Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The River Ran Through China

on September 21, 2014

yellow river

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah liked Islam to a river: Its waters are pure, sweet, and life-giving but — having no color of their own — reflect the bedrock over which they flow. Well, the river turned yellow and became quite unique when it flowed through China.

Papa belonged to what I term the “old Chinese Muslims”, that generation that is now vanishing, the generation that religiously avoided any form or shape of pork or lard, and refused to eat in a home or restaurant that had ever cooked pork. However, many of these same Muslims who retched and felt nauseated at the sight of bacon and sausages –even turkey or beef ones, for they looked and smelled like the pork ones — would happily drink alcohol and totally omit the five daily prayers. They would fast during Ramadan and attend Friday and Eid prayers, though. Most of the women from this sub-cultural group did not wear scarves except when they would go pray in the mosque. And even then, it often was a tiny bandana square that left the front and back hair exposed. I even saw women in knee length dresses, wearing transparent nylon stockings, and praying.

I really am not pointing fingers, only describing the result of pre-Reformation Islam in China. Sorry for borrowing the term. Today, with the explosion of the internet and the availability of religious information literally at the tips of ones fingers, it is very difficult to remain secluded in a corner of semi-ignorance. I have personally witnessed the change in many elders and contemporaries, towards a more mainstream practice of Islam.

Today the Islamic restaurants have multiplied in Taipei.

Today the Islamic restaurants have multiplied in Taipei.

But back in the 1970s, in Taiwan, we could not eat out except in Muslim restaurants or vegetarian Buddhist restaurants. That greatly limited Mama’s shopping time and radius. She would have to head out very early to be back in time for lunch, or then leave right after lunch to be back by dinner time. Alternatively, she would plan her shopping itinerary just right so that around lunch time she would be in the vicinity of the only two Muslim restaurants located in the shopping heart of Taipei, the XiMenDing area.

Our favorites were of course, the dumplings (jiao zi), steamed or steam-fried buns (bao zi), and meat-stuffed pancakes (xier bing).  We would stuff ourselves and buy extra to take home.

Xian-er bing, or pancakes stuffed with meat

Xian-er bing, or pancakes stuffed with meat

I do remember once, a new Islamic restaurant opened at the top of a commercial building, and we were treated there by the owner. It was there I first ate Peking-Duck-Three-Eats, meaning, the roasted skin served first, with little pancakes, shredded scallions and plum sauce; then the meat shredded and stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms and other vegetables; and finally the bones boiled into a light broth and served with cilantro and ginger. Since then I have found that different restaurants serve their own variations, some do the Two-Eats, meaning that the skin and meat are served together. The little pancakes, I have seen in a multitude of varieties, from flat and transparent all the way to raised and steamed and folded in two. And to top it all, we — actually my husband, not I — have even cooked and served it at our restaurant, — during the two years we had one — not telling anyone we had never roasted one ever before and reading out of a cookbook while making it. Amazingly, we were congratulated for the best Peking duck our discerning customers had ever eaten! But I am years ahead of my story, and this will have to wait a while.

The remaining bones are boiled into a soup.

The remaining bones are boiled into a soup.

Crispy slices of roasted duck skin with shredded scallion and hai-xian sauce in a flat steamed bun.

Crispy slices of roasted duck skin with shredded scallion and hai-xian sauce in a flat steamed bun.

 

The traditional pancake however is not raised, flat and thin, and used to roll the contents in.

The traditional pancake however is not raised, flat and thin, and used to roll the contents in.

The duck meat is shredded and stir fried with various vegetables. Here, with bean sprouts.

The duck meat is shredded and stir fried with various vegetables. Here, with bean sprouts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taipei is known to be a real heaven of street hawker foods. Yet, there were very few we, Chinese Muslims, could eat.  One was Stinking Tofu, that Papa relished. He kept telling to try some, and I, holding my nose, would just step back and shake my head. Papa always said, “Try some! If you don’t like it, just spit it out!” This was a philosophy passed on to him by his uncle. We all knew his famous Watermelon Story. The first time fresh watermelon was brought to their house, Papa as a child shrank from the new fruit. When urged to try some, he ran and hid himself in a bed cover closet. Finally, his uncle found him and brought him back to the dining room. He told him to just try, and that spitting out was OK. Papa was happily surprised to find that he did love the taste of watermelon! Somehow, that kind of bravery did not trickle down genetically, for I have never yet had the guts to try Stinky Tofu, or durian for that matter. A durian is a South East Asian fruit, large and spiky, that will kill you if it falls on your head, or if it sits in your dining room, since you will mistake its fragrance for that of unprocessed sewage, and die from its fumes. 

Mama, on the other hand, introduced us to the cool delights of shaved ice. Today, it has mutated into the ubiquitous smoothies and boba teas and invaded the West. Back then, shaved ice was precisely that: a block of ice shaven into fine snow and served on a plate. You could then have your choice of toppings, condensed milk (not for me), chopped seasonal fruits, syrup, green or red beans, or my new crave: tiny little balls of tapioca.  The large balls were not yet in fashion then.

A plate of shaved ice in Taipei. Here, shown with condensed milk, mango cubes and topped with a scoop of ice cream.

A plate of shaved ice in Taipei. Here, shown with condensed milk, mango cubes and topped with a scoop of ice cream.

Since most Islamic restaurants were small affairs, Muslim weddings were generally held in vegetarian Buddhist restaurants or strictly seafood restaurants, some of which were really grand. There I discovered a brave new world: vegetarian chicken, vegetarian sausages, and vegetarian just-about-any-type-of-meat-dish-you-can-dream-of. They looked and tasted just like the real thing! But they were made generally of tofu derivatives.

vegetarian chicken

It was also in Taipei that I was introduced to Japanese food, namely sushi. Grandpa Chang one day took Saadia and me to a real Japanese restaurant, one where the tables were low and you had to sit on flat cushions on the floor. For customers unused to cross-leg sitting, there were pits under the tables, so you could actually let your legs down in those pits. When I saw fish being served raw, I was totally put off. But one did not say no to Grandpa Chang, and when he insisted in his Taiwanese accented Mandarin that it tasted really good and proceeded to pick juicy chunks of fish in our plate, we had no choice but to comply. All it took was “try it!” like Papa said. I loved it! And ever since, I have turned into a sushi junkie.

However, we still ate home-made meals most of the time. Cooked by Mama. She still felt that cooking was her sole responsibility and only asked for our help if she was overwhelmed. I tried showing off the few dishes I’d learned with Aunt Lily, but that did not seem to impress Mama.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *