Xī Méng Dīng District (西門町). Chillin’ with Rock. (Names have been altered to protect the innocent).
Binge fest. Ay-Chung flour-rice noodles (阿宗麵條, ā zōng miàn tiáo). Fried Oyster Egg Pancake (蚵仔煎, Mandarin: ké zǎi jiān, Taiwanese: ô á jiān). Fried Yams. Quail-eggs-on-a-stick. Puff Pastry.
I want to give a quick thanks for putting up with the move to self hosting. I’m still working out some broken links and tweaking image captions, publicize buttons…so minor changes here and there. But Taiwan series here we go!
I planned this trip mainly for a long-time family reunion, as most of my family (grandmothers, aunts, uncles) are all situated in Taiwan, and haven’t had the opportunity to see them in person since I was nine years old. I could’ve caused a scene in the middle of the street and they probably wouldn’t have recognized me. My Taiwanese American friend, Rock, also finished up his contract job around this time, so fortunate timing allowed us to coordinate a trip back to “the motherland.”
After some much confused communication, we finally decided on February 20th as a departure date, and March 6th as the date we estimated that the novelty of Taiwan would wear off. As much as we loved Taiwan, our estimations were correct.
The plane ride there was pretty funny. Rock capitalized on the free alcohol, basically subbing in the regular water he drank with a beer…or three. Combined with purposeful insomnia, a hefty dose of Asian satiric comedy movies, and a kindle, it was essentially an 18 by 18 inch square of fleeting Eva Air real estate that was a one man army entertainment system.
I’m one to get airsick frequently, so you’ll always find me secretly dosing Dramamine in a dark corner of the boarding area. Thing is, Dramamine has a thirty minute grace period before it kicks in, and I forgot to take it before boarding. I ended up swallowing it while we were boarding the plane, probably fifteen minutes before take-off. Bad idea. My first two hours of the flight was basically a hodge-podge of cold n’ hot flashes, and feeling rather ill. Nap time fixed that.
I actually contemplated doing something about airline food, but I passed on that for the moment. That would simply be ridiculous. Plus, I didn’t get any pictures. Airline food has always been semi-funky to me, albeit very tasty at times. They always tote that these meals were/are gourmet, dreamt up and prepared by professional chefs on the ground; I guess one can’t squash creativity as still, tasty meals pop up in the midst of “sludge in a box” and/or “mush in a bowl.” I recall an incident as a kid, where I projectile vomited after eating a raw tomato on the same airline (Eva Air). For a couple years after, I had a negative reaction to raw tomatoes; this however, was probably not the fault of the chefs themselves, but perhaps a combination of a bad tomato, food sensitivities, and airsickness. Nevertheless, Eva Air at some point had a gourmet meal all over their back seat thanks to yours truly.
I came packed with a veritable amount of snacks, which was basically a buttload of roasted almonds and walnuts. Constantly snacking on these didn’t make me feel particularly great either. So all in all, it was a pretty fail flight on my part. I played the part of an airsick, sleepy squirrel.
My first excursion in Taipei was in the Xī Méng Dīng District, which basically is one of the larger shopping districts in Taipei. It certainly wasn’t an official night market, but it did possess night market-esqe qualities (shops and stands lined up, fried foods, Taiwanese people yelling at you to buy their goods). All in all, it’s a bit scattered, but more “official” than an open-market. There are store fronts, legitimate closing times, business practices, and brand-name items. Part of me was somewhat ashamed to not be at all familiar with Taipei in general, as I mostly relied on Rock to re-introduce me to some of the standard sights and tastes of the motherland. I was only nine years old the last time I came; I was not a food enthusiast, and my working memory (at least for foods) was rather low, compared to the ample neuronal capacity for fake Huáng Fēi Hóng martial arts moves and pretending I was a ninja.
Nevertheless, the smells were the primary factor in waking up my senses.
The Ay-Chung flour-rice noodles reminded me of porridge, except in noodle form, plus oysters. It was a bit trippy, since I recalled the smell, but certainly had no visual recollection of eating such a thing. The noodles had no sign of being in a phase of retrogradation, so the thickness of the soup may have been the result of some sort of starch powder, created that way to give a certain mouth feel that not only avoided excessive liquid, but allowed the flavor of the porridge to adhere to the noodles. A mix of rice and flour conferred a noodle with bite, but with the softness of on-the-border-overcooked rice, which gave the noodles an easy, palatable quality. This may modify cooking times to al dente perfection, but flour rice noodles naturally have a bit more give than traditional Italian pasta. Great food for when you’re sick.
Fried oyster egg pancake was past-time favorite. Oysters, a form of starch powder, egg, and a sort of spinach-type vegetable (sometimes) is blended into an omelette, and topped with a savory sauce (which I believe had a hint of tomato?). Hard to tell. Potato starch is traditionally added to give more body to the omelette itself. It also has the effect of giving it a somewhat softer texture. I’ve always wondered if the starch ended up retaining moisture for the oysters so the final end product wouldn’t be a rubbery omelet with rock-hard oysters. The starch may serve as a method of heat dispersal so that the whole she-bang doesn’t overcook.
Walking down the middle of Xī Méng Dīng gave us the best view of small eats. Stinky tofu on the right, braised pork shanks and ears on the left, and smack dab in the center…fried yams. Rock and I had been searching for these for quite some time, and we already had quite a bit eat…but how could we not? A bagful of potentially super clogged arteries for cents on the dollar. I burned my tongue upon biting into this fried creation- it was then I remembered that starch cooked at high temperatures usually breaks down to di- and mono-saccharides, which allows lower viscosity and subsequently…burning yam goo. But it was GOOD. I wonder what would happen if they cooked them, blast chilled them down to cold starch and added powdered sugar. Dessert, perhaps?
Quail eggs on a stick was nothing new. The lady cooking them made me do a triple take; she had some home-made mini cupcake heating element that was perfect for cracking quail eggs in. I’m guessing a quick trip to buy some skewers and an hour or so of making homemade hot sauce makes the profits stack up like hotcakes.
The adventure has just begun! More to come.