Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Shaved Ice.

Of all the Taiwan Treats I've cataloged, likely none are as distinctly Taiwanese as shaved ice. It's designed with Taiwan's climate in mind, as it's the perfect refreshment for a steamy-scorching subtropical summer. It can feature a variety of toppings that evoke the cuisines and produce of the island, from syrupy mango to starchy-sweet redbean and taro. And perhaps more than any other dessert, it shows off the playfully inventive nature that makes Taiwan so unique.

First, a layer of shaved or crushed ice is taken from a larger cube. Sometimes it is served 'fresh', elsewhere it is soaked in a sweet syrup. This is heaped generously into a vessel, which can range from a modest cup, to a family-sized platter. Next, toppings are heaped on- one topping, two toppings, or maybe nearly a dozen, depending on the creativity of the vendor.

I had read about shaved ice before coming to Taiwan, and I was intrigued to try it. So on our first afternoon in Taipei, Bordeaux and I found a rather modern shop that specialized in it. With stark white walls, glowing red lanterns, and an open hi-tech kitchen, it hardly resembled the simple shaved ice shops described in out guidebook. We later found out that this was a national chain, with locations all over Taiwan. The shaved ice we sampled that afternoon was 'pineapple ice', which sounded tempting, and was described on the menu as being the most traditionally Taiwanese. We took the glass mug out onto the porch, and tasted it. Though the flavor was pleasant, the pineapple flavor was way too sweet, and the syrupy consistency was terrible for the tropical heat of late afternoon. I left the shop feeling more sickened than refreshed. We tried another Meet Fresh a week later, and sampled an entirely different concoction- shaved ice with red bean, taro, and lentils. Though the wholesome starchy flavor was delicious, the ice was again way too syrupy and filling.

Thankfully, I wasn't put off from trying it all together. We searched out a different shaved ice shop, and tried a new dish- pudding shaved ice. As I've written before, pudding in Taiwan is more like a flan, or a caramel custard. The pudding was placed in the bowl first, and it was topped in a mountain of ice and sweetened condensed milk. Against all expectations, this dish was actually less filling and far more refreshing than the two we'd tried before. The non-flavored ice nicely countered the sweetness of the pudding, instead bringing out its rich milkyness.

But perhaps the best bowl we've had came after out lunch at Hsinchu's Eating Temple. In a neon-painted four story tower next to the temple, we ordered a bowl of mango shaved ice. The ice was crushed into a feathery texture, and spooned over a bowl of fresh mango and pineapple. The tropical fruits mixed perfectly with the finely shaved ice, making the ideal tropical treat for a humid tropical afternoon.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Worshiping at the Eating Temple.

At the center of Hsinchu's historic old town sits Chenghuang Temple, the City God Temple. As the protector of the local citizens, the City God also has the responsibility of monitoring their moral behavior, and of reporting on them on their day of judgment. Not everyone who visits comes to make an offering or say a prayer, however. A maze of market-stands crowd around the temple's sagging frame, offering cheap and delicious local specialties, giving the sanctuary its other name: 'The Eating Temple.'

We visited the Eating Temple near the start of Ghost Month, a particularly auspicious time to pay homage to the local deities. On the way in, we stopped at a stand selling fresh spring rolls. they were much larger than most I've seen- almost the size of a buritto- and the thin wrapping was filled with sprouts, ground pork, and a delicious peanut sauce. Moving into the temple, our eyes were clouded with smoke from a furnace burning stacks of paper money. Winding out of the temple's courtyard, we stepped among the rows of market stalls, where the lingering scent of incense entwined with the fragrance of sizzling oil and chopped garlic. We picked a spot for lunch, and ordered two dishes that are both specialties of Hsinchu.

The first dish was a simple pork-ball soup. The clear broth was only lightly flavored with celery, the focus of the soup being the locally famous pork-balls. Smoothly textured chunks of white pork, they are surprisingly tasty. Our other dish, bawang, was a little more unusual. A fat blob of white noodle with a bleeding red stamp on top, they can be visually a little off-putting. Inside the noodle casing, however, is a delicious blend of pork, garlic, and cinnamon. Though available elsewhere on the island, the Hsinchu variety is distinct for its smaller, more manageable size, and its distinctive purple hue.

Our prayers said and our meal finished, we slipped out past the throngs of diners and devotees and back into the steamy heat of the afternoon.

PS- If you can figure out what the patrons of the stand in the last photo are eating, you'll be able to guess what the next 'Taiwan Treat' will be.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Overseas Dragon.

Overseas Dragon is not a stylish chain restaurant. The tables are colorless formica, the soup spoons are disposable plastic. And the walls are just as likely to be decorated with a cheap poster of a European landscape as to be left totally bare. But they make a delicious fast food lunch- like the spicy fried Korean-style dumplings pictured above.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Pudding Milk Tea.

I've written about pudding milk here in Taiwan- but pudding milk tea is something entirely different. Not milk tea flavored like pudding, but rather milk tea filled with chunks of pudding. It's an unusual idea, distinctly Taiwanese, and it works rather well. Ideally, the milk tea should be creamy but not too sweet, so that it can balance out the richness of the pudding. And of course, an extra large straw is a requirment.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ghost Month.

The machine-gun blasts of firecrackers and clouds of smoke and burning embers announce that Ghost Month is upon us. The guards of the lower realm have taken vacation, and they've set the spirits free to roam the earth until they return.

With no boundaries between living and dead, this is the best time to appease one's departed ancestors. Generous offerings are laid out, meals are served to empty seats, and paper money is burned in large smoke-billowing stacks.

Given that ghosts have more freedom than usual, it's best to take some caution in Ghost Month. It's a bad time to be born, and you shouldn't swim in rivers or lake- the spirits dwell below the waters surface. In case you're still worried about the ghosts, parades are held in which dancers dress as the four ghost-guards, to remind the spirits that they are waiting to contain them once again...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beijing Spicy Duck.

Since I'm not much of an Olympics fan, the closest I'm getting to thinking about the Chinese capital is in my adoration of the above dish: Beijing spicy duck. Known in the west more commonly as Peking Duck, establishments that specialize in this dish are instantly recognizable by the rows of deep red ducks hanging in their window.

Upon ordering, they deftly slice thin cuts of duck meat, arrange it neatly on a plate, and wrap it in plastic. The rest of the duck is chopped roughly with a cleaver, tossed into a sizzling wok, and fried with basil and chili sauce. All of this is tossed in a plastic bag, along with a stack of thin pancakes, a packet of green onions, and some tiny bags of hoisin sauce. Though sold at simple street-side stands, it's not street-food in the classic sense in that you can't pick it up and eat it as you stroll away. Instead, you take everything with you to assemble the meal at home. You wrap the sliced duck, rich dark sauce, and scallions in a thin pancake, and enjoy. The stir-fried duck and basil is a little too bony to wrap with- but it's delicious eaten on its own.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

To Run Business/Drink Tea.

I'm rather fond of these "To Run Business/Drink Tea" signs. What a stellar alternative to boring old "Open/Closed."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A little more street-food in Taipei.

When Bordeaux introduced me to Taipei, we spent almost the entire weekend sampling xiaochi, Taiwan's little eats. Though most of our eating on this last trip was confined to full meals, we did manage to fit in a few smaller snacks.

While getting lost on the way to our hotel, we came across this man, who was toiling away at an outdoor bakery. I'm used to seeing street-side walks and grills, but this man actually had several ovens on his sidewalk corner. Tempted, we picked up one of his offerings. The crisp pastry broke away to reveal a tasty paste of ground white sesame seeds.

After some shopping later that evening, we passed a grill stand offering some of Taipei's famous sausages. While not exactly pretty to look at, they were delicious- surprisingly spicy, and laced with a strong garlic aroma.

The next afternoon, we came across a stand stacked with lopsided pancakes. Though I was familiar with these treats, I knew them primarily as dessert- filled with redbean, or Thai custard. But here, they also came in a variety of savory flavors. We picked up one filled with tuna. Though Bordeaux was put off by the slightly sweet pancake and salty tuna, I rather liked the unusual combination.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Mango Green Tea.

Stopping by a drink stand on a sweltering walk home from school, I picked up a mango green tea. Not a mango flavored green tea, but rather a blend of fresh mango, ice, and chilled green tea. It was ideal for chilling off in the afternoon heat- icy, fresh, and not overly creamy. Though I love the blended mango smoothies on their own, they can be a little sweet- the green tea added a nice nuance, and an attractively flowery flavor.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A High-Speed Weekend in Taipei.

Since my birthday fell on a weekday this year (a weekday spent with twelve screaming and sobbing children, as a note), Bordeaux decided to take me away for the weekend before. We decided to go to Taipei, for some shopping, excellent food, and a little sightseeing. I work until noon on Saturdays, but that wasn’t going to get in our way- we were doing this weekend high speed.

The acceleration began as soon as my Saturday class ended, as we zipped over to the nearby HSR (High-Speed Rail) Station. Where Hsinchu’s old train station looks like it belongs in the English countryside of children’s storybook, the HSR Station is firmly rooted in the cutting-edge present. A sleek shell of steel and glass, it looked almost more like an airport than a train station. Within an hour of Bordeaux buying our tickets, our train burst onto the platform, and we stepped in. The doors closed, and the train seemed to instantly pick up speed- thrusting us through rice-paddies, mountain tunnels, sprawling suburbs, and into downtown Taipei.

Our first stop was Ximen, a hip neighborhood of independent shops and funky cafes. After refueling on coffee, we checked out the incredible galleries and boutique shopping at the market at the Red House. Housed in and around an historic brick building, the market included vendors selling hand-made ties, t-shirts with modern Taiwanese graphics, and stationary printed with cute cartoon characters. We headed out in the evening for more shopping- including an exciting stop at Ikea (we don’t have one in Bangkok)- and a delicious dinner of Shanghainese food.

The speed picked up the next morning, when we headed to Taipei 101. The tallest building in the world (at the time of writing), Taipei 101 also has the fastest elevators in the world. After glancing around the high-end shopping mall below, we stepped into the elevators, which rocketed up to the 89th floor in an unbelievable 40 seconds.

The view from the top was rather hazy, but that somehow only added to our sense of height- the edge of the city seemed to disappear beyond skyscrapers and green peaks into white fog. We touristed up the experience as much as we could- listened to the audio tour, send postcards from the top, and took lots of photos- did everything but have our photos taken hugging the blue-screen 101.

After a quick lunch, we boarded the HSR for our trip back to Hsinchu- both so wiped out, that we fell asleep almost as soon as we hit our seats.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hakkanese lunch-box.

Searching for lunch in downtown Taipei, Bordeaux and I scanned the offerings on a street lined with local fast-food restaurants. Ignoring the sushi shops and shwarma joints, we picked a spot that specialized in Hakkanese-style lunchboxes. Stepping into the cramped interior, we had the strange sense of almost being back in Beipu. The dimly-lit room was decorated to look like a rural teahouse, with wooden walls, roughly hewn tables, and glowing paper lanterns. Our lunchboxes were set in front of us, and we could examine what goes into Hakkanese fast-food: we each had a slightly caramelized chicken leg, a pile of slightly-oily egg noodles, and some fatty pork. If you think that sounds rather heavy- you’re completely right. As tasty as it was, and as hungry as we had been when we sat down, neither of us could finish our lunch. And we could barely touch our dessert- a glutinous rice dumpling, peaked in white sugar. Interestingly, we’d felt the same after out lunch in Beipu. So effectively, they managed to create not just the atmosphere of a rural Hakkanese lunch- but the feeling as well.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tentacle Burger.

I rather like the Japanese fast-food chain MOS Burger back in Bangkok, but I am a little disappointed that they don't offer the octopus burger that they have here in Taiwan. Can you make out the little purple tentacles peeking out of the breaded coating?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Taiwan Treats: A Birthday Eggtart.

Never one to be thrown by having to celebrate my birthday in a different country, Bordeaux surprised me this morning not with a birthday cake, but with a two-tiered birthday egg tart. Along with the archaic name 'Isla Formosa', egg tarts are one of the few traces of lingering Portuguese influence on the island. They're also one of the tastiest confections available in Taiwan. We haven't had these ones yet- I'll update tomorrow to let you know how they were.

Editor's note: Thanks for the birthday messages! The eggtarts were great, and even had a little surprise jelly inside. So Taiwan!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Along the avenues and alleyways of Taipei.

This past weekend, in advance of my upcoming 25th, Bordeaux took me to Taipei. Most of our time was spent reveling in the high-tech, futuristic wonders of the city (more on that later). However, while meandering along city streets and alleyways, we also took in the more unusual charms of the city.

Some sights evoked the older charms of the city, like this incredible tea shop. I'd love to take some of those massive green enamel urns home...

Some sights were just strange- like this woman briskly walking a full grown pig on a leash. I should point out that this is the second time since I arrived in Taiwan that I've seen a woman walking a pig on a leash.

Perhaps most intriguing of all was this small pineapple pizza set in front of a Pizza Hut. Not advertising, but in fact a personal-pan offering to the gods, wreathed with smoke from a cardboard-cup incense urn.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Coffee Jelly.

I normally opt for milk tea or a fruit smoothie when stopping at a drink shop here in Taiwan, but last week I decided to try a coffee. But since this is Taiwan, I decided to get it in a local style- filled with jelly. The chunks of dark brown jelly were slipped into the cup, coffee was poured in, and the whole thing was sealed, for me to pierce with a straw later. Trying it when I got home, I was impressed with how good it was. The coffee was strong and rich, with a sweet creaminess that reminded me almost of coffee back in Southeast Asia. The main difference here was the jelly: in addition to adding an unusual texture, it added a nice caramel flavor.