Published: 09:55, May 27, 2024 | Updated: 12:28, May 27, 2024
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Culinary connections across the Strait
By Li Xinran

Two Gen Z individuals explore the emotional and culinary connections between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan through shared dishes and a theatrical production.

Taiwan actor Li Zhixi (left), alongside Wang Licheng (middle) and Lin Yanchen (right), both students at Peking University, on the stage of the play The Homecoming at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. (YIN DONG  /FOR CHINA DAILY)

When Chinese people feel nostalgic for their homeland, their thoughts often turn to the culinary tastes of home and memories of their mothers and motherland. In the latest episode of Strait Forward by China Daily, Wang Licheng and Lin Yanchen, two Gen Z individuals, embark on a flavorful journey.

Wang, an undergraduate at Peking University, has spent most of his life living in Shanghai, where sweet and sour pork ribs are a popular cold dish.

As for Lin, who grew up in Taiwan and is currently pursuing a doctorate also at Peking University, the dish is typically served hot and with a generous amount of sauce.

By breaking the fourth wall at that moment, they drew the audience into the story.

Wang Licheng, an undergraduate at Peking University

"Taiwan cuisine is basically a fusion of flavors from the Chinese mainland, particularly from southern provinces, which was later modified and transformed into Taiwan's unique style," explained Lin.

Having lived in Beijing for nearly seven years, Lin often craves beef noodles, a dish that he eats every time he is back in Taiwan. It is a common Chinese dish that has long served as a culinary bridge connecting generations across the Taiwan Strait.

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In his search for temporary solace from homesickness, Lin has discovered subtle differences and similarities in this familiar dish across the Strait, delving even deeper into the cultural significance behind it during a special cooking lesson.

"Beef noodles first emerged in the nostalgic military dependents' village in Taiwan, where most of the former soldiers from the Chinese mainland lived," explained Wang Junhong, a chef at Din Tai Fung, a global chain of Chinese restaurants. "Initially a clear broth-based dish, it evolved with the addition of Chinese medicinal herbs, resulting in its distinct dark color. Unlike the mainland version with beef chunks or thin slices, the Taiwan adaptation features beef ribs."

Wang Junhong attributed these culinary adaptations to the diverse backgrounds of the military dependents. Growing up in the village himself, he emphasized his personal connection to the community.

"It felt like a big family. They were all like my uncles and grandfathers," said Wang Junhong. "One of them, who was from Xi'an (the capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi province), used to make noodles for me. To recollect that familial warmth, I pursued a career in culinary arts."

Wang Licheng pointed out that while culinary traditions naturally evolve over time, the emotional connection they create remains strong.

"Cooking is a tangible expression of our heritage. While they modified the beef noodles from the Chinese mainland, I'm certain that you have also made changes as you recreate the taste in your family. Perhaps your apprentice and our next generation will inherit and craft their own versions of the dish from their memories."

The duo enjoyed a play named The Homecoming, which also revolved around memories and heritage tied to a bowl of beef noodles. The play was staged at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing from April 3 to 6. The protagonist, a soldier from the Chinese mainland who has lived in Taiwan for over 40 years, tries to replicate the Taiwan-Sichuan-style beef noodles to evoke memories of his mother. Eventually, he succeeds in creating the perfect taste as he reunites with his relatives back in the Chinese mainland.

It’s crucial for young people in Taiwan to learn and rediscover their roots.

Lin Yanchen, a doctoral student at Peking University

The play was a journey of rediscovering a long-lost taste and reconnecting with one's roots. "Our stage design was inspired by the nostalgic military dependents' village, set in the 1980s when communication and travel across the Taiwan Strait had just resumed," said Li Zhixi, the Taiwan actor portraying the protagonist.

Li expressed a deep personal connection to his character, drawing parallels between the character's story and his own family narrative. "I come from a family of Peking Opera masters. My father was unable to return to the Chinese mainland after performing in Taiwan in 1949 and passed away before he could revisit his hometown," he said.

Last year, Li visited Xiongxian, North China's Hebei province, where his grandparents originally came from, and brought back some soil to Taiwan. "I placed it in front of my father and uncle's tombs and said to them, 'This is the soil from home,'" he said.

Lin also resonated with the protagonist's story. His grandfather returned to the Chinese mainland and visited his ancestral home in the 1980s. "I vividly remember a photo of him and his siblings paying respects to their parents, and there was a scene in the play that was quite similar," said Lin. "It was a touching and powerful moment, highlighting the tragic separation from family and hometown."

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Wang Licheng noted that toward the end of the play, the actors turned to face the audience and started talking. "By breaking the fourth wall at that moment, they drew the audience into the story," he said. "This allowed the audience to relate to and connect with the characters. While the audience for each performance may be limited, sharing and discussing these stories with more people can have a larger impact across the Strait."

Tracing one's roots is essential to identity and is deeply ingrained in every Chinese person. Wang Licheng shares this sentiment, as he has moved between cities and his family members hail from different provinces.

"Recently, Ma Ying-jeou led college students from Taiwan on a trip to retrace their roots in the Chinese mainland. They visited Ma's ancestral home in Hunan province and the tomb of Emperor Huangdi, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, in Shaanxi province," said Wang Licheng. "They also toured Peking University and engaged in close and delightful conversations with students there."

Lin also stressed the importance of fostering exchange between the younger generations across the Strait. "It's crucial for young people in Taiwan to learn and rediscover their roots. As the future leaders of the country, enhancing communication and exchanges among these young individuals is essential for mutual understanding and development."

lixinran@i21st.cn