Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting To Know Taipei (101) - Eating

Home to more than just ancient temples, bustling city streets and looming skyscrapers, Taiwan is known the world over for their bizarre food items and restaurant themes. Made famous in recent years by TV chefs like Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, Stinky Tofu is a local delicacy that's hard not to notice. Like the durian fruit of Malaysia, you either love it or hate it - there's no middle ground. Opinions on how to describe the odor differ, but in my opinion it's a little like rancid garbage meets rotten milk.

If you can battle through the aroma though, it's actually delicious. Best served deep fried and rubbed with hot peppers, it differs from regular tofu in both texture and flavor. It must be the three months of fermentation underground in a salty solution that give it a meat-like texture and sharp flavor - almost like biting into aged cheddar.

Shilin Night Market is the perfect place to find this local oddity, as it's world famous with tourists from across the globe stopping by to check out some bargains. Like most of Asia, this marketplace is home to pirated DVDs, jewelery, cheap t-shirts and more food stalls than you can shake a skewer at. Besides Stinky Tofu, some other local specialties involve Oyster Omelets and Scallion Pancakes.

Why anyone would think that a toilet-themed restaurant would work is crazy, but what's crazier is a chain of toilet-themed restaurants that's spreading like wildfire throughout Asia! Modern Toilet Restaurant is proof that no idea is too crazy. From modest beginnings in 2002, this franchise has now spread throughout China with three outlets and counting.

Let's be honest, there's not a whole lot about this scenario that makes sense - but let's consider Taiwan for a moment. This island shaped like a sweet potato is home to more strangely themed restaurants than anywhere else in Asia, it's even spawned a culture. For those of you who prefer your drinks served from a vat suspended from the ceiling, there's a hospital themed restaurant. If you'd rather your waiter be dressed in black and carrying a sword, there's a ninja themed sushi place. Heck, even if you just like Hello Kitty, eating from your tray aboard an Airbus A380 - it can all be found in Taipei!

The sight and sound of someone slurping green tea out of a urinal, or eating soup out of a small-scale toilet bowel may not sound appetizing, but it makes a discernible difference to your usual dining experience! I wonder why this concept would work, but looking around the restaurant, I notice more locals than tourists. Seeking answers, I ask my waitress, Joanna, to explain the polarizing popularity.

"Weird is good. You must remember, Taiwan is abnormal - not normal!" she laughs, cheerily. "It's fun and different. Where else can you watch your food cook in a toilet?"

I look around and concede that she's right. Everything inside, although clean and sanitized, can be found within your average restroom. One wall is adorned with urinals, while another is decorated with toilet lids - even the chairs are recycled toilet bowls. If that wasn't enough, you can pick up a signature poo poo key chain from the cashier on your way out!

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