Glutton Onboard: Lunching in Taipei

Lunching on a type of beef noodle at Dian Shui Lou in Taipei

Julie and Michael from Taipei are probably our closest friends on the ship, if forced to categorize that kind of thing. Because we are Asians, we bond over our love of food, and of our respective cuisines. Aware that we were actively looking to have delicious Taiwanese food in Taipei, Julie and Michael took us under their figurative wings, deciding not to leave us to our own devices, but to treat us to a bona fide good Taiwanese meal themselves.

Now, we have been to Taiwan — and even Taipei — before. But we have never been to a meal in Taiwan with actual Taiwanese people. Just like how Thai people order Thai food differently from farang, we were the farang to Taiwanese couple Julie and Michael. They would be seeking to appease our basic tastes — xiaolongbao, beef noodles — while at the same time showing us something new.

The reason why I think that Julie and Michael are good guides to Taiwanese food is because they can be stank-ass beyotches about it — even when it comes to their own food. When discussing the charms of the culinary scene of the south, where raw green-red tomatoes are cut up and served with a sauce of dark sugar syrup, powdered sugar and ginger, Michael makes a disgusted face. “The Southern food is too sweet,” he says. “It is food for children.” (Incidentally, the combination of these ingredients gave, to me, a hint of sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce flavor).

A tomato stall at Kaohsiung, Taiwan

No, if we were to eat Taiwanese food, we would have to do it under their tutelage, which is exactly the way I would do it if a friend came to me for Thai food guidance. So, having ditched our tour group at the National Palace Museum, we took a bus to Julie and Michael’s selected Taiwanese eatery, Dian Shui Lou, which was only 15 minutes away. Once there, we see Julie and Michael already ensconced over an enormous menu, strategizing with a waiter.

We greet them with enthusiasm, especially since we have already seen all the food photos from the menu during the wait for an elevator. We saw pickled crab eggs, and all of seven (!) types of soup dumplings, and whole steamed fish, all of which we excitedly relayed to Julie and Michael. They listened politely, took some of it on board, and, as all good editors must do, discarded the rest. Their order was precise and focused, yet still enough to make us stagger out of the restaurant at the end of the meal.

There were two types of xiaolongbao on the table: pork with crab roe, colored orange from carrot juice, and a streaked red-and-white one containing mala-flavored beef. We had a concise selection of other dim sum to start, including soft rice rolls stuffed with deep-fried “patongko”-like fritters, and plump deep-fried chicken wings for my son, who hates everything. There were Peking duck pancakes, already rolled after showing us the lacquered, cooked duck, followed by a remarkably fragrant soup stewed from the bones. There was even a flat sesame pancake, stuffed with what Michael could only describe as “a very special green”. We might never find out what this green was, but it was delicious.

Then came the second half of the meal, which included another crowd-pleasing soup of spinach and century egg, accompanied by the lightly-fried side of a freshwater fish and simply sautéed fresh spinach. After that, a veritable vat of stewed beef flavored with the tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper blend known as “mala”, coupled with hearty, hand-cut wheat noodles made to “stand up to it all”.

This was then followed by a thin rice vermicelli in a clear beef broth, in the style of one of my favorite beef noodle vendors, Luk Chin Anamai. Now, this is the type of dish that Thais would normally damn with faint praise terms like “delicate” or “subtle”. But it was actually refreshing after the pugnaciousness of the mala beef, heavily redolent of the sweetness of deep-fried shallot.

“Now the beef noodles will come,” said Michael. “This chef is famous for his beef noodles.”

“Huh?” we asked. “Didn’t we just have two beef noodles?”

But no, those dishes are not what Taiwanese people mean when they say “beef noodles.” “Beef noodles” is an important dish, created by Sichuan soldiers who fled to Taiwan (to the south, it must be said) and felt nostalgic for a taste of their homeland. The beef is often stewed for hours, until the meat is tender enough to cut with a spoon.

I will have to say that, even if this dish was created originally in the south, Julie and Michael’s endorsed version in northern Taiwan was probably the best I’ve ever had. The hearty handcut wheat noodles were back, perfectly al dente in a deep mahogany broth blessed with the clarity of the South Polynesian sea. The meat, dull Chinese spoon-tender, thick with fat. On the side, a bowl of pickled vegetables to add acidity to the whole heady mix. What could I say? Fleeing homesick refugees really hit the ball out of the park on this one.

After lunch, we said our goodbyes to Michael and Julie and toddled off to another bus, dangerously sated enough on our way back to the pier to fall asleep for the entire 45-minute ride. We didn’t speak Mandarin and they didn’t speak Thai, but in our limited way we had managed to communicate enough that we could have great meals together, and bond over our appreciation of them. Good friendships have been made over less.


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Glutton Onboard: Gaining 100 lbs in the Philippines

Sisig barkada at Kolai Mangan in Boracay

There are two things that Thais like to lord over other Southeast Asians: 1. the fact that they were never officially colonized and 2. their food. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to Thai people pontificate on the inferiority of the surrounding cuisines (Myanmar: “too salty”, Vietnam: “too bland”, Malaysia: “too greasy”, Singapore: “they took everything from Malaysia”, Cambodia: “what?”). In the case of the Philippines, Thais are especially derisive: “Their food is so bad, all they have is pig,” they say, without going into specifics.

Well, I’m here to say that Filipino food is absolutely delicious. Which is lucky for me, since I spent nearly my entire stay in the Philippines shoving my feelings down my throat and deep into my gut — with the help of many, many pieces of deliciously cooked pork, seafood and beef, of course. 

Our first stop in the Philippines, Puerto Princesa, was actually food-free. Instead, we were slated to go to St. Paul’s underground river, a UNESCO World Heritage site that can only be explored via rowboat. Unfortunately, these boats can only be reached by motor boats, which then must be reached by van. Why not bus, you may ask? After all, every trip has used them before. 

It’s because the road from port to pier is a relatively narrow, deeply winding road through thick forests and along mountain ridges, next to which vertiginous drops loom. Now, I have experienced harrowing car rides before. I have been on the highways in Northern India, where cows are indeed sacred and unpredictable, appearing at will on roads just as cars are starting to accelerate. I have been on the road to Hana. I have even been on the dreaded minibus ride from central Bangkok to Hua Hin. I know scary drives. And I have never been as terrified as I was on this ride to the pier, haring along hairpin bends, passing oncoming traffic by barely an inch, all the while fighting some fairly serious motion sickness. The payoff: we befriended a family of macaques, who walked us to the rowboat pier and walked us back to the beach after our tour. I suspect they mistook my son for one of their own.

As the whole day was spent in some form of transportation, we had only the cruise ship food to look forward to at the end of the day. But the next day, in Boracay, we expected to have enough time during our “Beach Escape” tour to flit away in search of some honest-to-god Filipino food.

The problem is, the bus that was available at the time was not big enough to fit us all, so my in-laws went before us, with my sister-in-law in tow. We took the next bus, about 15 minutes later, for the 30-minute ride to Puka Beach, where my daughter and I spent an engrossing hour searching for interesting rocks on the beach as my in-laws sat on a towel, waiting for lunchtime, when the buses would drive us to the nearby (and possibly only) mall.

The thing was, the buses were set, with each passenger meant to go to the mall in the bus they came in on, the transportation version of Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” (IYKYK). While my in-laws’ bus driver and guide were okay with letting them go, our bus guide felt differently, insisting that we stay with him. However, no one wanted to wait another hour for a bus to the mall, and everyone wanted to go together, on our own. 

Where I thought that meant hiring one of the many electric “tricycles” nearby, I discovered it actually meant going on an entirely different bus, where our guide followed us. “This is not your bus,” he said he said to me, which set off my sister-in-law, who firmly told him, in raised enough tones to make me look at the floor, to leave us alone. It would only be a few more minutes before I realized we were, of course, displacing other people who had come to the beach on that bus, and that our “new” guide would have to find new spaces on other buses for them. 

I wanted to sink into a hole into the ground, but the other passengers were mostly cordial during the excruciating half-hour ride to the mall. “How interesting,” said Cheryl from Charleston to no one in particular, as the Belgian man next to her averted his eyes.

It was no surprise, then, that once we got off the bus, I was eager to walk down the street, possibly forever. But we did not end up walking forever; instead we ended up at a place that my husband had found on Google called Kolai Mangyan (288-9616/288-2267), an open-air spot reminiscent of a Thai shophouse, selling the simple types of dishes that I imagine would be the Thai shophouse’s counterparts.

Eager to stop talking or thinking, I ordered greedily. There was “sisig barkada”, a dish of chopped pig belly, ears and trotters flavored with chicken livers and served on a hot plate. Although the pork is traditionally sauced with pig brains, mayonnaise is now the more common condiment.

We also ordered “bulasing”, a light, tart clear soup flavored with tamarind and, in this case, crowned with an enormous hunk of boiled fatty pig leg.  

Like a plate of “pad krapao”, we were intrigued by the “bud bud” options, which feature minced meat (we chose beef) with egg atop a mound of rice (sound familiar?)

And finally, we had lechon, because how could we not have lechon? A platterful of crispy chunks of roast pig, it was accompanied by a bowl of sweet-sour dark dipping sauce, studded with onions and chilies.

At last full and literally rolling out of the restaurant, we finally did manage to find a “tricycle” which took us back to our ship, where we could recover for the next day, this time in Manila.

The plan was simple enough: to take a shuttle bus from the port to a shopping mall located in the center of town. We had prepared for Manila well in advance by interviewing all the people from Manila we knew (many of the crew on the ship) who had given us the advice to focus on one section of town: Makati. We would take a Grab taxi from the mall to the restaurant we had chosen the night before: Tatatito (Ground floor, OPL Building, 100 Don Carlos Palanca, Legazpi Village).

Unfortunately, Grab taxis in Manila are stricter than Grab taxis on Bali, and all rides are limited to six people. My daughter, sister-in-law and I hopped off to take a different Grab, but my father-in-law intervened, telling me to get back in the taxi. My daughter told him to take the taxi and that we would find our own way, which is when he shouted at her, “There must be a man in every group!” She quickly turned and left to go back to her seat, and I knew she was upset.

This was bad, because it was her birthday.

When we finally got to the restaurant (a song I had never heard before, called “I’m Going Back to Manila”, was playing on a loop in front of the mall and we went through six loops before we found our next Grab) my daughter was sitting at the table, her eyes red. Now, my in-laws react to things differently than my family does, and so they assumed that my daughter was suffering from some sort of allergy. When my mother-in-law suggested that we go in search of a pharmacy, tears began streaming down my daughter’s face. 

My husband quickly said he would find a place to buy antihistamines, and asked my daughter Nicha to accompany him. After their departure, my mother-in-law scolded my father for yelling at Nicha. He grew defensive and raised his voice, saying that he needed to yell at Nicha earlier because the song “Manila” was playing so loudly in front of the mall. He then lapsed into silence, perhaps realizing that “Manila” was no longer playing, as I reached for the first bite to stuff inside of my mouth, a crispy vegetable fritter with a vinegar dipping sauce. 

It was against this backdrop that we embarked on our next and last meal in the Philippines (after my husband and daughter returned): another sizzling sisig on a hot plate, accompanied by a fresh, warm, fragrant finger lime; beef “kansi”, an absolutely delicious sour soup also flavored liberally with tamarind; an “inasal” of tuna belly, in which the fish is marinated in coconut vinegar, pepper, annato, and calamansi before it’s grilled over hot coals; “karekare”, a mix of vegetables (including banana blossom!) and roast pork slathered in a peanut sauce; crab “relyeno”, reminiscent of Thai “poo jah”, a version of the traditional dish in which milkfish is stuffed and fried and served with three sauces including one made with fermented mashed jackfruit (delicious).

Beef kansi
Tuna belly inasal

My favorite among these, however, was the adobong baby pusit, a mass of baby squid mixed in with a cornucopia of sautéed cherry tomatoes and big roasted garlic cloves, with another head of garlic as garnish.

Now, there is a dish in Thailand called “phra ram long song”, which is, next to See Fah’s “por pia sod”, my least favorite dish in the Thai culinary lexicon. It’s similar to karekare, which is why I did not enjoy karekare. However, the anchovy sauce that accompanied it — a certified tastebud killer, I assumed — went perfectly with the peanut sauce instead, rounding out the sweetness with its intense saltiness. Go figure!

I ate like I was being paid to eat. I ate like I had been enlisted into a contest and my family’s lives were contingent on my finishing every plate (except for the karekare). I ate until I just could not eat anymore. I imagine this was what everyone was doing, as there was very little conversation. Instead of talking, we chose eating, so that the words in our throats might be overpowered with tamarind, annato, calamansi, and chilies, left to languish forever in our stomach linings. When we finished, every plate (except for the kare kare) was bare, and our guts bursting. The words we might have spoken had been successfully suffocated. We ordered ube ice cream to finish, just in case.

Crab relyeno

We had no transportation drama on the way back to the ship.


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Glutton Onboard: Off the bus in Bali

Fish head with pineapple and okra at Wr. Bambululu

I hadn’t been to Australia since my first (and only) trip to Sydney back in 2003, for the rugby World Cup. Back then, what I knew of Sydney’s dining scene came from Wildfire, Rockpool, and the basement of David Jones. Possibly as a result, my one trip to Down Under was a hazy blur, my only memorable experience being the train ride after a NZ loss to Australia, listening to an Australian explain that New Zealanders were sore losers because rugby was basically all they had going in their lives. (An aside: karma would come for this man only a few days later, when Australia lost to England in the final few minutes of the match).

So I wasn’t prepared for the sheer charm of Cairns, or the hints of immense beauty in the patch of the Great Barrier Reef that I snorkeled. In Darwin, I found alive all of the stereotypes that Americans have of Australians: guides named Wookie, towns named Humpty Doo and pubs that allowed customers who arrived on horseback to tie their horses up inside the bar. Australia is a vast, immense space, not even wholly known to most Australians themselves; in this way, it very much resembles the US. There also seems to be a big gap between the rich and the poor; in this way, it also resembles the US, and Thailand as well.

All the same, it was a feeling remarkably similar to relief that greeted me when I woke up a few mornings later to the view of Bali’s Benoa port: a concrete parking lot, what appeared to be a facsimile of a temple, and the full-on wall of humidity that could only be found in Southeast Asia. One reason was that I would find lots of good meals featuring rice (when did I turn into my parents?!); the other was this:

A bum gun

Bali is known as the “Island of the Gods”, and there’s a good reason why. It’s beautiful. Green, lush and verdant, like French Polynesia, it has also taken on the infrastructure of a (very) well-visited tourist destination. Women still wear their sarongs, and temples (and accompanying offerings to the gods) are everywhere, including underfoot.

There are places in Thailand, particularly around the capital, where anything even remotely hinting at the kingdom’s agricultural past — traditional dress, rice paddies, untamed greenery — is viewed with disdain and denigrated as “baan nok” (from the country). The Balinese have no such qualms; rice paddies coexist down the road from luxury resorts and shopping complexes, and it’s not hard to find farmers ploughing their fields with their water buffalos, hungry cranes following in their footsteps.

By this time, we have traversed most of the island, comfortable (ish) within the confines of our enormous tour buses, the kind of tourists that I myself would view with suspicion and run away from. We have seen dances and weaving and thrown money at batik factory owners, visited many temples and had more than our share of complimentary Balinese snacks with tea.

But the very nature of a trip on a cruise ship is just that — comfort within the very confines of the touristic bubble, the foreign-focused “parallel universe”, that I usually try to avoid. The point of the cruise ship tour is to isolate oneself from the burdens of researching, haggling and scrambling, but these are the only ways to get anywhere good. So at the end of our temple visit today, nearing lunchtime, we asked our tour bus to kindly drop us off at a place where we could easily find a taxi (another benefit of Southeast Asia: Grab works here too). From there, we would find our own way to lunch at a place called Warung Bambululu (otherwise known as “Lulu”, Jl Suka Merta, Sanur Kauh, Denpasar Selatan, +62 852-3731-7777), where Wikki had lunched only the day before.

I knew we were at a good place when I saw there were two containers of sambal on each table: white, for the usual red, garlicky (and very spicy) sambal that one associates with Indonesian food; red, for a fresh chili paste that resembles Thai “ajad” or Mexican “pico de gallo” but is spicy and tart, made from slivered fat chilies that look like this:

(Photo by Wikki Bhanubandh na Ayutthaya)

Hungry from an entire morning spent exploring temples and villages, we ordered as much as we thought we would be able to eat for that day: an entire steamed “Hong Kong-style” fish with soy sauce and a mountain of green onions; simply deep-fried tranches of fish; “asam padas”, a sour curry-looking stew of fish filets with okra and pineapple, as well as a separate stew of the fish head; chicken fried rice AND noodles for my seafood-hating son; a selection of fried greens including our beloved morning glory; an omelet (to soak up all the spice, of course); and best of all, stir-fried shrimp with sator, in a veritable pool of sauce.

Shrimp with petai beans
Morning glory with garlic and chilies

Either it was an excellent restaurant or we were extremely hungry (or a combination of both), but the meal was demolished in a half an hour’s time, like a field of grain ravaged by a plague of locusts. It was well worth the haggling with the taxi driver to get there and the journey back to the port (where we belatedly realized we needed Indonesiah rupiah to gain access). Being cosseted and spoiled in the confines of a cruise ship are nothing to complain about, but sometimes one just wants to feel alive, hot and grateful in a bare-bones dining room with a nose streaming from eating too many chili peppers.

Steamed “HK-style” fish

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