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Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Hissterical Find

Snaking through Taipei’s oldest night market, a bowl of soup can stop you in your tracks.

Written by Supriya Sehgal | New Delhi | Updated: May 1, 2016 12:00:16 am
Neon signs light up the street food carts. Neon signs light up the street food carts.

I’ve never embraced the love for food. I only appreciate it for its sustenance quotient, but rarely peg it high on my list of things to experience when travelling. But when one talks about Taiwan and its night markets doused in the smell of sesame oil, I am the first one to volunteer for a midnight walk. After all, trawling the labyrinth of brightly-lit stalls that crop up in the evening and hold fort until the wee hours of the morning, gives you a crash course in the native snacking habits of the country. Sure, restaurant critics would never drool over the array of edibles on a stick or the complete lack of subtlety in taste, but an intrepid traveller couldn’t ask for more.

A collection of squid on a stick. A collection of squid on a stick.

I hadn’t turned vegetarian then, so a night of sampling some of the most baffling variety of animals and insects seemed compelling. It had been a hot day in Taipei, and till now, the only daunting task seemed to be pressing through a crowd of teenagers clinging to their shiny phones, to navigate to a clearing at Shihlin, one of Taipei’s oldest night markets.

One cannot be too directionally challenged at Shihlin. It comprises one road with a carnivalesque vibe — mountains of clothes, junk jewellery, electronics, watches and quirky souvenirs — all laced with an additional tinge of bling under the halo of yellow bulbs.

Shrimps fried with batter. Shrimps fried with batter.

Giving some relief to frenzied shoppers are food stalls so people can take a break from the unbridled consumerism and re-fuel with a copious variety of proteins, carbs and various non-vertebrae and vertebrae — all in the form of soups, meat-on-a-stick, wraps and rolls.

With abysmally low shopping skills and interest, my eyes searched for the most audacious looking spread on a cart. I could see tentacles droop over a counter, stinky tofu being drizzled with cheese and pigs intestines being rolled with precision to drop into a milky broth. For some time, I kept the camera lens between me and the treacherous occupants of the stalls. It helped gather my wits and some gallantry to finally take the plunge and order myself whatever the locals were going for. I was still making up my mind, when a holler of “Soup, snake soup” vied for my attention. I didn’t need any further nudge to head in the direction of a snake-only restaurant.

A platter of snails. A platter of snails.

I settled myself on a red plastic stool and a wobbly table outside the restaurant, constantly fanning myself with a magazine to counter the heat and the nervousness of biting into something that has bristled on the blacklist of many Indian travellers. My eyes darted towards a stack of glass jars, proudly displaying their content — snake bits in a yellowish liquid. My discomfort must have been evident, as the owner of the restaurant offered some cheery information on his prime ware: “It’s soup. Snake soup. Good for skin. Good for blood. No fever.” He would have gone on about the dividends of a quick swig, when I hurriedly snapped my order. “I’ll have a meat soup. No gall, penis or any specific organ,” like the menu suggested. He smiled.

The wait was excruciating. All sorts of gut-wrenching images flashed in front of me. Would the head be floating in green murky broth? Would the snake be quasi-alive? Would it be rubbery?

A platter of beef and lamb snacks. A platter of beef and lamb snacks.

And then the dish arrived. Balancing a white bowl on a small tray on his palm, I could see the owner making his way to my table. He snaked through the crowds walking at a funeral pace between the tables and the restaurant. He deftly maneuvered past them and propped the tray with a thud before me. Arms akimbo, he waited for me to take the first bite. I hesitantly peered into the bowl, and sighed — it might as well have been chicken soup. With no scales, eyes or anything to give away the source of the meat, I scooped a few pieces with the salty broth and gulped it down. Then a second. A third without any trouble. And then the entire bowl without as much as a peep.

It was delicious. Rubbery, distinctive in flavour, but enjoyable. Satisfied that another sceptical customer might have bought into the benefits of snake soup, the owner swished his way back, but not before suggesting a visit to Snake Alley. I later learnt that it was a moniker given to the Huaxi Street Night Market, where gastronomic adventures are notched up with platters of snake blood, turtle blood and meat and deer penis wine, which are seldom found in other parts of town.

Emboldened by my new-found adventurous appetite, off I went to try the other more harmless delicacies like squid stew and oyster omelettes, reserving the Snake Alley for another time.

Supriya Sehgal is a Delhi-based travel writer.

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