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Off The Menu-Taiwanese Specialities

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 10 and 11

Two days in Taipei. Nowhere near enough time to savor all the intriguingly unique Taiwanese dishes such as Oyster Pancakes or Snails with Basil. True Taiwanese food is not common in the Unites States, but over the past decade, I have been lucky enough to become familiar with a marvelous array of their delicacies. Dinners hosted by Taiwanese friends and the consistent and healthy cuisine served at David's Taiwanese Restaurant in New York City's Borough of Queens made me excited to learn how American-made Taiwanese food compared with the indigenous cuisine. I headed for the source.

Arriving on a cool Taipei evening, we were warmly welcomed with sweet persimmon, cantaloupe, boiled peanuts in the shell, and homemade rice wine, which its maker pointed out contained no preservatives. Soon we headed south of the city to Shu Men She Ku, the Stone Gate Dam, where we saw no less than five huge restaurants serving the local speciality, grass carp. After selecting a huge live carp, it was prepared for us in four different ways: Deep-fried Fillets with Spiced Salt served with a sweet pink dip, Fried Tail in a sweet and sour sauce, Belly Steamed with Tofu with a chili sauce, and what was called Head in Clear Broth with Tofu. Noodles and sauteed Kand San Tsai or water spinach rounded out this traditional meal.

Sanitation notwithstanding, we were handed overnight snacks of small stubby bananas and lin jiao, the fruit of a plant that grows in the water. Once boiled, its horned black shell is peeled to release a mild tasty white inside, a bit like a cross between potato, taro, and water chestnut.

At dawn we drove through the lush natural area surrounding Stone Gate Dam passing a huge chicken farm and stores with hundreds of kinds of tofu. This rich and scenic watershed is an important source of native foodstuffs brought daily to the Taipei metropolis. We stopped in town for a healthy and savory breakfast soup made from dried pulverized small yellow beans served with fried bread and steamed dumplings. The small but thorough town market contained such marvelous rarities as fan shao aka 'Buddha's hand' also known as open-fingered citrus. This yellow-green fruit they advised can be kept whole in your pillowcase at night as a cure for respiratory difficulties. It can also be packed in salt for two weeks, sun-dried for one week, then cut into pieces and steeped for tea. We couldn't resist sampling from the market so we bought some "Twa Bao" or pockets of fried bread stuffed with pork and pickled vegetables; they were sprinkled with brown sugar.

In downtown Taipei, we tried Duck Noodle Soup and snacked from a vendor who grilled pork sausage and Mi Chang, a sausage stuffed not with meat but with spicy sticky rice. It was served with soy sauce and the ubiquitous pink dip.

Fruits were abundant in Taiwan even though this was October, an off season. We ate carombola, papaya, various melons, cherry tomatoes stuffed with slices of licorice-flavored plums, and the large sweet Taiwanese guava which we particularly enjoyed; ours was sliced and served with salt.

It seemed that the only thing as common as motorbikes in Taipei were the Bean Lan stands. Bean Lan is fondly called Taiwanese Chewing Gum. It consists of three parts: the fruit which looks like a tiny coconut, a slice of the crispy stem of the tall thin Bean Lan palm tree, and a brownish paste made from what they called 'Red Clay.' A white version of this 'clay' is used as a tofu hardening agent. This may be, they told us, the reason why people with gall and kidney stones problems are kept away from tofu and Bean Lan.

It is put together daily by hand and kept fresh in refrigerated stands. I think I saw one at nearly every intersection. One chews this product for several minutes, releasing strong licorice and nut flavors which refresh the palate. Despite reported health risks, seemingly half of the city population use Bean Lan regularly as a breath refresher or to keep warm in winter; others just eat them out of habit. We learned that these treats are commonly perceived unhealthy for reasons such as: Pieces of brittle palm can cut the mouth, inexperienced chewers sometimes break out in cold sweats and dizzy spells, and recent information that this potent local delight might be carcinogenic.

Just off the Taipei docks thrives the infamous Hwa Si Street Tourist Night Market. Known for purveyors of less-common fare such as snake, turtle, and wild game, Hwa Si Street is home to some amazing human and culinary oddities. We visited a combination ginseng shop/gymnasium that had spawned many athletic champions and we witnessed a pet orangutan politely spooning at a steaming bowl of Congee. This market sports many top-dollar southern Taiwanese-style restaurants displaying immaculate and encyclopedic varieties of fresh seafood; it is also teeming with food, souvenir, and amusement stalls.

We gawked for a while and then headed for the Hsi Lin Night Market, a low-ceiling food bazaar which proved to be less of a sideshow and more of an eater's dream, a sort of Chinese Horn and Hardart with short-order chefs behind close to one hundred stalls. Everyone seemed to be frying delectable-gooey Wowan Tzen, four, eight, or twelve at a time. These pancakes, made with abundant local oysters, are sauteed with lightly scrambled egg, tapioca flour, and water, and an aromatic herb known as tung ho tsai. They, too, came served with the pink dip (made at David's Taiwanese Restaurant with catsup, white miso paste, sugar, and corn starch).

It was not long before the waft of Cho Dofu aka 'Stinky Tofu' drew us to another stall. This aromatic food was brought to Taiwan from Shanghai over a century ago. It is traditionally made by aging tofu in a process akin to making blue cheese. Cakes of firm tofu are intermittently layered with shrimp shells and the tough outer leaves of cabbage and/or Chinese broccoli. They are covered with water and left to sit for days to develop a most pungent and distinctive odor. Once thoroughly rinsed, the aromatic tofu is cubed, deep-fried, doused with soy sauce, chili, and scallions, and served with pickled cabbage. Those who prefer the strongest possible taste eat theirs just steamed. The adult population of Taiwan seems to be evenly divided between love and hate of this acquired taste; many are reviled, others find that its delicious redolence makes a great appetizer, not unlike garlic bread.

There was no better time for an intermezzo of Ku Kwar Yeung Cha, an icy bitter melon treat. The Taiwanese say their bitter melon is paler in color and milder than the American version. It is commonly made by removing the seeds and blending it with ice. This mixture proves to be a remarkably cooling and refreshing palate cleanser and appetite stimulant.

The heavy rains in northern Taiwan are fertile ground for land snails, commonly gathered and sauteed with black beans and basil. We ate succulent dark brown ones with those seasonings and other typical local foods such as soup made with fresh and dried cuttlefish and bamboo shoots, and a dish with sauteed crab claws prepared with garlic and more basil and bamboo shoots. All were hot and spicy. Night owls clamoring for a late treat can feast on duck wings, neck, and leg jerky deeply flavored, rich, smokey, spicy and terribly addictive.

The second day, alas our last, found us looking forward to a visit to my friend's aunt and uncle's home. Just after we arrived there, they treated us to shots of whiskey poured from a bottle that contained many bees. It was a fine tonic. Next we sipped on aged Shao Xing wine and hot tea and noshed on apples, honeydew melon, grapes, and boiled salted peanuts; all these while we waited for what turned out to be the ten-course lunch that followed.

While this meal did not feature an exclusively Taiwanese menu, we nonetheless enjoyed local delights including two kinds of fish, one of which was the Sha Mue Yu which translates to: What kind of a fish is this? We also gorged on Chinese celery with dried bean curd, sauteed long beans, a broth made of seaweed and egg whites, another soup made from pigs knuckles and a thicker seaweed, cauliflower prepared with scallions, a dish made very sour with its pickled cabbage, cold dishes of roast goose and pork leg, and of course, plenty of steamed rice.

On the way to the airport, we made a detour to the riverside town of Tan Shui to try Cockles with Spicy Black Bean Sauce and their famous Fishball Soup, a famous local favorite. We also stopped at one of the many dockside stores purveying boxes of what seemed to be huge smooth black olives. Actually, they were something referred to as Iron Eggs. This treat was made with boiled and peeled hen eggs that had been dried in the wind for one week; the result, dense dark-black morsels with a flavor not unlike thousand-year-old eggs. Only these had a consistency all their own and a taste, as they say in Taiwan: Hen hao tzuh---Delicious!

Upon returning to New York City and going to David's Taiwanese restaurant in Queens, I spoke with the head chef who chastised me for not spending enough time in his country. I told him that I couldn't wait to go back to Taiwan and joked that now the pressure was on him to come up to the standards I'd experienced in his homeland. He rose to the challenge serving Clam and Ginger Broth, Sauteed Spinach, and a gloriously fresh two-and-a-half pound Red Snapper in Taiwanese Sweet-and-Sour Sauce which included shiitake mushrooms and a special Taiwanese black rice vinegar. One bite and I was both happy to be back in New York and anxious to spend more time in Taiwan.

Authentic and healthy Taiwanese food can be hard to locate. Someone told me there is a Taiwanese restaurant on 40th Avenue in Flushing and I do mean to go there. Until I do, I'll keep returning to David's Taiwanese Restaurant at 84-02 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. If you have trouble locating it, call (718) 429-4818, or just go, they're open until 3:00 a.m. and have free parking after 8:00 p.m. For those who have no car, take the G or R subway train to Elmhurst Avenue.
Harley Spiller is an Asian food afficionado with a collection of well over 6,000 Chinese take-out menus from forty countries dating back to 1916. He'd welcome any and all additions; send them co this magazine. He offers thanks to Effi Chang and Tsu-Chi Yeh, Ruby Ling and her son David of the above restaurant, his Taipei guides and friends, and Lian, Honda, and Ismeil as well as the extended Pin family, all of whom provided guidance for these experiences.

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