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Playing chicken in Taipei

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaHow I fell in love with a juicy, well battered, fried chicken in Taipei and lived happily ever after. Happy New Year.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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That divine Taiwanese friend chicken

Nothing quite like fried chicken on a cold winter morning - Two Peck at No.8 Nanyang Lane, Taipei

SO WHY did that imbecile chicken cross the road? Well, if you’re talking about Shilin Night Market, Taipei, clearly to find a decent fry-up on a cold winter’s night. If a chicken has to get marinated, battered and fried, it might as well be here, surrounded by neon, game stalls, squealing kids, and long lines of drooling customers.

And thus it was, along with that doomed chicken, I crossed the road after the evening commuters had disgorged me at Exit 1 of the  Jiantan Metro Station to peruse a mighty line. “Is this for the chicken?” Heads nodded vigorously. I enquired how long the queue might take? Maybe 20 minutes or more someone mumbled cheerily through a tightly wrapped scarf, “But it’s so juicy.” My knees went weak.

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Yet before I even got this far I had already chomped my way through pounds of golden crisp-fried batter and fattened, flattened chickens larger than my face.

{Other chickens followed. But I was in search of the ultimate fried chicken, a nocturnal back-alley siren, the size of a kitchen mitt...

My first introduction to the sublime joys of Taiwanese chicken was at a Japanese curry shop near the Regent in the heart of Zhongshan where every small lane beckoned with red lanterns and indescribable promise. I picked the fried chicken balls with curry. While no self-respecting Indian will ever accept the Nippon version of spicy goo as the real thing, many enjoy its ersatz pleasures. I dove in, and hoped no subcontinental tourists would wander in and see me steeped in secret shame. They poured in. I looked intently at my phone.

Not long after, I spotted another bright red sign with HUGE photographs of crispy chicken begging for company. How could I resist? This one was Monga. I waiting patiently while my dinner – the size of a padded kitchen mitt – sizzled and squeaked in a vat of frothing oil.

It finally arrived in a far too small paper bag, slathered in chilli powder. How would I ever finish this monster? I held it reverentially between the tips of singed fingers, blew on it, tried to take a picture on my iPhone – succeeding only in greasing the glass – and pondered my next move.  

Two teenage girls watched me, giggling at my antics. I turned to them in despair. “Too big!” I gestured. They smiled, eyes transfixed on the chicken. They agreed to share it and relieved me of my burden after some well-mannered hesitation and a flash of braces. “No speak. We Japan.”  

Other chickens followed. But I was in search of the ultimate fried chicken, a nocturnal back-alley siren, the kind I could marry and live happily ever after with.

Friends finally directed me to Two Peck, a reputed chain like Monga, and I set off in the morning drizzle, hunched over leaning into the biting wind, headed for Taipei Main Railway Station. I passed the Dr Sun Yat-sen memorial house and park and crossed over into the small lanes near the YMCA. This looked promising but where was that hole-in-the-wall? Everything here was a hole in the wall. At length I spotted the logo at 8 Nanyang Street, stabbed a picture on the poster, and collected my customer coupon reading No.1.  

I watched the chicken being dragged through the batter, yes dragged, as the chef moved it back and forth through the thick creamy mixture like heavy laundry. Then, holding the tips between the fingers of both hands, he pulled the entire mess up a small metal ramp and slipped it into the oil. Mesmerized and borderline terrified I waited. Had I gone too far this time?

Two Peck arrived and all I could do was hold it and grin. No sharing this time. This was all mine. Yes I’d had a sumptuous breakfast at Regent and snacks along the way, but…
It passed the test with flying colours and I finished up with some bubble milk tea with brown sugar.

But I was still not satisfied. There was something about that chicken that transported me back to my eternally hungry college days when no buffet was ever big enough to sate my scrawny frame. So I pressed on to find and confront my moment of truth.

Try Hot Star, someone suggested but I’d sampled it several times at my Wanchai office corner in Hong Kong. Not bad on a cold winter evening but not The One.

So back I went to Shilin Night Market where I’d started with Monga. And that’s when I spotted the queue at the small streetside stall. Not an ordinary queue but a mighty throng that begged the question: Why? And here I was wondering whether a 20 minute wait would be worth it. The smell was magic and I decided Hometown Barbecue Chicken was definitely worth it.

I made an offer to a couple in front of the line. I would buy their chicken and also share half of mine. And so it was I joined the queue at No.3, the closer my chicken to thee.

It was love at first bite. Happy New Year all and may feathers fly wherever you roam.

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