My flight from San Francisco to Taipei was delayed, and painfully so. My eyes were bloodshot, my long, black hair already matted, and I was only a quarter of the way to my destination. Warily, I glanced at my text messages.
“Aren’t you going to Taiwan? Did you hear about the phone call?”
What luck. Just as I was Taiwan-bound, on a seven-day trip, the 36,000-sq-km dollop of an island where I was headed was suddenly on everyone’s lips.
I raised my eyes to the nearest television and quickly caught myself up. The news channels were buzzing about a 10-minute chitchat between the president-elect of the United States, Donald Trump, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. It wouldn’t seem like much but for the fact that no American president or president-elect had taken a call from Taipei in nearly 40 years. This particular president-elect not only spoke to Taiwan, but he had tweeted all about it.
The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
However, I was Taiwan-bound for stinky tofu, not for a whiff of international brinkmanship.
For a tiny place, Taiwan’s novelty-filled food culture has an almost gravitational pull over the American diner. Taiwanese-American kids in Southern California snack on fried squid at homegrown night markets; a chef, Eddie Huang, slings bao – doughy buns filled with various meats and vegetables – and Taiwanese sodas in New York and Los Angeles. Bubble tea, a milky, sweet drink laden with gummy tapioca “pearls” the size of marbles, hails from this place, too, though now it’s almost as ubiquitous in such places as Rockville, Maryland.
THE MORNING AFTER MY ARRIVAL, I sit down to a life-affirming breakfast of sweet black soybeans, Chinese crullers or oil sticks (yau ja gwai), taro bun and about four versions of tofu. Around me, I notice banyan trees, with their artfully tangled trunks, dotting every patch of green. Pastel pops of cuteness – saucer-eyed cartoon figures plastered onto the sides of buses, pet hotels, blinking neon pinwheels – reach out and hug me from across this landscape of glass and steel.
It looks like any urban East Asian nation, but muggy, perennially grey-skied Taiwan is unique in ways that aren’t readily apparent.
Passed like a hot potato from the Dutch to the Japanese to, finally, China, Taiwan has developed a culture that is a jumble of a half-dozen influences, including that of the Han Chinese, who make up the largest ethnic group. There is also a tiny indigenous population, which, I learn from Lishan Chang, of the US-based Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, has more in common with Polynesians than with the Chinese. (The president, who took office in May 2016, proudly touts her indigenous roots.)
All this cultural wire-crossing plays out in a dozen ways, including in the food, particularly what fills the island’s night markets and its streetside stands.
Some of Taiwan’s delicacies are novelties, among them xiaolongbao, the two-in-one culinary nuggets that the Taiwanese would claim as their own. Dumplings with a centre that bursts with meaty soup, they’re the specialty of Din Tai Fung, the island’s famous chain.
As our car pulls to a halt outside the restaurant’s downtown Taipei location, on Xinyi Road, and we amble out into the sea of humanity, it’s apparent that a soup-dumpling pilgrimage hasn’t occurred only to us. Blissfully, we’re called pretty swiftly – the promise of dumplings has a way of blurring the passage of time – and soon we are clambering up a narrow set of steps, past a picture window that reveals what must be Din Tai Fung’s secret: a sea of professional dumpling-pinchers, all men, cloaked in all white – including masks – sealing and steaming with surgical precision.
Settled into my seat at this jumbo jet of a restaurant, I ask in English what offerings are vegetarian, and despite the language barrier, our server-stewardess smiles warmly. Shortly, a plate of bean curd appears, drizzled in sesame oil and sliced so thinly that it resembles noodles. It is followed by warm fried rice dotted with vegetables and an artfully arranged bed of actual noodles, fresh and warm and swimming in a pond of liquefied sesame seeds. The meat eaters, of course, get the real variety show: drunken chicken (which looks raw but, I’m told, is just prepared in a way that spotlights the quality of the meat), shrimp-capped siu mai and, of course, bamboo vessels the size of hubcaps bearing steaming xiaolongbao.
The diner next to me wipes his brow. Feasting is work.
STINKY-TOFU HUNT IS the holy grail of Taiwanese eating, and the thing I need to snarf down only so I might brag about it later, like a contestant on Fear Factor.
My group is fresh off a remarkably easy, 40-minute trip to Taichung, in the centre of the island, on the high-speed train. We spend the night at the too-cool-for-school RedDot Hotel, where guests can take a slide down into the lobby and the elevators light up like a rave. As I climb into my huge bed with perfect sheets and traditional Hakka floral-print headboard, I pledge to never leave.
We decide on dinner at one of the island’s massive eating-and-shopping bacchanals, Fengjia Night Market, among the largest night markets in Taichung, a city with more than 10 such bazaars.
The youth population in Taiwan is dwindling markedly as couples delay marriage and put off or forgo having children, but at the night markets, youthful energy bubbles. At the maze-like Fengjia, street after street lights up with the neon glow of food stalls hawking delicious junk food, including bubble tea, liquid nitrogen ice cream and shaved ice, German pig knuckles, taro pancakes, oysters and Japanese-style fried squid. This market alone rakes in NT$11 billion (HK$2.7 billion) a year, says Yau-Jr Liu, director of Taichung’s Economic Development Bureau.
Woven into the deep-fried tapestry are carnival games and toy shops, stands with trendy cellphone cases and Goth T-shirts, all for the pleasure of the youthful gaggles who come here to roam, snack and find new ways to spend their parents’ money.
I pester our young American-born translator, Isabelle, to find me my storied tofu. But the stink – like damp hockey equipment, gym clothes from a Bikram yoga session and cheese all put into a bag and left it in a warm, wet cave for a few months – finds me first. The name “stinky tofu” doesn’t begin to relay how malevolent this street-food delicacy actually is.
As quickly as I stuff one piece of the fried tofu into my mouth, my face involuntarily shrivels and my nose fills with a sour, foul, unfamiliar funk. Determined not to be felled by perfectly innocent-looking tofu, albeit tofu steeped in a primordial stew of milk, greens and other mystery ingredients so fermented they are verging on spoiled, I take another bite, just as I might try bench-pressing 35kg.
“I just don’t inhale,” I declare to my companions, before popping one more piece into my mouth, to prove I’m a woman of emotional toughness.
The rest I pass to Isabelle, who adores stinky tofu, to polish off while I purchase every snack in sight, to erase its taste from my tongue. Rosewater bubble tea with lemons from one stand, scallion pancake fried into the shape of a dog bone from another, foot-long French fries with wasabi mayo from a third.
That night I wake up burning with fever. I pop two Advil and pass the time until I fall back asleep, cursing the soybean, myself, my ego – all of it.
The Washington Post