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Adventures in Taiwanese Cuisine

Eating in Taiwan is a lot of fun, because you get to eat the way you wanted to when you were five. You pick the bowl up to about three inches from your mouth, and shovel massive amounts of food in with chopsticks. You are encouraged to slurp noodles and burps are not repressed. Next, there is always a selection of foods on the table and you are expected to try each food in turn. The catch is that you use the same bowl all through the meal. So, each time you finish one dish, you just dump the next one in and continue wolfing. You also have to keep up a constant chatter. You just use your tongue to pack all of your food tightly, in the pocket of your cheek, like chewing tobacco, and speak normally. Now, I have a theory that squirrels are actually Chinese, or that the Chinese fear winter.

With chicken or fish, you just put the whole thing in your mouth, and when you hit a bone, you spit it out on the table. After a meal, the table is covered in things people didn’t want, like bones and shells. You will never find fat or gristle on the table, as these are the favorites. The Chinese don’t drink while eating. When they have eaten enough, they refill the bowl with clear broth, which they drink, to wash down their meal. Finally, you eat a piece of fruit, to kill dragon-breath.

My first several months in Taiwan, I ate dinner at home every night because eating in restaurants was too stressful. I couldn’t read the menu, so I never knew what I was ordering. Sometimes, I would randomly point at some Chinese characters and say  “Give me that one.”

Once when I did this, the waiter said, “That’s a condiment, Sir.”
“Oh, well then, give me this one.”
“That one is a plate of tooth picks.”

In Taiwanese restaurants, it is customary to order a plate of toothpicks at the end of the meal. Then everyone sits around, disgustingly picking their teeth. They wipe the dirty toothpick on the table, right beside the pile of chewed up bones and peanut shells. In their minds, we are the disgusting ones. I hear them telling their friends, “Foreigners will eat a whole meal and then not use a tooth pick.”

At this point I just got angry and obstinate like a true New Yorker. “OK, so I like to eat tooth picks. Got a problem with that, Shorty? Not only do I outweigh you by 80 LBS, but I am a Kung Fu instructor. Now get in the kitchen and get me my plate of condiments and tooth picks before I have to get tough with you!”

I ordered a second helping of toothpicks just to prove my point. Actually, that was the fullest I have felt since I had been in Taiwan.

At home, I made noodles with dried beef, pork, squid, and seaweed. I wondered why I always felt bloated afterwards. But then I realized, it might been because the quantity of dried beef I used in soup, if re-constituted, would equal a whole cow. After that, I was always paranoid about my stomach exploding.

As if I didn’t have enough worries.

At my first teaching job I got a free lunch at school. I was walking into the cafeteria as my Canadian colleague, Teacher Joe was walking out, empty- handed. “It’s just too foul, eh.” he said, his head hung low. Lunch was some sort of greasy and appalling mixture of foods I would never consider eating. The main course was congealed fat,with a side dish of, what I thought, was green, bowtie pasta, but turned out to be seaweed.

I was going to throw away my lunch uneaten, again, when I ran into Teacher Greg. “Greg, do you want my congealed fat?”
“No thank you. It makes me vomit.” He said, and went on about his business.
I told Teacher Vivian that I had started learning Kung Fu.
“Why did you do that?” She asked.
“So I won’t get out of shape and fat.” I said.
“You would never get fat.” She assured me.

I thought she was paying me a compliment about being in great shape. But then she went on. “Foreigner teachers never get fat here. They all lose weight. I think it is because they hate the food.”

My Chinese counterpart, Teacher Sherry, said. Invited me to have snack with the children.

The snack lady came with her cart, and gave each of the children a hard-boiled egg and a tin cup full of salty soup. I generally think of snack time as something more like milk and cookies.

“Where is your tin cup?” Teacher Sherry asked, horrified, that I had forgotten it.
“I think it’s in my office.” I said, trying to make a gracious exit. “I’ll go get it.” I ran like the devil and never went back.

Another day, they brought in a big pot full of sweet-potato and pea soup. My heart went out to the children. If I hit the big number in the lottery, I promised I would buy Oreos and chocolate milk for them.

“Antonio, why you never eat snack with children?” Teacher Sherry asked me.

I took one look at the sloppy, disgusting mess and answered. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain why I won’t eat that.”

“You no like?” She asked, confused.
“No, it’s not that.” I lied. “It’s just that in my country we only eat sweat-potato and pea soup for breakfast.”

She laughed. “Foreigner people is eat very funny.”

“Yes we is.” I agreed.

I was really thirsty after school, so I went into 7-11, and grabbed a bottle of green juice, which I assumed was lime-aid. I opened the bottle and took a big gulp of some horrible, festering liquid, which turned out to be okra juice.

Who’d’ave thunk it?

One of my students, Sandy, had her birthday, so she brought treats for the whole class. Because I am the teacher, she gave me two of them. You can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that she had given me individually wrapped, single servings of dried seaweed. I watched in horror as all the children eagerly unwrapped and then greedily consumed their seaweed, sucking it from the plastic wrapper as if it were an ice pop. Sandy asked me why I wasn’t eating mine. I told her I didn’t want to spoil my lunch, but I assured her I would eat it, gratefully, after lunch. She handed me two more packets of seaweed, which I stashed in my shirt pocket. Later on, I gave them all to my Chinese colleague, Teacher Vivian.

“You don’t like?” Asked Vivian.
“Why not?” She asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” was my reply. Apparently it wasn’t. She opened the package as happily as the children and began slurping out the contents.

The mom of one of my students used to bring me a lot of gifts. First, she gave me a package of dried plumbs, rolled in coffee and sugar. These are, easily, the most horrible confections I have ever eaten. The principal had given me some at a meeting once, and I had to eat it to be polite. It tasted so horrible, I thought I would just swallow it and be done with it. But, the dried plumbs still have the pits in them, so you have to suck on them for hours. I got Teacher Joe to distract the principal while I spit the plumb back into the bag.

In addition to the pleasant plumbs, the mom gave me a bag of onion cookies. You know how excited I was to get my teeth around those!

I stopped by my landlord’s house, to pay my rent, and was invited in. They treat me like one of the family, and the wife immediately began making tons of food, although I kept insisting that I wasn’t hungry. She made me a real Chinese egg-roll. A real Chinese egg-roll is not deep fried. In fact, it is the only thing they eat here, other than soup, which is not deep-fried. It is like a Chinese tortilla, filled with fried eggs, peanut butter, onions, grain sugar, kale, and something that looks like dried meat, but isn’t, because they are Buddhists. It was made with love, but it was still disgusting, and I absolutely couldn’t eat it. Too make matters worse, because of my size, she made my egg-roll about five times the size of a normal one. I choked down about half of it before finally giving up and slipping the over-stuffed mess into my pocket when no one was looking.

While I pretended to eat, she scrambled around the kitchen, making up a big shopping bag of food for me to take back to my house. She always did this for me. Unfortunately it was always some collection of lunar fruits and spicy fish bit candies that I couldn’t stomach. My Taiwanese friend, Kain, always looked forward to relieving me of these treats.

Camping with Taiwanese was also an adventure in the culinary arts. In the morning I was met by a breakfast of watery rice with a fried egg on top. In the center of the table there was a bag of what looked like dried beef, which everyone was sprinkling on their rice. I asked what it was, and a woman answered, “It is something that looks like dried meat.”

“I know it looks like dried meat. That was not the question. The question is, what is it?” I got no answer.

It turned out to be dried beef, seasoned with sugar. I dumped soy sauce on my food and the same woman got this repulsed look on her face.

“Your breakfast looks like,” And she made a retching noise, like “Puke!”

I thought to myself, China is not a country where one should be casting stones about what someone else’s food looks like.

Later in the day, I bought a beverage, which turned out to be a cup of orange aide and Jello cubes, served over ice. It was good, but I still couldn’t get used to drinking through the huge straws, which allowed the berries, Jello, red beans, or oats to pass from the drink to your mouth.

After dinner, they broke out the aboriginal wine. The first bottle was yellow in color, very thick, and smelled of sulfur. It tasted like vinegar, mixed with molasses, lemon peel, cream, and match-heads. But, I swear it was good. I guess with such a pleasant description, everyone will run right out and buy a bottle.

Although I sort of liked the wine, I didn’t want to drink too much of it. The sulfur smell really turned me off, and I just couldn’t imagine what a hangover from this stuff would be like. I just pictured the most awful stomach cramps and foul smelling burps and farts, like drinking gasoline.

An invitation to a Chinese wedding also provided me some unique food experiences.
As soon as we arrived,  a greeter came and offered us Binglang, beetle nuts.
“Antonio, you should take some.” Suggested my co-worker, Iching.
“Thanks, no.” I said. “I had beetle nuts for breakfast.”
“You shouldn’t have eaten.” She lectured me. “You knew you were coming to a wedding.”

Glasses of tea were waiting for us at the table. I took one sip, and immediately regretted having come to Taiwan.
“This stuff tastes like it is mixed with peanut oil.” I said.
“You like peanuts?” asked Iching. “This is special tea. Very good.”

“Is this fowl tea something you drink every day, or is it something you only subject yourselves to when someone has the misfortune of marrying?” I asked
“Yes.” Said Iching, predictably. “It is very good.”
I dumped the tea out under the table and asked for 7-Up.

I asked for beer, but instead, another colleague, Teacher Rainbow, poured me a full glass of retched tasting nail-polish remover which passed for liquor.

Downing it in one gulp, I didn’t taste it, so much as feel it singe my eyebrows and permanently scared my esophagus.

“Smooth.” I gasped. “Pour me another.”

“They should just wrap that stuff in a brown paper bag, and lay by the railroad tracks and drink it.” Said Teacher Joe.

Excellent fried prawns were served with a big bowl of soy sauce and wasabi. I dipped my prawn, but couldn’t get the whole, eight-inch crustacean into the sauce. So, I ate the half that had sauce on it, and then dipped the other half.
“Joe,” I whispered, to my colleague. “Don’t tell anyone that I double dipped.”
“Don’t worry about it, dude. They’re all going to start picking their noses in a minute anyway.”

The waitress brought us a pot with a whole chicken served in broth.

“What the hell is wrong with that chicken?” I asked, referencing the weird purple color.
“This is black chicken.” I Ching told me.
“Did they inject it with die, or is it just festering?” I asked.

It really looked frightening.

“These chickens are naturally black.” She said. “They are very expensive.”

I had eaten the squid, the whole fish, and everything else that had come to the table, but this chicken scared me.  I was actually a little revolted watching the women tear into it, as if they hadn’t already eaten ten courses.
“Antonio, why you no eat chicken?” Asked I Ching.
“I am afraid it has evil spirits in it.” I said.

The table was already cluttered with dishes, and the waitress was bringing more food.

“Antonio,” Said I Ching, annoyed. “You must take away the food.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“You know, in a doggie bag. You must take it away, so that the waitress can bring the next course.”
“Doggie bag? Now I know you are putting me on.” I said.
“No I’m not.” Said I Ching. “What do you think this is?” She said, taking the beautifully decorated box, from the top of my place setting. I had just assumed that it was my wedding favor. She really surprised me, when she opened the box, and inside there were both foil bags and plastic bags.

“You see. You are a guest. So, you must pack up all the food, and take it home.”

At that point, I had eaten and drunk so much, that I couldn’t imagine ever being hungry again. After much protesting, I declined the honor of taking food home. I Ching went to the waitress, and made some uncharacteristic appeal to have the food taken away. Later, I saw that they had put all the unclaimed food on a common table, and families were there filling up their bags unashamed. As much as this practice surprised me, it did make more sense than throwing it all away.

After that, the waitress brought a plate of fruit, and a plate of individually wrapped, red-bean ice cream hamburgers.

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