Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Taipei days 3-4.

Yesterday we went to the basement supermarket in the Breeze Center, which, like every other high-end mall in this city has expensive shops upstairs and a supermarket downstairs. By supermarket, I mean SUPER market. Taiwanese supermarkets like this one make Whole Foods look like a 7-Eleven. Or a mini-mart in some dodgy neighborhood, the kind that has a metal grill over the front window which slides over the front door so it can be locked at night and the proprietor looks at you as if you were some shop-lifting young teenage punk trying to score a pack of cigarettes and a beer. Or something. This is something else, a dazzling array of foods of every kind, gleaming and sparkling beneath the bright lights. A bakery lined in honey-blond wood has tray after tray of pastries and breads of all kinds; cakes are arranged like jewels behind the glass counter. You take a plastic tray and a pair of tongs and go around helping yourself to croissants and hazelnut-topped swirls and mini-loaves of bread with nuts or olives or raisins or - how can you bear it? - plain bread.

To the left, dangerously, is a branch of Dean and DeLuca, all coolly black-and-white, advertising set lunches and exotic coffees. But we need groceries, so we sweep onwards, into the produce section. There are plastic-wrapped bunches of greens, all kinds of leafy things that I can't get back home, packets of bamboo shoots and finely shredded ginger and lily bulbs and goodness knows what else. The meat department has row after row of every cut imaginable, finely sliced pork and beef so richly marbled that it will practically melt in your mouth as you eat it. There are trays of whole fish, of fillets and heads and tails and collars and steaks and everything in between. Sashimi is arranged on real shiso leaves - no fake plastic decorations here - and piles of shredded daikon radish, to absorb moisture. The dairy aisle is filled with bottles of milk, plain and whole and lowfat and apple flavored and papaya flavored, and yogurt drinks of all kinds. And I haven't even made it through the cookies and candies and noodles and sachets of instant soups and bottles of sauces before I am whisked through the checkout line and on my way back to the car.

Today we make it to Ding Tai Fong, where I come at least once every trip. On a weekday, early, there is no line, and in no time at all, it seems, I am eating xiao lung bao from a bamboo steamer, dipping each bun into a saucer of dark vinegar and eating it cautiously from my spoon, with a few shreds of ginger. They are just as I remember them, the translucent skins revealing the blush of the ground pork filling, hot broth dripping out into the safety of the spoon with each bite. There are also steamed vegetarian jiao zi, and hot-and-sour soup, but it is the xiao lung bao that I have come for. When I am far away I dream of Ding Tai Fong the way a dog dreams in winter of the bones he buried in summer, waiting for the time to come again when he can once again run out and find them. I dream of eating xiao lung bao, and regret the three years that have passed since that last time and this one. And then I eat another one, and the regret fades away.

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