I MUST LOOK LIKE A LUNATIC to the well-dressed people striding down a busy Taipei street at lunchtime. Brandishing a sweet potato in each hand, I approach passersby, look them in the eye, and loudly declare, “hao-chi-de di-gua”—undoubtedly butchering the phrase I just learned an hour ago, which means “delicious sweet potatoes.” It’s the only Mandarin I’ve mastered in the two weeks I’ve been in Taiwan, aside from the “xie xie” I mumble to thank the helpful strangers who give me directions, then insist on guiding me to my destinations.
AFTER SPENDING MOST OF MY TRIP ogling resplendent red and gold temples and sampling snacks at Taipei’s teeming night markets, I realize that it’s actually the warm, generous people who have made this place memorable: the travel agent who brought snacks and a lucky bracelet to my first hotel; the friend of an acquaintance who took time off work to show me around the charming mountain town of Jiufen; the tour company employee who insisted on treating me to a traditional breakfast of fried cruller and salty soy milk. I want to give something back, so I sign up for the “Sweet Potato Mama Volunteer Tour,” sponsored by Topology, a Taiwanese tour company.
As a volunteer today, it’s my job to proclaim the virtues of these baked orange tubers to passersby on the street in order to attract customers for Mama Whang, a kind single mother of three. She is a vendor, a “Sweet Potato Mama,” who sells piping-hot potatoes from a coal-fired metal oven perched atop a pushcart. Mama Whang stands on a downtown corner eight hours a day, five days a week, and earns a steady profit (without the need to yell any exhortations at the passing crowd, I notice). Earlier this morning, I met Topology’s guide, Jonathan, in a warehouse run by Genesis Foundation, the agency that oversees this self-reliance project. Jonathan explained that the Sweet Potato Mamas are single mothers who have limited options for earning a living while their kids are young. The foundation provides the Mamas with training and their first two heavy sacks of sweet potatoes for free. After that, the single mothers use their daily earnings to purchase potatoes, coal, and bags, and they donate 5 percent of their profits back to Genesis. They should be ready to go into business on their own after a year or two in the program.
Since their island is shaped like a sweet potato, thick in the middle and slim at the ends, Taiwanese often refer to themselves as “children of the sweet potato.” In fact, sweet potatoes trace a long history in this nation of 23 million. During wars, rice often became unavailable, so sweet potatoes supplied the nutrition that helped inhabitants survive. The homey aroma wafting from Mama Whang’s barrel-shaped oven hints at generations of shared experience.
This long relationship with the vegetable has produced consumers who know exactly how they like their sweet potatoes cooked. The potatoes are enjoyed plain, unadorned by spices or sauce, and Mama Whang’s regulars, who frequent her stand daily, usually specify a moist interior or maybe the crispy exterior that results from a bit of extra cooking. Just like a neighborhood barista, she knows precisely the order to please this fussy grandmother or that teenage jock.
I’VE BEEN TRYING MY BEST to act as a barker for Mama Whang today but I’m frustrated that I haven’t attracted a single customer. Finally, I spot a little boy in a teddy bear T-shirt, clutching his mother’s hand. Aha! I squat down to his level and after my quick Mandarin sales pitch, make what I hope are the universal gestures for “yummy,” rubbing my stomach and licking my lips. “Mmmm,” I murmur pointing to the sweet potatoes.
It works! He tugs his mom’s arm and she buys two. I weigh them triumphantly and hold up my fingers to convey the price. They hand me a bill, and I pass it to Mama Whang and deposit their warm potatoes into a paper bag. After that one successful transaction, I confidently attract serious-looking businessmen chatting on their phones and fashionably dressed young women.
After the rush of customers subsides, Mama Whang, whose children are five, eight, and 11, informs me, with Jonathan interpreting, that sweet potatoes are good for the digestion and I should eat one with yogurt every morning. “This will flush out the toxins in your body,” she tells me. I inquire about her plans after she finishes the program with Genesis. She says she would like to have a permanent food stand (like the thousands that dot the city) and sell noodles and rice or sweet potato ice cream.
When my shift ends, Mama Whang gives me a hug. I gather my things, thinking about how my experience today contradicts the advice in every Taipei guidebook. They all insist that for the “the most spectacular view of the city,” I need to take the elevator up to the 89th floor of the Taipei 101 Building. I did zoom up there for a wide perspective, but today, I’ve gotten a much deeper view of the real Taipei, back on the ground, on a street corner with one of its citizens.
Before I leave, I purchase my own sweet potato. Mama Whang’s instincts are sharp and without my saying a word, she hands me a big soft one, just the way I like it. It warms my hands before I even take a bite. With each comforting nibble of the orange tuber, I savor the cultural roots hidden in this everyday food.