I recently watched the Taipei episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” (big thanks to Thinking About Languages for the heads up). To be honest this was the first episode I’ve seen since the show first aired in November of 2011. I’m a die-hard junkie of “No Reservations,” often times watching it to scout for future travel destinations. I didn’t enjoy everything that Bourdain and his producers chose to highlight (the dancing and guns segment in Greece was a little odd), but they did a solid job of showcasing the glamorous and gritty of different countries.
The premise of “The Layover” is different from “No Reservations” in that Bourdain only spends 48 hours in each location, mainly focusing on the must-see, must-do and must-eat. We still have the normal bleeping-out of Bourdain’s colorful language and a solid mixture of destination insiders to consult, but the clock is always ticking. It’s not a format I would personally ascribe to for visiting anywhere, but it works for the purposes of television.
That being said, I couldn’t resist comparing Bourdain’s view of Taipei to that of Eddie Huang, the badboy chef/hipster host of Vice Magazine’s ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ Here, the Taiwanese American raised in Orlando but based in New York, along with his crew, strive to “venture into subculture through the lens of food” (though the food part sometimes takes a backseat to other subjects). Since the show’s release (via YouTube) last October Huang has shown us some of the lesser known angles of his destinations (he goes hunting for rabbits in Oakland), utilizing an eclectic cast of chaperones and a heavy dose of east coast slang. It’s not the type of stuff you’d find on the Travel Channel, but that’s not surprising given Vice’s reputation pushing the envelope.
Coincidentally, the last segment of “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” was released a week after ‘The Layover’ and naturally I thought the two hosts would present us with different but equally important views of the island. After watching however, I was surprised at how similar the two episodes were. Normally Chef Huang has a penchant for slamming other celebrity chefs.
Both Huang and Bourdain do a good job of talking about the different foods they sample and Huang in particular seems to dim his east coast bravado when doing so, taking great care to explain the different flavors and textures. They both stroll throug night markets stopping periodically to showcase a specific item; Bourdain quickly gobbles down a pork belly gua bao (steamed bun sandwich) at the Keelung night market and Huang pauses to joke about penis shaped waffles at the night market in Shilin.
The two hosts also visit the 24-hour shrimp fishing restaurant, Cheun Chang as well as a place where western and Taiwanese fare is served in different types of miniature toilets. Neither of them seem to enjoy either experience which makes me think the shrimp fishing and toilet food segments were included only for their novelty.
I could see why both hosts decided to include a trip to Din Tai Fong. Bourdain and Huang rave about how good the restaurant’s soup dumplings are, and the process of how they’re made is worth showcasing. I’ve never been there personally, but I’m inclined to seek the place out next time I’m in Taipei. (If there’s a Din Tai Fong chain in Kaohsiung let me know and the first round of dumplings is on me.)
Given all the similarities between “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” and “The Layover: Taipei” there’s still enough differences to warrant taking in both. Bourdain has a drink or two during his time in Taipei, but Huang goes for the gusto and picks up some betelnut, a popular Asian stimulant that is chewed–similar to chewing tobacco. Huang (who speaks fluent Chinese) is able to mix it with locals without a translator and is thus easily able to tackle the sticky subject of Taiwanese independence, while Bourdain focuses keeps it pithy with conversations about strippers at Taiwanese funerals and an odd form of martial arts. The aims of “The Layover” involve giving a short-term visitor an idea of what to see on a visit, but “Fresh Off the Boat” attempts (with varied success) to unearth the layers of culture often unseen by tourists. Fair enough.
I haven’t been here long enough to decipher which account of Taiwan is more encapsulating, but I’d love to hear feedback from anybody who has.
Fresh Off the Boat has two episodes in Taiwan, broken up into six parts. Find part one as well as The Layover: Taipei below.