I do believe that food triggers one’s memory, for me it is the smell. It happened to me many times where I caught a smell of someone’s cooking when I was walking on the street. A familiar aroma of food that reminded me of Macau, or London or my childhood or just a memory of a distant event. It was often vague, then I would just stood still and closed my eyes, trying desparately to remember where I knew this smell from. Sometimes I relive the moment of a particular event, but sometimes, the smell of food will remain unknown and gradually fade away.
It is exactly what happened to me the other day, when I had lunch with a friend in a small Taiwanese noodle house. The smell of the food there reminded me of our Taiwan trip earlier this year and it took me straight back to one of the best holidays I had so far.
Taiwan is not only famous for its stunning mountains and national parks, but also their Night Markets where amazing local food are sold. Visiting the night food market was one of the best highlights of our trip, the first market we went to was Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市) in the centre of Taipei city. It was not a big market but there were definitely plenty of local delicacy to choose from. Busy food stalls lined up densely next to each other and hungry people queued up in front of each stalls. It took us some efforts to pass through the waiting people as well as to check out what food was on offer. We were told beforehand that one should share with others the food from each food stand so that one could get to try as many different dishes as one possibly could eat, because it would be a pity to miss out any of these delicious local gourmet!
The market was packed with local people and tourists that night when we paid our visit, although there were seatings and long laminated tables in between the four big, long rows of food stalls, but they were all occupied, so we ended up eating our little trays of food (from numbers of different stalls) on the pavement, sitting on pastel-blue plastic stools just behind one of the bigger food stalls. We sampled the famous oyster omelette served with a savory sauce, crispy fried salted chicken, grilled cuttle fish balls, various vegetable and meat skewers that could be chosen and cooked to order, deep fried or grilled stinky tofu (firm tofu marinated in brine made with fermented milk, vegetables, fish etc. recipe varies from different parts of the country, and yes they really stink!!) served with pickled vegetables, and spring onion pancakes (they were just some of the dishes available in the market) then we ended our eating spree by slurping up some beef noodle soup with which the beef had been slow-cooked for hours: it was tender but yet remained a nice bite, the house-made noodle was just cooked to perfection, the broth was rich and intense, the whole dish was literally a flavour bomb! I must say, this was one of the most memorable eating experiences I have had in recent years. Definitely something to be cherished for a long time to come.
The other celebrated Taiwanese dish is braised pork rice, which is also widely available all over Taiwan. Usually, minced pork is used for this dish but pork belly is also a common substitute. Meat is braised in soy sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms and dried shrimps, but several versions of the recipe can be found in different regions of Taiwan.
We had braised pork rice at a food stall on Jinshan Old Street (金山老街) in New Taipei city, another famous ‘food street’ where one can enjoy truly regional cuisine. We sat in the white fluorescent lit sitting area behind the mobile kitchen of the food stall, hand written menu was taped on the white tiled wall. We bought ourselves dumpling noodle soup, sliced five spiced duck breast (which was a speciality of the area), braised minced pork rice bowl which turned out to be my 6 years old’s new favorite! Fried stinky tofu with pickled cabbage, the list go on.
After dinner my husband and I went for a short walk around the area while my sisters and their family looking after our little one. It was dark on the side streets where most of the shops and restaurants were closed, we walked past a small temple which located right in the middle of these restaurants, it looked tranquil at the time, and it was hard to imagine how the atmosphere would be like during the day when locals and tourists strolling around getting on with their usual business. Then we came across a shop which to our surprise, was still open. The shop was specialized in snacks made with sweet potatoes: sweet potato chips, mochi (a little sticky rice cake made with glutinous rice flour and mashed sweet potato), baked whole small sweet potato stuffed with sweet red bean paste, etc. Apparently, sweet potato is abundant in the area, therefore one can find similar kind of shop all around the area. We couldn’t resist and bought a few for dessert.
A long and delicious night came to an end and we went back to the hot spring guest house up on the mountain with our very full stomaches and looking forward to our next adventure.
to be continued…
Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice
- 800g Pork belly, skin on, cut into bite size pieces
- 2 shallots, finely sliced
- 1 clove of garlic, finely sliced
- 4 large dried shiitake mushroom, soaked in hot water, covered for at least 30 minutes, then squeeze out excess water, julienned
- 1 handful of dried shrimps, finely chopped (optional)
- 500 ml water
- 2-3 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
- chopped spring onion for garnish
For the pork belly: (to marinate for at least 15 minutes)
- pinch of white pepper
For the spice bouquet: (wrap the spices in a small piece of muslin cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen string)
- 1 star anise
- 4 cloves
- 1 tsp. sichuan pepper corns
- 1 piece of dried mandarin peel (optional)
For the seasoning:
- 1/8 cup shoaxing rice wine
- scant 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/8 cup dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. oyster sauce
- scant 1/4 cup of rock sugar (or brown sugar)
Heat a deep casserole on medium high heat, add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, fry garlic and shallots until fragrant and slightly brown.
Add pork belly to the casserole and stir-fry until the meat is nicely brown on the outside. Turn the heat down to medium, then add shiitake mushroom and chopped dried shrimps. Stir until everything is well combined. Pour water in the casserole and add the seasoning, then the spice bouquet. Cover and simmer for about 1.5 hours to 2 hours. stir occasionally.
In the last 15 minutes of cooking time, add the shelled hard boiled egg in the sauce and turn the heat up to medium high, let the sauce bubble and thicken a bit.
Served the pork and half an egg for each person on steamy jasmine rice, ladle plenty of sauce on the bowl before serving. Garnish with chopped spring onion.