When they retreated to Formosa from mainland China in 1949 the Chinese Nationalists took with them an important element of their national patrimony—some great chefs. This happy act of foresight not only made life more tolerable for the exiled Chinese, it has also, for the traveler to Taipei, given that rather drab and limited city the attraction of being one of the world's finest centers of Chinese cuisine.
There are more than 600 restaurants and thousands of tiny, unlicensed outdoor stalls in Taipei, and they reflect the wide and variegated nature of Chinese cooking. In all this culinary wonderland it would be impossible to single out any restaurant as the best, but one there is which is certainly of unusual interest and excellence. It is a somewhat shabby old Hunanese pub called the Tien Chang Lou, or Inn of Longevity, and its chef, Peng Chang-kuei, a lean, muscular gentleman of 43, personifies the vast and wondrous mysteries of the Oriental table.
Peng entered his profession as an apprentice at age 13 in his home city of Changsha in Hunan Province, and at 31 he was personal chef to the former vice-president of China, Li Tsungjen. This was the highest culinary accolade in the land, since President Chiang Kai-shek austerely ignores the pleasures of gastronomy, and it is indicative of Peng's genius that he rose so high so young. It is also a mark of his friendly nature that one day not long ago he graciously offered to give me a deeper glimpse into the nature of Chinese cuisine by suggesting that we go together through the suecessive stages in the creation of a Chinese dinner—and eat it as well.
Yuan Tzu-tsai, a Ching dynasty poet and gourmet, wrote that half of the art of cooking lies in buying fresh food, and Peng observes this practice faithfully. We met at 7 in the morning, and at once he strode forth into the hullabaloo of the morning market, his eyes darting knowledgeably at the brightly colored mounds of vegetables piled high in different booths. From a boy, half hidden in a shaded corner, Peng bought some mushrooms after first feeling one with his fingertips and haggling gently about the price. From there we went on to a fishmonger. Here Peng exercised more caution as he examined a tsao yu, or "grass fish." To be sure it was fresh he peeked under its gills, saw they were pink and not black and chose 10. Then he moved quickly to a friendly duck merchant who he knew would give him choice birds, and without inspection ordered eight; from there he turned to a vegetable stand, picked out some tung hao—a kind of spinach—and dipped into a pile of beanstalks, breaking the ends between his fingers to measure their tenderness. At assorted other stalls we bought bamboo shoots, live pigeons, a few pounds of water buffalo meat and innards for making Yang Tu Tang, a broth brewed from the stomach lining of goats. Wc stopped briefly at another fish dealer, where Peng scrutinized some li yu, a species of carp to be transformed into soup, steamed or covered with sweet-and-sour sauce. At a poultry butcher's Peng reached into a hamper and withdrew four old hens for soups he had in mind, then carefully picked some young chickens intended for steamed or fried dishes. "They should be virgins," he explained.
Except for a two-hour siesta after lunch, Peng spent most of that afternoon on the telephone, negotiating menus with the evening's clientele and discussing future dinners with other customers. At about 6 o'clock we went into the cavernous kitchen. It may have once been a garage; at least it looked like one. One part, devoted to preparing ingredients, contained a large table around which a dozen young apprentices were slicing and chopping meats and vegetables, just as Peng had himself done on the mainland 30 years before. In the rear, behind a zinc-topped table covered with bowls of salt, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, starch, sesame oil and various spices, were four earth stoves. One was piled high with fiber steaming baskets, and the others, roaring with hot fires, were covered with round, shallow black pans for stir-frying. Peng slipped a white surgical tunic over his neat, dark suit, and with a cigarette dangling from his lips, stepped up to one of the stoves, grabbed the handle of a pan and began working with a firm, quiet efficiency.
In the medieval atmosphere of this dim, smoky kitchen the smooth, assembly-line atmosphere was startling. From the choppers' boards came raw ingredients that found their proper places in the correct tiers of the steaming baskets. With perfect timing, an assistant took down steamed cuts of pork, beef or chicken as Peng, tossing a bit of broth and some seasoning into his frying pan, whipped up a sauce to lace the new dish at the precise moment that a waiter appeared to whisk it away, piping hot. Occasionally, as a menu demanded, Peng embarked upon a project of his own, stirring up slices of meat in a gravy rapidly concocted from the condiments on his table. After years of practice, he knew that the number of times he stirred his ingredients was the measure of how long it cooked; and from his experience with spices he knew exactly how his sauce would taste.
A specialty that Peng planned for our own meal later was Dripping Oil Pigeon, and he invited me now to see how it was created. An assistant took the little birds out of a steaming basket, and Peng arrayed them on a fiat sieve, slowly basting them with boiling oil until their skin was brown and their flesh cooked but still tender. As a helper laid the pigeons out on a porcelain plate, Peng turned back quickly to his stove and in a matter of seconds dashed off a sauce of hot sesame oil and diced onions. A few dishes later he motioned to me to observe another creation, called San Tseng Lou, or the Three-story Building. This was strictly for color—a layer of yellowish steamed cabbage beneath a tier of black mushrooms topped by brown pigeon eggs that had been first steamed in their shells, then deep-fried. Hardly had the dish been carried away than Peng and his apprentices were busily working over one of the fish whose gills we had inspected earlier in the day. They cleaned it, rolled it in flour and fried it in deep oil, after which Peng covered it with a blend of soybean sauce and starch. The result was Tsui Pi Hou Tsao Yu, or Crispy Live Grass Fish.
Watching a Chinese cook operate in the aromatic atmosphere of his kitchen beats chopping wood as a way to build up an appetite, and I was soon ravenous. Before long, however, Peng led me upstairs to a private dining room, where we met six other hungry gourmets he had invited to join us. Leaving his most experienced assistant to do the cooking, Peng sat down at the traditional round table and offered a toast in Shaohsing, a warm, sherrylike rice wine. Then we were swept up in a kind of gastronomic tidal wave. We ate our way through pigeons, vegetables, chicken and fish to an ingenious soup called Tang Pao Juo Sheng, or Soup Immersed Pork Fillet, made at the table simply by pouring boiling chicken broth over raw shredded pork. By the time we had reached the customary finale—fried rice—Peng seemed to be glowing with the satisfaction of an artist at a successful vernis-sage. He had talked little during the meal, but now he ventured a confidence. A year or so ago, he said, a Chinese-American had offered to set him up in a restaurant in New York. Peng had declined, but he refused to tell me why. Was it a matter of money? Or reluctance to leave Taipei? I don't know for sure, but I secretly suspect he was ashamed to admit that he can't cook chop suey.