When I used to think about Asian food, I thought about soy sauce, rice, and street foods. Persecute me for falling into the trap that is stereotyping or over-generalizing, but its what it is. At least I’m honest, right?
Well over the past two months, Korean food has started to dissolve that preconceived notion of mine. Now I think of tofu and cabbage and spice, rice, broth and garlic. Maybe even delicious grilled meat. Note: no soy sauce, no street food.
But when I started to pack my bags – trying to assemble the most versatile and lightest outfits – I, obviously, was thinking about the foods that I was about to eat in my new home of six days – Taiwan. And yet again, as if my newly gained perspective on Asian food disappeared ,I thought of soy sauce, rice, and street food. This time, I wasn’t so wrong though.
While in Taiwan, a friend (who doubles and a coworker) and I based our stay in Taipei – the large sprawling city on the North Western coast of the island that used to be China-owned.
We planned nothing. We actually got off the plane without a single “to-do” or “must-see.” No hostel. To be blunt, we didn’t know anything about the palm-tree-lined island. Instead we set out to let what happened happen. What we found were beautiful gorges, scorchingly-strange beaches, and endless food options.
One thing was for certain: the street food was ubiquitous. So were low-end restaurants, middle of the road restaurants, foreign restaurants, Taiwanese restaurants, expensive restaurants, and bakeries. So many bakeries. Almost every other block – that wasn’t residential – had a street vendor stationed, trying to sell some sort of meat, organ, fruit, or sweet.
Because neither of us knew much Mandarin, save a few phrases my dear friend taught me in college (see: “hello, thank you, how are you, I am good, I love you, I want chopsticks,” and the ever popular “I want the public bus”), we would happily resolve to just point at some picture (or sometimes just a gathering of characters) and hope for the best.
Most – if not every time – it worked out really well. The first time, we ended up with delicious noodles in an extremely thick broth. So thick that it was semi-gelatinous. Now now, for those that are squeamish – you needn’t be. This wasn’t like Jello that hadn’t solidified, but like stew-thick broth that looked like chicken soup. If you are writhing at this description, Asia might be hard for a culinary adventure. With a dash of thick-sweet soy sauce and a spoonful or two of spice-infused sesame oil, this dish turned out to be that comfort food I was looking for in a new place.
Before I get into any description of this treat, let me first explain that throughout all of Taiwan, there is a distinct smell. Not bad, not intoxicating, simply put: distinct. This was this smell of food there. It had such a unique flavor-smell, every food that I had there slung this perfume my way. It was rich and deep and savory and oily and had hints of sweet and thinking of it now makes my mouth salivate in hopes of me devouring one of many Taiwanese delicacies. It was the smell of fresh dough and sesame oil, sesame seeds, roasting meat, green onions, thick-sweet soy sauce, and garlic. It was heavy but refreshing.
And that is exactly how this bun tastes. It is rich with hints of spring light-ness. The bun itself is freshly made with the outside being firm and dotted with sesame seeds. The pocket in the middle of this savory bun held a mixture of delicate meat, garlic, soy, and the ever-present green onion surrounded by glutinous stretches in the dough saturated with the meat’s au jous. For about 55 cents a pop, this was by far the best purchase of the whole trip. I would have paid at least three dollars for this, and that’s saying a lot since last night I paid 2.50 for my dinner.
So, equipped with my mid-afternoon snack, I strolled down the streets of downtown Taipei, on my way to grab my compulsory bubble tea and hop on a train to a harbor town for a postcard-perfect sunset. Cliché? Yeah, I know. But at least I’m honest, right?