Culture Shock And The Taiwanese Palate

Welcome to Culture Shock; The new series that named itself. Join us as we learn, grow and share all about new found social/cultural behaviours and expectations through our world exploration. These are our thoughts, observations and lessons on respecting and behaving in a foreign culture that may just leave you laughing and crying at the same time.


 

Foods Of The World

In preparation for my journey abroad Karina wowed me with tales of dining on barbeque cockroaches in Cambodia, snacking on grasshoppers in Indonesia (which she reports, are pretty tasty), and even drinking snake blood in Vietnam. The most exotic meat I had ever tried in Canada was a single experience I had eating caribou and I never really adjusted to the gamy taste. My first experience with Taiwanese food didn’t happen until I actually set foot in Taiwan and while I had intended to jump in head first and immediately push beyond my comfort zone, some of the foods created too much shock value for me to just dive right in.

Travelling to foreign lands requires that we explorers have a very adaptable pallet. Not only is food spiced differently the world abound but the variety of animals and animal parts used to prepare a dish will change drastically from one country to the next. In Canada I loved eating Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese cuisine but these meals had been adapted to accommodate our western palate. Back home restaurant owners didn’t offer duck brain soup, intestine, hearts or tongue on the menu. At least, not in the restaurants I went to, but at the time I was leading a sheltered life! Now my eyes are wide open.

Duck parts. Basically all the parts I DON'T want to eat, Taichung, Taiwan - Karina Noriega

Duck parts. Basically all the parts I DON’T want to eat, Taichung, Taiwan – Karina Noriega

I am sure that many of these items taste wonderful (otherwise, you wouldn’t see huge line ups at the local street vendor who scoops fleshy chunks into plastic bags for his customers), but I hesitate at the thought of trying them. It is all psychological. There are only certain parts of animals that I am accustom to eating based on the beliefs passed down to me by my family. The animal parts which are considered food in Asia always went in the garbage in my household.

Exploring the local night markets has given us the chance to taste test a wide variety of foods while keeping within our budget. Taiwanese street food has a reputation for being exceptionally tasty and based on our experience in Taichung, Taipei, Lukang and Hualien, we can confirm this rumor is true. We still recommend using caution when selecting an appropriate street vendor so check out this great article for helpful safety tips in purchasing ‘street meat.’

Since arriving in Taiwan I have tried foods with tastes and textures that dazzled our senses. We dined on wild boar that was hunted by an aborigine group in Taroko Gorge National Park. I ate a pancake made of turnip, a plethora of candies and drinks made from red bean, and a dozen vegetables that are completely new to me. I discovered that my new favourite desert is a Taiwanese treat called Mango Ice, which without question, contains addictive properties that make consumers dream of it day and night. I have been bitten by the mango ice bug and now my life is forever changed.

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A Familiar Taste Of Home

Karina told me once that travelling to Asia would make me fall in love with 7 Eleven. While in Canada we take these convenient stores for granted, being that they are scattered everywhere, in Asia they provide an easy avenue for westerners to have a taste of home. Sometimes you just NEED to eat something you recognize from home, even if that item is a candy bar, soda or bag of chips. Walking into my first Taiwanese 7 Eleven my investigation of the treat section revealed some familiar food with an Asian twist.

Convenience stores are filled with fast foods I have never seen anywhere in North America. Various meats soaked in water that you can either get spicy or mild to suit the customers taste. Customers can also buy boiled eggs which have been soaked in black tea. At the recommendation of friends we met while hitchhiking through The Hundred Mountains of Taiwan, we stopped at a Family Mart (another popular convenient store chain), and purchased our first tea-soaked egg. They were actually, not half bad.

 

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Travel Tip:

Choosing A Place To Eat

Typically we search for a long line-up of locals (a tell-tale sign the stand produces a quality meal), then we observe the people ahead of us to see how they order (and how much they pay). Restaurants have only been tackled when we are accompanied by our couch surfing host so they can decode the Chinese menu for us. Street food, on the other hand, is something we can manage ordering on our own. Just point to what you want and you are set! The friends we have met here have been absolute angels, guiding us through the ‘learning new foods’ process. When we don’t have locals with us the process of obtaining food in a restaurant is as follows:

Step One: Point to a word we can’t read in the menu.

Step Two: Cross our fingers and hope for the best!

In restaurants we give our local buddies cart blanch to order whatever they think we might like to try. They translate the menu and give us options here and there but mostly we just say, “order what YOU like.” Having someone recommend foods encourages us to make bolder choices as they help us feel more confident that we are weeding out the less appealing choices. Our Taiwanese friend Mike encouraged us to try fish eyeballs over dinner. He said Chinese superstition indicates this will improve our eyesight but he won’t eat them himself as he finds them disgusting. My grandmother always said eating carrots were good for your eyes but there is more than one way to skin a cat. For the record, I didn’t enjoy the texture much or the taste for that matter but just in case there is any truth to the superstition, I popped both eyeballs in my mouth, chewed and swallowed hard. I enjoyed watching his face cringe as I followed his late grandmother’s recommendation for developing healthy eyesight.

Learning To Cook Local Food

Throughout our journey across the world I have typically cooked all our food so we could avoid paying restaurant prices but here in Asia, I have no idea where to begin. Meats are packaged differently and are only labeled in Chinese. When I wander about the produce section in a grocery store I have no idea what half the vegetables are. Our couch surfing host in Taipei city was kind enough to take me grocery shopping then she showed me how to make a traditional Taiwanese meal. I still have no idea the name of all the veggies used as she could only tell me the Chinese name (which I can’t even begin to pronounce correctly). Now I feel more comfortable taking the chance to grab something in a grocery store that I have never used before. The food is beginning to feel less foreign to me.

~ An Extraordinary Story by April Beresford ~

Check out the first article in the Culture Shock! series: Culture Shock! and the Sorry Complex.

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21 thoughts on “Culture Shock And The Taiwanese Palate

  1. One thing for sure is if you’re going to travel, you need to be somewhat (or a lot) adventurous with food. While I draw the line at some things, for the most part this attitude has served us well. I’d love to know what some of the mystery meats are in your photo! 🙂

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    • We have tried some pretty yummy stuff that didn’t look so appealing at first. Best case scenario you have a local you trust who can provide helpful tips. We still haven’t worked up the courage to try stinky tofu which is popular food in Taiwan but I HAVE tried fermented tofu and man, is that stuff ever nasty! Not a mystery meat exactly, but as a meat substitute it truthfully tasted more like toxic waste. lol
      April

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  2. Awesome!! I’m a vegetarian so often I can’t try local specialties, but I can definitely still get out of my comfort zone. Great stories here!

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  3. This is why traveling to new places is so fascinating. There are always foods that we wouldn’t dream of eating at home that the locals have always eaten, and you can either choose to embrace it or reject it. Hopefully, as you’ve done, you embrace it and find some new favorites.

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    • In the west we waste so much of the animal that CAN actually be eaten. I met a couch surfer from Hong Kong who said he preferred eating the more interesting parts of the animal and he insisted that the parts that I would consider to be appealing (like breasts, legs and wings), are very boring. He loved to dine on chicken feet-this seems to be a popular treat on this side of the world. You can find chicken feet in bags at the convenient store. Yum Yum!
      April

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  4. Asia is definitely the best place to improve you eating skills and learn to eat without understanding the menu! 😀
    I don´t eat much meat, so I was quite safe with the vegan dishes. In 5 months travelling around SE Asia I have tried so many different stuff that I have no clue what they were or how they called them. But I think that is the adventurous part of travelling and eating abroad.
    Cheers,
    Nat

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  5. The best part of traveling is exploring the culinary culture of the destination you’re visiting. You certainly were very adventurous to try the fish eyeballs. I’ve heard they dissolve in your mouth. I guess I’ll have to try them myself on a visit.

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  6. Pingback: Culture Shock! And The Porcelain Throne | Karina's Extraordinary Life

  7. Pingback: Culture Shock! And The Porcelain Throne - Wisdomtrails.com

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