I have a lot to say about food here in the TDub. This is one of many entries to come.
There are basically two levels of restaurant experiences to be had, much like in the US. The first kind, the most common and cheapest, are the little shops that have a kitchen out in front of the dining area. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call them cafes. Most cafes specialize in one dish like Japanese-type noodle soup (ramen), fried rice, dumplings, etc. At these cafes, you take a paper or plastic menu and write your table number on it, indicating the menu items you would like to order. Usually the menus have tons of options, but the variety is based on modest changes to the main dish (you guessed it: rice and noodles), adding something like egg or green onion. You then take the menu back to the kitchen in front and your food is served to you minutes later at your table. Most Taiwanese food is by definition fast food, because it is quick fried and served piping hot. At these cafes, it is rare to wait more than five minutes for your meal.
The second type of restaurant is the typical wait-to-be-seated, waitress takes your order and brings your food kind of place. This is usually a little more expensive, and the food quality tends to be a higher than cafes (but not by much). The menu options tend to be more expansive as well, so one can order a variety of protein and vegetable dishes. This is the Chinese or family style type meal most Americans are familiar with, where the whole table shares several dishes, eating over their rice (fan) bowls. There are also usually options at these restaurants to order a “set”, where you choose the protein and it is served with pickled vegetables, rice, and other accoutrement that you eat by yourself.
There is no tipping in any restaurant and food here is damn cheap. I got a plate of six nigiri (sushi) for just under $6 USD the other day. It was easily the best sushi I have ever had too. I can typically eat three meals for about $6-7 USD per day.
Seeing as that I am an illiterate sonabitch in this country, most of my food ordering experiences have been limited to picture menus where I can grunt and point at what I want. This goes pretty well… I usually get exactly what I am expecting to eat. Some places just have printed menus available that are completely written in Chinese characters. Most of the time I am eating alone, or with non-Chinese speakers, so I have to take a guess at what it is I am ordering. I’ll admit, though, most of the time I am happy if any food shows up at all. Sometimes, like tonight, I can be pleasantly surprised. I went to the Japanese noodle shop up the street and got a huge bowl of milky miso broth with tender pork, green onions, fish cake and ramen. It was divine.
Then there are the other times, the bad times. I went to a bar & grill on Monday and ordered by pointing to some random thing on the menu. I should have recanted my decision after the waitress made a face like, “I wouldn’t eat that.” Communication fail. I was insistent and kept pointing, saying, “I want to eat this.” And thus begins the story of the worst thing I ever ate.
I should have known something was up when I saw the character for “year” in the description. The waitress came back with a plate of what looked like dark meat covered in Sichuan sauce, peanuts, red peppers and green onion. It looked palatable. “Probably beef,” I thought as I dug in. But when my chopsticks (kuaizi) hit the dark ‘meat’, I began to realize from the gelatinous texture and just plain wrong color that this was not beef. I bit down. Tasted like an egg but not an egg. “Cow testicles?” I thought. Nope, those would’ve been chewy. And then a feeling of horror slowly washed over me. Was this the infamous pidan, or thousand year egg? I started to gag. I immediately ordered some rice to eat instead.
I didn’t finish my food that night, and grabbed a Taiwan beer at the Family Mart on the corner to kill the taste in my mouth. Every following belch tasted like the Garbage of the Ages. Got home and wikipedia-ed “thousand year old egg”. Sure enough, I had eaten that shit. I brushed my teeth three times that night. That’s all for now…
P.S. If you’d like to know more about pidan (and good god, why would you?), read for yourself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Century_egg