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Posts Tagged ‘Taiwan’

Taiwanese Bakeries

One of the best things about Taiwan, an island famous for its food, is the bakeries. Influenced by their Japanese counterparts, whose bakers were in turn influenced by and trained in French techniques but adapted them to satisfy Asian palates, the bakeries in Taiwan are full of mouthwatering cakes, pastries and breads of all kinds.

To my surprise, I think I’ve eaten more bread in the last couple months than I  have all year.  When given the option between cake and bread during afternoon tea in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest, the character Gwendolyn says “Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.”

It seemed odd to me that, when given a choice, you would ever choose something as bland and mundane as bread.  Bread?  Bread is the stuff you eat because you’re too hungry to wait for your meal.  Bread is what I sincerely thought wretched prisoners ate until someone’s dad who worked in drug enforcement came into my fifth grade class to talk about how a well-known hockey player was busted for smuggling drugs by taping them to the inside of his underwear and I asked if it was true what they ate when they were locked up and all the other ten year-olds laughed at my naivete.

But in Taiwan, I’ve rediscovered bread.  The bread in Taiwan is fantastic and comes in all sorts of fantastic forms from sugary pineapple-crusted loafs to garlic squid ink baguettes.

But what has been an even bigger surprise is how good plain white bread is.  White bread?  As one user of urbandictionary.com put it, the term “white bread” in slang “ implies profound cultural naïvete, blind consumerism, and an unquestioning “follower” mindset. Common trappings of the whitebread lifestyle include golf, Kenny G and Enya CDs, SUVs, an irrational fixation on lawn care, Golden Retrievers, nominally Christian religious beliefs, Old Navy clothing, moderate to conservative political views, bad Chardonnay, equally bad espresso, cookie-cutter houses, Bath & Body Works hygiene products, and very white-collar employment. Though whitebread individuals are usually white, the term is not necessarily racial in meaning – the implication lies more with the blandness, predictability, and banality of plain white bread. Accordingly, “wonderbread” is often used as a synonym.”

Ironically, while she was in grad school, my mother worked as a bookkeeper at the Wonder Bread factory in downtown Detroit.  She was paid $1.50 an hour plus all the Wonder bread she could eat.  Perhaps it was to rebel against all that I found mediocre and banal that made me turn up my nose at white bread, but maybe it was because I wasn’t eating the right kind.  The bread in Taiwan is everything that nutritionists and Gwyneth Paltrow will tell you is wrong: bleached and super-refined, but it’s so good. Somehow they manage to make it slightly flaky, which is what I think separates it from its low-brow American cousin.  It’s perfect just toasted with butter as Oscar Wilde’s heroine would have preferred.

But the mastery of Taiwanese baking isn’t limited just to bread.  Feast your eyes.

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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
台北市新生北路二段38號
Tel: 2511-5656

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Keelung Night Market

Keelung Night Market

Taiwan is famous for its night markets– crowded, carnival-esque bazaars where people gather to feast on everything from oyster omlettes to ice cream.  Last weekend, I went with some friends of friends of friends to sample some Taiwanese snacks in Keelung.  About half an hour away from Taipei by train,  Keelung is a slightly seedy port city that attracts hordes of hungry visitors to its famed night market.

I’ve said this before many, many times, but it probably bears repeating: it’s really hot in Taiwan.  Even at night, the humidity is suffocating, so while we were wading through the crowds in search of something tasty, I started sweating.  We’re talking buckets of sweat.  Dripping down my face and most places that only a select few and my doctor have seen. 

I deferred to my guides about what to eat, partly because they were locals (at least relatively) and partly because I was so distracted and unnerved by the heat and my own profuse perspiration.  We ended up at a noodle soup stand.  Hot noodle soup.  This is something I will never understand about the Taiwanese no matter how long I live here.  Though it’s becoming more and more common to drink cold beverages (especially amongst younger generations), there is a belief that consuming something below room temperature is bad for you.

It seems counter-intuitive to me to offer someone a cup of hot tea when it’s 100 degrees outside, but it’s the thing to do here.  The other day, I went to a meeting and as usual, I was sweating after a short walk from the subway.  Some of the film industry’s biggest heavyweights were in attendance and the room looked like the U.N. with its large elliptical tables and slender microphones at every seat.  I was relieved to see a cup of water in front of me and gulped it down in an effort to replenish some of the of fluids I had lost through my pores and to gain some sense of composure.

I immediately started choking.  The water was hot.  Hot enough to steep tea in.  Why on earth on a hot summer day would you serve scalding hot water to people?  Because this is Taiwan.  So there’s no such thing as a refreshing cold summer soup.  No Taiwanese equivalent of a gazpacho.  People consume hot noodle soup when it’s scorching outside with as much enthusiasm as they would on a cold winter’s night. 

Well, when in Rome (or Keelung as it were)… so I sucked it up and sat down amidst the screaming waiters and the crying children and had some hot noodle soup.  I had to stop between bites to wipe away my sweat, but it was pretty tasty.  The soup was filled with pork, shrimp, vegetables and very wide flat rice noodles topped with fried shallots.

The next stop was tempura.  Because the Japanese ruled Taiwan for about fifty years, a lot of their culinary influences remain to this day.  But Taiwanese tempura should not be confused with the traditional Japanese kind with its thin, crispy golden fried batter.  Taiwanese tempura is more like dense, sticky Korean rice cake except it’s made out of fish.  The kind we got was drizzled in a sort of sweet and sour sauce.  I wasn’t crazy about it.

A little boy eating tempura

A little boy eating tempura

We then moved on to rin bing, also called spring rolls but nothing like the fried things you get for free with your dinner from a Chinese take out place.  Bearing more of a resemblance to savory crepes or burritos, they are very thin wraps filled with pork, carrots, cabbage, peanuts, mushrooms, corn amongst other things.  I loved the harmony of colors, tastes and textures created by the hodgepodge of ingredients wrapped up in an easy to hold package.  It’s pretty much the perfect street food. 

Spring rolls before they get rolled

Spring rolls before they get rolled

But I was still seriously sweating.  Relief came in the form of mango pao pao bing(shaved ice.)  I don’t have a picture because I was too busy shoving it down my throat to photograph it.  My mother warned me against eating anything made with ice while I’m here, assuring me that it’s a one way ticket to diarrhea town, but I didn’t care.  The crunchy icicles felt so good in my mouth and I suddenly felt ten degrees cooler.  I swear if I hadn’t had eaten it, I’m not sure I would’ve made it.

I thankfully didn’t get sick as my mother predicted but devouring ice so quickly did make my stomach feel strange.  I couldn’t eat another thing after that.  Maybe the Taiwanese are right to stick to room temperature beverages.  But aren’t they also the ones who created shaved ice as a tasty way to beat the heat?  I don’t know what to think anymore except that I need to pack extra kleenex in my purse the next time I visit a night market to wipe away all the sweat. 

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