Wonderful Food on Walkabout

By cjohnson | January 16, 2006 8:43 pm

Well, I spent 24 hours in bed yesterday, very ill, and unable to eat anything. I just drank lots of water. Today, I’m quite a bit better, but while my system is recovering, but I’m staying off food for another day. However, I’m at that stage where I can think about food, and in fact I can dream happily about it.

When I dream about food, a likely place to feature is Taiwan, where I was on my walkabout, as described earlier. One of the things I love about the place is the remarkable variety of high quality and delicious food which is available everywhere, and at a wide range of times of the day. I’ll focus on smaller places for now…. street food and small places selling noodles and dumplings. A typical street-food scene is something like this:

street food taipei

This is an alleyway maybe one step off the main road, and is in fact part of a long line and network of alleyways which are similarly packed with stalls, stands, and hole-in-the-wall places selling little edible pieces of heaven.

beef noodlesMy favourite thing to do in a new location is find a place that I can get good beef noodles. The first day I was there (in Hsinchu) I asked one of the local physicists, John Wang, to point out a few places he liked (as a sort of starter), and from then on I was happy. I like having a place that I like, that does the meal the way I like, and then I just show up there regularly to sit and think by myself for dinner or lunch, over a nice hot bowl of beef noodles (“really good noodles”). It got to the point that the couple who run (own?) the place recognised me with a smile as I came in and started preparing the food before I sat down. I don’t know why I like it so much (it started years ago in 1994 with a braised beef soup at a restaurant on Nassau street in Princeton…don’t remember what it was called…. opposite a supermarket… is it still there I wonder?) but I really can’t get enough of it. The characters describing beef, noodles, and soup, are easy to remember, and so it isn’t hard to order what you want. After a while, you learn to recognise other things pretty quickly too. I’m also a fan of noodles with the other commonly featured meats, pork, chicken, etc, (those two are lighter and work very well as a late breakfast), but the beef is my favourite for dinner, with its darker and denser texture.

chicken noodles dumplingsOne thing that I like a lot about the whole food culture there is the variety and/or serendipity you can get between different places. The beef noodles you get a couple of doors down might be rather different from the ones you got at that other place. It’s definitely the same dish, and no less delicious…..just different. I like that…it’s a sort of jazz culture brought to food. You have your standards, and everybody knows and loves them, but everybody plays them differently.

Everywhere you go, especially at night, you’re likely to pass some sort of food-preparation activity:
food prep taipei
I did not stop to see what that was, but they looked like they were having a lot of fun preparing it.

pork noodlesJust in case you’re perching there waiting to see if I’m going to commit some new crime of cultural insensitivity (see the comment stream of my post on traffic), I’d like to point out that in taking my photographs I was very careful to (1) not disturb anyone by standing in their way, using flash, or disrupting their business in any way (2) linger only a very short time to snap (I prepare the shot beforehand, camera comes out and snaps and goes back in before anyone notices (3) ask permission -often after buying some food- in the cases where I cannot avoid being spotted. So hopefully I’ve nipped those complaints in the bud.

pork noodles dumplingsOne cold rainy** morning in Taipei I was looking for breakfast and one of my favourite places that sells a particularly delicate pork dumpling noodle dish was not open yet. The place I found at the end of my folding bike hunt. Thrown a bit by this unexpected situation, I wandered some new alleyways and found an interesting sight. There were two women with three wooden drums from tasty bunswhich they were extracting some very tasty -looking buns, no doubt filled (as they almost always are) with some sort of delicious thing. (The drums have hot burning coals in them, which cook and keep the buns warm, and give them a delicious hint of wood-smoke to their flavour.) I bought two one beef, one chicken, and then went to this cafe I love to go to for pearl tea -that’s a milky tea with large black tapioca balls living at the bottom – deee-licious!! I took them all back to my room (along with a few other things) and they did not last long as I sat and watched the rain**.

tasty buns and pearl teaGuess what I did the day after I returned from Taiwan? I went to Chinatown to try to find a supermarket that could sell me ingredients to try to reproduce a good bowl of beef noodles. This being LA, you can find many things quite readily, so my trip was not without success. I’ll tell you about the results some other time.

-cvj

**I do hope that I don’t get accused of Western insensitivity for daring to mention the slight negative that it rains there, and can be relatively cold.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink, Personal, Travel
  • Aaron Bergman

    Good food in Princeton? Surely you jest.

    Maybe you’re thinking about Tiger Noodles, though?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Ah… that’s it I think! Thanks! I have a fond memory of it as it was the first time I’d tried that particular recipe meal…..I don’t think I’d try them there again, as I may have enhanced the memory of it over the years…..and I would notwant to spoil the memory.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

    [Update: I’ve been told that it might no thave been called Tiger Noodles back then… Anyone recall what the earlier name was?]

  • Brad Holden

    YY Doodles was the previous incarnation of Tiger Noodles.

    Where is Julianne when we need her?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Thats IT!!! YY Doodles… Thanks. You’ve no idea how much better it feels to know the answer. It’s been knawing away at the back of my mind. Gosh, there’s an awful lot of Princeton people on here…maybe I knew some of you back then? ’92 -’95?

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Geesh – one of my main memories of Taipei was being rather ill after eating the food….particularly after the conference banquet!

  • David

    Lots of tasty food – that’s something we can certainly agree on! My personal favorite is the dumpling thingys, although beef noodles is v. good as well.

    Clifford, I’ld be interested to hear more about how you dealt with the language situation when ordering food – was knowing the characters enough, or did you also have to learn how to pronounce them? This is something that’s been a bit of a block for me for exploring the culinary scene in more detail. (It’s mostly laziness on my part, since usually I can get my wife or another local to order for me.) Can you recommend a source (preferably on the web) for learning the basic food characters?

    JoAnne, in my experience the problem with the banquets is that there is just too much food – I often end up stuffing myself to the point of getting sick. Don’t know if that was what happened in your case…

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Look, I am up at 4am, checked out the blog, and suddenly found myself hungry. I blame you Clifford.

  • http://www.irrationalpoint.blogspot.com Quibbler

    take care, Clifford.

    Q.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    David,

    Too much food??? I always have a difficult time getting enough food in my stomach during conferences. :)

  • http://www.xanga.com Josh

    Are you perchance thinking of the Ivy Garden on Nassau Street in Princeton? It is across the street from an organic foods supermarket. I never had the braised beef soup there, but I do recall they had so me excellent chinese food.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Josh,

    Well, I think it was YYdoodles, that later changed to Tiger Noodles…but it is possible it changed again….I have not been to Princeton since 2001 (gosh).

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • Samantha

    If Tiger Noodles still does a braised beef noodle soup – please could someone try it and report? The YY Doodles version was so good. A rare culinary joy in early to mid 1990s Princeton.

  • Matrix

    Hope you feel better. Masses of water and no citrus and stop thinking about food – till tomorrow when you enjoy the basic foods, still staying away from diary and citrux. cmj+crew

  • citrine

    One of the more interesting slang phrases I’ve picked up in the USA is “use your noodle”.

    Clifford, this is not an admonition you need. :)

    BTW, do you think of string theory when you see all those noodles twirling around?

  • citrine

    Oh, and hope you are back to normal by now.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Matrix+cmj:-

    The day before I could not think of food. Definitely not. But the day after I needed too. It was good for me. Thanks.

    citrine asked:

    BTW, do you think of string theory when you see all those noodles twirling around?

    Actually, not once, until you mentioned it just now! Nope….. I just think “mmmmm tasty!”.

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    JoAnne (#5): – That’s really sad. The food at those banquets can be truly wonderful. I think the issue might be pacing. Nibble a little bit of each thing…there will be always ten more courses to go at any time…..!

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    David,

    Knowing a few characters was enough. Attempts at pronunciation gave mixed results….depends a lot how open an ear your server has. But -as you must know…right?- most places allow you to sit and then they bring you a checklist of things so that you can check off what you want. So you can spend as long as you want figuring things out and then make checks next to waht you want. No locals or wives needed for that.

    Where locals are needed (and gratefully acknowledged…and pined for!) is to get things that you don’t even know about. So noodles and buns are easy. But I would never have known about so many things without locals to help me. Some thigns are not even on the menu unless you know how to ask for them….. This was my experience in Tainan. Subtle things about food go on there are a quite high level…..I would have been oblivious to them without expert knowledge. Sure, I would have tried excellent noodles and buns and dumplings there….but not all the other stuff…… my goodness.

    But bottom line is that you can eat well with a few characters and a sense of adventure….and the system is set up to make it easy to do so without having to talk.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • JoAnne

    David & Clifford: nice try, but no, the conference banquet food was just plain bad (fancy venue too). Unfortunately, that’s not such an unusual occurance. Ah -

  • JoAnne

    David & Clifford: nice try, but no, the conference banquet food was just plain bad (fancy venue too). Unfortunately, that’s not such an unusual occurance.

  • JoAnne

    Obviously, I hit a wrong key and ended up submitting twice! Just wanted Clifford’s comment list to grow….

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    JoAnne,

    Interesting. I have to admit surprise here. One pair of words I cannot imagine in the same sentence (other than one such as this) in the context of Taiwan is “bad” and “food”. Hosts seem to go out of their way there to make sure the the food is of high quality and from what I’ve seen you’d have to be really trying to find bad food there….. odd. But I don’t disbelieve you….. I imagine there must have been something unusual going on.

    -cvj

  • David

    Clifford,

    Yes, the checklist system should be fine once the basic characters have been learnt. It’s more challenging though in the case of food stalls which serve different versions of a dish and you need to say which one you want, or some small restuarants where the the menu is written on the wall and you need to order verbally (although i suppose writing out the characters and showing it to the staff would work here). My partial solution so far has been to first go to a place with a local, find something good with their help, and then get them to write the name of the dish on a piece of paper which i can show when i go back alone next time. Of course, this isn’t much use for exploring new places. Another approach I’ve used occasionally is to walk into a restuarant, check out what people are eating, and signal my order by pointing at something that looks good. (Not very polite I suppose, but people are tolerant of the poor foreigner…and I do try to be discrete when using this approach.)

    Btw, also had a very enjoyable visit to Tainan at one point. We were fortunate to have a local host who took us around to the best eating spots – turns out these can often be recognised by the queue of people outside them. At one place we had to queue (probably sic – is that spell-checker ready yet) for over half an hour for some seafood-type dishes, but it was worth it.

    Anyway, now I feel motivated to follow your example, learn the food characters and start exploring a bit more on my own.

    Cheers,
    David

  • David

    Count Iblis,
    Generally conference banquets are stingy with the food in my experience too, but not so in Taiwan: they really lay it on! Even the “afternoon snacks” sessions are feasts in themselves.

    JoAnne,
    It sounds like you were unlucky. I had a similar experience in Paris once, so I guess it can happen anywhere. Better luck next time!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hi David,

    I forgot to mention the important role of one’s (latent?) ability as a mime artist! Pointing and signing and generally looking pathetic (all done with politeness, good humour and a smile) can really help get the food you want into your stomach. I would not do it if anyone I knew was watching!!

    Cheers!

    -cvj

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