Memory. Taipei. (eating).
Last night I had dinner with the three best cooks I know, another who is apparently also a very good cook, and the husbands of three of them (my parents being one of the three couples). At one point the conversation the conversation turned to various restaurants in Taipei, where my parents and several of their friends spend most of their time. T. leaned over the table and asked why, with all the wonderful food there was to be found in Taipei, didn't I want to go back to visit (and eat). I was going to, I said, but when I told my mom I was coming, she told me that they were going to be in Japan! There was no way to reply to that except to laugh.
Childhood holidays were divided between New York and Taipei and the occasional jaunt to Hong Kong; in those years my grandfather spent time in all three cities. New York meant avenues of trees twined with twinkling lights; it was a fairyland. (And where does Santa live? MACY'S! In my defense, I was only five). Taipei meant winter rains and sweltering summer heat. It meant those thin-skinned oranges, juicier and sweeter than anything you could find back home, that were only available during the winter months. In the summer there would be litchees, bumpy brown skin covering translucent fruit hiding a shiny dark seed inside. Or starfruit, a football-shaped yellow fruit with five pointed lobes that would fall into perfect stars when you sliced it. After every meal there would be triangular slices of watermelon skewered with wooden picks.
When I think about the Taipei of my childhood I think of ripe fruits and steamed buns from the carts on the corner near the apartment. Of ham-and-egg sandwiches from 7-Eleven. (Sandwiches are different over there. I think it's the bread, which is always white and square, or the fact that they are not so stuffed with filling that they explode in your hands, like those bigger-is-better American sandwiches. There is just one or two slices of ham, one thin sheet of fried egg). Breakfast was a bowl of soy milk and a fried cruller, or congee. Lunch would be soup noodles with beef or shredded pork with pickled vegetables. Of dinner I remember only endless meals in restaurants where I would make origami cranes out of paper chopstick wrappers and doodle away with the pen my father always kept in his shirt pocket (he still does, only now I borrow it to write down what wine we drank with dinner, instead of drawing on paper tablecloths).
Now I go back for xiao lung bao, Japanese food, and Taiwanese cooking. The food critic Alan Richman writes that the "prosperous, sophisticated Taiwanese consider their cuisine rarefied and elegant. [He considers] it worrisome, because dried squid and similar subspecies are always appearing in their dishes." I think he exaggerates. The palate (and palette) is different, it's true. (Many visiting Taiwanese complain that there is nothing worth eating in Seattle, which makes me crazy). Even Western cuisines are reimagined for local tastes; Italian food in Taipei is a different creature from Italian food in America (although neither is like Italian food in Italy, for that matter). My last trip involved dinner at a restaurant called Ziga Zaga, but the reader will be unsurprised that I can't remember what I ate. I do remember a bowl of huge green mussels in a clear tomato broth; as you ate the sweet mussels your mouth felt the faint prickle of hot peppers, a gentle sensation of warmth rather than a burn. A year later I would have bavette with spiny lobster somewhere in the Cinque Terre and remember that I had seen hot peppers used this way before, just barely enough so you could feel them but not taste them; they gave warmth but not spiciness.
There was also a meal at a Japanese restaurant, where dinner was composed of an endless series of beautifully arranged plates, some delicious, and some weird (for my tastes). I only remember a boat-shaped dish of staggeringly fresh sashimi, and the best steak I have ever had (I also remember thinking that dessert was a bit weird, but then I have never quite gotten the hang of Japanese desserts). The steak was sliced into cubes and served on a wire rack placed over a glowing brazier that had been sprinkled with, I think, pine needles. The beef was crusty and juicy and incredibly tender, with the taste of smoke and pine lingering behind. You were only given three or four (perhaps I managed to snag five) perfect bites of rich, yet delicately flavored meat. It made the gargantuan slabs of American steakhouses seem grossly overwhelming, completely unecessary. A taste is all you need.
It is all a long ways away from the foods I remember from my childhood.