Cycle 5 – Item 110
25 (Fri) April 2014
at Din Tai Fung
-Xinyi, Taipei, Republic of China (Taiwan)-
The Taiwan Diet (Day 1)
In Taipei to grab a bite. Many bites. Along the lines of my food odyssey to Singapore last year, the plan is to try as many items as I can find, from as many venues as I can hit, improvising for the most part, no scheduled meals, just stuffing my face throughout the day and into the night, whenever I’m no longer feeling stuffed from before. 54 hours on the ground. Let’s do it.
I chose Taipei International Hotel primarily for economic reasons: around USD 315 for 2 nights, relatively cheap for the city. Also its central location and proximity to the red metro line, which connects to many city landmarks.
The staff was very friendly, spoke excellent English, and extremely efficient: they’d prepared my room key and paperwork in advance of my arrival, facilitating a 2-minute check-in process.
Even better, they upgraded me to a junior suite room, so nice that I look forward to spending a lot of time there, resting between meals, researching where I should go next. Money well spent.
Din Tai Fung – arguably the city’s most recognized restaurant, for foreigners at least – is one of the most highly reputed brands throughout Asia. On TripAdvisor’s rankings for Taipei restaurants, 5 branches make the Top 20: the Taipei 101 branch at #4 and the Xinyi branch at #6 of 8,864 restaurants (as of this writing).
Although I’ve visited a branch in Seoul, where I was sadly underwhelmed by the experience (see 3.202 Xiaolongbao), I was hotly anticipating to experience the food at the source to see what all the fuss is really about.
Dumpling-making must be regarded as a male activity in Chinese culture. At the Din Tai Fung and the Crystal Jade Xiao Long Bao in Seoul, both with open kitchens, only men can be seen making the dumplings. By contrast, in a Korean context, dumplings are almost exclusively within the purview of old women. Doesn’t matter either way, just wondering why it has to be so gender specific.
The only “planning” that went into the Taipei Diet was the decision, made in the hotel room, to wait a bit and hit Din Tai Fung at 1430, right in between lunch and dinner, to avoid the notoriously long lines at other times, especially on weekends; the decision paid off, because I was seated right away.
The menu items are written in Chinese and English, but the descriptions are in Korean, which would suggest that Koreans make up a significant portion of the clientele and that they’re the only ones who demand explanation.
The signature xiaolongbao were disappointing. The skins were somewhat dried out overall, with the tips being a bit crusty, like they’d been sitting out in the open air for awhile. Granted, these were the chicken version – I had ordered pork but didn’t realize that I was served the chicken until after I’d finished – but the fillings were blah, both the meat and the soup, not much flavor. Upon my first bite, I actually frowned, like “wait….what?!?!” I’m wondering if I would’ve had a more positive response had I encountered the xaiolongbao elsewhere, no prior expectations to cloud my judgment.
I was rather disappointed by the meal overall. Just like that experience many years ago in Seoul. If this is indeed Asia’s best restaurant, then Asia is in big trouble.
Taipei is famous for its night markets. Found in various parts of the city. The brick-and-mortar stores are usually open throughout the day, selling clothing, accessories, and other durable goods, as well as food items. But starting late in the afternoon, the food carts arrive to set up shop within the alleyways, each specializing in various types of xiaochi. And that’s when the real action begins. Most vendors stay open well after midnight, especially on weekends. Night markets are to Taiwan, though much more vibrant and dynamic, what hawker centres are to Singapore.
Shihlin Night Market is one such market. Opened in 1899, now one of the oldest in the country. Located in the northern part of Taipei, a 10-minute walk north from Jiantan Metro Station (red line). Aside from the food carts above ground, the market is notable for a separate underground food court.
I arrived at Shihlin around 2000.
WHAM. Immediately, I was slammed by a relentless onslaught of sensory stimuli, the sights, the smells, the sounds. Overloaded, I found it impossible to imagine how the food would actually taste and feel. Whereas guidebooks/blogs/articles and even television segments all simply suggest ordering via pointing, and most items/ingredients are indeed laid out for display, the problem is that the nature of those items/ingredients remains a mystery, so it’d be just one step above pointing at random words on a menu. Most of the experience was beyond my comprehension, both in terms of quality and quantity, too unfamiliar, too much. Dizzy.
The term “xiaochi” literally means “small eats.” Doesn’t refer to a particular food per se but rather to any simple dish prepared quickly and served in small portion, often in the context of street food, at Taiwan’s famous night markets, for example.
After wandering in a daze for an hour – serves me right for failing to plan, but I couldn’t have anticipated the scale of the market – I just ducked into a place with a pictured/English menu that offered a few things that I’d been looking for.
Oyster Omelet is a Taiwanese dish. Classic xiaochi, the one that everyone claims to be a “must-try” for first-time visitors to Taiwan. An order consists of two eggs, mixed into a batter with some thickening agent (e.g., corn starch), scrambled on a griddle in oil, along with a few oysters, often some aromatics (e.g., scallions) or greens (e.g., cabbage), and served in a thick sweetish gravy.
Only later did I discover the food court. Underground. Brightly lit, with stalls arranged in neat lines, a more controlled environment than the pandemonium in darkness above. But just as overwhelming. And by that point, I was full and weary.
Stinky Tofu is Chinese dish. Takes many forms, from mushy/soft to firm/dried. As with most things fermented, it smells “stinky,” to varying degrees depending on regional style. Dishes also vary widely. In Taiwan, the tofu is most commonly firm, which is cut into large cubes, deep-fried, doused in a sweet soy-based sauce, and topped with pickled cabbage. Another classic xiaochi, this one regarded as “must-try-if-you-dare.”
I knew that I wouldn’t like it, so it didn’t disappoint. Not all that stinky, just a mild sulfuric undertone, as if it’d been seasoned with a dash of dried dung powder. Whatever.
Let’s hope that tomorrow turns out better.
(See also GLOBAL FOOD GLOSSARY)
(See also RESTAURANTS IN TAIWAN)