A Taste of the Village: Experiencing Taipei’s Juan Cun Restaurants

Photo: Jeremy Olivier (歐嘉仁)

A handful of Taipei eateries look to preserve the culture, atmosphere, and – most importantly – the flavors of Taiwan’s once-ubiquitous veterans’ villages.

Taiwan’s juan cun (眷村) – or military dependents’ villages as the Chinese term is usually rendered in English – are one of the more notable features of Taiwan’s urban and rural landscape. These communities, mainly located within the island’s major cities, accommodated the vast majority of Chinese Nationalist (KMT) military personnel and their families after they retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s at the end of the Chinese Civil War.

Throughout the ensuing decades, these enclaves became unique microcosms of mainlander culture, language, and cuisine, in many ways detached from the surrounding Hoklo, Hakka, and aboriginal communities.

Beginning in the 1990s, however, the juan cun neighborhoods started facing demolition as part of government urban renewal projects or fell into complete disrepair. At one time numbering over 800 across the island, they have dwindled to fewer than 30.

In order to preserve the remaining traces of this fast-disappearing but historically significant part of Taiwan’s modern history and culture, some second- and third-generation offspring of “mainlander” families have opened specially themed restaurants serving up the dishes they remember from their childhood.

Gong Gong Xiao Guan. Photo: Jeremy Olivier

Gong Gong Xiao Guan (公公小館壹號店)

Gong Gong Xiao Guan (公公小館壹號店) near the Nanjing Fuxing MRT station is one of a handful of Taipei restaurants designed to resemble the military village dwellings of the past. Its aquamarine wooden exterior and large ROC flag fluttering over passing cars make it stand out from its surroundings. Above a blackboard on which the restaurant’s daily specials are written in chalk hangs a large portrait of the late KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, a throwback to the classrooms of Taiwan when it was still under authoritarian rule.

Chen An-da, Gong Gong Xiao Guan’s chef and part-owner (his mother is the other half)says that he had two motives for opening the restaurant in its original location in Xindian seven years ago: to ensure that the juan cun flavor is kept alive and to introduce “village food” – a mixture of various regional Chinese and Taiwanese cooking styles – to a wider, younger demographic.

Chen’s mother’s side of the family originally came from Hunan province in central China, known for its intensely spicy, rich flavors, and his maternal grandfather – after whom the restaurant is named – made a strong impression on the young Chen.

“When I was young and my mother was out working, my grandfather would look after me and make noodles from whatever meat and vegetables were left over from the previous day,” he says. His explanation speaks to the privation that many juan cun residents had to endure. The memories associated with those noodles live on in one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, Grandpa’s Noodles (公公麵), which despite the plainness of their ingredients are packed with savory flavors.

Chen also recommends the Fried Stinky Immortals (炒臭仙), a variation on Taiwan’s well-known stinky tofu. He notes that the tofu is fried after being fermented, and it is served with small strips of pork, green onion, chili peppers, and salty fermented soya beans. Other suggested dishes include the Double Smoked Meat Stir Fry (炒雙臘), a rich medley of Hunan smoked pork, Sichuan-style sausages, and leeks; and the Old Jar Fried Pork Strips (老罈炒肉絲), which features preserved radish skins fermented in Chen’s homemade Sichuan pickling solution.

The draw for many of the restaurant’s patrons, however, is the zhuai bu la ji (跩不拉雞) – crispy, lightly battered fried chicken whose chili pepper kick comes roaring in only after several bites have been taken.

“If we don’t continue cooking these dishes, they will disappear,” Chen says. “I opened this restaurant to preserve and protect this culture before there is nothing left.”

Over the past three decades, the juan cun communities have faced one existential crisis after another. While high-ranking officers were provided with accommodations in the comfortable former living quarters of the departing Japanese military brass, lower-ranking soldiers were forced to make do with what was left over or build new housing from scratch. Many of the resulting dwellings were rushed, ramshackle shelters intended to house the uprooted soldiers and their families for only a short period of time until the KMT was able to retake the mainland and allow them to return home.

As history would have it, such a retaking never happened, and over time the vast majority of the juan cun fell into disrepair. Others were demolished to build new high-rise apartments as part of national public-housing projects known as guo zhai (國宅). Former village residents were offered reimbursement or an apartment in the new structures.

Dwellings that hadn’t been sanctioned by the government were razed to create new public spaces such as the Da’an Forest Park in central Taipei, while their occupants generally received no reimbursement. The juan cun continue to be torn down to this day. Just last August, Daguan Village in New Taipei City’s Banciao District was demolished after a lengthy legal battle with its residents.

In the early 2000s, civic groups, including the Association of Mainlander Taiwanese, began pushing for cultural conservation approaches and seeking amendments to the Act for Rebuilding Old Quarters for Military Dependents, the 1994 law mandating that extra-legal housing be demolished. Out of these efforts came the remodeling of villages as multi-purpose cultural and tourist sites, including Treasure Hill (寶藏巖) in Taipei’s Gongguan District and 44 South Village (四四南村) near Taipei 101.

“These policies aren’t a bad thing,” says second-generation mainlander Chang Tan-fong. “It’s just that there’s no authenticity left. It feels cold, like a museum exhibit.”

Cun Zi Kou (村子口)

Chang and her husband have sought to replicate that authentic experience with their juan cun restaurant, Cun Zi Kou (村子口), located in Taipei’s Songshan District. Housed in a small tin shed, the place has a slightly grimy feel to it, but that’s intentional, according to Chang.

“It’s not so pretty-looking and clean here. We chose this building because, no matter which village you came from, there would always be a small noodle shop like this at the entrance,” she says. “We have a tin roof, which I feel really recreates the feeling of being in a village home. When it rains here, it sounds like the rain falling on the roofs we slept under as children.”

Photo: Jeremy Olivier

Adding to the authentic atmosphere is Cun Zi Kou’s nostalgic décor. A crude, hand-painted sign outside the kitchen window at the front reads “Recover our Lost Territory” (還我河山), a Song Dynasty-era idiom that was appropriated by the exiled KMT soldiers. The walls are painted with old KMT slogans – white characters inside blue circles. At one time, those slogans could be seen on the walls of every juan cun, Chang explains.

She also points to a small white shirt and a pair of shorts hanging from a hook near the back, a faded blue logo barely visible on each. “The military villages used to have a ration system; we would exchange ration tickets for rice flour and other food from the U.S. military,” she notes. “The situation at that time was bad, so some parents would take the empty flour sacks and sew them into clothing for their kids.”

The fare at Cun Zi Kou is fairly standard. The main dishes consist primarily of noodles, dumplings, and wheat pancakes, foods that traditionally come from northern China. Side dishes tend to be southern Chinese selections, such as scallion stewed crucian carp (蔥燒鯽魚), a well-known Shanghai dish. There is also the inevitable lu wei (滷味), an assortment of meats, offal, and vegetables braised in a stock of water and spices. The flavor of the lu wei on offer at juan cun restaurants differs somewhat from the local variety seen at most night markets due to the absence of soy sauce (which many village residents could not afford in the early days) and the use of mainland-sourced ingredients, like Sichuan peppercorn (花椒).

Village food goes upscale

While most Taiwanese likely associate juan cun food with inexpensive, simple dishes and informal settings like Gong Gong Xiao Guan and Cun Zi Kou, one Taipei restaurant is trying to challenge that assumption.

44 SV (南村私廚, 小酒棧)

44 SV (南村私廚, 小酒棧) opened a few years ago in Taipei’s bustling East District, near the Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT station. Co-owner Joey Pan says that he and his business partner Yang Yi-an were brought together by fate. “We had never met, never spoken, didn’t even know what the other looked like before we decided to open this restaurant,” he says.

Pan, who is of Hoklo Taiwanese background, had worked for many years in hospitality, including a long tenure as food and beverage manager at the swanky Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. 44 SV is not his first culinary venture; he had previously operated a private dining establishment together with a friend and was looking at doing something new.

While out riding his bicycle one day, Pan came across the location that now houses 44 SV. As in a scene out of a movie, his phone rang at that very moment. On the other end was Yang, a third-generation mainlander and well-known local blogger, who had heard about Pan and wanted to tell him his idea for something that had never been tried before: authentic, gourmet juan cun cuisine served in a chic, modern setting. After meeting for drinks the next day and finding how in tune they were with each other, they decided to go into business together.

Pan and Yang named their restaurant after 44 South Village, where Yang was born and raised. His late grandmother, born in Henan – a historically impoverished province in central China – had fled to Taiwan with other family members in the 1940s. One of his main motives for opening the restaurant was to memorialize her and the delicious food she would cook when he was a child.

Photo: Jeremy Olivier

Small wonder, then, that the restaurant’s signature dish is Henan Steamed Noodles (河南蒸麵), an extreme rarity in Taiwanese eateries. The recipe consists of steamed thin plain noodles that are pan-fried in a soy sauce mixture together with three fundamental ingredients: string beans, soya-bean sprouts, and slices of pork belly. It tastes like fried noodles, but without the greasiness or saltiness sometimes encountered with that dish.

Since juan cun food is a medley of different Chinese styles, 44 SV’s menu has a wide variety of offerings reflecting that geographical and cultural diversity – including the astounding Mao Zedong Braised Pork Belly (毛澤東紅燒肉). This modern Hunan platter contains thick slabs of fatty pork braised in a delectably viscous, slightly sweet brown sauce and paired with a small steamed bun branded with the restaurant’s logo.

Beyond the artisanal food and high-end design of the restaurant – which includes horsehair wallpaper imported from France and single-stall bathrooms – Pan notes that the pricing structure and menu can be customized. “We charge per head, meaning that if you book for 10 people but only eight show up, we will only charge for eight,” Pan says. “In addition, we let you know the menu items for your meal a few days in advance, so if you have any food preferences, we can adjust accordingly.”

Gong Gong Xiao Guan (公公小館壹號店)
No. 39, Lane 4, Dunhua North Road, Songshan District, Taipei.
Tel: 02 8773 2198

Cun Zi Kou (村子口)
No. 34, Alley 52, Lane 12, Bade Road, Section 3, Songshan District, Taipei.
Tel: 02 2579 6455

44 SV (南村私廚, 小酒棧)
No. 10, Alley 33, Lane 216, Zhongxiao East Road, Section 4, Da’an District, Taipei.
Tel: 02 2711 7272

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