Moving feast of Taiwan

February 6, 2011

IN Taiwan, do as the Taiwanese do. Take a hearty slurp of braised seafood soup, wolf down a steaming pork dumpling, bite a stem off the assorted greens and sit back. The soybean milk will have arrived at the table by then. Take a quaff of it. Look around the roadside restaurant. Feel the buzz of the night market. And then, polish off an oyster omelette with the casual flick of a chopstick. Now, game for some deep- fried pork shank with rice wine? Or maybe, a piece or two of a gulabjamunish sweet made from yam, hot out of the sugary syrup?

In Taipei, still do as the Taiwanese do — live to eat. Precisely what I did in the island nation that Portuguese explorers had stumbled on in the 16th century, that the Japanese ruled 300 years later and the Mandarins settled in since 1950.

A stall at a Taipei nightmarket. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

Logically then, the spread in front of you is straight out of a culinary melting pot — the indigenous tribal cooking, Jin Jin ( Japanese cuisine), the Huaiyang style ( from the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze) and of course, the broad- brush Mainland China fare.

Steamed noodle is a must in every meal as are the soups. The Taiwanese, like their mainland cousins, love soups. They start a meal with dumplings and a soup, have a chopstick of noodle from a watery broth and spoon in some soup ( before slurping on a refill) as they bite on, say, steamed fish or sushi.

I had my Taipei moment early on in the trip. I was dining at Howards Plaza — a five- star hotel which runs with such clockwork precision that I was left a bit unnerved — trying to decode the buffet. “Braised eel or pork chops?” I murmured to myself when a gentleman, hunting for food, softly suggested that the prawn in bitter gourd was worth a try. I nodded a thank you and my Taiwanese co- diner, after finding out that I am from India, started a conversation.

Gulabjamunish sweets made of sweet potato and yams. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

“Delhi or Mumbai?” he queried.

“Delhi, but originally from Calcutta,” I said, hastily adding: “Calcutta is Indias cultural capital.”

“Where in Calcutta?” he pushed on, making me a bit twitchy. “You won’t know,” I said politely.

“Ami jani. Ami Sealdah te jonmechhi ( I know. I was born in Sealdah),” he deadpanned in chaste Bengali. The plate almost fell from my hand and as soon as I gathered my wits we hugged like long- lost friends.

It was at that dinner that I had a heavenly sea bass, just as it should be, and a bowl of beef noodle that proved yet again that simplicity and restraint make the best things in life.

The next day, at Silks Palace, an uberexpensive restaurant on the premises of Taipei’s National Palace Museum, we were served seafood soup, braised duck, salmon with asparagus, fish roe and in a Bangkokish touch, bok choy with insects — all the dishes were replicas of the museums priceless ancient jade statuettes.

At night, in a sudden act of reverse snobbery, we shunned Nov. 5, Joel Robuchon’s den at Bellavita shopping centre, and trooped into the inexpensive Din tai Fung, where we were instantly hit by the adrenaline rush that extremely popular yet functional restaurants betray. Okay, Din tai has a one Michelin star and was rated by The New York Times as one of the 10 best eateries in the world, but those are not the major reasons why we ditched the French master.

Din tai Fung, an iconic Michelin-star restaurant. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

The food is. Xiaolongbao, small steamed buns but unlike the staple Chinese dim sums, were lapped up in a jiffy in their vegetable, chicken and pork avatars; crispy pork skin with pineapple and Taiwan My last two days and nights in Taipei passed in a blur, hopping from a food stall to the next, sampling an extraordinary culinary mélange: poached red- yolked eggs swimming in prawn soup, stinky tofu with soy sauce, coffin bread with a filling of pepper beef, deep fried duck gizzard with rice wine, and at the iconic Shilin night market, pig blood cakes served on popsicle sticks.

It has been three weeks since I returned from Taiwan. After that, I haven’t dared to eat a Chinese meal in Delhi. Am I too swift a gastronomic convert? Well, I cant say, but I’m already planning a trip to Beijing to sample the mainland fare.

The article appeared in Mail Today on December 26, 2010

Here’s the e-paper link: http://epaper.mailtoday.in/showstory.aspx?queryed=9&querypage=38&boxid=174030781&parentid=46541&eddate=Dec%2026%202010%2012:00AM&issuedate=NaNundefinedundefined

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