While in America, the post-Christmas doldrums have set in and people have begun to deprive themselves for their short-lived New Year’s resolution diets, the holiday season is just now getting into full swing here in Taiwan. As you may or may not be aware, we are currently in the year of the rat, an animal representing charm and thrift. (I’ve always found rats charming and thrifty, haven’t you?) Not to fear, however, as the Lunar New Year is upon us, on Monday we will be safely in the year of the ox, a year of patience and dependability.
Apparently, this time of year, the city of Taipei shuts down like Birmingham in a blizzard. We have been warned that restaurants, grocery stores, and even the post office and hospital will be closed for most of next week. Hair salons, however, raise their prices due to the volumes of women wanting to be properly coiffed when their in-laws drop in. Our students are bouncing off the walls with anticipation as this is the big gift-giving season as well. However, instead of Santa sliding down the chimney with a sack full of presents, Chinese children look forward to the blessed red envelope. Red envelopes are received from all different relatives and family friends and are stuffed full of money. No toy trains, Barbies, or Lego’s here, just cold, hard cash. In fact, the term “red envelope” is synonymous with a gift of money at any time of the year. In addition to money, it is also traditional to give gifts of candy to friends and colleagues. To this end, Chris and I went to the famed “candy street” this week to see what we could find.
Not exactly straight out of the game Candy Land, Candy Street is a stretch of road about a mile long that is transformed every Chinese New Year into a street vendor’s paradise. Booths hawking special holiday comestibles bark products and their prices at passers-by who shuffle along at the speed of the hoard. After the first hundred yards, one begins to feel like a broken record spinning on an endless loop of the same goods for sale: vats of nuts, tubs of different candies, trays of dehydrated fruits and vegetables, a tea station, and finally the token mystery booth selling some unidentifiable product. Since there are scores of vendors offering the same product, they are very motivated to entice potential buyers to their booth to make a purchase. How does one selling strange foods lure buyers? The two most delightful words in the English language: free samples. Vendors practically beg shoppers to come and try their product in hopes of either tantalizing their taste buds or giving them so much for free that they feel too guilty to walk away not having made a purchase.
During our march down the street, Chris and I tried everything from fried octopus to wasabi pumpkin seeds. One of my favorite treats from the evening was the dehydrated and candied kiwi. The food that wins the award for the most quickly expectorated was definitely the dried fish cube that came wrapped in a shiny pink and gold paper, fooling silly foreigners into thinking that it might be candy. We walked away from the evening full of exotic holiday treats and a couple of goody bags in hand.