Houlong’s Innards

Pig's large intestine isn't my organ of choice but it was well matched with the bitter gourd and coriander garnishing (not sure what the orange sauce is but it was interesting). My father-in-law reckons I'm a right tart when it comes to these things but anyone is compared to him. If it's not nailed down, he'll get it in. I had a couple, which I felt was a respectable enough performance.

Having shed a few pounds of late, I did rather pig out this weekend. Here are some delectables from Saturday night in Houlong (後龍), Miaoli County(苗栗縣). My father-in-law is back from Oz for a spell and we went out with my sisters-in-law and their new additions to the fam.

We pretty much always go to the same restaurant, which, while it’s a fairly standard affair, does seem to turn up some interesting dishes that I’ve not come across before.

Houlong is one of the older settlements on the northwestern stretch of coast, existing under that name a good 200 years before the creation of Miaoli County. The township gets an early mention in the diaries of Yu Yonghe, a man of letters who travelled from Fuzhou (福州), then down the west coast of Taiwan in search of a steady source of sulphur in 1697.1

I've been told that the stringy stuff in the blue dish is the lip of abalone shells and pretty pricey by all accounts. For once my father-in-law wasn't 100 percent but he did say it was part of a shellfish of some sort.

In the 18th century, the township was actually part of Danshui subprefecture. The Taokas (道卡斯)  plains aborigines that then occupied the area featured in the perennial unrest of the Qing period and were co-opted by the rebel Lin Shuang-wen (林爽文) in his revolt of 1787, acknowledged as the first Triad-initiated uprising and “one of the largest and most successful in eighteenth century China.” 2

Plains aboriginal (pingpu – 平 埔)  muscle was also tapped by the other side. When Lin’s rebellion was eventually put down after a year, pingpu military colonies were set up in Houlong by the Qing administration.

These units enforced the frontier, guarding against incursions by “raw” mountain aborigines and – in theory – preventing further encroachment on aboriginal lands by Han Chinese.

Favourable land rental arrangements (from Han farmers) and rations were used as incentives for signing up. Dating from 1762, one of the oldest extant contracts referring to these benefits for indigenous forces is actually from Houlong. 3

Now this is the ticket. I've had this dish before and it's bloody good. Tender-as-you-like crab claws (no tricky shell to wrangle with), on a bed of luffa sponge(絲瓜), with a really nice minced carrot garnishing and sauce. Carrot isn't overused in Chinese cooking and I don't know what they mix it with here (it almost has a buttery taste) but it really works.

As I have in a fair few towns in Miaoli Country, I worked at a school in Houlong at least a couple of times the best part of a decade ago, though I’ll be damned if I can remember where. One of the most interesting eating experiences I had here occurred around the same time, close to the restaurant we ate at on Saturday.

Opposite the Ciyun Temple (慈雲宮) there’s a well-known an open air food court. “Ah, German noodles!” chirped my father-in-law as we walked past. German noodles? Naturally I had to investigate and we sat down for a bowl.

Not sure what he is but I'm sure some of my fisherman pals can tell me. Again, nice sauce, though orange was clearly becoming something of a theme ...

It wasn’t the dish itself, which was frankly bog-standard, but rather the notion. I have no idea if they resemble anything produced in Germany (spätzle etc.) but they just seemed so incongruous in this small Taiwanese town. I suspect they are about as German as Finland fruit juice (芬蘭果汁) 4, another classic from my days in Miaoli.

Notes:

  1. Keliher,M. Out of China or Yu Yonghe’s Tales of Formosa, SMC Publishing, Taipei. P.123

    Yu was sent to locate the sulphur after the gunpowder stores at Fuzhou blew up. He mentions Houlong as he is making his way north to a place called Zhonggang Village, which I think was in present day Zhunan (竹南). The Matsu temple there still bears this name, as does the river that, in one guise or another, runs all the way from Nanzhuang (南莊) down to Zaoqiao (造橋).

    Yu then moved on to Zhuqian (Hsinchu – 新竹) and northeast, eventually finding what he was after at “the witches cauldron” Beitou, which pleasingly connects my two main stomping grounds in Taiwan. Most of his entourage were dead by the end of the journey.

    At Houlong he miraculously bumped into a companion who had sailed ahead of him to Danshui and whom he had feared dead:

    “On the trail near Houlong Village Yu and his party see a motley figure stumbling in the opposite direction, As they grow closer, they see his clothes are torn and he is limping heavily. He is a Chinese. Yu recognises his travel companion Wang Yunsen! ‘The boat was wrecked and our bodies thrown into the water,’ Wang says in a whimper. ‘I am lucky to see you again.’”

  2. Ownby, D. Brotherhoods and Secret Societies in Early and Mid-Qing China, Stanford University Press, 1996. p.56
  3. Shepherd, J.R. Statecraft and political economy on the Taiwan frontier, 1600-1800, Stanford University Press, 1993. p.284

    The township crops up several times in reference to other interesting incidents and facts related to land tenure and interactions between aborigines and Han settlers.

  4. This bright pink, excruciatingly sweet gunk is, from what I can determine,condensed milk with a drop of grenadine syrup; grenadine being, as every schoolboy should know, the national fruit of Finland.

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