Thursday, November 29, 2012

guest post! Taiwan: a taste of home

I am so stoked about this week's post, you guys! You see, my main man Bryan (aka @cashewchicken) is from Taiwan and he recently went back there to visit his family. Since Bryan is always taking photos of everything he eats anyway, I asked him if he would be willing to do a guest post about Taiwanese food. The following is what he came up with... eat your heart out, Andrew Zimmern! I'm dying to visit a night market after reading this! Thanks, BCH!!
When going out with friends, I often hear the phrase “Oh, this (thing, aroma, flavor, etc.) reminds me of my childhood!” When that phrase is being uttered, I find myself struggling to relate to that sentiment. Although I have spent over half of my life living in the US, and having visited various “authentic” Chinese restaurants, I rarely taste dishes that truly take me back to my childhood.

Over the last couple of years, I have become more aware of my palate and my food preferences, largely because of a new group of friends I have come to know and love. While I don’t consider myself to be an outright foodie. I have certainly gained a new level of appreciation for the food I am eating.

 I recently took 3 weeks off and visited Taiwan (Where I am originally from). I tell my family I am there to visit them, but I am also there to rediscover some of the flavors and dishes that remind me of my childhood.

 1)      豬血糕; Zhu Xie Gao (Pig’s blood cake)

A very simple combination of pig’s blood mixed with rice. When the mixture sets, it is cut into rectangular strips and steamed. It is then brushed with soy sauce, some hot sauce, rolled in peanut powder and garnished with cilantro. This snack brings back memories of walking home from school on a fall day, trying to fend off the cool breeze by eating something slightly spicy.

2)      肉圓; Ba-wan / Rou yuan (meat sphere)

Depending on which part of Taiwan you visit, there are slight variations to the ingredients to this dish. Primarily, it is a gelatinous shell about the size of your fist stuffed with pork, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. It is first steamed then fried in low temperature oil. Ba-wan is cut into smaller pieces and served with a savory and slightly sweet sauce. This dish reminds me of times spent strolling in the night market with family and friends.

3)      蚵仔煎; O Ah Jian (Oyster Omelet)

My mother comes from a family of 7 and most of my aunts and uncle live relatively close to my grandparents. Needless to say, by the time I was born, my grandparents’ house was always busy. My grandfather didn’t cook much, but when he did… you better stay out of his way and steer clear of the kitchen. The oyster omelet was his signature dish, and for me it is the most sentimental dish of all.

When I eat an oyster omelet, I think of my grandfather standing over the stove, heating up the oil. I smell the aroma of oysters and scrambled eggs sizzling in the skillet. Even though the dish calls for specific mixture of tapioca starch and water, I never saw any sort of measuring devices nearby. My grandfather made magic with a coffee cup, bag of starch and a running faucet.

He passed away in 2003 and I have yet to find an O ah jian that can come close in comparison. He must have had some sort of secret ingredient?

4)      臭豆腐; Cho Dou Fu (Stinky Tofu)

This is one of the most notorious Taiwanese street foods out there, featured in Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods” when he visited “Dai’s House of Unique Stink” in Taipei. Traditionally, stinky tofu is made by soaking raw tofu in a vegetable solution for an extended period of time to allow it to ferment naturally at room temperature (which gives it a pungent aroma).

There are 4 typical ways of preparation: Raw, Steamed, Fried and grilled. After 3 attempts, I finally made it to Dai’s House of Unique Stink and enjoyed the same dishes tackled by Andrew Zimmern.

5)      蚵仔麵線; O Ah Mi Suah (Oyster noodle / Vermicelli)

 Another dish high on my list of favorites, brown vermicelli with oysters, pieces of pig intestine. It is garnished with cilantro with a splash of vinegar and hot sauce. The broth is usually mixed in with some potato starch to give it an interesting mouth feel. There are times when I am brutally reminded that the broth retains heat REALLY well due to the starchy consistency. (ouch!)

6)      魯肉飯; Lou Ro Fan (Stewed pork over rice)

Perhaps one of the most prolific Taiwanese street foods. You can find it in just about every street corner and at night markets. Each vendor boasts a secret recipe going back several generations. One of the vendors I spoke to said her great, great, grandfather turned down an offer from a Dutch East India Company representative to purchase the recipe. (lolz!)

The basic ingredients are simple: pork, minced mushrooms and bamboo shoots. The rest is in the stew and the combination of spices. Some can be tangy and a bit smoky. Others are sweet and spicy. It’s all based on personal preference. Lou Ro Fan is typically served over a bed of rice with a side of pickled radish and some bamboo shoots.

7)      豆花; Dou Hua (Tofu Pudding)

One of my favorite desserts in Taiwan! Perfect on a hot, humid summer day. It is made with soft, delicate tofu, mixed in with some boiled peanuts, sweet syrup and topped with shaved ice. The best part? It is usually served in small portions, and you can find at least a dozen dou hua vendors in a typical night market. They provide much needed relief from the oh-so-tough task of meandering through the night markets. It can also be served warm, with ginger infused syrup to warm up your belly during cooler weather.

8)      ; Fan Tuan (rice roll)

A breakfast must - the traditional fan tuan has very few ingredients: fried dough sticks, pork wool and pickled radish, it is wrapped up inside a sticky rice bundle. With the abundance of breakfast vendors all over the place, some have ventured out to include other items into the mix such as scrambled eggs, fish, pork pieces, etc.
Eating a fan tuan can be a fun, interactive experience. Though the bundle is held together by sticky rice, you will still need to manipulate it after every bite to ensure maximum cohesion. Otherwise, be prepared to receive some odd looks when you realize you have rice all over your lap.
9)      火鍋; Huo Guo (Hot pot)

The Chinese food culture is best summed up by huo guo, where family and friends gather around a pot of simmering broth over a small gas stove and eat as you cook. It is a perfect time to eat, drink and socialize to your heart’s content (or until you run out of propane).

A traditional huo guo features a community pot in the middle of the table. However, in recent years, most establishments began serving on personal cooking vessels. This approach is not only more sanitary, it also allows each person to mix and match their own ingredients, resulting in a glorious and flavorful soup to savor at the end of the meal.

10)  Sushi / Sashimi

As a child, I avoided sashimi completely despite its tremendous presence in the Taiwanese food repertoire. I did not understand why people would want to eat something that looks pink, yellow and sometimes even a bit slimy. It all changed when my grandfather picked up a piece of tuna belly, laid it on my plate, looked at me and said “try this.”

I started to whine, felt a pinch on my leg from my mom, who was two seats away (how did she do that??) As a 10 year old, you simply do not say no to the patriarch, especially when he picks up the first serving off of a plate and gives it to the youngest member of the family.

Ok. Let’s get this over with… No, no wasabi, it will only make it tougher to swallow. Here we go.
Smooth, buttery, silky and a hint of sweetness…. There it is, the first of many!

There are simply too many deliciousness to include in one post. Here are my honorable mentions:

If you do get a chance to visit Taiwan, I invite you to seek out some of these dishes and make some memories of your own.

I dedicate this to my grandfather, who inadvertently unleashed the sushi eating machine inside of me. And to my mom and dad, who never let me say “No” when it comes to trying new foods.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Iron Stef Approved Gifts: Kitchen Gadgets

My first gift guide covered my favorite cookbooks. For my second, check out some kitchen tools that I think are essential for home cooks. I really have this stuff, and I really use it! What good is a gift if it isn't useful, right?

Stone (Granite) Mortar and Pestle, 7 in, 2+ cup capacity
Grind spices together for rubs, pulverize garlic or ginger, make guacamole, make classic aioli... also great for stress relief!

OXO Good Grips Pepper Grinder
There are prettier pepper grinders out there (and I want them all), but I like my little utilitarian one. It works well and lets you pick from several grind sizes. I love fresh pepper. I would get a tattoo of peppercorns, but I haven't figured out how to do that without them just looking like moles.

Amco 3-Quart Stainless Steel Mixing bowl
Great for so many things. Get a couple of the same size so you can do the awesome garlic peeling trick!

Norpro Silicone Mini Pinch Bowls, 4 Piece Set
What an awesome hostess or housewarming gift. Cute and really helpful for mise en place.

Microplane 40020 Classic Zester/Grater
For cheese, zesting citrus, grating nutmeg, etc. etc. etc. A Must-have!!

Le Creuset Stoneware Garlic Keeper, Dune
2 of a cook's favorite things... garlic and Le Creuset!

Orka All-Silicone Spatula, Red
I can't stand 2 piece spatulas because I can't help but think of all the gunk that gets caught up between the head and the handle. One piece spatulas are fantastic, clean and the silicon ones are great multi-taskers.

Victorinox 47521 10-Inch Chef's Knife, Black Fibrox Handle
Sure I have a fancy expensive chef's knife, but this baby is my go-to. A great knife for a great price. I'm told they are used in professional kitchens alot. A corporate chef friend turned me on to them. The pairing knife is also essential.

Helen Chen's Asian Kitchen 5-inch Spider Strainer
SPIDER! good for all kinds of fishing things out of stuff. :)

What are your kitchen essentials?!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Iron Stef Approved Gifts: Cookbooks

'Tis the season for gift guides! who doesn't love lists of things to buy! I thought I'd do a series of little bonus posts featuring stuff that would make perfect gifts for you favorite food lover. First up, some of my all-time favorite cookbooks! I know I'm forgetting a few, and you can feel free to remind me in the comments. This is a solid list, though... some new, some classic, some for beginners, some for seasoned cooks.... dig in! (click the photos of the covers to link to their amazon page)

Twenty by Michael Ruhlman
Ruhlman rules, man. (I still squee when I remember that time I met him!)This is a cookbook that focuses on techniques and basics... it will make you a better cook, even when you are not using the recipes directly from it. It will make you less reliant on recipes!

Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
Classic French comfort food from one of the best writers around. This book has gorgeous recipes for feeding a family, with entertaining commentary and anecdotes. Classic.

Morimoto, by Morimoto
My favorite Iron Chef provides some of the most stunning recipes I've ever seen. Get this book even if you don't cook... just to look at it. Gorgeous.

Momofuko by David Chang
David Chang is one of the most influential chef's today. This is another super-gorgeous book of recipes that you may not have the patience to make, but holy moly, you will be inspired, and that's really what cookbooks should do.

The Family Meal by Ferran Adria
Photo-by-photo instructions for making meals for your family from one of the most cutting edge chefs of our time! Crazy.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson
Any cookbook by Nigella, really. I included this one in particular for those people on your list who might think that Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee (blech blech blech) are the only bitches that can cook fast meals. These recipes are quick, simple and made with real stuff.

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
The title says it all, really. Bittman is the best at really teaching people to cook through simple recipes combined with basic techniques and food knowledge.

Forking Fantastic by Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynolds
I had the pleasure of meeting the awesome ladies who wrote this book. Besides being super fun and nice, they really break down dinner parties to a much more stress-free, casual level, with recipes, menus and party tips. Like, really good party tips.

I Like You by Amy Sedaris
This is my go-to gift for housewarming and hostesses. It's hilarious while having some really good recipes!

Arabesque by Claudia Roden
Mediterranean and Arab cooking within reach while remaining exotic and beautiful.

Pork & Sons by Stéphane Reynaud
PORK RULES. and this book is published by Phaidon, so you know it's pretty. I made the Ratatouille from it in this post.

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan
We all know what it's like to feel misunderstood at some point (or points) in our life, right? Can you imagine how fat feels? It's blamed for EVERYTHING! But it shouldn't be. Fat is good! And McLagan does it justice with wonderful recipes.

Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan
Greenspan is known for her baking books, which are also great. When I got this book, though, I bookmarked just about every page... this book makes me want to spend all my time cooking. Every recipe begs to be made.

So what books would you add to this list?
Stay tuned for more gift-guide posts the next couple of weeks!