The day after the Dragon Boat Festival, we're off to Cijin Island, a tiny splotch of land just five minutes from the city proper. Kaohsiung-ites daytrip to Cijin to stroll the wood-plank walkway on its northwestern tip, climb a small hill up to its old lighthouse and Ching dynasty battery remnants, pay respects at its 300-year-old plus Mazu temple, and eat anything and everything seafood.
We're at the dock early, and a good thing too - this being a public holiday, the island's main street will be wall-to-wall daytrippers by noon. Arriving at 9am we find the thoroughfare quiet, the temple deserted but for a few praying islanders, seafood vendors only just filling their display cabinets with ice.
We're not ready for a full-on assault, but rumbling bellies demand a small. The scent of a grill and the sight of a weathered face, white cotton tank top, and hot pink plastic clogs beneath a sign reading '20-year-old old shop' draws us in.
You know a vendor sure of the superiority of his product when you bring out the camera: he pulls back his shoulders, lets his lips turn up at the sides just a little. His eyes meet yours for a second, then he returns his attention to the job at hand. This man is sure in the belief that he turns out the best grilled squid on Cijin Island. We believe him.
The cephalopod, big as a man's hand, is grilled both sides, slashed horizontally and then vertically - butterflied, essentially, and finished with a few flips to char both sides. As it chars he brushes its surface with thick soy sauce. After a query ('La jiao?' - 'Hot chili?') - he adds a sprinkle of dried chili flakes.
The man knows what he's doing. The squid - blackened in a few spots (not a negative, in our book), amazingly tender, smoky from the grill - is delicious, so precisely cooked that we order two more. On the side, a couple of juicy sweet-sour tomatoes accompanied by a bowl of soy sauce, grated ginger, and powdered sugar, for dipping.
Mix sugar, ginger, and soy, spear tomato - dip and eat. A bit odd at first, but I remember that my father - thanks to the influence of his southern American-born grandmother - has long eaten tomatoes with sugar. And it works beautifully. (This, by the way, is a combo we'll see elsewhere in southern Taiwan.)
Grilled squid and tomatoes, Cijian Island (Kaohsiung) main street, from 8am. It really is the best grilled squid in town.