Taiwan Time: Pictures Are Worth a 1,000 Words and 1,000s of Calories
After only a few days in Hong Kong, I had eaten everything I dreamt about since last year… in about 3 days. Meaning I ate 6 kinds of soup noodles, 10+ different street vendor snacks – amongst other cholesterol-boosting junk. As much as I love Hong Kong, too much of anything isn’t a good thing. And I wasn’t going to let myself get infected by ‘hot air’ so early in my trip. My two friends from LA were going to see their parents in Taiwan and offered to show me around. So I took a mini-trip over to Taiwan and piggy-backed with them. I was going to be in Asia for nearly two weeks, so this was a good opportunity to venture out. 1.5 hours later, I was flown to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
I met up with my two friends, the W’s (pronounced ‘The Dubs’), at Chiang Kai Shek airport and took a one-hour limo ride into Taiwan. Driving on the freeway, all I could see were gray skies, gray buildings, gray grass and gray people. My god, the pollution was way worse than Hong Kong. I tried to be positive and think that it added some flavor to the delicious Taiwanese food that I had come searching for. The majority of the cars on the freeway were service and delivery trucks with the occasional scooter rider. Once we got into town, it was a different story – I was stuck in Scooterville. Scooters usually hold one person – not here though. They can hold as many as three people at a time. For every car on the road, there’s a scooter… and they ride in packs.
Here, you can see an example of Taiwan’s carpool program. Add a fat lady, a dog that can walk on two legs and an albino flame-spitter and you’d get a circus act. It’s actually a good thing that three people are riding one scooter because the pollution is seriously bad out there. *Note the front rider with no helmet, unless you wanna count that hooded sweater as a source for noggin-protection.
What looks like a gigantic asparagus is actually Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building. This thing was massive! On the first few levels, there’s a mall and a huge food court. Yes! I get to eat fobby food AND shop for fobby clothing!
Yung Ho Do Jiang (Yung Ho Soy-Bean Milk)
This is what powers the people of Taiwan every AM. Me and W got here at 7:30 am and there were already 15 people waiting in line for their floury fix. Pictured here: egg pancake, scallion pancake, chinese fried donut and hot bowls of soy milk. How much did all this cost? Less than $3. So good. Yung Ho also has a location on Valley Blvd./New Avenue in San Gabriel. Definitely try it out.
Cheers! We drank this at a lounge outside of Taipei 101. My first time trying it was a few weeks back at my friend’s Sichuan hot pot dinner and it was nice and refreshing. The two bottles are different but pretty much taste the same.
Betelnut Girls (Bing Lang Nu)
No this isn’t a light fixture shop or raver store. The green fluorescent-tube indicates one thing: betelnuts. Betelnuts are seeds that come from the Betel Palm and are chewed for their helpful effects. Rewarding benefits include asthma exacerbation, hypotension and tachycardia. Whatever those mean – they don’t sound too enjoyable. It tastes peppery and bitter and is pretty gross. But for the people of Taiwan, this is Major League Chew. Everyone knows that sex sells and with over a few thousand betelnut stalls in Taiwan, a simple billboard won’t do the trick. I can see the meeting right now. A bunch of marketing guys are huddled around a large oak conference table. They spend HOURS thinking of ways to advertising something that is pretty much bad for you. All of a sudden at 3:41 am, one executive exclaims: “Why not get girls to dress in skimpy Forever 21 clothing and sell the betelnut?” Here’s a glimpse of what I’m talking about. Genius. So genius that Taiwan has asked that betelnut stalls start ‘cleaning’ up their act and put more clothing on the salesgirls.
Look at the size of that… mole on his forehead. Just kidding, this chef was really cool. With Japan only a few hours away, your guaranteed to get quality fish. This chef was more than proud to display his prized cut from the tuna. Look at it, it looks like a beef steak. He prepared this dish by basting on his home-made soy sauce glaze and torchÃ³ned it. Absolutely delicious. I was so tempted to just jump out and grab the toro and run for the hills.
Shi Lin Night Market (Shi Lin Yeh Sih)
The main reason I wanted to come out to Taiwan was to eat at the numerous night markets. Starting at about 7 pm, vendors haul all of their goodies out and it’s awesome. Just think of it as a swapmeet for food. You’ll see all walks of life at the night markets – everyone…. just starving for food. Food zombies… just like me. In a few scrolls, you’ll start to see all the fabulous food offered at the majority of the night markets. Stuff, that if they were to be sold in LA, would make the danger dog ladies run for the hills. I went to three: Shi Lin, Hua Xi (Snake Alley) and Lin Jiang. Three of many in Taiwan.
Snake Alley Night Market (Hua Xi)
Many people told me that this is one of the smaller and sketchier night markets because there are some ‘undercover’ businesses if you know what I mean. A nail salon may offer nail services, but there’s also an option to have a ‘happier ending’ to your night. In light of that, Snake Alley is named for its obvious delicacy: snakes. Yes! Two foodies I respect the most are Anthony Bourdain and my good friend, Eddie, of Deep End Dining and I know this is what they would definitely eat. I headed over there with W and it was definitely not banging. There were about 50-60 people walking around and I could pretty much see the end of the alley. I passed by a few ‘nail salons’ and ‘hair salons’. And the occasional toy store. Hmm, where are the snake shops? After a few minutes, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a store with a few fish tanks. Hmm. That’s not it, those are turtles! A few meters down, I saw a store with a large TV bolted on to the ceiling and a few tanks. This time, there were brown, leathery things in the tanks. I had read that Hua Xi snake shops used to demonstrate the slaying of a snake before a live audience. With signs that said, “The snakes used are unprotected snakes.” and “No photography”, I can tell those supersensitive folks at PETA have paid a visit here. Regardless, I was going to try the snake. I approached the owner who was on the microphone luring customers in for his delicacy. I walked up to him with W.
Restaurant Owner: “HELLO! COME ON IN AND TRY MY SNAKES!”
Me: “How much is it and what do I get?”
Restaurant Owner: “THREE HUNDRED TAIWAN DOLLARS! SNAKE SOUP!”
Me: “What else?”
Restaurant Owner: “SNAKE BLOOD”
(keep in mind, the bold type symbolizes his loud voice on the microphone. It was on 11, not the usual maximum of 10, on his speaker system.)
Restaurant Owner: “AND VENOM AND BILE!”
Me: “W, let’s go.”
He was so happy to get us in there. I told him I wanted the 300 NT special which is about $9.38. It comes with snake soup and the shots. I was VERY excited. I noticed another table of foreigners there for the same reason I was. He seemed to be enjoying it. Along the walls, there were locked, display cases filled with various jars. Each jar contained some type of offal in a colorful liquid. All were wrapped with a red bow. Not your typical present to the one you love. Must’ve been very expensive alcohol.
In less than 5 minutes, the snake soup came out and it smelled really good. The broth was probably made with chicken bones, dried mushrooms and various herbs. There were about 5 two-inch cuts of bony snake in there. I first tried the soup… very nice. Then I picked at the snake and tried to pull off as much meat from the bones. It was really laborious. The snake really tasted like chicken but more rubbery. It was yummy.
As I was working on the bowl of soup, a waitress came out with a tray of three colorful shots. I started off with the blood shot on the right. I loved how it came with two random pills… made me feel like I was playing Nintendo’s Dr. Mario game. The guy explained that the pills were to help prepare the stomach for foreign fluids. I took the blood shot in one gulp and it tasted like…. Vodka! No taste of blood. But damn, that was strong. It had to be mixed with 50%-plus wine. Next, I had the venom shot and it tasted like… Rum! The final shot was the bile and it tasted like… Tequila! After a few minutes, I started to feel, not only a little buzzed, but DROWSY. It is said that the fluids of the snake enhance virility. I didn’t feel that…. I felt more dazed than anything. It was a good experience. Whoever came up with this idea to drink snake fluids was one big alcoholic. Same with the person who first discovered how to open an oyster. They were freaking hungry. We thanked the jovial owner and ventured off for some good eats. Here we go!
Salt-Fried Chicken (Yen Su Ji)
This is a snack you’ll see quite often in boba shops in LA. They are usually served in a paper bag with a few skewers for spearing and devouring. A tasty and barbaric treat.
Taiwenese Sweet Sausages (Xiang Chang)
You can find these at Sin Ba La in Arcadia, a Taiwanese joint.
Stinky Tofu (Chou Do Fu)
Oh yes, one of my favorite things. Ever sit in a restaurant and think you smell the chicken farm off the 605 and 60 freeway. Well it’s probably Taiwanese stinky tofu. For some reason, you can smell these a mile away, but when they’re right under your nose, you can’t smell a thing. These are deliciously-pungent goodies are served with soy paste. Read more about it here.
Wax Apples (Lian Wu)
Taiwan is also known for a large variety of fresh fruits due to the island climate. One of the most popular fruits are the Wax Apple, aka Syzygium samarangense for you big SAT-word people. It looks like a really fitnessed apple yet tastes somewhat like a pear. The inside isn’t very dense and reminds me of styrofoam balls we all used to use for the Solar Planet project back in school. Taiwan used to have black colored ones which they called “black diamonds’ but aren’t as available anymore. These were delicious. Read more about it here.
These are just a few of the MANY night market food photos I shot.
And finally, the highly-coveted dish of Taiwan: Beef Noodle Soup. Taiwan is so big on this that they even have a beef noodle festival! And have been named the Beef Noodle Soup capital of the world. Hearing that, I imagined monumental statues of bronze bowls. Something grander than the Statue of Liberty. On my last day in Taiwan, I got up really early to head out and do my last rounds of eating. The whole trip, I was gratefully spoiled by W’s parents with delicious food. But I don’t need to have the finest things in life to be happy… just a bowl of beef noodle soup and I’m all hot and bothered. I went up and down the streets of this one particular street filled with food stalls yet 9:45 am was too early for the people of Taiwan to eat BNS. Luckily, I found a lady and saw her cooking BNS. I told her that I was visiting from Hong Kong and was heading to the airport very soon. She was too nice. She quickly got a bowl and filled it with noodles that were cut no more than 3 minutes before and filled it with goodness.
The Noodle Man
I watched him for about 10 minutes and snapped away. He was more than happy to tell me what he was doing. A few minutes before, he was smoking a cigarette that was pretty much 2″ worth of ash. God knows if any of that fell into the noodle mix. I didn’t care.
I devoured the bowl of BNS in about 7 minutes and thanked the lady for her kindness. Lunch wasn’t served for another 2 hours but understood a man’s needs. I gave her a $10 tip and she tried to run after me to give it back.
I had a killer time in Taiwan. HK and Taiwan are definitely great foodie spots. Everything is CHEAP – even cheaper than HK. Hope you enjoyed the photos. Thanks for reading. Shanghai and Macau are next… I just don’t know how soon.