One of the best things about Taiwan, an island famous for its food, is the bakeries. Influenced by their Japanese counterparts, whose bakers were in turn influenced by and trained in French techniques but adapted them to satisfy Asian palates, the bakeries in Taiwan are full of mouthwatering cakes, pastries and breads of all kinds.
To my surprise, I think I’ve eaten more bread in the last couple months than I have all year. When given the option between cake and bread during afternoon tea in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest, the character Gwendolyn says “Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.”
It seemed odd to me that, when given a choice, you would ever choose something as bland and mundane as bread. Bread? Bread is the stuff you eat because you’re too hungry to wait for your meal. Bread is what I sincerely thought wretched prisoners ate until someone’s dad who worked in drug enforcement came into my fifth grade class to talk about how a well-known hockey player was busted for smuggling drugs by taping them to the inside of his underwear and I asked if it was true what they ate when they were locked up and all the other ten year-olds laughed at my naivete.
But in Taiwan, I’ve rediscovered bread. The bread in Taiwan is fantastic and comes in all sorts of fantastic forms from sugary pineapple-crusted loafs to garlic squid ink baguettes.
But what has been an even bigger surprise is how good plain white bread is. White bread? As one user of urbandictionary.com put it, the term “white bread” in slang “ implies profound cultural naïvete, blind consumerism, and an unquestioning “follower” mindset. Common trappings of the whitebread lifestyle include golf, Kenny G and Enya CDs, SUVs, an irrational fixation on lawn care, Golden Retrievers, nominally Christian religious beliefs, Old Navy clothing, moderate to conservative political views, bad Chardonnay, equally bad espresso, cookie-cutter houses, Bath & Body Works hygiene products, and very white-collar employment. Though whitebread individuals are usually white, the term is not necessarily racial in meaning – the implication lies more with the blandness, predictability, and banality of plain white bread. Accordingly, “wonderbread” is often used as a synonym.”
Ironically, while she was in grad school, my mother worked as a bookkeeper at the Wonder Bread factory in downtown Detroit. She was paid $1.50 an hour plus all the Wonder bread she could eat. Perhaps it was to rebel against all that I found mediocre and banal that made me turn up my nose at white bread, but maybe it was because I wasn’t eating the right kind. The bread in Taiwan is everything that nutritionists and Gwyneth Paltrow will tell you is wrong: bleached and super-refined, but it’s so good. Somehow they manage to make it slightly flaky, which is what I think separates it from its low-brow American cousin. It’s perfect just toasted with butter as Oscar Wilde’s heroine would have preferred.
But the mastery of Taiwanese baking isn’t limited just to bread. Feast your eyes.