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The International Writers Magazine
:Best Meal Ever: Dining Out in Taiwan

Dining in Kaohsiung
Denni Schnapp

A
s we approached Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city and industrial powerhouse, the traffic widened to eight lanes. The shadows of tower-blocks loomed in a blanket of smog which engulfed the city like a grey mist. Details resolved only as we drew closer. Smog engulfes the city whenever the wind subsides; you don't breathe as much as eat the air.

They say that living in London is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In Kaohsiung you'll actually filter the air when sucking it through the butt of your cigarette.

However, for most of our stay, it was windy. And cold. An unseasonable 12-15 degrees at first seemed balmy as we stepped off the plane from wintry London, but we soon donned jackets or coats like everybody else. Our flat was on the ninth floor of the building and draughty. Luxurious during summer, with the wind whistling through the windows high above the smog, we shivered through an eight-day cold-snap wrapped up in blankets and duvets.

So when the time came for dinner, we ventured out in our warm London jackets. In the street it was warmer than in the flat, although not by much. The surrounding buildings held back the breeze just enough for a thin veil of smog to linger. We weaved our way past parked scooters and the paraphenalia of stores and motorcycle workshops which spilled onto the side-walk, carefully stepping around burning incense and smoking buckets. At the close of business, many store owners burn red "ghost money", sharing wealth with their ancestors in return for good fortune.

We crossed the road to a small eating-shack, wondering how we would order our dinner. The Lonely Planet guide had cautioned us about speaking Mandarin. You may mean to order cauliflower but mix it up slightly and you end up referring to a veneral disease instead. Casual talk wasn't an option. We relied instead on smiling and pointing.

There were no dishes displayed behind the counter, but there was a small menu scribbled on a board. John and I tried to match the characters with the ones we memorised from the guide-book's food glossary. "That looks like 'soup'," I said: "Let's have it as a starter, it'll warm us up!".

He agreed and we pointed and smiled, nodding affirmedly as the woman behind the counter raised her eyebrows. Then we took a seat at a wooden table, rubbing our hands against the cold. I thought I could see our breath steam in the cool air, the temperature had dropped after sun-set.
After a few moments, the woman placed two small containers of shaved ice smothered in syrup in front of us. Clearly, the pattern-recognition needed work.

We relied on luck after that and obtained a bowl of beef with rice followed by soupædinner in reverse.
Finding sustenance and variety became easier when Duan, one of John's students, took us on a tour around the night-market. At night the street vendors come into their own. As soon as the evening rush-hour has finished, stalls sping up along Liuho road in the city centre. All sorts of things can be bought, but by far the main attraction is the food.

The night market is always packed; hordes of people push and graze their way along the rows of stalls from early evening until well after midnight. This is not a place to dawdle, but Duan knew what we might want to try. Besides the usual fried rice, grilled beef, noodles and dumplings, the stalls are piled high with assorted seafoods, frogs and poultryæwhole and in parts: goose necks, duck's heads, chicken's feet, bottoms (yes, really), hearts, kidneys and tongues, the smaller bits generally threaded onto wooden skewers. Squids on sticks are popular.

Many dishes on display defied identification while others were appealing. We tried a Taiwanese speciality: oyster omelette; the shellfish delicately fried in an eggy rice-batter. It can be greasy, but when done properly it is sublime.

It was too crowded to eat in peace so we made our selection and retreated to a seating area of wobbly stools and rocky tables behind the stalls. Duan, being vegetarian, had fried tofu, chilli-red in the Szechuan style which made his eyes water, even though he is originally from Szechuan province. He urged us to try another local delicacy: stinky tofu, the pungent smell of which had assaulted our nostrils as soon as we approached the tofu vendor. I am game for almost anything; I had tried many of the vaguely recognizable snacks and some I didn't recognize, but stinky tofu is definitely an acquired taste. Apparently it is very good if you ignore the smell. I found that impossible. Strange, really, because I like smelly French cheeses. I love the smell they give off. To the Taiwanese, it is unimaginably repungent. It' s all a matter of perspective.

The experience instilled in us a sense of adventure and from then on we became more daring with our choices. We discovered previously unimaginable dishes; textures and flavours which I am at a loss to describe. And, yes, they included pig's intestine. Cooked with vinegar and fresh coriander, they are the main ingredient of one of the best dishes I have ever tasted. I had ordered it instead of duck (my pattern-recognition still needed work) and we enjoyed it immensly. I don't know why; I guess the balance between sweet and sour, crunchy-fresh and succulent-soft was spot-on.

Chinese cooking is all about balance. The balance of flavours: hot-and mild, sweet-and-souræbut perhaps even more so texture: the crunch, crisp, soft, glutinous and jelly-like consistency of the food that crosses your palate. Taken together, it elevates the Chinese cuisine to one of the greatest in the world.

For once, I had thought we had escaped the Christmas bustle, here at the other side of the world, but the University laid on a banquet in anticipation of a short Christmas break. It was just before I was ready to leave Kaoshiung (and John to his duties as a visiting academic at the Maths department) to discover Taiwan. The promise of a Chinese banquet made me delay my departure.

The banquet took place on the campus grounds, in marquees which had sprouted on the green lawns days in advance. I looked forward to it with the same anticipation as the college summer ball during my student years. But we both wore jackets over our smart attire. It was still blowing a chilly breeze.
The event was seamlessly orchestrated. Hundreds of academics, their families and their students gathered in groups of twelve at round tables, gaudily decorated with baloons. A bottle of Shaoshing (rice wine), placed in the centre for the initial toast, made us quickly feel at ease. At each table, a senior member of the faculty acted as host. He passed around the bottle, beckoning to have our glasses filled right to the brim. "Gen Bai!" the cry went. "Dry glass!" Drink up! I wasn't that stupid. there would be many more to follow. I prodded John and we chorused: "Suí yì" ("as you like"), as recommended by our trusty guide-bookæjust take a sip, if you don't want to get legless too soon. It earned us a couple of acknowledging nods and from then on, we were not the only ones to say it.

The chatter subsided as the first course arrived.
During Chinese banquets, the courses are presented one-by-one like stars making their entrance on the stage. Everyone but us knew what to expect and what was to come.
The curtain-riser was a huge round platter of mixed starters, some pleasantly familiar, others tantalisingly foreign: sesame pastry, smoked fish, spring rolls and glistening bites that the host informed us (after we had tried them) were jellyfish.

After a brief interlude for another toast there followed a rich, meaty broth with seafood morsels. I recognized the squid. The leathery, darkly-transparent stuff was bêche-de-mer: sea cucumber. I recalled that the holothurians, related to starfish and sea urchins, were overfished as far away as the Galàpagos islands due to the high demand from East Asia. Already, this banquet was turning into a zoology field-trip. I mused on my encounters with sea-cucumbers when diving in Scotland. If I had not known better, I would have taken the flower-like tentacles sticking out from the sand for flowers. These were the feeding appendages of the animals. The bulk of their bodies, which look just as the name suggests, was buried in the sand underneath. I did know better than to pull one outæwhen in danger, they eviscerate i.e. expel their guts through their mouths. While the soup was velvety-rich, the bêche-de-mer tasted of nothing.

Along with a round of beers and Western-style wines, the first main course made an entrance: a whole fish gently steamed in soy-sauce and rice wine, subltly flavoured with ginger and spring-onion. I would later learn that the fish signifies abundance. In Chinese "fish" sounds the same as "surplus" (plenty) and the implied intend is that the table may always overflow. The head of the fish is turned towards the guest of honor, or most senior person, which in our case was the host. He sucked at it lustily, eye-balls and all.

Time for more liquid refreshment. By now John had begun to slur his "Suí yì" while I had changed to "gen-bai!". What followed was perhaps one of the most delicate dishes I have ever tasted. Subtle white crab meat with glutinous black rice. This was succeeded by individual portions of seafood in a hot sauce. More seafood! They were pushing out the boat, but after all most of the faculty were present, along with several academic visitors and local dignitaries. After five courses, I wondered where all this would end. I didn't know then that it is usual to have twelve or more courses during a banquet.
It was time for a break. While we toasted with more beer and wine, Father Christmas appeared on stage, to the delight of the children.

The banquet resumed with the half-time highlight: birds-nest, or rather bird-spittle, soup. The swiftlet (Collacalia esculenta) builds its nest from a special secretion which dries rock-hard. The bowl of clear, slightly lumpy liquid in front of me conjured up visions of scrawny men risking their lives on steep cliffs to harvest this precious delicacy. A pound of the finest quality nests could fetch nearly 1000$ in Hong Kong.

At the bottom of the bowl of clear broth rolled a jujube (red date) like a buried treasure. It enticed me to dip my spoon into the bowl. I tried to keep an open mind. The flavour was subtleæcooked in classic Chinese Superior Stock (made with pork and chicken, delicately flavoured with soy sauce and white pepper), the "birds nest" itself tasted of almost nothing. It was, however, like eating snot.

John gamely finished his bowl, an indifferent expression of his face, but l have a problem with eating mucus. At times it means that I have to go hungry on my travels. Not wishing to offend, but unable to finish the dish, I surrepticiously exchanged his empty bowl with mine.

Satisfied that by now we might have built up an appetite, the next course to be presented comprised filled pancake rolls. We passed. But afterwards came a refreshing respite in the shape of an artfully presented selection of melon and fresh fruit. On lesser occasions, this might have signified the end of the meal, but here it just inaugurated another round of dishes.

A rich stew of cartilage and senew. Nasty? Slowly stewed in a rich sauce the gelatinous texture reluctantly dissolved in my mouth, kissing my palate as it surrendered its flavours. I simply had to try it and I don't regret it, but I feared I might burst. A glass of warm plum-wine, a digestif to calm our full stomachs.

Finally, it was over to the desert courses. An assortment of sweet and savoury pastries, nuts and small sugary jellies. Then, just as I thought we had finished, translucent, slippery rice dumplings, stuffed with almond paste, and a sweet soup with small red beans, raisins, jujubes and other "treasures".

This was it. The waiters offered take-out boxes and bags for diners to take the left-overs home. The gesture signifies abundance and, moreover, it is bad form to waste food. Bowls of left-over birds-nest soup were lined up on a side table. People drank them up eagerly; it was a prized delicacy after all, but I wondered where they found the space. I doubted that we could eat another thing for the next three days.

So the evening drew to a close. Sated and happy, we retired, the memory of textures and flavours playing a symphony on my tongue and dancing on my palate. To this day, it is the best meal I have ever tasted.
© Denni Schnapp May 2004
denni_schnapp@yahoo.co.uk


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