Walking on the Fisherman’s Warf in Kaohsiung, I noticed a man with selling heaps of such fish and some black dried fruit in two separate containers. Men going back home after office hours were buying from him. I went close and enquired what it was. He gave me a toothless, broad grin and said something which I couldn’t understand. Then he scooped out a large ladle of the dried stuff and put in my hand, as a way of sample. I gingerly put it in my mouth and then realized that it was a kind of kishmish (raisins). I ate them all along my walk along the “Love River” and silently thanked the vendor for his generosity.
For seafood lovers, Taiwan is a paradise. Food is cooked slowly in soups and stews or quickly by deep frying. Favorite dishes include oysters with black bean sauce, prawns wrapped in seaweed, abalone, cucumber crab rolls, and clam and winter melon soup. Small restaurants display fresh produce on the street so that customers can choose their evening meal. Restaurants offer food from all the culinary regions of China and also have a notable Japanese influence.
We went to a Japanese restaurant called Shi Yang Shan Fang – a 45 minutes drive from Outside Taipei, it is beautiful retreat tucked away in the mountain. Though I had trek along steep slope down the hill to reach the place, the huge hibiscus flowers on the way and a gurgling brook that ran alongside compensated for my efforts. Subtly lit garden paths and clusters of flowers welcomed me into a different world. Here we had an eight course dinner comprising amazing dishes, with innovative use of ingredients. Peter Lee, my guide said that traditionally the older generations appreciated a ten to twelve course dinner. Starting with corn paste and almond pudding accompanied by Oolong tea, mango-passion fruit juice, it went on to scallops with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, shrimp, salmon, sea urchin- salmon eggs, rice cakes- baby oysters, sticky rice, etc., and the meal lasted three full hours where I soaked in the Zen like ambience. Out of all these I picked sticky rice and roasted brinjal and feasted more on the soft music, sound of water and fragrance of flowers. The finale to the feast was the dried lotus in wild mushroom soup that bloomed like a fresh flower, opening each petal gently as if coaxed by love. It was a real spectacle that cannot be described and loses its charm by trying to capture it on film. One has to respect the ritual and be a silent spectator.
“Food is the best ambassador” said Chef Joseph Vaz with a broad smile, welcoming us with nimbu paani and papad. He hails from Goa and runs Joseph Bistro in Taipei with his affable Taiwanese wife. We fell in love with his seasonal fruit raita and mushroom cheese tikki served with guava chutney and chopped chilli. When my Hyderabadi genes craved for real hot food, he produced a nice red chilli, tomato-cilantro paste whose tang made me feel at home. Having worked in four countries earlier, his dishes take different global twists but the core, like his heart, remains rooted in the Konkani cuisine. Chicken Tikka, Baby Cabbage Foogath, Tomato Paneer Scramble, Lamb shoulder Malwani and nans followed. I was a bit taken aback by the brinjals and sweet potatoes in the huge dekchi of piping hot vegetable biryani. Never mind- liberal doses of kaaju in all the dishes, gulab jamun (made the chef’s way) and masala chai at the end of the meal more than made up.