From Taipei we headed straight for Taiwan's southwestern coastal city of Kaohsiung, which makes an interesting counterpoint to the self-consciously busy-busy capital. Laid-back, relatively quiet but not dull, with wide, uncrowded boulevards and plenty of green space, Kaohsiung is an easy place to like.
The city's heart is Love River and the relatively new promenades that line both its banks where residents, who seem to truly relish spending time outdoors (like Taipei Kaohsiung is dotted with bike rental stations), converge with family, friends, and pets.
We arrived just in time for the Dragon Boat Festival. A race official told us that this year's contest was only half the usual size because many local teams are saving it up for World Dragon Boat Races, which Kaohsiung hosts this July. Still, the races were great fun and despite intermittent rains ebullient crowds lined the river's banks to cheer their favorite teams.
As seafood lovers we had a field day in Kaohsiung. The quality of the catch in southern Taiwan is sublime; outside of Japan I don't think I've eaten fresher, more pristine fish. The seafood sections of wet markets smell like sea spray, the fish on display sport gleaming eyes and scales that shimmer like mirrors. When preparing seafood Southern cooks use a light hand and seem to excel at simple, homely preparations that place the flavor of the main ingredient front and center.
A case in point is our lunch the day of the Dragon Boat finals, prepared at a casual kiosk next door to a small temple in the center of town. We ordered three dishes: a clear seafood broth studded with plump, briny oysters, shredded ginger, and thin slices of pickled mustard;
rice fried with bits of smoked pork and cabbage; and a piece of milkfish.
The latter was boned, butterflied, and griddled in a wok until skin and flesh were golden and crispy. Despite its brownish exterior, inside the fish was - miraculously - barely cooked through, translucence just beginning to give way to opaqueness. In the middle of the fillet floated an island of gelatinous, flavorful fat. On the side, freshly ground black pepper moistened with a bit of lime juice.
The dishes were so delicious we went back for more, choosing a few items from the vendor's display - shrimp, clams, and squid - and letting her do with them as she saw fit. The result was another soup,
this broth richer than the last, from bits of smoked fish. Also - sweet, sweet clams with a bit of chew, firm-textured prawns so luscious we ate them shell and all, rings of squid cooked only till tender, lettuce leaves, and seasoning in the form of chopped scallions and Chinese celery.
That this meal was nothing out of the ordinary - just everyday fare, taken at an everyday sort of stall - says much about the southern Taiwanese way with seafood. It also tells you why we've extended our stay on the island, to devote a bit more time to its south.
Seafood stall - look for the green and white awning next to the small Sha Duo (in Mandarin) Temple, Dagong Road just west of Yancheng Road, Kaohsiung (if you can read Chinese, she advertises 'Haichan Zhou'). 11am till she runs out.