Taiwan is an island just like Singapore and therefore is blessed with some of the best produce of the sea. Unlike Singapore, the produce are from the regional waters around the island and you get the best of South China Sea, Taiwan Straits and Japan Sea. So you get prawns and fishes from tropical waters and also the fatty fish and crustacean from cold waters.
Xiao Zhang Seafood in Taipei, despite the simple, rustic appearance, prides itself to have its own fishing fleet and get her produce direct from the source, everyday. So you just have to depend on your luck what’s on the menu that day.
It was not a culinary show off, not did it need to too when you have raw materials these fresh. A simple blanch, a quick sashimi, deep fried with simple salt and pepper, throw everything into a stock pot and produce the base of one of the best hotpot. That’s what you get here – do not expect too much preparation that will break up the wholesome goodness the sea provided you. First you will notice that there are several such shops along this row in LiaoNing Street. Look for XiaoZhang (no.73), it’s the oldest on the block, and they have their own fleet that go out everyday for the freshest catch.
Actually, you will not get the biggest selection with XiaoZhang. Their neighbours may offer more, but that’s because they got their supplies from the usual suppliers. Trust me, I knew this fact from locals. And despite the “smaller” selection, you get in place some rarities once in a while, like Oarfish 勒氏皇帶魚 which they called it locally as the Earthquake Fish 地震魚. Don’t worry, it is not an endangered species in these waters.
First up, a simple concoction of thinly sliced yellow onions with bonito flakes and seaweeds dressed in a simple vinegar.
Next, 2 dishes that did not need any cooking – prawns took directly from the sea and sea whelk served sashimi. Thanks to pristine waters around the fishing grounds, you can eat these raw without further treatment. Not recommended for the pregnant and young though, as much as the waters are clean, Taiwan is still on route for some of the worlds most busy shipping routes.
Oar fish is a peculiarity on its own. Usually you see news about its carcass being washed ashore. But to catch one live was not so often. The texture of the fish is like, hmmm, scrambled egg without the egg taste. It was quite a bland fish, so it had to borrow the taste from coatings and seasoning. But its bones (and several other types of skeletal offerings) made up a really kick-ass stock that was the base of the hot pot. And over here you can asked for refill of the stock – yes, stock not water.
The only greens that we had was part of the Asplenium family. Before it grew to a full Bird Nest’s Fern, the buds were harvested and stirred fried with Tree Aberdeen. What’s are those ingredients? The aborigines of Taiwan would collect these young buds of the ferns know locally as 山蘇 and the chinese took the seeds of the Aberdeen Tree and made them into a condiment. This dish is as Taiwanese as it gets. The buds cannot survive a long logistical journey, and the Tree Aberdeens are only sold in Taiwan.
OK, taking a squid, blanching it quickly in brine was not exactly a gourmet dish, but its the most tender and flavourful squid I have eaten in a while. Likewise for the crabs, it was just the right season for it, so it was fat and full of roe.
The carbs were catered by a fried rice with 2 seasonal ingredients – sea urchins and Sakura shrimps. Autumn is when urchins are the plumpest and the Sakura shrimps are in abundance. Combing these made a very good fried rice.
The next one is not for the faint hearted, deep fried sea horse. It was supposed to be an aphrodisiac and possessed great medicinal value. It’s like fries, but one that is rich in iodine.
A distinctively Taiwanese dining experience, as it was in a night market, and you get the beer girls coming to your table asking you to buy more beer. And where else would the owners, the chefs and the waitresses drink with you when the mood is right?
Call beforehand if you want to get a table, it can be crowded on thu, fri and sat. Also call to reserve some of the rarer stuff.
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