Why I Love Taiwan… A week of solid surfing and endless activity, only to gain weight (Taitung City, 2017).
For me Taiwan is the most well-rounded surf destination and one man is responsible – our guide, TK Yang. Every lunch and dinner becomes a banquet with TK ordering up half the menu so his flock of Westerners can replenish their surf calories and then some. At most spots, a spinning table is on a constant, slow rotation so we gluttonous five can empty one plate so another full one can be stacked on. Our meals usually wrap up with one of us pleading, “TK, stop ordering more food!”
Bawei or the Highway
One dining experience stands out above the rest – Ginger Duck Hot Pot, in Taitung City on Taiwan’s east coast. The “Bawei” restaurant buzzes with locals chatting away, and a steamy fragrance of ginger lingers in the air on our approach. Our waitress-to-be spots TK as we cross the street and ushers us in and to the last remaining tables. Getting seated takes contortionist’s skills as I plop my butt down on the stool and wedge my knees under a table a mere foot from the ground.
First, beverages! Our server zips around the table and sets down glasses – “Taiwan Beer” cups. They’re just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand and nearly wrap your fingers around. These tiny delights hold the perfect volume which keeps the beer flowing cold from the tallboy bottles of local hops.
In the center of each table is a ceramic cauldron boiling away. Floating on top are ribbons of porous sponge, which stoke my skepticism. Hmmm, that’s not terribly appetizing – we’re not off to a good start. But then come the meatballs – glorious pork meatballs. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do! Then a plate with a green hill of raw cabbage. Yes! A veggie favorite.
“Down at the bottom are pieces of duck,” TK reveals as he plops the meatballs into the pot at the adjoining table. “But don’t eat it yet, save it for the end. It adds more flavor.”
I follow TK’s lead adding the ingredients. I’ve doubled down on the cabbage in my table’s pot, using the giant ladle to carefully dunk in the mountain of crisp leaves. Soon the cabbage softens and lowers into the broth like quicksand. Time to eat? Not quite yet.
Spike the Punch
The finishing touch is a generous “dash” of booze. TK cracks the top of a clear glass bottle of rice whiskey and points to one waiting patiently on our table. My friend Wade grabs the whiskey and twists off the tin cap. TK empties half of his bottle into the pot as Wade attempts to do the same, but a hand shoots out and grabs his wrist. Stop the show!
Dan must first see if this alcoholic concoction is befit for us kings. His playful smirk subsides as he tips the bottle up and downs an honest chug. His eyes water ever so slightly and Dan coughs in jest, passes the bottle back with “Smooth!” Wade dumps the remainder into the soup. Let’s get started!
My first bowl is heavy on the cabbage with lengths of tofu floating at the top of the soup pot. As I chew the al dente cabbage, my eyes squint in full approval of the tangy broth. Oh, that’s nice! I reel in a tofu ribbon next. Mistake! The tofu’s ability to hold in the heat jolts my head back and my tongue reacts by juggling the scalding sponge around my mouth. Once it’s a grade below burning, I swallow it down. I’m gonna let this bowl cool off and come back to it. Three bowls later, I’m at the meaty center and a tender thigh is a reward for my soup sipping efforts. The drunken duck is everything I hoped for – a poultry delicacy saturated with a handful of savory flavors and, for some odd reason, rice whisky tones. Several magnificent bowls later, I realize I’ve outlasted the group and solemnly vow as I reach for the ladle that this is my last serving. Honest!
My friends are impressed with my soup gorging talents and stomach capacity. I slide the stool back and try to take a bow but freeing my thighs pressed up against the low-flying table proves difficult. I shake out my calves and restart my circulation with a few knee raises. “Klamner, you getting ready for a 100 yard dash?” Dan laughs.
“Nope,” I cackle back, raising both hands like I just won a Gold. “Just recovering from one of the single best feeds of my life!”
As I stand around with my arms in the air like a gloating fool, I feel tug on my patriotically loud USA board shorts. Two little girls, cute as buttons, are staring up at me like I’m the “Bieb” (Justin, that is). “Ni hao (hello),” the older sister squeaks and breaks her clasped hands with an accompanying wave. “Hey!” I say and kneel down. “Err, ni hao.” Time for the classic icebreaker, “Gimme five!” They both gently slap my palm. “On the side!” The girls connect once again. “Down low.” They both miss as I yank my hand away. “Too slow!” I joke as the kid sisters giggle away. Works every time.
Their eyes scream “Again!” But this time the clever little sister catches my fingertips on the “too slow” pull away. “Ahh!” I chuckle and point to the snickering duo, “You win!”
Even after dinner, the place is still hopping as I navigate the maze of tables on my way to the front desk. I’m on a mission of secure some of the little beer cups to take home. TK translates my request and the manager hands over a set of three on the house. I use my paper thin repertoire of Mandarin and thank her, “Xie xie!” I need one more item though, a red staff t-shirt with the restaurant logo on the chest – a flexing cartoon chicken with a Schwarzenegger chest. “TK, how much for one of their shirts?”
The manager looks upward and taps her temple with her index finger in deep thought over my odd request. She dashes off, but thirty seconds later and five dollars poorer, I’m the proud owner of a Bawei t-shirt – and it’s an XL, just my size.
My purchase comes with a condition though. I get to meet the kitchen staff and see how this Hot Pot operation goes down. I put on my official staff shirt and walk back there. I catch the prep cook off guard but give him a hand spooning out broth for new orders of deliciousness.
The real excitement is at the stove as flames are tickling the bottom of a wok that could feed a whole village. Strips of shredded meat boil away in a vat of duck fat and my arteries constrict. The cook passes the squash racquet spatula and I mix up the carnivorous delights. Thanks to my technique, oil splashes over the wok’s side and sizzles on the concrete inches from my toes. Probably not a good idea to be wearing flip flops on a slippery floor while playing with burning grease, so I quit while I’m ahead.
Get Out There!
This is why I love Taiwan – friendly people at every turn and a meal that’ll make me smile still in my grave. And oh yeah, great surfing too! Alas, after one washing back home, my beloved Bawei shirt shrunk. The only thing I can do is get back there, get another one, smash more duck soup and maybe even help out the cooks!