Dirty grub vs clean cuisine

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 22, 2018
What’s missing: Even the street food in Taiwan doesn’t have half as much flavour as that in, say, neighbouring China.

What’s missing: Even the street food in Taiwan doesn’t have half as much flavour as that in, say, neighbouring China.   -  shutterstock/ kentoh

Zac O’Yeah

Zac O’Yeah   -  Business Line

You probably won’t get a stomach upset in Taiwan. But its obsession with hygiene also causes a weird absence of taste from food

One of the pleasures of Taipei is its relative safety. Unlike other world capitals — such as Washington DC, London or New Delhi — it’s hard to find scary neighbourhoods, red-light districts or mean streets. Even walking about near the railway or bus stations, looking for a midnight snack, I don’t spot any lowlifes or junkies like I’m used to seeing in, say, Berlin, Athens or any similar-sized European city. One tourist I met forgot her camera kit in a restaurant and when she returned later it was right where she’d left it.

I also find that, curiously, while countries such as France offer vineyard visits, and Denmark has beer brewery tours — giving tourists a cause to celebrate unhealthy habits (namely alcoholism) — the Taiwanese capital prides itself on its Museum of Drinking Water, located in the oldest water filtration plant in town. Pure water? Hmm…

I can live with that, but the one thing that I find hard to digest is the obsession with hygiene. One morning at breakfast in the hotel, my eyes fall upon a news item splashed in the local paper, describing how the Taipei municipality is busy installing special toilets designed for dogs, so that they don’t have to dirty public parks. The trouble is that the IQs of the canines aren’t high enough to grasp how to use these privies: their instincts tell them that the commode is a drinking water bowl. Even owners find it cumbersome to help their pets flush the loos. The newspaper quoted the Park Office Secretary-General as saying that “the usage rate for the dog toilets is unexpectedly low, so the city would not install more of them.”

Visiting the National Palace Museum in the afternoon, which has one of the world’s finest collections of ancient Chinese art, I notice dispensers of hand-sanitiser next to every staircase, elevator and door, suggesting that whenever you touch anything, such as a lift button, it’s time to disinfect yourself. In a city where everything seems to be sterilised many times a day, the chance of catching bugs must be minuscule — and yet I frequently observe people in the streets wearing surgical facemasks almost as a fashion accessory.

Hygiene is an obsession not just in the capital. Outside one railway station, a few hours south of Taipei, I see municipal workers disinfecting an entire fountain. Inside the station building, as I take the escalator to the concourse, there are announcements every few seconds — in Chinese and English — assuring travellers that the handrails are periodically disinfected.

On the good side, the Taiwanese look very healthy. Even when eating street food. So it goes without saying that Taiwanese food — rooted in southern Chinese cuisine, with Japanese influences thrown in for good measure — is pretty hygienic. The iconic ‘night markets’, designated for snacking and cheap shopping, are known to be the hotspots to sample a wide range of evening eats: a plate of anything, even seafood, typically costs no more than 50 Taiwan dollars (₹100). The staff manning the grills and frying pans wear disposable gloves and, often, shower caps too. Although I appreciate the safety measures adopted by food vendors, I begin suffering from a weird absence of… taste.

The curious thing is that the street food doesn’t have half as much flavour as it does in, say, neighbouring China — which, coincidentally, is more polluted and has grubbier junk food joints. At one stall I buy Taipei’s famous oyster omelette, a roadside staple made from eggs, plump oysters, herbs and a spicy-looking sauce; but the oysters don’t taste of the sea — it’s as if they have been farmed in a bathtub full of disinfectant.

This is not only a problem of street food. Having fresh memories of the delicate, flavourful seafood in Shanghai and Hong Kong, I get excited at a spa hotel where the dinner consists of a lavish eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet. It has it all: a selection of fresh sashimi, fish liver tempered with orange soy sauce, baked mussels in the shell with a mustard miso-mayo topping, smoked salmon rolls, sliced amber jack fish, pan-fried fish with black pepper sauce, salmon carpaccio with mint sauce, steamed crab, potato salad with crab meat and curry sauce, boiled squid, deep-fried squid with herbs and parmesan cheese, steamed tossed rice with baby shrimp. Everything sounds delicious.

I stack up my plate, plonk down at a table and start hogging. But soon I discover that the fish, even the raw one, lack a fishy smell and taste of nothing. Being used to the flavourful crabs of Mangalore, the boiled crab here is a total disappointment.

I usually err on the side of gluttony, but this time I was unable to empty my plate. Then I recalled something that my old friend Bharat often says — with regard to Indian restaurants: “Find the grubbiest-looking place to get the tastiest grub.” He has a theory that there is something about how spices and oils from years of cooking permeate walls and utensils, and lend an extra aroma to food. Too much hygiene, on the other hand, can obliterate taste. But hey, on the bright side, I didn’t ever get a stomach upset in Taiwan.

Zac O’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based travel writer, literary critic and author of 'Hari A Hero for Hire', a comic thriller; zacnet@email. com

Published on November 20, 2015

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