Many people are drawn to the nation’s oldest city by its abundance of historical relics, but if one really wants to understand Tainan’s past, the best place to visit is a shop selling a breakfast typical of the area.
Tainan residents enjoy breakfasts that most people around Taiwan would consider a feast for lunch or dinner. One of their favorites is raw bloody beef slices placed in a bowl of hot soup accompanied by a bowl of rice and a small dish of soy sauce with sliced ginger.
Lamb soup, milkfish congee and rice dumplings also rank among the city’s popular breakfast choices.
Many associate these rather sumptuous breakfasts with the country’s agricultural past, theorizing that farmers in the old days needed the heavy meals to get enough energy to start a day’s work.
However, that argument fails to explain why the rest of agricultural Taiwan is not in the habit of eating so well in the morning, and one cultural preservation activist thinks it misreads local farmers.
“Farmers [in Taiwan] don’t eat beef, “ Yu Chih-wei, who is also the manager of a local travel agency, said in a recent interview.
Traditionally, farmers in Taiwan do not kill cattle for meat as a gesture of appreciation for the animal’s labor, Yu said.
Instead, the breakfasts and the composition of the dishes reflect Tainan’s status as Taiwan’s pre-eminent city between the 17th century and late 19th centuries, a place where commerce flourished.
“People in Tainan have beef soup for breakfast because they were richer than people elsewhere in Taiwan and could afford such a relatively expensive delicacy,” Yu said.
Some of the dishes have their own special origin, and a few can be traced back to government chefs, who made them to support themselves on the street after they refused to serve the new Qing Dynasty government that made Tainan the administrative capital of Taiwan in 1684.
The seasoning of the special dishes also serves as a clue to Tainan’s historical wealth.
“Foods in Tainan are generally sweeter than those elsewhere in Taiwan. In the past, only rich people had access to sugar,” Yu said.
Unlike many other agricultural cities or counties in southern Taiwan, Tainan has a long trade history that dates back to the 17th century when the Dutch occupied Tainan’s Anping Harbor area, where the name “Taiwan” originated.
The Dutch considered the harbor to be their operational hub in the Asia-Pacific region when they ruled Taiwan between 1624 and 1661.
Even after the Dutch left, Anping continued to be the greatest source of Tainan’s prosperity, serving as Taiwan’s main gateway to trade for more than 200 years.
However, starting in 1823, sediment washed down local rivers and began filling the lagoon in the area. By the late 19th century, the harbor became more land than sea. Anping lost its importance and was no longer Taiwan’s political center.
However, echoes of the city’s former wealth can still be seen on Shennong Street, one of the best preserved streets in Tainan City and lined with two-story houses owned by rich merchants 200 years ago.
“At the time, people rowed boats on the rivers inside the city. Tainan was just like Italy’s Venice,” says Chang Feng-chi, a local high school teacher.
During Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945, Tainan gained its initial shape as a modern city, but it was replaced as Taiwan’s political center by Taipei, and Kaohsiung surpassed it as southern Taiwan’s biggest city shortly before the end of Japanese colonial rule.