I have a sneaking suspicion that if I asked you to tell me the first food that you think of when you envision Asia, I would be hearing an awful lot of “noodles” and “rice”, maybe some “fish” and “curry” as well. But, I’ve got to tell you that those are all the wrong answer. It doesn’t take too long here before you realize that by far the culinary craze that is sweeping the continent is a dish that goes by many different names, but which we tend to call hot pot. Involving a simmering cauldron of heavily spiced broth and generally some of the more creative cuts of meats we Westerners are more likely to toss in the trash, you can think of hot pot as Asia’s answer to fondue: diners are responsible for cooking their own dinners—thinly sliced beef, earthy mushrooms, nutty pumpkin, raw eggs, crunchy leafy greens, squishy blood cubes, tofu skin—if you can eat it, into the roiling pot it goes.
I’ve never much been a fan of hot pot, but after five months and as many countries seeing the dish everywhere we turn, it’s become inextricably linked with Asia in my mind. I had a friend in college who said you could train yourself to like a food by eating it seven times spaced out over the course of several weeks. She was trying it with olives, and to be honest, I don’t know whether she underwent a conversion in the end, but it would seem hot pot requires far fewer tastings to bring you over to the Asian way of thinking. Leading up to Taiwan, I think we had hotpot just once, while in Hong Kong, but after that ginger duck hotpot in Taipei, it was like a switch had flipped in our brains and we wound up consuming it not once but two more times, over the course of just four days in Tainan!
Admittedly, the first time we sat down to hot pot was a bit of an accident as it was our first night in the city and after walking in circles for a while in an unsuccessful bid to find one of the popular night markets, I reached the point of such acute hunger that I frantically strode into the first restaurant I saw that had other diners in it. Ravenous to the point of no longer caring what went in my mouth, I was minutes away from just pointing at a random assortment of items on the incomprehensible menu (hunger hadn’t rendered me illiterate, it was all in kanji), when our waitress swooped off and came back with the one guy working at the restaurant who spoke any kind of English (and if that sounds flippant, it’s not, because seriously, everyone we encounter who speaks even the most pidgin English always has a better grasp on our language than we do theirs) who then proceeded to translate the bulk of the menu for us. Glancing at all the tables around us, we had gathered that we were in a hot pot restaurant, but clearly something was lost in translation because while we thought the basic set we were ordering only came with stock, meat and noodles… and so, in a classic “be careful what you wish for” scenario, we wound up seriously over-ordering, our table was soon covered with mountains of food.
Not to worry, however, as our unexpected feast wound up being really fun and flavorful (two great tastes that taste great together!) and convinced us that this hot pot thing was something we could navigate without inadvertently contracting salmonella or committing some grievous faux pas that would bring shame upon our families.
Our second hot pot outing was even better as we were accompanied by our CouchSurfing host, Hans, and his girlfriend, who were able to order all the best—and supremely weird—things that we would otherwise not have known existed. We drank surprisingly delicious fruity pineapple and mango-laced beers (that tasted not like beer at all) and poached fresh Tainan oysters, clams, and even something mysterious that Hans said translated in English as “fish book”. Tony blew everyone’s minds and earned Hans’s girlfriend’s eternal respect and adoration when he soft poached one of our eggs in the hotpot broth for her.
Most of our meals are governed by our “the nose knows” principle, which is simply that if something smells good, we tend to give it a shot. But that would have failed us horribly here as this hotpot was Pungent with a capital P! Our meal was very rich and had great layered flavors from the fresh seafood, but it definitely tasted far better than it smelled. At first whiff, we scrunched our noses up in concern, but I have to admit, everything really came together when in the pot and was really pleasing to the palate.
We finished out the evening at a popular dessert stall, which specializes in something that is best thought of as sweet soup. Hans ordered us one that featured red bean (a common staple in Asian desserts) and one that had rambutan (a fruit covered in a red fluffy casing that looks a bit like a sea urchin). I won’t lie, this dish was pretty weird, and not really something Tony and I would rightly consider dessert. The fact that Hans is a bit of a fitness buff and so ordered our desserts with no sugar in them probably didn’t help matters… I will say that in keeping with Taiwanese preference, each spoonful of this soup featured at least three different textures, so although it wasn’t our favorite dish of Taiwan, it certainly was an eating adventure!
A far more successful sating of our sweet tooth cravings was found in the form of these amazing stuffed waffles that were peddled just outside the train station. Fillings involved chocolate, vanilla custard, taro, and most suspiciously (but still deliciously!): cheese. They were perhaps not quite at the same transcendental level of the waffles we had in Taipei, but at just 50¢ apiece, you’d better bet we indulged on more than one occasion.
We also filled our tummies with other tempting street fare, that we came across in our peripatetic wanderings throughout the city such as a little joint that was positively jumping and served more different kinds of zhongzi (rice dumplings) than we even knew existed. We tried curry, special pork, and peanut, doing our level best to attack these babies with chopsticks. Never ones to allow foreigners to foolishly suffer, a fellow diner swiftly came over with forks for us. Initially we were chagrined by our apparent chopstick incompetence, but looking around, we soon realized that everyone was using forks to tackle their zhongzi, so take note! Oh, and we split these three dumplings and were more than satisfied for the rest of the night; those puppies are dense!
The vast majority of our remaining meals in Tainan were had in places we came to view as the Taiwanese equivalent of a southern meat & three. Our favorites were a series of little hole in the wall establishments just around the corner from Hans’s apartment. One served up amazing little bento boxes for just $60NTD apiece (~$2US) that were filled with rice, veggies, pork cutlets and eggs. The one next door was even cheaper at just $50NTD/plate and was run by some of the most cheerful and helpful ladies; given how friendly and cheerful Taiwanese people seem to be on the whole, that is no small compliment! Every day they would have a small buffet set up with 6-8 dishes, and we eat there 3 days out of 4 trying new things each time. Except we always had to get the dish that featured eggplant—perfectly prepared, it was so silky and unctuous that sometimes I was tempted to simply ask for a big plate of just it alone.
If Tainan solidified our burgeoning love for hotpot, it is also where our obsession with Taiwanese vegetarian food hit a fever pitch. Given the number of temples we visited in the city, we saw a lot of neighboring Buddhist restaurants. When we took the time to actually visit one, it was a revelation! We loaded up our plates with innumerable amazing dishes, some obviously vegetarian, and others where the faux meat was so convincing that we spent about half our meal puzzling whether we were actually eating meat or not. As omnivores, we take special pleasure in sitting down to all-veggie meals that leave us exactly as satisfied as ones that actually feature meat; this meal did that and then some. The food was so textural that it really felt complete and you didn’t notice the lack of animal protein at all. We both left thinking that if more cuisines were able to embrace vegetarian cooking with such care and creativity, a lot more people would likely embrace a meatless diet.
Your turn: which of these dishes would have you going back for seconds? To be honest, just seeing the photos in this post have got us pining to return to Tainan!