Hong Shanhui, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for General Education, National Central University
Lin Wenyue’s “Steamed Turnip Cake” is part of the writer’s 1999 essay collection, Notes on Food, stories of nineteen different food dishes. The work ingeniously combines foods, personal memories, and recipe notes in a culinary memoir, Lin’s record of her life with friends and family, and the delicious foods they enjoyed together.
Steamed turnip cake (nian gao, “new-year cake”) is a traditional Taiwanese traditional lunar new-year treat, enjoyed in homes all over the island. Because the pronunciation of nian gao (年糕) is the same as nian gao (年高) in the saying “nian nian gao sheng” (年年高升) – “rise higher every year” – the cake symbolizes good fortune. The savory nian gao eaten at the new year are mostly steamed turnip cakes, because the Taiwanese term for “turnip” (菜頭tshài-thâu) is nearly homonymous with the word for “good omen” or “good luck” (彩頭tshái-thâu). Every lunar new-year the writer’s mother prepared steamed turnip cakes for the whole family to enjoy. As she aged, her daughters would help with the work, watching and learning. Since her mother passed away, the writer prepares the new-year turnip cake exactly the way her mother did, bringing back warm memories of their time together. Thus, “Steamed Turnip Cake” not only conveys the flavor of holiday festivities, but also expresses the author’s longing for her mom.
In addition to reliving memories of friends and family through food, Notes on Food also provides detailed instruction for preparing the delicious dishes Lin describes. The last half of “Steamed Turnip Cake” is a tutorial on how to make Taiwanese-style nian gao. Ingredients include shredded turnip (daikon), rice milk, shredded pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, and seasonings. First the rice milk and shredded turnip are blended together, then the other ingredients are stir-fried and added to the mix, along with seasonings and pre-soaked peanuts. Finally, the mixture is cooked in a steamer. In Lin’s hands, a recipe is a literary experience – readers will find both spiritual sustenance and practical cooking instructions in her work. In addition to its literary value, the book also provides practical advice. Lin quotes the Confucian classic Book of Rites: “Only by tasting food can we know its flavor,” followed by the declaration, “And even if we’ve tasted it, we’ll never know how it’s made until we’ve cooked it ourselves” – like cooking, we understand life by experiencing it.
Food is an integral part of human existence. When we relive precious memories of friends and relatives through the taste buds, eating is no longer simply eating; it is, rather, an act of love and commemoration. In “Steamed Turnip Cakes” Lin Wenyue recalls the nostalgic flavor of her mother’s traditional Taiwanese nian gao, imparting both warmth and wisdom.
Lin Wenyue (1933- ) was born in Shanghai to a family from Changhua. She spent her childhood in the Shanghai International Settlement, where she received a Japanese education. In the spring of 1946 she returned with her family to Taiwan. She is the granddaughter of Lian Heng, the noted Taiwanese poet, politician, and historian. Lin received both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chinese literature from National Taiwan University and taught at the school for over thirty years. She retired in 1993 and relocated to the United States, serving as visiting professor at Stanford University. She has received the National Culture and Arts Foundation Essay Award, the China Times Recommended Essays Award, the Chiu Ko Annual Essay Award, and other prizes.
Lin’s literary activities began with her study of classical Chinese literature. Her academic specialties include writing of the Wei-Jin period, and the poetry of Tao Yuanming and Xie Lingyun. In 1969, while conducting research at Kyoto University’s Graduate Institute of Humanities, editor Lin Haiyin invited Lin to submit, and she began publishing essays Belles-Lettres Monthly. When she returned to Taiwan the works were collected and published in One Year in Kyoto (1971), her formal debut as an essayist. Kyoto was a spiritual home to Lin, her year there marking the beginning of her career as academic, essayist, and translator.
Lin is best known for her essays. In 1986 she published “Essay Writing” (later collected in Afternoon in the Study), a work that advised beginning writers to strive for clarity, emphasizing structure and revision over rhetorical embellishment.
Stylistically, Lin’s early 1970s’ A Year in Kyoto was ornate and extravagant. From the mid-1980s on her essays showed the influence of Japanese women writer’s of the Heian period whose works she had translated, the prose tranquil, profound, and rational, reflecting subtle emotions from a bystander’s perspective; publications from the period include Far Away (1981), Afternoon in the Study (1986), and Conversation (1988). Early 1990s collections such as Works (1993), Stimulating Antiquity (1993), and Notes on Food and Drinks (1999) engage in conversation with the classics, the writer experimenting with a variety of techniques. Looking Back (2004), Character Sketches (2004), Write My Book (2006), and Mona Lisa’s Smiling Lips (2009) were published after Lin turned seventy; the writing is understated, simple and elegant, time having imbued her essays with textural warmth.
Lin Wenyue excels at portraying beauty, expressing melancholy lyricism through calm description and measured narrative pace. Her writing on food, friends, and life highlight her refined sensibilities.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2258
|Work(English)：||Steamed Turnip Cake|
|Anthology：||Notes on Food|
|Publisher：||Taipei: Hung-Fan Bookstore Limited.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010000275|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||No English Translation|