I could hardly believe when I “met” Kelsey Freeman on Twitter last summer that she was about to embark on a 10-week trip to France on $1,000. I wanted to know her secret — I’m young, I’m poor, but I’m an insufferable Francophile. How did she do it?
It turns out that it’s all about priorities. She’d rather people watch than go to a museum, for example, and she’d rather enjoy the countryside for a month than Paris for a week. Where do you want to put your money and what are or aren’t you willing to give up? It’s a simple but brilliant point.
Personally, the one thing I always have a hard time compromising on is great food — which is why I’m always so happy to visit my hometown of Taipei. When it comes to eats on this tiny Asian island, you rarely have to choose between taste and price. Sure, the city has it’s share of tremendous fine dining establishments, but a more than satisfying meal can easily cost less than $3 to $5 (tax included).
One of the first stops I always make when I’m home is a small mom-and-pop eatery right next to Wellcome supermarket in Tien Mu Square. I’ve been a loyal customer since my high school days at the nearby Taipei American School, when my friends and I would make a lunch outing here every couple of weeks. Even now, I usually opt for the wonton and bean sprout guo tiao, or thick rice noodles, with some shared sides to round out the meal. The noodles themselves are less than $2, and the bill’s rarely come out to over $3 per person.
Before that, though, I suppose I first technically set out for breakfast bright and early. Night owl I might be, but the Taiwanese selections for the most important meal of the day can rouse me out of bed at 8am with or without jet lag. While a big bowl of soymilk is a locally beloved default, I’m particularly partial to the roasted rice adaptation, the thick and fragrant mi jiang. I like to pair this with a fan tuan rice ball with fried Chinese cruellers — especially the ones with roasted seaweed and pickled radishes — or egg rolls slathered with sweet soy sauce. I’ve never been able to finish all three in one sitting, but if you wake up to ravenous appetites, these won’t set you back set you back more than $3 either. [Recommendation: 永和豆漿]
Another quintessential staple in the Taiwan food experience is the potsticker, a type of dumpling fried in a skillet. I like to think of dumplings as the ultimate Chinese budget comfort food, a no-hassle and frugal fallback anytime you’re hungry. The crunchy munchy texture of the potsticker makes it my favorite out of all the dumpling varietals, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they come at about 25 cents per pop. [Recommendation: 八方雲集水餃鍋貼]
Not a pork fan? Track down a $2 niu rou juan bing beef wrap rolled in a chewy, flaky pancake similar to the famed scallion pancakes. You’ll recognize the same sweet and pasty tian mian jiang sauce used in Peking duck (in my opinion, one of the best things ever to come out of Chinese cuisine). While these pancakes are ubiquitous in the city, I find the ones from Tien Mu’s Dao Xiao Mian to be the juiciest with the best meat-to-sauce-to-scallion ratio.
For a lighter meal, I often find myself stumbling into Sushi Express, one of the city’s main conveyor sushi chains. This is the most effortless kind of self-service dining I’ve ever experienced: simply take a seat, pull plates of the food you want off the conveyor, and the restaurant will charged you by the number of dishes you accrue (typically $1 each, serving two rolls). My order is typically the same: salmon sashimi, lobster salad, ikura, and masago rolls — and of course a cup of the restaurant’s amazingly fragrant tea.
Then when it’s time for a snack, nothing scratches the salty cravings itch like a couple of tea eggs. First hard boiled, the eggs are cracked and braised in soy sauce, five spice powder, and black tea. Scary as the marbled appearance might be, the darker the eggs, the strongest the flavor — so go for the blackest ones you spot. I wouldn’t really know, but if these could be considered eggs on crack, they’d be the cheapest addiction ever at 25 cents per piece. [Recommendation: 7-11 convenience stores]
Lastly, one of my biggest guilty pleasures is the glutinous meat ball available at any night market. “Guilty” because these globs of heaven are deep fried and “pleasure” because I’ve yet to find another sweet-and-savory dish as perfect this. I’m honestly not sure what that green sprig in the above photo is what that cilantro is doing in the above serving, but there’s just something about the way the chewy skin, the meaty interior, and the mouthwatering sweet and salty sauce all come together. If I’m left with 50 cents to my name, I’d spent it on one of these in a heartbeat. [Recommendation: 淡水 night market]
What are your favorite cheap eats from around the world?