Taipei day 6.
In Taipei my parents have a few select restaurants where they often go for dinner, either by themselves, or with friends or business acquaintances. They have become the kind of people who have a place to go where they are known by the management, who will arrange a private room or a special menu. Tonight we are at the basement restaurant of the Hotel Landis, where the chef once came up with a menu entirely free of garlic to accomodate one guest's allergies. For this dinner my mother had asked for something simple and not too heavy, going over menus with one of the managers and changing various dishes, vetoing shark's-fin soup in favor of something less fancy, requesting noodles (it is J.'s birthday dinner) for one course. Phone calls and faxes have been flying back and forth, and I am looking forward to the final result.
We arrive and are ushered into a large private room, the kind usually used for wedding banquets and business functions; our table for ten people looks small at the end of the room. (The neon "longevity peach" sign on the wall - this is a birthday celebration, after all - makes us all laugh). Uniformed staff members rush around with chairs and lidded cups of tea as we wait for the other guests. At last everyone is together, and we sit down to eat.
Small plates of cold dishes are laid out - drunken chicken, cold seaweed, a sort of shredded beef jerky, tomatoes marinated in a syrupy dried-plum juice, all sorts of things I can't remember and certainly can't describe. I try everything, and then return for more, but am distracted by the first course. The first course is a dish of endive leaves filled with tiny sweet peas and some sort of vegetarian meat. Gently cooked shrimp are sweet and tender. A softly braised...something I can't identify is dark and savory. I think it is a sea cucumber, but I am not sure. There are braised vegetable marrows, pale green. Then comes a piece of fish in a creamy, golden-orange sauce, with a hidden surprise of grated mountain potato crunching against the softness of the fish. It might be cod, but then again, it could be anything. More recognizable is a bowl of noodles in a dark broth with pigs' feet.
Dessert is a steamed bun filled with sweet bean paste, shaped like a peach. For long life - it is traditional for birthdays. An enormous blushing-pink peach-shaped bun is presented, then lifted away to reveal a pile of smaller peach-shaped buns, each of which is placed before us. There is a plate of fruit - grapes and star-fruit and something I don't know how to describe, and at last, a sweet soup flavored with rice wine and tiny seed-shaped...things, with a single ball of sticky-rice paste filled with black sesame paste. Everything is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like Taipei itself, old memories clashing and melding with the present, new and different.