Thursday, September 2, 2010

Taiwan Forever

Shida night market in the late afternoon rain. This is surely my favorite night market in Taipei, mostly due to its manageable size and relative lack of assholes driving scooters through the lanes.

I had a solid run of 8-10 days with no rain in Taipei, which is sorta like winning five hundred bucks in the lottery. Unlikely and exciting. Then three consecutive typhoons hit. These were deemed "useless" typhoons by my working cousins, because the typhoons were not powerful enough to warrant workplace or school closures. I remember typhoon off-days during my time in Japan as being scary as shit; my crappy apartment would creak in the wind, and it was so incredibly dark outside. In Taiwan, most people treat their typhoon-induced days off as a chance to roll down to the mall and catch a movie. Apparently the theaters and restaurants make out like gangbusters when a strong typhoon comes to town.

The vast majority of exterior walls in Taipei are surfaced with ceramic tile, as is a very large proportion of outdoor walking space. I am guessing that tile is easy to replace or clean, and is reasonably resistant to the elements, but man: when it rains, the friction coefficient of those surfaces vis-a-vis one's shoe dips precipitously, and the sidewalks become veritable deathtraps. The above image is the street-level facade of the building I was staying in; note the vast expanse of reddish faux stone tiling between the sidewalk and the doorway. Note also the brilliant sheen lent to it by continuous sheets of typhoon rain. Walking along that stretch of ground in my shitty treadworn Vans flip-flops is probably the most dangerous thing I've done on this vacation.

Xiaolongbao (小籠包) at the original Dingtaifeng (鼎泰豐). Not just a fad out in Arcadia, Dingtaifeng sells like cocaine-laced hotcakes pretty much everywhere it exists, and this is no less true back at the headquarters on Yongkang Street (永康街). We got there at 8:50AM, ten minutes before the official opening time, and the restaurant was already half-full with customers.

Wonton soup and zhajiang noodles (炸醬麵). The latter item was only recently added to the menu, after a journalist noticed that one of the chefs had made it for himself for lunch. The chef was apparently flabbergasted by the suggestion to add it to the menu; it was just something he'd thrown together for a quick workday meal.

Pork zongzi (粽子), possibly maybe the best I've ever had.

The BBQ bacon cheeseburger at 1885 Burger, near NTNU. Typically fussy Japan-inspired presentation, with pre-stacked veggies, pickle spears, and paper-lined metal cup for fries. Problem areas: the radius of the patty was too small for bun, there was not enough sauce, the presentation of the tomatoes and onions ought to have implied circular pickle slices as well, and the paper in the cup of fries actually served to artificially raise the bottom of the cup--the fries you see are all the fries you get. Oh, and the meat had a suspiciously porky flavor and texture to it.

Look, I'm not really all that particular about most foods, but I do happen to be an American who knows what a good burger tastes like. I had a conversation with my Taiwanese uncle about how the simplest and most iconic foods always seem to get mangled in translation. My uncle's complaint was that his home country could never produce a doughnut that tasted as good as what you could get in any old shitty doughnut shop in the San Fernando valley. But you might say the same about boba tea anywhere outside of Taiwan, or maybe the most egregious possible example, Mexican food anywhere outside of the western parts of North America.

After despairing the lack of decent Mexican food in this continent, and after my despair sublimated into a sense of righteous self-satisfaction bordering on outright bigotry, I elected to take matters into my own hands and make guacamole from scratch.

You aren't finding tomatillos or jalapenos in Taiwan, but you can substitute for the latter using local variants. I put my cousin Simon in charge of cutting the chiles, chiefly because I didn't want to get my hands all spicy and burny. This is also to say that I was far less concerned about any spiciness or burniness that might have occurred on Simon's hands.

This may or may not have been the first time Simon has used a kitchen knife. As pictured above, he'd attempted an airborne cutlery technique, which I put to a halt immediately after this photo was taken. The kid may have a genius gourmand master in him yet, but I'm just saying it's not gonna surface any time soon.

Of course, I was the one who ended up cutting himself. This occurred while I was smashing garlic gloves with a knife that was probably not quite broad enough for the task at hand.

My Taiwanese guacamole tasters politely took a bowl for each person, and tentatively dipped each chip into their portion. "It's pretty good!" they told me between nibbles. I kept glaring at them and saying "NO THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT," while scooping a huge glob from the common serving bowl and wolfing it down in a single mouthful.

My aunt and uncle, around 10PM after dinner, passed out in front of the TV news. These two actually sleep less on a consistent basis than almost anyone I've known. I have theorized that they are actually robots and that they sleep only to mock us, as some kind of fucked-up robot joke.

A mediocre day at the teppanyaki counter is still a great fucking day.

A sad, unimpressive helping of mango shaved iced at what used to Ice Monster, on Yongkang Street. There was a huge line at this place, filled with tourists and locals alike, all attempting to recapture the mango magic of bygone years. I think this place might've been able to solve their problems simply by adding more condensed milk, which is of course the solution to many things.

Photo nerds: why do I look skewed and almost two-dimensional in this picture? This has happened to me on more than one occasion. Is it an exposure thing, combined with weird depth of field distortion, or am I possessed by Satan, or what?

Apparently the best possible shaved ice in Taipei, courtesy of Taiyi Milk King (台一牛奶大王) across the street from Nation Taiwan University. I was told an apocryphal yarn about how the exact same store was around back when my mom was a college student, and thus it is possible that it is this very shaved ice that causes her to wax so fondly of Taiwanese shaved ice, even to this day.

I went straight for the red bean and tangyuan (湯圓) combo, which for 5 or 6 minutes was pure culinary gold. I think this is visibly obvious.

Following its grand overture, though, my turine of shaved ice degenerated into a milky slush whose consistency was emblematic of the psychological and physiological slog it had become to continue eating. The mochi-like tangyuan hardened into bullets of resilient rice paste, and it soon dawned on me that I was eating what amounted to slightly runny water. This would've been fine, since the water was filled with condensed milk (again, this was an effective solution to the problem at hand), but by that time I felt as bloated as an 8th-century Old World king. Bolder men than I have had no issue with the evolutionary life cycle of a plate of shaved ice, but my suggestion would be to always go halvesies with someone whose cooties you don't mind ingesting.


  1. Now I have to go up the street to get dim sum for breakfast immediately, or I'm going to fucking freak out. Damn you.

  2. Thanks for pointing out the slick pavement when it rains, so true! I hated that. I used to walk in the rain, out from under the awnings just so that I could stay upright on the concrete portions. Sans umbrella. It freaked out the locals...

  3. Luckily for us in the states, our building code has something to say about the friction properties of walking surfaces. But I love your opening picture, everything is all glowy and reflective. And now I feel like Mhat, even though I just ate a huge lunch already.

  4. Yum. I want some of that tangyuen now.

  5. All that tasty glutinous food.. I could totally get fat in Taiwan and not mind. Oh your could be a mixture of the type of lens you're using and the angle the picture was taken from. or maybe that's just how Taiwan sees you!

  6. Just back up the camera a little and use a bit of zoom. Lenses get that way when they are taken at wide angle and you don't have a super expensive lens, but that's why wide angle lenses are fun.

  7. this blog has got it going on. keep it up.