Ask anyone who’s travelled abroad and they’ll probably be able to give you a tonne of travel tips. From packing one’s suitcase to finding cheap accommodations, every traveler has something to say about pretty much everything. But there’s one rule I follow above all others.
Always try the noodle soup.
Before I continue I should preface with a warning that what follows is a thick serving of borderline foodie bullshit, wrapped up in culinary snobbery and doused with a healthy dose of food-as-pornography excess.
Perhaps this is a byproduct of three years of gorging on restaurant food, a common past-time of Seoulites, expats or otherwise. In this messy, cramped, and glorious city that I call home there’s a lot of eating out. It’s simply because cheap restaurants are literally stacked on top of one another, combined with the fact that most apartments in Seoul are also boxes stacked on one another aiming for the maximum number persons per square meter. With nothing to cook on at home but two square feet of counter space and a two-burner gas range to cook on (no oven here), one has little else to do but to eat out pretty much every night of the week. Eating out in Asia is cheap, easy, and fast, so it’s no wonder that there’s quite a bit of food snobbery floating about.
Taiwan has one dish that it’s known for perhaps more than all others. Beef noodle soup is their national dish, a fragrant, cilantro topped bowl of noodles with large chunks of beef, typically the shank. In its best form, the soup stock has been left to simmer with bone marrow and chunks of meat for over 24 hours. The smell of beef noodle soup carries across the city in wafts, and to this day even the faintest hint of beef and cilantro immediately brings me back to a small shop in Taipei where beef noodle soup and I first met.
It was December, almost a year ago. In Taipei this means frequently warm weather, though at times it can be quite cool, prompting sweaters for visiting Canadians and winter jackets for locals.
A few of these sweater toting Canadians are wandering the city at night in search of something to eat, I being among them. We’re seeking the answer to that eternally heckling question: Where should we eat? A question that’s simple enough when alone, but immediately complicated by everyone being too polite and not making a final decision for fear of someone else not being fully satisfied. And so we wander through downtown Taipei saying maybe this and maybe that but with little progress in over an hour.
It’s getting late, and we’ve found ourselves heading down a darkened street, where most of the shops have closed for the night, and we’re about to turn back but…what is that smell? That enticing smell? Fragrant, meaty, intoxicating…
The source seemingly a small, slightly grungy restaurant across the street. There’s only one man eating in the back, and he seems to know the owner as they holler back and forth to each other. Two women stand around talking to a man who stands in front of a giant vat of stewing meat which he stirs occasionally. We wander a bit closer, cautious not to commit to entering quite yet. There’s not much on the menu, variations on a few simple dishes perhaps; our ability to speak or read Mandarin being precisely non-existent. But that fragrance…
I can briefly recall an article I had read before coming to Taiwan, about beef noodle soup, the dish that is the source of much pride in Taiwan, for here, they would say, it is made better than anywhere else in Asia. And so we sit, slightly nervously, and make our orders.
The tables are not quite wiped clean. Jars of pickled mustard greens, ransacked by previous customers, sit on each table, bits scattered on the cyan tiled floors that are cracking in places from age. Our food comes quickly, dished out from the enormous vat of brown liquid and quickly added with noodles and garnished.
From the first sip of broth we enter a kind of trance, broken only by the sounds of slurping and approving noises. Three starving Canadians, simultaneously falling in love with a dish for the first time. Beef shank so tender that it can be taken apart with the touch of a spoon, rippling noodles being slurped up from the rich, steamy broth. And spoonful after spoonful of pickled mustard greens thrown into the mix, the flavours becoming more intense with each spoonful.
As we finish our food in awe of something so simply inspiring, the shop quickly fills up. Like in many other Asian nations the Taiwanese eat later than those in the west. This restaurant, it seems, is doing fine.
Many would say that you have to find the hole-in-the-wall restaurants for the best meals when you travel. Yes, this is often the case, but there are plenty of large, bright, and shiny restaurants that also serve amazing meals. Some say that you have to eat where the locals eat, but often it turns out that the locals just aren’t eating when you are. But there is one thing I can say about eating in Asia with absolute certainty.
Always try the noodle soup.