Culinary Adventures #1: Food on a Stick
Taiwan is undoubtedly a country based on the concept of street food. Few families here actually cook whole meals, especially lunch and dinner (breakfast, from what I understand, usually consists of some sort of oatmeal or a rice porridge called congee that is old, mushy rice mixed with leftover bits of meat and vegetables) and instead rely on the thousands of little shops and stands that litter the streets and alleyways. Night markets provide an orgy of culinary possibilities for locals and tourists alike and every neighborhood seems to have its own special haunt, be it a mom and pop dumpling shop or a noodle and soup stand with all the fixings.
Most of the Taiwanese, however, seem to eat like the Spanish do–light snacks spread out over a long period of time. Since much of the food is eaten as you stroll through a shopping bazaar or on your way to the train station, the majority of these tasty snacks are served on a stick, kebab style, or in a bag, eaten with a stick.
I had previously written about my first foray into this pungent delicacy on my second day in Taipei. I have since tried a number of different stands, some bearable, one downright foul, and have returned to the original vendor at the Shilin Night Market at least three times since on my way home for work.
Deep fried and then slathered with a somewhat spicy, oyster based sauce and topped with shredded cabbage, Chou Dofu is a bizarre but thrilling bite to tackle. While I have only tried the various fried incarnations, all served on a skewer, there are other preparations including a raw version served in an equally stinky soup broth. At least when deep-fried a certain amount of the fermented tofu’s funkiness is flash-fried away.
Taiwanese sausages are another big hit here. It’s hard to say what’s in the various encased meats found around town. Pork, sure. The nasty bits, most definitely. Blood sausage is common, often served in the traditional natural lining tubing but also served in rectangular pieces mixed with rice. No matter what the type of sausage you come across it’s going to be served on a stick. I’ve tried two different stands, one at the Shilin Night Market (Taipei’s largest, located near work) and most recently on a day trip to Danshui, a port city just North of Taipei proper.
The sausage is generally plentiful in its portion size and has a nice amount of spice to it, though not too spicy, but overall is very fatty, which is understandable considering both occasions each sausage cost about 15 dollars, or 50 cents US.
Seafood should be bigger in Taipei considering we’re on an island, however, with the exception of fried shrimp or fish balls and the occasional fried squid bag, seafood on the street has been minimal. A trip to the coastal town of Danshui proved to be a different story.
The first thing you see when you leave the Danshui train station is a tiny grill cart with a woman painting a bright red sauce on the tops of a large squid smoking on the hibachi. There are two main eating drags in Danshui, a boardwalk overlooking the water and an old night market strip famous for its squid kebabs and a fried shrimp cakes. I have always been a fan of calamari. Something about the rubbery texture that just does it for me. Not sure why. Truly fresh squid, however, is something entirely different. For starters the rubbery texture is a more tender, with the tentacles having just the right amount of bite. Deep-fried and served with cocktail sauce takes away from the squid’s natural flavor, which is subtle but present when grilled.
Fresh squid is common in the Mediterranean, often grilled and served with a lemon wedge. Here in Taipei the little sea monster is grilled whole, lathered with a fairly spicy tomato based sauce and served whole on a stick or chopped up and tossed in a bag to be picked at with a toothpick while you sashay down the boardwalk. I chose the stand that has the longest line of locals. One couple next to me notices my habitual tourist move of photographing the food being made and comment that the squid is, “Very good. Very tasty.” I order mine La, my new favorite word meaning spicy, and debate whether to tackle the specimen whole on a stick to the amusement of all around me or in the more refined paper bag that I can enjoy in peace as I watch the fishing boats come into the harbor. Before I have the chance to choose the latter option, the lady quickly chops it up with three hard hits from the cleaver and throws the diced goodies into a bag. I pay the lady NT$50 and take the treat to a bench near the shore.
Eggs in Taiwan are everywhere and are never refrigerated, always fresh, always ready to go. It’ll be 95 degrees and sunny and you’ll see a local oyster-omelet vendor with a basket full of eggs left on the sidewalk. In the grocery stores the eggs are left out next to the produce. Foreign practices like this, or other countries that do not refrigerate highly pasteurized milk, makes you wonder if Americans are a bit too paranoid about what they eat.
Then there are the quail eggs, which are popular in certain day markets in Taipei and are everywhere in Danshui.
In Danshui quail eggs are made to order, quickly fried in an iron skillet, molded into little cups. Each egg is fried into a little ball, four are slid onto the skewers, two sauces are brushed on for extra flavor, and a NT$10 coin is handed to the lady. Quail eggs prepared this way tastes pretty much like fried eggs only in a Fun Size!
One of the more clever stick treats I’ve encountered was a large potato chip swirl. Basically a small potato is carved to produce a spiral, and deep fried on a long stick then seasoned with an Old Bay style seasoned salt, which may or may not be unadulterated MSG. Why not make something as simple as a chip that much more intriguing to tackle.
Finally the other day I was coaxed into trying something completely unfamiliar by a convincing vendor woman who knew just what to say in English to woo a clueless foreigner: “Hey, handsome boy. You try!” The Taiwanese seem to love food that is molded into other shapes, generally spheres. These were most likely doughy fish balls fried in a bit of oil. A hearty portion was served with very little money exchanged. The balls were loaded up with a healthy serving of fried onions, a spicy wasabi mayonnaise, and something that tasted like mustard but still remains an enigma. The snack was pretty good, a bit too gooey for my tastes and definitely more than enough for one person. After dining I saw that the line for the place had grown and was at one point 10 people deep. Who knew!
Until next time, your trusted writer with a curious palate, who may or may not muster up the courage to try chicken feet on a stick by the next entry.