When I went to Thailand last year, I stayed with my friend Alexander and his surprisingly non-French boyfriend Bordeaux. The pair showed me a wonderful time in and around Bangkok, and it was fitting that I experienced Thailand for the first time with their guidance because it was their blogs that made me want to go there in the first place.
Bordeaux’s Marita Says and Alexander’s Primitive Culture are not just enviable; I actually do envy them. Their tantalizing photography, decadent recipes, lucid yet succinct writing, and rapidity of posting are all things that make me feel very inadequate as a fellow food and travel blogger. It’s a good thing I don’t visit the same places they do or I’d probably just give up.
Now, I am in Taiwan, and I find myself in the frustrating/wonderful position of being somewhere that Bordeaux and Alexander have already been. It’s frustrating because I feel like I can’t really add much to their already excellent posts about the island; it’s wonderful because I can use those posts as a very unique travel guide.
Or at least I can to a certain extent. Since I’m visiting Taiwan (and Burma and Thailand) as a field agent for my company, I have annoyingly little control over what I get to see, do, and eat. That’s not to say the trip hasn’t been awesome so far and I haven’t seen, done, and eaten some pretty amazing things. But it’s weird being more or less told where to go on your vacation. Then again, this isn’t a vacation.
Luckily, I did have a bit of free time in Taipei. Taipei is an interesting city that reminded me a bit of Pusan, and although it boasts a vibrant food scene and a variety of intriguing local specialties, I found the culinary landscape a bit difficult to take in with only a few free hours to spare in two short days. The breakfast at my hotel was, of course, worthless, as was the dinner provided on one of the coach tours I was forced to take. The tour itself was actually fairly interesting, and it brought me to Huaxi Market where I tried snake soup… but the meal they gave us? Tasty enough, but completely safe and generic: all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue and Cantonese hotpot. Yawn.
This is where Alexander and Bordeaux came to the rescue; Primitive Culture in particular had some fantastic posts on food in Taipei. I didn’t really plan to follow Alexander’s lead so precisely, but, completely by chance, I kept finding things that he and Bordeaux had eaten. The first “Taiwan treat” I found was a slice of chocolate Swiss roll decorated like a log cabin, at a cafe near Longshan Temple. The little cake struck me as very Japanese – I was reminded of one of Kitakyushu’s more dubious meibutsu, the roll cake.
Initially I was very surprised at how deeply Japanese food and culture in general is ingrained into modern Taiwanese culture. Of course, this makes a lot of sense, considering that Taiwan was a colony of Japan for half a century and today remains on the receiving end of a constant stream of Japanese pop culture and Japanese tourists. So the little log cabin roll cake and a number of similarly kawaii confections sold in Taiwan may be derived from Japan’s adoration of delicate pseudo-European sweets; or it may be purely coincidental that the Taiwanese have developed a similar fetish independently of Japanese influence. At any rate, it was as soft and delicious as it was adorable.
The next night I was mine to enjoy “at leisure,” as we say in the biz. So I hightailed it to Shilin Night Market, by all accounts the best night market in Taipei; here I was delighted to find and taste a number of things highlighted in Primitive Culture. First off was shaved ice, which is a sort of no-brainer when it comes to eating in Taipei, but I was certainly more determined to have some after reading Alexander’s post about it. I decided to forego the typical fruit toppings in favor of something more uniquely Taiwanese: peanut jam, almond jelly, and condensed milk. The mountainous dessert was like powdery snow, melting evenly and smoothly with the gooey sweetness of the peanut jam and milk. The almond jelly was tasteless, overwhelmed by the cold ice and the rich, nutty topping, but it did add a pleasantly weird texture to the whole delicious mess.
Then there was the sausage, one of Alexander’s first tastes of Taipei, and a specialty, I later learned, of Shilin. I can’t really read Chinese, although occasionally I can figure stuff out based on their Japanese equivalents. In this case my weird obsession with obscure fish, insect, and plant kanji paid off. I could read the character 蒜 that forms part of 大蒜, more commonly written as the hiragana にんにく (ninniku): garlic, as I correctly guessed. The sweet, succulent, sausage was drunk with the stuff – a mellow, musky flavor perfectly tuned to the low frequency of fatty pork.
To wash it all down, I chose… wow!! Frog’s eggs: boba and lemon jelly in a refreshing, lightly sweetened iced tea. As bubble tea goes, it was pretty standard, but like Alexander, I was unable to resist the charmingly bizarre graphics on the cup.
I also saw coffin bread, a specialty of Tainan, but alas, I was too full to partake even though it looked really good, especially in the photos on Primitive Culture. Too full, after only a sausage, a dessert, and a cup of tea? Some viking you are. Ah, but I’ve not mentioned the other things I ate that night at Shilin, the things in which Alexander and Bordeaux didn’t partake. First was pig’s brain soup. This, unlike frog’s eggs, is not just a cute name; in fact, there was little that could be called cute about this simple dish. In a thin, nondescript broth bobbed hunks of porcine cerebral cortex, unadorned but for a few shreds of lettuce and ginger. The brain, which was of course the most interesting thing going on here, had a lovely flavor like cream cheese blended with liver, and yet it just didn’t work in the soup. There was nothing to offset it; the ginger helped a bit, but in the end it was just a bowlful of brain. Though I didn’t like it, I’d definitely try brain again; the mild, funky flavor and supple texture was just too intriguing. I’d like to have it seared, maybe with a passion fruit sauce, or in a pate with fennel and sage.
Finally, I tried the Taipei-only da bing bao xiao bing, literally “small pastry wrapped in little pastry,” which is more or less exactly what they are. The way they are made amused me: a perfectly fine, deep fried and flaky pastry filled with black sesame seeds is smashed to pieces with a hammer, then indelicately dressed with your choice of sweet or savory toppings and sheathed in a chewy round of dough like a burrito. The end result is so much more than the sum of its parts: a chewy mess of a dessert (I got mine with sweet coconut) with a terrifically satiating crunch.
Though I was only in Taipei for two days, I feel pretty satisfied with what I ate there, thanks in part to my comrades Alexander and Bordeaux. Eating can be frustrating when you’re in an entirely new place and you don’t read or speak the language and you don’t know east from west, but as Primitive Culture, Marita Says, and hopefully I am a viking have shown, you’ve just got to find a decent night market, and the good food will find you.