dough waits patiently for its turn in the oven next to its already-baked counterparts
Beyond crullers, Taiwanese breakfast also consists of myriad other savories. One of my favorites is a savory sticky rice wrapped around a cruller with pickled cabbage and scallions, called fan tuan. The hubby called it Taiwan's answer to the breakfast burrito, which is a pretty accurate description of its general concept, except that the ingredients are totally different. Steamed bread called man tou are also a breakfast staple, but I usually bypass them in favor of a scallion pancake, a savory flatbread that's fried with oil and green onions.
Another one of Xiao Ding's specialties is the jiu tsai bing, a pan-fried dumpling filled with garlic chives and glass noodles. Watching the hubby size one up for the first time was pretty amusing; his eyes widened with awe as he ripped his open and freshly sauteed chives and glass noodles came spilling out amongst a cloud of steam. My parents, in the meantime, leaned over their breakfasts with their eyes half-closed in a dreamy trance, working methodically through their bowls of dou jiang and crullers.
As for me? I barely remember the meal. I think I might have blacked out from sheer joy and delirium.
Xiao Ding Breakfast Shop | 276 MingDe Road, next to the veterans' hospital | Beitou District | Taipei | Taiwan | Open mornings, every day