Fantuan Discourse

I would not consider myself an aggressive person, but I tend to find myself getting into petty arguments with my friends. One recent argument occurred right after a dinner in which I was introducing my new boyfriend to my friends Phillip and Lily.[1] It began innocently enough: we had dinner at a nice Turkish restaurant, then retreated to Phillip’s apartment for dessert and tea. During the conversation, it came to light that we are all of Taiwanese descent, which naturally led to a discussion on Taiwanese cuisine, and here, my boyfriend brought up the fantuan, which led to an argument as to whether a fantuan 飯糰 needs to contain a youtiao 油條.

What is a fantuan? A fantuan is a very humble dish. When translated literally from Chinese, fantuan means rice ball, and it is usually stuffed with different fillings like pickles, dried meat, and egg, and it is the ultimate on the go meal. It is made by clumping warm rice in your hand and adding the filling of your choice into the indentation in the middle. Then, more rice is molded around to make it a ball, wrapped in plastic wrap, and safely tucked into your bag. At night markets in Taiwan, you can find street carts selling fantuan next to stalls full of stuffed animals: Totoros, Snoopys, and Hello Kittys. It is portable, easy to make, and also very nourishing.

What is a youtiao? A youtiao is a long piece of fried dough that looks strangely like a chromosome. It is crunchy on the outside but soft with a good chew on the inside. It comes in long, white wax paper bags, and I have fond memories of ripping off bite size morsels to dip into sweet soymilk. As a child, this was my favorite breakfast in Taiwan. It is the perfect bite of salty and sugary, the milk softening the youtiao just enough without leaving it soggy, such a good way to start your day.

As soon as youtiao was mentioned, our opinions were divided. My boyfriend Tim and my friend Phillip both insisted a fantuan must include a youtiao. On the other hand, my friend Lily and I both argued that a fantuan does not need a youtiao. The two of us had a lot of memories of making fantuan ourselves with our parents growing up. The argument continued for the rest of the evening and became so heated that we all ended up texting our immigrant parents to ask for their opinions — with mixed results. We also posted Instagram story polls asking our friends what they thought. As an academic philosopher, I am always inclined to turn to further research, so I took it one step further and posted this question on the Facebook group Subtle Taiwanese Traits, a forum dedicated to discussing the Taiwanese diaspora experience: “does a fantuan need to have youtiao in it?”

The next few days came with an onslaught of reactions to this question, and I found that people were very split. And this rupture went beyond family ties, gender, and geographic location: we have asked this question to Taiwanese Americans, first-generation immigrants, and people born and raised in Taiwan. This question divided Lily’s extended family. My friends were asking their parents, and their parents were asking their friends. At one point, I wondered if I should go back to my dad’s Chinese-speaking church and pose this question at lunch. Then I thought against it – I am not trying to cause a religious schism here.

From all the different responses, I have collected here a smattering of people’s reasons:

  • “Fantuan needs fan (rice), and it should be tuan (round)…beyond that, any number of variations still count!”
  • “You don’t NEED one, but why you’d eat one without it is beyond me”
  • “[I] would personally be disappointed without a youtiao”
  • “The youtiao is what makes it Taiwanese [as opposed to another type of rice ball]”
  • Youtiao in a fantuan has too many carbs
  • Youtiao adds structural soundness to a fantuan
  • Many variations of I grew up eating with/without youtiao, so my opinion is the right one
  • Traditionally, a fantuan had a youtiao, and we must respect tradition
  • “Without the youtiao, you lose the soul of the fantuan”
  • It doesn’t matter as long as there is some filling inside

My Instagram poll was split down the middle with no clear winner in either direction. Although the discourse was heated, it was also very good natured and friendly. People found it funny. People were sharing this with other people. I didn’t realize this, but the moderator of Subtle Taiwanese Traits is friends with Lily and saw both my post request and her Instagram poll and immediately made the connection. My father brought this up to people at dim sum the next time I was home.

So there is no clear consensus. However, perhaps the real question is not what is necessarily for a fantuan to be a fantuan but: what is the Taiwanese diaspora identity? Although I was born in Taiwan, I have spent the majority of my life elsewhere. Most of my friends (and most of the people who answered the question) are also people of Taiwanese descent who identify as Taiwanese yet spend most of their life outside of the island. Taiwan is a very tiny island with a very small population, and we have a precocious geo-ethnic-politcal history. And I think how we answered the question of the fantuan really addresses the question of Taiwanese diaspora identity.

However, perhaps the real question is not what is necessarily for a fantuan to be a fantuan but: what is the Taiwanese diaspora identity?

The truth is, a fantuan is not fancy or even signature Taiwanese food – it is a humble, homemade dish, and I don’t know if I have ever seen a recipe for it. I only know of one restaurant that even sells a fantuan, and that restaurant has a specific Taiwanese breakfast menu. This is not a question that would be posed on Eater, and there are not many documentaries on the development of the fantuan. There is no real right answer – my dad pointed out that even in Taiwan, the answer probably differs based on region. Yet, Taiwanese people have very strong thoughts about this. The Taiwanese diaspora cares very much about its food, and this food is often best when it is homemade, sold on the street, and viscerally tied to our memories. For a people that often go years without seeing home, eating a fantuan is a nice and easy reminder of Taiwan.

This also tells me that we are a people who love to argue. This makes total sense. The Taiwanese love their very young democracy in which legislators have been known to throw food at each other during sessions. A fantuan is democratic – it is egalitarian. The ingredients are cheap to buy, and it is so easy to make that children can pack them for lunch all by themselves. It is up to the eater what should go inside, a true classical liberal dish. I personally have fond memories of watching my grandmother sitting in front of the television listening to political talk show hosts bicker in Taiwanese. She would sit on a stool three inches away from the screen without a change in expression. When the hosts got heated, she would fire back at the screen with a disapproving comment. I have definitely inherited this from her. On our first date, Tim – brave man who found himself dating a philosopher – and I got into an argument about both Pumpkin Spice Latte and deconstruction. Phillip and Lily point out that we usually devolve into an argument whenever we hang out including one infamous occasion in which I insisted that homemade oat milk tasted just as good as store-bought, so we conducted a blind taste test with the three different brands they had in the fridge (yes, I have the results on an iPhone note and went back to check – pretty sure Califia won, and no, this is not sponsored…feel free to DM me though).

I bring this love of affectionate debate into my professional life. I am a philosophy professor, and as an icebreaker on the first day of class every semester, I ask my students if a hot dog is a sandwich and make them defend their reasoning. Philosophy is a discipline in which we love to argue about the most insane things (what is existence? Where is the soul? How do we maximize happiness for the greatest amount of people?). I would rather get behind on the syllabus than stop a good class discussion prematurely. As academic philosophers, we stake our careers on our opinions and our beliefs that we are the ones who understand the world. Perhaps it is not surprising I chose to go down this career path.

Yet, none of this kind of conflict is necessarily negative. Instead, it says something about how Taiwanese people connect with each other.  Even in asking this question, I have found a great deal of connection. I posted this on a forum with thousands of strangers, and people chose to interact with it. Every parent whose child asked this question chose to take it seriously and hid their likely bemusement at being asked such a strange question at 9 o’clock at night.  I also want to remind you that this was the first time that Phillip and Lily were meeting my boyfriend Tim, and here is what the evening (d)evolved into. Although Tim and I differ to this day about the fantuan, it also brought us closer and made us reflect on our experiences. Tim’s argument was based on originalism – that the original definition required a youtiao – and Tim is not someone who would ever think of himself as an originalist in any kind of constitutional way. The Taiwanese diaspora likes to bicker, but we are also a friendly, welcoming people. It is a good reminder that not all conflict is bad – sometimes conflict and disagreement bring us closer together. It shows us what we are passionate about and what is important in our lives. While we may have not gotten any consensus to whether a fantuan needs a youtiao, our differences all reflect what it means to be Taiwanese outside of Taiwan: that our experiences differ from person to person, and although we may argue about them, it is exactly these discussions that shape the Taiwanese diaspora.  What makes us Taiwanese is not set in stone, but changes as we, Taiwanese people, change too.

What makes us Taiwanese is not set in stone, but changes as we, Taiwanese people, change too.

As for me, my own understanding is rooted in the field trip lunch boxes my mom would pack which included soy milk, purple fruit candy, and a fantuan stuffed with pork floss, no youtiao. I remember being three years old, sitting on a rock, and eating my fantuan, which was salty from the pork but with a slight sweetness from the rice gluten. I didn’t live in Taiwan for very long – only until I was 4 – but I have surprisingly visceral memories of watching my older cousins make zhongzhi, of the electronic tune of Beethoven’s Für Elise which signaled when the trash truck had arrived, and of the cranky bickering of my aunts and uncles. Taiwan has grown and changed in the decades since I have left, but so have I, and yet I am still Taiwanese.

I’ll leave you with this: the next time Tim and I saw Phillip and Lily, they gifted us a giant plushie onigiri — a cute reminder of our unresolved discourse.

(But no, I don’t think a youtiao needs to be in a fantuan, and I will stake my career on this hill.)

[1] Names changed to protect the innocent.

Lucilla Pan is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the greater NY area. When she is not working on academic papers on ethics or teaching her students, she enjoys going to museums, watching sports, and getting into arguments with her friends over bubble tea.

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