The first time Tony & I visited New York City together, to the surprise of no one, we made it our mission to devour the Big Apple. Sure, we took in a museum here and there, but mostly we were pounding the pavement in search of the best slice of pizza in the city or determining which meat—pastrami or corned beef—made for the ultimate Jewish deli sandwich when piled on chewy rye bread.
One day our wanderings took us to the intersection of 5th Ave and 34th Street where Middle Eastern food carts marked the cardinal directions, one standing sentinel on each street corner. The smoky scent of grilled lamb was too much to resist; as if in a trance, we glided over to one where the vendor told us we had to have the kofta—little cylindrical lamb meatballs—with salad and pita, and when he asked us if we wanted sauce, it wasn’t so much of a question as a statement of fact, and he generously squirted a creamy sauce atop of it all.
I can only assume that one of the special ingredients in that sauce was crack cocaine, because from the first bite I was in ecstasy. When I rolled my eyes heavenward and groaned in a way salacious even for downtown Manhattan, Tony assumed I was being melodramatic and demanded I let him have a bite as well to see what the fuss was about. What a mistake! After his first bite, Tony greedily clutched the kofta to his chest and—though he denies it to this day—actually pushed me into traffic just so that he could get a few extra mouthfuls of it. Suffice to say, though we had many far fancier and pricier meals while in New York City, that kofta was by far the culinary highlight of our trip and we still consider it one of the best things we have ever eaten.
That was back in 2009 and these days that kofta has reached nearly mythical proportions in our minds, mostly because on subsequent return visits to New York, we’ve done our very best to find that magical kofta cart again but have never been successful. We’ve prowled that stretch of pavement over and over again, trying cart after cart, but like a Brigadoon for foodies, that specific cart seems to be lost to the mists of time, one of those dining experiences that is transcendental but never to be repeated.
Hualien, Taiwan is about as far removed from New York City as one could ever hope to get. Where Manhattan is a gleaming, bustling metropolis that stands as a testament of human perseverance and magnificence, Hualien is notable less for the city itself, but for the rolling landscape that cradles it—instead of skyscrapers, it has mountains and gorges to mark the awesome power of nature. So great are Hualien’s natural charms, you’d forgive it for having an underwhelming dining scene, but even there it is a city that dazzles. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that of all the places we visited in Taiwan, we ate the very best and enjoyed the food the most while in Hualien. And just like the kofta from New York City that haunts us in our dreams, many of these meals were ones that if we were ever to return to the city on our own, we’d have a hard time replicating.
Take our first proper meal, the potluck hosted by our CouchSurfing host, Dai Dai. This was a memorable meal for us because we actually had to contribute something we made with our own two hands, and after going five months and only having cooked once in that time, I was more than a little nervous I’d wind up turning out something inedible. I wanted to try to make something representative of cuisine from back in Nashville and we were really hoping we could do something Mexican-inspired (there’s a large Hispanic population in Nashville), but unfortunately when we went to pick up ingredients at the local supermarket, we found it impossible to find any of the correct spices and good luck to anyone hoping to find tortillas of any shape or form in Taiwan. Add in the fact that most Taiwanese kitchens don’t have ovens (Dai Dai was something of an exception because she had a small toaster oven!) and I realized that most of my cooking repertoire of North American standards was rendered impossible. Because we knew we would be CouchSurfing with an English-Italian couple, I vetoed making pasta carbonara as I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so in the end I settled on making Chicken Tikka Masala, with a few creative substitutions (finding authentic garam masala in Hualien is about as likely as finding tortillas…).
In the end, I managed to pull off the dish and everyone really enjoyed it (the bowl was practically licked clean by the end!). Though it might not have been regionally representative as I might have hoped, it was the first time that either Dai Dai or her husband had ever tried Indian food, so it was cool getting to be part of that moment. Additionally, we feasted on authentic bruschetta whipped up by Dale & Franca, and an amazingly fragrant and warming goat hot pot that featured a fantastic broth crammed with local herbs meant to promote good health that Dai Dai put together, which made for a delightfully international hodgepodge of a meal, one you’d be unlikely to find in any restaurant. I can hardly think of a better example of the beauty of CouchSurfing than that meal as it was such a wonderful blend of cultures, and if we all lingered at the table it was just as much for the great company as for the food.
Then there was the amazing breakfast spot that Dai Dai took us to—truly one of those places that only a local would know about since not only does the restaurant have no name, but it is completely unsigned from the outside! So, I can’t tell you what this place is called should you ever find yourself in Hualien looking for the best breakfast in town, but Tony did have the presence of mind to take a picture of the sign outside the shop next door, so let that be your guiding light.
When we arrived, the joint was absolutely jumping, with diners crammed in all available space at the communal tables. We tucked into dumplings that were scrumptious, juicy little morsels from heaven, egg crêpes drizzled in a slightly spicy sauce that made our lips tingle, sesame & spring onion buns that were fluffy and chewy on top but had perfectly crisp, toasted bottoms that made for the ultimate textural dining sensation, and two types of flatbreads—one savory and filled with minced meat, the other stuffed with sweetened red bean and sesame. To top it all off we, sipped mugs of homebrewed soy milk that was just so nourishing and comforting. Even though it would mean eschewing all other breakfast foods in order to eat here every day for the rest of my life, I think it would be a fair trade because the food at this place was just so good. It was simple and no frills, but everything was executed perfectly and perfect marriage of flavors and textures.
[Another great example of the Taiwanese love of intensely textural food is the Hualien twist on the traditional Taiwanese sausage: made of pork and slightly sweet, Hualien adds tiny pearls of fish roe into the mixture so that with each bite, you get little pebbles that release salty explosions in your mouth! It sounds weird (and it is), but it also kind of works. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that this is what the people who invented Bubble Tea would do to sausage…]
It’s hard to imagine that any meal could top that breakfast, but during our day out with Ingrid, she took us to one of the local aboriginal restaurants, and what we ate there was not only one of the best meals we have had on our entire trip, but one of the top 10 dining experiences of my entire life. Taiwan has a really rich indigenous population that have an entire repertoire of special dishes that source unique ingredients that can only be found in the area, so getting a chance to try some of them is really special as you know you’re having a meal that can pretty much only been had in the very place on the planet. The restaurant Ingrid took us to doesn’t have a menu, but instead every diner pays a set price and the chef just sends out whatever he’s whipped up that day, which is all for the best because he certainly has a better grasp on the highlights on Taiwanese aboriginal cuisine than either Tony or I do.
Throughout the course of the meal, I believe we were served eight separate dishes, though it was hard to keep track because I was so busy stuffing myself and food just kept coming out of the kitchen. I consider myself to have tried a fairly extensive range of foods, yet this was one of the most delightful and surprising meals I have perhaps ever had the good fortune to experience. Every dish incorporated at least one element or mystery ingredient that was completely new to me, and each bite of a new dish would result in me exclaiming in surprise because the food was so innovative and fresh and unlike anything I had ever tasted before. A few of the dishes were a bit more conventional in that you could see how Chinese cuisine was fundamentally rooted in some of them, but for the most part I felt like I was really discovering a completely new type of food with so many new flavors.
We were both so grateful to Ingrid for taking us to this restaurant because we would never have discovered it on our own (I still don’t know its name, and if I ever saw it, it was written in kanji…) and also because she was able to play translator for us and explain a bit about the dishes we were served so that they weren’t complete mysteries to us. Consequently, I can tell you that we had pickled pumpkin (which we actually thought was pickled mango, it was so sweet and tangy!), something that translated as “beer chicken”, two different pork dishes, an entire fish that had been baked in salt and then was served with a side of salt that was seasoned using local herbs (and was an intoxicating combination of smoky and floral), snails stir-fried with local vegetables, a soup whose broth was laced with local herbs and other magical & mysterious ingredients, and a dish featuring a special local seaweed that is known as “cupid’s tears”.
Every dish was incredible and so delicious—it would be impossible to pick a favorite. I ate until I was positively bursting because the food was just so good that I didn’t want to stop tasting it and I couldn’t let any of it go to waste. It was just such an excellent example of cooking local, cooking fresh, cooking smart and I loved every last bite of it. The icing on the cake was that the owners were fantastically friendly (as all Taiwanese are!) and were clearly over the moon that we were so enamored with their cooking. If ever there was a time to break out the phrase “Ho jia!” (Taiwanese for “delicious!) this was it!
I know the main reason why tourists pass through Hualien is to visit Taroko Gorge, but as far as either Tony and I are concerned, the city’s unsung hero is clearly its dining scene. By mingling with the locals, we experienced some truly exceptional eating, meals we still think back upon with hunger and longing. It may not have the same name recognition as Taipei or Tainan when it comes to the best food cities in Taiwan, but for my money, on our culinary tour of the country, Hualien was undoubtedly the star. Who’s to say whether a return visit would prove as fruitful and delicious the second-time around, but rest assured, one day we’ll be back to find out. Until then, if you make your way to Hualien, gobble up a plate of those spring onion buns for me… and then do it again!
Tell us: Have you ever found yourself in an unexpectedly awesome food destination or found yourself chasing an incredible “once in a lifetime” meal? And does anyone know where our kofta cart in NYC went?!?