In search of Taiwan's perfect youtiao and soy milk breakfast

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai takes us on a search for delicious shaobing youtiao and savoury soy milk around Yonghe in Taiwan. While a common breakfast for many, the rich flavours from his youth are not one easily replicated or found.
People fry youtiao at a stall. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)
People fry youtiao at a stall. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

Before me lies an order of shaobing youtiao (烧饼油条, deep-fried dough stick sandwiched between a flatbread) and a bowl of piping hot soy milk. The freshly made shaobing youtiao was placed in a small plastic bag, emitting a faint mist. It looked like a battle-hardened warrior returning triumphant under the stars, clad in armour and a helmet, standing by as the city gates swung wide open, ready to present his victory to the imperial court.

The soy milk, served in a white plastic bowl, is of course thick, milky and savoury. Unassuming, it appears simple and ordinary, yet it seems shrouded in mystery, harbouring a multitude of hidden forces that lurk and wait for the perfect opportunity to overturn the rivers and the seas when the signal sounds.

Rustic street, stark soy milk stall

Holding my breath, I grab the jar of chilli oil from the spice rack, drizzling a scrappy taijitu (太极图, the yin and yang symbol) over the calm and still soy milk. The red and white contrast is bold and energetic, reminding me of American painter Jackson Pollock’s excitement when he splatters paint and works his magic.    

I am on a mean street under a veranda by the road, where two folding tables have been set up in the gap between the rows of motorcycles and bicycles. In front of me are two to three closed stores with their metal shutters pulled down. Further ahead is Yongan Market, an old market in Yonghe, Taiwan.

The place is usually always bustling with traffic and activity, like seeing boy deity Nezha making waves in the sea, but it is eerily quiet now. At five o’clock in the morning when dawn is just about to break, I sit by the roadside and enjoy my breakfast. 

... chopped scallions, dried shrimp, pork floss and diced pickled mustard tuber, along with the bright red chilli oil dancing in the soy milk in the bowl, form a mystical picture of the heavens, the earth and the universe.

Roadside stalls on a rustic street. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)
Roadside stalls on a rustic street. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

An unassuming soy milk stall on a dilapidated road, a middle-aged woman wearing an apron standing in front of a deep fryer frying youtiao, while a man holds out a long pair of tongs, pulling out shaobing from the oven. This scene looks exactly the same as the soy milk stall I remember from 60 years ago — nothing has changed.

That fluffy and crispy shaobing covered with sesame seeds, with a crunchy exterior that flakes off like petals falling to the ground after the first bite, as well as that chewy yet perfectly crispy youtiao, immediately reminds me of the richest flavours I enjoyed in the 1960s when times were the toughest for me.

And of course that bowl of savoury soy milk — stir it with a spoon and it flitters around like petals being scattered; chopped scallions, dried shrimp, pork floss and diced pickled mustard tuber, along with the bright red chilli oil dancing in the soy milk in the bowl, form a mystical picture of the heavens, the earth and the universe.

Disappointing flavours

I am staying at a luxurious hotel in Yonghe for over a week, and today is the sixth morning. Every morning before the summer heat hits, I would take a walk outside. A few days ago, with a cool, fresh breeze blowing, I walked past the familiar Yonghe Road and Zhulin Road of my childhood. 

From the narrow alley of Yuxi Street, I went all the way across the riverbank and spent some time wandering around Xindian River’s riverside park. I suddenly thought of the soy milk stall at Zhongzheng Bridge and decided to take a stroll there and relive the delicious taste of soy milk from my youth.

There were three soy milk stalls at the Yonghe side of the bridge, and they were like martial artists facing off in a ring.

Fluffy youtiaos and shaobing at a stall. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)
Fluffy youtiaos and shaobings are sold at a stall. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

Over 60 years ago, we moved from Xiamen Street at the northern end of the bridge to Yonghe at the southern end. Back then, the bridge had just been renamed as Zhongzheng Bridge (中正桥) from Kawabata Bridge (川端桥). There were breakfast stalls at both ends of the bridge, and they mainly sold shaobing, youtiao, soy milk and cifan (粢饭, glutinous rice rolls). They were unlike today’s breakfast stalls that sell a variety of dishes such as xiaolongbao, turnip cake, egg pancake, steamed red bean bun, steamed pork and vegetable bun, and pan-fried chives and pork dumpling.

There were three soy milk stalls at the Yonghe side of the bridge, and they were like martial artists facing off in a ring. One was called “Si Hai” (四海, lit. ‘four seas’, the four bodies of water that metaphorically made up the boundaries of ancient China), the other “Zhong Guo” (中国, China), and the last one “Shi Jie” (世界, the world). We joked that there was just missing a stall named “Yu Zhou” (宇宙, the universe), so that the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars will be in place, and they will have extraordinary power to conquer the world, dominating the bridge exit and looking down on creation from the top of the world.

Only one soy milk stall remains on the bridge side. The storefront has expanded considerably and the interior is as dazzling as McDonald’s. Its name has also been changed to “Soy Milk King” (豆浆大王). I ordered my usual shaobing youtiao and savoury soy milk but was utterly disappointed; my wonderful memories were all crushed. 

Taiwan's Zhongzheng Bridge (Kawabata Bridge). (Photo: 林高志/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Taiwan's Zhongzheng Bridge (Kawabata Bridge). (Photo: 林高志/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

The shaobing was just two thin pieces of crust and missing the oil paste filling. The youtiao was deflated and neither crispy nor fluffy. The soy milk was bland and watered down. Sixty years have passed and we have only “progressed” and “modernised” in name; the beautiful and bright interior can hardly hide the degradation in quality and loss of flavour. The shaobing youtiao was tasteless and the soy milk was just how Chinese tea master Lu Yu would criticise low-grade tea: “Like sewage from the drain.” 

The shaobing youtiao lived up to its name and the soy milk was extremely fragrant, like how Chinese poet Xu Zhimo described Paris — “too potent to be conquered” (浓得化不开, lit. too thick to be melted).

Finding the perfect one

Picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I vowed to never drink soy milk at the bridge side again. From the next day onwards, I searched high and low for the beautiful memories of shaobing youtiao and savoury soy milk in the streets and alleyways of Yonghe. Hard work always pays off — I first discovered some rather passable savoury soy milk from a stall on Yongzhen Road, but unfortunately, the shaobing youtiao was not tasty enough. 

The next day, I found another soy milk stall on Fuhe Road that was amazing. The shaobing youtiao lived up to its name and the soy milk was extremely fragrant, like how Chinese poet Xu Zhimo described Paris — “too potent to be conquered” (浓得化不开, lit. too thick to be melted). The only thing was that it only opens at six o’clock  in the morning. I wake up at dawn and this would mean that I have to aimlessly wander around the streets and alleyways with an empty stomach for an hour before I get to eat.     

And finally, when dawn was just breaking and I had been searching so miserably and pitifully for three days, I found the humble abode of Yonghe soy milk near the dilapidated Yongan Market. And it opens at five o’clock in the morning — what a treat!

Related: My childhood days in Xiamen Street, Taiwan: Of invisible warriors, string puppets and spring pancakes | 'Life is indeed like a dream': A cultural historian returns to the barbershop of his childhood | Morning call in Zhejiang: Mutton with shaojiu