Thursday, May 17, 2012

A foodie talks about Tainan cuisine

Among Taiwanese, Tainan is famed for its xiaochi (小吃), literally 'small eats' - inexpensive snacks made and sold by roadside vendors or in night markets. While researching an upcoming article about the future direction of tourism in Tainan, I interviewed by email Shanti Christensen, a Californian food blogger living in Beijing. This is what she had to say:

When did you visit Tainan and how long did you stay?

Every Christmas holiday, my husband takes me to visit his grandma in Taipei. At Christmas 2011, we took the high-speed train south to Tainan. We stayed for three days, two nights. I wanted to visit other parts of Taiwan and Tainan is known for its street food stalls.

As a foodie, what do you think about Tainan's foods? Which stood out?

As a food lover, after one day I wished I had discovered Tainan sooner. I had planned to be in Tainan one night and two days, but extended my stay a day longer in order to taste at more food stalls. Fortunately, a friend’s father who grew up in Tainan knew stalls that had been around for five decades and showed me more than my stomach could fit. Chinese who fled China in 1949 arrived in Taiwan and some opened up shops featuring family recipes.

My two favorites were ròu zào fàn (肉燥饭) and shrimp meat rolls (xiārén ròu yuán, 蝦仁肉圓). The first [pictured top left] is cubes of soy-sauce braised pork neck and a pinch of sweet-pickled ginger served over steamed rice. I loved this dish because it is simple and delicious. My favorite dish in Chinese cuisine is red-braised pork belly (hong shao rou, 红烧肉) served with steamed rice. This dish is essentially the same with the fresh bite of pickled ginger. The second [pictured below right] is glutinous rice sculpted around shrimp head meat then steamed. Glutinous rice is fun for the mouth. Its chewy texture with shrimp roe and pork juices steeped into the mound of flavorful goodness makes me wish the glutinous rice denseness didn’t rob space from my stomach’s capacity to eat more.

Would you recommend Tainan to foodies who don't speak Chinese? Why or why not?

While speaking Chinese and especially reading is very helpful, grazing the food stalls in Tainan doesn’t need more than an observant eye and dash of adventure. Peeping over shoulders onto tables of other diners is better than any picture menu. Find a server then point and pick.

What could be done to make Tainan more attractive and accessible to non-Chinese foodies?

I believe to be a foodie, one possesses an element of tasting the unknown. Good food is a common language. If it smells good, looks good, and has a line out the door, chances are it’s the place to be. Following guides scratches the surface. Walking and grazing with a big appetite will open more doors than non-Chinese foodies have time for.

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