Three food businesses have each had their own way of keeping culinary traditions alive in an area of Taipei described as “full of stories.”
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY STEVEN CROOK & KATY HUI-WEN HUNG
Although Chen Jie-fu and Chang Yu-ying haven’t known each other for long, their ancestors crossed paths in the middle of the 19th century.
Chen’s forebear, Chen Wei-ying (1811-1869), was an esteemed literati and educator who instructed countless boys and young men in the Confucian classics – and Chang’s great-grandfather, Chang Shu-shen (1820-1877) was one of Chen Wei-ying’s most renowned students.
Both Chen Jie-fu and Chang Yu-ying now operate food businesses that celebrate their deep multigenerational ties to Taipei’s Datong District, the area bounded by Freeway 1, Taipei Metro’s Red Line, Minsheng East Road, and the Tamsui River. Dadaocheng, the southern portion of the district, was one of the earliest places in Taipei to be settled. The northern part of Datong District was the site of the village of Dalongdong.
Chen worked as a TV journalist before opening a chain of kindergartens in China. Now he’s the proprietor of Tongan Le (同安樂, https://www.facebook.com/Taipeiness). Its two branches on Dihua Street, Section 1 also reflect Chen’s passion for traditional culture, serving dishes based on the family-feast delicacies (家宴) he enjoyed as a child.
The name Tongan Le is an expression of both heritage and a desire for harmony. Chen Jie-fu is a ninth-generation descendant of Chen Wen-lan, who migrated from Tongan in China’s Fujian Province and established himself as an herbalist in Tamsui. The literal meaning of le is happiness. To many people, especially during the tumultuous Qing period, that would mean a life without upheavals and confrontations.
The three characters on the front of the colonial-era shophouse at number 242 read, from right to left, Chen Yue Ji (陳悅記). This was the name of the family’s trading business. The firm dealt in tea and other commodities, but Chen Jie-fu is eager to explain that it did much more than hunt for profit.
The company was also a vehicle for altruism. When Dalongdong Baoan Temple (大龍峒保安宮) was rebuilt in 1917, the project was headed by Chen Pei-gen, Chen Jie-fu’s great-grandfather and a member of the sixth generation of the clan to reside in Taiwan.
A few years later, when local gentry planned the reconstruction of Taipei Confucius Temple (臺北孔子廟), Chen Pei-gen together with businessman and politician Koo Hsien-jung donated the land it stands on today.
The menu at Tongan Le’s outlet at number 242 includes several items that can also be found in Chen Jie-fu’s 2021 book Teacher’s Mansion Bando: Chen Family Dishes from an Old Taipei Family (到老師府辦桌：台北老家族的陳家菜).
A deep-fried wrap-type dish known by many Taiwanese as jijuan (雞捲) is listed in the Chinese-language part of Tongan Le’s trilingual menu as Shima Juan (石碼捲, NT$420; Fried Pork Onion Roll). While doing research for his book, Chen discovered that the jijuan he ate as a youngster is thought to have originated in Shima, a town between Zhangzhou and Xiamen in Fujian Province.
Tongan Le’s version of jijuan is notably old-school in two respects. Firstly, it’s wrapped in caul fat rather than the tofu sheet used by most cooks today. Secondly, compared to many 21st-century jijuan, it contains a greater quantity of finely chopped onion. The roll is served with haishan sauce (海山醬), a mildly sweet and spicy dip. The roll is steamed before it’s fried to soften the onion and reduce its pungency.
Other mains include Soybeans with Stewed Pork Leg (黃豆蹄花, NT$420), Taro with Pork Ribs (芋仔排骨, NT$420), and Clams with Meat Balls (雙喜連, NT$450). There are also fish and vegetarian options.
Several of the dishes Chen grew up eating were prepared with older members of the clan in mind. One of these, the Dried Shrimp with Scallops (金包銀, jin baoyin, literally “gold wrapped around silver”), is suitable for the dentally challenged. With ingredients like leaf celery and sweet potato flour, it has the consistency and delicate flavor to become a favorite comfort food. Like all dessert options, it costs NT$170 when ordered as part of a set meal or NT$220 including tea when ordered as a snack.
The Steamed Maltose and Egg (麥芽蛋) is surprisingly sweet and not at all eggy. It’s served warm but retains its “Q-ness” (chewiness) even if left on the table to cool.
Among the heirlooms displayed inside the restaurant is a Qing-era bureaucrat’s gown, complete with delicate hollow gold buttons, and a conical leather case known in Chinese as a guanmaohe (官帽盒). Mandarins would use the case to store symbols of office, such as medals and head attire.
The newer branch of Tongan Le, at 121 Dihua Street Section 1, is promoted as more of a traditional Taiwanese teahouse than a restaurant. It also serves as a venue for performances of both classical and Chinese traditional music. (For details of upcoming events, see https://www.facebook.com/Taipeiness2/.)
Among the snacks available at number 121 are traditional pastries, including the Green Bean Rice Cake (綠豆糕, made with mung beans), Salted-Plum Rice Cake (鹽梅糕, which includes both glutinous and ponlai rice), and Peanut Toffee (平安龜, pingan gui or “safe turtle,” which, as its Chinese name suggests, is shaped like a turtle).
The menu lists various combo options for various prices, including tea and one cake or tea and two items, as well as solid treats sold individually. Drink options include “Taiwan’s Four Famous Teas” (black, oolong, jasmine, and baozhong, also known as pouchong) and caffeine-free beverages like wild-ginger tea and juices. A similar selection of drinks and confectionaries is available at the older Tongan Le branch.
Since launching his food business, Chen has made a point of working with long-established local suppliers. He sources tea from Lin Hua Tai Tea Shop (林華泰茶行), which has been operating in Dadaocheng since 1883, and from Huang Cheng Sheng (黃長生中藥店), a 70-year-old business on Dihua Street. The cakes come from Long Yue Tang Bakery (龍月堂糕餅鋪) on Yanping North Road and Li Ting Xiang (李亭香) on Dihua Street.
Celebrating humble beginnings
Like Chen, Chang Yu-ying’s perspective on the past and the present has been influenced by his travels. But whereas Chen is something of a globetrotter, Chang – whose family has been in Taiwan for seven generations – spent the better part of a year exploring his homeland. Each time he found a place that intrigued him, he would stay for several weeks to immerse himself in local lifestyles and foodways.
Chang’s experiences inspired him to return to his childhood home in Dalongdong and open a characterful eatery specializing in tofu pudding, the traditional dessert known to Mandarin speakers as douhua (豆花).
“Running this business is a way to preserve and promote the heritage of Dalongdong, and an opportunity for people to appreciate this neighborhood’s many stories,” says Chang Yu-ying, sitting at a table inside his establishment, Peanut Juren (花生舉人, https://since1864.tw).
Few of those stories are more captivating than the one recounting his great-grandfather’s rise from poverty to eminence. To help support his family, Chang Shu-shen sold peanuts on the streets of Dalongdong. Among his regular customers were students of the area’s most famous teacher, Chen Wei-ying, and occasionally they would ask Chang for help in answering difficult homework questions.
Noticing that some of his students were turning in unusually good work, Chen confronted them, demanding to know if they had received assistance. After discovering Chang’s exceptional potential, he invited the vendor to attend his academy. Besides waiving tuition fees, Chen gave Chang’s family a subsidy to enable the young man to give up selling peanuts and concentrate on his studies.
Chen’s confidence in Chang was affirmed in 1864 when the latter attained the prestigious rank of juren (舉人) in China’s imperial civil service examinations. The name of Chang Yu-ying’s business thus acknowledges his ancestor’s humble beginnings while celebrating his academic achievements.
Chang concedes that the shop’s location (No. 19-2, Alley 38, Lane 59, Hami Street) is far from ideal for business purposes. But moving is out of the question. He does not sell drinks and douhua expecting to get rich. Rather, it’s a way for Chang to use the 60-year-old building as a base for his cultural activities.
The venue serves as a repository for antiques and curios. Amid the books, vinyl records, and toy cars, there’s an ancient yet pristine sewing machine and a ship’s bell that bears the date 1604. According to Chang, it likely traveled as ballast to Taiwan from Batavia (now Jakarta, then the base of the Dutch East India Company).
Most precious of all is a pair of late 19th-century engraved wooden tablets that celebrate Chang Shu-sheng’s personal history and achievements.
Chang Yu-ying has worked some of his life experiences into the menu at Peanut Juren, which he and his wife opened in 2014. He previously worked as a sous-chef in a French restaurant in Taipei. And during his travels around Taiwan, he spent some time in Fuxing District, a part of Taoyuan inhabited by Atayal indigenous people.
Among the five hot-meal options are the French-influenced Pan-fried Flounder (乾煎比目魚套餐, NT$320) and Magao Chicken (馬告香煎雞腿套餐, NT$280). Magao is the Chinese rendering of maqaw, the Atayal term for mountain peppercorns, a highly distinctive ingredient in Taiwanese indigenous cuisine.
Chang also expresses pride in his tofu pudding, and not just because of its freshness. He gives careful attention to the cooking temperature and the proportion of soymilk to gypsum powder, which he buys from a local herbalist friend to ensure its safety. Thanks to these details, Chang’s pudding has double the density of standard douhua, he says. Gypsum is the traditional curdling agent. These days, many tofu pudding vendors use Glucono-delta-lactone (GDL) as the coagulant.
One dish that obviously harkens back to Chang’s illustrious ancestor is Peanut Juren Tofu Pudding (花生舉人豆花, NT$50). Chang sources the peanuts from Yilan County, where they grow unusually large and flavorful due to the sandy soil, he says. Guests can also try the Signature Brown Sugar Sweet Potato Ball Tofu Pudding (招牌粉圓豆花, NT$50) or Lemon Combination Tofu Pudding (檸檬綜合豆花, NT$60).
Those who prefer savory tastes to sweet treats can go for a vegetarian or non-vegetarian Mala Tofu Pudding (麻辣豌雜豆花, NT$120), served hot with rice.
Like many food business owners, Chang took a financial hit during the pandemic. But thanks to busy weekends, customer-attracting activities like DIY douhua making, and occasional TV appearances, Peanut Juren has been able to keep going.
A new spin on classic treats
Unlike Chang and Chen Jie-fu, the founders of Hoshing 1947 (合興壹玖肆柒, www.hoshing1947.com.tw) made a calculated business decision to move into Datong District. Hoshing 1947 now operates at 223 Dihua Street, Section 1, just across the road from Tongan Le.
The shop is an offshoot of Hoshing Confectioneries (合興糕糰店), which was established by young Shanghainese migrant Jen Jen-chang. Jen arrived in Taipei as an apprentice chef two years after the end of World War II. Soon thereafter, finding himself stranded and jobless in Taiwan, he turned to selling Shanghai-style songgao (松糕) – loose, fluffy cakes made from rice flour – and traditional Chinese confectioneries from a stall on Nanhai Road.
In 1951, Jen moved his stall to Nanmen Market (南門市場). In 1975 the business passed to his son, Jen Tai-hsing, who remains in charge of the market branch to this day.
Jen Tai-hsing’s daughter Jen Jia-lun and her husband Cheng Kuang-yu began exploring the idea of running a cultural-creative shop alongside her father’s store after the couple returned to Taipei from the UK in 2016.
“When I was studying in London, a favorite pastime was visiting traditional markets,” says Jen Jia-lun. She was fascinated by the number of young Britons who enjoy markets, recognizing that “they’re places full of stories, and that’s a great selling point.”
In Taiwan, by contrast, the younger generation expresses little interest in markets. Jen admits that before this realization inspired her, she had no intention of continuing the family business. “My father was giving up hope that the business could be passed on to the third generation,” she says.
Jen and Cheng initially planned to launch their business at Jen’s father’s Nanmen Market shop. But after observing that many young people are drawn to Dadaocheng, a place Jen describes as “full of history and stories,” they chose Dihua Street.
Rather than selling the exact same items as Jen’s father and grandfather, she and Cheng have modified the recipes to better suit modern consumers. Taiwanese eat far less rice than before, and many people find Jen Tai-hsing’s songgao and subing (酥餅, flaky pastries) too large, so the couple reduced the size of their pastries by two-thirds. They also use coarser rice flour to make the treats chewier, or more “Q,” than the market equivalents.
Several of their items are based on recipes used by Jen’s grandfather and feature adzuki bean paste, sesame paste, and jujube. Still, Jen and her husband often innovate with new flavors. A trip to Southeast Asia resulted in a Thai-influenced coconut-based recipe. Jujube soaked in whisky was recently added to the lineup.
Because gift-box sales to repeat customers account for much of their revenue, the couple draws on their background in design to devise fresh, attractive packaging ahead of each Lunar New Year (when sales double) and Mid-Autumn Festival. Those are the only periods when Hoshing 1947 pays for social media advertising, Cheng says.
The shop supplies cakes to some teahouses and hotels, but there is also eat-in trade. Whereas the original Hoshing in Nanmen Market is a simple shop, Hoshing 1947 includes a delightful seating area furnished with fabrics and other items sourced within the neighborhood.
Peckish pedestrians can order a few items at the counter, have those that are best eaten warm quickly reheated in a traditional rectangular wooden steamer, and enjoy them away from the bustle of Dihua Street. Individual goodies range in price: a soft, warm Onion Roll (蔥卷) is NT$40; a crumbly Pineapple Mango Subing (鳳梨芒果酥餅) is NT$70. All are served with a complimentary cup of black tea.
Hoshing 1947 treats can be stored for two days at room temperature, after which they should be refrigerated. The team has given up trying to find an acceptable natural preservative, Cheng says. Pomelo extract, for instance, has a marked impact on flavor. Fridged items are best enjoyed if they are steamed briefly in a rice cooker. Microwaving is an option, but a food cover (ideally one made of silicone, Cheng says) should be used to retain the moisture.
Patronizing the shop on a chilly winter day can be a welcome way to warm up, says Jen. “The temperature, the steam in the air… When people come here, they use all their senses.”