For the glutton, Taipei proved remarkably satisfying; although I did not manage to try every dish I hoped to, being constrained by time. Also many of the foods I ate were at the so-called night markets, where my hands were full and I could not take photos of them, but here is a selection.
First and foremost, a visit to Taiwan would not be complete without a bamboo steamer-load of xiaolongbao. These were better than anything I have had in Tokyo, the dough being thin, springy and translucent-luscious in appearance, rather like a suet pudding. A side of excellent Taiwanese pickles – garlicky, and with slices of red chilli – lurks in the background, although the dumplings themselves are taken with shredded ginger and a mix of soy sauce and rice vinegar.
Fried prawns dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce and pineapple chunks. It sounds like an odd combination but on trying it, they were delicious.
A dish of rice with what seemed to be strips of swine skin/fat that had been grilled with a sweet soy sauce; a native or an informed visitor may be able to enlighten me on the true nature of this dish, but it was good with a local beer.
Boiled dumplings, or shuijao. I have a particular weakness for this kind of dumpling and these were excellent.
Fresh fruit seemed to be a big thing in Taipei, either in its native form, or in juices, or stacked on top of crushed ice with condensed milk (the mango one of these I ate was exceptional). The strawberries, pine-apple and some unidentified thing – green, translucent and slightly watery like a gourd – from this stall were very good.
“Pepper-bun” (going by the kanji characters), baked hot-and-hot in what looked remarkably like a tandoor, was very good. Spicy and just the thing to wash down with a curious lime drink containing konjac-like wibbly threads (not photographed but enjoyed greatly).
The ‘smelly tofu’ shop. The young fryer-in-chief spoke excellent English and seemed to have a great number of female fan-customers, who braved the heat and stench standing in the lee of the shop-front. He asked if I wanted mine spicy, my answer being obviously yes, and the huge serving, for the princely sum of 45 New Taiwanese dollars, came straight out the oil mixed with sweet soy sauce, a Sichuan-style mala dressing and lots of delicious Taiwanese pickles; I ate the whole bag in minutes.
The snake food at the now-infamous, rather touristy Hwahsi market. The cup at the fore is blood mixed with the native firewater Gaoliang, and the little chaps at the back are a variety of wines mixed with various parts of the serpentine anatomy. The owner explained each to me, in Japanese of a sort, and whilst some were lost in translation I think the wines contained among their number one of ginseng root, of snake penis-wine, another a concoction of the pancreas and possibly one of the venom of the recently deceased creature. The pot contained a clear soup of snake and the little dish held two pills, hilariously, of snake oil. Overall, a Snake Happy Meal of sorts. The menu contained many other dishes, such as a stew of snapping turtle boiled with two whole specimens of Cordyceps, a chilli stir-fry of bee pupae and also various crocodile-based creations. How I wish I could have tried more.
Oyster “omelette”, kezai-something, eaten takeaway-style. This was very good, and I could have consumed many of these.
Taiwan is one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of the Areca nut – sometimes referred to in English as betel nut, although incorrectly as it is the leaf of the betel that the nut is wrapped in, but the nut itself is derived from a different species altogether – and being a confirmed Areca-chewer it was with great excitement I tried that on offer by the locals. It appears I have been spoiled by the wondrous creations of the Hindustan, where chunks of the dried nut are dressed with thick molasses, cardamom, multi-coloured saunf, even mint or hundreds and thousands, before being wrapped expertly in chilled, pale betel leaf with the thick middle stalk delicately cut out. In Taiwan affairs are much simpler: the whole Areca nut is raw and trimmed fore and aft, and then crudely waisted with a betel leaf that has been coated in lime and folded over itself. In Taiwanese it is called binlang.
I tried a number of beers but this one seemed to be the one I like most. Incidentally the label on the can appears to be very similar to a certain brand name beer native to Japan. Although there doesn’t seem to be much of a culture of drinking in Taiwan – certainly none of the loutish insanity of my own country, nor the social alcoholism of Japan – most convenience stores offered a variety of beers, including Japanese brands like Kirin or Asahi.
A Taiwanese energy drink. The name has something to do with cattle.
There were many other dishes I tried but did not photograph, such as beef soup noodles, prawn fried rice – a proper affair instead of the ghastly creations you get here in Japan – an excellent grilled ‘sausage’ made from pork large intestine that was stuffed with mochi rice, spring onions wrapped in beef and grilled over charcoal with a sweet soy sauce glaze, a pizza in the shape of an ice cream cone (I do not lie) and other little kickshaws bought at street stalls. Unfortunately I did not get to try the little eels fried alive, nor the pig-blood sticks, so these will have to be consumed next time. I can’t wait to visit Taiwan again.