My mom and I have some food restrictions that can pose challenges when we go out to eat. I’m not supposed to eat grains or anything processed (e.g., flour and sugar). My mom is an ovo-lacto-pesco vegetarian and has been for as long as she can remember (definitely longer than it’s had an official, unwieldy title). For her, it’s not a conscious choice – if she has any sort of meat broth (e.g., beef, pork, chicken, etc.), she runs the risk of breaking out into hives. Eating in Taipei turned out to be a bit of an obstacle course for us. You will be unsurprised to learn that the gluttonous Cooper ladies overcame the obstacles.
Pork is king. If you are a pork lover, you will be in heaven in Taipei. I don’t think we saw a single restaurant that didn’t serve pork. We went searching for lunch our first day. Several foodie friends recommended the noodle soup station at 7-11, but I can’t eat noodles, and the broth was meat-based, so we kept looking.
Mom remembered enough of her Chinese character education from elementary school to confirm that all of the fluffy buns from the street cart were made with pork. She found that even the dishes that looked like they contained only vegetables were made with some sort of pork base or broth. We finally found a shabu-shabu place where they understood what Mom was trying to say and gave her hot water instead of broth for her seafood shabu-shabu. We had to start all over in the middle because Mom mistook a piece of fried pork skin (unexpected on a seafood platter) for tofu. Except for that small glitch, we ate like royalty at that place. I wish I could remember the name; it’s a couple of blocks north on Jilin Road from the intersection at Minquan East. I still think about it every now and then with huge amounts of wistfulness.
Fresh vegetables everywhere. While I was facilitating my workshop during the day, Mom was exploring the neighborhoods around the Hotel Landis (where we stayed during the work portion of the trip). 7-11 sells kimchi in tiny packages; my frugal mom went looking for a better deal. She found a grocery store that sold kimchi that she liked the look of, and then she turned off the main road down a tiny side street and found fresh vegetable heaven. In the rabbit warren neighborhoods, she found a bakery, a street vendor selling the Taiwanese version of crepes, and several, tiny grocers offering amazing variety in fruits and vegetables, especially Asian greens. If she’d had more cash, I think that she would have purchased a new suitcase to transport all the Asian vegetables she found to Abu Dhabi, where the selection of leafy greens is more limited and expensive. As it was, she put together delicious lunches for herself for several days for the equivalent of $10.
Dumplings. Everyone I spoke to about visiting Taipei raved about the dumplings there. We ate at the famous Din Tai Fung and at a local place near the hotel. Both sets were delicious, and I ate more of them than I should have (the wrappers are forbidden for me). Mom had one or two at the local place then stopped because she had suspicions that they had used lard in the wrapper dough. Neither of us speak Taiwanese or Mandarin, and so we couldn’t confirm or contradict its presence. The cashiers at Din Tai Fung do speak English (probably because it’s so popular with tourists), and so we were able to confirm that the vegetarian items on the menu are truly meat-free. It was one of the staff members at the Hotel Landis who recommended that we try both DTF and a local place – he said that DTF is quite popular with tourists and that the staff would speak English, but you’ll get a more authentic dumpling at a small, family-run restaurant. He directed us to a couple of his favorites within walking distance of the hotel; the one we chose did not disappoint.
Shilin night market. Taipei has a number of night markets, which are street markets that are open at night (duh). Picture Eastern Market in DC, only at night, and ten times more densely populated, both with vendors and shoppers. It feels like a carnival with all the lights and noise and bodies crushed together. While some stalls will open as early as 4pm, the markets as a whole don’t really get going until 8pm at the earliest, and things don’t close until 1am or 2am. We went to the Shilin night market, which is the biggest street market in Taipei. My clients wanted me to go to a night market less popular with tourists so my mom and I could have a more authentic experience, but because of jet lag and the English situation, we opted to take the easier route.
After our dumpling experience and my mom’s adventures on her own while I was working, we asked our favorite staff member in the lounge at the Westin (where we moved for the leisure portion of the trip) to write on a piece of paper for my mother that she can’t eat meat. That way, we’d have something in the native language to show to food vendors, and my mom could safely eat the food. Such a good idea in theory; in execution, it didn’t work out that way.
After we got through the gauntlet of trinket vendors (nail wraps, clothing, shoes, fried dough of several kinds, barbecue, sugar cane, various fresh fruit juices, purses, electronics and associated accessories, underwear, suitcases, Taipei-specific souvenirs, toys, books, etc., etc., etc.), we made our way to the food court underground. Mom finds that food tastes best to her at 10pm and later, and the delicious smells from all of the street-level carts made her hungry.
We encountered a noodle place that had seafood udon that looked great. Mom showed the cashier the sentence about not eating meat; the lady assured us that there was no meat; so we placed Mom’s order and sat down. While we waited, Mom noticed that they ladled broth from the same gigantic cauldron into all the bowls of noodles. That made her nervous. She was right to be nervous because she ate a couple of noodles, took a couple of spoonfuls of broth, and then noticed the small pieces of ground pork scattered throughout. She carefully used her chopsticks to lift out the seafood that had been placed on top of the noodles, and then apologized to me for wasting the rest of the soup. I told her that it was the equivalent of $3, and not to worry about it because it seemed like she got more than that from the seafood, and also, it was $3.
We should have used our buffet strategy (do a circuit once before loading food onto your plate) in the food court, because as we wandered through, we found a Taiwanese specialty – oyster omelets. Mom probably would have loved that, but she was full from her seafood and a little bit queasy from the meat broth. If not for my restrictions, I would have eaten myself sick at the night market food court, because deliciousness assaulted us at every turn.
We ended our quick trip in the candy and snack section of the night market, where we found a nougat stall. Mom loves nougat. She tends not to eat it at home because it’s way too sweet and fluffy in the U.S., and it tends only to come in candy bars. The nougat stall owner spotted his two gluttonous marks right away and started slicing samples for us. Mom only intended to buy one bar to get the pork taste out of her mind. I think we bought 20, which we split. Some had almonds, some had roses, some had sesame seeds, some had pumpkin seeds, some had other mystery seeds and nuts, and all of them had the perfect density, chewiness, and hint of sweetness. I shouldn’t have taken any of them, but I took my half and ate them all before Valentine’s Day.
Bubble tea and sit-down restaurants. My clients invited me to join them for their team dinner after the first day of the workshop. We went to a really nice restaurant a couple of blocks from their office (and of course, I can’t remember the name of this place, either). We had a banquet room all to ourselves, and we had a feast. Twelve of us ate something close to 25 dishes. I took pictures and then lost them all in the great phone switch of January. The clients were happy that I tried everything once (I am not a fan of the century egg). I think because of that, during our lunch break on the second day of the workshop, they brought me some bubble tea. Everything about bubble tea violates my restrictions, but how do you explain that to someone who’s brought you a gift? I drank and enjoyed that whole thing once I figured out how to drink it without choking on the tapioca pearls.
If you have the chance to go to Taipei or Taiwan, make sure you go hungry. Amazing delicacies will tempt you everywhere you look, including places you may not expect. And if you are on a diet or have other restrictions, I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.