Sokcho: Seafood by the Seaside

My pork/chicken dominated food blog is now being taken over by seafood. Korea really does change people.

I’m starting to understand now. I’m starting to understand the obsession that drives my people to swarm Sydney’s fish markets every weekend, illegally harvest pippies at the beach, and risk their lives rock-fishing before the sun rises. Noryangjin Market is great, but there’s something different about eating seafood with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the water. Even though I’m told (by cynical party-poopers) that coastal seafood markets are tourist traps where prices are higher and most of the products are imported from other countries anyway, the sheer novelty and fun of pigging out on seafood on a seaside holiday is not to be underestimated!

Sokcho is a city on the eastern coast of Korea, most well-known for its proximity to Seorak Mountain, and is mainly used as base for travelers who want to hike during the day and sleep in affordable “pension” style accommodation at night. I went with my bestie to admire the autmnal colors of Seorak in October, and taste the all-year-round delights of the Sokcho seafood markets.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and just wandered around exploring the area, looking for something to snack on before dinner. We found a decent looking restaurant and just ordered some stuffed squid (ojingeo sundae). Regular sundae is a Korean street food staple, and is a simple blood sausage filled with noodles. Ojingeo sundae is a little fancier and is stuffed with a mix of squid tentacles, vegetables, meat, and sticky rice. This one was served “jeon” style, meaning it was covered in egg and pan-fried. We all know that jeon-style is my favorite style.

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Nom.

We were staying near Daepo-hang, which is a port on the southern end of Sokcho city. It has its own markets, and since they were walking distance from our pension, we decided to go there for dinner instead of the central fish markets in Sokcho.

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The market is just one, long enclosed lane that wraps around the inlet, both sides lined by seafood vendors and restaurants with no discernible differences between them.

This place operates a little differently to Noryangjin. Each shop is also a restaurant: fish tanks in the front, tables and seating in the back. The shopkeepers have also conveniently put together little baskets that include a variety of fish and other sea creatures, and sell them at a package price.

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This is very handy when you’re a tourist who has no idea what tastes good or what anything is called. We went for the little green basket in the corner, minus the squid, for around 40,000 Won.

We also considered taking the mung gae (or sea pineapple) out too, one of the many strange, alien-like sea critters that Koreans like to eat for reasons that are still a mystery to me. But we thought we may as well try it since it is such a well-loved Korean delicacy.

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It came out sliced up and looking even nastier than it does whole. I mean, look at that. It looks like something that was blown out of a whale’s bloody nose. And it tastes like it too – like a chewy, saltwater-soaked, whale booger. Ugh. Never again. (EatYourKimchi share my distaste and quite accurately named it “Satan’s booger”)

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Here is the sliced, raw flesh of the two fishies we bought. Delicious, but a gets a bit tedious after the first ten slices.

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A meal of raw fish must end with maeuntang, which is my favorite part. Never disappoints.

Tummies full and looking for something to eat for dessert, we came across the Wonjo Twi-Gim Gol-Mok, which roughly translates to the Wonjo Alley of Deep Fried Delights!

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It’s a mini-market that sells a variety of deep-fried Korean favorites – but the main attraction are the jumbo prawns.

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Like all Korean markets, the stores sell basically the same thing so we chose one at random and ordered a couple of things.

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Yes we had just had a really big dinner… but you don’t find an alley full of deep-fried prawns and just walk away empty handed!! That would go against everything I believe in.

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We got two of the largest-sized prawns (deep-fried whole, with shells still on). Korean twigim is a bit heavier than tempura – the batter is quite thick and very crispy. The thing in the background is a deep-fried perilla leaf… which totally counts as salad, right?

The next day we went hiking in Seorak Mountain. Hiking in Korea is really special, not just because of our many beautiful mountains and the dream-like autumn foliage, but also because of our very unique “hiking culture.” Korean hiking culture involves men and women, middle aged and upwards, who spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars on professional hiking attire and gear (hiking boots, pants, shirts, jackets, gloves, sticks, hats, everything – head to toe, the more brightly coloured, the better), and join clubs where they hike different mountains with a group of very similar people every single weekend. These guys are no joke. They’re the first ones to arrive at the mountain and the last ones to leave. As we were huffing and puffing up the easy, half-day track we had chosen, this technicolor army stormed past us in the opposite direction, on the final stretch of a trek that started at 4am and had reached the peak at noon.

I’m not really sure what fuels their passion – it could really be a love for the mountains and a desire to stay fit… but I also suspect that they just like to show off their expensive hiking gear and get drunk on makgoli (Korean rice wine) in the open air.

There are many makgoli pit-stops along every hike… which I don’t quite understand because national park + mountain + drunk hikers does not seem like a good mix to me… but you know, give the people what they want.

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They also sell pajeon (seafood pancake) as an drinking snack and it smelled so good we couldn’t resist it on the way back down from our hike.

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Demolishing a pajeon in the mountains after a good hike is just glorious. Didn’t get any makgoli because I really, really hate it. I think it tastes worse than soju, which says A LOT.

On our last day, we walked to the port near the bus terminal to find something to eat for lunch. We really wanted to have king crab, which is THE THING to eat when you’re in Sokcho, but it’s so expensive in not justifiable between only two people. We found a row of abalone restaurants that looked pretty legit, so we decided to try one out. We ordered grilled fish and seafood ttukbaegi (clay pot).

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I used to hate Korean grilled fish. It just seemed so small, bony, and inferior in flavour compared to the salmon, trout, snapper and barrumandi that’s readily available in Sydney. I never ate it. I didn’t even count it as meat. But now, thanks to the Koreanisation of my taste buds, I freaking love it. I don’t even know the names of these three fish, but I’ve fallen in love with the dry yet oily, salty and slightly smoky flavor that all Korean grilled fish has.

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Perfect with rice, gim (seaweed) and a little bit of ssamjang.

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The ttukbaegi came out overflowing with all sorts of shellfish – prawns, clams, muscles, and a seashell that was so pretty I couldn’t bear to eat the rubbery little mollusc inside it.

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The main event, however, was the abalone. Believe it or not, this was my first time eating one. I guess with my general lack of enthusiasm for seafood and high price tag attached to abalone, I never got around to trying it. And while it looks really ugly, like a giant cooked slug, I kind of understand what the fuss is about. It has this perfect texture which is neither rubbery (like squid), mushy (like oysters), or grainy (like muscles), and has a really pleasant, mild taste.

So that was Sokcho, and also the final Korean eating adventure I would go on with my bestie, who’s back in Sydney now. This one’s for you, babe ;)

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Christmas Turkey: a Retrospective

It’s almost Christmas, which means it’s almost time for my annual roast turkey feast. Except that this year, I don’t have an oven. Little bit of Korean household trivia for you: the kitchens in this country generally don’t include ovens. It is partly a space issue but is also due to the fact that while Koreans like to fry, steam, braise, boil and pickle, they do not bake or roast. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest shortcomings of Korean society. A messed up education system, rampant gender inequality, and ovenlessness is what is really keeping us back as a nation.

So to help me grieve over the fact that I can’t roast a turkey this year (it actually really upsets me and makes me not want to celebrate Christmas at all), I thought I would write a “turkey retrospective” of sorts and also share the tips and techniques that I have learnt in the art of turkey roasting over the years.

As you will have seen from the few cooking posts I’ve published on this blog, as much as I love food, cooking is not something that comes naturally to me. But there is one notable exception: turkey roasting. I OWN turkey roasting. I would happily and confidently go against Martha, Nigella, Maggie, and Jamie in a turkey roast-off and I would SLAY THEM ALL. My annual roast turkey is famous. By famous I mean renowned and praised amongst family and friends which is as famous as anything I do will ever get, so yes, FAMOUS. My dad even spoke about my turkey in his Father of the Bride speech at my wedding. My turkey is the shiz and ya’ll should listen up to everything I have to say because I am the definitive WORD on turkey roasting.

But before I impart my sage advice with you all, I should probably provide some photographic evidence of my turkey roasting prowess. So here it is, 2008-2014 A Turkey Retrospective.

2008: “Challenge Accepted!”

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In Australia, Christmas dinners traditionally involve barbequed steaks, snags, and skewers and a big bowl of fresh prawns. Roast turkey isn’t actually that common, and is an idea that has been completely stolen from the Amuuurrrcans. In 2008, a group of friends and I had the wild idea of making turkey dinner for Christmas. It was novel, it was ambitious, it was a challenge to make a Christmas dinner that would slaughter all other Christmas dinners. And I took it on with gusto. The above may look a bit rough, but it was a result of hours of research, about ten combined recipes, a full day in the kitchen, and pure, extravagant love. Serving around twelve people, it’s the biggest turkey I’ve ever made, and the most memorable. We made it and ate it not even knowing what a roast turkey was meant to taste like, but it blew all our minds and ruined all future Christmases because we all knew that no Christmas dinner in our remaining lifetimes would taste as glorious as this one did.

2009-2010: “The Dark Ages” 

No photo records exist of these turkeys because we were too hungry and excited to eat them to waste time taking photos. They did exist, you need to trust me on this one.

2011: “InstaTurkey” 

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This year I followed a Neil Perry recipe that introduced me the miracle of stuffing a turkey’s skin as well as the cavity. I never looked back. This is why the turkey looks so swollen and bloated, like it just binged on its own Christmas dinner.

2012: “Crispy Skinned Chicken Turkey”  

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I used a stuffing recipe for roast chicken because it included parmesan and parmesan makes all things better. The cheese also had the pleasant side effect of making the turkey skin deliciously crispy. Oh, and perfectly roasted potatoes.

2013: “Mastering the Art”

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One of the best things about roast turkey is how photogenic it is. Look at that heart shaped breast, those shapely thighs, the red-brown glow of the skin.

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From all angles, she is a beauty.

Now, I send you forth to cook your own turkeys in remembrance of me, who will be spending this Christmas ovenless and turkeyless. To help you on your journey, I will generously impart my invaluable expertise with you all.

1. Don’t be intimidated. 

There is an urban legend going around that roasting a turkey is “difficult” or requires “skills.” DO NOT BELIEVE THE LIES. Preparing and stuffing the turkey takes less than an hour and the oven does the rest of the work. Yes, you do need be at home to monitor the bird and baste it at regular intervals, but most of the time is just spent waiting. Use it as an opportunity to read a thick novel or binge-watch The Mindy Project. You could even do something more productive, like prepare sides and dessert.

2. Buy a good bird. 

The frozen turkeys at the supermarket do the job, but if you want to take this seriously, you need to see your local poultry specialist and order a fresh, free range turkey. To help you decide how big you need the bird to be, you can use one of many size guides available online. I usually get a 6-7kg turkey regardless of the number of people I’m serving because when it comes to turkey, SIZE MATTERS, and the bigger the bird, the bigger the impact. It takes longer to cook, but who cares, carrying the finished product out of the oven and having all your guests bow down to your domestic goddess status makes it totally worth it.

3. To brine or not to brine? 

Most Americans I talk to seem to think that brining the turkey is an essential step. I can see how brining can add to the flavor and moisture level of a turkey, but I’ve never brined and I’ve never had any problems. Prepping and cooking a turkey already takes a FULL day, so spending additional time making a luxurious salt bath for your bird seems to be taking the joke too far. My advice is, don’t bother. You can make a perfectly delicious and moist turkey without it.

4. Go nuts with the stuffing 

Stuffing is something that is foolproof, easy to make, and for which there are THOUSANDS of recipes online. This means you can just have fun with it and experiment. A quick review of a few stuffing recipes will help you realize that stuffing is basically just whatever you want + stale bread. Seriously, anything goes: from gourmet (wild rice and goat cheese stuffing) to dude-food (tortilla chip chorizo stuffing), to gluten free (quinoa stuffing). Sausage-based stuffings seem quite popular, and I’ve tried it once but didn’t really like it because I feel like heavy meat in your stuffing distracts from the taste of the turkey. Bacon, however, is completely acceptable. As are all bacon-like cured meats such as pancetta and prosciutto. Also, CHEESE. My current go-to stuffing is based on this recipe and includes all the classic components plus parmesan cheese and chopped pancetta. I’m not a huge fan of nuts, but I’ll add some walnuts to please the crowd. My favorite herb for stuffing is sage, because it smells heavenly.

5. Stuff EVERYTHING 

When I learned that you could stuff the skin of a turkey as well as the cavity, this really changed the game. It elevated my turkey from amazing to mind-blowing and I’ve never looked back. You need to be little bit careful when separating the skin from the breast to create a pocket, but the fatty turkey skin is pretty resilient. Stuffing the skin has the quintuple effect of:

1. Adding flavor to the breast meat.
2. Making people more excited about eating the meat meat, which has a hard time competing with the dark meat.
3. Keeping the breast meat moist.
4. (If you use my parmesan recipe) Causing the skin to crisp up and go a gorgeous brown color.
5. Acting like breast implants and giving the turkey a plump, fuller, more youthful look.

One year, I used Neil Perry’s ricotta stuffed turkey recipe and it was a real hit. It wasn’t quite salty enough for my liking, but this was one of my more popular turkeys.

6. Trussing is NOT optional 

If you do not truss your turkey, you will end up with wings splayed, legs spread-eagled, with a crusty bulge of stuffing bursting out from the cavity. Luckily, I did not learn this the hard way, I learnt this from laughing at other people’s mistakes. Your turkey is meant to be photogenic, not pornographic. Please, protect your turkey’s modesty. Plus, trussing a turkey is super easy if you follow a helpful instructional video like this. I would always kindly ask the butcher next to my poultry supplier for a length of butcher’s string, but really, any clean, strong, string will do.

7. The Three “B”s: Bacon, Butter, and Basting 

The no.1 fear that people have about cooking a turkey is the fact that it “dries out easily.” And I’ll admit, dry turkey meat is nasty. It tastes like a hybrid construction material made from cardboard and rubber. But keeping the meat moist is really not as hard as people make it out to be. A lot of recipes will give you different tips and techniques on how to do this, but the key is to just do all of it at once. Everything that anyone tells you about keeping the turkey moist and tender: do it all. This will guarantee succulent, juicy turkey every single time. Here’s what I do:

1. Cover the turkey in bacon. This will flavor the skin as well as keep the breast from drying out. Also, you can eat the baked bacon as a snack later on.

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2. Go to town with the butter. People talk about how turkey is a “lean meat” but you need to un-lean that baby until its fattier than a Krispy Kreme donut. I usually buy two sticks and melt one down to pour and brush over the bird before it goes into the oven, and then I chop up the other one and squeeze as much of it under the skin of the breast as will fit.

3. Baste every 30 minutes. This is probably the hardest part of cooking a turkey, because just getting a 6kg bird out of the oven every half hour is a big effort, but don’t get lazy. It’s essential. Most Aussies don’t have access to a proper baster, so I just used my pastry brush to cover the turkey with the fatty juices and butter pooling at the bottom of the pan.

4. Keep the turkey loosely covered in foil until the final hour of roasting, when you can take it off to let the turkey brown. This is a bit fiddly, especially when basting, but I believe plays a big part in preventing dry-out.

5. Roast at the correct temp for the correct amount of time. BBC Good food have this really nifty roast time calculator that looks pretty accurate. To test that it’s fully cooked, just stab it with a skewer and if the juices run clear, it’s ready!

8. SAUCE!  

When I made my first turkey, I wanted cranberry sauce because it’s traditional, but I also wanted gravy because GRAVY. Then I came across this recipe for cranberry gravy and I loved it so much that I have used it every single year since. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it. Merry Christmas and happy turkey roasting! And in times of doubt, always remember:

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Everything Else I Ate in Taiwan (Yong Kang Street and Din Tai Fung)

My husband and I had conflicting agendas for our trip to Taiwan. His was “Sleep” and mine was “Eat.” In our five day trip, I had breakfast by myself three times. Who chooses sleep over complimentary, luxury hotel, buffet breakfast?! Makes no sense to me, but it did show how much my poor hubby needed some good rest. So in the battle between “Sleep” and “Eat”, I let Sleep win… most of the time.

We arrived at our hotel in Taipei in the early afternoon and after dropping off our luggage I was ready to GO! GO! GO! LET OUR EATING ADVENTURES BEGIN! But Matt crawled into the bed and curled up in a “I have no intention of leaving here any time soon” kind of way.

“FINE. But I’m setting the alarm for 8pm and then you and I are going OUT!” I said, in a “If you don’t wake up, I’m leaving you here alone and I may never come back” kind of way.

Thankfully (for our marriage) Matt managed to wake up and we headed out to Yong Kang Street, a vibrant little area full of restaurants, cafes, little shops and young people.

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It is home of the original Din Tai Fung and also the famous Yong Kang Beef Noodle.

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The 50-year-old restaurant had a nice line outside it – long enough for you to feel confident that “Yes! This is where it’s at!” and short enough for you to happily wait without getting hangry.

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The line moved incredibly fast, because this is the kind of place where you slurp your noodles, pay your bill and leave – no loitering. While famous for its beef noodle soup, the Chinese menu had a lot of items and the people sitting around us looked like they were enjoying a variety of side dishes alongside their noodles.

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The English menu, however, was just a one-pager with nine items. We wanted to try something a bit different so we ordered the steamed pork spareribs (not quite adventurous enough for the steamed large intestines).

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This was really good! Tasty streamed rice and spareribs, and some surprise sweet potato hiding underneath.

And then, the main event:

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Dang. My mouth waters even now just looking at that photo. More than anything we were exciting about those MASSIVE chunks of super-soft beef! It felt like so long since we’d had beef because it’s so crazy expensive in Korea. We live off white meat – which I’m fine with – but seeing a whole steak’s worth of red meat sitting on top of the noodles… we were both very  very happy.

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The broth is actually quite mild, despite its dark-red colour, and the noodles are thick but light and so easy to slurp up. I am a soup-noodle fiend so this was one of my personal favourites from our trip – especially because it’s so unique to Taiwan. Apparently all the famous beef noodle places make their noodles slightly differently, and I wish I could have tried some other restaurants but as I mentioned before, sleep > eat.

We were pretty full, but my friend had recommended a really good Taiwanese-style pop corn chicken place and I was determined to find it. She said to look for the place with the chicken giving a big thumbs up.

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Found it!

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But everything was in Chinese and only Chinese! We were so confused, just staring at the different types of battered items for ages with no idea what any of them were. We gave up and just asked the lady, “Fried chicken?” and she understood. They also had a big photo of what was obviously fried cheese, so we ordered that too. Then she had to enlist the help of the girl next door to ask us what kind of seasoning we wanted, and we opted for chilli and garlic. After that ordeal, she told us we had to wait 20 minutes, so we took a stroll around the street and came back to collect.

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THUMBS UP PRO!! FRIED CHICKEN!

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Okay, the photo really does not do any justice to how freaking delicious this was. TFC (Taiwanese Fried Chicken) really gives KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) a run for its money – I LOVE how the batter is light, ultra crispy and then seasoned with a really generous amount of flavoured salts. Garlic and chilli was definitely a good choice. And the fried cheese! Fried cheese NEVER disappoints. NEVER. It is one of the most reliably delightful foods in the world.

We concluded our evening with a visit to the famous mango shaved ice dessert at Smoothie House. This was one of the things EVERYONE I spoke to recommended as a “Must Eat” but I was somewhat skeptical. It’s just mango shaved ice – I can get this at any cafe in Korea. How good can it be?

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A wink and a thumbs up must be the Taiwanese symbol for “You can trust us for best and delicious foods!” There were a few things to choose from, but we went for the panna cotta mango shaved ice.

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How good does that look??? Soft, delicate snowflakes of shaved ice, huge chunks of FRESH MANGO and a little cap of panna cotta on top.

So, just to give you all a bit of context, prior to this trip I had spent my entire summer eating shaved ice. Korean summers are stinking hot, and nothing quite refreshes like a big bowl of bingsoo. I’d had red bean bingsoo, green tea bingsoo, royal milk tea bingsoo, black sesame bingsoo, strawberry bingsoo, blueberry bingsoo, mango bingsoo, five-grain bingsoo, lemon bingsoo, oreo bingsoo, cheesecake bingsoo… and I could go on. I’d tried all types and textures, from crunchy, chunky ice, to melt-in-your-mouth shaved milk.

This depth of experience makes me feel qualified to award this Taiwanese mango shaved ice with the official, coveted crown of:

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In the sub-categories: Mango beats strawberries, blueberries and bananas for best fruit topping. Panna cotta beats yogurt, ice cream, soft serve and whipped cream for best dairy topping. And snowflake shaved ice beats snowflake shaved milk and coarsely ground ice for best texture. All-round perfection.

And you don’t even need to go all the way to Taiwan to taste it – Smoothie House has branches in Korea! But sadly they’re all in Busan. I’m hoping it’s only a matter of time before they expand to Seoul – but even if not, Busan is only a 2 hour train ride away!

We saved Din Tai Fung for our last day in Taipei. We had arranged to meet Matt’s cousin and his friend which was awesome because between four people we could get so much more variety. Din Tai Fung between two people is not very exciting.

We arrived at the Taipei 101 branch of the restaurant to find this ridiculously large crowd of people.

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And then we were told there was a 90 minute wait. SERIOUSLY?! For a chain restaurant that has been around for years and has plenty of branches around Taipei city?? I couldn’t believe it – but I’m told this is pretty normal, particularly for the Taipei 101 branch.

We went all the way up and down the second tallest building in the world and came back at around 3pm to eat lunch.

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The restaurant is HUGE – like, bigger than your average food court huge. We sat down, and wrote down all our orders for the waiter to come and pick up. When he looked at our order he started talking to our cousin’s friend like something was wrong and my heart sank thinking “Omg… they haven’t run out of XiaoLongBao have they? Impossible!”

When he left I asked whether something was wrong. Turns out the waiter just thought that we had ordered too much food and suggested we remove some things from our order. Luckily, our Taiwanese friend had the wisdom to assure him it was okay and that we’d be able to eat everything. I laughed. PUHLEASE. Just look at us! Any good waiter would see that these fatties could eat the entire menu.

Since Din Tai Fung is available all over the world, I won’t bore you with a dish-by-dish account of our meal. Here’s a collage of the twelve dishes that we ate.

I am kind of ashamed to admit this, but this was my favourite meal from Taiwan. Ashamed because when I said this to my Taiwanese friend she took personal offence and informed me that Din Tai Fung is “not real Taiwanese food.” Real or not, I am in love with Xiao Long Bao and might even go so far as to say it’s my all-time favourite dumpling. I also really liked the pickled cucumber and potstickers. And I know its a franchise but I swear it tasted better than Sydney’s DTF and you can’t even compare it with Seoul’s DTF, which really sucks.

Before I end my Taiwanese food story, I want to add one more thing I forgot to include in my previous street food post. Of all the things I tried, the little street snack I actually liked the most this fried quail egg on a stick.

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The eggs are cracked into those little moulds, fried and then flipped over to cook the other side like Takoyaki balls. They skewer three onto a stick and drizzle salty soy-like sauce on top. So good! I bought one stick, ate it while I walked, and then we happened to pass another guy selling them, so I bought one more. This doesn’t seem to be a very famous snack, and maybe I only liked it because I’m such an egg-addict, but I wish someone would set up a cart like this outside my house so I could eat it on my way to work and again on my way back in.

And that is all! I didn’t get to eat everything on my list, but what’s more important is that my husband and I had a wonderful, relaxing holiday… well that’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

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