Taiwan: He Mama’s Ice

This is the third installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Adventurous as always, Jordan reports on the good, the bad, and the ugly of his experiences with Taiwanese cuisine.

Every day after dinner, I feel like a fat kid coming from a candy store. It’s just that Taiwan has too much food. I don’t know how Taiwanese people stay so thin, because most of their food is not particularly healthy. One of my favorite local snacks is called cong you bing, which is an incredible, artery-straining joyride that is available from street vendors everywhere. It’s a croissant-like pancake with green onions baked in. The pancake is then fried so it’s flaky, and an egg is added on top. Sweet and spicy plum sauce is spread on the pancake, and then it’s folded like a taco. It has to be worse than a deep-fried Twinkie, but if all these Asians are eating them and staying skinny, then why can’t I?

The food of Taiwan is an interesting mix of Fujian, Chinese and Japanese, though the most common food is basically Chinese. Of course, it’s not like American-Chinese food. The only recognizable thing you could find in Taiwan would be Kung-pao, and even then, it’s pretty rare. Most Taiwanese food starts with a base of noodles, rice, or soup. Menus are separated in this fashion, with endless combinations of each.

When I’m hungry, I usually go up to Dongbie, which is a chaotic and crowded series of alleys with an infinite number of stores, stalls, and restaurants. My professor recommended a couple places, but I’ve enjoyed just trying things on my own. For lunch or dinner, I usually go to one of the many restaurants with tables and air conditioning. A lot of the menus tend to all be very similar, and are often vague. If you see an item that says fish and rice, for example, you don’t know what kind of fish you’re getting; it’s whatever they happen to have. Same thing goes for vegetables.

One time I ordered hot pot with a friend (it’s like a shared soup), and I knew at once we were in trouble. There was something very wrong with this hotpot, and though I couldn’t see it, I could smell it.

It’s called chou doufu (stinky tofu), and it’s my greatest enemy. I loathe its existence. I could smell it lurking at the bottom of my soup. I’m not sure why it’s stinky; apparently it has to do with the fermentation process of the tofu. But let me tell you: it stinks. It’s like eating the stench of gym socks. Wet, moldy socks that a sweaty kid has worn for many days. Since the horrifying hot pot incident, I’ve been a little paranoid about accidentally getting chou doufu. One day, my random decisions will land me in trouble when I accidentally select a menu item called “big fucking pile of chou doufu.”

Because of that nightmare scenario, I’ve found that the most important thing in learning Mandarin is being able to recognize characters on menus, but even then, you occasionally get surprises. I’ve tried quite a few things here, and I’ve gotten into the habit of having noodles (mian) at least once a day. The first few days I was here, I stuck to what I knew: I ate niurou mian tang (beef and noodle soup) constantly. But knowing that I could not rationally survive on two food categories alone, I’ve learned to embrace sponteneity and pick whatever item happens to pop out at me. So far, I’ve had pretty good luck and have been eating well.

Restaurants don’t serve water, but most have a barrel of sweet tea to drink. Taiwanese consume a lot of non-water products, more so than Americans. I rarely just see regular tea, and strangely enough their tea is often sweetened beyond what I like. They love to drink niunai cha (milk tea), or the always present zhengzhu nai cha (bubble tea). It’s all really cheap here—usually less than a dollar—so everyone usually has one in their hand.

But it’s not the cheap pricing of drinks and food that makes me feel like a fat kid. It all the non-meal food that’s around; stuff that’s hawked at you, taunting you to try it, like the guy with green onion pancakes or the Mister Donut store. Taiwanese are famous for their xiaochi (little eats), which is an encompassing term for all the little in-between foods sold on the street. Stalls are packed with these odd snacks. Most of it isn’t too healthy, but that doesn’t stop me.

However, there are some stands where you can either buy fresh fruit or have it mashed into a juice drink. The Taiwan summer season offers a lot of good fruit: lychees, guava, dragon fruit and carambola are particularly enjoyable. Taro (not a fruit) is something I had never tried until I got here. And their mango—Jesus—it’s something holy. I’ve never actually been fond of mango, but here it’s so smooth and creamy that it melts in your mouth. Needless to say, most of their exotic fruits are good. But like chou doufu, there’s always some terrible secret hidden in the corner of the fruit stand.

There’s a fruit here that—to put it gently—is fucking disgusting. It is, in my mind, the most vomit-inducing combination of texture, smell and flavor that has ever existed. It’s the most convincing argument that God does not exist because He would never make something so fucking terrible.

It’s called durian. Look at the ugly bitch. Let’s start with the smell. They don’t sell durian in crowded areas, because when opened the powerful smell is overwhelmingly rotten. It’s similar to a post-Super Bowl port-a-potty. There’s really no other way to imagine the smell. I wretch every time I catch a whiff of it.

Given the smell, I have no idea why I tried it. Maybe a brief moment of insanity, or perhaps I suffered a minor stroke which suddenly gave me the irrational notion to consume something that smells exactly like a toilet loaded with shit. To be truthful, the taste is unique. A lot of people describe it as custard-like, slightly nutty and slightly sour. The texture itself is something like smashed pumpkin and marshmallows combined, yellow and almost goopy.

That alone might be tolerable, but the real problem with the taste is the scent that accompanies it. The combination of the smell and taste was so alien to my palate that I almost threw up from one bite. I guess it was worth the experience… or maybe not. Why do I do these things to myself?

On the other end of the spectrum, let me tell you about a lady named He Mama and her creation niunai bing (milk ice), the most delicious dessert the world. He Mama has been making this wonderful treat at the same place for 30 years. Whenever I’ve dropped by her store, she’s always sitting on her plastic lawn chair watching television. I’m not sure how old she is, maybe 55 or so, but she’s nice and jolly, with big Jiang Zemin-like glasses and a sunny smile. The name of her creation doesn’t really describe itself well. First, it begins with a big pile of shredded ice—little thin flakes kind of like sno-cones in the U.S. Then she adds a little syrup and a bit of condensed milk on top. She tops it off with fruit—I always pick mango, sliced and placed on top like bananas on Cheerios. The flavor is really about the smooth mango and the cold ice, brought together by the sweet milk. It’s the best idea ever, especially during the summer.

He Mama, is a brilliant lady. She’s a cultural icon in Dongbie. Our professor led us to her store by asking the locals. One after the other, they pointed the way, leading us like some pilgrims trekking to the wise sensei at the top of the mountain to seek enlightenment and guidance.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.