For 2 years prior to leaving on this trip, I worked at an awesome design studio called NOON in San Francisco. A few years back, a guy named Allen joined our little family as a freelancer for a few months before returning to Taiwan to do his required military service (he is a Taiwan citizen). Allen and I also went to art school together at CCA, but he was a semester ahead of me, so I didn’t really get to know him until we were coworkers.
Lunchtime (and food in general) is a really big deal at NOON, so I was sure to call Allen as soon as we got to Taiwan, because I knew he would know where the really good food was. We didn’t end up getting together until our last weekend in Taiwan, but we definitely made up for lost time!
Allen lives in Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan after Taipei and Kaohsiung. It’s in western Taiwan, an area we hadn’t traveled to at all, so we boarded a train to Taichung and got there just in time to hit the night markets with Allen.
Now, before we get into all the crazy stuff we ate, let me explain the night markets in Taiwan: they are amazing! It’s literally fun for the whole family, and vendors sell everything from false eyelashes to cheap t-shirts with bad Engrish grammar. But the best part of the night market is the food. Typically, you go from stall to stall trying out all the strange and exotic treats on display; it is not unusual to eat about 10 different snacks in one trip.
In Taipei, the night markets are a little too crowded for our tastes, with wall-to-wall people pushing you through narrow alleys crowded with vendor stalls. So Jeremy and I hadn’t really done the whole “eat-10-different-snacks” thing at the night markets. But with Allen as our guide in Taichung, we finally cut loose! Yes, folks, we ate the infamous stinky tofu!
And it was good! It definitely is not as pungent tasting as it is smelling…and the nice, thick layer of cold pao cai (pickled vegetables) on top adds a nice temperature and texture difference to the deep fried stink. We also ate duck neck and intestines (also REALLY flavorful; the vendor chops the various parts up into little bite-sized bits so you don’t FEEL like you’re eating a duck’s neck):
We also tried octopus balls (like meatballs, but made out of fish and octopus—not actual octopus balls), a soup with blood and rice cakes, something called mian xian (a thick noodle soup), eggets, delicious popcorn chicken, boba tea with soy milk, and an oyster omelet.
I kept thinking how proud the NOONers would be of us, given all the scary stuff we ate (and also how I wished they could join us)!
The next day, we headed to one of Taiwan’s big tourist attractions, Sun Moon Lake. Allen brought his nice friend Mo along for the ride, and we had a great time chatting with them on our way up to the lake.
Sun Moon Lake isn’t actually that great; it is super commercial and the gorgeous lake scenery is a bit scarred by the development that has gone on around the shore, but it was a beautiful day and we were only there for a few hours, so the commercialism didn’t bother us too much. We took a short cruise around the lake and then drove to a nearby Confucius temple, which was really stunning, both inside and out.
We headed back to Taichung and ate some more…this time, we had mango bao bing (fresh mango and sweetened condensed milk over shaved ice) and duck wings. Afterwards, Allen wanted to take us shrimp fishing. We really had no idea what this meant, and quite frankly, we thought it sounded kind of boring, but we had a couple of hours to kill before we headed back to Taipei on the train, so we figured what the heck…when in Taichung…
It turned out to be surprisingly fun! Basically, you shrimp fish at a restaurant that has a giant kiddie pool in the middle, surrounded by tables. You pay by the hour and upon entry, you are handed a rod, a net, and a hunk of cow liver. You slice up the liver and attach it to your hook…and then you wait until a shrimp bites. And these guys are HUGE, like the size of your hand. Every hour or so, this guy comes out of the back with a bucket of shrimp and throws it in the water, hopefully near your hook.
Between the four of us, we only ended up catching 3 shrimp in our alloted hour, but luckily you can buy more shrimp by the kilo. There is a broiler right next to the pool, so you bring your catch over there and roast your shrimp up with some salt. Mo goes shrimp fishing 2 or 3 times a week, so knew what he was doing and took charge when cooking our haul. In a few minutes, we ere feasting on our freshly-caught (and bought) shrimp!
We had an awesome 24 hours in Taichung…Allen and Mo took really good care of us and totally pulled the Taiwanese custom of paying for everything behind our back. Allen and Mo, please let us know if you are ever in San Francisco! Hopefully we can return the favor!