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As a child, I always enjoyed the anise candies my father brought back from his trips to Bourges. They weren’t really flavored with anise, but with a single fennel seed (looks like caraway) inside. My friends found them strange, but acknowledged anise as a legitimate sweet, bearing a family likeness to licorice. Opinions about licorice varied greatly among them.

It was not till I got older that I learned about the salty licorice pastels so popular in Holland. I learned to love them, myself. But if I had known about them, I would have been somewhat prepared for the surprise that awaited me in Taiwan: anise (known as ba1-jiao3) is considered a savory (that is, salty) flavoring. It is used, especially in “five-flavor powder”, in the seasoning of slow-cooked meat. I accepted meat of this kind without too much difficulty, but my Taiwanese friends gagged when I offered them anise candies that I brought back once from a trip to Hong Kong. It seemed to violate a fundamental rule of life for anise to be conceived of as going with sweet things. I smiled quietly to myself as I thought about these silly Chinese barbarians.

And then someone invited me for red-bean ice. Ah, this barbarian heart! I was terribly shocked. They cook azuki beans, not too unlike American black beans, but they cook them with sugar and eat them on top of shaved ice. Beans as a sweet dish? Aaarrrgh.....

Every time I made up my mind to try them, I couldn’t force them down. Although, oddly, many Western friends accepted them with ease. And then a Taiwanese friend really horrified me - he ordered red-bean ice, with canned sweet corn, seaweed, and a raw egg on top. I descended into a paroxysm of culture shock, announcing that only the West understood what dessert was all about. My friend made some loud, mocking noises and then went back to shoveling down his food with evident gusto.

Long ago, that was. Now I eat everything. I learned to enjoy sweet mochi filled with savory chopped meat, just as I enjoy lamb with mint jelly and pork sausage stir-fried with chopped apples. Last week I made my wife a big pot of mung beans (say “moong” if you want to be cool), with dried jujubes, lotus seeds (bitter green sprout left inside), and chestnuts. Not too much sugar, but it’s clearly a sweet dish (suitable for eating in cold weather). She and I devoured the whole pot in one evening, with lingering joy.

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