It wasn't our first time in the city; we spent almost 2 weeks there in 2010 and returned in 2011 for a much-too-short few days. After a decent chunk of time living, eating and cooking in and Hong Kong and China -- not to mention eight years now (!) in Malaysia, home to a sizeable Chinese population, you might think I'd have a pretty decent grounding in Chinese cuisine. I speak Mandarin, and read a fair bit of it (though Taiwan's complicated characters do, um, complicate things). So when it comes to charting a gastronomic path in Taipei I'm pretty much all set, right?
Wrong. For me, to be in Taiwan -- and in this most recent case, its capital city -- is to know how little I know about Taiwanese food and, in many respects, the wider world of "Chinese cuisine". Sure, I know niurou mian and dou hua and lu wei, Taiwan's iconic soy sauce-based braise of tofu, meats and offal. I have eaten many an oyster omelette. I am quite familiar with beancurd in all its myriad forms, including "stinky". (And I know for sure that Taiwan boasts the best bean curd in the region). I know how soy sauce is made, I know the difference between rice wine and sorghum and millet liquors (though in truth I enjoy none of them). When I eat jiaozi (dumplings) and dao shao mian ("knife-cut" noodles) in Taipei I feel a deep connection to Sichuan, where I first ate these delights more than 25 (gulp) years ago. In Taipei's slippery rice noodles I taste elements of the Fujianese cuisine I've come to know through Malaysia's many Hokkien dishes. Taiwan's sweets -- its shaved ices, its flaky, flat round bing stuffed with ingredients sugary or savory or a combination of the two -- are comforting in their familiarity. So too, of course, is the country's very Chinese obsession with pork.
But I could no sooner define Taiwanese food -- that is, the food of Taiwan rather than the food of its indigenous peoples -- than I could east African or Chilean cuisine. The island has a long history; it has absorbed culinary influences from waves of occupation and migration. Taiwan has a large indigeneous population, the descendents of people who lived there long before the Dutch, Chinese or Japanese arrived. And it is still absorbing influences from abroad as far as I can tell, as island nations necessarily do. Taipei is a large, sprawling, mixed-up jumble of a city -- and an incredibly cosmopolitan one at that, especially when you consider that much of the world (and, ahem, the world's food editors) seems not to know, or chooses to ignore, that it exists.
So, though I eagerly accepted this assignment, I landed in Taipei with some trepidation. Eating for yourself is one thing; "defining" the culinary experience of a city for an audience (many of whom will be natives, many of whom will be eager to highlight what's been left out) is quite another. I knew that I knew too little (and I write that as if I could ever know enough about eating in Taipei, or about the food of Taiwan) to chart my own path. So I threw my hands up and relinquished control. Instead of planning a gastronomic itinerary around "must eat" dishes I simply queried locals about what they most liked to eat.
Surprise! I was not led to one single niurou mian stall (I already have my own favorite anyway). No Taipei-an took me out for stinky tofu, sat me down to a steamer full of xiao long bao (soup dumplings), introduced me to their favorite shaved ice or squired me to a night market.
Instead I was treated to many unknown-to-me yet quite common local specialties. All were fabulous; I write with all honesty that I did not consume a single mediocre bite in six days of fairly full-on eating in Taipei. Yet given my word limit, many of my most pleasurable nibbles did not make it into the article.
Here's one: youyu geng (yoh-yoo guhng), or thick soup with squid. Geng are a class of Hakka soups made somewhat viscous with the addition of starch -- tapioca, sweet potato, corn. They're a common street food, seen everywhere in Taipei. Most contain pork. At this third-generation stall near the Gongguan MTR stop opposite Taiwan University (or Taida, as it's known), the medium of protein is squid, and it appears three ways: dried and rehydrated, deep-fried, and ground to a paste that is then formed by hand into rough elongated ovals.
You might call this dish "squid noodles", for the vendors offer yellow noodles, mung bean vermicelli or ban tiao (flat rice noodles) to add to the thick soup. Most diners order their noodles "dry", soup on the side (something often done in Malaysia with Chinese noodle soups like wonton mee and koay teow th'ng).
Why they do so became evident as soon as I slipped my chopsticks into my bowl of yellow noodles and gently turned, releasing a plume of steam heavy with the scent of shallots browned long and slow in lard. The flavor of this sauce was incredible, richer and meatier than the juices leftover from a roast. Add in the freshness of chopped cilantro and the slow-burning heat of the housemade chili sauce, which I added from a jar on our table, and I was eating my most seductive bowl of noodles in recent memory.
As for the gloopy, viscous geng -- I loved it, especially when thinned and soured with white vinegar. The potato starch-thickened stock tasted intensely of seafood, the squid paste balls (more like dumplings, given their odd shape) were full of fresh fish flavor and texturally interesting, with small chunks of squid (as opposed to the silky smoothness of your average fish ball) and the coating on the rafts of fried cephalopod was neither greasy nor too thick. Bonus: the deep-fried squid pieces soaked up the delicious broth like a sponge. The garnish of holy basil leaves was a pleasant, tasty surprise (the herb is a common ingredient on Taiwan.)
I generally avoid soupy dishes in tropical climates, and in general I don't really recommend visiting Taipei during its hot, sticky mid-summer. I was sweating buckets as we ate our geng.
But I'd jump at the opportunity to hop on a plane tomorrow and happily, swelteringly slurp my way through another bowl at at Li Ji Hakka (the shop's name, from a barely visible sign to the left of the serving station).
Thanks to SL (oh, the wonders of Facebook) for taking us to this little gem near Taida.
Li Ji Hakka, 289 Dingzhou Lu Section 3, Taipei. MTR exit: Gongguan.