So what’s good in Taipei?
Our trip to Taipei was clouded with a need to be independent. My sister and I had tagged along on one of my father’s business trips, and while he was at work, we planned to navigate the Taiwan capital independently. No tours. No flashy travel guides. And so, every morning, we would slip onto the MRT, pick a station, and explore its vicinities. Often, we would come back to the hotel with shopping, or at the very least, bubble tea.
One particular evening, dad was lucky enough to escape a business dinner to join us on our hunt for the nearby night market. Armed with nothing but a map from a taxi driver, and an empty stomach, we skipped out of the hotel’s revolving doors. Of course, within two blocks, we were lost. After peeking around a few more street corners, it was almost 11, and the only establishment in view among the low-rise residential buildings was a little restaurant with an uncomfortably bright yellow sign saying “Big Li Beef Organs”.
Hungry, restless, and a little disappointed with ourselves, we turned to dad. “Aren’t you hungry?” he said. We nodded, and before we knew it, he pulled us into the empty restaurant. Then, everything became a blur. One moment, we were wobbling around on stools, and just as our elbows hit the foldout table, a stout lady in a dirty apron yelled across the store, “What do you want?” Dad asked what was good. I glanced at the handwritten menu on the wall. She yelled something in reply. It must not have been in Chinese, because I didn’t understand a word. My sister looked befuddled. Food appeared.
On one plastic plate was a stir-fry. Caramelized onions, green chili peppers, stalky Chinese celery, scraps of scrambled eggs and beef tendons. In another dish was a tomato stew with a pile of bean sprouts, beef liver and heart simmering in a robust, spiky sauce. It was not long before the storekeeper hobbled over with a spicy tripe soup sweetened with floating basil leaves, three bowls of rice and chopsticks.
As we tasted one dish after the other, we had little idea of what we were eating. Though I now find it difficult to recall what the dishes tasted like, I do remember the sheer excitement of the meal; the fortuitous discovery of the restaurant, the order we didn’t understand, the hodge-podge of dishes that were slid in front of us. The fear of the unknown had been wiped away by a sense of curiosity and spontaneity. The meal, in short, was delightfully exciting.
Indeed, the most memorable meals are scarcely the most delicious ones. More often than not, they tap upon some spiritual importance to the individual. This one, in particular, was memorable because it was lathered in spontaneity. We emptied ourselves of expectations and had in turn been presented with the gift of venturing into the unknown. Nobody knew what was coming next; nobody cared to know what was coming next. Perhaps that is the appeal of food tourism: novelty, excitement and a bit of risk taking.