From the supplying of milk and meat to being vital sources of mechanical power, our bovine companions (cows, oxen and buffalos) have shaped the lives of us homo sapiens for many millennia.
Ever since their first domestication over 10 thousand years ago, cattle have been more than just beasts to our ancestors. They were our helpers in the fields—even pets, brethren and family.
In the steppes of prehistoric Europe and western Asia, humans came to rely on cows for milk. In India, their holiness was worshipped. In the Far East, the premodern peoples of Japan and Taiwan—out of reverence—avoided consuming their meat.
In this post, Island Folklore explores three pieces of Taiwanese folklore and popular culture centred around the cattle.
Did you know?
One of the most iconic dishes of Japan—rāmen—is occasionally called “Chinese noodles” (chūka soba) in the Japanese language? Though certainly, even the Chinese acknowledged the quintessentially Japanese character of the dish; despite its 20th-century origins in Yokohama’s Chinatown.
In Taiwan, yet another noodle dish shares a similar story to the rāmen of Japan—the níuròumiàn—“noodles in beef broth,” or, more commonly, “Taiwanese beef noodle soup.”
Níuròumiàn is a favourite among Taiwan’s residents and visitors. The savoury broth flavoured with aromatic herbs and stewed for hours with generous chunks of beef combines beautifully with the mellow taste and texture of noodles.
Like the rāmen, Taiwan’s níuròumiàn was not a native dish. Rather, it was introduced by immigrants and refugees from China.
In 1949, after just four years of unified rule with China, the Chinese mainland was conquered by Communist forces. Two million Chinese, Tibetan, Mongol, Manchu and Uyghur refugees fled to the island of Taiwan, bringing with them not just diverse customs and languages, but also an embarrassment of riches in culinary diversity. This amazing richness has since greatly contributed to Taiwan’s world-famous culinary scene.
Among the newcomers to Taiwan were groups who originated in the frontiers of northwestern China, a region heavily influenced by Turkic Central Asia and Islam. These new immigrants were responsible for Taiwan’s now-famous beef noodle soup.
Whereas the Taiwanese have traditionally stayed away from beef-consumption, Islamic traditions forbade the eating of pork, which led to widespread beef-consumption in its stead.
There, in China’s far west, a sophisticated culinary tradition centred around noodles and beef developed and, in the 20th century, was brought to Taiwan where its popularity rapidly spread among the islanders.
Today, this beef noodle soup, the níuròumiàn—with its various local adaptations to better suit the Taiwanese pallet—is widely considered to be Taiwan’s national dish.
As mentioned above, the Taiwanese have traditionally stayed away from the consumption of beef.
Why is that?
Believe it or not, in the land where the beef noodle soup has become a sort of national dish, the eating of beef was once a major taboo. In places like India and Japan, beef-consumption was also extremely rare in premodern times (and is still rare to this day in India).
As cows were considered sacred in Hinduism, most Indians refrained from eating their flesh. In premodern Japan, Buddhist-inspired imperial edicts discouraged the Japanese from doing the same. In Taiwan, however, the sentiment that promoted the prohibition against beef-consumption was much more familial.
Premodern Taiwan was a largely agrarian society. Before mechanization, cattle and cows were a source of power that helped Taiwanese farmers till the land. As a result of their back-breaking contributions, Taiwan’s bovids were regarded as family by the agricultural communities. Eating their meat would be akin to modern folks eating their pets—an unthinkable prospect, indeed.
Like folks elsewhere, the lives of the Taiwanese were inextricably intertwined with their cattle. But instead of viewing these magnificent creatures as food, the Taiwanese saw them as helpers. Cattle were treated like family who helped grow vital crops that fed hungry mouths.
This special relationship, however, has largely become history as Taiwan developed its far more lucrative technology and service sectors and shed its agrarian past.
In this third and final piece of Taiwanese bovine folklore, we move away from Taiwan’s culinary landscape to its physical landscape.
As an island on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Taiwan experiences daily earthquakes and tremors of varying degrees and severity.
Before modern seismology, the islanders attributed the frequent shaking of the earth to giant slumbering subterranean buffalos.
Rooted in indigenous Formosan folklore, these gentle giants from mythology frequently tossed and turned in their sleep beneath the surface. As they moved their massive bodies, the ground shook violently—leading to earthquakes.
To this day, whenever the earth trembled beneath their feet, Taiwanese grandmothers told their frightened grandchildren not to be afraid.
“It is merely tē-gû hoan-sin,” they’d say—the ground buffalos are rolling over.
Two main kinds of large bovids call Taiwan home: the southern yellow cattle and the water buffalo.
Today, as dairy products become increasingly popular in Taiwan, dairy cows—a relatively recent introduction to the island—can also be found in a handful of Taiwanese ranches and estates.
Taiwan’s first (and rather awkward) encounter with milk-consumption took place sometime in the 18th and 19th centuries. At a time when no dairy cows were raised in Taiwan, farmers resorted to milking the southern yellow cattle to support the bizarre, foreign and eyebrow-raising dietary habits of European and Canadian missionaries active on the island.