Sunday, December 28, 2008

Taiwan Sushi, Revisited

How about sushi a la carte, for 30 cents a piece?

When I first started to enjoy sushi back in the early 90s, I used to purchase nigiri and maki at 50 cents per piece from the Kaya Seafood Buffet in Temple City. That was considered extravagant. Then I moved up the sushi echelon in the mid-90s by visiting Kabuki in Pasadena, where a six-piece cut roll used to cost as little as $2.50, but only if you ordered the two-item minimum for lunch (or three-item minimum during dinnertime). Today I consider it reasonable to shell out $13 for a six-piece softshell crab roll from Nobu (the rule is, if it’s high quality, it’s worth it). But does the price-per-piece always scale upward?

Not so in Taiwan, where my American dollar stretched farther than normal to allow me that extra sushi-purchasing power.

On a recent vacation in my native country, I clamored for sushi to my uncle (not necessarily to protest the neverending Chinese cuisine, which was also delicious). After a brief hunt for my addiction, he parked his car curbside right before a street vendor selling sushi, a typical sight all over the city of Taipei—although the type of victuals offered is mostly Chinese; it takes a true local like my relative to know just where the rare Japanese food stands are propped up.

And there, neatly displayed in see-thru plastic cases, sat all the mutated versions of sushi—half a globe away, in the states, the seafood may have the same names—smoked salmon, ono, squid, shrimp and eel—but here they wear rare and unexpected toppings: lime-green seasoned seaweed powder (furikake), curly globs of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, crumbly crushed-peanut-like sprinkles, flaky black spices. Here the smelt fish eggs are yellow instead of orange, and wakame seaweed salad is used in the gunkan-style nigiri. Even the encasements of plastic wrap haven’t been removed, as if they’re left on to preserve freshness. It’s a long way from home, where I am used to seeing eel-sauce-drenched pieces and the typical accompaniments of ginger and wasabi. The flavor preferences are simply different here, where creaminess supercedes saltiness and tanginess overrides spiciness.

I don’t have much time to choose what I want. There are throngs of people eager to push me out of the way, and there are motorcycles parked on the sidewalk next to where I am jostling for a spot, and my uncle is illegally parked, as usual (there are never any parking spaces on this overcrowded Asian island, so if you think L.A. is bad…)!

I swiftly decide on six pieces that appealed the most to me, which cost NT $60 (equivalent to our $1.88). I fill a plastic box with renegade ham and corn sushi (just because they’re rare…and pretty); the tried but true ebi (shrimp); the mysteriously black flying fish roe (I still don’t know what makes some of these black and others orange); the pungent white fish that I believe was ono; and the odd creation that was apparently black rice wrapped inside a gooey rice paper of some sort, flavored with crispy peanutty crackles, cucumber and red ginger. Perhaps it’s the Taiwanese version of Futo Maki.

I would have chosen the individually plastic-enclosed hand rolls which resembled bursting salad bouquets, but the appearance of too much lettuce turned me off. It might have been interesting, though, seeing that the mixtures of ingredients were so daring and unusual—ham with crab, ham with eel, ham with shrimp…. Something tells me the Taiwanese love swine.

The result…a sweet lunch! Not only was this cheap, but it was quite tasty for street-vendor food, and because it was such a struggle to obtain it, I appreciated it that much more. (Well, not really, but most people would like to believe that.)

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