I live in Taiwan, and have done for over a decade now, on and off. I’ve got family and work connections, and genuinely like the culture (for the most part) and the people (once again, for the most part). I speak the language and know what and what not to do. The only thing that’s guaranteed to lead to awkwardness for me, though, is if I get invited to a traditional feast of some kind.
Taiwanese food, of course, is Chinese in spirit and conception. The thing that sets the Island’s cuisine apart from that of the mainland is the seafood. Taiwan being an island, fish and other marine creatures necessarily make up a big part of the Taiwanese diet. Lobsters and shrimp, clams and oysters, and all shapes and kinds of fish comprise an important part of most meals. One staple breakfast dish includes eggs scrambled with sardines.
I actually don’t mind that one. Most of the fish and other forms of seafood are deliciously prepared and almost unbelievably fresh. You can bet that most of the time the fish or other denizen of the deep you are picking apart with your chopsticks was blithely swimming about its business less than 24 hours before the waiter brought it to you.
But there are some ‘treats’ that you have to be Taiwanese to appreciate. Here’s Shilin Night Market in Taipei:
One of the top snacks at this market, and Taiwanese night markets in general, is barbecued squid. Not too bad, you say. But that’s not the end of it. Most markets offer a choice of sauces for the squid to be barbecued in, and far and away the most popular choice is cherry flavor. That’s right, cherry flavored barbecued squid. Here’s what it looks like (pre-roasted and coated):
That sucker’s the most disgusting lollipop anyone’s ever given a kid outside of a dare.
But that’s nothing compared to Taiwanese party food. I’ve been to countless Taiwanese weddings and WeiYas (annual company parties before Chinese New Year) and I quickly learned to always eat beforehand, because there’s precious little on offer that’s actually edible. I usually compare it to the dinner scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and that’s not as big of an exaggeration as you might think. Remember what I said about the awesome seafood? The mouth-watering lobster and shrimp? Well, at big celebrations, Taiwanese chefs love to add this:
That’s mayonnaise. Mayonnaise in Taiwan is sweet, as in sugar added. Lots of sugar. I hate mayonnaise, even in its less objectionable Western variety. Anything that comes in contact with this monstrosity is inedible. What amazes me is that the chefs take a beautiful piece of seafood, cook it wonderfully, and then slather it in this dreck. Here are some war crime photos:
Oh, and they do it to chicken too:
Course after course, dish after dish, everything covered in sweet mayonnaise. Even the chicken NOT covered in mayonnaise is hard to choke down.
At good weddings, I manage a few morsels of boiled fish and a shrimp or two who’ve managed to escape the mayonnaise.
I don’t mean to say everything’s all bad with Taiwanese cuisine. The average Taiwanese person insists on the freshest fruit, vegetables, and seafood. Whenever I go back to the States and buy veggies or fruit from the supermarket, without exception they either taste old and sour or have no taste at all. Now I know why kids back home hate fruit and vegetables. They aren’t fresh and they taste awful. I actually miss it if I haven’t had fruit or vegetables at least once a day. How many Americans can say that?
But that doesn’t let the Taiwanese off the hook for some of their dishes. And I haven’t even gotten into the Taiwanese medicine food or the live seafood that the Taiwanese eat, mainly as a dare. Try eating your lobster when it’s twitching in front of you. Or the baby octopuses that people here swallow whole, wriggling on the way down. But they find aged cheese disgusting. Go figure.