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Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

My mother has a theory that “Western” food is better in Taiwan than it is in the West.  After spending years eating what she thought was American and European food, she was disappointed when she actually came to America and tasted what it had to offer.  So on her suggestion, I decided to try the kind of food I can always get in New York but cooked to suit the Taiwanese palate in a manner my mother deems superior.

My good friend Elaine owns a lovely chocolate shop called Casa del Cacao in the busy Eastern District of Taipei and after visiting her store one evening, I decided to have dinner in the area and stopped into a nearby Italian restaurant.  Another reason I decided to go to a European restaurant is that anyone who knows anything about Chinese food knows that you have to eat it “family style.”

In high school, one of my friends went with a big group of people to a Chinese restaurant before a Homecoming dance and everyone ordered their own plate of General Tsao’s chicken.  It was a disaster.  With Chinese food, you have to order a variety of dishes: a meat dish, a seafood dish, definitely a vegetable and usually a soup and everyone shares.  If you eat alone, you can’t possibly order all those things unless you’re Henry VIII.

The funny thing is that in New York, Chinese food is widely acknowledged as cuisine for lonely, single people.  They might as well plaster Cathy comics on the side of those white cardboard containers.  But if you eat it the way you’re supposed to, you need at least three or four people; more, if possible.  In Chinese culture, family is inherently built into the way they eat.  Most adults in Taiwan still live with their parents until they marry and oftentimes, their parents’ parents live in the same household.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t bento box-type meals for single ladies like me or that I couldn’t wander around some of the many “small eats”stands Taiwan is famous for and snack on a few things or go into the basement food court of one of Taipei’s numerous malls and have a little something.  But I wanted to just sit down and have a decent meal.

Almost all Western restaurants in Taipei have the option of a prix fixe or set menu, usually described as options A or B.

The first course was a squash soup, which was a little thin and bland.

The second course was a mundane iceberg lettuce salad with some sprouts.  There was a cherry tomato I ate before I realized I ought to take a picture. It was covered in a cloyingly sweet raspberry vinaigrette.

I was starting to doubt my mother’s assertion about European cuisine in Taiwan until the main course came.  It was pasta with a creamy but not too rich sauce that had very generous chunks of crab meat.  It was pretty damn delicious.  The plate was served with a rather impressive looking crab shell.  When I first saw it, I was a little nervous.  I was already wedging the book I was reading under plates so I could eat with both hands and wasn’t in the mood to work for my dinner.

There’s a terrific satisfaction that comes from cracking open crabs and digging around for flesh and finding a plump piece, but sometimes you just want it to be done for you.  I was in the latter sort of mood.  It reminded me of a date I once went on.  I was intrigued by empress crab claws on the menu but confessed to my date that I didn’t want to bother if they were going to be hard to eat.  He, in a very gallant manner, asked the waitress if they were, in fact, difficult to eat and she said no.

The flesh of the tiny claws was already exposed but there was still that weird cartilage thing sandwiched between the succulent parts and the only way I could manage to eat them was to carefully scrape piece by piece with my knife.  I took an inordinate amount of time and long after he finished his own meal, he was forced to sit there and watch as I slowly ate thread-sized pieces. It was embarrassing.

But luckily, this time, when I turned over the crab shell, it was empty.  Purely a garnish.  All the crab meat was already on the plate.

For dessert, I had a sort of panna cotta.  It was very milky and silky (not as firm as traditional panna cotta) and even though I told myself I’d only eat half, I used that little spoon to scrape out every last bit.

The meal also included a beverage and I chose an iced milk tea for which Taiwan is famous.  It’s similar to what my British friends call “Builder’s Tea”: strong, milky and sweet except served cold and with a straw.

The cost for this entire meal (service included)?  About $11 US.  I couldn’t even get the entree for that price in New York.  So maybe my mom was right.  Ugh.

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On Day 3 of my return to suburbia, my best friend Mark and I embarked on an eating tour of Southeastern Michigan. Before you start laughing haughtily, let me assure you that neither McDonald’s nor Krispy Kreme were stops on our tour.  In fact, despite what I tell the general public and my therapist, the Metro-Detroit area is rather diverse and we were able to sample quite a number of ethnic cuisines.  (Forgive me, but don’t you hate it when people use the phrase “ethnic cuisine”?  What cuisine is not “ethnic”?)

We were going to kick off the day at the Sahara Festival at The Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, a church with a predominately Middle-Eastern congregation.  Mark  read about the festival in a local newspaper and we were ready to enjoy some Arabic culture and food until we got to the church and noticed the parking lot was empty.  We jumped the gun a little in our excitement for falafel, shwarma, kafta and live Arabic music and traditional Dabke dances and had come a week early.

Slightly disappointed but undeterred in our quest for some good, authentic Middle-Eastern eats, we decided to have lunch at New Yasmeen Bakery in Dearborn, a city whose population is nearly 30% Arab.  On the way there, I spotted some colorful flags (the kind you might see enticing you into a car wash) and a giant sign proclaiming “Czech and Slovak American Festival.” 

Our curiosity was piqued, so Mark made an illegal u-turn and we pulled into the Sokol Detroit Cultural Center.   Sokol (from the Czech word for Falcon) is a Czech and Slavic youth movement and gymnastics organization that was founded in Prague in 1862 with the credo “a sound mind in a sound body.”

After standing in line behind three elderly women who all complained about how difficult standing was for them (one assured her companions she was okay so long as she was stooped over her walker), we finally paid the $7 admission price.  We weren’t exactly sure what this entitled us to and we were disappointed to discover the festivities didn’t start for another two hours. 

We half-heartedly walked around the booths and bought some poppy seed pastries.  We sat down in the empty gymnasium where all the tables were set up.  Mark thought the pastries were disgusting (they were little more than discs of bread with some poppy seeds spread in the center) and I was just glad that we had said yes when the woman asked us if we wanted powdered sugar on top of them.

After leafing through the festival’s program, we decided to go have lunch at New Yasmeen Bakery and come back in time for the accordion sing along.  New Yasmeen is equal parts bakery, store and deli.     

 

 

 

 

                                                                      

We had some excellent baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli and freshly baked zatar bread. Zatar is Arabic for wild thyme and is usually sold as a mixture with other herbs common to the region. Iranian and Lebanese grocery stores often sell zatar in a mix. Other mixtures might contain paprika, hyssop, olive wood, marjoram, or oregano. It is the Middle Eastern equivalent of herbes de Provence.

We enjoyed zatar the traditional way, spread with olive oil on pita bread. The lemony thyme and bitter, woody sumac were lovely on the soft, warm bread and even yummier dipped into the cool, creamy baba ghanoush. The only downside to the zatar bread is that I got a lot of spices stuck under my fingernails, but it was worth it.  For dessert, we shared a honey swirl (something like a cruller but denser and drenched in honey) and a pistachio confection.

 

After lunch, Mark wanted to stop by Alcamo’s, an Italian market, to see if they had any fresh baby artichokes.  After the cashier screamed across the store to the deli counter and the deli counter woman screamed back at the cashier, we discovered that they were out of season and that Mark would have to wait for Fall.  It wasn’t a total loss, however, as Mark picked up some Stella D’oro cookies for his mother and I got to peruse what was a fairly decent collection of Italian goods.

We made a quick stop across the street to look into the abandoned Montgomery Ward department store and toured the adjacent Arab American National Museum before returning to the Czech and Slovak American Festival, which was, by then, quite packed (with mostly octogenarians, some septugenarians and a few families with children.)  Excluding the children, we were the youngest people by about sixty years.

We tried the three varieties of perogi offered by the Czech (and Slovak) kitchen.  The cheddar cheese was a bit strange, probably because the cheese tasted like Velveeta.  A sharper cheddar (though probably not very authentic… though any kind of cheddar probably isn’t) might have been better.  The farmer cheese was better, but the star of the trio was definitely the sour kraut. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 We had a few remaining tickets (the festival booths didn’t accept cash) and decided to use them to buy drinks.  I was hoping for a Czech pilsner, but the only beer they had was Labatt Blue.  Labatt’s, like Canadian pennies, is a scourge from the north that commonly afflicts Michigan residents.

We watched the Moravian Cultural Society Dancers from Chicago, IL perform a few dances (which seemed taxing on some of the less fit ones who were quite winded after a few twirls) and went back to Mark’s house to go swimming, our bellies full of the world. 

A Moravian Cultural Society Dancer mopping the floor

A Moravian Cultural Society dancer mopping the floor

The evening ended even more gloriously than I could have imagined.  When I came home, my parents were beside themselves because their nightblooming cereus plant, whose flower they had waited three years to bloom, finally did.  Also called “Queen of the Night,” the exqusitely scented flower opens for one midsummer night then closes forever with the first rays of the morning sun.  Apparently, in Taiwan, people invite all their neighbors to come over and enjoy the flower in its fleeting moments of glory, offering them cigarettes and candy. 

As my parents and I crowded around the flower (I was videotaping and my dad was taking pictures  while my mother was exclaiming how beautiful it was), their neighbor’s teenage son came home.  As he exited his SUV, my mother called over to him and asked, “Do you want to see our flower?”  After a brief pause he said, “What?” which, to be fair, was probably an appropriate response if you saw your neighbors crouched around a plant at midnight on a Saturday night and they invited you to come look at it.  Unless it’s marijuana, I’m pretty sure that teenage boys have no interest in looking at plants.

I, however, thought it was beautiful.  I went to sleep that night, bloated from all the food and riddled with mosquito bites but happy as a clam.  Mmm… clams.

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