Thursday, August 26, 2010

In which the Taiwan believes I am too skinny, and then tries to kill me with culinary indulgence

A day before heading out of LA, I went to Monterey Park to have breakfast with my grandmother, who chided me, as she always does, about being too thin. Since quitting my job two weeks prior I'd been working out every day and eating semi-vegetarian, but I was 100% sure I hadn't lost any weight. So I kind of just shrugged. But when I met my Taiwanese aunt and uncle at the airport, they mentioned that they thought I looked a bit skinnier than I was when they visited over the holidays. The next day I met my cousin Zhaoqin on a subway platform and she said that my Chinese was still pretty good, but that I had gotten skinnier.

Later on that week she and I went to have lunch with the rest of my dad's side of the family, who spent an hour telling me that I was being silly for quitting a good job with an obscene-by-Taiwanese-standards paycheck. They were right--there was some silliness to it. But I had reasons that I didn't quite feel like they'd understand, so I kept quiet. They then went on to dwell on how I was just way too thin, and kept trying to get me to eat the last mouthfuls of every dish on the table.

Also, I forget when it was, but while taking the elevator on the way out of my aunt's apartment, I encountered a stranger in a yellow wifebeater who spent 10 floors shifting listlessly and clearing his throat. At around the 6th floor or so he said that he thought I'd gotten a lot skinnier than he'd remembered. I didn't even bother trying to explain that we'd never met before.

Adages about bad pizza and bad sex apply to beef noodles--even a middling serving such as the above is still a pretty decent experience. Here, as a kind of angry shot across the bow of the good ship Continence, I insisted on ordering a bowl of hot/spicy noodles. I have greeted the waning of my tolerance for spicy food with all the bitterness, hostility, and self-delusion of a man in complete denial. No, this does not bode well for a five-week stint in the Mainland with the street food stalls a block away.

The famous tomato beef noodles of Gongguan. Beneath the placid surface of the broth lay a massive pile of springy knife-cut noodles, which have been engineered by 5000 years of Chinese ingenuity to fly out of your plastic chopsticks and splash into the tomato-laden broth and generally make a huge mess of everything. As tasty as it was, this meal was more about the journey than the destination, having taken three attempts on three separate days before I could catch the proprietor while he was still serving food.

A view from the bus, riding down Roosevelt Road into Xindian.

Getting my fancypants tea on in 紫藤廬 (Zitenglu), where one may indulge such pretensions as the following:
  • Decanting tea into a beaker so it doesn't continue to soak the leaves in the pot
  • Pouring the tea from the decanting beaker into a cup designed for smelling (but not drinking) the tea, which cup is to be smelled both while it contains tea, and after the tea has been poured out into yet another cup which is designed for drinking (but not smelling)
  • Pre-rinsing all of the aforementioned water-bearing containers with hot water before use, lest they spoil the tea with physical contact at room temperature
  • Enjoying all of the above on tatami and pillows
Anyway, the mochi cubes in the snacks menu are to die for.

So in case you were wondering, for the semi-decent price of NT$250 per hour (~US$10), you can get a studio in central Taipei with a keyboard, PA, drum kit, some shitty Hughes & Kettner guitar amps, and blizzard-capacity A/C.

The incredibly bizarre postmodern yuppie pavilion outside of Page One Books in Taipei 101. Eat your heart out, Fred Jameson.

A cup of admittedly fine Kona coffee, which I purchased across the street from NTU for the astonishing sum of NT$220. Curiously, the cafe didn't have any fresh milk or cream in stock, which I had to assume was a slight to the philistines a la those French bistros that don't carry ketchup for your pommes frites.

You will find no city as coffee-mad as Taipei. The odd overpriced cup of Kona notwithstanding, the vast majority of the coffee served in this city is drinkably shitty, but it doesn't seem to bother the locals one iota. Furtively shoot the snot rocket that you've been holding back for the last 5 city blocks and you'll reliably hit the front glass of a Starbucks or Barista or Dante or Seattle's Best.

The current darling of the Taiwanese coffee franchise universe is 85度C, which specializes in affordable hypersweet iced coffee and cellophane-wrapped wedges of Asian-style cake (the sort which is mostly frosting and air and is eaten with those irritating two-prong plastic spears that defy all utility and common sense). I had not been in Taipei for two hours before being whisked away by luxury sedan to enjoy a 85度C iced Americano. Each day that I am here, I am hanging out with one cousin or another who will invariably get a hankering for iced coffee, and BAM! we will find another 85度C lurking right around the corner, practically hovering and licking its chops, like some kind of Mephisto of adult milkshakes.

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