Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 5: Family Feast

28 08 2009

Picture 079Continuing 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 Ping Road, in the da dao chen, or “old town” area of Taipei. (Ma Tsu is a Chinese Buddhist/Taoist goddess of the sea, and therefore especially popular in Taiwan, so there’s a Ma Tsu temple in practically every neighborhood.)  In front of each stall was a little wooden bench where locals were eating breakfast and chatting with the vendors. The feel was very homey and local. (That’s my father-in-law on the right, searching the horizon for the best food stall.)

This morning we had some shrimp and pork bao tse, a kind of dumpling. They have a sort of cylindrical shape, like the shu mai you can get at a dim sum place, but they’re bigger, withh thicker skin.

Picture 075They’re just like most dumplings though in that they consist of an egg noodle shell filled with meat. We dipped these in a spicy red chili sauce that was a little sweet, with a little bit of soy. The sauce was great, and the bao tse filling was satisfying, if lacking in any particular character.

Next was pork soup with daikon in a clear broth.

Picture 077The pork was boiled–not my favorite preparation, as it tends toward blandness–but the broth was very flavorful, and I always like daikon. The sauce to dip the pork in, though, was too simple—just plain soy sauce and raw red chili, a bit harsh. The meat tasted better when dipped in the sweet bao tse sauce.

Picture 083We left the temple market and went to a place in the same area (Yen Ping N Road, Section 2) specializing in squid cakes and fish balls. Squid cakes are made the same way as fish balls and all Chinese meat balls, but for some reason, probably variety, they’re not in a cylindrical shape, but a finger shape, so they’re called cakes not balls.  Squid balls are common too.  We had the fish balls and squid cakes together in a spicy, fishy sort of broth that tasted like squid water. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t do fishy, so I let my wife have my squid cakes and the broth.

But I loved the fish balls—they were very spongy and light, and in the very center they were stuffed with a little morsel of delicious sesame-flavored ground pork, a common variation over here that you don’t often see in the States. Taiwanese fish balls are never chewy, gray, or fishy, as often happens with frozen fish balls, which is usually all you can get on the other side of the Pacific. Over here fish balls are usually made fresh, as you can see this woman doing.

It’s so fast you can hardly see it, but she’s taking a wad of fish paste mixed with salt, pepper and corn flour from the bowl in her lap, filling it with a small spoonful of the pork and sesame oil mixture piled in front of her on the table, and then shaping the whole thing into a perfect sphere with her hand and the spoon. She makes it look so easy, but I’m pretty sure the first time you or I tried this it would take a very long time and would end in disaster.

Next we went to a vendor called Jian Nung Tui on Liang Zhen, a small street near Yen Ping N Road. The name “Jian Nung Tui” is Taiwanese for “eat two bites.” They have been a famous food stall in Taipei for three generations. As happens with all successful Taiwanese food stalls, they recently moved from their original outdoor location, which was basically a tin shack adjoining a parking lot, into a (thankfully air-conditioned) building. In the spring and fall, which is when I’d visited the place before, they serve legendary fish ball soup and pork rice. But in the summer, they ply this cold, sweet dish called mi tai mu, which has earned its own reknown.

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mi tai mu, before the ice melts

mi tai mu, after the ice melts, showing the ingredients

mi tai mu, after the ice melts, showing the ingredients

It’s pretty simple: short rice noodles, sweet red beans, and soft cubes of tapioca, with shaved ice and brown sugar. The key is the rice noodles, which lend their name, mi tai mu, to the entire dish. Jian Nung Tui’s mi tai mu is made by hand–in fact it’s the only place in Taipei that doesn’t use machine-made noodles.  I’ve never had the machine-made variety, so I can’t say I could tell the difference, but these mi tai mu were tasty: they had a toothsome-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, non-uniform texture, and a fresh, wholesome flavor that keeps the mouth entertained. As a whole, the dish is perfect for summer–a cold, gently sweet combination of a number of textures: crunchy ice, squishy tapioca, starchy beans, soft rice noodles: refreshing but filling at the same time. A lot of people eat it for breakfast.

Not that we could really call it breakfast anymore: we’d been eating for so long by this point that we decided to call it an early lunch. And I needed some time off, because that evening we were scheduled to get together with my wife’s extended family for the first gigantic family feast since I’d landed in Taiwan. So my stomach needed a power nap.

The typical family feast is held at a sit-down restaurant, like the big Chinese banquet hall-style restaurants that you see in the US. Each table seats 10, and there is a lazy Susan in the center so that people can share (at family feasts, orders are always for the table, never for an individual). This night we went out of town to a place called Un Wan, in a little seaside village called Yi Lan. Not surprisingly, they specialize in seafood. The way it works at Un Wan is that you specify how much you want to pay per person, and they organize a multi-course meal based on the price. Ours was $15 per person, which was an incredible bargain. Here are some of the higjlights.

From the first dish, I knew that we had a skilled chef in the kitchen, because he brought out something that I’d never seen before. It was a mound of rice filled with pork powder, covered with slabs of smoked salmon, topped with salmon roe and little dried shrimp.

Picture 092The rice and its filling was ok, but the real story was the smoked salmon. It had been glazed on the outside with some kind of delicious lemon and brown sugar mixture, and so the outside edge of every slice lended a sweet-and-sour note to the smokiness of the meat. The meat itself was perfect—thick enough not to fall apart, as smoked salmon does sometimes, and firm, never mushy.

Another highlight was this giant, beautifully arranged plate of sashimi.

Picture 090The star of this dish was this big-eyed red fish, some sort of scad, which had just been killed seconds ago and whose head was presented for decoration. The meat was served in delicious skin-on chunks. It was very clean in taste, sort of like a tuna, but a little sweeter, and lighter in texture. Another interesting note: see the key limes at the bottom of the picture? The Taiwanese often serve sashimi with lime or lemon, and it’s delicious. It’s such an obvious accompaniment, I wonder why you don’t see that in the States. Is it Japanese purism?

This one won for most flamboyant: a freshly steamed crab, served with a towering, glistening nest of spun sugar, another innovation from the highly skilled chef.

Picture 105

The least flashy dish was actually my favorite of the night—a simple eel soup, in nothing but its own broth and a little garlic.

Picture 101

The eel was incredibly fatty and had such mild, sweet, tender flesh that I could hardly believe it was eel. I’m more accustomed to the Japanese unadon style of grilled eel, which is tasty and soft but can be very strong in flavor. I wanted to steal the whole pot for myself.

The only true misfire of the night was this strange abalone casserole with pumpkin, pineapple, mayo, and cheese.

Picture 106Considering how subtle in flavor (and expensive) abalone is, I don’t understand why you would want to drown it in sugary pineapple (especially Taiwanese pineapple, which is even sweeter than Hawaiian) and suffocate it in a blanket of chewy, tasteless cheese. The Taiwanese view Western food as fancy, particularly cheese for some reason.  But we learned last night that Taiwanese cheese is an oxymoron. This dish should be called “Revenge for P.F. Chang’s.” I ended up just picking out the abalone and eating it by itself.

And this is only about half of it. All in all, it was an incredible meal. I tried so many things I’d never had before. Kudos to the chef for going out on a limb and taking some risks. And kudos to the owner of the house for making this wheat beer, which was delicious and unlike any hefeweizen I’ve ever had. It had no taste of hops or any other spices at all, just pure wheat, whereas hefeweizens are still a little bit hoppy. It was like drinking liquid summer. Kampei!

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