Magazine article The Spectator

A Taste of Taipei

Magazine article The Spectator

A Taste of Taipei

Article excerpt

The Taiwanese seem besotted with food. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has almost 700,000 objects in its collection, but the most popular two items are a piece of jade that looks like a pak choi cabbage and a stone which resembles a slice of pork belly. You can judge a nation by what it treasures most -- and we only had three days in Taipei, so we decided to let the city's culinary life dominate our experience.

My boyfriend Ed and I arrived at night -- hungry and awake. Unlike Bangkok, where we had just flown from, Taipei seemed to be a sleepy city. On a side street, away from the comfort of the Mandarin Oriental, we found a restaurant serving something. It was unclear what, but we ordered two bowls. What arrived was a Chinese-style hot pot with noodles sunken beneath the dark broth. The man on the next-door table started laughing at us, but we were too famished to care why. Whatever we were eating tasted good and filled us up. 'Lin's Family Lamb Furnace' turned out to be the restaurant's name. It only served lamb dishes.

The following day, we visited 'Addiction Aquatic Development' market. Colossal crabs and giant mussels greeted us. Women sat on little wooden stools rolling up fish flakes into balls. Bulbous white bits of meat hung down from shop counters. Cows ovaries, we were told. At the end of the market was a barbecue stall where younger people hung out, listening to jazz and Taiwanese pop, while sipping on sweet potato milk and picking at rosy slices of Japanese-style sushi.

The tallest building in Taipei -- and once the tallest in the world -- is the World Trade Centre. It looks like a stack of takeaway boxes. On the ground floor is Din Tai Fung, which specialises in xiaolongbao, a type of Chinese steamed dumpling. The restaurant is unassuming, to say the least: it looks like a sterile road-side caff with orchids dotted around the place to cheer up the atmosphere. As at the museum, Taipei residents seemed happy to queue for hours for their food, and we joined them, alongside a group of south Korean soldiers who were in town.

Behind a screen were dumpling-making stations and we watched men in white coats and hats make the xiaolongbao. One dumpling contains 16g of filling and 5g of dough - no more, no less. Each dumpling is individually weighed. If they are out by even 0.1g, they are discarded. The doughy survivors are then steamed for four minutes and 20 seconds. Every day, 13,000 dumplings are produced this way. Fillings include green pumpkin, braised aubergine and the classic prawn and pork. To eat them, you hold one with your chopsticks in a small porcelain spoon, nip the side and pour in a little soy and vinegar, then slurp the whole thing down. The process is fiddly for amateurs but they really were delicious. There are plans to open a Din Tai Fung in London this year but this is somewhat dependent on whether or not they can find staff with the necessary patience.

I was keen to try bubble tea, which is a Taiwanese invention. I've avoided this drink in Britain, despite the fact that bubble tea emporiums have risen up all round London in the past few years. I bought a large cup of the milky tea outside the Chiang Kai- shek memorial hall, which opened in the 1980s, the same decade that bubble tea was dreamt up. The bubbles -- or 'pearls', as they are sometimes known -- are in fact tapioca balls and they whizz up the straw as you suck. The sensation is peculiar yet pleasant. …

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