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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2 responses to “Glutton Onboard: Lunching in Taipei

  1. Why are Southern regions everywhere so besotted with sugar? Sweet tea in our southern states immediately comes to mind. You’re expanding my travel wishes–first with the Philippines and now with Taiwan. This piece is seductive!

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