They had already made us fill in our food preferences in two separate forms, but our hosts were still a little worried. “Vegetarian or non-vegetarian?” Ivy Chen, our tour guide, asked as the bus raced out of the airport towards Taipei city. We were her first Indian group and she clearly didn’t want any mistakes. “Non vegetarian,” three of us said. “Er… vegetarian… but I eat chicken when travelling. And fish,” the fourth thoughtfully replied.
“I eat everything,” Vidur, who had spent more than three years in mainland China (not the restaurant), told her. “Me too,” I said, not to be outdone, and enquired if I could get some snake. Ivy looked away. “No snake food any more,” she said. “Now we protect snakes… because of people and houses, snakes now live far up the hills.”
Well, at least one could look forward to authentic chicken Manchurian, chilli chicken and fried rice. Lunch next day was our first proper meal in Taiwan. We ended up eating… butter chicken in Taipei. Our hosts had planned a meal at an Indian restaurant.
By dinner time, when we made our way to the Shihlin Night Market, I was keen to experience some local cuisine. As we entered the narrow, crowded lanes of the bustling night market, a strange stink, somewhat like an Indian municipal urinal, came wafting in. This is, of course, a smell we are familiar with. We smiled and boldly went forth between the stalls with their open pans and bamboo skewers, most laden with meat from animals that had lost their identity. I wondered whether the smell had anything to do with snakes.
It turned out that the stink came from a vegetarian dish: Taiwan’s unofficial national snack, stinky tofu, made from tofu fermented for as long as six months and then fried and served in the form of foul-smelling cubes. If you’re a brave eater, keen to prove your food courage, it is the thing to have.
We ordered a few dishes, picked up our chopsticks, and dug in. Popping it into the mouth was the hard part; the tongue overcame the nose once it was inside. Not that it tasted like anything there’s an English word for. It wasn’t sweet, or sour, or bitter, or hot, or any of those usual things. It felt a bit like custard or cheese in texture. It was, strangely, quite good.
The squid soup with chewy, lightly boiled pieces of squid, including the head, was a lark after that. Strangely, there was no chicken Manchurian or fried rice on the menu.
Next evening, in a farm called Shangri La in Yilan county, a two-hour drive from Taipei, I had one of the best meals of my life. Farmer Chang Ching-lai, 56, a child labourer turned millionaire, runs the place. The food is exquisitely simple: course after course of fruits and vegetables teamed with shrimps, scallops and salmon, all cooked without oil or spice and presented so beautifully that they look like works of art.
In the course of the next four days, I discovered that presentation is a very important aspect of food in Taiwan.
The Shi-Yang Cultural Restaurant only allows guests with bookings made at least a day in advance and turns away those who just turn up. Located an hour from Taipei city on an uninhabited mountaintop, it has no menu. Customers eat what the restaurant makes that day. What they make is wonderfully light and so beautiful to look at that it seems unfair to disturb the arrangements by eating them. The food — once again, a curious mix of steamed seafood, vegetables, and fruits — is designed so ingredients retain their original characteristics.
The ambience, with its tatami mats and low seating, appears Japanese, but is in fact derived — like some of the food — from China’s Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) cuisine. The Chinese claim Japanese culture has its roots in Tang era Chinese culture. In Taiwan itself, the cuisine bears Japanese influences from the era of Japanese colonisation (1895-1945).
The finest place to eat out of Chinese history, though, is probably the Silks Palace at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. The museum itself houses the best of China’s movable imperial treasures which found their way to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war in 1948. The most popular piece from this collection, evident from its position on guidebook covers, is a cabbage made of jadeite. This is believed to have belonged to the consort of a Chi’ing dynasty emperor. The Silk Palace, which is run by the Four Seasons chain, serves a perfect replica of this.
From this high point of presentation as art to its opposite. One of the well known hang-outs for Taipei’s curious young folks is the Toilet Restaurant, where commodes serve as chairs and the table is a bathtub with a glass cover. Food comes in bowls shaped like toilets, and drinks in real ‘bed pans’. Here, I finally found chicken and rice, but it wasn’t chicken Manchurian and fried rice. It was Thai chicken green curry.
From my week of culinary explorations in Taiwan, where all the cuisines of China can be found, it would seem there is no such thing as chicken Manchurian outside of India.