Pancake batter up
If you ask Taiwanese people what the quintessential breakfast food is on the island, they might say shaobing youtiao, a sesame seed-topped wheat bun (shaobing) with a deep-fried savory cruller (youtiao) stuffed inside. Or they might say fan tuan, a roll of sticky rice filled with any number of tasty goodies, often including youtiao. Or they might say scallion pancakes with a fried egg attached to one side (dan bing), served rolled up and sliced. These common Taiwanese breakfasts are usually grabbed from a small shop or street vendor and accompanied by a big cup of refreshing soy milk. This breakfast-on-the-go tradition is a source of pride and pangs of nostalgia for any Taiwanese living abroad. But it wasn’t always this way, and it might have never been if it weren’t for the island’s love of baseball.
The bready baked goods of today’s signature Taiwanese breakfasts were brought over from Chinese immigrants during the late 1940s. “A lot of the doughey things were from mainland China and inspired by the most recent waves,” said Clarissa Wei, a food writer who has reported on Taiwanese breakfast foods. Before then, Taiwanese people ate mostly rice as a staple starch, as its climate is better suited to growing it than wheat. But today, you can find plenty of wheat-based noodles, buns, and dumplings thanks to the mass arrival of mainlanders (including my grandparents) who were fleeing the Communists at the end of China’s Civil War.
Just before their arrival, from 1895-1945, Taiwan was a colony under the Japanese empire. It was during this period that baseball was introduced to Taiwan. The Japanese implemented public education throughout Taiwan, whose population at that time included aboriginals and groups who had emigrated from China over the centuries before. By the 1920s, baseball was a modern international sport, and the Japanese colonists were eager to create a sense of unity amongst Taiwan’s younger generation, who were more impressionable than their stodgy elders.
“For the Japanese, Taiwanese baseball was a means to an end, for throughout the Japanese occupation the colonizers were molding the character of the Taiwanese to make loyal imperial subjects of them,” writes Junwei Yu in his book, Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan. “Nations are bound together by common historical memory.”
The sport took off in Taiwan in the 1920s. But it wasn’t until the International Little League Baseball World Championships that Taiwan hit its golden age for youth baseball. The league (LLB) was formed by the United States in 1947, and throughout the 1970s, teams from Taiwan dominated the sport. They took the world championship title ten times from 1969-1981. The finals were played each year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, so avid fans tuning in to the games in Taiwan would watch in real-time, 12 hours ahead. My mother recalls staying up all night in Taipei to watch the games whenever a Taiwanese team was in the World Series. As the games ended in the early morning hours, fans who had been watching were often in a celebratory mood—and hungry for some breakfast.
But there were limited options for early morning eats in Taiwan in the late ‘60s and ‘70s—except for a chain restaurant called Yonghe Doujiang (Yonghe soy milk) that specialized in breakfast and snacks.
“Ever since its founding in the 1950s the eatery catered mostly to mainlanders because ethnic Taiwanese traditionally ate rice and were unaccustomed to shaobing and youtiao,” Yu writes in Playing in Isolation. “However, in the early morning hours, after LLB world series games, hungry ethnic Taiwanese flocked to Yonghe Doujiang because it was the only eatery open for breakfast.”
Founded in Taipei, the chain served mainland Chinese staple snacks and wheat-based pastries like shaobing youtiao and scallion pancakes in addition to soy milk. And today, you can find many eateries offering up their versions or particular spreads of the same type of menu throughout Taiwan—the equivalent of the typical bagel joint in New York City, or Dunkin’ Donuts in New England.
“Yonghe Doujiang is a tour de force in establishing how breakfast has evolved in Taipei,” Wei said. In the southern city of Tainan, vendors tend to be more specialized. “You would go to one person for soy milk and another for fan tuan, and many would be scattered around the outdoor market” where people bought their groceries. Also, there are regional specialties for breakfast foods—the steamed sticky rice bowl known as muai gui is example of pre-mainland arrival Taiwanese breakfast. But shaobing youtiao, fan tuan, and scallion pancakes are popular breakfast foods throughout the island now.
Yonghe Doujiang now has branches throughout Taiwan, and its shops are typically open 24/7. Much of its early expansion was due to the fervor over Little League Baseball.
After the Japanese surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II, Taiwan was handed back to China—only by then it was China’s fledgling democracy, the Republic of China (ROC). When the ROC came to Taiwan in the late 1940s, their plan was not to stay on the island, but to retake the whole of China. But by the 1970s, it was beginning to dawn on people in Taiwan—and the rest of the world—that this was not going to happen. In 1971, the ROC lost its seat in the UN to the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). During this decade, the US and other world powers switched diplomatic relations from the ROC to the PRC, which gradually became recognized as the legitimate rulers of China.
So it was during the 1970s that groups of people who had been in Taiwan for centuries were beginning to blend with groups who had come from mainland China in the late ‘40s in a way that would pave the way for today’s modern Taiwanese society. And its breakfast foods, as it were.
Of Yonghe Doujiang’s rapid acceptance by Taiwanese throughout the island, Yu writes: “Taiwanese historians thus credit the LLB for introducing Taiwanese to mainland food, which later became common to every part of the island.”
And what became of baseball in Taiwan? It’s still a big draw on the island despite unfortunate cheating scandals in the last decade. Many Taiwanese are plugged into the International Little League World Championships no matter where they are in the world.
“We have done the long day trips to Williamsport in the past, and there are Taiwanese American Association of New York (TAANY) buses if Taiwan is playing,” said C. Kenny Lin, an organizer for Taiwanese American events in New York City.
Just as ever, through food or sports, today’s Taiwanese are tied together by a common historical memory.