“The meaning of food is an exploration of culture through food. What we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, and who eats first is a form of communication that is rich with meaning.”
– PBS, The Meaning of Food, 2005
Cuisine is an important part of every human’s life, I mean after all we all have to eat to survive. But more importantly food is one way that humans connect and interact. How the people of a country eat their meals is an important part of experiencing a new culture. This trip to Taiwan is my first time outside of the country and although America may have many types of foods, it has been my first experiences with real foreign food. The many new tastes, smells, and textures are hugely different from those I am used to at home. I have made it a point to taste each and every strange food offered to me. This has become a challenge as much of the food has a not so appealing smell and has proven to have some even more surprising flavors. There are tons of new foods, new and eclectic places, and different ways of buying goods. There are four main things I have noticed about the foods here that are particularly peculiar to me are the variety of meats and organs available, the abundance of fresh seafood, the many new sweet and tangy fruits and their juices, and the delicious teas that can be found in every restaurant.
The meats here are an intimidating part of Taiwanese cuisine. It’s one thing to ask for pork, beef, chicken, or lamb; but there are many more parts to an animal that would never be served in America available at any night market or restaurant. Here you can eat almost any organ from every animal! Beef hearts, pig intestines, chicken feet, fish eyeballs. Many of these strange selections of meat and fish are also quite tasty. For example I have found that even though beef tendon looks like a strange mystery gelatin, it tastes almost like a nice cut of chuck roast with the texture of an extra fatty cut of steak. My Taiwanese friends and the locals alike encourage me to try every strange food that we see in the night markets. I have been more than happy to oblige them by probing many of the new taste and smells. Yet I have faced some problems while here. For one it seems to me that it is increasingly hard to avoid pork here. I like a good pork chop or pork dumpling once in a while (ok well maybe every day in the case of the Taiwanese dumplings) and although the Taiwanese have many delicious ways of preparing pork; I feel as if I have already eaten three whole pigs in my two week stay here and I am starting to get a little sick of it. Among my new international friends who are Muslim and vegetarians it is hard to get food that isn’t prepared with pork in the dish or even on the same grill. Even some menus name a flavor as “seafood” or “corn soup,” yet contain pieces of pork. I feel like this is one thing that I wouldn’t mind more control over, but it hasn’t become a personal problem as of yet.
Beyond the meat one big adjustment I have made in the two weeks since I arrived is eating seafood. Seafood in the Chicagoland area is a bit scarce. Fresh fish is usually a little expensive, so I have never eaten it on a daily basis unless I was eating frozen shrimp or salmon. Here I eat seafood at least once a day. It is the freshest and tastiest I have ever eaten! The many varieties of seafood never cease to amaze me. You can try anything from jellyfish to squid or even sea cucumber. Many of the stranger types of seafood are also quite delicious when prepared in the traditional way. My favorite odd seafood I have tried is sliced jellyfish that is served cold, with some greens and dressed in a vinegar and soy sauce mixture. It is a bit crunchy and very refreshing almost like a thick Jell-O. Another dish that I sampled at a Chinese New Year family dinner had a whole fish. When I say whole fish I mean head, scales, fins, eyeballs, and lots of small bones. But in addition to the freshly cooked fish, the dish had a rocking sauce. I think it had broth from the fish, soy sauce, ginger, a touch of vinegar, and lemon or orange juice. Along with the sauce the fish was covered in chopped green onions and another lemony vegetable that I am not familiar with and that my host could also not identify. This was by far the best prepared fish I have ever tasted and would eat it again in a second. In fact at the second Chinese New Year dinner I attended with a buddy from my university, they served the same dish. My buddy said my eyes lit up like the sky on the 4th of July when I saw them bringing it out!
Fruit here in Taiwan is the best part of the local cuisine in my opinion. Even at home I love to try different types of fruits and enjoy any flavor of smoothie or juice. It has been very cool to try the new Asian and Taiwanese fruits. The fruits and juices are also really fresh, in fact you can even watch as the vendors cut and juice the fruit right in front of you. Upon deciding on studying abroad in Taiwan I heard that mangos taste better than any American varieties and all the fruit in general taste much sweeter and natural. As I have progressively tried more fruits, I must agree that many of the fruits are much better! The mango doesn’t have a piney taste that I associate with mangos back home. Also most of the juices I have tried here in the local night markets are made with all fruit and the choice to have no added sugar something that you might not find at home. The other fruits that are never available in America are even more exotic and succulent.
Whenever I am feeling just absolutely parched I keep my eyes peeled for a bubble milk tea shop. They are on about every corner here in Taipei. They have a variety of flavors, each with a different taste. The basis is a plastic cup with tea, milk, sweetener, tapioca bubbles otherwise known as pearls, and any other flavor your heart desires. Bubble milk tea is a sensation that has spread to many parts of the United States, but the real thing is much better. Many do not like bubble milk tea at first. It is an odd combination of eating and drinking. One must chew the larger tapioca balls before swallowing the tea. So after ten minutes of slurping a large cup of tea, milk, and tapioca pearls many feel full and a bit exasperated with the amount of chewing. I have found that I prefer the smaller version of the tapioca pearls. It allows for slurping of the drink at a faster speed and is less of a choking hazard.
Another interesting part about the cuisine here is the high amounts of fried foods. One might think that as an American I would have a lot of experience with fried fruits, but Taiwan takes using oil to another level. Chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu, you name it they fry it. I was told that I would be eating a lot of fresh vegetables, which I have, but I still feel as if the tons of fried foods I encounter are ingested by most of the Taipei population on a daily basis including me. So here I feel fuller faster and my skin has become very oily because of all the greases and oils I am ingesting. That being said, I surprisingly feel as if I have lost weight since arriving here in Taipei.
It’s not just the food that is different it is the way I pay, sit, or walk with it that differs. In America you get fast food, eat at home, or have a nice sit down meal in a restaurant. In Taiwan it seems that the fast food is everywhere. I can buy anything to go, especially at the night markets. Much of my eating has not been done sitting down in a restaurant, I spend most of my nights eating and walking. The night markets are an awesome Taiwan version of our outside outlet malls, except much cheaper and with more illegally sold items. It is actually really funny to watch the stands that don’t have licenses to sell their goods on the street run from the police. They are all very organized with walkie-talkies and everything to communicate to one another so as not to be charged or fined for their vending. There are also many legal stands set up throughout the night markets selling food. Finding restaurants and stands selling all assortments of foods from stinky tofu or stir-fried organs to delicious fruit treats or egg cakes is too easy. I really love to walk new night markets and try all their famous varieties of cuisine. Some night markets are famous for selling things such as snake and turtles. Others are more famous for selling different assortments of cakes and baked meat pies. Beyond new foods in each of the night markets typical snacks can be found, so for those of the faint of heart who do not like to try new foods there are many western type snacks to be found as well.
For the few occasions where I sat down in a real restaurant to eat, like my Chinese New Year dinner with my buddy’s family or with my friends near Taipei 101, the restaurant experience was also very different. For the Chinese New Year festivities the waiter brought our food in courses. The first few dishes offered cold meats including duck which tasted surprisingly like ham and seafood my favorites a delicious chewy jelly fish and crab mixed with potatoes and carrots. The next couple dishes included a very new black chicken soup, spicy chicken and sesame filled pastries, and another shark fin and mushroom soup that was absolutely delicious. Then for desert we had some tasty taro filled fried dumplings. All of the food was placed onto a lazy Susan, a cool spinning contraption placed on the top of the table. It allows for everyone at a round table to access each dish without having to pass around plates. I think more American restaurants should have a lazy Susan. They make getting seconds so much easier.
One part of the Chinese New Year meal I found a little strange was that all of our drinks were strangely not served to us directly by cup or even in a pitcher. We were in quite a fancy restaurant, but the drinks were served in cartons and then we poured them ourselves. It seemed quite strange because all of the china was mind-blowingly beautiful and then we were given paper cartons of juice. It felt cheap as opposed to the food we ate and the china we used. Refills were also a problem for my other American friends and me. In other more casual Taiwanese restaurants unlimited rice and tea are the norm, but they are self-serve unlike the United States where a waiter would offer to refill your drink or watch closely and bring you refills no questions asked. In addition we found that the cups were way too small and getting refills became bothersome. To battle the lack of refills I find myself bringing massive water bottles with me wherever I go, so I always have refills of water to drink whether I am walking the street markets or in a restaurant.
Prices on food are extremely different from what I am used to at home. Because the American dollar is strong here I can buy quite a lot of food for a small amount of money. Usually it doesn’t cost me more than ten dollars to eat a ginormous meal. To pay even ten dollars is a bit expensive for a typical Taiwan meal. I pay close to or under five American dollars or 150NT per meal. That’s a big change from what I am used to paying per meal back home, unless I am eating nasty unhealthy fast food. Yet the actual paying process is extremely different. In the United States getting separate checks is almost never a problem. So everyone one eats a meal with pays and gets correct change back. It has become a big problem when going out for meals with others as I have to work out my payment and change with the group before paying otherwise we don’t get correct change. I have found that I try to bring lots of change and smaller bills with me so I can give correct change to my fellow diners.
I look at all the problems I have faced and know that they just give me character. The new experiences are priceless and the food is great so I have no complaints! Eating here for the past two and a half weeks has been quite the adventure. From new foods to new places and ways of doing things, I feel as if my world has been flipped inside out. Yet I like the flip and I think everybody should come to Taiwan if they have a chance to have a good taste of all kinds of cuisine and a new dining experience.