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) 飯糰; 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)
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!
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.