As a vegetarian, it was with great trepidation that I headed out for some dining, Taipei-style. Thankfully, there was plenty for me to chose. I should have realised early that I would be okay when I heard that one of the most famous and widely-available dishes is Stinky Tofu (yep, full marks to the guys in marketing for that one) - lightly fried chunks of tofu liberally coated in any one of a number of fairly innocuous seasonings. And tasty too. And only mildly stinky.
There was one style of eating here that I deeply feared, and it was with my hand held by one of my Taiwanese hosts that I ventured out to try my luck. From the outside, the place strikes fear into the heart of any vego, or indeed any person with functioning taste-buds and a sense of smell. Laid out before prospective-diners is a buffet-style table of ingredients, ready to be mixed together and fried. On offer is meats of all kinds - chicken, fish, beef, pork, random bits of fleshy brown things, something pink, a spotty black thing - as well as a few meek looking vegetables and some prefried tofu. From amongst this selection, I chose the latter few, hoping to put together a decent stir-fry from what the locals would consider only side-dishes.
Happy with my selection, the bowl of goddies was passed to The Frying Lady for, er, frying. In front of her was an enourmous tub, wide enough for most people to struggle to get their arms around, and bubbling inside a gooey, murky brown liquid which she occassionally replenished. The top part of the tub was divided into three parts, allowing up to three people's food to be cooked at once. The obvious outcome of all this, then, is that all the food is cooked in the same greasy, fatty oil, which as no where to escape and instead attaches itself to the food. Given the queue was 15 deep even at 11 o'clock at night, it's a scary thought to think of how long it had been since it was cleaned and the oil changed.
Finally, my vegetarian delight underwent its punishment, and emerged a couple of minutes later. Poking at the finished product with my chopsticks, I suddenly lost my previously-powerful appetite. Trying to coax my appetite back, I ate a few of the more innocent-looking pieces of broccali and mushroom from the top of the delicacy, and chewed on them desperate the find the flavour that the vegetables contained only a few minutes earlier. Alas, all things that come out of giant tub taste the same - a heavy, meaty, fatty, salty, oily stew. The actual ingredients selected have little effect on the taste of the finished product - instead they merely provide texture, and a vessel to carry the gooey goodness. Yummy.