Taiwan goodies: mi jian (蜜餞)

Dried fruit are a popular snack in Taiwanese culture, and you will often see people sucking on sweet and sour dried plums, called “sour plums”. We stopped by a little store near Tainan that sold dozens of varieties of dried fruits, all made in-house

There were raisins, plums, guavas, papayas, mangoes, and more. Little tupperware cylinders were set over each one, tempting any buyer to try a taste. My favorite were the semi-dried guava (like dried fruit, but retained with a little more of their wetness) and the sticky semi-dried pomelo peel, and the dried sour plums, of course.

Shrimp Rolls

In a city with such a diverse history of immigration, trade, and consequently the mingling of various cultures, Tainan surprisingly retains a strong regional sense. Think of the pride that SF’ers talk about the Bay Area, or the way New Yorkers boast about the Big Apple, or how Chicagoans are so proud of the wind and unnatural living condition that they call Winter. That’s the sort of boasting that occurs in Tainan, perhaps most apparent in its pride for its local dishes.

Shrimp rolls are at the top of the local dishes to try while staying in Tainan. Shrimp, combined with other ingredients, make up a filling that is wrapped in pig belly membrane (stomach? casing? This part got lost in translation somewhere), then battered and deep fried. What you would think to be fishy and offal-y and heavy and oily is very surprisingly light, crispy, savory and flavorful and totally not funky at all. If you can stomach a spring roll, you’ll be able to handle this.

My uncle proudly boasts that he only frequents places that are not tourist traps, and much prefers hold-in the walls in alleyways and shady corridors than anything off a main strip or in a guide book. How he finds these places- well, that is beyond me. But I certainly don’t complain.

The shrimp rolls at the one eatery we visited were sold as quickly as they were made- while we were there, I observed an endless stream of motorscooters pulling up to the counter empty-handed, and leaving with clusters of plastic takeout bags dangling from their scooters. As in-house diners, thanks to the endless turnover of orders, the shrimp rolls were presented to the table scalding hot, freshly fried and perfectly crispy. And what’s fried food without condiments? Each order also came with a side of sesame oil and chinese mustard. Chinese mustard, in case you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting it, is a bright yellow paste that tastes of a combination of wasabi and dijon mustard flavors. Definitely one of my favorite condiments in Chinese cuisine (sweet and sour sauce is NOT a condiment, in my book).

Looking around me, there were many tables of singles and two-tops. Everyone was eating the shrimp rolls and a bowl of house fried rice, some with a bowl of fish ball soup. There are many things I love about going to new places, but nothing beats experiencing new and exciting foods of a new region- then seeing the people of the city eating the same thing I am.