Last year April, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Taiwan. There is a valid argument that I made it to Taiwan before Anthony Bourdain or he followed me there on Layover, wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I dove mouth first into the totally belly tingling world of Taiwanese food culture. I’ve travelled to many countries in the Far East, while every country is unique, Taiwan offers a look into the very origins of ancient Chinese cuisine.
What is Hot Pot? As the name refers, it is a pot of boiling stock to which various meats and vegetables are added. Chinese hot pot cooking originated in Mongolia and spread throughout Asia. There are several variations among countries, tribes, regions, cultures, and even degree of heat. In Japan it is known as Nabemono, variations are Sukiyaki and Shabu shabu. Vietnamese call it lẩu or cù lao, the sour soup is canh chua and the salted fish soup is lẩu mắm. Thais call this dish Thai suki and use chili, coriander leaves, and lime as dipping sauces. In Singapore and Malaysia, it is called Steam Boat. Taiwanese call it Shabu Shabu from their Japanese influence and use shacha sauce and raw egg yolk as dipping sauce.
The basic premise is a pot placed over heat on a dining surface. Friends and family gather around the table. A broth of choice, beef, pork, fish, of varying heat levels is brought to boil. Meats and vegetables, depending on culture, is added. A huge ladle is used to occasionally stir. Proper etiquette is to use the same ladle as a serving vessel. Personal utensils, chopsticks and soup spoons, are not used in the communal pot out of respect for other people. The idea is to keep adding ingredients and remove as they are cooked. The more people the merrier. This is a communal gathering event.
Tripod King Restaurant chain has managed to master the art of Hot pot dining. With several restaurants throughout Taiwan, they are known for high quality of freshness, taste, service and food. Their Taichung location is a feast for the eyes and senses. On the side walk there is a greeting station. I understand it is recommended to make a reservation before showing up. This place is rapid and fluid. There is a 2 hour dining limit. Yes, after that you have to get up. Upon arrival, they hand you a sheet of items to indicate your choice for dining. We selected a dual pot of spicy and pork broth which comes with unlimited duck blood and tofu. Then added a good amount of other items. As we sat along the sidewalk, I could not help but notice the wonderfully carved waiting seats.
When it was our time, we were escorted to a table. My first impression was, am I in a museum or restaurant? I really had to stop for a minute and absorb. The restaurant was completely packed, yet somehow peaceful and serene. Water, stone, lights, and wood marvelously craved a space that works with harmonious balance. No edge or shadow was out place. One element flowed right into another. The sounds melted in light and traveled through water into concrete and rock surfaces. Water and light danced magically to immediate zen. It did not surprise me that the restroom was a place of total serenity. Most restaurant restroom you go in and out, this I wanted to hang back for a minute. I had to remind myself that I was there to eat and not gaze around.
After drink selections, pots of hot tea and huge Taiwan Beer. We made our way to the sauce and rice bar. Rows of different sauces and pots of rice were set out. Bowls were neatly set in drawers. Back at the table, we were greeted by a courteous server who bowed and introduced the team. One team member lit the stove and explained how to control it. The other placed the pot of spicy and pork broth on the heat. Yet another was standing by with a rolling cart of items we ticked off earlier. As all items were placed around the table, the lead server added duck blood and tofu to the broth, then instructed us to add as we pleased. Monogrammed napkins and chopsticks were neatly placed in individual drawers under the table. As the lead server retreated still facing the table, there was a simultaneous bow from everyone. Looked like an orchestra. I was still too mesmerized to know that food was ready.
The tea was strong and perfumed on the nose of flowers and freshness. I don’t know what was more captivating, the smell of tea or aroma coming from the bubbling pot. As I took my first taste of this ancient art form transposed to the 21st Century, I realised that 1,000 yrs ago someone did this same thing. The pork broth was rich and perfectly balanced with sweet and sour. The spicy broth was hot, nose running hot, it immediately cleared all the cobwebs. There was fresh shrimp ball made into a paste and served from a bamboo cutout that was a simple marvel. The marbled beef literally melted. Youtio, which is now my favorite Taiwanese food item, is a tender flaky bread like item that literally sucks the broth up. As I dug into bits and pieces of meats, vegetables, broth, and tea, it dawned on me this is how a meal should be enjoyed. As the servers came and went like the wind, unobtrusive but extremely attentive, anticipating our every move and being there before we even made it, I understood the 2 hr. time limit. They did not rush us neither hurried us along, but reminded that on a tiny little island there are more people to feed.
One of the many joys of stepping out of our comfort zone and staying open to a different culture is to fully immerse in an experience. Tripod King has managed to capture the essence of Taiwanese culture and cuisine. I walked away with a sense of gratitude and serenity. I was totally moved by the captivating simplicity and striking attention to detail. It was a display of rich history through food, architecture, service, and culture. An experience that itched into my mind one year removed.