by Preeti Verma Lal
There stood I. By the red lanterns, the calligraphed scrolls and Tsung-chou bells. In the hullabaloo of a Taiwanese imperial feast, porcelain-skinned women draped in yards of silk and plump men in flowing robes and knitted eyebrows hurried past well-laid dinner tables. Amidst the silk and taffeta, I perhaps looked frumpy in my tweed and ugg. Perhaps I was being blasphemous too. Who carries a fork to an imperial feast? I did. Chopsticks are my nemesis – I have fumbled, fiddled, struggled, yet never ever has a tiny grain of rice stuck to those long sticks. I, however, held on to the fork and to Confucius’ “never eat without ginger” meal resolve, but temptations were challenging my ‘ginger’ly tenacity. Sergestid shrimp lay perched on the heart of bokchoy boiled in broth of chicken and ham, cauldrons were spilling with the Buddha Tureen, a soup that takes two days to prepare, Dongpo meat (pig knuckles) lay on a bed of Shanghainese rice, Yun Lin goose steamed with honey, scallions, wine… Then, he walked in. The Emperor. He extended his hand for a welcome. I pulled my hand out of the pocket. I dropped the fork. The Emperor scowled…
“Wake up, the brunch is served”. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Ivy Chen, the Taiwanese tour guide. Groggy after a red eye flight, I had slumped into the sandalwood chair at Silks Palace , a five-star restaurant abutting the National Palace Museum (NPM), and dreamt I had stumbled upon the imperial feast. Eyes wide open, I waited for a plebeian’s meal of dan dan noodles; runpian (Taiwanese pancke), apple bitter melon salad, xiaolongbao (boy, it is the ordinary dim sum in its tongue-twisting avatar). “You can eat the treasures”. Ivy interrupted my count. On the table lay edible replicas of the NPM priceless treasures – Ch’ing dynasty jadeite cabbage with insects, often rated as the NPM’s best treasure; the copper Ting Cauldron filled with soup made of quail eggs, bamboo shoot, abalone, Jinhua ham, pork tendon stewed for hours and topped with shark fin; Ch’ing dynasty’s meat loaf; a curio shelf with a bean curd duck, jelly of turtle carapace, peaches made of sticky rice, a banquet straight out of my hasty dream. Thankfully, the scowling Emperor had vanished; I pulled out my fork and dug into the treasures. In Taipei , my dream had turned into reality.
Unfortunately, not for long. From regal grandeur, my food adventure in Taipei slipped to the john. Literally. Ivy and I shoved, pushed, jostled in the Ximending market where squids lay skewered on charcoal pits, sea shells were being sautéed with green onions, yams was acquiring honey glaze, plum salt sprinkled on cut guavas and a man was slurping on 12-inch ice cream scoop dangling precariously on an almond cone. Ivy’s voice was getting drowned in the evening’s clamour, but I could catch names of shaved-ice desserts: diarrohea with dried droppings (chocolate), bloody poop (strawberry), green dysentery (kiwi). The scatological names spooked me out but I was in mood for a little irreverence and stepped into the Modern Toilet, a restaurant where lights are shaped like poop, curry is served on toilet-shaped plates, drinks come in plastic urinals, painted WC lids hang on the walls, a bath tub serves as a table and sorry, no chairs. Everyone sits on stylish acrylic pots. Yes, with the lid down. Edible excretions are not my idea of a great dinner; I ran down the stairs and took a deep breath. No dinner on a john. No. Never.
In Taipei , I had assiduously lined up the foodie’s to-do list, but the images of sauce dripping from a mini pot were swirling in my head and in the Taiwanese capital my to-do list suddenly got blurred, hazy. I was ready to go anywhere, even where angels feared to tread, but Ivy had better plans, she knew better. The street names in Mandarin were getting lost in translation, a million neon lights livened up a dark night and Ivy spewed names of vegetarian restaurants that dot the island country that was sighted by the Portuguese in 1590 and called it Formosa (beautiful). We walked the cobbled path, past mannequins looking curvy in cowl mufflers and sheer leggings and into Din Tui Fung, the xiaolongbao (steamed dim sum) restaurant that was rated by The New York Times among the top 10 restaurants in the world. Din was originally founded in a cooking oil retail shop in 1958 and today it is so popular and crowded that if you can get a seat in, consider it a feat.
In Din, dumplings are not only about pounding, kneading, wrapping, folding, steaming, it is about the art of tasting. “First, with chopsticks, delicately take the xiaolongbao by the tip and place it on the china spoon without breaking the pastry. The first dim sum is had without the sauce. Dip the second dim sum in ginger-spiced vinegar.” Ivy was being a liberal teacher, I a reluctant gourmand. Waitresses in tight black skirts and dollops of rouge were serving fast; the speed flustered me, I do not like meals on a fast-forward mode. But I forgave the speed, the dim sums were awesome, though I still cannot pronounce xiaolongbao in one long breath!
Food adventure in Taipei in incomplete without a walk in the various night markets where food can be as bizarre as your palate can afford to. In the Sanke Alley, you can order dishes made of snake/turtle blood; in Shi Lin market, oyster omelettes and squid stew are a rage; in Shida, get the don hua (dessert that looks like tofu and served with peanuts) and Taiwanese sausage. There’s stinky tofu, wasabi peas, suncakes with a heart of molasses, coffin bread filled with pepper beef or curried chicken, bubble tea. So many snacks. So many delicacies that one could go breathless counting them all.
Like the dream that I began with, temptations were challenging me at the night market. The foodie’s day out in Taipei should have concluded with a swig of rice wine. Instead, I chose a stroke of lilac. Purple, actually. I picked glazed purple yam. Perhaps the Emperor would have scorned at it. Perhaps Confucius would have approved of it. In Taipei , I stuck to the old man’s wisdom – Never eat without ginger. Never eat too much.
n Taipei , I trimmed two inches off my waist. In Taipei , the weighing machine did not tip dangerously. Thank you, Confucius.
The Economic Times, 2010