Taiwan is famous for its night markets– crowded, carnival-esque bazaars where people gather to feast on everything from oyster omlettes to ice cream. Last weekend, I went with some friends of friends of friends to sample some Taiwanese snacks in Keelung. About half an hour away from Taipei by train, Keelung is a slightly seedy port city that attracts hordes of hungry visitors to its famed night market.
I’ve said this before many, many times, but it probably bears repeating: it’s really hot in Taiwan. Even at night, the humidity is suffocating, so while we were wading through the crowds in search of something tasty, I started sweating. We’re talking buckets of sweat. Dripping down my face and most places that only a select few and my doctor have seen.
I deferred to my guides about what to eat, partly because they were locals (at least relatively) and partly because I was so distracted and unnerved by the heat and my own profuse perspiration. We ended up at a noodle soup stand. Hot noodle soup. This is something I will never understand about the Taiwanese no matter how long I live here. Though it’s becoming more and more common to drink cold beverages (especially amongst younger generations), there is a belief that consuming something below room temperature is bad for you.
It seems counter-intuitive to me to offer someone a cup of hot tea when it’s 100 degrees outside, but it’s the thing to do here. The other day, I went to a meeting and as usual, I was sweating after a short walk from the subway. Some of the film industry’s biggest heavyweights were in attendance and the room looked like the U.N. with its large elliptical tables and slender microphones at every seat. I was relieved to see a cup of water in front of me and gulped it down in an effort to replenish some of the of fluids I had lost through my pores and to gain some sense of composure.
I immediately started choking. The water was hot. Hot enough to steep tea in. Why on earth on a hot summer day would you serve scalding hot water to people? Because this is Taiwan. So there’s no such thing as a refreshing cold summer soup. No Taiwanese equivalent of a gazpacho. People consume hot noodle soup when it’s scorching outside with as much enthusiasm as they would on a cold winter’s night.
Well, when in Rome (or Keelung as it were)… so I sucked it up and sat down amidst the screaming waiters and the crying children and had some hot noodle soup. I had to stop between bites to wipe away my sweat, but it was pretty tasty. The soup was filled with pork, shrimp, vegetables and very wide flat rice noodles topped with fried shallots.
The next stop was tempura. Because the Japanese ruled Taiwan for about fifty years, a lot of their culinary influences remain to this day. But Taiwanese tempura should not be confused with the traditional Japanese kind with its thin, crispy golden fried batter. Taiwanese tempura is more like dense, sticky Korean rice cake except it’s made out of fish. The kind we got was drizzled in a sort of sweet and sour sauce. I wasn’t crazy about it.
We then moved on to rin bing, also called spring rolls but nothing like the fried things you get for free with your dinner from a Chinese take out place. Bearing more of a resemblance to savory crepes or burritos, they are very thin wraps filled with pork, carrots, cabbage, peanuts, mushrooms, corn amongst other things. I loved the harmony of colors, tastes and textures created by the hodgepodge of ingredients wrapped up in an easy to hold package. It’s pretty much the perfect street food.
But I was still seriously sweating. Relief came in the form of mango pao pao bing(shaved ice.) I don’t have a picture because I was too busy shoving it down my throat to photograph it. My mother warned me against eating anything made with ice while I’m here, assuring me that it’s a one way ticket to diarrhea town, but I didn’t care. The crunchy icicles felt so good in my mouth and I suddenly felt ten degrees cooler. I swear if I hadn’t had eaten it, I’m not sure I would’ve made it.
I thankfully didn’t get sick as my mother predicted but devouring ice so quickly did make my stomach feel strange. I couldn’t eat another thing after that. Maybe the Taiwanese are right to stick to room temperature beverages. But aren’t they also the ones who created shaved ice as a tasty way to beat the heat? I don’t know what to think anymore except that I need to pack extra kleenex in my purse the next time I visit a night market to wipe away all the sweat.