Thursday, July 31, 2008

around town/downtown hsinchu.

Though downtown Hsinchu is only occasionally beautiful, it is always visually engaging. The frenzy of shop signs, sidewalk t-shirt displays, and neon swathed teenagers zipping by on motorbikes-- there's definitely something inspiring in the visual barrage.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fish-head still life.

Though we visited the Hsinchu Harbor fish market on an ill-fated search for lunch, I couldn't help but pull out my camera for a few shots. What is it about fish markets that inspire in me a still-life? In part, it's undoubtedly the pure visual appeal of glittering scales and shining fins; but I think there's something more to it.

The still-life was perfected as a genre of painting during the height of the Dutch Republic, an era when the country was at the center of a grand and wealthy trading network. The still-life painting was meant to show off expensive imported foods, in the luscious oily gleam of a painted lobster or melon. But behind the veil of grandeur was a deeper message: that inside these delicacies were the seeds of rot, decay, of wealth's own undoing. Our current consumption of the ocean's riches is quickly leaving it depleted of life, meaning that in several decades Davy Jones' cupboards might be quite bare. Given that we might be one of the last generations to enjoy a decadent seafood meal, the still life really seems a fitting form for photographing a fish market.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Log Cabin Cake.

Cuteness is very important in Taiwan. It's visible in the adorable corporate mascots of major businesses, in the smiling plastic toys sold at 7/11, and in the mannerisms of little children, groomed to be adorable. And it was visible in this cake, a slice of a chocolate roll decorated to look like a tiny log cabin. I should point out that cake in Taiwan is generally not very good. This one, for example, was more spongy than rich, with a sugary cream frosting that had almost no chocolate flavor. At least it was kind of cute, right?

Friday, July 25, 2008

A goodbye Phat Thai.

In the week before we left Thailand, Bordeaux and I made the conscious effort to get as much Thai food as we could. But since one of my favorite things about Thailand has been the incredible diversity of flavors and tastes, I decided not to order old stand-bys out of nostalgic value. Instead, I tried to order almost exclusively meals that I hadn't yet tried. And so, in my final 48 hours in Bangkok, I tasted a sour salad of pickled bamboo; savored a spicy red curry with stuffed squid; and dined on a flaky salad of crispy fried catfish topped with a green mango dressing. All were delicious, and reminded me of what an amazing country it is.

On my way out of the country, we stopped for one final meal at the Bangkok Airport's branch of the Mango Tree. Their abbreviated menu didn't offer a great variety, so I decided to go for their phat thai. Phat Thai is a dish that I almost never order in Thailand. I think there are a number of reasons for this- firstly, there are so many different amazing foods in Thailand, I don't have many things that often. But more to the point, ordering phat thai always seems like something to be slightly ashamed of- it's the most well known Thai food among foreigners, and one of the most commonly ordered. So to go into a Thai restaurant and order it makes me feel a little like I walked in and ordered a hamburger.

But when the plate was set in front of me, I was reminded of something: phat thai is really damn good. The salty noodles, crisp beansprouts, crunchy peanuts, tart lime juice, and potent chilli flakes make for an intensely Thai combination of textures and tastes. It's food like this that I tasted in Los Angeles that made me curious about Thailand in the first place.

So maybe there was a lesson waiting in that tasty noodle dish. That we can lose sight of even the best things in life, and that when things are wonderful it's easy to become jaded. We'll be returning to Bangkok at the end of August, and though we already know we won't be staying in Asia too much longer, I'll be sure not to take another bite for granted.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Getting lost with a scallion pancake.

If I go out on my own in Taiwan, I get lost.

I don't know if it's the indistinguishable buildings, the lack of landmarks, the confusing tangle of streets and alleys, or the fact that every street seems to have a clothing store, penny arcade, and milk-tea shop that looks exactly like the ones on the next street. Whatever the reason- I've basically given up trying to get anywhere on my own.

While lost in downtown Hsinchu, I came across an alley lined with noodle shops and take-away stands. One stand seemed to be particularly popular, so I went to check it out. Coming closer, I saw that he was making scallion pancakes- a street food that I'd been wanting to try since we arrived. I'm still a little nervous ordering food here- partly because I don't have any language basics down. But the vendor was friendly, so I put it in my order by indicating I'd have the same thing he was making for someone else.

Sitting down on a nearby curb, I examined my purchase. Though the English term is 'scallion pancake', the bread is made with a dough, not a batter. With it's toasty golden color and flaky texture, it reminded me of the roti available in Bangkok- only here, the roti is flecked with the dark green of chopped scallions. After toasting the pancake, he'd fried a scrambled egg over it. Before folding it up, he'd seasoned it with a s thick spicy sauce. Once it had cooled, I tried it. The texture combination of the fluffy egg and crispy pancake were perfect- and the slightly sour hot sauce created a great balance the pancake's buttery flavor.

It was so tasty, that I decided I'd have to take Bordeaux to try it- if I can ever find it again.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Claw.

One of the strangest features of the Taiwanese urban landscape is the abundance of arcades: slim game-lined shops that flash neon lights and jangly music. I've found myself strangely drawn to the claw machines, which are totally addictive and a great way to lose some heavy coins while killing time. After trying for a tofu-headed toy and a Taiwan beer coin purse, I finally got my first win: a Manjiukun in China cellphone accessory. Though I have no idea what Manjiukun is- some sort of jellyroll?- and I have no plans to dangle him from my cell phone, I am rather keen on his tiny changeable outfits and stylish Eunuch's cap.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Pudding Milk.

"Pudding" is an unusual term in that it seems to mean something different in every part of the world. In the US, pudding is a very specific smooth, custard dessert- most commonly associated with the Jell-O Brand and Bill Cosby (are pudding pops still on the market?). In South Africa, 'pudding' tends to be used as a general catchall for desserts; an invitation to a potluck might ask that you bring a salad, drinks, or 'the pudding.' I have no idea what it means to the English, but I imagine it involves some sort of meat and an obscure Anglican holiday.

In Taiwan, like in the US, pudding specifies a specific dessert- only here, it's a formed caramel custard rather similar to flan. It was this kind of pudding that found itself as the flavoring for a milk-box that Bordeaux picked up for me at the minimart. The drink itself was a little unusual, though not as much as I expected. It had a slightly off-putting buttery flavor, but that was outbalanced by the pleasant taste of a creamy caramel.

Friday, July 18, 2008


With the exception of a few small showers, July in Taiwan has been marked by baking heat and searingly sunny days. That sunshine disappeared today as the brooding clouds of a tropical storm passed over the island. The city darkened, bamboo groves rattled in the wind, and the roads flooded with muddy water.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A sesame milk tea in Taichung.

The town of Taichung is famous in Taiwan for its impressive range of teahouses. Though the idea of a 'teahouse' tends to conjure images of paper lanterns, imperial interiors, and palm-sized cups, in Taichung, teahouses can be as modern or as traditional as you'd like. This is, after all, the city that gave the world bubble milk tea and pearl milk tea- thereby dropping Taiwan's median tea drinking age by at least twenty years. On a weekend visit to Taichung, we checked this out for ourselves at Teaworks, an attractively modern cafe.

Though the building was starkly modern, with angular columns lifting the glass-box interior above the earth, it contained thoughtful nods to classical Asian style. Frangipani trees blossomed around the exterior, stone Buddhas were tucked into niches in the wall, and plump red and gold koi fish swirled below the building's stilt-supported frame.

We took a table outside, where cleverly placed misters provided respite from the sultry afternoon heat. The kitchen prepared a number of small snacks, but the focus was of course on the tea. The menu offered an abundant range of brewed beverages, and had a list of milk teas that spilled from one page onto the next. After deliberating over milk teas flavored with taro and red bean, I selected a black sesame milk tea. It arrived on the table in a tall glass dripping in condensation, the creamy liquid capped in ground black sesame seeds.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Pomelo Sprite.

For those readers who, like myself, can't read Mandarin, I'll translate- this is a bottle of pomelo flavored Sprite. And for those readers who, like myself one year ago, don't know what a pomelo is, I'll explain- it's a large bowling ball sized fruit, similar to a grapefruit, but with a slightly sweeter and less bitter flesh. Native to Southeast Asia, it's also known as Chinese Grapefruit .Though it's tough work extracting the juicy pink segments from the thick, fibrous skin, the tartness of the fruit is rather enjoyable, and it's the basic ingredient for one of my favorite Thai dishes, a tangy salad called yam som o.

Considering that pomelo is a relatively Asian specific fruit, I was a little surprised to see it marketed as a flavor for an international soda. Primarily for that reason, I picked up a bottle. The product itself wasn't terribly impressive: not particularly evocative of a pomelo's flavor, and marked by the slight sugary sliminess of regular Sprite. But at the very least, it had me thinking about the intersections between consumerism and globalization. On one hand, the fact that this Sprite is pomelo flavored is a comforting sign that even in the face of international trends and dictates of taste, regional communities are able to assert their own tastes to the degree that an international corporation would develop a unique product as a response. On the other hand, is this just a clever tactic for an international corporation to expand its global economic territory?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lei cha.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Bordeaux and I braced ourselves against the drizzle and zipped into the mountains. We passed through distant Hsinchu suburbs, among Castle kindergartens and shop-sized Taoist temples, before rising above the city into the green bamboo-clad mountains.

Our destination was the town of Beipu, a popular mountain retreat at the heart of the ethnic Hakka Community. Once parked, we slogged through puddles into the town center. Weaving through the snack-stands and crowds of weekend tourists, we found a cobblestone lane lined with intimate teahouses. We selected an especially inviting one, and ducked in to shake off the last coat of rain. The waitress showed us to a heavy wooden table, set under a delicately glowing paper lantern. We knew one thing we wanted- lei cha. The rest, we asked for our waitress to suggest.

As we waited for the tea to arrive, our waitress brought us a selection of hearty Hakka snacks. There were tiny rice-cakes, coated with sesame seeds; crisp sweet potato chips; spicy fried eggs. Most intriguing of all was the kejia mashu, a heavy blob of glutinous rice, coated in a powdering of crushed peanuts. We were grateful for the dark clouds outside- on a sunny Taiwan summer day, a stodgy meal like this would have felt completely out of place.

The arrival of a black ceramic plate covered in pine nuts, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and black and white sesame seeds announced that we were ready to make lei cha. A clay pot was set in front of us, a layer of forest green tea leaves resting at the bottom. With a heavy wooden dowel, we ground the tea leaves until they were a dark pulpy paste, then we poured in the seeds. The grinding continued, until the whole paste was smooth- not an easy process, but thankfully we were assisted by a friendly Taiwanese tourist who showed us the proper way to grind. The waitress peeked at our progress from time to time, but not until she was satisfied did she bring the kettle of hot water. Pouring it in, she instructed us to stir, and finally, we had our tea.

We dished it out into ceramic bowls, and topped the thick matcha green liquid with a flurry of puffed rice. Though lei cha is considered a kind of tea, it is eaten by spoon, making it fully deserving of the title of 'cereal tea.' It was tasty and nutty, only a hint of the green tea flavor peeking out from the predominately peanuty taste. Most importantly, it filled our stomachs, and warmed us so completely that as we set out to visit a nearby shrine, we barely felt the grey drizzle that enveloped us.

Friday, July 11, 2008

View of Lion's Head #8.

Asia, you've been great, but I'm missing this view- is it time to think about heading back to Cape Town?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Taiwan Treats: WOW Frog Eggs.

I'm really not one for novelty drinks or treats sold on any gross-out qualities. Maybe it was the silliness of the concept, or the fun graphics of the toad leaving a trail of bubble eggs. Or maybe it was that the drink itself- a lemony lime juice with chunks of lemon jelly (i.e.- the frog eggs)- was actually really tasty, and a nicely refreshing treat to help cool off from the crowds of the Guangzhou night market. But whatever it was, WOW Frog Eggs totally won me over.

Monday, July 07, 2008

36 Hours of Eating Taipei.

In advance of our visit, I attempted to research Taiwanese food. Whether it was because most Taiwanese dishes are still classified as Chinese, or whether it was because there simply hasn't been much interest on the subject in the English language press, I wasn't able to find out much. I did learn, however, that Taiwan is well known for its xiaochi, its 'little eats'. So upon our arrival we set out to sample these little eats. To do so, we passed up on big meals or restaurant menus. Instead, we spent our 36 hours in Taipei among night markets and noodle stands.

Not to be deterred by any weariness from our flight, we began our search for a local meal immediately, and after dropping off our bags we headed out to the Guangzhou night market. Among the rustling tiles of mah jong tables and the whirring gears of claw machines, we searched for our dinner. In the end, we had a bit of dumpling overload: we had expected to get beef soup with pork dumplings, but instead got dumpling soup with pork dumplings. No matter- the dumplings were tasty, and the deep rusty herb-flavored broth was sufficiently exotic to signal to my stomach that we were in new territory.

Before heading out for a morning pilgrimage to a nearby temple, we stopped at a simple breakfast shop. There, we ordered two plates of danbing. A choice of tuna, cheese, or bacon is grilled with a scrambled egg, and rolled up in a thin pancake. It was splashed with sticky sauce, and served on wax paper in a plastic basket. Taken with a glass of warm soymilk, this deceptively simple breakfast offered the perfect kickstart for the day.

Midday saw our arrival in Ximending, a hip youth-oriented neighborhood of t-shirt shops and sunglass stands. Following the crowds, we stepped into line at Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodle, where we were served a viscous noodle soup in green plastic bowls. Garnished with peanut sauce and a fresh cilantro leaves, it made a tasty lunch eaten standing up.

Seeking refuge from an afternoon downpour, we ducked into Dante Coffee, a willfully generic Taiwanese chain. Though the decor was bland and the coffee just above mediocre, our tea-time snack, a Portuguese egg-tart, was surprisingly good. It was taller and deeper than most I've had, which meant that there was more buttery crust and more room for rich custard.

We travelled our farthest for dinner, which we took at the massive Shillin night market. I had expected something with the borders and definition of Bangkok's Chatuchak, but Shillin seemed to spread its web of toy stands and clothing boutiques over a confusing tangle of alleys and streets. In between the health elixirs and the racks of neon cargo shorts, there were stands offering more types of food than could be imagined- not just noodles and dumplings, but Japanese salad rolls, Indian chai, and Californian burritos. Out of reverence for Taiwan, we stuck largely to more local fare. Between a cup of almond milk and a last glass of cranberry juice, we tasted baked pork buns, grilled whole squid, and barbecued spring onion in a bacon wrapper. Filled up, and with tastebuds satisfied, we squeezed into the crowds of teenagers and were jostled to the exit.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Papaya Milk.

I had originally planned on starting my summer of writing from Taiwan with a post on the visual overload of arriving in Taipei- the view of a jagged patchwork of rice paddies cut away by churning teal waters as our plane turned sharply over the island on its way down to the runway; the mix of exotic herbs and ancient flavors in the air, contrasting with the oddly anonymous spaces of the city; or our first night dining out in a frenetic evening market. But, in the true spirit of the everyday exoticism of this blog, I decided to focus on something small: Papaya Milk, the first drink I had upon arriving in Taipei. Sold in a grade-school style milk box, Papaya Milk has the perfect rich and creamy flavor of just-blended ripe fruit. And the splashy all-orange graphics only help to make it all the more appealing.