Posts Tagged ‘Taipei’

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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I’m currently in Taipei for the summer and because my Chinese is only so-so, I get incredibly nervous doing normal activities. In English, I’m an extrovert of the most obnoxious sort, but in Chinese, I’m painfully shy and awkward. So one of my greatest triumphs in recent memory was ordering breakfast at a stand near my apartment all by myself.

I live in a pretty tony neighborhood in Taipei and a lot of residents in my high-rise apartment building are American or European expats who work at the 101 building nearby, which is also a huge tourist attraction, so the menus at most restaurants around here are written in both Chinese and English or have pictures to point at. It’s generally pretty easy to get around even if, like me, you’re completely illiterate. But the breakfast stand, one of many in Taipei, a street food mecca, is for locals, so I knew I’d have to use my broken Chinese if I wanted my scallion pancake with egg.

First of all, there are two kinds of scallion pancakes here in Taipei. Many of you might be familiar with the thicker, denser kind found in many Chinese restaurants in America. I’ve never been crazy about the leaden, oily things, but I am completely in love with their flaky, pliant cousin, the zua bing.   Zua means “to grab” and bing is, I guess, best translated as “pancake.”  The zua bing is appropriately named because making it involves pulling it as it cooks on the griddle to create the flaky layers.  For those of you familiar with Malaysian cuisine, it’s somewhat similar in texture to roti canai.

So yesterday, determined to accomplish the simple task of ordering breakfast, I marched up to the stand and waited in line.  Two people walked ahead of me and I realized I was standing behind a man who had already ordered.  The woman operating the griddle asked me what I wanted and I told her a zua bing with egg.  She asked me if I wanted soy milk (a typical breakfast drink in Taiwan) and I said yes, and that I’d like it cold (a lot of people drink it hot.)  She told me how much it was, I gave her the money, she gave me my food and that was it.

There was no misunderstanding on anyone’s part, I didn’t have to give her a quizzical look because I had no idea what she was saying, she didn’t struggle to understand my accented Chinese, she didn’t try to respond to me in English.  It was a simple and efficient exchange and I got exactly what I intended to get.  Yay!

Today breakfast, tomorrow, the world!

The stand is operated by two women. The elder is in charge of the grill.

A father and son eating breakfast at the stand

A scallion pancake with egg and a tall glass of soy milk costs $1.50

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Ever since I visited Taipei last summer to work on a film, I’ve been obsessed with Taiwanese food: a tasty amalgamation of flavors from the indigenous culture and those of the Japanese and Chinese who later ruled the island and influenced the cuisine. For ages, I’ve been on the hunt for authentic Taiwanese cuisine in New York and my searches have always come up short.

Whenever I tell anyone about my longing for Taiwanese food, people inevitably suggest going to Flushing, but I’m always disappointed at the offerings there. There’s always something missing, something not quite right… just different and not in a good way.

Then I heard about Eddie Huang of Bauhaus opening up a restaurant serving Taiwanese street food. Hooray! At first given the cheeky (if unfortunate) name Crackhaus (the community board didn’t like that one), it was eventually renamed Xiao Ye after a meal similar to what Americans might call a “midnight snack” except instead of sneaking down to the fridge in your bunny slippers, you take to the streets.

I wrote about one of Taiwan’s most famous night markets in Keelung here: https://joycewu.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/keelung-night-market/

The food blogosphere was abuzz with news of Huang’s adventures in Taiwan gathering inspiration from the culture and training with the locals at a culinary school.  I kept tabs on his progress and the restaurant’s and was so excited when I saw a profile on NY Mag’s site proclaiming that it “Recently Opened!”  A page also popped up on Yelp with only one review from someone who had tasted a dish that was being previewed at the Hester Street Fair.

I tweeted to Eater and asked if anyone had been to Xiao Ye and if they had any recommendations.  No responses.  And suspiciously, there was no phone number listed on the NY Mag profile or the Yelp review.  There was only the address: 198 Orchard Street.

Last week Eater debuted the menu and re-posted a craigslist ad (which has since been flagged for removal) seeking employees:”Whatchu know about eating rappers for lunch and spittin’ out the chain? If you can cook and like the other other white meat, holla back.” Hilarious, I guess.  But there was no mention of an actual opening date.

Back in April, NBC New York’s Feast blog reported a possible soft opening on May 13, but it was unclear as to whether or not that actually happened since more recent items were saying June.  My intrepid foodie friends and I decided to meet there on Friday since we had at least one reasonably reliable source that said it had already opened.

We figured if NY Mag was wrong and NBC’s information wasn’t up to date and it was somehow still not open, we’d just go to one of the many other restaurants in the Lower East Side.  When I got there, I was disappointed to see that Xiao Ye had, in fact, not opened.  Blue Elm, the French-African fusion restaurant it was meant to take over, was still operating.  (Though just barely.  At 8:00 on a Friday night, there were maybe four people eating.)

So what’s the deal?  If I were a real food journalist, I might have gone inside and asked.  But I didn’t have the heart to go up to a waitress who was working at a restaurant that was so clearly on its last legs and ask when the place I really wanted was going to shut it down and replace it.  And if I were a real food journalist, I might try to contact Eddie Huang, who has his own food blog, which is interesting, I suppose, if not terribly informative.  Just tell me when the damn place is opening!  Just tell me!  When is it opening?!

On Sunday, when I was walking home, I saw a food truck parked outside the Chase bank at Astor Place serving not kebabs but Taiwanese dumplings and bubble tea.  Maybe Eddie Huang has got it wrong.  Maybe a food truck is more in the spirit of a Taiwanese night market.  No fancy Niman Ranch pork or Angus beef, just food on the street at night, cheap and quick.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Please, Eddie, please, Eddie, please!  Just open up already!  I can’t wait!

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Din Tai Fung

I’m way behind on my giant backlog of things I want to share from this summer’s gustatory adventures. Please bear with me as I dig up the best food from the past couple months before I get too busy to eat, much less blog about it.

During my stay in Taipei, many of you will recall how I spent weeks extolling the virtues of Din Tai Fung, the famed dumpling mecca where people line up around the block like it’s 1977 and they’re trying to get into Studio 54.

I’ve already said that every dumpling I have from now on until the day I die will be compared to those dumplings and I stand by that statement, but rather than keep writing about them, I figured I owed you some photos.  Feast your eyes on this:

The famed xiao long bao (steamed pork soup dumplings)

There is always plenty of sliced fresh ginger and exceedingly polite, attractive young servers to offer you more should you start to run low.

The famed xiao long bao (steamed pork soup dumplings) are obviously a must, but the dessert dumplings are surprisingly tasty.  My favorite was the soft, creamy taro.  And of course, the mashed sweet red bean, since dessert isn’t dessert in Asia unless it’s stuffed with red bean.  It’s like chocolate over there.

Taro dumpling

The original shop on the corner of Xinyi Road and Yungkang Street is still the best, but one of the other outposts in Taipei has an open kitchen so you can catch a glimpse of the specially trained chefs  painstakingly creating each of the decreed number of folds (18 to be exact) by hand.  Rumor has it that the chefs must train as apprentices for an entire year before they’re allowed to make a single dumpling for customers.

Showing some love to Bao Zai, the Din Tai Fung mascot.  Hes a giant dumpling serving dumplings

Showing some love to Bao Zai, the Din Tai Fung mascot. He's a giant dumpling who has no problem serving his own kind to be eaten. Disturbing but delicious.

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I really only have three major deal breakers when it comes to men. I could never date a smoker or someone who doesn’t want children and I could most certainly never date a picky eater.  And I’m sorry to say, but I’ve always considered vegetarians a subset of picky eaters.

I know you may have ethical or religious reasons for being a vegetarian and I respect that, I really do, but food and the experience of eating it at home, in restaurants, on the street, in different countries is far too important to me to be with someone who puts such large restrictions on what they eat.

Ironically, I happen to be working on a film in which a man, separated from his true love for 40 years, decides to abstain from meat as a sign of his devotion and a tribute to the purity of his love and ends up becoming a vegetarian chef.  I think the significance of all that requires some cultural context that I’m not quite qualified to give, but it seems like a romantic notion.

It was hard for me to unthink my stereotypes about vegetarians and the restaurants that cater to them.  Aside from maybe Pure Food & Wine or Dirt Candy (which I have yet to try), vegetarian food in New York seems mostly limited to healthful slops of mung beans and kale shoveled down by animal rights activists, NYU undergrads or self-satisfied yoga practitioners.  The same sort of people who don’t seem to actually enjoy food and  in fact, give up eating altogether for weeks at time in the name of “cleansing” parts of their anatomy that were never really meant to be clean. 

In Taiwan, however, vegetarian cuisine is elevated to something of an art.  Earlier this week, my family friends took me to Evergreen, a bi-level vegetarian restaurant that has a  casual buffet downstairs and a more elegant dining room upstairs.  Unlike most restaurants in Taiwan, which serve food “family style,” there is a tasting menu with several courses, which are served in individual portions.

We began with what I think was the best part of the meal: a juice that was made from yam leaves, apples and lemon.  Though the drink had absolutely no sweeteners (natural or otherwise), it was amazingly sweet and really rather delicious.  It tasted incredibly fragrant and fresh and we were told to drink it immediately because the ingredients would begin to oxidize after a few minutes.

Other excellent dishes included a bean curd skin dish that had just the right crispy layers outside and juicy, chewy center that might almost make you forget you’re not eating meat:

A mock shark’s fin soup that had bamboo shoots, mushrooms, scallions, cilantro and taro.

Sauteed yam leaves with fresh ginger in some sort of delicious sauce

A hand roll, which appeared pretty pedestrian when it was first placed in front of me, but ended up being surprisingly tasty.  My mother’s friend didn’t know the English word for those beige wirey things that gave it a fantastic crunch, but whatever they were, they were yummy. 

Some sort of vinegar non-alcoholic digestif, the only beverage I’ve had in Taiwan that was served with ice. 

I’ve started to really enjoy drinking vinegars and had pinapple and rose-flavored ones at a different restaurant.  Just don’t make the same mistake I did, which is to down it like a shot.  Apparently, it’s meant to be sipped and is supposed to aid in digestion.

Our dessert course was you tiao, deep-fried bread sticks commonly eaten at breakfast, whose name literally translated means “oil sticks.”  Despite the rather unappetizing name, they’re very tasty (like a denser, chewier churro without the cinnamon and sugar.)  They were served with hot almond milk.


I must say, I was impressed by the flavors, the presentation and the excellent service and must concede that it was more than I imagined vegetarian cuisine could be.  But I think I’ll stick to being an omnivore and maintain my hard line stance against dating vegetarians.  Is it so much to ask for a man who eats everything? 

Evergreen Vegetarian Restaurant
38 XinSheng North Road,
Section 2, Taipei
Tel: 2511-5656

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Stinky Tofu

Ah, stinky tofu… how can I explain the putrid but widely adored fermented tofu dish that has won the hearts of millions to become the unofficial national snack of Taiwan?

First, let me tell you a story about stinky tofu. When I was about 12 years old, my mother, longing for the pungent dish of her youth, decided to make her own stinky tofu in the microwave. Don’t ask me why my mother, an otherwise excellent cook, would use a microwave to cook anything, but whatever her reasons (perhaps she couldn’t wait another minute for her stinky tofu fix and wanted the quickest method possible), she did it and I was outraged.

I have an extremely keen sense of smell. That, and my vivid emotional memory, sometimes makes life rather painful. So you can imagine me at age 12, with a probably even keener sense of smell and filled with what my therapist has since termed “internalized racism,” being assaulted with the overwhelming stench of some weirdo food from some weirdo island.

The smell seemed to fill (nay, infect!) every corner of our fairly sizable suburban home. I howled, I screamed, I writhed around on the wall to wall carpeting, demanding to know how she could do such a thing. What if one of my friends were to come visit? Our home was already perpetually filled with the smells of strange dishes that weren’t lasagna. It never smelled quite “clean” to me the way my friends’ houses did: that sterile, deodorized non-smell with perhaps a hint of their mother’s perfume or apples and cinnamon, which were magically baking in some invisible oven.

What if one of my friends were to come over and smell what can only be described as rotting garbage and sweaty gym socks and I’d have to explain that in that weird country where my mother is from, they actually eat the stuff. I’d be humiliated. And in the microwave of all places… where I made my bright red boxes of Ore Ida french fries after school every day… that safe haven, my own little American embassy in an otherwise strange land, where just across the way, dried fungus and other enemies were smelling up the pantry.

I found a bottle of Lysol and started spraying the inside of the microwave with as much force as a fireman hosing down a five alarm fire. Using one hand to cover my assaulted nostrils and the other to mount my defense, I sprayed. I sprayed and I sprayed. First the kitchen, then every room in the house, no place was safe. The more I sprayed, the more the stinky tofu seemed to laugh defiantly and stink even more. It was as though the stinky tofu enjoyed the challenge and increased its stink just to show how powerful it really was.

In the end, exhausted from all the screaming, crying and spraying, I admitted defeat. The end result of my efforts was that the house just smelled like stinky tofu + Lysol. I made my mother promise never to make it again. If she loved me at all, if she cared for me even a little bit, she’d never subject me to the horror of stinky tofu ever again. She kept her promise.

15 years later, I’ve journeyed to her homeland and I decided now that I’m older and wiser with a more sophisticated palate and open mind, I should try the dish that’s so famous in Taiwan. Last night, I went with my uncle, cousin and my parents’ friends to Kiki, one of four restaurants owned by singer-turned-TV-host Lan Xin Mei that feature Sichuan cuisine fused with Taiwanese flavors, and I was determined to try stinky tofu once and for all.

There are two kinds of stinky tofu: steamed and deep-fried. The steamed kind is stinkier and I decided that if I was going to try it, I should really go for it. As my friend Ryan and I like to say, usually right before we make a potentially disastrous decision on a film set, “Go big or go home.”

Before the stinky tofu made its pungent grand entrance at our table, we drank Kiki’s famed sour plum juice. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. If you’ve never had it, you should brace yourself. I thought it would be vaguely like iced tea with a hint of plum, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever had or can describe. It must be one of those tastes that doesn’t exist in the western palate.

We also had several really excellent dishes. My favorite was the egg-fried tofu: perfectly soft tofu that has a gossamer coating of egg and is very gently fried to a golden brown and manages to preserve the silky consistency while giving it that delicious fried dim sum-y taste without any of the greasiness.

“Fly Head”: Chinese chives (also known as “wine vegetable” because of its similarity in taste to wine), red chilies, minced pork and black beans.

We also had braised chili beef, leafy greens cooked in fermented bean curd  and sea bass covered in some sort of dried bean.

But then came the moment of truth: my old nemesis Stinky Tofu arrived. We ordered it in mala sauce, a typical spicy Sichuan sauce comprised of chili peppers, garlic and dou ban jiang , a paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and spices. Because a fan was mercifully blowing the air towards the opposite side of the table, I didn’t feel the full brunt of the stinkiness.

It seemed pretty harmless at first glance. It was just tofu. What was the big deal?  I took a piece and as I started to bring it closer to my nose, the rotting garbage and sweaty gym socks came back to me. I started to feel dizzy, I thought I might vomit. I think I even gagged a little. “Smells disgusting, but tastes wonderful,” my mother’s friend said. I didn’t want to miss out on one of Taiwan’s most famous delicacies, I didn’t come this far to chicken out now, I thought, so I plugged my nose with one hand and put the dreaded thing in my mouth with the other.

This isn’t so bad, I thought. It tastes… like tofu. I decided to unplug my nose while I finished chewing. But then I started to smell the rotting garbage and sweaty gym socks again and I could feel my stomach turning. I swallowed it quickly, but its effects lingered. I felt slightly ill for the rest of the meal and my appetite was completely gone. Stinky tofu could be a new diet trick, the best appetite suppressant ever. Try a bite and you won’t want to eat another thing for hours.

When I came home, I spoke to my mother on Skype and told her I finally tried stinky tofu.  She could tell by the defeated tone in my voice that I didn’t like it.  She said it was okay.  In fact, the last time she was in Taipei she had some and didn’t really like it either.  It was different from when she was a child, not as good as she remembered it. 

Maybe stinky tofu is just a metaphor.   Maybe what my mother was trying to do 15 years ago was just microwave her way back to a place she missed, a place that probably never existed.  Maybe it wasn’t the tofu I found disgusting but my own inability to fit in anywhere.

Okay, no.  Stinky tofu is real and it’s gross, but at least now I can say I tried it.

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Ice Monster

There are a few musts in terms of eating in Taipei. The first stop when you get off the plane, bus or taxi should be the dumplings at Din Tai Fung. If you’ve managed to save any room for dessert, you should head over to Ice Monster.

Ice Monster is a little stand with outdoor seating that serves bowls of shaved ice with heaping piles of fresh fruits. It should go without saying that Taiwan’s tropical climate yields incredibly fresh, ripe exotic fruits and nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer day.

There are different combinations of fruits and the option of adding custard or sweet beans. I had the trio of fresh fruits: mango, kiwi and strawberry with mango sorbet on top. The fruit is lightly coated with evaporated milk for a hint of sweet creaminess against the ice.

I thought about whether or not Ice Monster could be exported to New York to become the next Red Mango and I don’t know if our hot, sticky summers are enough to keep a franchise going year round. If you’re in the city and really jonesing for shaved ice, before I left New York, I tried the aptly named “snowlicious” at Chickalicious Dessert Club. I was impressed by how finely ground the ice was, less like a snow cone and more like actual snow. But it had some sort of artificial green watermelon syrup on it and I prefer fresh fruits. I’ve also noticed signs for shaved ice at Dumpling Man on St. Marks. I’m not sure how good it is, but it might do in a pinch.

But if you’re in Taipei, be sure to check out the real thing:

Ice Monster
15 Yongkang St, Da’an
Phone 2394 8279

A family enjoying the all mango combination

A family enjoying the all mango combination

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