22nd September 2011- By LRB JAMES
I cannot comment on Taiwan, I spent just 20 minutes in its capital with the sole aim of getting out of it. I flew straight here, to Penghu which I feel slightly more qualified to talk about, but only just. The roads leading in to its principle city, Magong, are lined with palm trees, aloe and cacti, the fruit of which make a lovely purple sorbet. The roads are immaculately kept and litter is non-existent. The grid systems, interchanges and black and white ‘cop’ cars remind me of Philadelphia and its suburbs. It feels familiar, like in the movies except for the mopeds, everywhere. They glide effortlessly to and fro in a strange symphony that looks totally chaotic but seems to work. It’s sink or swim for the foreigner.
The town is, in contrast to the highway, a little rough around the edges. Dilapidated suburbs are dotted with mansions fit for kings. A half-finished hotel marks the beautiful harbour that is bursting with fishing boats long forgotten in the UK. Intricately designed bows bob in the water as fishermen play cards in the shade after a long nights work flashing for squid. A new mall is close to completion in the business district and empty shop windows await their mannequins and materialist promises. I can feel change but can’t help thinking they’ve already got what I want.
The market comes alive early and I’m not sure I’ve seen it in full swing. Even in its quieter moments, it is, at least for the first few times, totally overwhelming. Thankfully, I was given a baptism of fire this time last year in Fez, Morocco where all of my senses were given the bum rush. Paralysed kittens dragging themselves around under thousands of shuffling feet, occasionally cut in two by rusting motorbikes. Wafts from the spice shops barely covering the heavy odours emanating from tanneries and the dismembered carcasses lining the butcher stands. The only comparative funk in Penghu comes from the stinky tofu stands, a delicacy I am yet to savour and one that sadly I probably never will. Much like in England, the vendors scream unintelligibly into the crowd trying to attract customers from three blocks away it seems. To the untrained ear, the language seems aggressive at the best of times.
Unlike England, the stalls are brimming with fresh, locally sourced fish and sea food. A2 sized plastic trays are filled with ice and sit in front of their owners with kings prawns, crabs trying to escape their captors, oysters and much more on offer. Mangoes the size of deflated rugby balls and ripe avocados draw you in to the fruit and veg stands where you cannot help but feel that Tesco has been letting you down with their pallid tomatoes and tasteless fruit but that we have come to expect since our standards have been dictated by packaging and our low expectations. When I buy a tomato, I expect it to be good. It makes me sick that I have to pay more for vine-ripened, hand picked or whatever other shit they want you to believe. Here, the locals are clued up and the stall would close down if they were trying to pedal low quality produce.
What is saddening is how ignorant I have discovered myself to be. I think I have always seen myself as pretty clued up in terms of food preparation, knowing what goes well with what etc but since I have come here, I have realised I am missing some of the essentials, such as being able to catch my own food, knowing when certain fruit and vegetables are in season and recognising a quality king prawn over a shitty king prawn. I was first struck with my ignorance when I went to the market to pick up some fruit I was desperately lacking since I moved out. I picked a mango and four peaches only to be stung with a bill of 200 NT or about £4. What it turns out, is that I should have gone for Pomelo and Dragon Fruit which would have cost me next to nothing for a bucket load. Note to self-buy a fishing rod.