Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eating My Way Through Taiwan: My Locust Impersonation

Typical Carts - This one serves "Salty Chicken"
I thought about titling this post: Eating My Way Through Taiwan: The Return to Stink, but I realized I’m not going to the same place with this one. How many pieces can you write about Tofu, stinky or otherwise? It’s just bean curd after all. But the adventure didn’t end in the Stinky Tofu place. The adventure had only just begun, although it now became a bit less dangerous.

To tell the truth, there is only so much Stinky Tofu one can eat at one sitting, and that amount is nowhere near enough to be filling. In short, I was still hungry. So we decided to be like ravenous locusts descending on downtown Taoyuan City and lay waste to any unsuspecting cart that smelled like something delicious was happening there.

In my opinion, the food carts are where it happening in Taiwan. Anyone can walk into a restaurant and find a delicious meal. But you have to pay a price. I went to TGI Fridays, recently, they have them in Taiwan; for $15.00 USD I ate a hamburger and French Fries. I tried to offset the price and make it a reasonable value by drinking approximately 12 gallons of ice tea. But after about a gallon or so, I had to make too many trips to the rest room and had to abandon that plan. The food was marginal, (like all TGI Fridays) and it took me about ten minutes to order Iced Tea. I eventually ordered Hot tea and large glass of ice, then had show all of the waitresses what I was doing. They don’t do iced drinks in Taiwan, because in the words of one waitress drinking iced drinks with a hot meal is not “good for your healthy.” If you are the manager of TGI Fridays, please do not construe this as criticism; I don’t want to go to jail.

There are a number of reasons I like the carts. 1) I can eat at the carts all day for much less then $15.00 USD. 2) I can only order what they cook. Most do only one thing and some do it very well; and 3) This is where you will find the real foods of Taiwan.

Ten "Xiao Long" stacked and ready to steam
After the Stinky Tofu cart, we plotted a course through town. The first stop was purely educational in nature. My friend had brought breakfast one morning and he bought, Xiao Long Bao, from a particular vendor. It was delicious so I asked him where he had gotten it, he promised to show me one day and this trip was his first opportunity to keep that promise. Xiao Long Bao, is similar to Bao zi (steamed buns), but it is steamed in a container called a “Long.” A long is a bamboo steamer tray that is stacked up to ten high over boiling water and the Bao (either pork or vegetable) is steamed and served by the long. There are six to eight bao zi per long. “Xiao” means small. So xiao long means small containers, there are also large containers called “da long.” Because they are “xiao long bao,” the bao zi are a bit smaller. The vendor graciously took me through his kitchen to see the process. One long of xiao long bao costs $60 NTD (about $2 USD). This is a filling breakfast.

Fried Bao zi vendor, look at all the customers
After that excursion into education it was time to begin to do our locust impressions. The first place we swooped was a fried bao Zi vendor. These bao zi are a bit larger than the xiao long bao, and they’re fried as opposed to being steamed. I had never tried them like this. They are served hot off the grill, with a sauce, either spicy or mild, in a plastic bag. The idea is that you are going to take them someplace to eat them, because there is no place to eat them at the cart. This cart was incredibly busy. The man was cooking fifty bao zi at a time and couldn’t keep up with the demand. We had to wait about ten minutes to eat. The price was $10 NTD per bao zi (about 30 cents USD). The spicy sauce was perfect for me and the pork was well seasoned and delicious. I could see why this cart was so popular. One thing I should mention about frying in Taiwan is that there is very little oil used. Oil is mostly for flavor, water is added to the oil prior to heating it.

Cong You Bing or "Spring Cakes"
Next stop was for Cong You Bing. I don’t know what to call these in English that would mean anything. I have heard them called Spring Cakes, but that name is really meaningless. The name translates to Green Onion Oil Flat Cakes. The bing or cake is made of a potato starch and seasoned with green onion then fried. You can order Cong You Bing with an egg fried onto it, as well. These were delicious and once again I ordered mine a little spicy. $30 NTD (about 1.00 USD each.)

We followed that up with a trip to the Night market for Oyster Omelots. These are omelets made with eggs, fried with oysters and mustard greens. They were made famous by the teen idol drama, “Corner with Love,” starring Barbie Xu and Brian Luo (aka Show Luo.) Unfortunately they were closed, so we went for Spare Rib Soup at another place.

"Show" Low and Barbie Xu - Corner With Love
The spare rib soup consisted of a light beef broth and held on spare rib. The soup was delicious, but quite skimpy in my opinion. The price was $30 NTD or $1 USD for a small bowl. There is a lady near my home who makes Noodles. In there she includes, home-made noodles, pork, and vegetables. She serves the best noodles I have ever eaten, a filling bowl for $40 NTD ($1.30 USD), a much better bargain.

Finally, I was about full, but my friend had one more stop. We stopped at one last place for “Spring Rolls.” I call them the Chinese Burrito. They are made of vegetables, a fried egg powder and sometimes have pork as well. They are wrapped in a white flour wrapper that looks like a tortilla, but isn’t. They are really delicious. They’re about the size of burrito and cost about $30NTD ($1 USD).

Rollin' up a "Chinese Burrito"
My friend is a much more intrepid adventurer than I am. He was ready to continue on, but I couldn’t. I was done. I was afraid that if I continued to eat that at some point my food would make an unfortunate reappearance. I’m not into gluttony. I like food, but I know my limits. I should comment that I weigh about 76.6 kilos or 168 lbs, about three pounds more than I weighed at my high school graduation thirty-eight years ago.

Other posts you may be interested:

Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  Bao zi
An American Presence:  What I Don't Miss in Taiwan
Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  Niu Rou Mian

Corner With Love photo credit: asianpopcorn.com
All other photos;  Chris Banducci

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