Every journey brings a culinary epiphany or two.
On our last trip to Taiwan I discovered doujiang (soy milk). Wait -- that's not exactly accurate. I always knew about doujiang, of course. It's always been there -- as the lactose intolerant's best friend, or the dieter's substitute for milk in a latte, or something boxed that vegans drink.
But two years ago in Taiwan, which by the way -- I'm going to go out on a limb here -- is an equal to Japan in the ethereal-soy-bean-products-making department, I found that soy milk -- real fresh soy milk made in small batches by caring, careful soy milk makers -- is one of the world's most delicious, most refreshing and at the same time most healthy feeling beverages.
It's also one of the world's best breakfasts, especially when consumed with a just-fried, lightly salty you tiao (savory cruller). I reaffirmed soy milk's wonderfulness in Chengdu, and then again a couple of weeks ago in Taipei. After we arrived in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan, I pushed my soy bean obsession a bit further and began substituting it for cream in my coffee.
So yeah, doujiang is fabulous, and I'm hooked.
Then I found xian doujiang, which absolutely blew me away; it easily takes doujiang's greatness up several dozen notches. "Xian" means salty. And it's also used to indicate savoriness as opposed to sweetness, as when you ask a guobing vendor what's inside her oven-baked flatbreads and she answers "You xiande, you tiande." (There's savory ones and sweet ones.)
Actually I didn't find the salty soy milk. Dave did, when he was wandering around Kaohsiung one morning early in our stay as I was back at the hotel getting ready for a day of interviews. "I just had the most amazing breakfast!" he said as he burst into our room right before I left.
(That made me hate him for a minute. And then hate him more as he went into great detail about it.)
I forgave Dave the next day when he took me to Guo Mao Lai Lai [g-woah maow lie-lie] Doujiang, a corner shop in downtown Kaohsiung. And not just because of the doujiang, but also because in Guo Mao Lai Lai's open kitchen they craft what are without doubt among the best steamed dumplings I've ever eaten. Anywhere (I've spent some time in China, people), ever. These steamed dumplings boast wrappers both light and substantial, toothsome and fluffy, of the perfect thickness, and with so much wheat flavor. They're dumpling wrappers to die for.
But let's get back to that xian doujiang. It's simply fresh soy milk with a coagulant -- vinegar, I believe -- added to induce curdling. It's served hot, and ladled over your choice of condiments, which atGuo Mao Lai Lai include chopped pickled vegetable, teeny tiny translucent dried shrimp (southern Taiwan produces some lovely dried shrimp), browned shallots and chopped scallion.
If you get to the front of Guo Mao Lai Lai's doujiang queue, which moves frighteningly fast, and blurt out "Everything!!" -- because you don't think you can vocalize your choices quickly enough to keep the customers in line behind you from grumbling -- the doujiang server squirts some sesame oil into the bottom of a deep bowl, follows with the condiments one after the other, sluices on the doujiang from a nice height, and then tops it all with a pretty circle of lajiao you (red chili oil).
The doujiang gets appetizingly foamy -- though spooned up I suppose it looks something like baby food, as the soy milk curdles all around the condiments.
Don't judge a book as they say, because the shrimp and pickle and caramel-y shallot and crunchy scallions wrestle with the blandly bean-flavored doujiang in a way that is best described as, well, revelatory.
And what about those dumplings? Guo Mao Lai Lai does baked stuff too, and jian bing (griddled dough rolled around eggs), but I couldn't get past those steamed and steam-fried pale mounds of deliciousness.
They'are palm-sized, heavy in your hand, and filled with pork and cabbage or just pork or stuffed with garlicky Chinese chives and eaten, if you like, with a dip (or sauce) of more Chinese chives and chopped dried chilies soaked in soy sauce.
Guo Mao Lai Lai isn't especially new. Seven years ago this man, whose brother owns another xian doujiang and dumplings shop on the outskirts of Kaohsiung, opened it with his wife and family. It was obviously a good decision. The shop is crazy busy --- with only three picnic tables on the pavement out front seats can be hard to come by before 830 or 9am. They also sell doujiang bing (iced doujiang) and mijiang (rice milk).
But frankly you'd have to be an idiot to stop in at Guo Mao Lai Lai and skip the xian doujiang.
Guo Mao Lai Lai, at the corner of Liuhe 2nd and Zichiang Roads, Kaohsiung Taiwan. Mornings, closed on Sunday.