28 March 2009

The Land of 'Small Eats'

I recently visited Taipei with a couple of friends for a short break. Although it was something we had started talking about since the tail-end of last year, bookings for flights and accomodation really only started coming together 2 weeks before we had planned to depart for Taiwan. During the flight, almost out of sheer boredom since there was no on-flight entertainment, we started flipping through Lonely Planet Taiwan for places we could visit - of course I was more preoccupied with eating places.

What I found, and what has possibly been written most about visiting Taipei, were the night markets. We visited both the King and Queen of night markets in Taipei - and I quote from Lonely Planet - "If Shilin is the King, then Shida is the Queen." All the night markets we visited bustled with so much activity that it made me wonder if the entire population of Taiwanese descends upon the night markets nightly.

Anyway, since much has been said of night markets, I thought I'd bring this blog's attention to lesser known eateries we ate at, but which were awesome. On our very first morning, we hunted down what we believe to be the original Yong He outlet for both sweet and savoury beancurd and other random breakfast snacks. It was a hole-in-the-wall that didn't look like it had changed since it started in the dinosaur ages.

Of course, our source of recommendation was THE LONELY PLANET guidebook. All hail the Lonely Planet. Despite Lonely Planet calling it the 'Yong He Congee King', they didn't actually serve any congee. While our hopes for warm congee on the frosty morning were dashed, the savoury beancurd (see picture above) and peanut paste (background) were delicious and comforting, almost making up for the lack of congee. My 2 companions lunged at the beancurd, leaving me to finish the peanut paste, and were full of praises for the crunchy and silky textures in the beancurd dish.

What stole the show however, was a special 'sandwich' we ordered randomly which comprised of a fluffy and lightly fried pancake, thick omelette, and 2 fresh and crisp you tiao. It certainly tasted like a more unhealthy, and hence better, version of a Roti John.

I was and still am impressed by the variety of Taiwanese eateries and food, which punctuated almost every stop we made within Taipei. I remember an alley lined with many types of cafes - book cafes, cafes attracting students with their free wifi and affordable menus, cafes with flaccid sofas that almost swallow you, and the list goes on. Wherever I turned, there'd be someone cupping a bowl and eating out of it with a pair of chopsticks, or someone else poking with a wooden skewer some dubious but edible brown stuff in a plastic bag they were cradling.

Speaking of dubious brown stuff, of which I have taken many unflattering and uninspiring photos, the most infamous has to be their pig's blood. Unlike our now-banned versions of pig's blood which resemble tofu but is nowhere near anything edible in texture, the Taiwanese version of pig's blood came in the form of slices of glutinous rice cooked in pig's blood and some seasoning. They were usually sold with some garnishes, but the version in the photo below came with sweet-savoury gravy in a dish called 'Tian Bu La' (literally translated into Sweet Not Spicy).

Even though I was a huge fan of pig's blood when I was younger (Admittedly, I had no idea I was eating pig's blood. I just loved the texture and its barely-there taste.), it didn't sound appetising to me. I had been abstaining from meat for personal reasons before the trip even began, and for once, I was glad for an excuse not to eat.

If there were only one thing I could introduce to Singapore from Taiwan, my choice would most certainly not be the pig's blood, but tender, chewy and incredibly tasty grilled octopi. Absolutely my favourite snack, it is generously bathed in a smokey sweet sauce with every flip on the grill, then thoughtfully snipped into bite-sized pieces and packed into a paper bag with a few wooden skewers. It was rather agonising watching the vendor slowly grill the octopi with her tongs as pools of saliva formed in my mouth. Get ready for a worthwhile jaw workout.

Perhaps coming a close second would be the spring onion pancakes (of course, I am merely evaluating among the vegetarian options - I personally love the crispy chicken cutlets that are available even in Singapore). These spring onion pancakes remind me very much of roti prata, except we could choose to add garlic sauce, chilli sauce, bbq sauce, teriyaki sauce etc... mid-cooking, before it gets more time on the hot and evenly oiled pan, then a good whacking with two metal ladles supposedly to soften it up. It reminded me of someone fluffing a pillow with a few violent thwacks on both sides of the pillow.

The version we learnt to make, in a cooking class we enrolled in while we were there, had none of the saucing nor whacking. It was simple enough and involved (1) extracting the moisture from the chopped spring onions, (2) rolling and making a ball (3) out of spring onions and some well-rested dough, and then finally (4) frying the rolled out spring onion pancake until golden brown. It was simple yet delicious, very much like the other dishes we learnt to make (see her website for details).
After so much ado, I haven't even covered the more well-known xiao chi (snacks, or literally 'small eats') from Taiwan such as Oyster Mee Sua, Chou Dou Fu (smelly beancurd), and bubble tea. Taipei is undeniably a bountiful land of 'small eats'.

Soy Beancurd, Peanut Paste, and Awesome Sandwich
Yong He
132 Fuxing N Road, sec.2 , Da'an
This is quite a distance from the nearest train station, so be prepared to walk.

Pig's Blood
Shilin Night Market and Shida Night Market had plenty of vendors selling this.

Grilled Octopus
I ate this at Danshui Night Market, which is near the coast and hence is famous for its abundance of fresh seafood.

Spring Onion Pancakes
First tried this at Shilin Night Market, but learnt how to make this at:
Jodie's Kitchen (cooking classes conducted in English/Mandarin)
2F, 29-1 Zi Yun Street
Tel. no 02 2720 0053

1 comment:

retro sweets said...

I thought the brown stuff was a type of dessert but ewww... pig's blood! I absolutely hate octopi because they're too much work; but I prefer having fried dried squid for breakfast. The