Fri, Oct 18, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: There’s something fishy about Budai

Chiayi County’s Budai Township, which has a delightful old-style seafood market, is famous for a wedding chapel in the shape of a high heel shoe

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Oysters are a major local product and can be bought unshucked like these, already shucked or cooked in soups or omelets.

Photo: Steven Crook

Most people associate Budai (布袋) in the southwestern corner of Chiayi County with fish, but that isn’t the township’s only claim to fame. It’s an excellent place to see waterbirds, among them the endangered black-faced spoonbill. There are also relics of the now-defunct salt industry.

Ecotourism and history are two of my favorite pastimes, but last week’s excursion was devoted to buying and eating seafood. I hadn’t been to Budai Harbor Fish Market (布袋港魚市場) for some years, and as we drove toward the town, I wondered if it had changed much.

Despite the striking success of the makeover that transformed part of Taipei Fish Market into Addiction Aquatic Development (AAD, 上引水產), it turned out I was right in predicting that the people running Budai Harbor Fish Market hadn’t pushed through dramatic reforms. Or even minor adjustments, for that matter.

If they visited AAD, they perhaps weren’t impressed by its soft, boutique hotel-style lighting. In Budai’s fresh-seafood emporium, as in most of Taiwan’s markets, your eyes have to constantly adjust between dank gloom and the white glare of naked light bulbs. The 40-odd eateries that operate inside the market do a roaring trade on weekends, so there’s no pressing reason to update the menus or refresh the decor. Southern folks tend to be conservative. Who wants premium sakes when you’ve got Taiwan Beer?

Having satisfied myself that nothing significant had changed, I set out to take photos in the fresh-produce area in the center of the market. Squeamish individuals may dislike the bloody fish heads, but I think local markets are visually delightful.

I also hoped to learn a bit more about seafood in Taiwan. I’ve never been much into eating creatures pulled out of the ocean, so I’ve not tried to remember the relevant vocabularly in English or Chinese.

The shallow waters just off Budai are dotted with bamboo platforms on which oysters are raised, and on busy days visitors to the market get through hundreds of oyster omelets (蚵仔煎). Identical omelets are available in night markets throughout Taiwan, but deep-fried oyster-filled bao (蚵仔包) are a true Budai specialty. One bao is a substantial snack; eat two and you mightn’t need any dinner.

If you’re looking for gifts for foodie friends here in Taiwan, what English and Italian-speakers call bottarga is an option. (I’d advise against trying to take it to North America or Europe because there’s no guarantee you’ll get it through customs.) In Chinese, it’s known as wuyuzi, (烏魚子, “black mullet roe’), and it’s made by deveining roe, salting and sun-drying it, and then pressing it so it’s as hard as cheddar. Under the name “Mullet bottarga of Kaohsiung County,” it’s recognized by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity’s Ark of Taste as a Taiwanese foodway which dates from at least the 1624-1662 Dutch occupation of the Tainan area. It isn’t cheap; in the market, one catty (斤, jin, equal to 600 grams) costs up to NT$600.

If you’ve never had it, dried fish floss (魚鬆, yusong) is somewhat like the super-fine shredded pork that’s often added to congee. This product can be made from different fish, including marlin (the floss is a rich shade of orange) and bummalo (a lighter, sandier color). A couple of vendors manufacture small amounts on the spot.

There were also piles of tiny dried shrimps, freshly-caught grouper, slabs of imported salmon, and rows of mud crabs. The claws and legs of every crustacean were tied, even though it looked like the great majority of them had long given up the struggle. Ready-cooked items, popular in households where both parents are too busy with jobs to prepare meals from scratch, were also numerous.

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