Taipei: The Food Be Cray

posted by Katie on May 5, 2019

Taiwan has always felt like a soft-spoken but smart tax accountant cousin. He stands on the periphery of noisy family functions, watching and not talking more than necessary. He wears glasses and outfits that are just fine—not too flashy, not too ugly. He has good teeth. His fingernails are clean. He’s a little bit doughy around the midsection. Maybe his breath is just a little bit bad. In photos, his face is always blocked by a younger, loudmouth kid. When enough time has passed, you forget about him altogether. Then years later, another family event is organized and he shows up all over again, same as always, no hint of aging whatsoever, and you go, oh yeah, Cousin Taiwan. Where you been?

Where has Cousin Taiwan been? Or, more accurately, why haven’t I cared more about Cousin Taiwan until now?

I think I believed the bad press circulating among travelers: “A land of nerds,” I was told; the same smelly vinegar/soy sauce/fermented flavor in everything; a downgraded version of Japan; clean; orderly; efficient. In other words: boring, boring, boring (cue stiff robot dance).

But I noticed something happening in the past few years. It started with Boba way back in the day. I didn’t give it much thought then, indulging occasionally with the other Asian teenagers. But then, shaved ice made its way into San Francisco. Not the Hawaiian kind, but the massive, light-as-a-feather kind from Taiwan. Then there was buzz about spicy beef noodle soup. On a visit to the Richmond district in Vancouver two years ago, Matt and I popped into a Taiwanese joint and had our first taste of this dish. It was spicy and oily and tendony and I couldn’t stop making comparisons with Bò Kho, the Vietnamese version of this dish. We decided it was one of the best meals of the trip. Then there was increasing talk about Taiwanese fried chicken. A place next to the Y in SF where Remy used to take swim lessons served this, with massively long lines on the weekend. I’d observed enough signs (all edible) to know something was up with Cousin Taiwan. Matt’s antennae, ever alert to new food trends, recognized this too. Boba. Shaved ice. Beef tendon noodle soup. Fried chicken. This was enough to make Taipei our first stop on our journey into Asia.

As far as I could observe in the five jetlagged (so very jetlagged) days we spent in Taipei, Taiwan is a land of nerds. But if nerd means fluency in English, every kind of child accommodation you could think of (toys for Remy at every restaurant, adorable matching plate, cup, and cutlery sets for toddler fingers to handle, playgrounds on every block, the best children’s museum we’ve encountered so far on this trip), interested but not intrusive stares, easy to navigate sleepy big city, zippity zip, no-human-feces-in-sight public transportation, and cra-zay cheap, delicious food everywhere, then call me Cousin Carlton Banks to Cousin Taiwan because I’m in nerd heaven.

Jetlag had me up at crazy hours. (Jetlag also had Remy experiencing the greatest meltdowns in public that I’d ever witnessed. Cue very interested and very more intrusive stares among the locals). We had a sweet Airbnb in the Da’an distrct. Our bedroom had two king-sized beds pushed together to make one, sprawling cushion town. Perfect for jetlag. I’d be up at 4am reading about expat life in Taiwan on Quora while Matt and Remy were sleeping a mile away. I started going down the internet rabbit hole. Investigating what my life might have been like if I had come to Taiwan instead of Japan as a high school exchange student. Or if I’d come here instead of Lopburi, Thailand to teach English more than a decade ago. According to Quora, I would have made good money. I would have picked up some Mandarin, putting the two years I spent studying Chinese in high school to some use instead of letting it shrivel up to the only phrase I can now say with ease: Wo bu zhidao=I don’t know.

I don’t know why I let the naysayers back in the day steer me away from this country. I wish I hadn’t listened. I wish, once upon a time, I would have been a little more open to exploring places that weren’t trending on British gap year lists. I wish I had been more interested in connecting with other Chinese people when I was younger rather than British kids on gap years. Who knows? Maybe today I would be the Cousin Taiwan I described above. Wait. Am I Cousin Taiwan? Holy shit. I’m not. Am I?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I finally made it to Taiwan so I can demystify its boring reputation. Because the truth is, a boring—but delicious—travel destination is the greatest thing you could ask for when traversing with a wailing little one. Taipei felt like the perfect primer for our toddler travels in Asia.

…And, of course, now that I write this, I wonder if I was meant to await Taiwan until I had a toddler. I don’t know if I would have appreciated its boring beauty until now. So, thanks for sticking around cuz. I’ll be seeing you shirking away from me at the next family function….