Lazy Susan Dining in Taipei
Ten is the magic number of Taiwan’s ancient culture in the modern, metropolitan, industrial capital of Taipei. The number 10 represents good luck and prosperity. When it comes to dining, the Taiwanese meal has 10 courses served at round tables for 10. In what might be the first example of “extreme dining” with a Lazy Susan on every table, if you are not adept in the use of chopsticks, other diners will spin an adventure of flavors and textures right past you.
Taiwan was founded by Chinese immigrants who brought with them 5,000 years of customs, traditions and cooking techniques. Since most Chinese were Buddhist, and thus vegetarians, soybeans are still a mainstay in the diet. Soybeans are an easy-to-grow protein that has many inventive means of preservation. Preserved soy is often referred to as bean curd or tofu. The creative uses of tofu are often compared to the creative uses of cheese and are often just as delicious, with many different flavors and textures. Several ways to preserve tofu are by baking, roasting, smoking and even toasting it to the consistency of bacon bits.
While in Taiwan to attend the Taipei Chinese Culinary Exhibition, I found many things to taste, explore and learn. Most important was learning how to say “thank you” in Chinese, which is pronounced “she-say.” But when it comes to saying “she-say” while being served at a table, a brushing of the table with your index finger (much like the brushing of cards on the blackjack table to signal the dealer you want another card) is the preferred method of expressing gratitude, and it doesn’t interrupt the conversation.
One of the many restaurants at which we dined was Shang Hai. The restaurant boasted an outdoor kitchen with huge aquariums full of future seafood from around the island and the world – crabs as blue as turquoise, shrimp as big as human forearms and abalone as big as footballs.
The table was preset with two sauces. XO, a seasoning from the Kwangtung province, is made of red scallion buds, garlic, high-grade Kin Hwa ham and Thailand peppers. Eight Treasure Sauce is made of sweet beets, scallops, dried shrimp, black mushroom clams, Thailand peppers, garlic and ginger. Either sauce is good by itself or over a bed of rice; however, rice is never served to guests because it is considered too common.
Appetizers often include small servings of fish. Fresh abalone, steamed just long enough to open its natural oils and flavors, is often served within its iridescent mother-of-pearl shell. The shark’s fin soup, which Chinese emperors ate for its ability to enliven the body and spirit, is a delicate yet luscious broth. The swallow nest soup, made from the saliva of Asian cave swallows, is an acquired taste. Peking duck is three courses in one, with the crispy skin being served first, then the meat, and last the bones in a hardy soup.
The end of the meal is often celebrated with fresh fruit – slices of mango and papaya served with coffee-soaked plums that pucker your lips with a sweet tartness. Special treats are dragon fruits, an otherworldly fare with fire-engine-red skin and green fish-like scales. Its white meat, sprinkled with black sesame-size seeds, resembles and tastes like marshmallows. Served with strong African Arabica coffee or coffee liqueur, it’s a satisfying end for any meal.
Dick Dace is The Epicurean Publicist. He does lunch for a living.