A true gustatory voyage through Taipei today.
Slightly jet lagged, Lai picked me up at Chang Kai Shek airport and whisked me to the Howard hotel where I unpacked and rested for a few hours before embarking on the culinary journey he had planned.
Lai returned at noon to retrieve me and we were off. The highways tunnel through and wind around the many lush green hills that Taipei sits amongst and our half hour ride gave me a good sense of the topography. We arrived at suburban market somewhere to the South and East of the city where it appears to be common for city slickers to go and visit on Sundays.
On the docket for lunch was Chou Dofu or "Stinky Tofu", a more aptly named dish there never was. It seems the making of my lunch began some 6 months ago when someone threw bits of vegetables, old tofu scraps and dried shrimp in brine and let it start festering at room temperature. To make the dish, one takes fresh tofu and soaks it in this fetid slop for 2 hours followed by whatever special preparation one might wish.
This market area is famous for its Chou Dofu. So much so that merely arriving at the low end of the street presents a sudden wall of stench, so thick and putrid it becomes physically hard to drive one's legs forward into the throng of eager patrons. In the humid midday heat, the pungency was exquisite. Simultaneously acrid, rotting, sulfurous, and pissy in character. Really quite impossible to accurately describe.
We sat down in a run-down place where a elderly woman threw down a plastic sheet on our table. The plastic was of the thinnest most disposable kind, no doubt because there's no point actually washing table cloths soaked with this stuff. It'll never come out. They probably burn their clothes after a long day of serving up Chou Dofu. Lai ordered 4 dishes for us: stewed bamboo, a soup of stinky tofu with pork, fried stinky tofu with mystery seafood bits mixed in, and the piece de resistance... Stinky Tofu in a spicy broth with lumps of jellied curdled goose blood and chunks of pork intestine! Sheer heaven. The taste is really something else. Surprisingly delicate given the overpowering stench. The goose-blood lumps were firmer than jello and yet more malleable and squishable on the tongue than I had anticipated. I normally eschew pig intestine, but having seen them boiling the crap out of it (quite literally I suppose), I dug in anyway.
After slurping the whole lot down we wandered through the market sampling all of the freebies laid out for the mass of humanity walking by. Chinese theory of self is rather straightforward. If you're feeling cool of spirit, you need something to fire you up. If you've too much heat in your head or heart, you need to cool down. And so on. Everything's about balance, as are all of the curatives and elixirs. I was handed a small square of something brown and soft that vaguely looked like pressed licorice. As soon as it was in my mouth this was a burst of intensely organic sweet iciness blasting over my palate and down my throat. God knows what was in it.
After a cup of tofu ice cream, we grabbed a coffee and wandered down to the river where locals were fishing for carp with bits of pineapple on long thin poles. I clambered down the steep stone steps leading from the bridge and chose a large boulder to sit. The rock surface was hot through my jeans, a slight breeze was blowing up stream, beating back the sticky heat of the sunny day as the din of the market faded back behind the ramshackle buildings separating us from the busy world above. Lai and I sat there talking about nothing in paerticular for a while... not sure how long. It didn't matter.
At about 3 pm we were off again. Lai drove back into the city where we parked at the University and hopped on the MRT urban rail system taking it over to Longshan. Longshan Temple has segments devoted to an odd mix of Buddhist, Taoist and other deities. The internal square was packed with worshipers making wishes, seeking inspiration, or love and generally hoping their supplications of food and incense would alter their fates.
I wandered through with Lai, being respectfully discrete with my cell phone camera, deeply breathing in the atmosphere. The air was thick with Tibetan chants, mutterings of the hopeful, and the sweetly thick incense smoke swirling around everything and everyone. We arrived at the far corner where a small bearded figure behind glass seemed to be the focus of youthful attention. Young women in particular were grasping two half-moon shaped wooden blocks and casting them to the tiles underfoot. The resulting pattern would be telling of the fate of their wishes with respect to whomever their heart is yearning for unrequited. Lingering there trancelike in front of Yue Lao I found myself passing my hand over the wafting smoke rising from a large brass basin in which people were periodically dispensing their burning incense sticks. The heat was intense. Dazed, I withdrew, gathered a red thread for myself, and made my way out of the temple.
A short walk brought us to the infamous Snake Alley. Formerly a Red Light district, the strip of stalls and markets used to be a pretty seedy place before the Taipei municipal government decided to get out of the business of prostitution. Before braving one's turn at the brothel, men would seek to empower themselves for the conjugal event. Everything is symbolism. If you want to be long, hard and powerful, you need to partake of something of like kind. Hence the snakes. Several family run hole in the wall places still offer snake-meat soup and related wares. What the hell, I thought, I'm never gonna get to do this again! Lai and I sat down in one such establishment and ordered the works. A slightly crooked old woman brought, without ceremony, a platter with 3 shot glasses and a bowl. In the bowl floated several medicinal seeds in a light broth and 3 chunks of an unidentifiable snake. Skinned, the snake was on-the-bone; delicate meat, but not much of it, and requiring deft use of chopsticks to maneuver around the plentiful ribs emanating from the central spine. Fairly straightforward, nothing alarming. The shot glasses were another matter. White, green and red. The green was snake bile mixed with rice wine. The fine milky one was purported to be venom. And the larger of the three? Bright crimson under the fluorescent lights, a glass of snake blood! Floating disconcertingly on the surface was a pharmaceutical capsule within which could have been anything from sugar to crystal meth for all I knew. I insisted that Lai inquire as to its contents before I dared my quaffing. The answer made him chuckle. "It's just ground-up dried snake penis!". Of course it is, and down it went. The snake blood was the best of the three. Sweet, a little metallic (I suppose form the iron) and surprisingly light.
Convinced that I had demonstrated my fearlessness, Lai and I made our way back to the MRT which whisked us up to the sprawling Shilin night market. Lai was getting hungry again. I was quietly worried that there might be something to the pervasive beliefs that you are what you eat and that I would produce an involuntary turgid embarrassment to myself in public. Thankfully, nothing of the sort.
Shilin comes to life as the sun goes down. Shirts, shoes, jewelry, electronics, jeans, cosmetics, plastics, toys, phones, anything you want and food food food, everywhere. And a massive crush of people!! We made our way in a light drizzle, through the crush of humanity, slowly and up to the Northern end where hawkers were offering countless marinated meats and offal skewered on sticks, dumplings, bowls of soupy concoctions, bubble teas, dragon fruit and guava drinks. The symphony of smell was dizzying. Lai settled on a brightly lit shop, just as the rain started to pick up, where we sat under a canopy stained from under by the constant insult of cooking oil smoke. A local speciality, oyster omlette, was first, and expertly crafted to my left by a 30-something guy in a filthy t-shirt. This sweating Sisyphus had a constant flow of oysters on the griddle, eggs on the oysters, oyster juice on the eggs, greens on the juice, flip, move to the right, start another, pull the last one off, ladel on the red sauce, holler for service, start again.
By 9 pm, and on the heels of a plate of gingered pig heart, I was starting to nod. Lai wanted to eat more. The guy's as skinny as a rail and yet he eats like a running back. I kept trying having to apologize that I was stuffed. Jet lag was catching up to me. I had to get some rest. We had just found our way back to the South end of Shilin when the sky opened up. The quick run to the station didn't keep us from a good soaking.
Truly one of the best days I have had in a long while, and perfect start to my time here.