For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently in Taipei working on a film. Yesterday, I traveled to Taoyuan to visit my father’s old college buddy and his family. We had lunch at a funny little place that serves Hakka cuisine and is full of what, the owner explained at length, were Chinese antiques.
Overall, it was pretty good, but some of the dishes became monotonous after a while. It seemed that one after the other had red chilies, scallions and garlic in the same sort of sauce and were all inexplicably garnished with cucumber slices. They began to look and taste more or less the same, but among the stand out dishes was short ribs baked inside bitter mellon.
I’m not a huge fan of bitter melon because I am extremely sensitive to bitter tastes. Funnily enough, the phrase for enduring hardship in Chinese is literally “eating bitter,” so when people say that they can’t “eat bitter” they mean they cannot endure hardship. I suppose that’s true of me in every sense, but I enjoyed the tender ribs and the chili and peanut sauce inside the bitter melon enough that I forced myself to endure a bit of hardship.
We also had an excellent, exceedingly tender steamed fish that was served with three different dipping sauces. A lot of restaurants in the area are famous for their fish. They take one gigantic fish and cook it 20 different ways for each table.
I think my favorite dish of the meal besides the fish was the bamboo shoot with salted egg. The bamboo was coated very lightly in the salted egg and fried with (you guessed it) red chili, scallion and garlic. Anything fried and salty is bound to be tasty and I happen to love the weirdly neutral but satisfying taste of bamboo shoot and the fresh crunch it always packs.
After lunch, we went to Tashi Park, which I can safely say is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever visited. Chiang Kai-Shek’s enemies in ruling Democratic Progressive Party discarded all memorials of the former leader, but statues and busts salvaged from elementary schools, city plazas and municipal buildings from all over the country have been gathered into one giant tribute to end all tributes.
It looks like that scene in Being John Malkovichwhen John Malkovich goes inside himself and everyone looks like John Malkovich and everything they say is “Malkovich.”
When I say it’s oppressively hot in Taiwan, I mean it in the most literal sense. I don’t think I can convey to anyone who hasn’t been here exactly how uncomfortable it is. I happen to have the severe misfortune of being the sort of person who, for whatever reason, sweats profusely. My brother likes to say that I sweat more waiting for the subway than Roger Federer does playing five sets of tennis.
Imagine a stuffy New York City subway station in the middle of August on the most humid day and multiply it by about ten and you might be somewhere in the ballpark of how sultry it is here. I almost fainted about half a dozen times after losing probably a liter of water through my pores and could feel myself getting slightly irritible towards my incredibly gracious and attentive hosts.
After looking at what seemed like every Chiang Kai-Shek likeness ever created, we sought refuge in the air conditioning of a place called Lakeside Coffee, which overlooks a breathtaking landscape. I had a very tasty coconut milk tea and was slowly restored back to a semblance of my former self.
When we got back to Taipei, we had dinner at this really fantastic noodle place called Du Hsiao Yueh. Their speciality is an amazing rich and garlicky broth. It’s so tasty that one spoonful makes you wonder how many have tried and failed to imitate its recipe during the restaurant’s 120 year history and how many secrets have been handed down from generation to generation. It really is that extraordinary.
Before dinner, I had a scallion pancake from a street vendor and I had the experience that I’ve had a few times since arriving in Taipei, which is tasting something that is seemingly familiar but in fact tasting it for the first time. I had this experience at Din Tai Fung, the famed dumpling restaurant. I’ve eaten probably thousands of dumplings in my life, but after taking one bite into the soft, handmade skin with its delicate folds and the unbelievably fresh ingredients, I realized I had never truly tasted dumplings before. Every dumpling I have from now on until the day I die will be compared to those dumplings and I am sure that they will all fall short.
Similarly, the scallion pancake I had on the street last night has ruined me for all others. I was never particularly fond of scallion pancakes. Those dry, dense, joyless discs of dough were never appealing, but what I had last night should have a different name altogether. Piping hot, soft, pliable and flaky (almost like the roti canai I so love at Nyonya), I could’ve eaten a hundred.
I spoke to my parents on Skype when I got home and my mother cautioned me against gaining too much weight while I’m here. I’m definitely indulging myself a bit too much, but it’s worth it.