The Taiwanese city of Tainan, where my mother lived as a little girl, is a street-food paradise: old women barbecue cuttlefish, peddlers dish up braised beef shank and noodles, and sugared fruits glisten on display. There was even a dog-meat stew stall across from where my mother lived as a girl. (Her pet dog Shiru was believed to have met his fate there.) When my mother and her sisters waited for the school bus, they would eat piping hot xian dou jiang, or salty soy milk, which the neighborhood vendor had pressed from soybean pulp just hours earlier.
Strewn with piquant pickled vegetables and delicate, ivory-colored dried shrimp smaller than a fingernail, and graced by a ribbon of sesame oil, xian dou jiang was creamy and frothy like a cappuccino, but savory like a chowder. Croutons made from youtiao (Chinese savory crullers) floated on the surface, and my mother and her sisters ate their xian dou jiang with another youtiao, hot and greasy, for dunking.
Growing up, I was grateful that I did not live in Taiwan, where my mother attended school six days a week from dawn until after dark, and where students were beaten for each math problem they got wrong. To this day, the only thing that I am jealous of from my mother’s childhood is her breakfast, because I wish it had been mine.
Xian dou jiang’s base is soy milk—soybeans being as much the backbone of Chinese civilization as gambling, chopsticks, gunpowder, philosophy, and rice. My grandparents were notoriously health-conscious, and xian dou jiang was the only street food they allowed their children to eat because, as all Chinese have believed since the Han dynasty, soy is very, very good for you. (Soy is also high in phytoestrogens, which supposedly provide womanly qualities.)
My mother was born in Taiwan, but she was a waishengren (“outside country person”), a term given to people born in Taiwan after 1949, with parents from mainland China. As two of the million people who left China for Taiwan following the collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government, my mother’s parents fought to preserve what they believed to be the essence of the country that they had left behind. My grandfather had been an architect from Manchuria, in northeastern China. My grandmother was also from Manchuria. Incidentally, the xian dou jiang that my mother and her sisters ate, with its pickled salty garnishes and youtiao, was northern Chinese in its style.
But I never knew xian dou jiang as a child. My mother’s family stayed in Taiwan for twelve years before immigrating to Richmond, Virginia, when my mother was eleven. I was born fifteen and a half years later, after my mother had graduated from Michigan State and eloped with a rapscallion Cantonese Taiwanese man from the wrong side of the tracks. My grandparents kept many Chinese traditions alive—my grandmother pounded her own soybeans for tofu—but the xian dou jiang was no more. Growing up in Trumbull, Connecticut, my breakfasts were cornflakes, oatmeal, and fried eggs.
I knew little about my mother’s childhood because she was tight-lipped on the subject. (I also may not have expressed much of an interest.) My grandparents were always vague about their tumultuous past.
My mother was in her mid-forties, and married to a different man, when she first returned to Taiwan. When I went, I was in my twenties. I ate my first xian dou jiang when I was twenty-seven, standing with my mother in Tainan, at a counter in a bare-bones vegetarian buffet that catered to the congregation of the Buddhist temple across the street. My xian dou jiang came in a paper cup, emitting puffs of heat in the sticky and humid morning, garnished with shallots that had been thinly sliced and deep-fried to a snap.
I was astonished by how much I loved Taiwan, given how much I had disliked China as a child. I basked in the humidity, the brothels, the night markets, and the temples. For many people, Taiwan is both attractive and hard to explain. Its cities are a riot of skyscrapers, pink marble, and brash neon lights. The traffic is relentless, as are the swarms of mosquitoes. In the countryside, there are breathtaking mountains, sulfurous hot springs, and waterfalls. People speak different dialects and come in different guises: pockmarked and smooth, homely and beautiful, white from avoiding the sunlight or tanned from working underneath it. Then there are the Taiwan moments—when you turn off a street and watch a person cooking meat on a barbecue, or when you come across a building that is dilapidated and exquisite, with crumbling roof tiles and wisteria climbing up the walls—and you feel, as you flatten a mosquito against your cheek, that there is not a more wonderful place to be. Someone once told me that Taiwan embodies the spirit of the romantic, bygone China that we would all like to think once existed, whether or not it ever did.
That first morning in Tainan, my mother watched, bemused, as I slurped and sweated through a cup of xian dou jiang. “I’m glad you like it,” she said, “We used to eat this every day.” Like Taiwan, xian dou jiang is not particularly pretty on the surface. The vinegar curdles the soy milk, and the dried shrimp’s beady eyes peer out from under the foam. Pickles bob on a surface slick of chili and sesame oil, and strips of youtiao melt into custard. It is a mishmash of sour, salt, funk, and cream, both eye-watering and appetite-awakening. Like Taiwan, a bowl of xian dou jiang is strange and honest, and a culmination of many elements, some of which clash. To me, it tastes like home.