Tainan is famous for its ‘xiao chi — 小吃’ or snack food. And one of its most famous eating establishments is Ah Gong (阿憨鹹粥 — “ah gong yu zhou” in Taiwanese, or ‘a han xian zhou’ in Mandarin). Eating fish congee at Ah-gong’s for breakfast is a quintessentially Tainanese experience – just like croissants in Paris, Pho Beef soup in Ho Chi Minh City, or Vegemite on Toast in Sydney you have to try fish congee at Ah Gong’s if you visit Tainan.
Ah Gong means ‘slow-witted’ and is a playful caricature of the owner. When I visited seven years ago, Ah Gong was so busily ladling congee that his face was mute and expressionless (thus his nickname). According to local rumour, Ah-gong retired a decade ago after building his successful fish congee business. Then he gambled away most of the family fortune; several buildings were sold to pay off his debts. So Ah Gong had to reopen shop and go back to work. No wonder he looked so glum!
Ah Gong has now retired again, apparently for good this time, and his establishment is managed by his stout, capable daughter-in-law who has lots of enthusiasm for fish congee. The sign hanging over the shop has been updated, and now there are caricatures of them both. But the restaurant remains faithful to the same recipe, and even more importantly, retains the same commitment to freshness. The daily catch is delivered in the early hours of the morning, so that the congee can be ready for customers when the shop opens at 6.00am. Business is always brisk, even early in the morning, but the wait to get a plastic seat at the table is definitely worth it.
Ah-gong’s seafood congee is a revelation: it is so fresh you can almost taste the sea. The salted fish congee (yu zhou) is made with freshly shucked oysters and milkfish (very popular in Tainan and called ‘sub-ah-hee’ in Taiwanese). It is usually topped with coriander and served with a fried bread stick for dunking. The soup broth is fresh and light – no need for MSG or other additives – and there are hardly any fish bones thanks to a technique that Ah Gong developed. Congee can sometimes be gluey but not at Ah Gong’s: the semi-congee style of cooking means that the rice is soft but still tender, soupy yet not gluggy. If you are adventurous try the milkfish skin congee: soft and full-flavoured, it is similar in texture to Japanese-prepared eel.
Milkfish is very popular in Tainan, and the fish can be used to make many different dishes. I came across this video on Youtube that features milkfish caught in Anping (on the outskirts of Tainan near the sea). The video includes the traditional milkfish congee served at Ah Gong’s, with some detail of how it is made. (It also includes details of some things less culinary, such as essence of milkfish!)
Ah Gong can be found at No 704 Gongyuan Road (704台南市北區公園南路169號), just down from Zhongshan park and not too far from the Tainan Railway station. A generous bowl of milkfish congee plus breadstick costs NTD$60, and you can get a soup top-up for free.