I’m sitting in a café at a breakfast place right next to my apartment. I don’t know what you think of when I say breakfast place, but before coming to Taiwan, I probably would’ve thought of bacon, eggs, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches, etc. But this place – a chain called JSP – has pictures of an anthropomorphized hamburger as its mascot.
You can get a burger for breakfast. In fact, all of the places I’ve seen, besides McDonalds and Burger King, that serve burgers are exclusively breakfast/brunch cafes.
It’s brunch time here at the JSP. When I walked in I was hailed by a chorus of “ni haos” from the women behind the counter fryin’ up eggs and burgers. I already like this place because their menu has pictures AND numbers. I say #3 while holding up three fingers and sit down.
I don’t have my phone on me and I can’t understand the news program playing on the TV, so I just sit and people watch. Three girls are taking selfie after selfie from different angles. Two boys are sitting opposite each other, eyes and fingers on their phones. A man with an attaché case eats his dumplings without looking away from his Samsung. Two kids play by the entrance while their mother chats with the café managers.
This is probably the closest I’ll get to a Panera-like atmosphere in Keelung. In the States, if I was hungry and wanted a break from dining halls or cooking for myself, I’d get over to a Panera or similar soup and salad and sandwich shop, maybe bring a book, and just sit and read and people watch while sipping some lemonade and decompressing.
The server brings my #3, which has dumplings, mini-hot dogs, a potato cake, and a sweetened milk tea. It’s all quite good and I scarf it down within minutes. However, the dumplings aren’t as good as this shop near the school I teach at. JSP’s taste like they were cooked on a fryer after being frozen. But the shop near the school… Mmmmmmm. Freshly steamed with some ginger on top. I’ve been at that place every night that it’s been open after school, eating dumplings for dinner and working on my plans for the next day. Like JSP, it has a nice place to sit while you’re eating.
So maybe I can find the Panera atmosphere in Keelung, it’ll just take a while to adjust and find my favorite spots. Like how freshman and sophomore year at Princeton I was all about Panera. But as I got to know Princeton, I fell in love with the egg and avocado breakfast sandwiches served ALL DAY* at the Princeton Soup and Sandwich company. The only difference here in Keelung is I must find my local favorites without a Panera safety net.
*It is incredibly rare to find a place that serves breakfast sandwiches ALL DAY. I don’t understand it. I don’t tolerate it. I tolerate a lot of things in this world, but not being able to serve an egg and cheese sandwich all day… I do not abide.
But good luck finding a sandwich! The only sandwich I’ve seen is something called a nutritious sandwich. Don’t let the name fool you! It is anything but nutritious. Ham and cucumbers (I think?) SMOTHERED in mayonnaise (that’s a deal breaker) and placed in a white bread roll. Other food served on the street comes mostly in the form of noodle soups or cooked pieces of meat. Some of these shops are just carts, while others are carts in front of places to sit, so you can take your food to go or eat in.
The latter is where I ate my first night out in Keelung. You might remember from a previous post, I had seafood soup. One probably I encountered was “How do I eat the shrimp?” In the U.S., when you order something with shrimp in it, it usually comes decapitated. Sometimes even the tail has been chopped off and you’re left with just the meaty middle parts. In this soup, the full shrimp was chucked in, and I thought: “Do I eat the thing whole? Or do I not eat the head?” I didn’t want to not eat the head and potentially disrespect the lady who had graciously cooked me the soup instead of just ignoring me when I couldn’t speak Chinese. Like any scientist, I thought: “Okay, I’m going to try to eat one whole shrimp and see how it goes. If it’s fine, I’ll eat them all whole.”
As soon as I put the shrimp on my tongue, I knew this would not go well. Here’s the rundown of what happened:
Chitin: What am I doing in your mouth?!?
Erisa: I’m not sure! I thought I was supposed to eat you!
Chitin: You know mouth is not made for this.
Erisa: I know! I know!
Chitin: Good luck swallowing me.
Erisa: I’m just going to keep chewing and try and break you down as much as I can.
Chitin: Enjoy the discomfort I’ve caused in your mouth. Let this be a lesson to you and anything else that tries to eat me. Don’t do it.
So I decided to not eat the head of the other shrimps, but I still ate the body, legs, and tail so I figured that was a good compromise. And I also finished all the soup, just left the heads behind. The soup was great actually; I just couldn’t eat the heads.
Recently I went out for soup again. I got a noodle soup with squid (as Keelung is a port city, the seafood here is incredibly fresh), bean sprouts (YUM), some spices (no clue which), and what I’m guessing is sassafras leaves (probably this local variety which would explain the abundance of sassafras colas I’ve seen people drinking). Slurping down the hot noodles, I could feel the sweat collecting on my face in this already hot and humid environment. But I didn’t care. It was delicious.
People here have asked me about the food, saying Taiwanese people love food and love to eat. I tell them I like the food – because I do – but it seems like there’s not enough variety for me. I went out to eat with my colleagues and their friends, and one man – a Taiwanese native who had recently visited The States – said: “I lived in Keelung for 30 years and thought the food was great. But I miss American food! All the variety! Here I choose either rice or noodles.” I nodded my head and gave him some spoken word poetry snaps. PREACH.
But now I’m thinking: am I just not looking hard enough? There’s hot pot and Korean BBQ, pastry shops (although the sweets are not as sweet as in the U.S.; I miss my good old high fructose corn syrup cupcakes while here, a bean is considered a sweet), and all these other types of food items on the streets at the night market. Am I just thinking there’s not variety because it’s not the variety I’m used to? Am I blind to the variation just as an American may mistake a Kenyan for a Ghanaian despite the fact the genetic diversity within humans from Africa is greater than the genetic diversity across all the other continents*? (BOOM: I’ve accomplished the task of dropping some evolutionary biology knowledge into a blog post about Taiwanese food.)
But all I want is a sandwich.
At work, my colleague pulls out half a HUGE avocado and asks: “does anyone want this?” Umm… YES.
I look at the salad she’s brought for lunch and gape at the SPROUTS. She explains she got them at the Wellcome – a grocery store.
Avocado, sprouts, bread. You’ve got a sandwich going.
I think I’ll be fine.
*I learned this in a class sophomore year, but a recent sweep of the internet suggests this may no longer be true! What is the point of learning if everything is constantly changing?!? Oh… yeah… that’s the point of learning how to love learning. Anyway, if any EVO BIO people want to weigh in in the comments section, that’d be much appreciated.