Taipei, day 1.
I slept nearly the entire flight from Seattle to Taipei, despite a seat that did not recline very far, a seat-mate who tried (unsuccessfully) to climb over me on her way to the bathroom (apparently the foot-rest proved to be an impassable barrier), the lack of an eye-mask, and flight attendants who kept asking me if I wanted food. I woke up in time to watch a movie and eat a breakfast of indifferent congee before we arrived at some brutally early hour, to be met by my uncle's driver who whisked me to my parents' apartment, where they were still asleep but came groggily downstairs to greet me before going back to bed. Left alone I discovered a) a stash of instant coffee and b) the wireless internet signal now extends to the downstairs, and my father helpfully left one of his laptops down here. Finally, my parents got up, and the morning passed before I realized I was hungry, and it was time for lunch.
Just about every visit to Taipei begins with lunch at Ding Tai Fong. On weekends there is always a long line to get in, with a mix of locals and Japanese or Hong Kong tourists. Sometimes there are tour groups led by flag-waving guides, trooping in for xiao lung bao and other kinds of steamed buns. Headset-wearing, uniform-clad waitresses scurry about, promising a wait of 15 minutes. They always tell you fifteen minutes, to give you hope. And then they dash it by saying, ten or fifteen minutes more, so it stretches to half an hour, or forty minutes. This pisses my mom off, who tells the waitress in no uncertain terms that their "fifteen minutes" is total bullshit. (Which she says in polite terms). At last, we are seated, and our order taken. A tray of cold dishes comes around, and we choose a small plate of marinated cucumbers and another of dried tofu with some kind of pickled vegetables I cannot identify.
Soon, a bamboo steamer tray of vegetable buns comes along, which we dip into saucers of finely julienned ginger and vinegar. Some kind of leafy green (I never see these in the States, so I don't know what they're called) sautéed with garlic arrives, as does another steamer tray of xiao lung bao. These are my favorite, tiny round buns of pork that burst with pork broth as you eat them (which is why you are supposed to hold them over a spoon as you eat them, to catch the soup). I could eat a whole tray, but console myself with five or six while my parents are otherwise occupied. A bowl of beef soup noodles arrives, thin white noodles in a clear broth with slices of beef and scallions. My first meal of the trip.
Several hours later I am hauled out of bed, where I had been dozing comfortably, to go out to dinner. Those hours of fractured sleep on the plane notwithstanding, I feel like I have been dragged backwards through the time-space continuum by my hair, and am nearly comatose. A late dinner at a hot-pot restaurant is the last thing I want. But my cousins are here, and I see them rarely - one I saw briefly last year, the other some years ago - so here I am. We are all late. My mother is in charge of ordering, and a succession of things arrive: a tiny appetizer of tofu and some unidentifiable green (there will be many unidentifiable things on this trip), and then tray after tray of vegetables, tofu, seafood, and meat is brought to the table and lowered into a pot of boiling broth.
Each item is taken from the broth as it cooks, and then dipped into one of two sauces (one spicy, the other tangy and full of scallions) before eating. There are shrimps and scallops and crab legs, meatballs and fishballs and mushrooms. Slices of fatty pork - almost like bacon - and well-marbled beef. I feel my appetite returning, and eat a little of everything, until all the platters have been emptied of their contents, all the plates are bare. The waitress stirs cooked rice into the remaining broth - flavored with all the ingredients that have been dipped into its boiling depths - and makes congee, which is ladled into bowls and passed around. My parents talk about how, back when they were young, people cooked noodles at the end of a hot-pot meal, but in the past few years, the fashion has turned to congee. I wonder why, but I am too tired to come up with anything logical. It's time to go home, and sleep.