Friday, May 30, 2014

Taiwan Eats: Installment 1

Hi everyone! Greetings from the land of "So much to blog about, so little time." I'm doing a terrible, horrible, no-good job at this 10 year anniversary thing! Shouldn't I be posting ALL THE TIME? Or maybe I've calmed down in my old blog age... learned to just let it happen....

Life has been busy. Good busy. For instance (and this is a big instance) I went to Taiwan! What an opportunity for my first trip ever out of the country. My main man Bryan is originally from there, so I had a personal tour guide, and got to see the REAL Taipei. And the real Taipei? Is staggering. There is so much to see and so much to EAT! And I saw and ate quite a lot, considering I was only there for 7 days. For that reason, I'll need more than one post to recap everything. Because you do want me to recap it all, right?

This recap will be based on Bryan's wonderful guest post from a couple of years ago. I attempted to try all of the foods on his list of favorites, but didn't quite make it. Guess I'll have to go back....

The truck where I got my first taste of Taiwan: pigs blood cake and a chicken skin skewer.
1)      豬血糕; Zhu Xie Gao (Pig’s blood cake)
He said: 
"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." 

I say:
I had this twice! It was actually the very first thing I ate when I got into town. We picked up one of these and a skewer of heavenly chicken skin from a truck on the street while we were walking to a restaurant. I know Americans kind of cringe when they hear "pigs blood cake," but it really is delicious. Savory and tender, with the texture kind of like a mushroom sausage but slightly stickier.

(2)      肉圓; Ba-wan / Rou yuan (meat sphere)
He said: 
"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."

I say:
In proper form, I had this "ball" at a night market. Night Markets are where most of the best food in Taipei is. Al Fresco dining at it's most fun and adventurous! I loved the chewiness of the shell and the crunch of the chopped turnip inside. The sauce was pretty sweet, and went well with the ground pork filling.

3)      蚵仔煎; O Ah Jian (Oyster Omelet)
 He said:
"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?"

I say:
This dish eluded me until the 4th night I was there. We finally stumbled on an out-of-the-way storefront that specialized in them (That's how the vendors at Night Markets work, each has a specialty or maybe 3, and that's all they make.)  I'm sad that we didn't get to try these anywhere else, because apparently the ones at this place were just "meh." It was okay, but I did get to watch the women make it, and they did sell cold beer at the place. So I have an idea of how to recreate one (only better tasting, hopefully), and it was a nice restful pause after a long day of walking and eating.

4)      臭豆腐; Cho Dou Fu (Stinky Tofu)
 He said:
"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."

I say:
I gave it a fair shot, you guys. In fact, I tried it twice. But stinky tofu lives up to it's name. I tried it in a soup (not pictured) in a very good roadside sit-down restaurant on my first night. Then I tried it fried at the night market with a vinegary slaw and chile sauce. The soup one definitely brought the funk. I managed to get 3 or 4 bites down, but despite what I had heard, it actually tastes like it smells...sorry, but it really had some... rotten, feety notes. An acquired taste, for sure. The fried was better. I could see myself ordering that again. The funk was there in the aftertaste, but the oily crunch and soft fluffy middle paired with the crunchy fresh cabbage and piquant hot sauce made for a fun night-time snack. You HAVE to try stinky tofu if you visit Taiwan. You only HAVE to like it if you were born there.

5)      蚵仔麵線; O Ah Mi Suah (Oyster noodle / Vermicelli)
 He said:
"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!) "

I say:
I wasn't able to try this... next time.

6)      魯肉飯; Lou Ro Fan (Stewed pork over rice)
 He said: 
" 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."

I say:
Oh man, I had this dish twice: once at a night market and once at the airport when we were leaving. The street one was much better, of course, but they were both good. This is comfort food to the core. Slow-stewed meat, tender, savory, slightly sweet served in a bowl over rice. I felt so oddly at-home when eating this. I don't think I've had anything like it in the states, but it was somehow familiar. Now my mouth is watering again.

7)      豆花; Dou Hua (Tofu Pudding)
He said:
"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. "

I say:
Dammit! I didn't come across this stuff. It sounds so gooooood! Next time...

8)      ; Fan Tuan (rice roll)
He said:
"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." 

I say:
This might have been one of my favorite meals of the trip. Fried dough stick (which made Bryan's "runners up" section of the post) with hot sweet soy milk and the Fan Tuan, pictured on the right side. A hearty and fortifying breakfast, which had everything you want... some crunch, some sweet, some savory, but no too-strong flavors for your still-sleepy palate.

Local Duck, chicken thigh and lamb ready to go in the hot pot broth!

My personal hot pot. The burner was built into the table!
A family hot pot experience.
9)      火鍋; Huo Guo (Hot pot)
He said:
"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."

 I say:
I've had the hot pot experience on several occasions here in St. Louis, as there are a couple restaurants that offer it. It's fun and great for a group, especially on a rainy or cold day. I've really grown to love this style of meal... a group of friends sharing a pot of hot broth, cooking different meats and vegetables while enjoying each other's company. So, I was excited to try hot pot in Taiwan, one of the OG hot pot regions. The first place we went was a Japanese-style restaurant that was very focused on using local, organic, sustainable ingredients. They even had a magazine and catalogue to sell from the farms/sources where they get their food. This was an individual hot pot place. The tables we sat at had 4 holes in the table, where each person's preferred broth in a pot was set into to keep hot. You ordered what ingredients you want, and there was enough to share if you so desired. I had some chicken thigh, duck breast, a selection of fresh seafood, and a basket of various veggies. The ingredients lived up to the hype... so fresh tasting and delicious. Yay, local!

The other hot pot we had was at a family party. They had a private room at their favorite seafood restaurant where, after shots of scotch and some super-luxurious appetizers of tuna and octopus sashimi and crabs, we all shared a boiling pot of flavorful broth stuffed with fresh cabbage, veggies, and platterfuls of meats and seafood. It was a royal feast!! Loud, merry and extravagant. I felt right at home :)

A Chirashi bowl at a small sushi place. Perfect.
Late-night conveyor belt sushi... I would never go to one of these in the Midwest.

GIANT slices of tuna belly at the family meal mentioned in the hotpot story.

Octopus. I want more right now.

10)  Sushi / Sashimi 
He said:
"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! "

I say:
As a Midwesterner, far from any ocean, I was both very excited and apprehensive about getting sushi in an Island country. Excited because I knew it would better than any sushi I have ever had, and nervous because it might ruin Midwest sushi for me forever. Well, I was right... the sushi in Taiwan is ambrosial. So clean and fresh and... just exquisite. Even the conveyor belt sushi joint was better than some of St. Louis' sushi. Has it ruined me on the Midwest? Probably not... I love sushi, and I think I can still enjoy it here, but I'll be even more careful what I order. Mainly I have a greater appreciation of Sashimi and Sushi than before. Oh my gosh you guys, the Uni. Butter of the sea. Now I get it.

From Bryan's "Honorable Mentions:

Beef Noodle Soup
I would love to eat this all the time. A clean, but rich beef broth, fresh, just right noodles, tender slices of beef, onions, bok choy... I can see why this is a national dish. I need to schedule my next visit for when the Beef Noodle Soup Festival is happening.

Pork Meatballs
Next time.

Boba Milk Tea
There were little tea place at every corner/block. And I fell in LOVE with tea. I have had plenty of drinks with boba here in St. Louis, but I always get the flavored slushy ones. The milk tea is subtle but special... clean, not to sweet, not too bitter and pretty refreshing for a milk-based drink. The best tea I had in Taipei was a fresh-brewed (that's how they all were) green tea, iced, with lemon and honey. Sounds simple, but I've never had a tea so perfect. I will forever be chasing that beverage.

Grilled Squid
I need this to happen near me. So good. tends to be chewy, but they will cut it up for you and put it in a bag and you eat the charred, meaty pieces with a pointy stick as you walk. I'd be happy to eat this every day.
I also found some fried squid. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

Duck Blood Soup
Didn't get to try this, but I have had duck blood cubes at my favorite Dim Sum place, and I imagine this soup would be glorious. 

Dough Sticks
I mentioned these in the Rice Roll section... a breakfast staple that I am shocked hasn't become a thing in the states yet. Fried dough sticks... not sweat like doughnuts or funnel cake. Crunchy but ethereally light, it is usually served with a slightly sweet, heated fresh soy milk. Breakfast of distinguishing champions.

Breakfast Egg Crepe
Like the lightest, thinnest omelette you've ever had, with savory fillings and a sweet sauce. A truly great example of how to use an egg. (Don't you love the "self-cleaning" plate?)

Taiwan is a colorful, manic, alluring, mouthwatering place. Stay tuned for even more enticing photos and memories from my trip....

1 comment:

Margaret Smith said...

I enjoyed reading this blog. One of your best. Beautiful descriptions and photos. Look forward to your next one.