At Large

Tasting Taiwan (but not stinky tofu)

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No, despite several trips to Taiwan in the past few months, I haven’t tried “stinky tofu,” which, thanks to food shows on TV, has gained worldwide notoriety.

When I asked Raymond Wang, local representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office if this pungent delicacy was part of the menu for the “Tastes of Taiwan” gala dinner, he made a face as if the odor of the dish had assailed his nostrils. After all, six top chefs from Taiwan, all members of the Chinese International Gastronomers  Association, had been flown in to conduct a one-day teaching session for students of the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU). They would cap their stay with a gala dinner at Bayleaf, the boutique hotel that serves as a training institution for LPU’s hospitality students. The dinner was to feature what is presumed to be the best of the island-nation’s cuisine. Certainly, street food like “stinky tofu” would have no place in such a distinguished setting.

But as Wang himself declared, “There is no love more sincere than the love for food.” And in its successful drive to bring tourists to Taiwan (some seven million tourists visited in the past year), the government has used every trick in the book, including food tourism, to attract interest and attention.

“There is more to Taiwanese cuisine than just milk tea or xiao long bao,” Wang promised, referring to two of the more popular food exports from Taiwan (no, stinky tofu hasn’t yet crossed over successfully). And through 10—count ’em, 10!—courses of dishes ranging from the freshest seafood to crunchy veggies, melt-in-the-mouth pork slices to savory soup, the visiting chefs demonstrated not just their kitchen skills but Taiwan’s bounty of agricultural produce as well.

* * *

The memorable meal started off with “Formosa Bell Apple and Shrimp Salad,” contained in a scooped-out piece of what is known here as  macopa, although the Taiwanese version is much larger and a lot less tart.

Miniature pumpkins were also featured as unconventional containers for the “Stir-fried Pumpkin Rice Noodles,” one of my favorite entrees, being savory and flavorful. Only my fear of failing to do justice to the other dishes prevented me from finishing it to the last morsel.

Another dish, the “Hakka Style Ham Hock Braised Spring Bamboo with Essence Soy Bean Sauce,” reminded me of the “Dancing Pork” served in Taipei restaurants, so-called because the fat-laden pork slices glisten and “dance” in their tenderness.

Halfway through the dinner, we were asked to direct our attention to the video screen which showed the opening credits for the popular cooking competition show “Iron Chef,” only to segue into a video cooking demo featuring no less than Ambassador Wang and LPU chef/instructor Dan Basilio.

The pair prepared a simple dish called “Egg Foo Young” which at the end was served at the tables. They were not half-bad, and proved that simplicity, too, is a hallmark of fine cooking. They proved that cuisine is not just high culture and snobbish airs, but also a lot of fun and enjoyable memories.

* * *

I have a favorite story about my Tita Dida, and it is one she told herself, with a lot of laughter and self-mockery. It seems she was on a public bus when she spotted her stop and asked to be let off. “Everyone, stand aside, lola  is getting down!” the bus conductor shouted in Filipino.

“I looked back to check if a grandmother was following me,” said Tita Dida, chuckling. “Only to realize that the lola he was referring to was me!”

Shortly after sharing this story, Tita Dida—

Carina Quintero Jimenez—moved to the United States, in Glendale, California, where the home she shared with her daughter Linda, son Ed, and granddaughter Collette became a regular stop on the itineraries of visiting Jimenezes.

No less than heroic were Tita Dida’s efforts to keep her family together and see her children through school when, in 1969, her husband, our Tio Toto, passed away at the age of 46. In their 24 years of marriage, Tita Dida had been a stay-at-home wife, but after her husband’s passing, she found employment as a secretary, eventually moving back to her hometown of Tacloban to raise the younger batch of her eight children.

With the help of Tio Toto’s insurance money—he was a chemical engineer and manager at Procter and Gamble at the time of his death—Tita Dida financed her children’s college studies. But it was only with much resilience and creativity that she managed not to let the loss of their father at such a young age cast a shadow over her children’s life; her sense of humor and zest for life saw them through many a crisis situation.

* * *

Thus, at the memorial service held Friday evening at the Christ the King mortuary in Greenmeadows, the picture that emerged of Tita Dida was of a woman who remained a romantic to the end, wistfully remembering the heart-shaped boxes of chocolates her husband would gift her with on Valentine’s Day without fail for 24 years. She was also an accomplished cook, avid gardener and “super-hostess” to an endless stream of visiting relatives. Most of all, she was a doting mother and sister, sending home dollars to her children and youngest brother in the Philippines through her winnings, being a regular habitué of casinos (but only at the slot machines) and weekend sessions of mahjong with her children.

We honor her memory and her love of life, but smile at the thought that she is finally united with the love of her life, Toto. We condole with her children—Manoling and Cristina, Lol and Lalay, Bim and Edee, Linda, Bobby and Len, Anita and Robert, Ed, and Bettina and Cris—and join them in remembering the love and laughter that she brought into our lives.

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