We got off the bus at the Ningxia Night Market and I saw the cameras. Oh, someone famous must be here, thought I, as we headed toward them, we’ll be able to get a closer look.
And a closer look we got, indeed.
Yes, so close that we were surrounded in this little market in an old area of Taipei. We were followed down the narrow alley through the most remarkable, clean little food stalls I had ever seen. The camera spotlights were kind of handy for taking my own shots, but I got in trouble for trying to stop and ask questions, or, even worse, wandering off to explore a particular stall. This is why food writers do not make good TV stars.
For some reason, the Taiwanese specialty called stinky tofu, a slightly fermented tofu cake either fried or served in large pieces in a soup at the market, was just about the only thing the very young, very green reporters were interested in.
Yum — and here I am eating stinky tofu and showing the world I use my left hand as a scoop for food that falls out of my mouth when I’m stuffing my face. In fact, this might be the least flattering photo of me ever:
Or is this?
The reason for the paparazzi? No, not me. Our trip was made possible by the Taiwanese Government Information Office, at the request of rather dashing Minister Philip Yang, above. Yang holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UVA, and he has devoted his career to public relations and raising awareness of the deep well of Taiwanese culture. Not too shabby! He invited us to Taiwan to promote the government’s new international website for Taiwanese food. Check it out in a Chinese video of the press conference.
And here we are, eating bottarga, or mullet roe, with host and food critic Mr. Wu and Minister Yang (photo courtesy of the latter’s Facebook page).
In a realm where such sites are usually horrible, the Taiwanese food site really quite good and nothing else matches it for breadth or depth in English. I wasn’t joking when I said it was a real service to the world at the press conference.
But the problem with being the guest of a public relations mastermind is that the man sure does like media.
Wondering what I’m taking a picture of at the night market? Well, as dashing as Minister Yang was, I couldn’t help but be more interested in a GIANT FRIED BALL OF EVERYTHING.
Yes, that giant fried ball of everything. In the earlier photo, Minister Yang was pointing out all the ingredients in the ball, which seems to be made of vegetable fried rice, six oysters/shrimp depending on your choice, a raw egg, and god knows what else, all wrapped up in dough and deep fried. (Photos of me courtesy of what appears to be a news photo outlet on the Internet.)
I was a bit more vivacious and less thunderstruck at the next stall, a Taiwanese spring roll vendor whose stall has been at the market since 1951. The sweet old lady making the spring rolls was positively unflappable.
I had to squeeze between the lady and the cameras, as such:
Time to make the spring rolls! Photo of me (and a great one, thanks!) is courtesy of Saúl Cepeda, my TV star partner in crime.
A bit more like a burrito than a spring roll as we know them, but still tasty.
For much of the week, we were documented during meals. Saúl and I started messing around with the cameras to break the tediousness of being constantly filmed. In fact, some of my favorite shots are with the paparazzi.
Here I am being carefully considered by a young man who took his art seriously, if invasively, outside the highly recommended Shin Yeh seafood restaurant. I was entranced by the tanks of dozens of different fish and shellfish. He was entranced by me.
Alas, parting is such sweet sorrow.
The experience, I have to admit, really does make one understand why famous people turn into divas and smash cameras and such. Here are a few of my favorite shots of others. Saúl poses for Culinaria Eugenius as the poster boy of steamed shrimp, Jean Louis comments on everything he has eaten, and Egami-san makes tofu for Taiwanese media at a farmers’ co-operative in Yi-lan province.
And I even managed a half-smile out of John at Din Tai Fung in Taipei 101. I like to think my success was due to my charmingly constant shutter-clicking during lunch, which made him feel quite at home.
Jean-Louis, who took the bullet on the photo opp behind John, will appear somewhere holding Din Tai Fung dumplings. Sadly, it will not be at my doorstep. I can’t even look at my photos of the truffle-pork xiao long bao dumplings without wanting to hijack a plane to Taipei.
See? Ack. Drool. Now that’s much more interesting than a picture of me taking a picture or eating stinky tofu. Worth every click and bright light and interview.
OK. What next? I have so much more to say about Taiwan. A preservation post is in the works. And somewhere out there in the ethernet is an amusing interview of me, Saúl, and Minister Yang talking about food while we voluptuously (“more please, Jennifer, show how delicious it is!”) eat some amazing prawns. But I think after that I’m going to hold off until the future allows me to say more. After all, I do have other matters to discuss that are closer to home. Until then, dear readers! May you eat well and look pretty on camera as you eat.