Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 2: Night Market Seafood Feast

22 08 2009

I am really behind on these posts–there’s just too much great food.  Day 2 was my first full day in Taiwan, so this post is 3 times as long as Day 1.  I’ll try to condense these posts in the future.

After last night’s greasefest, we refreshed ourselves on a clean, simple breakfast of grapes and guavas.

Picture 002Picture 001Taiwan is known for its world-class fruit, thanks to a hothouse climate and heavy government investment. The grapes, as you can see, were huge. They were filled with sweet juice, without the thick chewy skin or bitter tannin flavor you often get with big purple grapes. They weren’t seedless, unfortunately, but I was willing to swallow the seed to get at the delicious flesh.

The guava is a particular favorite of the Taiwanese. Pictured here are standard white guavas, but you can also get giant ones twice as big as these that have drier, tarter flesh. I prefer the smaller ones–they’re sweeter and have a creamier center.  Like the mango, the guava is one of the classic flavors of the tropics: thick, bright, and floral, with a hint of jungle darkness.

For lunch we had pork ball soup and sweet sausage from the local day market.  Pork balls are what they sound like–meatballs made of pork.  Like western meatballs, Chinese meatballs can be filled with additional ingredients for flavor.  These pork balls had little bits of delcious Taiwanese celery in them, which provided a nice crunch and a cooling green flavor to cut the fatty savoriness of the meatball.

Picture 005But this ain’t your mama’s meatball. The Chinese variety is lighter and spongier, because rather than being simply ground, the meat is minced into a paste and mixed with water. The downside of this technique is that the meatball loses the natural meaty, burger-y texture and density of a western meatball. The upside is that it gains a whole new, artificial, yes, but otherworldly texture–firm at first, then yielding, smooth, light, and uniform throughout.

You see, in Chinese cooking, the ideal texture for meatballs is not burger-y, but what they call “Q”–loosely translated as “bouncy.” The bouncy, squishy, and slimy are generally very popular textures here. This takes some getting used to for an American, who likes things crispy, crunchy, chewy, or cakey. You don’t realize how important texture is to your sense of taste until you’re sipping iced tea and a squishy, slimy tapioca ball shoots into your mouth. It’s confusing-you don’t know whether to swallow it, chew it, or spit it out. But once your tongue has learned how to live among these strange delights–bouncy meatballs, horseradish gelatine, slurpy glass noodles–it will speak a new language of taste.

In Taiwan, the most popular vehicle for pork balls is a clear soup like this one. Ours had a strong flavor of ginger, with long fragrant strips floating in it. The broth was also filled with pieces of winter melon, a common ingredient in clear soup, which has a squashlike texture and a mild, cucumberish taste. Chinese clear broth will always be one of my favorites, because it’s very simple, clean and pure, with nothing more than the flavor of the meat, salt, white pepper, and a few garnishes added at the end of cooking to cut the fattiness and add some green notes. The meat and bones used to make the broth are so flavorful that you don’t need anything else.

Picture 007The sausage we had is called xiang chang. It’s a Taiwanese specialty–roasted fresh, not dried like similar sausages in Hong Kong and China. It’s thick, full of sexy pork fat, and like most Chinese sausage, quite sweet (supposedly xiang chiang is the sweetest). We ate it sliced over rice (which soaked up the grease–doubling the pleasure) along with some water spinach stir-fried with garlic, a very common vegetable dish in Taiwan. Water spinach is similar to young western spinach: lighter in flavor, with smaller leaves and tenderer stems.

As delicious as all this was, I had to be careful to save some room. I knew that lunch would be merely a warmup for dinner: a seafood feast at Nin Sha, one of Taiwan’s famous night markets.

Picture 022A meal at a night market, or yeh shih, is essential to the Taiwanese experience. You can do it all at a night market–buy cheap knockoff fashions, get a new TV, consult a fortune teller, play carnival games, and of course, eat every kind of Taiwanese street food imaginable.  And they’re not just kitschy tourist attractions. For the locals, they’re the equivalent of the plaza in Europe or the mall in suburban America: not only a site of commerce, but a public commons, especially for young people. I speculate that half of all young Taiwanese love affairs begin and end at a night market, and for good reason. You can entertain your girl for a fistful of change, and if she just dumped you over dumplings, you can console yourself with congee.

Night markets originated as temple markets, back when the temple was the center of Taiwanese life. The cardinal rule of real estate was then as it is now–location, location, location–so the vendors and hawkers naturally congregated where the people were. The original temple markets were small–a few stalls lining the approaches to the house of worship–but now they’re so huge that the temple is an afterthought. If you wander around a night market long enough, though, you can still find the temple at the center of all the sordid hustle-and-bustle, still smoking with incense, still quietly performing the ancient duties. We too had an ancient duty to fulfill–an offering to the stomach gods, who were rumbling in anger.

Picture 024First stop was one of my favorite stalls in Taipei: a place known for its fried pork soup, or pai goo tan. The finger-shaped pieces of fried pork chop, or pai goo, are prepared in basically the same way as chi pai, or fried chicken.  The pai goo has that same delicious combination of sweet, salt, garlic, fat, and soy-sauce yeastiness.  This would seem sufficient in itself, and indeed pai goo is often served simply over rice.  But at some point in history, some guy had some extra fried pork laying around and decided to throw it into a soup.

It sounds like a terrible idea.  Something crispy should not be soaked in soup.  But somehow, it works.  The batter does lose some crispiness, especially if you don’t eat it quickly, but not as much as it would if it were breaded, because the sweet potato starch batter isn’t as thick or absorbent as breading.  What you’re left with isn’t crispy exactly, but sort of al dente–definitely not soggy.  It’s another layer of interesting texture on top of the meaty chewiness.

The soup was thick and starchy like the sweet-and-sour soups you find in the US, but it didn’t have much flavor in itself–to add interest and taste, the soup had little strips of egg and cubes of daikon, or white horseradish, thrown in.  The egg was mainly there for body and texture; the daikon provided a bit of clean natural vegetable sweetness (you’ll remember that daikon is also a common accompaniment to chi pai).  These ingredients were subtle but provided enough variation in taste and texture to play a successful second fiddle to the pai goo.

Picture 025Along with the soup we had cubes of fried tofu, or zha dofu.  With Chinese-style fried tofu, simplicity is key: cubes of the stuff in a pool of a simple soy-based dipping sauce.  The simple presentation allows the pure taste of the tofu to take center stage.  Sounds bland, but you haven’t had tofu until you’ve had it fresh–it’s totally unlike the supermarket stuff.  None of that canned, bland, tofu-water taste, just milky, silky, wholesome soybean.

I think you can get fresh tofu in the US in certain places, but it’s certainly not widely available the way it is in Taiwan.  The art of tofu is pretty time-and-labor-intensive, so you have to have a big market for the stuff to go to the trouble of making it from scratch.  There are shops here in Taipei that do nothing but make fresh tofu every morning, and the food stalls around the city buy their supply from these tofu makers (tofu-eries?  tofisseries?).  One bite through the crisp fried exterior into the soft, warm, melt-in-your-mouth middle, and you might go veg.  At least for a few minutes.

Picture 029The night could have satisfactorily ended there, but my father-in-law wanted to show me a new fresh seafood stall he’d discovered.  I wanted to be a good son-in-law, so I complied.  As you can see here, the deal with these stalls is you pick from among the day’s just-caught fish and shellfish, then it’s prepared the way you want it and brought to your table.

Picture 033The first dish was clams san bei style, which is one of the signature dishes of Taiwan (although originally the san bei techinique was from southern China).  San means three, bei means cups.  The “three cups” are the three main ingredients of the sauce: soy sauce, a mildly sweet rice wine called san jiu, and sesame oil.  These provide the flavor base, but it’s really the added ingredients–garlic, chilies, ginger, and basil–that create the instantly recognizable taste of san bei. The basil, I think, is especially key–it’s got a strong, wild, licorice taste, sort of like Thai basil.  It counteracts the fishiness of the clams beautifully.  The clams at this place were very good–sweet, tender, and big–but I prefer Taiwanese river clams, as they’re smaller but sweeter.  Maybe we’ll get a chance to have some later on.

Picture 039Next course was a plate of sashimi, one of many signs of Taiwan’s heavy Japanese influence–it was a Japanese colony from 1895 until the end of WWII.  Perhaps it seems dangerous to eat sashimi from a street stall, which, to put it charitably, aren’t sterilized.  But the fish is so fresh in Taiwan that it makes no difference, and the competition is so stiff here that anybody trying to cut corners will be punished swiftly.  The presentation at a street stall is crude at best—though this place arranged our platter pretty nicely, often it’s basically just piled onto a plate with minimal garnish, and sometimes the vendor, in his eager haste to process your order, neglects to cut the sashimi all the way through, so the slices are all stuck together at the bottom like a big meaty fan–but it beats the average American sushi restaurant in freshness, espcially in a landlocked place like Austin, where I live.  Plus it’s dirt cheap–this plate was about 5 bucks, and it would probably go for $20 in the US.  This plate had the standard stuff–yellowtail, albacore, salmon (my fave–sweet and silky), and mackerel, all of it delicious.  The only thing I could say against this sashimi was that it was a tiny bit frozen, partiularly the tuna.  Not the worst thing in the world, but a sashimi purist (which I am not) would be offended.

After this sashimi “appetizer,” our table was weighted down with all kinds of fishy goodies, plus some veggies.  In the meat department we had shrimp sashimi submerged in ice,  steamed crab, some kind of small fish fried with salt and pepper, and monkfish stew san bei (obviously, it’s a popular preparation).

Picture 041The shrimp sashimi was memorable because I’d never had it before.  Like the fish sashimi, the shrimp was impeccably fresh, and served unadorned in the shell.  We peeled them by hand, then dipped them in soy sauce and wasabi, the standard sashimi condiment.  They were sweet and delicious, but my in-laws wanted to stuff me, so I ended up eating almost the whole plate.  After a few of them, the softness of the uncooked shrimp started to unnerve my inner American, who expects shrimp to be chewy.  But this is looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Picture 046The shell of the local crab, as you can see, had a strange shape, but it tasted just like any crab.  It was beautifully simple, steamed and eaten without any condiments or seasonings.

Picture 040The fried fish topped with sauteed greens was a similarly simple pleasure–the Taiwanese almost always eat fish whole, picking out the flesh with their chopsticks.  This fish had a mild, flaky white meat, and the standard condiment of salt and white pepper was all it needed.  The monkfish san bei was good, but it was the last thing I tried, and by then I was stuffed, so I couldn’t really taste it.

Picture 043Besides the shrimp, the most interesting thing we had was this wild vegetable called jeh lei in Mandarin. The term is not very descriptive, as it just means something like “vegetable,” and it can apply to any number of wild vegetables. It’s some kind of weed that grows around trees. I’d never seen anything like it before, so it’s possible that it’s only available here, but then again, I’m no botanist, so I can’t be sure. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the end of each stem is curled with leaves like a harlequin’s shoes.

One reason I love Taiwan is that I’m always trying new vegetables–the variety is endless.  These jeh lei were crunchy, like broccoli, and had a similar, dark-green taste, but they didn’t leave the stinky aftertaste that broccoli does.  They were served with black bean sauce and grunions (little minnow-looking, dried fish, always eaten whole).  A sure sign of how much I loved these veggies was that I didn’t even notice the grunions until I saw one.  I love Taiwanese food, but I am not a big fan of grunions, or any kind of dried fish.  They’re just too fishy.  It’s strange that we Americans don’t like our fish to be fishy, as you would think that’s one of the essential characteristics of fish.  But that’s how it is.

On the other hand, fishiness is prized here in Taiwan.  I generally try to live as the Romans do, but I don’t think I’ll ever get completely used to it.  The Taiwanese grow up eating all manner of dried seafood–grunions, bonito flakes, little dried shrimp, and, my personal nemesis, dried squid, which you can smell from across the room and which I have begged my wife not to eat in my presence. The Taiwanese love it all, the stinkier the better. They’ll even munch on dried squid while watching a movie.  I don’t understand why they dry seafood at all when they can have it fresh.  But when you’re overseas you have to remember that the way you’re brought up has a lot to do with your taste.  If I’d grown up in Taiwan, I’d probably love fish jerky too.  But I am a red-blooded American and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Over the years, by gradual exposure, I have managed to innoculate myself against the taste of grunions. But I draw the line at dried squid.

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2 responses

22 08 2009
shannon

You’re having way too much fun with that sushi!

23 08 2009
prseshad

I know…I told you guys Taiwan is awesome…I got another sashimi post coming up, you won’t believe how big and fat the pieces are at this place

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