Provocative title, huh? Well it’s non untrue: milk, and milk tea, has a tendency of making me feel and act gassy (beware!), and when I walk through one of Taiwan’s famous night markets, I am reminded of how the tofu, fermented into a stinky delicacy but apparently beloved here, has earned its name. So, I suppose I’m fortunate to have found that Taiwan has much more food and drink to offer than just milk and stinky tofu!
Because I am working in a shelter and sharing meals with migrant workers from all throughout Asia, I have actually eaten more food that would be typically Filipino or Indonesian than would be typically Taiwanese. With that in mind, I’ll reflect in this post on the various cuisines, including Taiwanese, which I’ve been fortunate to have experienced.
On my first afternoon in Taiwan, two lay missionaries took me out for a noon-time lunch in downtown Toufen. In Chinese restaurants in the U.S., I’ve come to expect the standard bowl of white or brown rice and small cup of tea, alongside whichever dish I’ve ordered for myself. It will likely come as little surprise to you that this version of Chinese cuisine is likely reflective of Americanization, or at least it was not what I encountered during that lunch. Rather, the table between us three was set with half a dozen small plates—of meat balls, pork dumplings, tofu (not the stinky kind), some boiled leafy greens—and one larger bowl of floating noodles and beef floating in a seasoned broth. The missionaries and I were each equipped with a bowl, a plate, chopsticks, and a broad spoon, and we used these to share the food amongst ourselves, reaching and picking as our hungers dictated.
Throughout the first days of my orientation, we made several more meals like this, and I found myself really enjoying the practice of sharing. Rather than being responsible for one plate filled with food, I could sample foods from a variety of dishes. By this method, I have had the courage to try a number of delicacies that may sound odd to an American reader: congealed pig’s blood, fried pig’s ear, the foot of a chicken, a cow’s stomach, many fish heads, tails, and eyes… (See my photo gallery for details.) Though I normally try to be an adventurous eater, there is no chance that I would have the courage to risk a restaurant order on one of these dishes if I knew it would be the sole dish on my plate, my only hope for a satisfying meal. However, shared among a group, I can be confident that somebody is likely to enjoy a cow’s stomach enough to finish every organ on the plate, and I can happily move on to the next dish if I’ve had enough entrails for one sitting.
The biggest group currently housed with me at the Hope Workers’ Center is a bunch of 40 men from Indonesia, in addition to men and women from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. The Indonesians prepare fish-heavy meals with rice, no pork, and always with enough chilies to make me sweat and squirm like fire. I was surprised to find the Indonesians eating every meal with their hands. The Filipinos here also cook prolifically—dishes of rice, covered in papaya, chicken, and sweet sauces. It’s a familiar welcome to be able to use a spoon and fork when I eat with the Filipinos rather than the chopsticks ubiquitous throughout Taiwan. I’ve noticed that if I prepare a plate that is split evenly between Indonesian and Filipino food, I can better handle the spice.
To end a Taiwanese meal, I have found that is customary to “drink a soup,” as the Chinese word for consuming a soup literally translates as “to drink”. These soups are often veggie heavy, broth with carrots, leeks, corn, mushrooms (I know, not technically a vegetable). Sometimes the soup is followed by something sweet—either a fruit, like watermelon, or a special tea drink. After that first lunch in Toufen, I blithely made a mistake that turned painful when I ordered a Taiwanese specialty, milk tea. Oops.
Here, another oops: as I write this, I am nervously hurtling in time toward a scheduled dinner with several coworkers who have taken it upon themselves to introduce my taste buds to stinky tofu. They claim the taste is better than the smell. I’ll keep you updated. (Or, if before dinnertime I drink lots of milk…)