Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Scenes from a Hoi An market.

Perched at the edge of Hoi An's old town, it's crowded stands almost pressing over the Thu Bon river, sits Hoi An's central market. Though the market's entrance is guarded by stands trying to lure tourists with Tiger Balm and ceramic pagodas, push through and you'll find the darkened interior contains a busy working market.

The ground leading inside is a mountainous landscape of herb and vegetable peaks, giving way as you enter to sloping white hills of noodles. Shoppers pause at eight-inch high stools, to sip rich drip coffee or crunch on snacks, like crispy banh khoai or fertilized duck eggs. And at the very edge, where sunlight slices the market open, fresh fish are unloaded from boats coming off the river.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sinh to bo.

The avenues of Vietnam are dotted with shops and stands offering an incredible variety of sweets, from chewy mung bean parcels, to creamy ice creams, to buttery pastries, to colorful glasses of che'. As plentiful as the options are, however, nothing can compete with sinh to- the simple fruit and milk shake.

It's hard to choose a favorite- dragonfruit is refreshing, and ripe mango is pretty hard to beat- but lately I'm really fond of sinh to bo, avocado shakes. I first tried a variant in Taiwan, which was made with creme caramel pudding. Though the Vietnamese version is sans pudding, it's still relatively sweet, as its often made with condensed milk. When the balance is right though, the earthy flavor of the avo melts through, lending an offbeat nuance to the rich creamy shake.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Beachside Banh Mi.

Beachside banh mi stand at Danang's China Beach. I don't think drive-up was ever this good at home...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hello, Danang.

An hour and a half after leaving Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, our tiny plane touched in Vietnam. We arrived in Danang, our gateway to central Vietnam, and the city where we would begin the next phase of our travels.

Though it's Vietnam's fourth largest city, the leafy avenues move at a sluggish, leisurely pace. Since Bordeaux and I had previously spent most of our time in Hanoi and Saigon, it was strange to see a Vietnamese city that wasn't constantly swirling with activity.

Thankfully, even though we were somewhere new, there were a few comfortingly familiar sights (and flavors) to remind us of why we'd come. More on that coming soon, of course...

Monday, September 22, 2008

On leaving Bangkok.

Last week, after a year of residency, Bordeaux and I packed up our belongings and handed in the keys at our Bangkok apartment. It was a change we'd been preparing for over the past few months, but it wasn't necessarily an easy one.

Over our last week in the city, we revisited a few favorite spots. We had dimsum at Vanilla Garden, shopped for t-shirts at Chatuchak, and sipped chaa yen at the Erawan Tea Room (pictured above). It served as a reminder that we had it pretty sweet in Bangkok. The food in Bangkok is unquestionably among the best in the world; the shopping is amazing; and the city has such a personality and a distinctive sense style.

Perhaps saddest of all was leaving our apartment behind. We'd found a great little space that suited our needs perfectly, was close to the BTS and a friendly local wet market. It wasn't perfect in every way- the kitchen was practically nonexistent, and the karaoke across the street was a pain- but it was our first home together, and we were both very comfortable there. We've packed up our favorite things (the lamp above, included) and shipped them on- so hopefully they can serve us where-ever we next call home.

For the next few months we'll be traveling nonstop- and while I'm excited about seeing new places and searching out new foods and styles, I am rather sad about what I'm leaving behind. Though there were certain things I didn't like about Bangkok- the pollution, namely- I didn't leave the city glad to be rid of it. The past year has been incredible, and I only hope I can take some of what I've learned and experienced with me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chiang Mai.

After returning to Thailand, we headed north to Chiang Mai for a week of relaxation. It was a great chance to get back in touch with all of the things I love about Thailand- the tropical climate, the dazzling architecture, and the distinctive sense of style. And of course- the food.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Same same, but...

On our last day in Taiwan, Bordeaux and I zipped around the town of Hsinchu, taking our last glimpses of the island. We peeked into shrines, stopped at a tea stand, and admired a grand temple.

The morning after flying out of Taipei, we set out on city streets in search of breakfast. Having just come from Taiwan, certain sights seemed strikingly familiar. Yet as much as it looked like Taiwan, small details stood out, signaling that we weren't on the island anymore. Like the large Chinese temple, with the tuk-tuk parked out front...

...or like the Chinese shrine, with the pink taxi blasting past...

...or the stone lion, with a garland of marigolds around his paws.

Clearly, we were back in Bangkok, a city that draws from so much of the world, yet has a style that is all its own.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Two farewell dinners.

I should point out that despite appearances here at Primitive Culture, I'm not actually in Taiwan anymore- and haven't been, in fact, for several weeks. But several factors have kept my blogging stranded on the island- partly a busy transient schedule and irregular internet access, but mainly I think a surplus of material to write about. There were so many incredible places I went, delicious foods I ate, and strange drinks I tested that I still haven't been able to wrap up my coverage of Taiwan. But I really should get moving on- and I can always write about Taiwan in the future- so I'll finish up my coverage of Taiwan with two final dinners.

One of the pleasures of eating across Taiwan is that in addition to local Taiwanese specialties, you can sample from a broad range of Chinese cuisines. The main style of Chinese cooking in Taiwan is from the Fujian region, but Szechuan, Cantonese, Hakka, Beijing, and Shanghai style are also present. Additionally, one can search out more obscure regional styles as well. Before we even landed in Taiwan, Bordeaux and I read about a restaurant in Taipei that served Shanxi style cuisine. We put it on our 'must eat' list, but every time we visited Taiwan something kept us from dining there. Finally, on one of our last nights in the country, we actually made it.

The place was packed, and seemed popular with groups of work colleagues, who ate with loosened ties. We surveyed the menu, picking a sour noodle soup, a fried pork dish, and a lamb stew with unleavened bread. After taking our order, our waiter checked to make sure we really wanted the last dish- and emphasized that there would be some work involved. We assured him we did, and within several minutes we were presented with a round disc of hard, fleshy dough. Our task was to prepare it to be added to the soup, by tearing it into little pieces- "the smaller the better", our waiter suggested. We tore the pieces smaller and smaller, until his look of disapproval changed to a nod, and he whisked the pieces of dough back to the kitchen. They returned several minutes later in a hearty meat and vegetable stew, the tiny pieces of dough now soaking up the slightly sour-broth. It was tasty and very filling, the flavours more subdued than our other dishes: a deliciously vinegary bowl of noodles, and crunchy pork coated in dry spices.

Our next farewell dinner was ordered after we returned to Hsinchu after a week spent travelling around the island. Bordeaux and I returned to one of our favorite restaurants, a place we knew simply as 'The Big Chief.' It got its name among the expat community several years ago, when the restaurant had displayed a carved Native American head over its entrance. The style and owners have since changed, the Native American head removed, but the name has lingered none the less. It's a large, two story restaurant, whose spacious haphazard interior is crowded with tables and banquet chairs. It's usually packed with families, the soundtrack for dinner a mix of boisterous conversation and playing children.

We ordered three dishes for our final meal: a favorite dish, a new dish, and a strange dish, all of which we enjoyed with the obligatory green bottle of Taiwan Beer, an unusual rice-based beer. The favorite dish was a Szechuan style gongbao chicken, which we'd enjoyed frequently over our two months in Taiwan (the Big Chief also does an incredible gongbao scallops). The tender chicken had a spicy, smoky flavor thanks to long strips of dried chilli, but the spicyness was cut with the crunch of peanuts. Our new dish were the evenings vegetables: a plate of steamed bokchoy and stir-fried mushrooms and bamboo shoots. And our unusual dish was a Taiwan specialty: shrimp salad. The first time I heard of it, I thought it sounded like something that would be served at a suburban '60s luau: crispy battered shrimp, slices of juicy pineapple, and a tangy sweet mayonnaise dressing topped, all topped with colored sprinkles. It never really won me over, but the Big Chief managed to make the dish exceptionally well- the shrimp buttery crisp, nicely sweetened by the dressing and fresh pineapple. I ordered it mainly to get a picture of it, but really it was the dish that made the meal Taiwanese- by adding just the perfect element of sillyness.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Breakfast shop.

Does the ratio of staff to dining space say something about a restaurant? For though the dining area (and the kitchen, for that matter) at this Taipei breakfast shop were minuscule, the staff numbers were huge. There were at least nine people manning this formica canteen- one woman dishing out ladles of fresh soymilk into plastic cups and bowls, and eight or so men in white sweat-tinted uniforms working elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen. One tended the scallion omelettes, one handled steamed breads and foot-long doughnuts, another three unloaded the bamboo steamers, and the rest busied themselves in all of the other myriad tasks of preparing a delicious Taiwanese breakfast.

Of the three daily meals, the one I enjoyed most in Taiwan was breakfast. It was entirely because of incredible breakfast shops like the above, where I sampled delicious morning treats. I ate shaolingbao, soupy pork filled dumplings that dripped (ok, exploded) when I bit into them; danbing, tasty rolled egg pancakes filled with bacon, tuna, or cheese and spring onions; and scallion omelettes, eaten in thin sesame seed bread. And all, of course, eaten with a glass of fresh, chilled soymilk.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Taiwan Colors: NEON.

One of the most surprising things about Taiwan was finding that it had a teeming urban youth culture- and that culture had a color scheme. NEON. You'd glimpse it in downtown alleys, on electric-blue cargo shorts, and hot pink baseball caps. But it came out best at night, when the hues of the neon signs seemed to reflect in hip night market stands and blazing arcade parlors.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Taiwan Treats: Avocado & Pudding Shake.

I've written before about Taiwanese pudding- a ubiquitous treat, rather similar to a spanish flan, or a caramel custard. Somehow, it seems to find its way into everything. At a seaside market in Hualien, Bordeaux and I sampled one of the strangest Taiwan treats yet- a smoothie of ripe avocado and Taiwanese pudding. We simply ordered an avo shake, but apparently the pudding is added to sweeten the mixture. It was blended until the ripe avocado and the chunky custard were smooth, then plopped into a plastic cup. And- surprisingly- it was delicious. Rich, creamy and decadent, with a richness from the avocado, and a caramel sweetness from the custard.

PS- Bordeaux and I totally got spotted by a reader while we were out shopping yesterday! This is a big world, and we definitely don't have a huge readership, so it was a totally surprising experience. Thanks for coming up and saying hi, and I hope all of my readers are as hip as you!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Eating Taiwan Famous.

If you mention that you're visiting another town in Taiwan, you're more than likely to be told what kind of food you should eat when you get there. Despite its small size (or perhaps because of it), every town in Taiwan seems to have a local specialty, a 'famous food' that all visitors are obliged to try. Taiwan has a highly developed internal tourism infrastructure (unlike its international tourism infrastructure, which I'll discuss later), and one of the highlights for most Taiwanese travelers is sampling all the famous dishes of the island. People will pile into a car to try stinky green-bean curd, or board a bus to sample a rice lunch box. After a month and a half living in Hsinchu, Bordeaux and I decided to join these culinary travelers. We set out on a railroad trip around the entire island, and top of our itinerary was trying Taiwan's famous dishes.

The town of Chaiyi sits at the line where Taiwan dips into the tropics. Yet it's special dish hardly evokes its torpid climate or lush landscape- turkey rice. It's nearly as simple as it sounds, strips of tender turkey eaten over a bed of white rice, and paired with a chunk of pickled turnip. It has a wholesome and hearty quality, reminiscent of a plate of Thanksgiving left-overs.

Our next stop was Kaoshuing, Taiwan's largest metropolis, and an attractive oceanfront city. After browsing in hip shopping streets, we headed over to the city's largest nightmarket. There we sampled a regional specialty, more associated with nearby Tainan than Kaoshiung. Named 'coffin bread' in English, it's a thick slice of texas toast fried, cut open, and filled with a creamy seafood chowder. Looking at it for the first time, I remarked to Bordeaux that it was the strangest food we'd eaten in Taiwan. He rightly pointed out that it's also the most American. It is in fact a remnant of American naval presence in southern Taiwan, and almost seems like a dish that could be served at an American seaside diner.

The next morning, we traveled across the Love River to the old area of town for another specialty, milk fish congee. It was a watery rice soup that contained not just milkfish, but also oysters, clams, and other fresh seafood. Eaten with chunks of long chinese donuts, it made a complexly nuanced breakfast- at times sweet and buttery, alternately fresh and salty.

Arriving for lunch at a famed restaurant in Hualien, we for the first time found a line of diners. We briefly wondered if we should reconsider- but eventually gave in and joined the queue. The line moved quickly, and we were soon ushered to a shared table in a cavernous dining hall. The wait for our dish gave us time to consider- is being famous a good thing? Are we going to discover that this dish rests on its fame, nothing else? Then the paper dishes of bianshji were placed in front of us. The light broth was browned with charred garlic, almost giving it the flavor of Vietnamese pho. But it was set apart by the plump dumplings that floated in it- filled with an incredible mixture of ground pork and shrimp. Looking around the room, we saw that some tables had wisely ordered an extra bowl, so that each member of their party could savor one more dumpling.

Our trip definitely gave me some ideas to consider about travel. In a sense our mission to try Taiwan Famous ran counter to the traveler mandate to seek one's own path- yet at the same time, it was fun to insert ourselves into another culture's mode of tourism. And as we saw with these foods, sometimes a food is famous for a reason.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Taiwan Colors: Taiwan Teal.

Teal is not a color you encounter often. Too clinical to be comforting, too out-dated to be hip. But strangely, it seems almost to be the national color of Taiwan. It appeared in plastic phones, on pharmacy walls, and faded wooden doors. Yet odd as it is, it works. It paired surprisingly well with ocher bricks and vibrant red banners. And almost to assure us of its place in the Taiwanese color spectrum, it flows vibrantly through the halls of the new airport terminal.

Monday, September 01, 2008

In Search of the Stinky Snack.

Though Taiwan has countless local specialties and hundreds of unique delicacies, few dishes have are as iconic of the island as one: chou dofu, stinky tofu. If you’ve ever been in the same neighborhood as a stinky tofu vendor, you’ll need no explanation of its name- its aroma (for which there is no polite description) is nearly strong enough to knock a passer-by off his scooter.

Though the stink failed to tempt me, I was curious to try the dish. I don’t seek out food simply because it sounds strange or unusual- but I was curious to see how stinky tofu could be so popular despite its smell. In search of the food, Bordeaux and I visited a popular weekend market. We strolled among other food stands and carnival games, brushing past the inviting aroma of grilled squid and sizzling scallion pancakes, in search of a less pleasant stench. Eventually, we caught the smell- quick, disgusting, and gone. We backtracked, but failed to find the source. We circled around, made enquiries, and finally found the stinky tofu. We ordered one, and took it away to try. Piled with pickled vegetables and drizzled with a spicy sauce, it almost looked tempting. But it only took one bite to dispel me of that feeling- it tasted much like it smelled, a mature barnyard flavor that didn’t compel me to complete the dish.

The experience left me feeling unsatisfied. It was gross- but not so disgusting that I felt sick after eating it. Nor did it taste so good that it was worth suffering through the smell. It was just mildly unpleasant.

Thankfully, I got the chance to try it again. At a raucous ghost month parade, I caught the familiar stench among the singed scent of fireworks. The smell grew stronger, almost overpowering, as I approached the stand. I ordered a skewer, and took a bite. Amazingly, though the smell was considerably worse, the flavor was considerably better. The tofu was firm, flavorful, and nicely spiced with the pickled vegetables and chili. It was much better than the first, proving that even the stinkiest foods deserve a second try.