Eating My Way Through The Chinese Zodiac
I fell more in love with him and his city with every bite of soft, dimpled pork bun and every mouthful of silky beef noodle broth.
Years before, when we were both still high school students in Joburg, we had lain around my room chain smoking and dreaming about leaving the suburbs behind forever. He had a longstanding date with New York. I was headed to Edinburgh. Now here I was, 24, freshly graduated and en route to Taipei to teach English for a year. If my decision had been swayed by the fact that he was living there – in the city he had left as a child and returned to as an adult – well, I wasn’t willing to admit it when I got off the plane.
Taipei was smaller, prettier and more vertical than I had expected. Cupped in a bowl of lush green hills it felt like someone had squeezed it until the city had nowhere to go but up. It was not only architecturally dense but also dense with sound and smell. Every street was a messy ballet of people, scooters, street food vendors and neon signs. Even the air was thick enough to eat. I felt like I had fallen into the traffic scene from Luc Besson’s Fifth Element.
Every day I would venture into the city and marvel at everything that I didn’t understand. From the beautiful but unintelligible Chinese characters on street signs to all the smells I couldn’t identify and the foods I didn’t recognise. And there was food everywhere. In Chinese the literal translation of “how are you?” is “have you eaten?” Taiwan’s national obsession with food – its origin, preparation and consumption – is reflected on every street. You can slurp a bowl of noodles, sip a freshly squeezed watermelon juice, nibble crispy salted squid or buy six just-pressed waffle cakes that leak the aroma of warm Boudoir biscuits through their paper packet, all in a single city block.
Walking down the leafy boulevards and crooked lanes of Taipei I thought I knew how Hansel and Gretel felt when they first saw that sugar candy cottage. I had been invited to a banquet in which the city was the main ingredient in every course. Taipei was a neon buffet of new experiences and I was young, carefree and hungry.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
We had just arrived, via scooter, at one of Taipei’s famous night markets. If Londoners think of pubs as extensions of their living rooms, people in Taiwan consider night markets to be public additions to their apartments. What, by day, is a normal city street, by night transforms into a neon wonderland of hundreds of street food stalls, noodle shops, outdoor seating, arcade games, barbecue places and fresh fruit stands.
His proposal was simple. We would start at one end of the market, which snaked its way around several city blocks, and work our way down its length, sampling its delights as we went. There was just one condition: I was only allowed to ask what I had eaten when we reached the other end.
If Taiwanese street food has a central tenet it must be “things taste better when you put them on a stick”. That night I worked my way through the entire Chinese zodiac of carnivorous street food snacks. I ate deep-fried chicken ass kebabs (which are exactly what they sound like), skewers of spicy yángròu chuàn or cumin lamb and bamboo espetadas of barbecued chicken hearts. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I ate a zhū xiě gāo or pig’s blood lollipop, a dark and faintly sweet concoction made from blood mixed with rice rolled in chilli peanut powder and garnished with fresh coriander. I ended my culinary adventure with tánghúlu, the Taiwanese version of candy apples, in which plump cherry tomatoes, interspersed with bits of pickled plum preserve, are strung on a stick and encased in a glassy layer of sugar.
I washed it all down with a papaya milkshake. But later, when we kissed under a streetlight, my lips were still slick with chilli oil.
Over the next months he continued to be my culinary guide to the city. By day I taught English, by night we wove through traffic on his scooter, sampling the best beef noodle soups, comparing the city’s legendary coffeeshops and dive bars and often ending up at Yonghe Dou Jiang for the Taipei equivalent of the garage pie. Except that at Yonghe Dou Jiang the pork dumplings are made fresh on the premises and served with a dipping sauce of fragrant ginger strands and chilli soy sauce.
When the air turned hot and soupy outside he introduced me to the pleasures of eating shabu shabu in the arctic confines of our favourite hotpot restaurant. Swaddled against the frigid air conditioning we would spend hours dipping slivers of meat and vegetables into steaming pots of broth. Back on the street we would treat our sudden heatstroke with giant glasses of bubble milk tea, sweet and cold, and then, our blood singing with lipids and caffeine, we would return to his apartment high above the city to make a different kind of meal of each other.
If we gorged ourselves on the city it was at least in part because we knew we had to leave. He still had that date with New York City. I was expected in Cape Town.
We counted down the days to our departures with noodles and dumplings, night market snacks and little waffle cakes. He left first and I wasn’t sure I would ever see him again but even as I cried into my bowl of solitary beef noodle soup I knew I was lucky. He had given me the keys to the city. I would always have Taipei.
Looking back now, I am glad that I had no idea there would be other cities in our future. If I had known then that we would one day bring our son to visit these same streets and savour these same tastes I am not sure that the dumplings would have been so tender, nor the bubble milk tea so sweet.
Ambre Nicolson is a writer and adventurous eater who lives in Cape Town.