Glutton Abroad: They juice bitter melons in Taiwan, don’t they?

bittermelon

Taiwan’s white bitter melons

By now you will have probably already seen the viral clip of The Cure’s Robert Smith interviewed by journalist Carrie Keagan at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. If not, well, I’m not sure which one to link to, and where have you been anyway, it’s everywhere, even Piers Morgan has covered it. Morgan even claims to have wooed his wife with The Cure songs (instead of dancing alongside her and eventually biting her neck, like other lizards would normally have done). This must be very horrifying for Robert Smith, sorry, you can rest in peace now, our thoughts and prayers are with you.

The interview is most often pitched as an illustration of the differences between Britons and Americans, but like Jordan Peele’s new movie “Us”, I think it serves as a Rorschach test for the viewer’s own prejudices. In my case, I was convinced Carrie Keagan was the alternative music version of a social-climbing parvenue, the kind who listens to the “Wish” album and then proclaims herself a mega-fan, versus a long-suffering misfit who had to eat lunch with their one friend at school and listened to “Pornography” before bed in order to make themselves feel less alone (Hmmm? What’s that? I’m not talking about myself you’re talking about myself.) It turns out she is a “Japanese Whispers” fan and, although it’s technically considered a singles collection, whatever, I have to eat my words and pretty, ebullient people like Carrie Keagan can also be closet Goths even though they probably never had to pay any of the social cost for it, what, I’m not talking about myself why are you so obsessed with me.

The Cure are a good band to consider when it comes to discussing a wide-ranging, even surprising, fandom. They appealed to everyone from the likeliest (Trent Reznor, I feel you) to the unlikeliest of music fans (Piers Morgan) and everyone in between, thanks to the universality of Robert Smith’s songwriting and unvarnished voice, and some really stellar musicianship that never really gets a lot of attention because everyone is paying attention to Robert Smith (not his fault). Watching The Cure’s set from the induction ceremony, I was struck by how generous they were in playing for this smug peroxided bunch of phonies who represents everything in music that The Cure have always hated (and will probably induct a band like Poison any year now, just you wait).

Wait, what was I saying? Oh yes, a wide-ranging fandom. Yes, really, that was what I was talking about, not about how rock music has become equated with the oppressor Donald Trump types of the world and has lost all credibility as a resistance art form as a result. Oh wait, I mean a wide-ranging fandom …

… which Taiwanese food also enjoys. What I’m saying is, Taiwanese food appeals to a whole range of people, from the foodie Gluttony types to the junky sweet tooth set to the genuine, food-of-the-people champions — like The Cure’s discography, there’s something for almost everyone there (provided they aren’t Motley Crue fans or whatever).

applebanana

Colored like an apple, shaped like a banana

I’ve been to Taiwan before. I consider that my pure Glutton trip, an attempt to inhale as many of the things I’ve always loved about Taiwanese food in Taipei. This trip was a more wide-ranging jaunt, a budget tour through the island, focused on covering as many stops as possible from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan to Yehliu Geopark and every souvenir shop doling out commissions in between. The food was different from what I would choose to eat in Taipei, but it ended up being a good thing and probably much more representative of what regular Taiwanese people outside of the capital city eat.

hotpot

Open-air hotpot in the mountains

Of course, there is always something new to discover here. In my case, it was the “tea egg”, which our guide said was the only street food allowed to be sold in the Alishan area during Chiang Kai-Shek’s time because the vendor was a widow with children. Besides this story, tea eggs are simply the perfect snack, savory nuggets of protein stewed in a broth of tea, soy sauce and Chinese five-spice powder for long enough to form the characteristic marbled pattern on their surfaces, reminiscent of how Tom Hardy looks when Venom is taking over.

teaegg

Tea eggs on the street

Because they are such perfect snacks, tea eggs are pretty much everywhere, on the street, in tea shops, even in the 7-11. But it took finally arriving in Taipei to suss out what I had been wanting to try the whole time: Taiwan’s supposedly ubiquitous fried chicken (I love fried chicken, did I ever mention that?). This magic stuff is like a half of a chicken pounded flat through sheer WTFery (bones be damned) and then lightly breaded, fried to a face-sized slab and cut into squares to allow for easy grazing from a paper bag. It comes in normal and “spicy” (which is a lot like Nashville’s “hot chicken” in flavor) and is so delicious that I forgot to take a photo until the very end, when I was finally able to stop myself from eating for long enough to snap a picture.

friedchicken

Fried chicken on Hanzhong Street

Also delicious: bubble tea. I know we all say we’ve had bubble tea, but the fact is that no one has had bubble tea unless they’ve had it in Taiwan, the actual birthplace of bubble tea. The inventor of “pearl milk tea” is said to have been Chun Shui Tang, but count us as Tiger Sugar converts, thanks to the addition of dark brown sugar syrup to its signature drinks.

bubbletea

Praise be Tiger Sugar

 

And then there are the bitter melon juice stands. Like Robert Smith’s hair, the sight of several rows of bitter melons lined up like soldiers at the front of a juice stall could appear intimidating. But these gourds are not the light green variety commonly adorning eggy stir-fries and pork broth-based clear soups elsewhere in Asia. Fortunately (unfortunately?), Taiwan’s produce is almost unparalleled (gorgeous guavas and rose apples, etc) and its fat white bitter melons — said to be milder than their green counterparts — are no exception. The juice is augmented with honey and ice cubes and is a bittersweet jolt to the senses, the Goth shadow to the ebullient lightness enjoyed by the happy and uncomplicated fangirls of the world. Just like The Cure (YAY I DID IT), bitter melon juice is the darkness by which all the sweetness of the world can be measured.

 

1 Comment

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One response to “Glutton Abroad: They juice bitter melons in Taiwan, don’t they?

  1. The Cure as metaphor for fat white bitter melon-ade. Love it!

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