EATING BIG IN TAIPEI
PHOTOGRAPHY + STORY BY CHRIS CHEN
I’d been to Taipei once before but that was a flying visit with my grandfather a long time ago, calling upon his friends. I just remember rain, grey streets and sitting in tiled rooms drinking tea and smiling and nodding to elderly strangers.
When I finally got another opportunity to go back- yes, my mum was happy that I was keen to check out her hometown, but I also had another mission. Taipei is known for having some of the best street food in Asia, with night markets and a stack of streets dedicated to selling tasty, tasty snacks. Point me in the direction.
Every culture has their hang out tradition, and for Taiwanese it’s the night market. It’s not known how many there are but they are scattered all over an island roughly half the size of Tasmania. Traditionally they’d appear wherever you would find people gathering- next to temples and near large farming areas. As a result the emphasis is on serving snack foods (xiao chi- meaning “small eats”) such as buns, dumplings and noodle soups. They are still an important part of Taiwanese life- a place to socialize and soak up the bustle of noise and energy, as you clothes shop or pass the time with carnival style games.
Taiwanese cuisine is based upon foods from the Chinese mainland, with some Japanese influence as a result of half a century of colonial rule.
Every culture has their hang out tradition, and for Taiwanese it’s the night market.
There are of course some local specialties and the best known ones are not hard to find. Many of the street food dishes may not have originated in Taiwan, but here they have their own spin. Foods with such names that translate charmingly to “small sausage in big sausage”, “coffin bread” and “iron egg” are a few of the huge variety of snacks on offer, that you won’t find on the menu at Din Tai Fung. And at one to two Aussie dollars a pop, good value. Here is a little sample of what I found in search of the ultimate progressive dinner…
A popular dish at Raohe Street Night Market is ribs stewed in medicinal herbs. The ribs are slow cooked with a variety of Chinese medicinal herbs, roots and dried fruits (such as angelica root, goji berries, astralagus, red dates). Suck away on the bones and slurp the sweet tasty soup. My idea of comfort food.
There is an endless variety of skewered things, which reflects Japanese influence and also makes complete sense when the imperative is to eat whilst walking around. All sorts of animal bits including hearts, stomachs and tongues are kebabed. The dark, rectangular shapes here are pig’s blood rice cakes, made when the blood is boiled and mixed with sticky rice. My dad calls this “Chinese chocolate”. Ahem.
Seafood is in abundance, these stalls selling smoked squid, dried squid and cuttlefish sheets and various sea creatures. Wash down with some bitter melon juice.
There is an endless variety of skewered things, which reflects Japanese influence
Amongst a multitude of must try/ iconic Taiwanese dishes, one that my family has a particular fondness for is oyster omelette. These omelettes have a very different texture to that of a Western style omelette, with the addition of sweet potato or tapioca starch giving the dish its gooey gelatinousness.
Although beef generally is not a common ingredient in Taiwan, nevertheless beef noodle soup is considered a national dish and even has its own festival. As someone who could eat noodle soup every day of my life, I think it’s fully deserving of one.
One of the ultimate love it or hate it foods has to be stinky tofu
One of the ultimate love it or hate it foods has to be stinky tofu, which seems to inspire as much devotion as it does repulsion. I’d say most with Western tastes would find the smell off-putting enough to make this dish inedible. Sadly I’m in the camp that finds the aroma like that of an open sewer.
I did try some and if not for the overwhelming feeling of having eaten something utterly rotten, this would be really delicious. Is that possible? I guess taking away the soiled nappy smell would be beside the point. Crunchy outside, soft and chewy inside, the fermented tofu is drizzled with sauce and served with pickled vegetables. The vegetables I can do…
I didn’t feel like brain freeze in the form of a shaved ice dessert, and went instead with some wheel cakes for my sweet fix. A Japanese import, it’s like a pikelet crossed with a waffle and usually filled with red bean paste or custard. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, the price, or just the sweet waffley smell, but these like so many of the “small eats”, are seriously addictive.