Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 4: The Miracle of the Shrimp Roll

23 08 2009

Picture 056Day 4 began with a pilgrimage to holy ground: a little shrimp roll store on Alley 60 off of of Yenping North Road, Section 2. It’s in the “old town” area of Taipei, near the apartment, now demolished, where my father-in-law grew up. Like many of the great eateries in Taipei, it has no sign, it doesn’t even have a name, but it’s so famous that if you don’t get there by 11, they’ll be out of product. The place is literally a hole in the wall.

Picture 067Everything is so blackened with soot and God knows what else, you don’t want to touch anything. But the grime only makes the clean, pure perfection of their shrimp rolls seem even more miraculous.

Picture 059The shrimp roll, or shia juen, like all Chinese street food, is a beautiful simplicity. It’s nothing but shrimp paste, chunks of shrimp, and diced water chestnut rolled up in “tofu skin,” or thin sheets of bean curd, and deep fried. They’re served on a plate with soy paste and spicy mustard for dipping. It never ceases to amaze me, the complexity that can arise from the play between the crisp, sweet starch of the water chestnut, the plump, juicy shrimp, the crisp tofu skin, the oil, and the earthy heat of the mustard. It’s one of those foods that is a living embodiment of Occam’s Razor. Surely someone up there likes us if he allows something so simple to taste so good, for only a couple of bucks.

Picture 058This place also serves another kind of roll called chi juen, which literally means “chicken rolls” in Mandarin. But they don’t have any chicken in them. Chi juen is actually a mistranslation from the Taiwanese term for these rolls, gey gun. Gun means “rolls,” like the Mandarin juen, but gey can mean either “fried leftovers” or “chicken.” Whoever translated the Taiwanese into Mandarin thought that the intended usage was “chicken,” but they were wrong. So they are really “fried leftover rolls.”

The idea is that they’re filled with leftover stuff from some other dish, though of course they’re now made with fresh ingredients.  The principal ingredients are barbecue pork and onion, wrapped in the same kind of tofu skin as the shrimp rolls. The onions are sauteed beforehand, giving them a delicious caramelized sweetness.  They’re served pre-cut for easy dipping and topped with some thin slices of pickled cucmber. They’re standing in a puddle of a delicious, sweet, tomato-based sauce. It’s sort of like ketchup without vinegar.

Lunch was fantastic, but dinner was probably the worst meal I’ve ever had in Taipei. I thought I’d tell you about it to illustrate how when it comes to Taiwanese food, looks can be very deceiving. I went to a coffee house called “Ours” in the very trendy Dong Shi area. It’s kind of like the East Village of Taipei, a haven for young artist and hipster types. The place looked great—nice deck seating outside, cool furniture inside, a hip-looking bartender, and carefully crafted drinks.

Picture 069The milk tea I had was actually very good—perfectly sweetened, that is, not too much, and topped with satiny foamed milk, which I had never seen before. So if you’re in the area, you’re thirsty, and you don’t mind paying a premium, “Ours” is a good call. For drinks.

NOT for dinner. We had the chef’s selection of cheese sticks, nachos, and “fries.”

Picture 074I didn’t order it, so it wasn’t all my fault. But I did convince myself that it was OK to eat cheese in Taiwan, which was a fatal mistake. The nachos were stale bagged chips topped with some kind of rubbery white “cheese.” Admittedly, I’m from Austin, Texas, nacho capital of the world, so maybe I’m spoiled. But I can’t imagine anyone liking these triangles of blech. The cheese sticks were serviceable but also obviously from a box, and the “fries” were neither made of potatoes nor fried—they had the consistency of damp, stale breadsticks. More troubling was that they tasted vaguely of shrimp, and I’m not sure that was intentional. The worst part of this dinner debacle was that it cost $18. I could have had 3 plates of sashimi for that price!!

Let this be a lesson to you and me: in Taiwan, when in doubt, stick with street food. In fact, the older and more disgusting a place looks, the more delicious it is likely to be. How else could it have survived so long looking like that? Worst-case scenario, the food will be mediocre, but you’ll be out only a few bucks, with plenty left in your pocket to try the next place.

That being said, there are some great sit-down, air-conditioned, full-service restaurants in Taiwan. The next day was a case in point.

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28 08 2009
8/17/09 Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 5: Family Feast « porkbelly

[…] 28 08 2009 Continuing the old-school theme from the previous day’s visit to the shrimp roll shrine, breakfast on day 5 was at an old market in front of the Ma Tsu Miao, or Ma Tsu temple, off of Yen […]

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