Anthony Bourdain has yet another travel/food show called “The Layover” where he visits global cities for 24-48 hours. He visits restaurants, local hotspots, and hangs out with locals. Once I discovered this show, I immediately downloaded the Taipei, Hong Kong, and the Singapore episodes. For someone who cannot easily hop on a plane, I find that the episodes encourage nostalgia.
I have visited both Taipei and Hong Kong several times. Listening to the Taiwanese accented Mandarin made me think of my family. Just like any other language, Mandarin Chinese comes in a number of different accented varieties: Taiwanese, Hong Konger, Beijinger, Shanghai, American-Born Chinese (ABC), non-Chinese student. My mom’s side of the family all came from Taiwan so it’s what I’m accustomed to hearing.
“The Layover: Taipei”
“Taiwan is an alternate reality of China. The China that might have been, [the China] that never turned its back on traditions. Sybarritic, commerce-driven, foodie,” explains Bourdain. “[Taipei] is not the prettiest of cities.”
The many restaurants and dishes that Bourdain delights in characterizes his visit.
Bourdain takes a taxi get into the city for around $30. But everyone encourages him to take the MRT or the buses because getting around Taipei seems to be quite affordable — no more than $7. (Taxi fare for an obruni from the Accra Mall to Osu is $6 – $7.)
Bourdain’s first stop is the Keelung Night Market. “Night market” means different things in different countries. In Taiwan, it means outdoor “wonderland” of bite-size snacks: oyster omelet, grilled pork, ball-shaped proteins (fish, poached quail egg, shrimp) on a stick, tempura, “thin noodle thick soup”, grilled and seasoned shrimp, fresh sea urchin, steamed crab, miniature soft-shell crab, “fried sandwich”, Taiwanese meatball (ba wan), steamed bun with pork belly, pickled mustard greens, shallots, and peanuts.
By the way, in Ghana, there are also night markets that offer goods. Many people warned me against visiting them. They all said that there are “ghosts.”
After hitting the night market, Bourdain gets a $20 foot massage.
“Foot massages hurt at first but it feels very good after. The massage is over when you’re all relaxed,” says a random man.
Japan ruled the island for 50 years from 1895-1945. According to Bourdain, the Japanese brought “with them some ugly ass buildings and some very bad history.” But the Japanese also introduced sushi and established a Zhongshan (“Japantown”).
After World War II, the Nationalists of China flooded the island with 2 million of their people and ruled the country for much of the post-war period. Let’s say Chang Kai-Shek, their leader, was not universally loved.
After seeing these sights, Bourdain meets a friend at Jin Chun Fa Restaurant for… BEEF NOODLE SOUP! I haven’t had that for 20 months? My mom makes a great version. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until I left home. Apparently, there are clear and dark broth versions. Mom makes the dark — and spicy — broth.
For some reason, beef noodle soup isn’t enough.
“There no difference in what I sell and what I eat Everything is made to be the very best,” says Mama Lo. Bourdain then goes to Lo Mama Mi Xian Tang in Da’an for pork intestine vermicelli soup. (Many of these translated names do not do the items justice.)
Much like myself, Bourdain’s visit hardly veers very far from Taipei. He visits the Beitou Hot Springs as well as Maokong in Wenshan for picturesque views and takes the cable car to Yuan Zhu Yuan for a traditional teahouse experience and the views.
After a while, the show becomes mix of all the varieties of food that I haven’t had in a long while:
Shaved Ice: Ice cut into soft pieces mixed with condensed milk and your choice of fruit. The blend of soft ice, condensed milk, and fruit approaches a sweeter version of sherbert with natural frutis. Price is usually less than $3.
Fermented (“stinky”) tofu served with chili sauce: again, the name prejudices the reader. I find many non-Asians start with an aversion to tofu because it seems flavorless and is often associated with vegetarianism. Moreover, most non-Asians don’t really know how to prepare it.
Eaters should realize that sometimes food is about texture as well as flavor. In Ghana, foods that serve a similar purpose as tofu include fufu, kenkey, and banku. In the West, the main one is bread. Yes, bread. Bread is a delivery method for butter, cheese, and sausage. I’ve lived in America so long that I’m conditioned to respond to smell of fresh baked bread.
Though not my favorite local snack, you would be hard pressed to find a Taiwanese who does not enjoy this local bite.
Soup Dumpling: Imagine a steamed Chinese dumpling filled with warm soup. In Taiwan, this delicacy is synonymous with the gigantic chain restaurant, Din Tai Fung. As Bourdain comments, you would think that as the restaurant expanded, the flavor of the soup dumplings would suffer. You’d be wrong!
Pearl Tea: Sweet milk tea with large gelatinous balls or “pearls”. The pearls don’t have much flavor. Nonetheless, there’s a difference. If someone offered me milk tea, I would think of a hot, stomach-assuring drink like hot chocolate. On the other hand, “pearl milk tea” translates into cold, afternoon snack — like a smoothie or a Starbucks Frapuccino.
Bourdain’s visit also touches upon the few non-food related things to do while in Taipei:
Scooters: Should you get around by scooter? Danger vs. convenience. The choice is obvious to me because both the bus and the MRT are both convenient and cheap. But some people prefer their own freedom.
Hair washing: For some reason, women — and some men — go out of the house to get their hair washed. It’s like getting your hair cut without the cut. My understanding is that sometimes washing long hair can be a pain. Thus, going to a place where someone takes care of you by lathering up your hair, applying treatments, and rinsing it all out is a small luxury for busy people. Your attendant usually will also give you a scalp massage and/or shoulder massage. It’s been a long time, but I think it’s no more than $20.
National Palace Museuem: When the Nationalists fled China, they took the trouble of taking as much of China’s paintings, sculpture, and artifacts with them. This museum houses all of these items.
The show on Taipei was a bit of an eye-opener. Normally, I only visit Taipei and it’s hard to persuade me to leave my grandmother’s or auntie’s home. But seeing Bourdain pioneer these sights for me, I think I’m willing to dip my toe next time I go back.