I stand cautiously above a staircase on Taipei Main Station’s ground floor, like a nervous swimmer about to dive into the deep end for the first time. The labyrinthine confusion of passageways one floor below me that make up the principal metro, train and bus hub of Taipei present a daunting challenge. I’m tempted to procrastinate by exploring the station’s food court one floor above, but I don’t really have time. I can’t help it. I generally end up following my nose. It’s lead me all the way from England to Taiwan, after all. But I can’t imagine I’ll find any hunched over grandmothers cooking up a generations old recipe on the floor above. It’s probably all franchise restaurants, and that generally goes against the content of my website, Wonderstuffed.
Around me there are a few scattered food stalls selling fruit, mochi and souvenirs, as well as a 7-Eleven of course – they’re ubiquitous in Taiwan. Close by is an ice cream stand and the young man working it has spotted my hesitation and wondering eye and flashes me a smile that I can’t resist. I head over and buy a black sesame soft serve from him. It’s the second time I’ve tried black sesame ice cream and I can’t get enough of it. No more stalling, though. I need to get going. One last smile from the soft serve man and then down I go.
I manage to find the MRT blue line after a long underground walk and laugh aloud as I realise my destination, Ximen, is only one stop away. Well, I’m here now. I swipe a Hello Kitty themed transit card through the turnstiles and stand in line for my metro before boarding a shiny carriage. The Ximen-ding district is an entertainment area full of shops, restaurants and bars. Sounds like there’ll be plenty to explore until my tour of a night market later this evening.
Minutes later, I exit the Ximen station and find myself surrounded by high rise neon and crowds of people. I make my way across the street and walk into an area with a series of market stalls selling clothes on both sides of the street. A large red octagonal building in front catches my attention. I walk around it and come across a group of open air bars. A string of fairy lights has been placed around the outdoor area of the bar nearest me. Below the lights, a svelte waiter bounces away disinterestedly after taking an order from a man alone at a table. I look up and notice the bar is called G Bar. Aha! I’ve stumbled upon a gay district. It’s definitely refreshing to accidentally walk into an area of openly gay establishments – that certainly wasn’t the case with my previous stop, Korea. Taiwan is known to be more open minded towards homosexuality than many of it’s Asian counterparts, with the constitutional court ruling in favour of same sex marriage last year.
I walk in and the bouncy waiter offers me the drinks menu, an electro-lounge version of Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long playing softly as I enter.
“Go for the Zhujiang beers, they’re not bad. And it’s two for one,” the man who has just been served tells me in an American accent from his table nearby.
I smile and glance over the menu quickly. “Oh, I’ll just have one of these non-alcoholic cocktails… A Virgin Mary, please.” The waiter nods and bounces away.
“Interesting choice. Laying off the alcohol this evening?” The American asks.
“Ah, my love of food is enough of a vice to be getting on with,” I tell him. “So I rarely drink.”
“Very sensible of you.”
I take a look at the man properly and almost do a double take. He has alarmingly symmetrical looks, very model-like. He looks to be in his late twenties. A good ten years younger than me, at least.
“Feel free to take a seat,” he says, motioning to the three empty chairs at his table. I have no reason not to, especially not with those looks, so I join him.
“Foodie, then?” He asks.
“I suppose. It’s what I’m here for.”
“Oh, more pleasure than business?”
“Both, actually. My business is food. Or writing about it, should I say. I have a website, Wonderstuffed. It’s a glorified food blog really, but I’m lucky enough to be able to live off it these days.”
“Wow, that’s nice. Wonderstuffed? Let’s see… ” He flicks through his smartphone, brings up the website and scrolls through a couple of pages. “Oh, this looks good. Professional! Lot’s of… people stories?”
I nod and smile. “I like to focus on the people behind the food almost as much as the food itself. Provide some background info, a bit of history and context. A lot of my time travelling has been spent interacting with the people who cook or own the restaurants I eat at. That doesn’t just enrich my experience as a traveller, but hopefully the reader’s experience too.”
“Very neat,” he says, as my drink arrives. “I’m Josh, by the way.” He holds out his hand.
“Greg,” I say, shaking it. “Nice to meet you. What are you up to in Taiwan?”
“I’ve been working here a while. Six months nearly.”
“Oh no, I’m with a modelling agency.”
“Of course,” I laugh. “That does not surprise me.”
“What surprises me is how you can drink that stuff,” he says, pointing at my mocktail. “I mean, individually I like Tabasco and I like Worcestershire sauce. But in tomato juice? No m’aam. Guess you grow to like it? I could say that for a for a few Taiwanese dishes.”
“If you’re beginning a debate on Taiwanese food, well, I could settle into this chair for the night.”
“Oh really? And what’s your favourite?”
“Well, I’ve only been here for a couple of days. Had the most amazing beef noodle soup yesterday at a tiny, inconspicuous restaurant. The owner is taking me around the nearby night market a bit later, actually. We ended up talking for quite a while.”
“For the website? Or for your own interests?” He laughs.
“Ah, he has a certain charm… he’s just a genuine, humble man dedicated to his restuarant. So, where do you stay for work? Does the agency provide you with a place for yourself?” I ask.
“They do. Small place about five minutes from here. Close to Lungshan temple. The agency arranged it. It’s not too bad, save for the occasional flying cockroach. It only happened once,” he adds, noting my expression. “And luckily it flew into my sister’s face, not mine!”
“That’s… horrendous.” I sip my drink. “Your sister is here with you also?”
“Yes, she’s working with the agency, too. We came over together.”
“Really? That’s some good genes,” I comment.
“Oh, we’re nothing too special in the States, but over here our look goes over well. Blue eyes. Blonde.”
“And it’s been a good experience?”
“Yeah, absolutely. Ready to go home soon but I’ll miss this place after a while I expect.”
“Rochester. Ever been to the US?”
“A couple of times. I’m keen to do a big road trip.”
“Brits always tell me that. Well, I’m glad. At least you want to visit! Some people are so anti-US right now they look at vacationing elsewhere.” He finishes his drink and as he does I recognise Stevie Nicks’ carefree vocals on a remix of Dreams. Fleetwood Mac are one my favourite bands and generally remixes don’t do any of their songs justice, but this is really well done – not overproduced.
“What’s up?” Josh asks after ordering another Zhujiang.
“I just really like this remix. Never heard it before.”
He nods and holds up a finger indicating I should wait, takes his phone from his pocket and after clicking on something holds it up on the air. It’s an app to recognise music, one of those things I would never think to download but really should.
“There we go… what’s your number? I’ll message you the name of it.”
Oh, I see. Smart.
I give him my number and we chat a bit more about our jobs and impressions of Taipei, before I realise I have to meet Freddy soon. I thank Josh for the conversation and settle up my bill.
“I actually have to meet my sister for dinner,” Josh says. You’re going to Ningxia, right?”
“Yeah, near Zongshan station.”
“Right. My sister and I are eating around Zhongshan so if you want another beer, or Virgin Mary should I say, well you have my number now. Feel free to message me!”
“Okay, sure. I’m planning to visit Jiufen tomorrow but no need for an early night I suppose.” Josh seems quite direct, and I like that.
“Oh, no way! My sister is going there tomorrow for a night or two. She’s meeting a friend there. I should ask her if she has any tips. Her friend knows Jiufen well.”
“That sounds great, I appreciate it! It’s a bit of a last minute decision so I need to find accommodation if I want to stay the night. I’ve heard so much about how charming it is at night with all the lantern lit up.”
“Me too. I’ve not been. But I know it inspired the setting of some anime movie…”
“Spirited Away, I believe.”
“That’s the one. Alright Greg, maybe catch you later!”
It doesn’t take me long to walk to Ningxia night market. I spot Freddy’s square face and black rimmed glasses amongst a throng of people eager to get their hands on various street foods. He greets me with a small nod and a firm handshake.
“You are always dressed so smart!” Freddy Kuo remarks. It’s true. I usually like to dress in a well-ironed shirt and chino combo, even when I’m being a tourist. “I hope you are hungry,” he says. There’s a lot to eat here. It’s not big like Shillin market – that’s the biggest and most famous. But many locals like to come here and enjoy oyster omelette or taro cake.” Freddy speaks very good English, in part due to personal studies and also his regular visits to stay with his sister now living in Melbourne. He told me many details about his close family yesterday, which I made notes on to use for my article about his restaurant, Kuo Noodles. Freddy is Han Chinese, but considers himself completely Taiwanese. His father identifies as both Taiwanese and Chinese having come to Taiwan at the age of seven, along with roughly two million other Han Chinese immigrants after the Chinese civil war.
I listened carefully to what he had to say about beef noodle soup, a Taiwanese staple. The Taiwanese style of beef noodle soup – using red braised beef, is made especially tender using ingredients including sherry and star anise. This style became popular with Han Chinese veterans who had fled to Taiwan. I imagine recipes shared between close knit communities, being adapted using different local ingredients to what they were used to. Freddy’s father had learnt the recipe from his veteran father and he and his wife set up Kuo Noodles in the seventies. With nearly forty years using a tried and tested method, slight perfections being made every so often, no wonder I was still craving the soup 24 hours later. The restaurant does offer a few other items including pan fried buns and noodle dishes of course, but the main attraction is the soup. Two options are available – spicy and regular. I opted for the spicy soup, deep red in colour with fresh noodles and generous chucks of beef falling apart in my mouth the second I began chewing. Freddy’s mother came over with a small version of the regular soup just so I could compare. The restaurant itself is small and nondescript. The best ones often are. The only indication of happy customers is a board on the wall near the counter with around 40 photos of worldwide travellers and Taiwanese celebrities who had paid a visit, all smiling alongside Freddy or his mother.
Freddy and I walk past stands selling clothes and mobile phone covers, the traffic and noise increasing as we enter the main strip. It’s a compact market with stalls and and sit down eateries.
“We can sit down, if you want,” Freddy tells me, speaking a little louder as we become part of the crowd. We pass stalls serving beef noodle soup, squid on a stick and glazed fruit, strong aromas filling the air. Freddy points to a small eatery. “This one has my favourite oyster omelette. Shall we try it?” I agree and let him lead the way.
Five minutes later, our omelettes hit the table, filled with oysters, scallions and other vegetables covered in a sauce that Freddy tells me is mainly ketchup, soy sauce and vinegar. We start eating and suddenly I hear a commotion behind me. I turn around to see a small fight happening, looks like it’s between a customer and a stall owner.
“Oh… that’s not so usual. Sorry for you to see that,” Freddy tells me, concerned. I tell him not to worry. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen often in Taiwan. Maybe it’s gangsters…” He wonders.
He nods. “Most people in Taiwan don’t come into contact with the gangsters unless they owe money, maybe gambling issues, or if it’s for prostitution. Otherwise you don’t see them, ever. Maybe the stall owner became involved with something?”
The fight breaks up after a few minutes and the crowd dissipates. We finish our omelettes and continue to explore, Freddy sharing more info on his background and grandparents as we walk, of which I take a mental note. After some fermented bean curd (which Freddy warns me is not popular amongst foreigners but I love) and taro waffles we finish the tour. I thank Freddy and promise him I’ll be making another trip to Kuo Noodles before I leave Taiwan. The night is still young so I message Josh who isn’t too far away.
I meet Josh at a cocktail bar along Zhongshan North Road, roughly halfway in-between the market and my hotel.
“Hey, I bought you a non alcoholic one,” he says as he greets me at the bar, his blue eyes dazzling. I thank him and we take a seat.
“I was thinking,” he says, “There are some interesting themed restaurants around here, you know? Would they work on your site? There’s a restaurant in Ximen where everything is served in toilet bowels. I wonder what your readers would make of that…”
“No way,” I shake my head. “A mention maybe, but no need to go to a novelty restaurant that’s likely more style over substance. Is a soup served in a pretend toilet bowl actually going to taste good or is it all just for the quirky Instagram moment?” I pause for a second, hearing myself speak. “Pretentious?”
Josh shrugs. “Probably just your age,” he laughs.
I give him a mock scandalised look. I’ve just turned 40 and I think I dealt with it extremely well, so I’m not bothered.
“I showed your website to Naomi – my sister,” Josh says. “I didn’t realise how popular it was when looking closer!”
“Ah, it’s taken a while to build up.”
“Very detailed articles, as you said. I like how informative they are. Different to what the bloggers normally write.”
“Yeah, I didn’t really want to go down that flashy graphics ‘top ten things to eat in Taipei’ route that seems pretty en vogue.”
“That’ll be you age again,” he teases, taking a swig of beer. “Just kidding,” he adds as I raise an eyebrow. “You’re right, that is the style of the social media friendly blogs. But hey, you took a different approach and look how it turned out! All those hits! Don’t you love it when a gamble pays off?”
“Well, thanks. I’ve been lucky. It was noticed by a researcher for EAT – big food mag in the UK. Bit hipster. But some interesting reads. They offered me a monthly write up, full page. That lead to a weekly column on Miriam Romaine’s travel food website, which was really, really amazing and now it all supports each other, I suppose.”
“I’m impressed. You need to try the soup dumplings here. The xiaolongbao. I gotta be careful, actually. My agency won’t be impressed if I start ballooning due to too many of those.”
“They’re quite strict?”
“They are, but I won’t complain. They look after Naomi and I well, and that security is something other Americans modelling here with different agencies haven’t had, from what I’ve heard.”
“They get shafted? With pay?”
“Yeah, mostly. Promise of big work, magazines and billboards, but ends up being really shady. Contracts not adhered to. Or models not reading what they sign a lot of the time. That’s a problem, too. We read everything through very carefully. I think this should lead to big things!” He says it in a fingers crossed, hopeful way.
“That’s a pity. Oh well, I’m glad it’s worked out for you. Well, look at you. I can see how you’d do well here. And those Taiwanese men must be all over you.”
“It’s been a good time…. I admit,” he laughs. “Listen, I spoke to my sister about Jiufen. Her friend could be a real asset to your site if you plan on writing about the place. She knows the town and I’m sure she could help out with food recommendations. You should definitely meet up with them. You wanted to stay the night right?” I nod. “Great, well I asked Naomi to check if there’s any room left at their hotel so we’ll see what she says. Her friend has been there for a couple of days already. Catching up with old acquaintances I believe.”
“Oh, you really didn’t have to do that.”
“No problem. You wouldn’t mind? I assumed you would be keen to network but you don’t have to meet up with them. Even if you stay at the same hotel!”
“No, no, that sounds great!”
I’m always keen to network and meet new people. It really adds to not just my personal experience but to Wonderstuffed also. As Josh says, this friend could be very helpful. It crosses my mind that spending time with the sister of a man I’ve just met and was certainly attracted to might be a little strange, but spending my time in Jiufen with a little company would be nice.
Josh checks his phone and smiles. “You’re in luck. There’s availability at their hotel. 1900 NTD for the night. Should I confirm?”
“Yes, that would be fine, go ahead. Please thank your sister.”
“I will. Put a pic of Naomi on your site as a thank you. She’ll love the free publicity,” he jokes. “Shame I can’t come now, but not worth skipping on my bookings for the next couple of days. They’re paying well. Maybe I can come join later in the evening, I’ll see how tired I am.”
We chat a little longer, with increased levels of flirting and a few more jabs at my age, until I check my watch and realise I should head home. We say goodbye and I put my earphones in and listen to the Fleetwood Mac remix Josh found for me as I walk back to my hotel.
© Intrigue Inn