Taipei days. Day 1.
Generally when I am in Taipei, I try to eat mostly a) Taiwanese food or b) Japanese food. It is only the first day, and I have already succeeded in doing both.
At lunchtime we hopefully swing by Ding Tai Fong, the dumpling place where I go at least once every trip, but there is a fifteen-minute wait. It is not even 11:30 yet, and the place already packed. I will have to wait until another day for xiao lung bao, those steamed pork dumplings that burst with hot broth as you eat them, but never mind that. Something else is around the corner. We go to a small restaurant that has been around forever, it seems, with a chef sitting low to the ground behind a vat of boiling broth just inside the door. Noodles - yellow egg noodles and translucent bean-thread noodles - are piled next to baskets of vegetables and bowls of other ingredients. We order broiled fish and slices of pork and fried cuttle-fish balls (or perhaps they are made of squid) and battered squash and, of course, noodles.
The noodles come in a light broth, probably pork, and are topped with ground pork, savory and intense and incredibly garlicky - I feel like I am moving around in a haze of garlic for the rest of the day - and it reminds me that I am back in Taipei, more than the sights and sounds of the city, more than the fog of jet-lag. But even through the jet-lag the taste of everything is clear and true, the flavors sharp and pronounced, somehow different from anything I might find at home. It is reassuring and exhilarating all at once, strange and yet familiar, and I remember again why I come back now and again, for reasons aside from family. For food.
By dinnertime I am ready to curl up and fall asleep, but there is family to see and dinner to eat, and we are at a Japanese restaurant inside a sort of mall. (Here there are a lot of good restaurants in malls or department stores, and most of these malls and department stores have food courts and supermarkets and bakeries in the basement). I have not seen my cousins and my aunt for three years, but they have not changed. We are a generation apart, because my father is a generation younger than their late father, his oldest brother, and in some ways to them I am still five years old. (Again they tell me the story of how I valiantly ate my way through a banquet meal in order to attain a piece of candy, only to be vanquished by the final course, a sweet soup made with a translucent white mushroom that is all slippery texture but no taste).
Dinner is a blur of sushi and sashimi, but again it is different from what I might find at home. Even the wasabi is different, sweeter and less pungent. The shrimp comes with its head still on, the brains eaten raw along with the body; at home they deep-fry the heads until crisp. There are sesame-crusted scallops, slices of perfectly seared foie gras, noodles that are actually threads of what they call mountain potato. There are elaborate sushi rolls like sliced kaleidescopes of colors against white rice, black nori. Tender squares of steak are arranged in a perfect grid. And at last, that sweet soup of white...to put it bluntly, fungus, that vanquished me more than twenty years ago. But it holds no terrors for me now, although I finish it before I move onto a plate of starfruit and an orange neatly sliced and replaced in the green shell of its skin.