The Four Stages of Life (as experienced through Taiwanese cuisine)

PHOTO: Joshua Samuel Brown

Childhood: Consequence-Free Dining at the Night Market

Will was on assignment in Taiwan, one of a group of bloggers, YouTubers, and other influencers invited by the Tourism Bureau to produce millennial-friendly content promoting Taiwan on the internet. It was his first day in town, so I figured the night market was a good place to start.

I texted my suggestion. When he replied, “Take me where the locals go,” I knew I was dealing with a fellow travel professional.

While Taipei’s night market scene is well-known, the casual traveler generally tends to stick to the big three as promoted heavily by the folks in the aforementioned bureau: the ever-popular yet maddeningly confusing Shilin market (the confusion begins with the fact that if you get off the MRT at the Shilin station, you’ve gone a stop too far), the more traditional Raohe market, and the tourist-friendly Ningxia market.

But Will had requested a local experience, so I brought him to Jingmei, where the only Occidental face (other than my own) occasionally seen chomping down a comically Flintstones-sized grilled octopus tentacle slathered in teriyaki sauce generally belongs to one of the long-term Western denizens of the neighborhood (still reasonably affordable by dint of its being nearly on the city’s outskirts).

PHOTO: Joshua Samuel Brown

Our epicurean excursion began with the tentacle, grilled to moist perfection over hot coals, and I felt strongly that the folks at the bureau would appreciate the film Will was making of our eating this most monstrous of appetizers. After we’d wolfed down our snacks, Will asked me to introduce him to another typical night market dish. Across the lane, an old woman stood behind a metal grill preparing one of Taiwan’s better-known dishes, oh ah jen, the oyster omelet. This artery-clogging fare consists of a dozen or so shucked oysters cooked on a generously lard-lubricated grill in a batter made from egg and cornstarch, fried to the consistency of cold motor oil and served smeared in red sauce.

As a travel blogger, Will couldn’t resist ordering the dish, and being a glutton for punishment, neither could I. “Take that, coronary health, hashtag heart-smart,” I said, doing my bit to promote Taiwanese cuisine to Will’s YouTube subscribers by shoveling a plastic forkful of weapons-grade cholesterol into my mouth.

Will had heard about another typical Taiwanese dish, the famous night market beefsteak. As we walked to a stall specializing in that dish, I sought to explain how it differs from its namesake as he knew it back home.

“Whereas your North American steak is served a cappella, a night market steak is part of an ensemble act including spaghetti, sauce, and a raw egg cracked on top of the beef. The whole thing is served on a heated steel plate.”

“But is it good?” Will asked. I quoted Hamlet in reply: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Will decided to give #IronPlateHeartAttack a pass, so we headed for lighter fare, a dozen deep-fried sweet-potato balls. Afterward, though already stuffed, we felt that something sweet was in order. “How about some cake?” I suggested.

Close to the market’s entrance, a young baker was busy taking a cinderblock-sized pound cake out of a massive oven. Of the various dishes we’d seen and consumed in the past hour, this one struck us both as the least nightmarket-y of the lot.

“What’s in it?” Will asked the baker.

“Flour, eggs, water, sugar. Very simple.”

Will was intrigued. But he had another question. This being his second trip to Taiwan, he’d noted with curiosity that despite the national love for highly caloric dishes, most Taiwanese were fairly svelte. “How do you stay so slim, what with your working in a night market?”

The baker answered by lifting the tray filled with steaming pound cake over his head and shaking it several times like a Russian weightlifter before upending the thing with a dull thud on the stall’s metal counter. “I exercise at work,” he answered.

The cake was delicious, and if it wasn’t the lightest thing we’d had all night, it was likely the healthiest. Though fully sated, we headed back into the market for one last round. After all, the night was still young.

The Jingmei Night Market is located by the Jingmei MRT station.

Maturity: The Business Dinner

Stephanie and I had been awake since before sunrise, and were nearly catatonic by the time we were halfway through the hour-long drive from the Taitung coast to the town of Luye. Hosted by the local tourism bureau as part of the research for an upcoming book, we’d been crammed with activity for three days and were looking forward to a long bath, quick dinner, and lengthy sleep, preferably in that order.

Walking through the lobby of the Luminous Hotel, we saw other guests milling about the buffet. We took the elevator up to our room, looking forward to a low-key dinner. The view from the floor to ceiling window of our room, the outline of the central mountain range, was a welcome sight indeed, and the hot spring tub in the center of the bathroom beckoned.

I’d just started filling the tub when the phone clanged. It was our handler from the tourism bureau. “The Hotel Manager has invited you to dinner in 15 minutes. He wants to tell you about the hotel.”

Our plans for a long soak in the tub would be delayed. We showered quickly and returned to the lobby, where we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Pan, the Luminous manager. After the ritualistic two-handed exchange of name cards, I began walking towards the main restaurant, but Mr. Pan gently cradled my arm, leading Stephanie and me away from the buffet room.

“Your visit is very special! Tonight I have arranged for a special meal in our hotel’s second restaurant.

Why are we going away from the restaurant?” whispered Stephanie, not understanding Mandarin. “We’re getting VIP treatment,” I replied, digging deep for some vestige of enthusiasm.

Mr. Pan led us into a smaller restaurant, which I’d assumed on earlier passing was a coffee shop. “You won’t have to get your own food tonight. Everything has been prepared especially for you.”

He waved his hand, and seconds later small plates with three delicately laid out tempura items were placed before each of us. “The bureau told me that your girlfriend is allergic to wheat. This tempura has been prepared with sweet potato starch. Now, I must ask you to please excuse me.”

Without touching his tempura, Mr. Pan got up and departed, leaving us to eat quietly. He returned a few minutes later and ate half a tempura shrimp portion as the second course arrived, delicate cakes made of radish and root vegetables.

“Everything here is prepared using organic vegetables grown in farmland right around the hotel. Local, organic and sustainable. This is the guiding principle of the Luminous.”

Stephanie and I both agreed that these were excellent principles by which to be guided, as Mr. Pan consumed half of his delicate radish root cake before again excusing himself.

“Please continue enjoying your meal.”

“I thought we were going to a buffet…” Stephanie said, eyes half-closed as yellow miso soup with tofu, garnished with a spring of green, was placed before us.

“VIP dinner,” I shrugged. “Welcome to the glamorous life of travel writing.”

Stephanie and I, too tired to think much about the manager’s mercurial presence or much else, continued our meal. Mr. Pan returned shortly after arrival of the fourth course, a brown rice dish containing several varieties of pickled roots. As we ate, he elaborated on the Luminous philosophy.

“City people come to places like Luye and they see in the faces of the local people a serenity, a tranquility, a glow that they lack. Even though the people around here lack money, and even a lot of the material comforts and conveniences that are readily available in places like Taipei and Kaohsiung, there is still something here that they want, something that money really can’t buy.”

The conversation continued along these lines through the fifth course. Though the boneless eel, braised and broiled in a savory sauce, was delicious, Mr. Pan ate only a few mouthfuls before again excusing himself. I watched him as he walked through the lobby and into the buffet dining room. When he returned a few minutes later the plates from our meal had been cleared, and Stephanie and I were working our way through dessert, a vanilla pudding with just a hint of fruit compote.

“I hope you’ve enjoyed your meal, and hope further that you enjoy your stay at the Luminous.”

“We did, thank you, and I am sure we will. The food was outstanding, it’s just that…I can’t help but notice that you’ve barely touched yours.”

“Please accept my deepest apologies,” he said. “These are busy days at the Luminous, and I am currently also having dinner with another group from Hong Kong.”

Smiling in a way that denoted professionalism, wistfulness, and an exhaustion almost rivaling our own, Mr. Pan excused himself one last time.

Stephanie and I finished our desserts before returning upstairs to pass out in the stone bathtub overlooking the hills of Taitung.

The Luminous Hot Spring & Resort (Tel: 08 955 0999) is located on Zhonghua Road in Luye Township, Taitung County.

Middle Age: The Bill Comes Due

Doctor Yu shook his head as he looked over the results of my recent blood test on the screen in front of him.

“Your cholesterol is elevated from your last checkup. Have you cut back on fried foods as I suggested?”

“Somewhat,” I answered vaguely.

“Cut back more. No more than once a week.”

“Do you mean one fried item a week or one day weekly in which I should solely eat fried food?”

Dr. Yu was not going to dignify the question with a response. He was a busy man, with two dozen patients yet to see before lunch.

“You should be staying away from fried food anyway,” he continued. “As I told you on your last visit, it can trigger your gout.”

Ah, gout. Lifelong unwelcome guest, enemy, and Teacher, shared with luminaries from Henry the Eighth to Benjamin Franklin. The Teacher had made his first appearance right here in Taiwan two decades ago after an all-I-shouldn’t-eat crab buffet, and after many years’ absence had recently returned for more regular calls. In an effort to keep the big G from my doors, I’d cut out all shellfish from my diet. And though night market foie gras isn’t yet a thing in Taipei, I had a ready-made excuse outside of basic decency to turn it down should this ever change.

“I’ve been pretty good about staying away from purine-heavy foods,” I said hopefully. “More pasta and bread, less meat.”

“Yes, about that,” Dr. Yu said, swiveling his monitor until it stared me in the face. “The third number down is your blood sugar. You are now in the pre-diabetic stage, so you should probably not be making carbohydrates the staple of your diet. It just becomes sugar in the body.”

“What about rice?”

“Cut down on rice, too.”

My list of appropriate foods was shrinking fast.

“So what can I eat?” I asked.

Dr. Yu paused, and removed his spectacles in a way that made him seem especially sincere.

“Your best strategy is to not eat too much of any one thing. As you say in the West, ‘Eat the Rainbow.’ Many different things at each meal. Such as you will find at the buffet downstairs.”

I refrained from saying that the last time I’d heard the expression about eating the rainbow, people still thought of margarine as healthful. Dr. Yu replaced his glasses and gestured towards the door. My appointment had already exceeded its allotted time. I got up to leave.

“How about bitter melon?” I asked at the door.

“Eat as much bitter melon as you like,” replied the doctor.

I was about to discover exactly how much bitter melon that was at the vegetarian buffet in the hospital’s basement, Taipei’s most convenient eatery for those who’ve just received advice of the ‘you’d better change your ways’ variety. A steam table of dishes crafted to accommodate both the Hippocratic oath and Buddhist doctrine lay before me.

PHOTO: Joshua Samuel Brown

In its natural form, bitter melon gourd resembles something like a Klingon marital aid, phallic and covered with bumpy nubs. Buffet chefs had sliced it into circular sections about the thickness of a 50 NT coin and thrice the diameter, the outer rings an almost fluorescent green, dimming down to a pale white towards the interior, perhaps in keeping with the first noble truth of Buddhism about life being suffering.

Taking my wellbeing seriously, I fill the corner cube of my cardboard tray with eight slices, arranging them neatly as the smiling nun behind me looks on in passive admiration. I take other items down the line, including a braised gluten and tuber mix, a healthy (literally and figuratively) helping of mixed vegetables, several cubes of bean curd, asparagus and carrot sticks wrapped in long-since-limp seaweed to resemble sushi’s cousin that’s found religion, and two cubes of jiggling yellow custard sprinkled with coconut.

I’d devised a strategy to consume the bitter melon. But I needed first to know what I was up against. The first slice, eaten alone, was unbearably bitter. The second I ate wrapped around sushi’s spiritual cousin, the bitter melon almost completely overwhelming the asparagus-carrot-seaweed roll. A mouthful of braised gluten in brown sauce restored equilibrium, but six slices still stared up at me.

I wrapped the third around the custard, hoping that bitter and sweet cancel each other out both on the tongue and in the intestines. Only my next blood test will speak for the latter, but as for the former the experiment worked well enough to allow for a repeat with the fourth slice.

Having now used the dessert portion of the meal as camouflage, I was forced to combine two more slices with the savory bean curd. By this point the bitter melon had coated my tongue to the extent that everything tasted like Chinese medicine. I couldn’t stomach the final two slices, so I opted for the spiritual path instead, sliding them into the compost bin so that they might lower the blood sugar of some lucky pig.

Despite the vendors’ pride in the quality of his bitter melons, not every consumer is likely to share his enthusiasm. PHOTO: Joshua Samuel Brown

Minder Vegetarian Restaurant is a chain run by the Tzu Chi Foundation. The one referenced in this story is in the basement of the Tzu Chi Buddhist hospital in Xindian.

Death: Embracing Mortality with Coffin Bread

I hit Tainan feeling like death warmed over, thanks to a cold that had chosen to make its presence known just past the Banqiao HSR station. Too late to turn back from my commitment, the only sensible thing to do was to go looking for a casket. Luckily, I was in the Taiwanese city known for a culinary oddity known as Guancai Ban (棺材板) or “Coffin Bread.”

Coffin Bread or Guancai Ban (棺材板). PHOTO: Joshua Samuel Brown

“Where’s the best Guancai Ban in town?” I asked my taxi driver. I might as well have handed him a business card reading Tourist, but I didn’t care.

“Chi Kan,” he answered “Famous place. You had Guancia Ban before?”

I told the driver that I’d had the dish before in Tainan, years ago, and didn’t remember much outside of having liked it. I had also visited one or two spots in Taipei claiming to serve it, but found these to be pale imitations. Some foods – San Francisco Sourdough, Philly Cheese Steak, Brooklyn Egg Creams – are justifiably best sought out in the city for which they’re named, and such is the case with Tainan Coffin Bread.

The driver dropped me off in front of a bustling if somewhat rundown-looking mall on Hai’an Road in the West Market District. A short walk through a maze of alleys brought me to a colorful, simple eatery with low tables and metal chairs, inside of which a dozen or so diners were scooping creamy filling out of bread with spoons.

Although the placards inside and out indicated that Chi Kan was now primarily popular with tourists, the place still retained a local greasy spoon vibe, and after a bit of chit-chat with my waitress concerning what varieties of Guancai Ban were available (two, it turned out), I settled on the traditional non-curry version.

A few minutes later I was served a slab of bread about three times the thickness of a standard slice. Deep fried and still oily to the touch, it was filled with a creamy, milky chowder of seafood and vegetables.

Though I’d eaten the dish before when I’d first visited Tainan in the nineties, my palate was now far more experienced. This time I found the dish quite curious, far removed from the usual Taiwanese spiciness. It tasted more like the Chicken à la King of my long-lost childhood than anything I’d eaten in years. It was delicious, and filled me with something akin to nostalgia.

I waved the waitress over to order a second serving.

“This really tastes like a Western dish,” I remarked when it came.

“It kind of is,” she replied. “There were a lot of American soldiers stationed around here after the Japanese left, and when the Americans came, the chef realized he’d have to start catering to different tastes. So he invented this dish.”

“So it’s not really a ‘traditional’ Tainan dish?”

The waitress shrugged.

“It is now. But it’s not ancient, if that’s what you mean.”

“But what about the name coffin bread”?

“That came later. Because it looks like a coffin.”

I could see the resemblance to a Chinese-style casket. I dug into my second serving, which was even greasier and even more delicious than the first. I wasn’t worried about my health. That ship had already sailed.

Chi Kan Guan Cai Ban is located at 180 Zhongzheng Rd., West Central Dist., Tainan City 700. Tel: 06-2240014.

Living somewhere between perpetual adolescence and death’s door, longtime TOPICS contributor Joshua Samuel Brown is the author of 13 Lonely Planet guides, Vignettes of Taiwan and the upcoming dual-authored memoir/travelogue Formosa Moon. Follow him online at www.josambro.com

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