It was the morning of July 5th, around 6AM, and we had just landed in Taipei, Taiwan. Our suitcases were in the back of the van, and we were all staring out the window at a city that we hadn’t seen in 5 years. “This looks…different,” I said, and my brother chimed in, agreeing, “Yea…this looks different!”
“This doesn’t look like where Grandma lives.”
Our car rolled to a stop and our uncle was helping us out the doors before we realized – we weren’t at Grandma’s at all. We weren’t dropping off luggage or taking naps yet. We headed towards a nondescript building that looked like a drab, hidden shopping centre, and saw a line that snaked out the front doors. At the end of the line stood two Japanese girls who were dressed to the nines.
“This is where to get the best doujiang and youtiao [Taiwanese breakfast items],” our uncle explained. “For some reason, it’s especially popular with Japanese tourists.”
It was 6AM, the day had begun, and we were here to eat.
Recently, I spent 10 days in Taipei visiting family. I’m devoting an entire post here to talk about eating in Taiwan, because going to Taiwan inevitably means you go to eat. Some of my vacation was also devoted to independent exploring and wandering, but the main focus was to eat. “Just try everything once,” my brothers and I would repeat, and it became a kind of motto. In previous trips to Taiwan as children, we would shirk from some of the less familiar and palatable-looking food offered to us, but this time, maybe because we were grown up, maybe because we knew a lot of delicious food would not be available to us in America, or maybe because we’ve been influenced by watching a lot of Anthony Bourdain, we resolved to be open.
In the week before my trip, I semi-joked that I had to fast before my trip to Asia, because I knew that every day in Taiwan would be like eating 6-7 meals. Although I was joking, the amount of food that was presented to us was actually quite on par. Lunch and dinner would involve plates and plates of a la carte – and AFTER meals, it wasn’t uncommon to hit the night markets for street food, or grab dessert or snacks somewhere. In this way, it really felt like we were constantly eating. Matched with our determination to try everything, eating quickly became not a leisure, but a calculated sport. To eat as much as possible without dying, I started to treat eating like a serious partier calculates alcohol consumption and timing for the max amount of fun. I established a quick set of rules for eating:
–At meals, eat only until not hungry. Never eat until you are stuffed, because the possibility of dessert or getting MORE food after the meal is rather high. You don’t want to miss dessert. This brings us to Rule 2:
–Try everything. You can maximize the amount that you eat by trying SMALL AMOUNTS of everything. This is the Top Chef method. Tasting something that you really like doesn’t mean you have to eat a whole bowl of it. Because there is bound to be something else that you really like offered to you within the next five minutes.
–Have males present with you at all mealtimes. Or, to clarify – eat with people with big appetites. In Asia, people will offer you food, and it’s impolite (at least in my eyes), to reject or not finish things offered to you. This is especially the case if the food offered is home-cooked, or bought for you. I spent the majority of this trip with my two brothers, which turned out to be very good for my waistline, and very convenient at mealtimes. I would try as much as I could of everything…and then hand my bowls over to my brothers, who were only too happy to eat my portion as well as their own. Having the two of them around meant that our bowls/plates/cups were always entirely clean by the end of all meals.
-Lastly – If you eat something that you don’t like…stop eating it immediately. This is a game in which you are maximizing the amount of tasty, delicious food that you can ingest. Anything you eat that you don’t actually like is just taking up real estate in your stomach, in place of other, AWESOME food. So it’s okay not to eat much of stuff you don’t like. Chances are, other people like it and will take care of it for you.
A while ago, I heard an interview on NPR where Eddie Huang, NYC Chef/TV Star/Author, told Leonard Lopate that Taiwan was “the best eating island in the world.”
“Even over NYC?” Leonard replied incredulously.
NYC has an incredibly diverse range of food unseen elsewhere in the world, but I would have to agree with Eddie – Taiwan is the top eating island, because it is an entire island specializing in ONE culture of food. You will see food there obviously influenced by Chinese, Hong Kong, Japanese and even American food, but overall, the food in Taiwan is distinctively Taiwanese. In my short time there, I got so used to seeing Taiwanese food everywhere that the rare glimpses of “American” food I saw looked so foreign and out of place that they seemed inedible and almost creepy. For example – have you ever seen a frozen pizza in Asia? AVOID. At a local supermarket, I browsed shelves and shelves full of unrecognizable sauces and ramen noodles, and then spotted some jars of peanut butter. Have you ever stared at a jar of peanut butter in a foreign setting? I think the only comparison I can offer is looking at a jar of Australian Marmite or Belgian Speculoos for the first time. I’ve eaten peanut butter all my life, and in that Asian supermarket, I stared at the murky brown jar and thought, “Wow. Peanut butter. Who came up with THAT idea?”
In Taiwan, the bread is fluffier, even “cuter”, the soups more flavorful, the desserts less focused on sweetness. Soy products are big. Red bean paste, glutinous rice, taro and silken tofu are common dessert ingredients. Despite this seeming “healthiness,” very little about Taiwanese food seems to focus at all on healthiness, which is vastly different from the U.S. Carbs are everywhere, and you eat noodles and white rice with every meal. I didn’t see a speck of brown rice the entire time I was there.
Texture – particularly foods with a soft and gelatinous but unctuous “bite” to them, are favored. (Think of mochi as a classic example.) They even have a term for foods with this quality, known as just “Q” – as in, “This food is very Q.” It was fascinating to me how much texture mattered in Taiwanese food, because it’s just not a quality you seek out in U.S. food. It reminded me of the reactions I’ve seen of American folks trying bubble tea for the first time, which is usually bafflement at needing to chew something defined as a beverage.
Lastly, I’ll end this entry by highlighting some of the meals I had while in Taiwan:
–Eating at a “Hot Pot” (Huo Guo) restaurant. At this type of restaurant, every seat at the table has its pot. You fill it with water, set it to boil, then hop over to the “buffet,” which is filled with meats, fresh vegetables, and frozen seafood. Pick what you want, and when you return to your seat, you dump everything into the boiling water and wait for it all to cook.
As first-timers, my brothers and I were a bit bewildered, and struggled with this concept. We couldn’t figure out how to turn on the burners, things were overboiled, my brother put in way too much cabbage, etc. At one point, my brother complained, “I feel like a white boy.” We all agreed, though, that if we ever did Hot Pot a second time, we would be expert pros.
–Going to a local street market. The street market is where you get to see people painstakingly make mindblowing food right in front of you, and where the “best stuff” have telltale long lines. One stall with an especially astronomical line was for a type of food I’ll describe as a Vietnamese-like burrito.
–Dimsum with extended family. I ate this meal after spending an entire day basically hiking through tea plantations. There isn’t much to be said here that would be better than a picture, so here’s a picture:
All in all…great trip. If there was a way to teleport to Taiwan during mealtimes, I would probably do that.