Our first full day in Taiwan yesterday. After settling in at our AirBNB in the Da’an Park area, we headed to the Yongchun stop to meet with Quincy, our tour guide for the following 3 hrs on the Taipei Eats tour.
The subway (MRT) here in Taipei is interesting to me having ridden on many metro systems around the world. It is much cleaner than many (Paris, London and of course NYC) but not quite as clean as Tokyo’s whose floors seem like reasonable places to test the 5-second rule for dropped food. No one eats or drinks on the subway and I didn’t see anyone transporting bikes or other dirty things from outside which is common in NYC. No vagrants, graffiti or other undesirable activity. And yet I haven’t seen a cleaning crew so far, and like the wider world above there are no trash cans available in the stations. So how does it stay so clean?
The routes are easy to use and are based off of terminus points rather than compass directions. If you can figure out where you are, where you need to go and what’s at the end of the stops line in that direction you can find your way. Trains arrive and depart every few minutes.
It’s a much safer system than others I’ve used, too. Every station we went to had one of these kinds of security wall systems. There is no simple access to the tracks and when the train arrives the doors line up with the wall doors and you can safely get on or off. Notice also the queuing lines on the ground, set to the side of the doors. People getting off the train have ample room to maneuver before those on the platform shuffle on board. And none of the handles and bars inside the train feel greasy, sticky or dirty. I still wash my hands when I reach my destination but it certainly feels cleaner.
It’s also a very musical system. Entering and exiting the turnstiles results in musical chimes. When trains are arriving in the station, a gentle red light flashes as cheerful, almost classical sounding music begins playing to hearken it’s arrival. It makes riding very much a civilized event contrary to a system, again like the NYC MTA, where trains coming and going can often split your ear drums with loud clatter and screeching, not to mention split your body if you’re so unlucky as to get knocked onto the tracks.
Another delightful innovation is the numbering of all exits of the station. Instead of trying to figure out if you want the West or east southbound corner of Fifth Avenue, you just figure out what number exit is closest to your destination and go there. We found it was really easy to find our tour groups because they always gave a numbered exit at the stop at which to meet them.
Our food tour began at an outdoor market where we sampled the flavors, sights and smells of local produce, meats and fish. Most of the food available in Taiwan is sourced from the island, which is interesting given how relatively small the island is in relation to its total population, how large the urban areas are and how much of the total surface area of the island is covered by steep, wooded mountains. It’s also mostly conventionally grown. That means it’s safer than food sourced from the Mainland (though there is some of that as well) but there isn’t much of a popular “organics” labeling and eating movement from what I learned.
Most foodstuffs were served in small plastic or wax paper bags, but there are no municipal trash cans to throw the waste in. Recently a mayor (or maybe it was the president of Taiwan?) decided that people should carry their own trash bags with them and to dispose of their waste, so Quincy helpfully walked with a plastic trash bag for the duration of the tour to ensure we had a place to stow the wrappings we accumulated.
At the outset of the tour, Quincy advised us that we’d be eating a lot and it was okay to not finish our portions as we went. We were thankful for that suggestion because it was somewhat overwhelming to keep consuming so much food, especially with the ambient heat and sun as we walked.
These signs can be seen throughout Taipei and we learned on our walking tour that they signify the location of a “beetle nut” stand. These little nuts wrapped in a leaf and coated with calcium hydroxide are chewed for their stimulant effect by cab drivers and other blue collar workers who need a little extra pep in their step through out the day. They come in small boxes about 1.5x the size of a cigarette pack and apparently are hand filled at the local beetle nut shops. I tried one and decided I didn’t need to try another. True fiends can be spotted by their orange stained teeth.
We ate so many things on the tour in the space of 3 hrs, I tried to write them down but I couldn’t keep up with it all: Taipei “burger” (shredded pork, cilantro, peanut powder inside a steamed bun), baked street market vendor onion pancake, stinky tofu (raw and fried with a fermented plum juice chaser), baked and steamed soup dumplings from Kao Chi (a Din Tai Fung competitor), pineapple cake, egg custard pie, Japanese cold noodles in peanut sauce with Chinese style egg drop Miso soup with meatball, shredded pork and soft peanut rice bowl with house fermented veggies and finally, lychee and plum and pineapple flavored shaved ice. I enjoyed just about all of it, except maybe the stinky tofu (never going to be my thing despite the health benefits), but on a hot day after stuffing our faces for three hours straight with a lot of bread and noodles, something about that light, cool, naturally sweet flavor of the fruity shaved ice tasted like accomplishment.
A few more notes about food in Taipei so far. First, as seen above, dogs can often be found in restaurants and usually belong to the proprietors. They leave the patrons alone (unless they want to play with them) and no one seems to be bothered by the potential interplay of dog hygiene and human food. Second, food is, for the most part, extremely cheap in Taiwan. Three to five dollars (USD) for a meal is not unusual, and sometimes it’s far less. For someone who has become used to the idea that $10-12 is “reasonable” for lunch for one of a decent quality, I find myself doing a double take when getting the bill. Finally, expensive restaurant buildouts and branding efforts (inside and outside the establishment) seem to be unusual in Taipei. Many restaurants can be missed simply because they’re so plain looking from the outside, and inside they’re often nothing more than a 2-300sqft plain room in the floor of a large building with a few food prep tables and equipment set up and seating for 20 people or so. Menus are simple and the savings appear to be largely passed on to the patrons.