Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Taipei (Part 2)

December 31

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.

Lineup of pig heads

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.

The guy in the white shirt sawed off a hunk of the brown liver lying in that metal tray and handed it to me. How to say no in a situation like that? Ah, but I'm glad I did it...

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.

The steamed bun was tasty, and so was the hot soy milk. But the egg and beef wrapped in sticky rice was so dry and tasteless it was almost inedible. This was the only food I encountered in Taiwan that I didn't like.

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.

Fried tofu with peanut sauce and cilantro

Our first dish was a thick warm slab of tofu, which came fried and topped with peanuts, peanut sauce, and a bit of cilantro. I loved it. It was like a peanut butter sandwich with sweet fried tofu in place of bread. Which is a really bad description, I admit. And it will seem even more off-base with the mention that when I bit into the firm tofu its juices spilled warmly into my mouth, mixing with the various sweet flavors. Anyway, it was tasty.

The next dish was boiled chicken -- simple but good. The skin was a little rubbery, but the meat was tender.

Boiled chicken

The most exotic dish we had, however, was stinky tofu. This is meant to be unpalatable to most Westerners, and I was prepared to struggle mightily to eat an acceptable portion of it, but I found it entirely mild in its stink factor. (Maybe they made it as mild as possible when they saw me and Tom walk in.) Its most distinctive traits were that it had an interesting, slightly fuzzy texture, and was spicier than I had expected it to be. Andrew Zimmern, in his entertaining Bizarre Foods show, wasn't able to stomach this dish, but from what I understand he had a much heartier, much more putrescent version of it at the intimidatingly named "Dai's House of Unique Stink" in Taipei. The version I tried was in fact fermented, but not revoltingly so, and I believe its sauce, called mala, included goose blood.

Stinky tofu

And while the photo below is hardly flattering, the dish was very tasty. In fact, it was my favorite dish at this restaurant.

Fried fish in sweet chili sauce. This photo doesn't do the dish justice.

Our last dish consisted of fried squares of tofu topped with chopped scallions and accompanied by a mixed salad. The brown sauce in which it sat was disturbingly reminiscent of fermented shrimp paste, and to me this was the real stinky tofu. I ate several pieces, but not happily. Its strong aroma stayed with me all night, unfortunately, even after I'd had time to return home, shower, and brush my teeth (twice). Oddly, no one else detected the strong flavor of the sauce.

Fried tofu and veggies. To me, this was the real stinky tofu. I could hardly eat it.

Afterward, as I said, we enjoyed each other's company all evening leading up to the New Year's fireworks. Everyone here spoke English -- the kids' English abilities were impressively advanced -- which of course made communicating much easier, especially since I don't speak Chinese.

After dinner at Nankou's home. His family was great, and they made New Year's Eve a special treat for me.

January 1

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.

Small market area off of Minsheng W. Rd. on New Year's Day

Some stalls were more appetizing than others. Here's one I kind of stared at, dumbfounded, for a while and finally decided to photograph.

I'm sure all of it tastes good, but there's a little too much "brown" going on here for me

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 wandered down and alley, found this, and lunged for an empty table before anyone else took it

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.

My first breakfast of the year. So much better than the cereal and fruit I normally have in Hawaii...

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.

Moon cakes for the New Year. They look nice, but they're not my favorite. To me, they're the Chinese equivalent of Christmas fruit cakes.

I stopped in a café called Dante's for a "Shaken Coffee" (black coffee with whipped cream on top -- ugh). I'm used to Vietnamese coffee, even in Hawaii, and the coffee quality in Taiwan disappointed me. However, they did have a lot of nice cafes.

Dinner was a bit more exciting. Tom and I met up at Jiantan Station and made our way to Shinlin Night Market. I was surprised to find Tom somewhat less than enthused at the prospect of going to the country's biggest night market and getting food. It wasn't long before I had joined Tom in his perspective.

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.

Candied cherry tomatoes. I tried them. It was like biting into a light bulb and finding warm, syrupy tomato juice inside.

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.

This seemed like the best place to refuel with food. It was off of the shopping thoroughfares and within sight of the MRT station.

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  1. I love the shot of the pigs heads. From a cook's perspective and an artistic one. Envious! You got to eat pig face.
    I'd love to try the candied cherry tomatoes- your description has me intrigued. Are they just skewered then dipped in a hot sugar syrup?
    Great stories!

  2. Yes, I got to eat pig face AND raw pig’s liver. And at 6 a.m. no less. But I definitely prefer sampling both of these for breakfast than candied cherry tomatoes. I think your guess at how they’re made is probably spot on. What was most surprising, even more so than the hot liquid burst of tomato juice inside, was how thick the candied shell was. I was expecting a thin layer of syrup but instead found myself with a centimeter’s worth of hardened sugar to bite through. I have a photo of my friend’s face at the moment the sensation hit him. I was thinking of posting it, but it’s not exactly a heart-warming sight. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. o wow, you visited a traditional food market! That's the last place i'd take any visiting friend of mine to...the peculiar market smell and the wet floors are enough to freak them out. Kudos for tasting the pig's cheeek though, eeek! Your story about the vietnamese ladies made me laugh out loud. Mail-order brides have become very popular for the past 10 years so i hear a lot of these stories. Sigh... poor husband of hers! The little fried tofu squares ARE the real stinky tofu! I didn't like them at first but it grows on you, maybe you'll enjoy it on your next visit to taiwan :D

  4. I'm surprised you'd be wary about taking a friend to a traditional Taiwanese market! I absolutely love those places. I find that "the peculiar market smell" changes according to the area I happen to be in, and after six years in Vietnam the Taiwanese market seemed truly high end. The wet floors are fine just as long as they're not wet from entrails and the like. And that's funny about the stinky tofu! My dining companions (including another American) couldn't smell OR taste the stink, but they thought the mild tasting one was much stranger. I'm glad to hear this, as I thought I might have lost my mind for an evening. And I can see how they'd grow on you; I can't explain this other than to say that it's happened with other foods before, especially Vietnamese nước mắm. Thanks for the comment!