Taiwan Part II: Chicken Food – How the Taiwanese Do Thanksgiving

by janet on December 17th, 2008

Continuing with Day 1 in Taiwan, we weaved our way back down the mountain on the wretched tour bus, already greeeen at the gills from motion sickness even though we had just gotten a lot of nice fresh air. One happy thing that happened on the drive back was a bathroom stop – happy because Shimi was having a peemergency and because I made friends with a super cute stray dog with big glisteny puppy eyes. Taiwan is overrun with stray dogs, which sounds scary but was really fun for me.

Shimi and I discussed our rehearsal dinner outfit on the way back. We were psyched because we were to have Chicken Food for dinner (that’s what it said on our itinerary). Venus told us it was sort of like Taiwan’s answer to Thanksgiving dinner – rice with turkey on top, covered in a yummy soup stock. Mmmmmmmmmm.

After finalizing our outfit plans, we arrived back at the hotel…

…except not. We had come straight from the mountain to the restaurant for rehearsal dinner. OK, I guess Shimi would have to make her speech in her jeans and hoodie, and I would get to eat Chicken Food with hair as greasy as KFC. Awesome. We decided to sit as far away from the vegetarians as possible to maximize our dish options. This took us to the Japanese peeps’ table, which included the parents and best friends of the groom. This ended up being an excellent decision, and these people ended up being some of my favorite guests to hang out with on the whole trip.

First: GREEN STUFF! MMMMMM! Unlike most people, I love “gloppy” as a food texture, so I was really excited to try this. Also, I had just frozen my butt off on the top of a mountain, so some restorative soup was just what the doctor ordered.

Except it had shrimp in it. BASTARDS! I had my epi-pen in my purse, but I wanted to make it alive to the wedding since I was singing, so I didn’t risk it.

HERE IT IS! The elusive CHICKEN FOOD! I can honestly, honestly say that this was my favorite thing I ate on my entire trip to Taiwan. It’s a trademark dish of Chiayi, the city in which we were staying, and just dynamite! Listen: white rice, turkey, marinated bamboo shoots (menma or shinachiku is what we call it in Japan), and crispy fried onions, all drizzled with a very mirin/soy-ey, tasty broth. I glanced around and noticed that there were two left on the table. I schemed about eating one more and then sneaking the other one back to hotel for a late night snack.

But then I was distracted by another dish that was set dramatically on the gigantic lazy susan. It was another off-limits crustacean item, but I didn’t want to piss off or inconvenience the wedding guests who didn’t know about my blog (I didn’t really know how to explain “food blog” in Japanese) so I had to be snappy with my photos. Luckily we were at the Japanese table so excessive photographic documentation of everything did not seem so strange. This dish looked like some very potentially good fried crab bits. I asked Shimi and she said, as always, “Underseasoned.” WTF Taiwan?

Oooooh! Sashimi! A dish that I could season to my heart’s saltiest content! Shimi and I attacked this aggressively, only noticing later that the other guests were demurring on the fish. Were they just being Japanese? Or did they know something we didn’t know? I realized that the fish was on ice, and we aren’t supposed to drink the water in Taiwan. Maybe that was what was bothering them?

It turned out that what was bothering them was indeed fear of inadequate food handling and bacteria, but also they were turned off by the gigantic cuts of sashimi. Indeed, each piece of fish was twice the size of a normal slab of sashimi, and Shimi unearthed a fish bone in one of her pieces, but I am immune to food poisoning (never ever had it!) and Shimi just plain loves sashimi, so we dug in.

OOOOOOH! Sesame balls! I love this shit at dim sum restaurants! Shimi and I very ungracefully started stuffing our mouths, asking the other guests if it was ok if we had another, then having another without even waiting for the answer, and then “splitting one last ball” but then splitting two more after that. We were not really being good ambassadors for America with our behavior at this dinner, but they were irresistable! Crunchewy and steaming hot insides to boot!

So. With that dessert, our meal was over. OR SO WE THOUGHT! If you only remember one thing from this post, remember that your meal is not over in Taiwan until the fruit comes out. If you have room to remember one more thing, remember that tomatoes are considered fruit in Taiwan.

So after I sat back, satisfied with my chicken food and balls, a new round of food came out. This included real turkey, a la America but a little bit weird (e.g., Taiwanese seem to not like their bird skin crispy, so it wasn’t, and as with everything else in this country, underseasoned), that was carved by the chef (fancy! …but cut with the grain?) in the middle of the restaurant.

Then came “gravy” and “cranberry sauce,” which Shimi was too scared to try (OK, you’ll eat raw fish loaded with 0-157 colonies but not this cranberry sauce?) so I was the guinea pig. The result is pictured top. It was pretty good, actually. Made me want some mashies.

Three MORE courses later (with ugly, unpublishable pictures – my bad), the fruit came out. Everyone’s favorite was the citrus fruit which everyone was calling “mikan” – the Japanese word for clementine, even though this looked more like a lemon (see it hiding innocently at the left part of the pic? You can hide but I’m gonna eatchoo anyway lil’ lemon.) and tasted like a very very sweet orange. After traveling for six days by this point, my insides were a little, ahem, gummed up? So I appreciated the roughage.

The “toothpick” pinwheel = cute, no?

Also note the aforementioned comment about tomatoes being considered a fruity dessert-like-item. I should have noted this and wouldn’t have committed a grave error later…

But first, the bride and groom rolled up – he in jeans and a polo, she in tracksuit pants and a t-shirt (PHEW glad I didn’t change), and Shimi had to translate the maid of honor’s speech from English to Japanese (stressballs!) and then the best man’s speech from Japanese to English. The maid of honor went off script and started talking about riding stationary bikes in the snow, which threw Shimi off a little, but otherwise she performed brilliantly.

Then, off to the night market. WHEEEE~! I was so psyched. Dozens and dozens and dozens of stalls with food, Engrish clothing, and other randomness. For example, I contemplated for a long time whether or not to buy a Doraemon humidifier that plugs into your USB port. It would be good for my singing, but real estate in my suitcase was in high demand, so I passed. This, inexplicably, saddened crazy tourguide Frank, who was following us like a hawk (after the fiasco on the mountain he was apparently determined to not let us out of his sight).

Another notable item – BUNNIES! SLEEPING IN A BLUE-LIT BUN PILE! AAAAAA! Just the kind of stall that makes a parent go, “Oh fuck. The kids are going to go apeshit over this and I don’t want to take care of a fucking rodent.”

After browsing through the whole market, Shimi decided to get a cream puff that looked absolutely divine – fluffy and decadent. It tasted, like everything else in Taiwan, bland. In fact, she said, “This probably isn’t even worth the calories,” and threw it out. Disappointment City. I was intrigued by fruits-on-a-stick that were coated in cherry-colored hard candy. I picked out a stick, thinking the red orbs were plums or strawberries or something else yummy, but it was (can you guess the punchline?) candy-coated cherry tomatoes. Fail.

Up next: How you do a wedding with 1,500 people, Taiwan-style.

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