Today I went to a special lunch. A lunch in the honor of myself and the other Taiwanese Luce Scholar, E. the Asia Foundation in Taiwan in Taiwan staff wanted to meet us, and we wanted to meet them. This was the perfect opportunity, but let me tell you: sometimes Rolaids just aren’t enough for a meal as special as this one was.
I went to sleep last night with a vicious headache. This happens from time to time for me, and often the headaches stick around for days or even weeks no matter how strong the medicine I treat them with is. Last night I managed to sleep it off.
A Family-Style Meal
Lunch got off to a good start. I’m able to sit next to the VP of the Foundation, named Sue. I had met Sue briefly earlier this week, and liked her from the start. She and I begin to chit-chat, and she and another AFIT woman order food for our table. Many of the Taiwan restaurants we’ve been to this week are family style, and this one is no exception.
The Excedrin I took two hours ago has kicked in, and my headache is gone. The side effect of the Excedrin combined with the severe headache has left me nauseous and shaky. I’m meeting new people though, so I’m trying to ignore my jitteriness and upset stomach.
A Bloated Fish with Eyes
Dish number arrives at the table. The waiter sets it on the table, and I realize there is a fish that looks like it’s rotted in a gutter staring at me. He’s varying shades of brown and black, and his bloated stomach has sort of burst open.
Inside, I find out later, are thousands of cooked fish eggs. I’m also told that I can eat the whole fish. It’s been cooked so well that the bones and gills (still attached) are tender enough to eat. Someone puts some on my plate, and my sense of cultural sensitivity (and of adventure) tell me I need to try this absolutely disgusting looking dish.
I tell myself that I’m not looking into the eyes of my dinner, and that I don’t know what this food actually is. I put it in my mouth and am pleasantly surprised to find that the texture is not as horrible as I’d expected it to be. The flavor, however, is worse than I could have imagined. I could have eaten a goldfish straight out of the tank at Wal-Mart and it may have had a less-fishy flavor.
I don’t even like fish. I can’t help but take note that this is where my sense of adventure takes me.
Eating This Will Kill Me (Food Allergies in Taiwan)
Early in the meal I tell Sue that I’m very allergic to shellfish. I have already learned to clarify two things in Taipei: First, that shellfish is shrimp, prawn (what they call shrimp here), crab, lobster, clam, etc. Second, that “eating this will kill me.”
Asian people don’t have a clear understanding most of the time of food allergies, and mine is not to be messed around with. So when the tofu dish is brought to the table, I’m told it’s fine for me to eat. “Just tofu.”
I accept some, and politely refuse several other dishes that contain shellfish (mostly shrimp/prawn). As i prepare to taste the tofu dish, Sue says, “That’s just tofu. You can eat it. The sauce has crab in it, but the tofu isn’t shellfish.”
Needless to say, I don’t eat the tofu. Like I said, they don’t really “get” food allergies here. I explain to them that the last time I ate shrimp, my heart stopped. They looked confused, then shocked. I guess that living their whole lives on an island makes the idea of “fish allergy” as foreign to them as Chinese is to me.
Not Your Daddy’s BBQ
The kicker is the dish that at first looks much like the ribs my parents eat a lot at home. The dish comes out, with a barbeque-like sauce on top of some sort of red meat.
Until two months ago, I avoided meat completely. In Taiwan, if I avoid meat and shellfish, I won’t have anything left to eat. Long story short, this plate looked less foreign than the whole fish or most of the other foods, so I am excited to eat it.
The meat is to be eaten in a sort of mini-hamburger bun. It’s a mildly sweet roll with sesame seeds on top. I’m told how to put the meat inside the roll and eat it like a burger. I do exactly that. As I take my first bite, E exclaims excitedly, “Oh, is this pig’s stomach?!”
Indeed, I quickly learn, it is.
Twelve hours, another (less adventurous) meal, and several Rolaids later, I’m still having to concentrate not to vomit. Welcome to my world. Are you jealous yet?
Originally written and published on my blog, A Year in Taipei on September 7, 2006.
I wrote more than 300 blog posts during my year in Taipei, Taiwan. I don’t know yet how many of those posts I’ll recreate on MilliGFunk.com, but for now, at least, you can come back on Thursdays for a #ThrowbackThursday to my #YearInTaipei.