March 08, 2006

Taiwan - it was a good shift

I travelled to Taiwan recently, my first time in Asia. What a place.

It's actually hard for me to find the right words to describe my experience. If I'd never travelled much outside the U.S., I think I would have been bewildered by how truly different the culture and feel of the place is to home.

Sure, they have donut shops and Starbucks, but under the surface things are really different there. And really interesting.

First, I discovered how pleasantly familiar it was to be foreigner again. It felt great to be an outsider.

But really the smells were the story. Incense, street food, even bakeries that sometimes reminded me of France. Not that the bread was anything like France, though the pastries in many places were delicious and cheap.

The fragrant night markets and street carts littering the city are obvious attractions for even novice foodies like me. But most impressive were the smells in the basement of a department store in Kaohsiung. The food court of a department store, reeking of ginger and spices! It was amazing.

There was even a McDonald's in the corner, and sure, it drew a crowd. But there were maybe a dozen other outlets all offering various Asian cuisine, cooked fresh with real ingredients (for the most part) served on reusable wooden trays and big soup bowls or cast iron skillets with your order. And it all smell so good.

In a department store food court!

Plus, for about $5US you can eat really well in many places. Just be ready to try stuff you've either never heard of or don't want to ask about. G.I. tract lovers, you'll be well served.

But what about the wine?

Taiwan is warm and even I'd rather drink beer in most occasions just because of the climate. But I was surprised to find a nice selection of things, with prices high but not as high as you might think given how low demand probably is.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but the people eat so traditionally that I can't imagine they drink outside of their tradition (beer and whiskey as far as I can tell). Certainly I didn't see too many people consuming wine in public eateries. And it seems like everyone eats out, and often.

I found the predictable Australian producers on store shelves. Looked like the Antinori salespeople make regular calls in the higher end locations. There was also lots of Bordeaux, though not many deals. And in one spot I even found some Oregon wines, notably from Willakenzie and Henry Estate. Neither was cheap, but then again probably only half again what you'd pay here, which isn't bad for export.

Where to find wine? The internet didn't give me much information before I went. Apparently the big box stores in the larger cities are good, places like Carrefour, Tesco, and RT Mart. However, I didn't make it to any of those.

The upscale market Jason's in Taipei and Kaohsiung had the best selection I found, but higher prices too boot. Ultimately, I found the market halls in the basements of local department stores to occasionally have great selections and probably the best deals I saw. Still, I didn't find anything I couldn't live without. A wine shopping desitnation this isn't.

In the end, I drank more beer, and really it tasted great with the food. Anything notably good? No, really it was just about crisp, fresh and cold beer, none of it distinguished or memorable.

The same can't be said for the classic line uttered by a family friend, who's no wine geek but sure likes his beer and knows the local bartenders well. He'd crack open a cold one, smell the contents and exhale before declaring, "it was a good shift."

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