Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Taiwan roundup

It's coming up on a week since we got back from Taiwan, and I still miss it a little. I don't miss the hotter-than-you'd-expect-for-May weather, but everything else was great. I thought I should mention a couple things we neglected to mention in earlier posts:

- We visited Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world.

- We went to Window on China, a kids' theme park that inexplicably focuses on scale dioramas of things like shipping containers and power plants (as well as some impressive historical displays. There's also an adjacent section, accessible only by minature train, that's more like a carnival/theme park, with decidedly less educational value.

- We took a very long and windy bus ride to Yehliu Geopark, a naturally occurring beachside of some of the most bizarre rock formations I've ever seen.

-We hit up no fewer than three all-vegetarian buffets.

At two of them, you pay by weight, so I ended up with this fairly large meal for about 3 US dollars:

(That vaguely brown-purple mass on the bottom was one big chunk of stinky tofu)

- And we went to the Taipei Zoo. Here's some video of both of their pandas:

One nice touch is that there are poo-related factoids in all of the bathrooms. This one reveals the heretofore unknown depths of kangaroos' depravity:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Oh, so that's what that rotting garbage smell is!

One of my prime objectives in coming to Taiwan was to find and eat stinky tofu. For the uninitiated, it's basically tofu that's been marinated in some kind or another of rotting, fermented goop. I've seen TV shows about how they make it-- usually, it involves a big plastic tub full of this incomprehensible black slime, full of weeks-old rotting vegetables and god knows what else. It has a characteristic odor comparable to limburger cheese, or worse, but it's an extremely popular mainstay at restaurants, night markets, food stands, and anywhere else you can imagine. It's almost impossible to walk down a busy street in Taipei and not have that familiar and vaguely nauseating stench waft your way.

The problem with it (from a non-animal-eater's point of view) is that if you pick any stinky tofu vendor at random, you can never really be sure what they put in the marinade. It could just be old, putrid vegetables, it could be fish eyes, it could be squid guts-- hell, it could be liquified hog uterus for all you know. There are even stories of less-scrupulous sellers in mainland China who use human feces to speed up the fermentation process. Taiwan is considered to be decidedly more sanitary in their practices, but it's still a gamble, especially if you have any dietary restrictions.

Even if I could speak Chinese, the vendors are reluctant to divulge the contents of whatever toxic waste they've submerged the tofu into, since it's kind of a trade secret that results in each stand's unique flavor. Despite my enthusiasm, I didn't want to chance picking a street vendor at random while not knowing if my tasty fried snack had been in an open-air jug of chicken intestines for the last month.

Fortunately, the Supreme Master came to my rescue. Long story short, Supreme Master Ching Hai is the leader of a vaguely cult-like group that owns dozens of restaurants around the world and promotes a vague message of vegetarianism, humanitarianism, and general weirdness. I don't buy into her claims of divinity, but her restaurants can always be counted on for a tasty, reasonably-priced and animal-product-free meal, and as far as cults go, hers seems more benign than most.

Her group is based out of Taiwan, so there are no fewer than 12 of her Loving Huts in the Taipei area alone. One of these specializes in stinky tofu, so I insisted we make a stop at this place, despite Andrea's reluctance. Once inside, we went for two variations on the noodle bowl, which each boasted a half-dozen chunks of the fetid bean curd.

The verdict... not that bad! Pretty tasty, actually. We got the impression that Loving Hut's stinky tofu was a bit toned down for easily-startled foreign diners.

Our guess would later be proven correct at Raohe Night Market. Another popular weekend gathering place, Taipei's night markets (Raohe is one of several) are jam-packed full of food carts, tea stands, knock-off clothing and shoe stalls, and lots more. Somewhat dejected that I wouldn't be able to get the full stinky tofu experience, I happened upon a food stand that contained not only the familiar characters for Cho Do Fu (the stinky stuff), but also the standard Vegetarian Food marker! 40 Taiwan Dollars (or about $1.20) later, here was my result:

Garnished with a sweet, BBQ-like sauce, and with a side of pickled cabbage, presumably as a palate cleanser. It doesn't work.

So, here's the verdict on this one: this night market food cart version of stinky tofu was a lot stronger than the Loving Hut version. The fact that it's fried reduces the initial odor somewhat, but it more than makes up for that once it gets in your mouth. I actually liked i t quite a bit, although I had a hard time getting the taste out of my mouth for the rest of the night, despite a much-needed fruit juice intervention.

So, for the prospective Taiwan traveller interested in this fair-yet-foul dish, what's my advice? Know a few basic characters and phrases, know where you're going and exactlyhow to get there (a map, along with a good sense of direction or, failing that, a compass, is key), and try really hard not to let the smell dissuade you. You will find the putridity surprisingly rewarding!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


On Monday we took a bus out to Wulai, a hot spring town about an hour out of Taipei. It was a far better experience than any Japanese onsen I've been to yet. First of all, it's free. It's outdoors alongside a river so you have a magnificent view. This means that it's also co-ed and requires swimsuits, which is a plus. The water has no sulfur so it's not stinky. We changed into our suits at the makeshift changing shacks, rinsed off, and picked a pool. It was a far more relaxed atmosphere than the Japanese onsen. There were dogs lounging around the pool and people were passing around bowls of food. We moved into a hotter pool after that. I only got up to my knees but Greg managed to sit for a few minutes. After much goading by the locals we went down to the river itself. The runoff from the hot spring ends up there, so it has the bizarre effect of making the surface near scalding but anything two inches below the surface is incredibly cold. I swam a few circles for a few minutes before heading back up to warmer waters.

We visited an aboriginal restaurant for lunch. Andrew Zimmern visited the same place on Bizarre Foods:

Although our vegetarianism forced us to decline the bees and the rotten jar of meat, we did enjoy the very tasty betelnut flower salad. The nuts themselves are commonly sold by scantily clad women on the side of the road to passing truck drivers. It has the effect of keeping the chewer awake and his mouth bright red. We have declined to give it a go. We also had a mushroom and rice dumpling, bird's nest ferns, and really delicious fried balls of taro and mochi.

Our last stop in Wulai was the waterfall. You ride a gondola to the top where they have some sad looking outdoor activities and a very out of place haunted house ride. We also enjoyed the rope course.

On the way back to the bus stop from the gondola you can ride a tiny, rickety train that was previously used to transport logs up and down the hill. All and all it was a very worthwhile day trip from Taipei.