Looking over the itinerary for my trip around Taiwan, there were many things I was excited to try- and none as both eagerly and hesitantly as I was the eel noodle soup.
Piles of noodles. Piles of eels. Buckets of soy sauce, oil, cornstarch, vinegars, peppers, empty bowls laid on the “pass”. Walking up to the stand, one really can’t help but hover for a moment to inspect the the mise en place placed on display. Golden yellow noodles stacked next to a heap of red and black strips of raw eel- a beautiful contrast of textures and colors, and though I’m not sure if they do it on purpose, it’s a great visual precursor to the dinner that you’re about to consume.
In Taiwan, wild adult eels are difficult to catch, and this fact, combined with a surge in farming and domestication techniques over the past couple of decades, have resulted in a very prominent farm-raised eel industry. Eels are actually caught from the wild as babies, with fisherman setting up huge tent-like nets along the coast, catching hundreds of baby eels no more than several cm in length. From then on, the eels are farm-raised in fresh water until they are ready to be sold as food. I’ve heard it’s very rare, today, to find fresh salt-water wild caught eel.
Two brothers man this eel stand, and as they have been serving up the same eel soup for decades, it feels as if fishing and farming and the eel industry with its sustainable food battles make no difference to them. Which, of course they are directly influenced- but as you observe the two men create a dish of simple fried eel noodles, you wonder if they really care. As long as they can serve their eel, in short sleeve t-shirts and flip flops (which they are known to wear, no matter how cold or how hot the weather turns), the issue of farm raised eels seems a world away.
Two brothers: Brother #1 as chef, Brother #2 as host/expo/manager/cashier. As with most other stands in Tainan, to order food one must walk directly to the chef and and quickly verbalize your order- lest you commit the ultimate taboo, taking too much time and holding up both the chef and the line of people that has now gathered behind you. Brother #1, never saying more than a few words to acknowledge your order, takes just a nanosecond to queue up your order behind the others, puts down his head and gets to work. Brother #2, though he has been directing customers, collecting money, and wiping tables, has somehow also heard your order, and starts shifting and gathering bowls on the pass.
First, noodles get a soak and a sautee with onions into the large, single wok on the burner. Once they receive their appropriate cooking time on the stove, they get transferred to a rusty metal pot, the lid covered, and left there to steam until the dish is ready to be served.
The eels are next. Chef takes the eel filets, which are only partially butchered, and gives them a last minute clean-up and slice up before adding them into his wok with additional spices and sauces. The eel meat is an unbelievably bright-red color, and as he guts and cuts up the eel filets it looks as if he is working with freshly roasted beets.
Once the eel hits the pan, however, the flaccid meat begins to gradually curl up, become noticeably more rigid, and turn a darker color more akin to the original appearance of the live eel. Into the pan gets added some salt, a generous amount of pepper, and depending on whether you order the eel soup or the stir fried eel, various amounts of sauces and oils are also added. There are no measurements, and I would also guess no exact recipe, so every bowl of noodles has the potential to taste different- more peppery, more vinegary, lighter or soupier, than the next.
Finally, when the eel sauce is done, it is poured over the noodles which have just a few seconds ago been portioned out by Brother #2. They work in silence and in complete unison, each in tune with the other, knowing exactly what to do next and when to wait for the other.
The bowls of noodles are served up- and taking a small nibble of eel meat, I ponder whether this flavor and texture in my mouth is what I had actually anticipated. Mind you, the eels in China and Taiwan resemble nothing of the sweet teriyaki-glazed, flaky and tender filets that we often see on top of rice at Japanese restaurants (although, most of those are in fact farm raised in Taiwan). These eels, particularly when raw, resemble more snake than any fish, making it for a more difficult seafood for us foreigners to swallow. I am still having a hard time pinpointing the taste and texture of this animal- the meat was soft, but there was a bit to it at the same time, almost as if I was eating the soft cartilage of beef or a very tender piece of squid. Taste-wise, I found the stir-fried eel to be more palatable than its soupy counterpart, but both had a fairly mild flavor that wasn’t totally overpowering. It was actually much better than I would have imagined, although I couldn’t quite get the imagery of writhing eels out of my head.
Though the generous amounts of eel in each bowl was slightly picked over by yours truly as well as the six year-old that was next to me, the noodles were slurped up by everyone. Wonderfully dense and chewy and long and the perfect width- it was by far the best noodles I’ve had in a long time. And the soup- a thick, sweet and sour soup flecked with chili peppers. It wrapped itself around the long noodles, the soup so thickened with cornstarch that a spoon was almost unnecessary. Almost, because when you finish the noodles, you must have a way to finish the stuff left on the bottom of the bowl.
National Road Fried Eel 民族路炒鱔魚
MingZu Lu and Hai An Lu intersection