Taipei, day 5.
For lunch we head out to Yangmingshan, the mountain that overlooks Taipei. My father's family has a burial plot somewhere on the mountain, a terraced piece of land that looks across misty green hills and the city in the distance. There are waving plumes of wild grasses and neatly clipped camellia bushes, and it is beautiful there. But today I am with my mother, and we have another destination, lunch at an intimate restaurant housed in a series of low buildings set amongst rocky gardens and winding paths. You need a reservation, and on weekends they are hard to come by. But today things are quiet, and we follow a headset-wearing, clipboard-wielding woman towards the main building, taking our shoes off at the entrance and walking along the tatami-floored room to a low table in the corner.
We sit at that low table, my mother and F. and her mother and I, an electric kettle in the corner boiling away for the tea that we drink throughout the meal. There is no menu, only a waiter - there are a few of them, all young and good-looking and tall in their jeans under long aprons - asking if anyone is vegetarian or has any allergies. I like this kind of eating, when the menu is chosen for me and all I have to do is eat. And it begins, a blur of beautiful plates, course after course, hot and cold and crisp and soft and sweet and savory. In all there are fifteen courses, including two different kinds of fruit vinegars drunk as palate cleansers, one pineapple, one mulberry, and tea and fruit and a little ice cream to end. There used to be only ten courses, the waiter tells us, but some people complained that it was not enough.
Everything was clean and refined and precisely flavored, even the carefully formed mounds of savory sticky rice that came near the end, just large enough for the taste to fill the senses but not weigh down the stomach. This is fortunate because four hours later, it is time for dinner. We go whizzing off into the night in my mother's little car - it is as different from the sedans and SUVs she drove in Seattle as her Taipei life is different from her Seattle one, and I find it just a little disconcerting - and wind up at a quiet little restaurant where we are the last of our party to arrive.
Again, the meal has already been ordered and I sit and sip my sour-plum tea as the food begins to arrive, red-braised pork and pale-green vegetables and tofu and some kind of fish, sweet and clear-tasting in its simplicity. Even the fatty pork tastes light, somehow. There are tureens of soup and little dishes of dried preserved tomatoes and bowls of plain noodles. Dish after dish, and I am full, yet not so stuffed I can't move, which reminds me again how Taiwanese cooking is different from Western cooking. Later my mother will tell me it was all health food, as was the meal we had eaten at lunch, and it does not surprise me, even though it did not taste like health food. (Of course I am not sure what health food is supposed to taste like, since I avoid it assiduously). It was all extremely good, and I look forward to more of it.