On the dainty porcelain plate lay an invaluable treasure. The priceless Jade Cabbage - the most precious artifact in Taipei's National Palace Museum (NPM). The green of the cabbage was enticing; the tiny locust and katydid perched on the curled bokchoy leaf mesmerizing. I looked at the Ch'ing dynasty jadeite cabbage and held on to my fork. And my breath. I did not have the heart to push the fork into something so exquisite. No one puts a price tag to this objet d'art. I hazarded a guess. Perhaps a million, Perhaps two. Perhaps countless millions. Perhaps priceless.
In Silks Palace, a 5-star restaurant abutting the NPM, the Imperial Banquet was laid. The jadeite cabbage was edible - it is an exact replica of the priceless cabbage that sits behind glass in the museum. That day in Taipei the cabbage, however, was not the only artifact on the mahogany table. If you order an Imperial Banquet, you get replicas of national art treasures - the copper Ting Cauldron filled with soup made of quail eggs, bamboo shoot, abalone, Jinhua ham, pork tendon stewed for hours and topped with shark fin; Ch'ing dynasty's meat loaf; a curio shelf with a bean curd duck, jelly of turtle carapace, peaches made of sticky rice. At the Silks Palace, food is art fest.
The art fest did not for long, though. My food adventure in Taipei went down the john. Literally. I shoved, pushed, jostled in the Ximending market looking for the ‘toilet' restaurant and their famous shaved-ice desserts: diarrohea with dried droppings (chocolate), bloody poop (strawberry), green dysentery (kiwi). The scatological names spooked me out but I was in mood for a little irreverence and stepped into the Modern Toilet, a restaurant where pasta, curries, fried chicken, and hot pot are served in mini toilet bowls, drinks in plastic urinals and desserts in squat pots. Here, lamps are shaped like poop, painted WC lids hang on the walls, a bath tub serves as a table and everyone sits on stylish acrylic pots (lid down, of course). The decor is jumpy, flavours palatable, the price reasonable. But no, I cannot have lunch on a john. Never.
The image of sauce dripping from a mini pot was swirling in my head and to erase that I opted for dim sums in Din Tai Fung, the xiaolongbao (steamed dim sum) restaurant that was rated by The New York Times among the top 10 restaurants in the world. In Din, dumplings are not only about pounding, kneading, wrapping, folding, steaming, it is about the art of tasting. First, with chopsticks, delicately take the xiaolongbao by the tip and place it on the china spoon without breaking the pastry. The first dim sum is had without the sauce. Dip the second dim sum in ginger-spiced vinegar... Not as simple a chore as I thought! Here, waitresses seem to be on a fast-forward mode and food lands on the table even before you blink. I forgave the speed and the noise; the dim sums were awesome, though I still cannot pronounce xiaolongbao in one long breath!
Food adventure in Taipei in incomplete without a walk in the various night markets where food can be as bizarre as your palate can afford to. In the Sanke Alley, you can order dishes made of snake/turtle blood; in Shi Lin market, oyster omelettes and squid stew are a rage; in Shida, get the don hua (dessert that looks like tofu and served with peanuts) and Taiwanese sausage. There's stinky tofu, wasabi peas, suncakes with a heart of molasses, coffin bread filled with pepper beef or curried chicken, bubble tea. So many snacks. So many delicacies that one could go breathless counting them all.
At Shi Lin Market, I suddenly remembered what Confucius had said: Never eat without ginger. Never eat too much. The wise man is always right. I picked up a packet of luscious guavas, sprinkled plum salt on it and merged with the nocturnal crowd. From imperial to the streetsy, I savoured it all that one day in Taipei.