Hello world! So, it looks like something happened. Blog posts that were meant to publish in March never did, and in the ensuing cyclone-of-crazy that is late spring and summer, it never got fixed. So better late than never, here are the last parts of the Taiwan saga.
I’ve talked (in length) about the street food of Taiwan. But the truth is, street food is only half of Taiwan’s culinary picture, and some of the most memorable food-experiences we had there took place in restaurants…and warehouses. Here’s my top 5:
5. Running Sushi
Running sushi can be found all over the world, I know that. It was, however, a first for me – and I found it to be exhilarating. There were a several reasons for that. First, it was our first full day in Taiwan, and I was so excited by everything I saw that I was bouncing off the walls like a kid hyped on sugar. Second, it had to be some of the freshest sushi I had ever tasted. Third, every plate was so cheap – we ate gorgeous slices of salmon belly, mounds of fresh sea urchin, freshly barbequed eel, and more to our heart’s content. In the end, we barely spent $11 USD.
More than anything else however, I found the concept of running sushi to be fascinating. Not only is it a cost-efficient way for a restaurant to serve customers, but it also turns eating into a psychological game. If you pass up that plate coming down the line this time, will there be another? There is no guarantee that someone else won’t take the plate you want before it gets to you. What if you choose one thing, and then see something else you want more just two minutes after?
Most restaurants hand you a menu, effectively asking you to make a decision once, and then stick to your choice. Running sushi forces you into constant decision making, offering an endless variety of options that will “expire” (ie: run past you) if you don’t decide quickly. It’s intensely manipulative, and unlike any dining experience I’ve had before.
4. Beef Noodle Soup
Beef Noodle soup is so beloved; it is often called Taiwan’s national dish. Jacob did some research to see where we could find the best Beef Noodle soup, and came up with an informal restaurant called Yong-Kang Beef Noodle. We showed up to the restaurant one day for lunch and immediately knew we had made a good choice. The line for the restaurant snaked outside the door and past several other shop fronts. While we walked down to our place in line, taxi’s rolled up to the curb and dropped off passengers with suitcases…who then got in line behind us. Apparently Yong-Kang Beef Noodle was so good, it was worth making it your last or first stop in Taipei.
The restaurant was nothing fancy – fluorescent, cafeteria style, and crammed with people sitting at communal tables. Once inside, we placed our order at the window and found a spot at a table to wait. Behind us, a view into the kitchen showed a pot of soup broth big enough to drown in.
Our soup arrived within 5 minutes – large bowls of noodles and melt-in-your-mouth tender beef in a fatty, anise-spiced chili broth. The garnish of choice was a pot of pickled mustard greens sitting on the table – a dash of bitterness and vinegar to cut through the richness of the meat and broth. It took us barely 10 minutes to polish off our food. Once again our “Taiwan mantra” was affirmed: If people are waiting in line to eat it, it’s good.
3. Addiction Aquatic Development
Jacob and I live in a landlocked country. Though there are many, many things I love and appreciate about Austria, it’s landlocked status is not one of them. I could easily forego meat for a fish and shellfish only diet. The mere mention of fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster, or – my favorite – CRAB, is enough to turn me into a real-life “heart-eyes-emoji”. So of course, the prospect of visiting an island where seafood is a staple of the cuisine is profoundly exciting for me. Especially when said islands have places like Addiction Aquatic Development.
Addiction Aquatic is part fish market and part grocery store, housing a variety of seafood based food stalls and restaurants. As soon as Addiction Aquatic popped up in our research, it went straight to the top of the list. It was a must-visit for seafood lovers like us.
We saved Addiction Aquatic for our last day in Taiwan, making the trek to the massive fish warehouse with suitcases and backpacks in tow. It did not disappoint.
We spent a long time slowly perusing the fish market, staring wide-eyed at incredible varieties of shell fish and unimaginably large crabs. SO MUCH CRAB! Crab paradise. I was one happy Chelsea.
After checking out all of the food and restaurant options, we found ourselves returning over and to the grocery area, looking at glistening trays of brightly colored sashimi and boiled crab ready to be cracked into. We grabbed one of each, a beer, and a large stack of napkins and settled down with our luggage at a table outside. It was far from fancy, but high-quality enough to have been served in the world’s best restaurants.
2. Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fung is a world famous Dim Sum restaurant originating from Taipei. The restaurant now has branches all over the world, some of which have been awarded Michelin stars for their food. This was one experience we knew we needed to fit into our itinerary. Our hosts, Dave and Wendy, joined us for our meal at Din Tai Fung, which was really good for two reasons. One, Dave and Wendy are wonderful people and we love their company; and two, Dim Sum is a world in itself that Jacob and I would have been totally lost in.
There are a couple locations for Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and we wound up at the branch at the base of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan. Even though the restaurant is massive, with space to accommodate thousands of diners, there was, of course, a wait to get in. We put our names on the list and grabbed a menu so we could strategize our meal.
Dim Sum is traditionally considered a brunch meal, though places like Din Tai Fung have made it an all day affair. Food is served in smaller portions and meant to be shared family-style. Whereas many other cuisines (ie: Thai food) focuses on balancing all of the taste elements (salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, etc.) in a single plate, Dim sum focuses on balancing the table. One dish may be spicy, another is sour, another is sweet, another is cold, etc. Together, you create a balanced palate – one reason why a proper Dim sum requires a lot of different dishes.
We feasted. We had seaweed salad, marinated wood ear mushrooms, cold rice noodles with soy beans, spicy cucumbers and more – and that was just the salads. Our cups were filled with round after round of green tea while steamer baskets full of beautiful fresh steamed gyoza, shaomai, and bao began to arrive.
Din Tai Fung is particularly famous for their Xiao Long Bao, or “soup dumplings”. These special little dumplings of joy are filled with meat and a richly flavored broth, and require a special process to eat them. First, you pick up the Bao and support its heavy soup-filled bottom with a spoon. Then you bite a little hole into the Bao and slurp out the broth. Once you have slurped the broth, you can pop the whole thing in your mouth (and close your eyes and melt inside because it tastes so good).
We had quite a few of Xiao Long Bao, but the one that Jacob still talks about was the truffle bao. Yep, you heard me right. Bits of truffle and minced pork in a buttery, truffley soup broth…only five came in the steamer basket, so one lucky person got to have two of them. I still remind Jacob of how gracious I am that I let him have it. ;)
1. Shrimp Fishing
Top on my list of Taiwanese food experiences is one that actually involved so little food, we went out to dinner afterwards.
Shrimp fishing is a popular pastime in Taiwan, though you would have to ask the young, hip Taiwanese crowd to find out if it is actually considered “cool”. Regardless of cool-factor, Jacob and I were very keen to give shrimp fishing a try. Thankfully Dave and Wendy had some friends who had shrimp-fished before, so we called them up and headed over to the local shrimp-fishing spot in the early evening.
Shrimp fishing takes place in large warehouses filled with pools of varying types of shrimp, crawfish, and lobster. It’s not a fancy affair – it’s a fluorescent-lit, slightly smelly warehouse of fish. Patrons rent or bring their own special shrimp fishing poles and tackle, pull up a plastic chair to the pool of their choice, and settle down for some leisurely hours of fishing.
We bought a two-hour pass, which basically meant we were entitled to eat as much as we could catch in that period of time. Armed with bamboo poles, nets, and slabs of raw liver for bait, we selected our pool and settled down. Shrimp fishing, as it turned out, takes some skill and technique. You wait patiently until your pole’s bob, floating on the top of the water, starts to be pulled down. Once it has been pulled far enough into the water, you flick your pole up, pray the shrimp is still hanging on, and bring the shrimp in to your net as quickly and smoothly as possible. This happened to me exactly once. I got so excited to have caught one that the line swung back over the pool and the shrimp dropped back off into the depths.
I have to say, as a group we weren’t the most successful shrimp fishers. Seasoned old men, who were so confident in their skills that they knew sitting at the more expensive pools was worthwhile, pulled in lobster after lobster with ease. There was a reason we had stuck with the run-of-the-mill shrimp pool. In the end, between the 6 of us, we had caught 9 shrimp.
Off to one side of the warehouse was the cooking area. With the help of our friend who knew what he was doing, we skewered our shrimp on metal kebabs, covered them in rock salt, and placed them in a large electric toaster oven until cooked. Plastic trays, napkins, and our prized shrimp in hand, we sat down at a plastic table and feasted on our 9 shrimp.
It was delicious – I had never known that shrimp could taste so sweet. Cooking them so simply only heightened the freshness of the meat. I could see myself taking to shrimp fishing in Taiwan, joining the old men on a regular basis to fish while reading a book or chatting with friends. Perhaps one day, I’d even graduate up to the lobster pool.
...Then we went out for Teppanyaki, because 9 shrimp isn't much to feed 6 people.