How the Pandemic Brought Taiwanese Food Back to Me

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A bowl of Pintung cold noodles with peanut sauce, garnished with slivers of cucumber, against a blue backdrop.
(Photo by Esmé Weijun Wang; design by Rebecca Kao)

KQED's Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity. New installments to the series will run daily from May 19–28.

I

grew up as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants—first in San Jose, and later in a South Bay suburb clocked as having only a 5.1% Asian population in 1990, when I was in elementary school. Other Asian American students were rare, and Taiwanese American students were even rarer; there were no Taiwanese American kids in my day-to-day life, as far as I knew. 

Taiwanese cuisine, on the other hand, remained a large part of my childhood. At home I ate light meals of vegetables and fish, with little oil, cooked by my mother. On weekends, my family went to Marina Foods or Ranch 99 for groceries after lunch at Cupertino Village, a mostly Asian shopping and restaurant center where we’d feast on soup dumplings and beef noodle soup, leaf-wrapped zhongzi and spicy string beans limp on the plate. At the end of every meal, we’d go to a boba tea cafe called Fantasia for thick, buttered toast and boba. Even back then, before boba had been widely recognized by the non-Taiwanese palate, the place was already popular among high school students.

These days, as a San Francisco resident, I am sometimes asked about where to best enjoy Chinese food in the city, and my answer is usually a verbal shrug. Whereas San Francisco’s famous Chinatown is historically working-class Cantonese, most Taiwanese immigrants to the Bay Area ended up in places like Cupertino, Milpitas, Foster City and Fremont, which is why so many of the region’s Taiwanese restaurants opened there. After I moved to San Francisco, my consumption of Chinese food dropped dramatically—to say nothing of Taiwanese food, which became nonexistent. Approximately a decade had passed since I’d lived in the South Bay, and I didn’t know where to find the dishes that I had grown up eating; visiting Cupertino was no longer a regular part of my schedule. In San Francisco, I was even confused about where to find the Taiwanese grocery brands with which I was so familiar, and relied on my brother and his wife for deliveries of Bull Head barbecue sauce and pink net–wrapped packages of made-in-Taiwan rice noodles.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, a friend sent me a link to Liang’s Village, a Cupertino-based Taiwanese restaurant that had newly begun advertising Bay Area-wide delivery ever since it halted dine-in service during lockdown. I was delighted to find that their menu offered so many familiar dishes: preserved egg and tofu with pork sung and scallions, fried pork chop rice, beef and tendon noodle soup, and black bean with pork and bean curd noodles. These were dishes that my mother had made at home, or that I’d eaten during those weekend excursions to Cupertino.

Against a white background, a bowl of braised tofu topped with chili sauce; a spoon cuts into the tender tofu.
The stewed tofu with oyster sauce from Liang's Village provided comfort during the pandemic. (Esmé Weijun Wang)

Over time, I began to order from Liang’s Village on a regular basis, rediscovering my favorites easily as the restaurant dropped large boxes of food on my doorstep. I’ve ordered four or five servings of the stewed tofu with oyster sauce at a time, enjoying the silken tofu wrapped in a wrinkled bean curd skin anytime I felt like it. When the package of Pingtung cold noodles arrived at my door—called “Cold Peanut Noodle” on the Liang’s Village menu—I dumped the entire mixture of slippery noodles, peanut-sesame sauce and julienned cucumbers into a bowl, which I gleefully enjoyed in bed. 

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Pingtung, a city located in Southern Taiwan, is where the proprietors of Liang’s Village are from. As it happens, it’s also where my mother is from; I was supposed to visit family in the Pingtung countryside in 2020 before COVID derailed those plans. Eating Pingtung-style chilled noodles in peanut sauce was one way of nearing that experience. The Liang’s noodles were almost identical to the ones my mother made when I was growing up, minus the shredded chicken breast that she added along with the slender toothpicks of cucumber. It was a dish to be enjoyed in the summer, when the temperatures sometimes reached the triple digits and we couldn’t fathom eating a hot dish. My mother would summon us with the Taiwanese call, jia bng o’ (“come to eat”). We’d gather around the dining table, waiting for my father to dine first before we all slurped and sighed with gratitude.

Eating Taiwanese

Another dish that brought a flood of memories was the stewed duck wings, which Liang’s delivered frozen. My father used to bring home warm baggies of these wings from the hot dish section of Marina Foods throughout my adolescence, stashing them in the fridge for late-night snacking. It was known within the family that the wings belonged primarily to him and me, because my mother and brother didn’t enjoy them. Now, years later, living in San Francisco, I placed the frozen, vacuum-sealed packet from Liang’s Village inside our fridge. Once defrosted, the duck wings had a chewy, occasionally gelatinous texture. Without my father to share them with me, I enjoyed the wings slowly, over a period of several days, though I missed the communal joy that he and I had shared. 

One of my favorite things from Liang’s is a fresh-squeezed, bottled beverage called Honey Grape Fruit Squeeze. Like many fresh-squeezed juices in Taiwan, this one is cut with tea, and arrives with gorgeous jewels of pulp and chunks of peeled grapefruit that can be forked through the opening. It’s a pleasure that I enjoy by itself like a dessert—a final delight to follow the assortment of familiar dishes. 

It feels strange that it took a catastrophic, international pandemic—and a restaurant’s need to pivot its business during lockdown—to bring Taiwanese food back into my life. But I’ve been grateful for these familiar comforts. Being able to take solace in a spicy bowl of wrinkly bean curd has brought me closer not only to my family, but also to a culinary lineage of my ancestors.

My parents moved back to Taiwan approximately a decade ago. Only recently did I talk with my mother on the LINE app about visiting near the end of the year. I’ve reached the fabled two-week point after my second dose of the Moderna vaccine; I’ve been able to dream of getting on that thirteen-hour flight again. Meanwhile, however, I have a frozen package of duck wings in the fridge, waiting for me to snip it open and enjoy.

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Esmé Weijun Wang is a Taiwanese American writer. She is the author of The Border of Paradise and the New York Times bestseller The Collected Schizophrenias.