Jet-lag again had me going to bed much later than usual (2 a.m.) and waking up earlier than I should have (5:30 a.m.). But, since I was up and awake as early as that, I figured I should take a nice long walk through the rain to the fish market. Unfortunately, when I got there I found that they were closed -- as in permanently shut down. At least that's what a nice English-speaking pork salesman told me. I'm not sure that he knew what he was talking about, though, as the place simply appeared to open later than the individual market stalls surrounding their big, dirty blue building.
I didn't really know what to expect from this place, but I was impressed at what I found. I was there before six, and this guy was already chopping up beef.
There were a great number of fish and other ocean-dwelling creatures in the maze of stalls I walked through. Here's a table full of all kinds of interesting things that had probably been plucked out of the Taiwan Strait, Philippine Sea, or South China Sea just a few hours before.
The next two photos show other tables with fish for sale to early rising mothers and wives, but most of all to local restaurants.
As I made my way through the maze of stalls that sold seemingly everything any Taiwanese family or restaurant could possibly want, I bumped into a man hiding behind a row of roasted pig heads. I was surprised to hear him speak English as I stopped to snap a photo.
He was a nice guy and we were able to communicate better than I would have expected considering where we were. It wasn't long before he asked me if I wanted to try some of his pork, and being game for that sort of thing I said sure. It wouldn't have matter what I said, though, as he was already cutting a sliver of cheek from a pig's head he had on his cutting board before I could answer. The meat wasn't bad at all, aside from being greasy. Once he saw that I could handle a little Taiwanese roasted pig-face he pointed at a tray of humongous pig livers and insisted that I try some. I was a little hesitant, as I wasn't sure if the liver was raw, but he sliced off a big chunk, apparently deaf to my repeated calls that all I needed was a little piece to taste.
It wasn't bad. It had a very mild taste, and with a little imagination it could have been paté. Still, I wasn't really into random pig parts for breakfast, and after thanking the man I decided to leave the market and look for more conventional fare elsewhere.
I ended up wandering into a rather large establishment a few blocks from the market. There was a line of people there, which is always a good sign, and whatever they were cooking looked safe and interesting. When I spotted a woman frying eggs, I decided this would be a good place.
Breakfast became a little comical almost as soon as I entered. I was having trouble communicating what I wanted to eat, but then I heard two of the younger women working there speak Vietnamese. This made asking what they sold, and then ordering breakfast, much easier. Of course, once they found out that I spoke Vietnamese, they wanted to know everything about me. They were really friendly, and we talked for a while. Both of them had married Taiwanese men and were working at a restaurant owned by one of their families.
After I'd finished eating, I asked one of the Vietnamese women for the name and address of their restaurant. She fidgeted around for a while, then handed me a piece of paper with her name and telephone number on it. "Call me," she said. "We'll go around and have fun." I never got the name and address of the restaurant. Nor did I ever call her. I didn't think her husband would like that...
Dinner was going to be special, and I was excited for it. One of Tom's students, who is also a good friend of his, invited us to eat with him an old village called Shenkeng, which is famous for its tofu. His house was nearby, and we intended to pay a short visit to see his family after dinner. Since it was New Year's Eve, we didn't want to impose on them all night, but in the end Tom's friend and his family insisted that we stay. We did. We talked, drank a little Scotch, pieced on snacks, and enjoyed traditionally made Taiwanese tea. Just before midnight we drove to the top of a nearby mountain to watch, across a darkened valley, the world's tallest building, Taipei 101, explode in a bright fireworks display. It was a great night -- something I never thought I'd experience while planning my trip.
I really enjoyed the food we ate in Shengkeng. We entered the village at night, which meant that I couldn't see much of it beyond the restaurants and small shops whose brightly lit fronts lined the narrow, sloping road.
Although I went to bed at around 2:00 a.m., my jetlag had me up and out of my hotel by around 6:30 a.m. Not surprisingly, the city, or at least the district where I was staying, was up market-shopping, eating, and generally bustling about. I wandered around for about 45 minutes to check out what my breakfast options were. I wanted something to start the New Year off right, and I took my time to find it.
I headed down MinSheng W. Rd. and hooked a right at Lane 45, Alley 11. There was a fairly lively market here, at least for around seven in the morning on the first day of the year.
Some stalls were more appetizing than others. Here's one I kind of stared at, dumbfounded, for a while and finally decided to photograph.
This guy had a small but colorful selection of produce and fruit. He seemed pleased when I asked if I could take a photo. Then again, I have no idea what he said to me in Chinese. I wanted to kneel on the ground and bury my face in those beautiful grapes, then run off down the alley, but I controlled myself. I probably should have bought some...
After a while I decided on a breakfast that I found along Wan Quan Street, near the intersection of Minsheng W. Rd. and Nanjing W. Rd. There were a quite a few people eating here, taking their food very seriously, which is always a good sign. Maybe they were just hungover from New Year's Eve.
I have no idea what the name of the small restaurant was, and half of what I ordered was a mystery to me. Luckily one of the people working there knew a bit of English, though I was happy to point at various items and make outlandish eating noises to indicate what I wanted. Most people only had two dishes and a bowl of rice at their table, but, for the sake of "research," I went with twice the normal order. I chose, from top left to bottom right: a delicious, crunchy black mushroom salad with ginger, carrot, and bean sprouts; some type of deep-fried fish that was excellent if a little too bony; a mild tasting soup (rather than order drinks with a meal, people simply slurp on soup) with chopped green onion and a delicious reddish-orange vegetable that I'm not familiar with, but which was refreshingly light and flavorful; cooked winter melon with bits of pork; a rather sweet, sauteed eggplant with a little sliced red chili that was unreal good; and a bowl of white rice.
For all of this I paid a whopping 100 Taiwanese dollars. Which is exactly US$3. Afterward I went to Starbucks (hey, it was the only café open) and paid nearly as much for a small coffee.
For lunch I walked to Dihua Market, which meant venturing out of Zhongshan district and into Ta Tung. As usual, it was raining lightly. Had it not been, I might have continued down Minsheng W. Rd. until hitting the Damshui River, or, changing directly slightly, even walking downtown.
In any case, I didn't find a lot of stalls or restaurants that jumped out at me, but for some reason I decided to stop here (below).
There was a couple sitting at a table in front of the cooking area, and what they were eating looked good to me, so I got the attention of the two women working there and pointed at the customers' bowls before they'd eaten everything. I sat down, and before I could even get my jacket off I was being served two bowls of something I didn't order, and, from what I could tell, the customers at the other table hadn't ordered this food, either. It all looked pretty gross to me, too, especially the cubes bits of pork and pork fat. I'd faced down that hard challenge in Vietnam plenty of times, and I really wasn't in the mood to do so here.
As for the soup-looking thing, that liquid was viscous. There's a reason why those green onions on top look buoyant. I could have let my face fall into my bowl and my nose wouldn't have gotten close to the bottom. Oh well, I thought. It was bound to happen at some point: I'd mis-order food, or I just wouldn't be able to finish what I'd ordered and be forced to leave it behind, uneaten.
I was so afraid of the pork fat on rice that I started with the viscous soup and what looked like deep-fried blood cakes floating in it. It was great! It was a mixture of fried chicken and white fish, with a little boiled cabbage. I didn't drink the soup because I thought I might have a heart attack before I finished it, but I happily ate the meaty parts. They were incredibly tender and didn't get weighed down by the liquid in which they sat.
What surprised me even more were those fatty pork cubes. They literally melted on my tongue, turning into a salty, roasted pork flavored sauce, which of course went great with the steamed rice. There was no need to chew anything but the rice. Some weird science was going on inside my mouth, but I wasn't complaining.
On way my home from Dihua Market I came across a few dessert options. Although they looked interesting, I passed on them.
It must have taken us forty-five minutes to get through the main thoroughfare of the market. If empty, I'm sure we could have walked through it in five.
On the night we went, and Tom says it's this way every night, Shinlin was packed to the hilt. Not just with bodies, but also with often kitschy goods and cheap, unattractive clothing being sold. The mass of bodies moved forward at a snail's pace, and the food being sold, once we found it, was nothing to write home about.
Given how famous Shinlin is, I was surprised to find that it doesn't hold a candle to Liaoning Night Market, which I much preferred to this one.