My mother has a theory that “Western” food is better in Taiwan than it is in the West. After spending years eating what she thought was American and European food, she was disappointed when she actually came to America and tasted what it had to offer. So on her suggestion, I decided to try the kind of food I can always get in New York but cooked to suit the Taiwanese palate in a manner my mother deems superior.
My good friend Elaine owns a lovely chocolate shop called Casa del Cacao in the busy Eastern District of Taipei and after visiting her store one evening, I decided to have dinner in the area and stopped into a nearby Italian restaurant. Another reason I decided to go to a European restaurant is that anyone who knows anything about Chinese food knows that you have to eat it “family style.”
In high school, one of my friends went with a big group of people to a Chinese restaurant before a Homecoming dance and everyone ordered their own plate of General Tsao’s chicken. It was a disaster. With Chinese food, you have to order a variety of dishes: a meat dish, a seafood dish, definitely a vegetable and usually a soup and everyone shares. If you eat alone, you can’t possibly order all those things unless you’re Henry VIII.
The funny thing is that in New York, Chinese food is widely acknowledged as cuisine for lonely, single people. They might as well plaster Cathy comics on the side of those white cardboard containers. But if you eat it the way you’re supposed to, you need at least three or four people; more, if possible. In Chinese culture, family is inherently built into the way they eat. Most adults in Taiwan still live with their parents until they marry and oftentimes, their parents’ parents live in the same household.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t bento box-type meals for single ladies like me or that I couldn’t wander around some of the many “small eats”stands Taiwan is famous for and snack on a few things or go into the basement food court of one of Taipei’s numerous malls and have a little something. But I wanted to just sit down and have a decent meal.
Almost all Western restaurants in Taipei have the option of a prix fixe or set menu, usually described as options A or B.
The first course was a squash soup, which was a little thin and bland.
The second course was a mundane iceberg lettuce salad with some sprouts. There was a cherry tomato I ate before I realized I ought to take a picture. It was covered in a cloyingly sweet raspberry vinaigrette.
I was starting to doubt my mother’s assertion about European cuisine in Taiwan until the main course came. It was pasta with a creamy but not too rich sauce that had very generous chunks of crab meat. It was pretty damn delicious. The plate was served with a rather impressive looking crab shell. When I first saw it, I was a little nervous. I was already wedging the book I was reading under plates so I could eat with both hands and wasn’t in the mood to work for my dinner.
There’s a terrific satisfaction that comes from cracking open crabs and digging around for flesh and finding a plump piece, but sometimes you just want it to be done for you. I was in the latter sort of mood. It reminded me of a date I once went on. I was intrigued by empress crab claws on the menu but confessed to my date that I didn’t want to bother if they were going to be hard to eat. He, in a very gallant manner, asked the waitress if they were, in fact, difficult to eat and she said no.
The flesh of the tiny claws was already exposed but there was still that weird cartilage thing sandwiched between the succulent parts and the only way I could manage to eat them was to carefully scrape piece by piece with my knife. I took an inordinate amount of time and long after he finished his own meal, he was forced to sit there and watch as I slowly ate thread-sized pieces. It was embarrassing.
But luckily, this time, when I turned over the crab shell, it was empty. Purely a garnish. All the crab meat was already on the plate.
For dessert, I had a sort of panna cotta. It was very milky and silky (not as firm as traditional panna cotta) and even though I told myself I’d only eat half, I used that little spoon to scrape out every last bit.
The meal also included a beverage and I chose an iced milk tea for which Taiwan is famous. It’s similar to what my British friends call “Builder’s Tea”: strong, milky and sweet except served cold and with a straw.
The cost for this entire meal (service included)? About $11 US. I couldn’t even get the entree for that price in New York. So maybe my mom was right. Ugh.