Down, Out and Delicious Dining - Eating out in Taipei on $10 a day
There are certain questions with answers so voluminous as to require near-dissertation length treatises to even come close to being complete. "What is there to see in Paris?" might be one. "What is there to do in New York" another. In this article, we'll attempt to answer an equally huge question:
"What is there to eat in Taipei?"
Quick answer: "What isn't there to eat in Taipei?"
In Taipei, eating is not so much a bodily necessity as it is a passion, or even a way of life. There is no cuisine known to man that isn't available in some form or another somewhere in or around Taipei city. On western food alone, we could spend paragraphs and barely touch the surface. Fushing north road alone (in Eastern Taipei, located conveniently beneath the Mu-tza line of the Taipei Rapid Transit System) contains a veritable United Nations of cuisine, from Mexican to Thai to Italian to one restaurant that boasts of serving nothing without garlic. Western food, if that's what your in the mood for, can be gotten pretty much day or night. We won't discuss fast food, except to say that if you're in the mood for pizza in Taipei, you need only remember the Chinese phrase "Er, ba-ba, er, wo er, wo er." It means "hungry, daddy, I'm hungry, I'm hungry," but if pronounced with just a bit of a strange inflection, sounds like "2-88-2-52-52." That's the central number for Domino's Pizza, Taipei, and they deliver day or night.
But unless we're long term expatriates, far away from home and craving the comfort foods of our youth, we didn't come to Taipei for pizza. So we're narrow the scope of our culinary quest down to the real cuisine of Isle Formosa, the foods that Taiwanese people miss most when they're traveling abroad.
Ah yes, I'd almost forgotten. Just to make our tour more interesting (and economical, as we humble travel writers have little in the way of research budgets,) we're going to do it on around $300 NT dollars - roughly $10 a day.
Fire Pot...Taiwanese gumbo
Our first stop in our low-budget culinary cuisine is a local Haw Gwau restaurant in the Tai Da neighborhood. My friend Francis is a 25-year-old Taipei native currently residing in, of all places, Newfoundland, Canada. On the eastern edge of Canada, Newfoundland is a cold climate, and Francis has ended many an email to me with the words: "Please send Haw Gwau"
Of course, she's joking. Besides the fact that Canadian import laws would forbid it, Haw Gwau (literally "fire pot") has a tendency to be reduced to sludge after an hour or two in the pot. But before that happens, its sheer heaven - especially on a chilly day.
Taipei city has thousands of "fire-pot" restaurants, all of which have the same basic setup: The customer sits at a table in the middle of which sits a pot of boiling water. At some restaurants you order the ingredients for your personal stew from the waiter; at others, you get it yourself, buffet style. Anything is fair game for the pot. Sliced meats from animals that cluck, moo, bray and squeal; vegetables of all colors, flavors and textures, and seafood that, in life, swam, crawled, walked, or just sat there sucking in the ocean. On any given night at a Taiwanese fire pot restaurant, the chances of two tables eating an identical fire pot are astronomical.
Some Haw Gwau restaurants also have the apparatus to bar-b-queue meats on the side of the pot; others do not. Some are more traditional, and quiet. The one that we're in tonight is in a neighborhood frequented by students, and the music is turned up so loud that we need to hold onto our bowl to keep them from vibrating off the table. Total price for tonight's meal? 150 NT dollars per person, all you can eat, and ice cream and beverages are free.
But unless you limit your Fire Pot to vegetables alone (which is kind of missing the point,) Haw Gwau is a heavy meal, one that will no doubt leave you feeling sluggish. The next day, you'll most likely feel like easting something a bit more wholesome. This, too, is not a problem.
"Eating Pure:" Vegetarian Cuisine
Taipei City is a vegetarians paradise, and vegetarian restaurants are plentiful, mostly inexpensive, and among the best in the world. Most importantly, they aren't just for vegetarians. Many are the carnivores that frequent vegetarian buffets not just for health reasons, but also as a matter of good taste. The majority of vegetarian restaurants in Taipei are buffet places; you chose your food and pay by weight. Your best bet at any of these places is to show up a bit before lunch or dinner, while the food is hot and the selection vast.
If you've never experienced a true vegetarian buffet, and are envisioning twenty different variations on tofu, think again. The buffet table at any decent vegetarian restaurant is kept stocked with a wide variety of animal-free dishes created with beans, wheat gluten, roots, tubers, vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colors, fruits, rice of various colors and textures, spices, sauces, and, yes, tofu. On any given day at, the diner will find over thirty magnificently prepared dishes, as pleasing to the eye as to the palette. Except for certain soups and stews (such as the mock chicken soup, made with ginseng and seitan,) the price of your meal is calculated by weight.
I've never spent more than 200 NT at any vegetarian buffet, with most meals coming in around 120. My fat friend Zippo, however, who claims that vegetarian food just isn't very filling, can put away close to our day's NT 350 budget in one sitting. He is, however, an exception.
For arguments sake, lets say that we have inadvertently blown most of the day's budget on our luncheon buffet. Overwhelmed at the beauty & diversity presented us, we bit off more than we could chew, and now have a scant 60 NT left for dinner - about a buck and a half US. Sure, we've narrowed our dinner choices down, but we still have plenty of options.
Wake up and smell the Tofu
If you didn't get your tofu fix at lunch, or are simply feeling adventurous, you can try Cho Dofu ("Stinky Tofu,") the Taiwanese snack that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and occasionally the women from the men. Cho Dofu is tofu that's been fermented to a nice degree of pungency, which is then deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage and hot sauce. Cho dofu is very much a Taiwanese delicacy, and a cart selling the stuff can be found at any night market, and in most neighborhoods throughout Taipei. Generally speaking, you can find the nearest cho dofu stand with your eyes closed. To put it bluntly, the stuff reeks.
As far as health is concerned, well, Cho dofu is probably isn't any less healthy than other fat-fried dishes. At 50 NT a dish, Cho Dofu is a pretty cheap meal, even for Taiwan. If you develop a taste for the stuff, you can always justify eating it regularly by telling yourself that at least it's served with a vegetable, if you count the pickles. To some, the smell of cho dofu is like a cross between limburger cheese and fried sweat socks; to others, it's a whiff of pure heaven.
Miscellaneous Meats and things on Sticks
It is a cruel twist of fate that a nation's prestige is derived from things like military & economic prowess, and not from more useful qualities - the variety of foods served on sticks (Latin term: Shishke-bobus) available in the travelers. Were this the case, America, Canada, and most of the G-7 nations would be consigned to the lower ranks of global politics, and Taiwan would sit high on the ruling body of nations, for Taiwan is a nation rich in food-on-sticks, and Taipei is the capital of shis-k-bob land. Aside from the normal stick meats found anywhere in Asia (marinated beef, lamb, chicken & pork,) Taiwan boasts a huge variety of more exotic fare - squid, congealed pig's blood, dried tofu, chicken butt - just to name a few. Sixty NT will buy you three - less than a meal, more than a snack.
While nay bobs may shirk at the idea of eating shiskebobs of dubious origins from a cart on the street, I've personally only had one bad experience with mystery-bobs in nearly a decade of Taiwan street eating. Still, if the idea of eating chicken butts (or claws, not technically "stick meat," but delicious anyway) grosses you out, perhaps Taiwanese steak is more up your alley. But perhaps we'll save that for last. For now, lets move onto some lighter fare.
Some Lighter fare
With its current high tech profile, it's easy to forget that Taiwan straddles the Tropic of Cancer. Long before there were factories, Formosa had some of the choicest farmland in East Asia. With a hot, wet environment perfect for growing anything, Taiwan's fruits are nothing short of spectacular. Whether your tastes run from mundane (apples, bananas & oranges) to tropical (passion fruit, mangos & pineapples) to the very exotic (preserved plums, Asian pears & raw sugarcane), you'll find what you want in Taipei.
A few things to remember: Like the west, fruit in Taiwan is sold by weight or by the piece. Unlike the west, haggling over price is acceptable. The Taiwanese peel most fruits before eating, and may look at you funny if you bite into an unpeeled apple after you buy it. It's recommended that you wash them first, in boiled or bottled water preferably. And finally, Taiwanese oranges come in two colors - orange and green (Both are good).
Although I'm not sure if Grass Jelly Soup counts as a fruit, it is certainly a light, fruity kind of dish that can be found at any night market.
Night Market Cuisine
As far as Taiwanese cuisine is concerned, if you can't find it at a night market, it probably can't be found anywhere in Taipei. One of the benefits of eating at a night market is that your meals can be punctuated by sporadic bits of shopping, if you have any money left. While there are numerous smaller night markets scattered throughout Taipei city, the three largest ones are the Chingmei, Shi-lin and Tongwha Jyeh night markets. Chingmei and Shi-lin have their own MRT stops, and the Tongwha Jyeh night market is only a ten-minute walk away from the Liu Chang Li station.
Shi-lin night market is the biggest of the three, and Chingmei is the smallest. You can basically find the same foods at all three night markets, but selection might vary. Whereas in Shi-lin, you might be able to chose from five different carts selling broiled duck tongues and braised chicken claws, in Chingmei that number might be reduced to two. As Shi-lin is the most popular with students, it's the most packed on any given night. The Shi-lin night market has two main places to eat, on the eastern edge by the movie theaters sits a long row of stalls selling cut fruits, fried chicken, stick meat of all varieties, grass jelly soup, snails in brine, and other assorted items. On the western edge of the market is an indoor food court with teppanyaki bars, fire pot stalls, tofu trolleys and a few Taiwanese steak places.
While I've refrained from describing traditional Taiwanese beef steak (for fear of inducing a coronary in the reader) But we've traveled together this far, I think you can handle it. A low grade cut of beef is grilled on searing metal pan until the meat is the requested color, then thrown on top of a pile of spaghetti. The whole mess is served on a searing cast iron plate, and, for good measure, a raw egg is cracked on top of the steaming slab of meat. Cost of meal: Around 150 NT. Cost of open-heart surgery: Around $50,000 US.
Perhaps we should have stuck with the fruit after all. Bon appetit!
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