The restaurant we have parked in front of is a chain called Hot Pot. Chain restaurants in Taiwan are not the same as in the U.S.; they often have similar decor on the walls and the furniture may be similar from location to location, but each individual restaurant still has a "mom and pop" feel to them, often because they are, in fact, family businesses. As we walk into the air-conditioning a small boy, probably no older than seven, is bussing tables. "No child labor laws in Taiwan?" I joke, but Connie doesn't think its funny that I'm degrading the country of her parents' birth. "Obviously there ARE child labor laws here" her sharpened glance says in biting tones, "this is his FAMILY'S restaurant". If only things worked like this in the States. Can you imagine Little Johnny Junior running around the deep fryers as his father prepares my Kentucky Fried Chicken? Burn wards would be all the rage.
All of the tables in Hot Pot look like they were imported from the nearest Kindergarten center, each standing about two feet tall and surrounded by even smaller benches that one is expected to perch upon. David finds a table in the back next to the soda machines and ice cream freezer, which I am told are both free, all you can eat/drink. (In Taiwanese dining, the drinks are almost always free with the purchase of a meal and are usually unlimited refills). Good job, David. We scan the order card, which shows about 15 options in Mandarin, so I wait to be informed of what each option is. As before, the choices are "what meat" and "how spicy", and after hearing my options I choose "seafood" and "medium spicy". I still have no idea what I am ordering, but I guess it has something to do with a pot, and I'm betting that this pot is also hot. David turns in our order card and almost immediately a dark-skinned Asian man sets three unlit burners on our table. Within a couple of minutes, the man returns carrying a large metal bowl, which he sets upon one of the burner after he lights it with a cigarette lighter. As he brings the other two bowls out one at a time, I peer hesitantly into the cookware which has been placed before me. It, in no way, resembles seafood, save for the partially submersed whole shrimp that is eyeing me with a beady black eye from his soupy grave. It looks like the dark-skinned Asian man just closed his eyes, grabbed whatever shit he had near him, and combined it into some sort of stew (adding the whole shrimp, of course, to make it "seafood-y"). I begin digging around in my Hot Pot, exploring the contents of which NONE look very familiar (except shrimpy), holding up various objects with my chopsticks for David and Connie to explain. Although I'm sure to leave something out, here is a list of everything included in my Hot Pot:
Broth - Traditional Chinese vegetable and/or meat broth mixed with spices to achieve the appropriate degree of hotness. Mine is actually very good.
Clear slimy noodles - I'm not sure what these are actually called, but they look like jellyfish tentacles and taste about how I would think jellyfish tentacles would taste.
Cabbage - Boiled, a staple in almost every Taiwanese dish.
Crunchy greens - I don't know what kind of vegetables these were, but they were crunchy.
Egg - Poached
Tofu - Also a staple in most Taiwanese cuisine. In this particular dish the tofu is cut into cubes too large to fit into my mouth, and are saturated with broth so that when I bite into the pieces, the near-boiling liquid gushes onto my tongue and the roof of my mouth, thus killing every taste bud for the next two weeks. I have to admit (through tears of pain), it's still pretty good, although has a rather bland taste.
Pig's Blood - At first I thought this was some sort of disgusting nickname for something far more edible (like deviled eggs...we all KNOW that they are not actually EVIL), but soon find out that this ingredient in my Hot Pot is EXACTLY what its claims to be. As I grasp the gelatinous cube of dark red between my chopsticks, Connie tells me that many traditional Chinese dishes use pig's blood because it does not spoil and is an excellent source of protein. David looks disgusted and says it tastes "iron-y". I don't know why the prospect of eating straight blood is so appalling; Westerners eat steak all the time in which the bloody meat is visible. I guess it's because in the States we call these "juices", and if we were to instead call it "cow's blood", I suppose fewer people would be clamoring for rare T-bones at Texas Roadhouse. I try and act tough, casually shrugging my shoulder and tossing the jello-esque hunk of congealed blood into my mouth, my teeth gnashing out its juices. It is awful. The metallic taste David is referring to lingers on my tongue as I quickly drink my pear-flavored tea to try and drown it out. I force a smile and suppress my gag reflex. "Not bad", I say, obviously lying. In truth, pig's blood is not the worst thing I have ever eaten, but the combination of texture, taste, and the knowledge that I am literally eating blood makes downing it nearly impossible. At least I can say I tried something that we don't have back home...
Rice Blood - This is pig's blood mixed with sticky white rice which, after close examination, looks like a chocolate Rice Crispy treat. The deviation from the gelatin-y texture alone makes this variation of the previously mentioned hemoglobinous atrocity almost bearable. However, as I go to swallow the tinny taste returns to my gun-shy taste buds and they recoil once more, screaming "WHY?! WHY!?!?!". I guess I'm not cut out for Vampirism after all. Time to find a new hobby...
Mussels - I don't discover these until the very end of the meal, somehow they have eluded my probing chopsticks until just before I push the remainder of my Hot Pot aside. I am so excited for something with a familiar taste that I drop one of the two onto the floor. Damnit. The second one reminded me as to why I don't really like mussels all that much.
One Shrimp - This is a whole shrimp which, due to our proximity to the ocean (about 5 miles, give or take) was probably caught sometime in the last 48 hours. Also, he seems to have been growing out his antennae for "Locks of Love" because I cannot pick up anything in my bowl without inadvertently snaring one of his red feelers in my chopsticks and discovering, as I'm bringing my food to my mouth, my small crustacean friend dangling on for dear life. Finally, tired of thwarting his escape attempts, I shell the poor fella and see that, by the looks of his very full digestive "vein", he was well fed in his previous environment. Gross. After cleaning up his mess, the effort is not quite worth the reward, though I admit, he is very fresh.
Squid Tentacles - This was the winner of the "guess what the hell THIS is" contest which is held at our table when I produce the thin, flat, brownish piece of meat from my Hot Pot. I immediately guessed some sort of cat intestines. David offered that he believed it to be part of a chicken's foot. Connie (the logical one of the group), asserted that neither cats nor chickens live in the sea and, because I had ordered the seafood Hot Pot, it was probably some multi-armed chewy creature. Whatever it was, it had a distinctly fishy flavor and felt a little like gnawing on a pencil eraser.
My Hot Pot looked similar to this, but with about 10 times as much stuff in it
Through the course of the meal, Connie informs me on various other facts about Hot Pot. According to her, it is traditionally a Chinese meal eaten during the winter months and is especially popular during celebrations such as the Chinese New Year. During these celebrations, a massive Pot would be placed in the center of the table and all family members would throw in whatever random meat/vegetable/other they could find, boil the ingredients, and choke down whatever creation that arose as a result of their haphazard cooking practices. I can see how this would be popular for large gatherings, as even though I have only eaten about two-thirds of my Hot Pot, I am almost too full to sample the ice creams (which are actually more comparable to gelato). I do anyway, but am a little taken aback by the flavor options: Green Tea, Taro (made from a root that looks like a potato with a distinctive lavender coloring) and Mango (the obvious frontrunner). I try all three, and all three taste a little like flavored children's vitamins; not awful, but not something you would want to eat in large quantities. One more shot of pear Tea and we're off to find a place for me to live, the bitter taste of blood still dancing across my tortured taste buds.