Monday, February 2, 2009

Taipei (Part 1)

When traveling abroad, one often gets the opportunity to search an unpleasant situation for a silver lining. In my case, here in Taipei, I figured that six days of ceaseless rain would force me into just such a search. Luckily, I found that Taipei specializes in silver linings, and my search was over before it had even begun.

One reason for this is that Taipei is incredibly vibrant. Talk about a city that never sleeps; I was out twice until after 2:30 a.m. (a matter of jetlag more than lifestyle) and encountered crowded sidewalks, taxi-filled streets, and countless eateries open for business. And when I was up and wandering the city at 6:00 a.m., markets were already bustling and plenty of street vendors were ready for business.

Another reason is that the city is huge and infinitely explorable. The sheer variety of things being sold, displayed, and prepared for people’s consumption is staggering. There’s virtually no uniformity in these types of things, which is quite different from what one too often finds in the U.S. Sure, there are chain stores, but they don’t dominate the urban landscape in any noticeable way. And while the city’s architecture isn’t all that much to look at, neither is it boring. There’s an eclectic mix that works here.

Taipei is abundantly there on every street corner, in every tiny alley, its sights and smells and sounds commingling like one finds in any of the world’s truly major cities. And any language difficulties a non-Chinese or –Taiwanese speaker encounters is more than made up for by the friendliness of the Taiwanese. Their friendliness alone makes the city amazingly accessible. It’s something I haven’t found nearly as much in places such as Thailand, Japan, or Hong Kong.

Can you tell that I was taken by Taipei?

Other than losing my glasses, I had nothing but great experiences in Taipei, and I left wondering why the city and country is not a more popular travel destination. I hardly saw any Westerners here.

The food alone is reason to visit. It’s cheap, incredibly varied, healthy, and invariably delicious. The city’s many night markets are guaranteed to impress any visitor and make them wish that the food culture in their own country would open its eyes to Taipei and take after it.

Although I have two more days here, I’m happy to say that I have yet to eat any Western food. I did try a cream-filled pastry yesterday afternoon, but I couldn’t get past my first bite and threw it away – my only bad food experience, and one that was with something that isn’t particularly Taiwanese in origin anyway. (Imagine biting not into cardboard but rather balsa wood, with the cream in the middle resembling hard unsalted butter. I can’t fault anyone but myself for this, though – the people in the shop were friendly and wished me a happy new year, which is just the kind of thing to win me over in a foreign country.)

Well over half of what I’ve eaten here goes beyond my abilities to describe food. I order things I’ve never seen before, and sometimes I’m served things people mistakenly think I want. What I end up eating is almost always a mystery, but I’m also always pleasantly surprised by what I stuff in my mouth.

December 29th

On my first night in town, I headed to a part of Zhongshan district to meet my friend, Tom, who lives in Taipei and teaches at a local university. We headed through the red light district, which seemed pretty tame to me, to a little hole in the wall that he's been going to for years.

I have no idea what the place is called, as I can't read Chinese, and Tom didn't know either, even though he's been coming here for years. It was a very intimate place, with perhaps eight tables, and customers regularly stayed for hours, like we did whenever we came, engaging with the people working there.

I'm not sure what this vegetable was, but it was light, crispy, and good

I let Tom do the honors and order everything for us. I was pleased by his choices, which were varied, spicy, and pretty healthy overall. Ah, and they were cheap, too, like so much Taiwanese food is.

We ordered two plates of lightly sauteed green vegetables with garlic, a lamb dish with gravy and what appeared to be water spinach (but wasn't), and some very spicy but delicious General Tsai's chicken with peanuts and red chilies.

Boiled spinach sauteed with garlic

Lamb and veggies in a brown gravy

If anyone knows who General Tsai was and what his relationship to chicken happened to be, I'd like to know

I don't remember how much it cost, but it probably ended up at around $6 per person, including a couples rounds of Taiwan Beer.

Tom discussing Taiwan's geopolitical vulnerability vis-a-vis China with our waitress. No, no, he was actually ordering a late dinner for us.

We stayed until 2:30 a.m., eating and catching up with each other. When we were done, I hailed a taxi to return to my hotel. On my ride home through the cool, misty night, I saw that many new food vendors had set up grills and stands on the sidewalks. They hadn't been there when we walked over from Tom's neighborhood. It was comforting to see, somehow, all that food on the sidewalk.

December 30th

I woke up early and headed for an area I'd explored a bit the night before. I believe this is Herchiang Street, which is only two blocks from where I was staying. I wandered up and down several blocks of this street at least twice before deciding on this small dumplings shop. The smell of steamed ginger, fresh dumpling dough, and hot soy milk took hold of me and drew me in. By the time I sat down I was salivating like a dog.

My first breakfast in Taiwan. Dumplings!

The woman who ran the restaurant is originally from Malaysia and spoke English fluently. Her dumplings and soy milk were insanely good. And although I told myself not to eat at the same place twice during my six days in Taipei, it's going to be hard to stay away from here.

She suggested a mix of dumplings, and who was I to disagree?

Vegetable dumpling on the left and pork with chopped onions on the right

For the two orders of dumplings and a large cup of hot soy milk, I paid something like 60 Taiwanese dollars, which is just under US$2.

Late that afternoon, after hitting the Fine Arts Museum, a teahouse, and several of Taipei's better-known temples, I returned to Herchiang Street and got a light meal that was an interesting and successful combination of Japanese udon and oden.

This place was called Bodao Mambo (after a popular song, apparently) and also operated a juice bar

The man in the photo above was very nice and spoke English fairly well. The soup pictured below was light and tasty, and only set me back about US$2. It was a perfect antidote to a cold, rainy day like today.

The final product

From what I could gather, Bodao Mambo is located at 102 Herchiang Street, and is open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. If you want to call ahead of time, their telephone number is 02-2518-4619.

In the evening I decided to hit Liaoning Market, my first night market in Taipei. Unfortunately, the rainy weather turned worse just as I set out on foot to find it, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm much. After a twenty minute walk I came across one of Taipei's many versions of food heaven.

Apparently, getting here at 6:00 p.m., as I did, is unfashionable. This places stays open until well after 2 a.m.

The selection here was stunning. Just check out the fish-on-ice display, which would be impressive in a museum much less in a night market. Those fish were so fresh-looking that I could barely stop myself from running inside and biting all their little heads off.

Who knew that stacking fish on ice could be so artistic?

I'm not sure what the restaurant specialized in, but from the rest of the display in front of their dining area it could have been hot-pot.

There were also a few skewer stands with both meat and vegetable selections. I nearly raided this vendor's skewer stash, but since I'd snacked on some skewers the night before I decided to branch out.

I must have walked the length of this market, which spans three long blocks, at least three times before deciding to buy what I can only describe as gyoza-sticks. The people running the place didn’t smile at me a single time, perhaps because they thought I was a suspicious character for having walked back and forth before their entrance a half dozen times before placing an order. The gyoza-sticks were light in flavor, a perfect combination of dumpling dough and pork filling, without the greasy finish one sometimes comes across in the U.S.

What I call gyoza-sticks

The second place I went to was a total crapshoot. I had no idea what they were selling, which was part of the allure, but they were also very friendly, encouraging me to sample their food before committing. They also had a covered interior that looked very warm, which was another factor in my deciding on this place.

Like the woman pictured below, this glass case caught my attention as I walked by. From the fresh fish and octopus to the sake bottles heating up in a basin of water, I had a feeling this might be a good choice.

Unfortunately, the bin pictured below didn't really seem all that appetizing, but I liked the fact that at first glance I couldn't even guess what any of the food was.

At any rate, I pointed to a few items, and two women working there quickly pulled god-knows-what out of the basin and arranged them onto a plate. The older woman poured some peanut sauce on top of everything, ensuring that my meal wouldn't range beyond the most limited of color spectrums. I wasn't exactly thrilled by what she set down before me...until I smelled it.

On the back left of the plate is a slab of boiled, fried tofu, which mixed well with the peanuty sauce; to the immediate right of that is daikon radish, which was incredibly juicy; and to the right of that is what I believe was reconstituted fish with a bittermelon "crust." In the front, as you might be able to guess, was pork wrapped in cabbage, a popular dish in many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The cost of the meal was less than US$2.

These women were very friendly, and, like everyone I met in Taipei, forgiving of my inability to express what I wanted

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  1. I want some of the lamb and vegetables, and anything resembling dumplings! Thanks for the glimpse of Taipei streetlife and dining.

  2. I want all of it all over again, to be honest. Next time you head to the Philippines, you may want to consider stopping over in Taipei. As you surely know, the two countries are very close to one another -- though of course that doesn't necessarily mean they're convenient to visit on the same trip! Anyway, thanks for taking the time to have a look!

  3. General Tsai, huh? I'm taiwanese and i've never heard of him. But that dish looks like kung-pao chicken to me! I never liked western food in taiwan, they've all been asianized in someway, so u mad the right choice exploring the night markets :D

  4. Ah! Thanks for the correction. I seem to recall having a General-something dish once as well as a Colonel-something dish. I wondered why so much of the food had military sounding names, but now I realize that I probably didn't understand much of what I was told.

    "Your Kung Pao chicken," the waiter says as he sets it down before me.

    "Mm," I reply. "And in what war did he serve?"

    The waiter looks at me uncomfortably and then hurries to another table -- far, far away from my non sequiturs.

    (That kind of thing happens to me in foreign countries a lot.)

    If I remember correctly, I didn't have any Western food in Taiwan, though I did try a cream-filled pastry...only to promptly spit it out. So I think you're right about Western food there. I found the same to be true in other Asian countries. If you couldn't tell, the night markets blew me away...