On Eating and Being Asian in South Africa

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Food has the power to unite people of different backgrounds, which besides the fact that it’s my obsession, is why I’m sitting at my desk drinking a can of Taiwanese white-gourd drink purchased from a Chinese supermarket in Milnerton called L & Z Foods and thinking about Asian South African copywriter and food blogger Ming-Cheau Lin, who took me there.

In the week since I met Ming, who was born in Taiwan, her story has been percolating in my head more or less non-stop, along with thoughts of Asian food and culture in South Africa: a culture that is relatively small and “largely unseen.”

It’s not like I hadn’t noticed this before. When I first moved to South Africa, I was surprised (American bias, I’m embarrassed to say… I probably shouldn’t have been) about the general unfamiliarity with Asian cultures and food. I ate at a couple of Chinese restaurants that served food which seemed like perhaps it came from a field office of China located somewhere in Iceland…in other words, it tasted completely unrelated to any Chinese food I’d eaten in LA or San Francisco (which I assumed was proper Chinese, although perhaps it wasn’t either – more possible bias on my part). Some 20 years later, not much has changed.

“Food is Westernized in Asian restaurants in South Africa – it’s saddening,” says Ming. Chefs prepare what they think white people will like. There are “alternative menus” for Asian people. But this is not because the ingredients are not available in South Africa. More on that a little later.

Ming’s family moved to Bloemfontein, South Africa from Tainan, Taiwan in the early ‘90s, when she was three. (If youre not South Africa, Bloemfontein is akin to Omaha or any other medium-sized Midwestern US city). Their relocation was part of a coordinated effort between apartheid South Africa and Taiwan, in which Taiwanese families were offered incentives to bring their manufacturing expertise to South Africa. Ming’s family were not well off before they left Taiwan, and life didn’t improve much in South Africa, at least at first. Asians – particularly Chinese and Taiwanese – were often targets for criminals.

“It was just assumed that if you were Chinese, you were rich,” says Ming. Besides the housebreakings and hate crimes, Asians were bullied and belittled: their ancient food cultures looked down upon. Ming recently wrote a searing essay about her experiences as an Asian South African entitled ‘Has the Rainbow Nation Forgotten about Us’. It took four years to pluck up the courage to go public with this piece, which is a cry for local recognition of Asian cultures, and that this country is their home.

The racial classification of Asians in South Africa during and post-apartheid is far too complex to get into in this blog post, nor am I any kind of expert. It’s complex, partly because Indians are also considered Asian, and because the Cape Malays, who came from what is today Indonesia, do not consider themselves Asian.

At the height of the Taiwanese resettlement, there were about 30,000 Taiwanese living in South Africa, mostly in the Free State, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. Today there about 10,000 – according to Ming, those who had money returned to Taiwan or immigrated to a first world country because they felt unwelcome here. This included most of her childhood friends. Excluding Indians, the Chinese are the largest Asian population in South Africa; Taiwanese is second largest. It was difficult enough getting whites to understand what China was all about – throw Taiwan in the mix, and you could forget about it.

Despite the odds, Ming grew up on home-cooked Taiwanese food. The ingredients were mostly on hand – Ming explains that because of steady imports of manufacturing parts from Taiwan, enterprising migrants imported the well-known food brands as well as machinery to produce some products locally. Asians of different nationalities developed friendships, largely through communal Buddhist temples and Christian churches. Some Sundays, her mom made her signature dish – stir-fried vermicelli – for lunch at their Temple. “Everybody loved it.”

By in large, Ming says, “most Asians adopted white culture to survive.” Many ultimately became ashamed of the food they ate. Foods like offal and meat on the bone (Westerners don’t want to take the time to eat slowly, which eating from the bone entails) were looked down upon, at least by English-speaking whites. In an ironic twist, Afrikaners, with their own culture rooted in farming, seemed to have a little more respect for the Asian custom of eating nose to tail, as did blacks she ultimately got to know. The sad truth is that food is usually held to Western standards, rather than the other way around. Take Stinky Tofu, which is a fermented tofu, for example. Ming asks: “Why is it different from an intense blue cheese?” Good question, but say Stinky Tofu to most Westerners and you’ll get disgusted looks.

After high school, Ming left Bloemfontein for Cape Town to study advertising and marketing. It was also a significant break from Taiwanese cultural norms: while her siblings both pursued financial careers, she chose advertising, with a spin on food, choosing to supplement her food knowledge by doing a pastry course and working at a Mediterranean deli.

“My generation is losing its culture,” says Ming, who is determined to create social change for Asians in South Africa. She believes she is the only Asian copywriter in South Africa, and as such, feels a sense of responsibility: one way of tackling this is to interest more mainstream brands in celebrating relevant aspects of the diverse Asian cultures through their own marketing. Her own blog celebrates Taiwanese food and culture.

What is Taiwanese food? I learned so much about it from talking and shopping with Ming, but it’s far more than I could sum up here. Ming’s favourite traditional dishes include Three Cup Chicken (made with three major ingredients: sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar); mochi, a textured steamed rice-based starch of Japanese origins, with multiple possibilities for preparation; and pan-fried scrambled eggs with tomatoes: “a humble dish eaten with rice.” And any kind of street food, which is a huge part of Taiwanese cuisine. Most of it is gluten-free and dairy-free, and much is vegetarian.

Ming hopes someday to open an informal restaurant with her husband, who would brew the beer. It would be a street food garden restaurant, which they would probably call Little Eats (‘street food’ loosely translated from Mandarin Chinese). There, they’d serve simple and inexpensive dishes like Underwater Soup (a clear spring onion soup with ginger and pieces of offal that her Dad used to make), seaweed salads, broth shots, skewered items (“anything on a stick and grilled can be found at night markets in Asia”) and crunchy, salty bar snacks (nuts and pumpkin seeds are big), as well as sweet potato puffs, mochi with toasted ground peanuts and sugar, and sago and coconut.

Ming and I walk through the L & Z Chinese Supermarket, where she shops weekly, pushing baby-sized trolleys (shopping carts). I’m overwhelmed by the assortment of goods. Fresh tofu available in bulk. A whole aisle of fresh greens (when I ask Ming where they come from, she says she thinks much of it is grown in home gardens) along with taro and bitter melon, freezers full of convenient dumplings, fish balls, lotus roots and all kinds of other quick enhancements to add to soups and other dishes.

Frozen edamame and green onion pancakes. A whole freezer case of offal – chicken feet, fish heads, pork trotters and chicken hearts. Frozen dessert bars and crullers. Condiments galore. Chips and snacks, like toasted watermelon seeds and crisp broadbeans. Beautiful, wafery biscuits. Mysterious drinks, like the white-gourd drink I buy for later. Noodles, noodles, noodles. Most of which is in colourful, happy Asian packaging.

Ignorance is the root of prejudice. Sharing food and stories about food is one of the best ways to overcome it.

You can read more about Ming on her blog, which is called Butterfingers. All photographs were taken at the L & Z Chinese Supermarket at Cape Grand China in Milnerton.





Written by Ilana Sharlin Stone

I'm a food writer, blogger and former chef who found her umami in Cape Town, South Africa.

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