Gluttony, thy name is Taipei
“What kind of filling do you want? Lean pork, half-lean half-fat, or all fat?”
We stand at the head of a queue in a narrow street near Gongguan Station, lit by a barrage of neon signs hard against the silhouette of cables strung across a darkening sky. I haven’t seen Nelson in the three years since I left England, and now reunited on his home turf, my old friend is taking us for a “light dinner” of gua bao.
“What would you choose?” Bama and I observe the soft, fluffy buns of rice flour piled up in the bamboo steamer, our eyes darting back and forth as we wait patiently for Nelson’s answer. It comes without an ounce of hesitation.
“All fat – that’s what I usually go for. It’s the best kind.”
He hollers our order, three full-fat and one fifty-fifty, over the din of the street. With expert skill and lightning-quick fingers, the vendor reaches into a steaming vat of meat with a glinting pair of metal tongs, hoisting two, three, four helpings of pork into the waiting pockets of steamed bread. She hands us the sweet-smelling morsels, wrapping each one in a small plastic pouch.
“That second one,” Nelson smiles, “is for me.”
* * *
Our first full day in Taiwan is spent jetting around Taipei by metro, embarking on an eating marathon interspersed by slow, unhurried walks and long breaks for coffee. Waking up at 6:30 to beat the morning crowds to Fu Hang Dou Jiang, we arrive at quarter to eight, falling into line for the 20-minute wait on a rainy Saturday morning.
Here I seek the comforting crunch of youtiao, a fried bread stick that is virtually a meal on its own. But this time it comes wrapped in a thick slab of houbing – a combination of freshly baked dough and scallions. We sip languidly at a bowl of soy milk, smooth as velvet and just sweet enough to taste the extra grains of sugar. The real surprise is its savoury version, served with fat chunks of youtiao, baby shrimp, coriander, drops of vinegar and chilli oil.
Near the northern end of Yongkang Street, the wind buffets our uncovered arms as we shovel a mound of mango shaved ice, so thinly shredded it falls apart with every spoonful. Lunch is a table full of Shanghainese dumplings on the upper floor of a nearby restaurant. I tease the xiao long bao with my chopsticks, their skins concealing equal parts of soup and minced pork. We alternate this with xie ke huang, literally “crab shell yellow”, a flaky paper-thin pastry dotted with sesame seeds. Each bite yields a delicate filling of turnip and preserved vegetables. This is the reason why so many Hong Kongers flock to Taipei – simply to release their inner glutton.
* * *
Back on the alley, a single gua bao rests in my palm, its heat radiating through the plastic pouch. I can see the succulent juices gather like raindrops on the braised pork belly, its tender strips resting over a bed of diced greens and chopped coriander. In between these contrasting layers the gua bao comes dusted with a sugary coat of ground peanuts.
I take my first bite, enjoying the pillowy bread and the soft, jelly-like texture of pork belly on my tongue. When the rich, meaty fragrance gives way to the gentle crunch of peanuts and diced vegetables, I can picture what my grandmother would tell me. Brows raised and a mischievous twinkle in her eye, her pursed lips pronounce each syllable with great deliberation. “Sinfully delicious.”