In Taiwan, when you greet a friend, instead of simply saying ni hao (hello), or asking ni hao ma? (how are you?) You ask, 你吃飯了嗎? ni che le ma? Which means, “have you eaten?” You can input the words for breakfast, lunch or dinner at the appropriate time if you like as well, for example, 你吃午餐了嗎? ni che oo chan le ma? “Have you eaten lunch?” The response is either, 還沒 hei me (not yet) or 吃了che le (which means, “I eat” indicating, yes, I have eaten).
This common greeting just goes to show how important eating is in Taiwanese culture. And I don’t just mean this as it is obviously important as a biological necessity; but in Taiwan, it is also a culturally significant and incredibly valued aspect of everyday life. This is something that is often neglected in North America. As a culture in North America, we are sadly renowned for stuffing our faces with highly processed products made with corn syrup, and tasteless imports that not only lack any nutritional value but also lack any environmental or social conscience.
Thankfully this is slowly changing on that side of the globe as more people are becoming aware of the need to eat locally and seasonally (I’m reading a great book right now by Barbara Kingsolver about this very issue: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). My main impression about Taiwan is that they’re far ahead of the curve when it comes to consuming and celebrating local foods in season.
This is not to say that Taiwan has been immune to the industrialized institution of a harmful food system. I think the three McDonalds in an eight block radius and the incredibly heavy use of plastic bags for everything here would indicate otherwise, but my everyday experience here in Changhua does tell me that they’re less inclined to put such environmentally and nutritionally harmful foods down their throats—I’m sure there are other cases to contradict this, but I’ll get to that another day.
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I was actually really sick from the flight and from the insane amount of hours required from work basically straight as I got off of the plane. Despite being so sick for over two weeks and unable to eat much, I could tell I had stumbled across a really special place. A place that (from what I can still tell) values two main things: working hard, and eating well.
Let me tell you, if that is the motto, I’m adapting quite well. I work like a maniac, and my appetite is back in full force. Food is available here at all hours of the day, and can be purchased on any street in innumerable forms. On just my walk to a branch of my school, I pass so many different street vendors selling different treats. Some of these include meat and rice sausages, onion pancakes (yum), quails eggs, sponge cake, sweet cakes stuffed with taro, chocolate or cream, and fried chicken and sweet potatoes. Just up a block from there is a road devoted to many different outdoor eateries, including barbequing a whole assortment of meats, vegetables, and different types of tofu. And these are just the food stalls I encounter in a few short minutes walk. And the city is riddled with them.
One of my favourite places is a restaurant owned by two Taiwanese brothers just up the street from me. One brother runs a Vietnamese portion of the restaurant serving Pho (a Vietnamese soup) and other delicious dishes—the beef noodle there is to die for, in addition to the fresh shrimp spring rolls. The other brother runs part of the restaurant that sells Oden, a Japanese specialty, where you pick out your meats, vegetables, eggs, and/or tofu and these are cooked in front of you in a delicious broth, to be served with homemade spicy sauce and soya paste.
Buying from a restaurant is often cheaper here than cooking at home alone. However, if you aren’t in the mood for one of the infinite restaurants or food stalls, you can always go to a nearby local market (there is a wonderful fruit and veggie market just near me), a grocery store, or even a local 7-Eleven (convenience store) which you will find on practically any corner in Taiwan. Check this out for a great post about the wonders of 7-Elevens here in Taiwan.
If you think I’m finished explaining where to get food here, I have barely grazed the surface. I haven’t even yet mentioned the many amazing bread shops (the bread here is the most wonderful bread I’ve ever eaten in my life—more to come on that in a future post). And then there are the many tea shops that are everywhere, selling hot and cold teas of all different kinds, and fresh fruit juices that you would think are from out of this world, but are actually made from fruits grown here locally (thank the heavens for mango season, let me tell you). And then of course, the pièce de résistance: the night markets. Stepping into the vicinity of a night market, is (for me) stepping into my Mecca. A literal smorgasbord of all different kinds of food cooked freshly before your eyes. The senses are on high alert, as you walk along the winding alleys and rows of food stalls, you are bombarded with an intensity of exciting flavours, smells, sights and sounds.
Taiwan has produced an excellent website that explores the diversity of Taiwanese food culture, and sums up the constantly changing and amazing food experience in Taiwan here quite eloquently: “The Taiwanese cuisine of today is the fruit of a long, continuous process of evolution and innovation.” I have a lot more to say about so many different aspects of the food here, especially the bread, the teas, the markets, and so much more, so please stay tuned!