Fri, Aug 24, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: Gangshan: the real hometown of beef noodle soup?

This small town between Tainan and Kaohsiung played a big role in Taiwan’s culinary development

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Bungalows that once housed air force officers and their families crumble as they await demolition.

Photo: Steven Crook

If the town of Gangshan (岡山) in Kaohsiung is known for anything, it’s the Republic of China Air Force Academy and goat-meat restaurants.

Founded in China in 1928, the academy has since 1949 been located in Gangshan, which is roughly equidistant between central Tainan and central Kaohsiung.

Nowadays more than 90 percent of the goat meat served in the town’s eateries is imported, yet hircine protein is still regarded as one of Gangshan’s three treasures (岡山三寶). The others are honey, and a spicy paste made of soybeans and broad beans. It’s argued by food historians that the last of these was instrumental in the emergence after World War II of beef noodle soup as one of Taiwan’s favorite dishes.

Many assume beef noodles first appeared in Mainlander-dominated neighborhoods in Taipei. But as Chen Yu-jen (陳玉箴), now a professor in the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature at National Taiwan Normal University, wrote in her doctoral thesis, an alternative theory has gained currency since the 1990s.

Chen writes that essayist Lu Yao-tung (逯耀東) was perhaps the first scholar “to argue that the so-called Sichuan-style beef noodle was actually an invention in Taiwan and perhaps originated in military dependents’ villages at Gangshan.”

“According to Lu’s argument, ‘hot bean paste’ (辣豆瓣醬) is an essential ingredient of the so-called ‘Sichuan-style beef noodles’ and is also an important specialty of Gangshan,” Chen adds.

Lu, a Jiangsu native who spent almost all of his adult life in and around Taipei, presumably had no particular ulterior motive for talking up Gangshan. Even the Taipei City Government, in articles published to promote its beef-noodle festival several years ago, embraced the Gangshan theory. Given the competing claims made by those who supposedly invented bubble milk tea, it’s surprising no one has stepped forward to say they (or their parents or grandparents) were the first people in Taiwan to cook the kind of beef noodle soup now enjoyed by millions each week.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Gangshan is well served by conventional trains. The fastest expresses from Taipei take less than five hours. From Kaohsiung, a local train will get you to Gangshan in about 25 minutes.


Soy has been grown in the Gangshan area for generations, but the distinctive paste that Lu regarded as an essential ingredient isn’t a traditional local product. It seems the first entrepreneur to make and sell this condiment was himself a Mainlander, albeit one who arrived in 1948, a little ahead of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-led influx that eventually totalled more than 2 million (at a time when the local-born population of Taiwan was under 7 million).

Air force clerk Liu Ming-teh (劉明德) and his wife were Henan natives, but they spent much of World War II in Sichuan. There they learned how to make various spicy sauces and pastes, “never imagining that these skills would become a magic weapon, enabling them to survive later in life,” to quote the Sept. 3, 2015 issue of the Chinese-language Next magazine.

After Liu was kicked out of the air force in 1950 for propagating the then-proscribed religion of I-Kuan Tao (一貫道), he struggled to support his family. According to some accounts — which gloss over the reason for Liu’s separation from the military — at one point he had a mere NT$10 to his name. Liu and his wife resorted to fermenting their signature flavoring, which he sold a dab at a time, each ration wrapped in a lotus leaf.

The company Liu founded, Ming Teh Food Industry Co Ltd (明德食品工業股份有限公司), is still going strong under his grandson’s leadership. For the past couple of decades, their main factory (which isn’t open to the public) has been located just outside Gangshan in neighboring Alian District (阿蓮區).

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