The International Writers Magazine:Best Meal Ever: Dining Out
we approached Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city and industrial powerhouse,
the traffic widened to eight lanes. The shadows of tower-blocks
loomed in a blanket of smog which engulfed the city like a grey
mist. Details resolved only as we drew closer. Smog engulfes the
city whenever the wind subsides; you don't breathe as much as eat
say that living in London is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
In Kaohsiung you'll actually filter the air when sucking it through
the butt of your cigarette.
However, for most of our stay, it was windy. And cold. An unseasonable
12-15 degrees at first seemed balmy as we stepped off the plane from
wintry London, but we soon donned jackets or coats like everybody else.
Our flat was on the ninth floor of the building and draughty. Luxurious
during summer, with the wind whistling through the windows high above
the smog, we shivered through an eight-day cold-snap wrapped up in blankets
So when the time came for dinner, we ventured out in our warm London
jackets. In the street it was warmer than in the flat, although not
by much. The surrounding buildings held back the breeze just enough
for a thin veil of smog to linger. We weaved our way past parked scooters
and the paraphenalia of stores and motorcycle workshops which spilled
onto the side-walk, carefully stepping around burning incense and smoking
buckets. At the close of business, many store owners burn red "ghost
money", sharing wealth with their ancestors in return for good
We crossed the road to a small eating-shack, wondering how we would
order our dinner. The Lonely Planet guide had cautioned us about speaking
Mandarin. You may mean to order cauliflower but mix it up slightly and
you end up referring to a veneral disease instead. Casual talk wasn't
an option. We relied instead on smiling and pointing.
There were no dishes displayed behind the counter, but there was a small
menu scribbled on a board. John and I tried to match the characters
with the ones we memorised from the guide-book's food glossary. "That
looks like 'soup'," I said: "Let's have it as a starter, it'll
warm us up!".
He agreed and we pointed and smiled, nodding affirmedly as the woman
behind the counter raised her eyebrows. Then we took a seat at a wooden
table, rubbing our hands against the cold. I thought I could see our
breath steam in the cool air, the temperature had dropped after sun-set.
After a few moments, the woman placed two small containers of shaved
ice smothered in syrup in front of us. Clearly, the pattern-recognition
We relied on luck after that and obtained a bowl of beef with rice followed
by soupædinner in reverse.
Finding sustenance and variety became easier when Duan, one of John's
students, took us on a tour around the night-market. At night the street
vendors come into their own. As soon as the evening rush-hour has finished,
stalls sping up along Liuho road in the city centre. All sorts of things
can be bought, but by far the main attraction is the food.
The night market is always packed; hordes of people push and graze their
way along the rows of stalls from early evening until well after midnight.
This is not a place to dawdle, but Duan knew what we might want to try.
Besides the usual fried rice, grilled beef, noodles and dumplings, the
stalls are piled high with assorted seafoods, frogs and poultryæwhole
and in parts: goose necks, duck's heads, chicken's feet, bottoms (yes,
really), hearts, kidneys and tongues, the smaller bits generally threaded
onto wooden skewers. Squids on sticks are popular.
Many dishes on display defied identification while others were appealing.
We tried a Taiwanese speciality: oyster omelette; the shellfish delicately
fried in an eggy rice-batter. It can be greasy, but when done properly
it is sublime.
It was too crowded to eat in peace so we made our selection and retreated
to a seating area of wobbly stools and rocky tables behind the stalls.
Duan, being vegetarian, had fried tofu, chilli-red in the Szechuan style
which made his eyes water, even though he is originally from Szechuan
province. He urged us to try another local delicacy: stinky tofu, the
pungent smell of which had assaulted our nostrils as soon as we approached
the tofu vendor. I am game for almost anything; I had tried many of
the vaguely recognizable snacks and some I didn't recognize, but stinky
tofu is definitely an acquired taste. Apparently it is very good if
you ignore the smell. I found that impossible. Strange, really, because
I like smelly French cheeses. I love the smell they give off. To the
Taiwanese, it is unimaginably repungent. It' s all a matter of perspective.
The experience instilled in us a sense of adventure and from then on
we became more daring with our choices. We discovered previously unimaginable
dishes; textures and flavours which I am at a loss to describe. And,
yes, they included pig's intestine. Cooked with vinegar and fresh coriander,
they are the main ingredient of one of the best dishes I have ever tasted.
I had ordered it instead of duck (my pattern-recognition still needed
work) and we enjoyed it immensly. I don't know why; I guess the balance
between sweet and sour, crunchy-fresh and succulent-soft was spot-on.
Chinese cooking is all about balance. The balance of flavours: hot-and
mild, sweet-and-souræbut perhaps even more so texture: the crunch,
crisp, soft, glutinous and jelly-like consistency of the food that crosses
your palate. Taken together, it elevates the Chinese cuisine to one
of the greatest in the world.
For once, I had thought we had escaped the Christmas bustle, here at
the other side of the world, but the University laid on a banquet in
anticipation of a short Christmas break. It was just before I was ready
to leave Kaoshiung (and John to his duties as a visiting academic at
the Maths department) to discover Taiwan. The promise of a Chinese banquet
made me delay my departure.
The banquet took place on the campus grounds, in marquees which had
sprouted on the green lawns days in advance. I looked forward to it
with the same anticipation as the college summer ball during my student
years. But we both wore jackets over our smart attire. It was still
blowing a chilly breeze.
The event was seamlessly orchestrated. Hundreds of academics, their
families and their students gathered in groups of twelve at round tables,
gaudily decorated with baloons. A bottle of Shaoshing (rice wine), placed
in the centre for the initial toast, made us quickly feel at ease. At
each table, a senior member of the faculty acted as host. He passed
around the bottle, beckoning to have our glasses filled right to the
brim. "Gen Bai!" the cry went. "Dry glass!" Drink
up! I wasn't that stupid. there would be many more to follow. I prodded
John and we chorused: "Suí yì" ("as you
like"), as recommended by our trusty guide-bookæjust take
a sip, if you don't want to get legless too soon. It earned us a couple
of acknowledging nods and from then on, we were not the only ones to
The chatter subsided as the first course arrived.
During Chinese banquets, the courses are presented one-by-one like stars
making their entrance on the stage. Everyone but us knew what to expect
and what was to come.
The curtain-riser was a huge round platter of mixed starters, some pleasantly
familiar, others tantalisingly foreign: sesame pastry, smoked fish,
spring rolls and glistening bites that the host informed us (after we
had tried them) were jellyfish.
After a brief interlude for another toast there followed a rich, meaty
broth with seafood morsels. I recognized the squid. The leathery, darkly-transparent
stuff was bêche-de-mer: sea cucumber. I recalled that the holothurians,
related to starfish and sea urchins, were overfished as far away as
the Galàpagos islands due to the high demand from East Asia.
Already, this banquet was turning into a zoology field-trip. I mused
on my encounters with sea-cucumbers when diving in Scotland. If I had
not known better, I would have taken the flower-like tentacles sticking
out from the sand for flowers. These were the feeding appendages of
the animals. The bulk of their bodies, which look just as the name suggests,
was buried in the sand underneath. I did know better than to pull one
outæwhen in danger, they eviscerate i.e. expel their guts through
their mouths. While the soup was velvety-rich, the bêche-de-mer
tasted of nothing.
Along with a round of beers and Western-style wines, the first main
course made an entrance: a whole fish gently steamed in soy-sauce and
rice wine, subltly flavoured with ginger and spring-onion. I would later
learn that the fish signifies abundance. In Chinese "fish"
sounds the same as "surplus" (plenty) and the implied intend
is that the table may always overflow. The head of the fish is turned
towards the guest of honor, or most senior person, which in our case
was the host. He sucked at it lustily, eye-balls and all.
Time for more liquid refreshment. By now John had begun to slur his
"Suí yì" while I had changed to "gen-bai!".
What followed was perhaps one of the most delicate dishes I have ever
tasted. Subtle white crab meat with glutinous black rice. This was succeeded
by individual portions of seafood in a hot sauce. More seafood! They
were pushing out the boat, but after all most of the faculty were present,
along with several academic visitors and local dignitaries. After five
courses, I wondered where all this would end. I didn't know then that
it is usual to have twelve or more courses during a banquet.
It was time for a break. While we toasted with more beer and wine, Father
Christmas appeared on stage, to the delight of the children.
The banquet resumed with the half-time highlight: birds-nest, or rather
bird-spittle, soup. The swiftlet (Collacalia esculenta) builds its nest
from a special secretion which dries rock-hard. The bowl of clear, slightly
lumpy liquid in front of me conjured up visions of scrawny men risking
their lives on steep cliffs to harvest this precious delicacy. A pound
of the finest quality nests could fetch nearly 1000$ in Hong Kong.
At the bottom of the bowl of clear broth rolled a jujube (red date)
like a buried treasure. It enticed me to dip my spoon into the bowl.
I tried to keep an open mind. The flavour was subtleæcooked in
classic Chinese Superior Stock (made with pork and chicken, delicately
flavoured with soy sauce and white pepper), the "birds nest"
itself tasted of almost nothing. It was, however, like eating snot.
John gamely finished his bowl, an indifferent expression of his face,
but l have a problem with eating mucus. At times it means that I have
to go hungry on my travels. Not wishing to offend, but unable to finish
the dish, I surrepticiously exchanged his empty bowl with mine.
Satisfied that by now we might have built up an appetite, the next course
to be presented comprised filled pancake rolls. We passed. But afterwards
came a refreshing respite in the shape of an artfully presented selection
of melon and fresh fruit. On lesser occasions, this might have signified
the end of the meal, but here it just inaugurated another round of dishes.
A rich stew of cartilage and senew. Nasty? Slowly stewed in a rich sauce
the gelatinous texture reluctantly dissolved in my mouth, kissing my
palate as it surrendered its flavours. I simply had to try it and I
don't regret it, but I feared I might burst. A glass of warm plum-wine,
a digestif to calm our full stomachs.
Finally, it was over to the desert courses. An assortment of sweet and
savoury pastries, nuts and small sugary jellies. Then, just as I thought
we had finished, translucent, slippery rice dumplings, stuffed with
almond paste, and a sweet soup with small red beans, raisins, jujubes
and other "treasures".
This was it. The waiters offered take-out boxes and bags for diners
to take the left-overs home. The gesture signifies abundance and, moreover,
it is bad form to waste food. Bowls of left-over birds-nest soup were
lined up on a side table. People drank them up eagerly; it was a prized
delicacy after all, but I wondered where they found the space. I doubted
that we could eat another thing for the next three days.
So the evening drew to a close. Sated and happy, we retired, the memory
of textures and flavours playing a symphony on my tongue and dancing
on my palate. To this day, it is the best meal I have ever tasted.
© Denni Schnapp May 2004
all rights reserved