It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, or because I found everything too thoroughly explored already by others (though the latter is certainly an excuse I’d make). It was because I had this nagging feeling, even as I gorged on new-to-me things like egg-yolk-taro balls or oyster omelets or mystery shells stuffed with cheese or sausages stuffed with other sausages - that I was barely grazing the surface of what Taiwan had to offer. Beneath the seething mass of street stalls and teenagers, I felt there was an undercurrent, a base even, of a more careful culinary tradition that I wouldn’t be able to break into unless I traveled with a group of people. Better yet, a group of people who spoke the language (one of Taiwan’s three main ones, anyway).
I didn’t have a group. This trip was singularly solitary. I traveled around Taipei and the countryside alone, looking mesmerizedly out of the windows of trains and buses and mountain gondolas. There was a four day stretch where I used my vocal chords for less than 3 collective minutes per day. I loved it.
But when it came to dining, my chosen solitude and imposed linguistic ignorance limited me. It caused me to mainly mill around night markets, where I could assess visually what was on offer, point at what I wanted without using words, and enjoy my choice in single-serving sizes, sitting alone. Sometimes the food was on a stick, sometimes in a tiny paper bowl, sometimes in a bag. I got to eat it standing up, sitting on a curb, sitting in a park, or on my way to the metro. Occasionally I got snapped at if I tried to order something ridiculously small, like one egg-yolk taro ball (“minimum two!”) or a single skewer of cumin-rubbed mutton (“minimum three!”) but for the most part I was able to keep my portions small enough that I got to sample five or six different stands for each dinner.
But as I sat, butt planted, world-watching, enjoying my bites, I knew that inside all the buildings with the indecipherable lettering, there were families and groups of friends sitting around tables enjoying a cuisine that was very different from my seafood sticks and grilled meats. I got a tiny taste of this wandering down Yongkang St one day, when I saw a restaurant that both had pictures of its menu items on the wall and looked relatively fancy. (Sadly, Taiwan largely lacks the Korean and Japanese tradition of molding plastic versions of their dishes to display outside the door.) I took this as the golden opportunity that it was, pointing excitedly at the picture of what looked like an entire bowl filled with shell-less oysters, plus a plate of mystery greens and stalks covered in what may have been either sesame or peanut powder.
I got the last seat in the restaurant. The other tables were full of groups, passing delectable-looking dishes back and forth or spinning them around on the tables’ Lazy Susans. They took chopstickfuls of food from the common plate and thoughtfully chewed - more thoughtfully than most do when they are also chatting. I saw the food arrest them, momentarily tear them away from their conversations. There was no mindless chewing or hurried swallowing between shouted sentences like, I don’t know, most American sports bars, for example. The food held a presence equal to another guest at the table.
When I received my bowl of oysters, it was large, with a bathtub-warm broth that softened its sticks of ginger and furls of seaweed. The oysters were a pillowy mess of ocean, and though it initially seemed crazily decadent to eat an entire bowlful of oysters without having to work to get them out of their shells, I finished them with little trouble or guilt. They were tiny sweet morsels with not a rotten one in the bunch. And the mystery greens, which I found out a month later from Yelper Karen L. were sweet potato leaves, collected just the right amount of bonito dew from their own warm broth. The powder on top was sesame, and somehow stayed dry and out of the path of the dew. The stalks crunched, but the leaves collapsed under my tongue.
I wished there had been (or I’d sought out) a Taiwanese version of that couple who takes tourists around Saigon on motorbikes and has them eat snails and shellfish and goat.
So, my memories of Taiwan are fond, but consist mostly of slices of night market life. Watching a man scoop fried squid out of a steamy metal bucket, wondering at its crunch and how it retained it with all the steam:
Next time, I’m bringing a Chinese speaker, so that hum distills into connection.