In Taiwan, Dining in Exile

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

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To try Kaixi's hearty nomad soup, click here for the recipe.

Twenty years and 84 days ago, Wu'er Kaixi sprinted down the street as machine guns clattered in Tien'anmen Square. "It was really, extremely loud," was all he said about that day, but his eyes told a different story. Last week, Kaixi was sitting across from me, eating Chinese food in Taiwan. A lot has happened since June 4, 1989, and much has not.

Over the past 20 years, Kaixi was smuggled out of China to Hong Kong and later France. He attended Harvard University, and later he moved to Taiwan. He hosted a radio talk show. He became a successful investment banker and a well-known political commentator. During his 20 years in exile, he also fell deeply in love with Chinese cooking, and that's how we met. I was in Taipei hunting for good food, and he was my guide.

Kaixi, who was raised in Beijing and was one of the most outspoken Tiananmen leaders, is a Uighur. His is the minority group that recently rioted in Urumuqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang, which sparked waves of violent conflict with Han Chinese, and later government forces. "I grew up in a Uighur (weigh-gur) commune in the south of Beijing, and we lived with about 15 families. At that time in Beijing, there were too few of us, so we were not threatening, but we were treated differently. I think my own views would be different if had I grown up in Wulumuqi, a Han city with a large Uighur population."

"My friends tell me that in China food is still attached to survival or status--it is used to intimidate, it is eaten to impress," Kaixi said.

I had just arrived in Taiwan minutes before and rushed from the airport to the restaurant to meet him. As I crossed the river into town, it was swollen from the ten feet of rain that Typhoon Morakot had mercilessly dumped on Taiwan. Eddies danced across the surface in the orange streetlamp light. That night, there was no coriander to sprinkle atop the crunchy bamboo shoots, or the crispy shreds of jellyfish. It had all been washed away in Taiwan's worst storm in recorded history.

The first night we ate Zhejiang Cai, food from the province just south of Shanghai. I used to live in that area, and so I was struck by the sheer number of Yangtze delta restaurants in Taipei. Like many things in Taiwan, Kaixi explained, it comes down to politics. "Chiang Kai-shek was from Zhejiang, and when he and the KMT Nationalists crossed the Taiwan Strait in 1949, his native cuisine came with them. It is still the stuff of government banquets and important business affairs--the de facto fine dining of Taiwan."

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

We ate drunken crabs--but these were flower crabs, cleaner and meatier than the famous freshwater crabs of Shanghai--that were pickled in a brine of yellow wine and salt. We ate fava beans that were skinned and smashed and cooked with ribbons of tender tofu. They were earthy and soothing, eaten along with a delicious soup of sweet bamboo shoots offset by salty jinhua ham. Kaixi noticed my pleasure.

"When I grew up, my father made 78 yuan ($11.40) a month, and my mother 56," he said, passing me a plate of crispy eels, braised in sweet soy and then deep fried till they crunched like crackers. "When I first went to college I visited a restaurant, and I didn't even know how to order." He laughed his deep, hearty laugh, and we toasted with Taiwan's tiny beer glasses.

The following night, we ate straight through the Shida night market, just outside the gates of National Taiwan Normal University. First, a light bowl of rice noodles, in a stock made of pork and pig intestine. Then, a pile of tofu and tender chitterlings with a spoonful of chili sauce, green onions, and fresh ginger. It was a delicate, balanced, brilliant dish.

People stopped to stare and to smile at my host, who regularly appears on television. He wiped his sweaty brow with a cotton towel he keeps in his pocket for street eating, and smiled for photos. "Whenever I have a bad day, I come here and walk around--there is so much youth, and so much food. It makes me happy."

NEXT: How eating Chinese food connects Kaixi to the home he hasn't seen in two decades

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.

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