Monday, April 27, 2009

Obasan - Reason #5 to love Taiwan

I've decided - regardless of whether we move back to the USA or not, when we grow old, I want to return to Taiwan.

My old dream was to buy the Lishan Bingguan off the government and restore it, opening parts to the public and keeping part as our personal villa.

But that's not really necessary. I just want to return to Taiwan when I'm ancient, period.

As any of you based in Taipei know, the weather was absolutely horrid all weekend. In the mornings it looked like - as one of my coworkers put it - Gotham City, and it was chilly, dusty and drizzly without end.

Of course on Friday and today, two work days, the weather has been gorgeous (today is OK, Friday was spectacular).

So I head to my weekly dermatology appointment - cheap, accessible cosmetic medicine! I love Taiwan! - I realize that while I have to go to work later, the obasan (the old ladies who live in the lanes and spend their days sitting outside chatting) are all out, with their ancient dogs on their ancient chairs in their unfashionable clothes, enjoying the good weather.

In most American towns, you can't just pull up a chair outside your apartment building and form a chattering group of pensioners. In the suburbs you don't even live in apartments, and sitting quietly on your own porch gets old. But here, it's perfectly normal. More common in Kaohsiung, but it does happen in Taipei.

So my goal in life is to enjoy traveling and doing work I love while I'm young, and when we get old, we'll get a nice little apartment in the lanes of Taipei, wear dreadful clothing outdated by 50 years and bought at the outdoor market and cloth kung-fu shoes, and hobble down each morning to yak it up with neighbors. When I need to travel, I get my younger relatives to help and I can elbow people with impunity on the MRT and buses.

Sounds lovely.

If I could be an obasan now, I would. Sometimes I act like them; my dress style totally ignores fashion trends. Due to the nature of my job, on some days I don't have to go to work until evening, or I'm done by 2pm. On those days I am quite likely to sit with the old folks outside the building they gather at. They still chat in Taiwanese to each other, but are polite enough to include me by speaking to me in Chinese.

Oh wait. I already wear old lady cloth shoes, too. They're the only women's shoes in Taiwan that fit me and, when worn with pants, are vaguely acceptable in the office.

My transformation has begun!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Initiation By Fire - the best Sichuanese in Taipei

Tian Fu Jia Chang Cai
#5 Renai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)

I've already updated my "Small Eats" post to include this place. It was that good.

From what my students tell me, Dingxi is home to an enclave of waishengren from Sichuan. Missing food from home, especially at their advanced ages, meant that many people opened small eateries to cater to them. This is the only one I know of, but boy is it spectacular.

I should know; I used to live in Guizhou, right across the border from Sichuan and Chongqing. If anything, Guizhou food is hotter and more savory than Sichuanese; Sichuan got to be famous because its people migrated abroad. Guizhou-ren, being rather poor comparatively, never could finance their own diaspora. But there is a saying in China: Sichuan ren bu pa la; Hunan ren la bu pa; Guizhou ren pa bu la! It translates roughly into: The Sichuanese are not afraid of spicy food. Those from Hunan, of spicy food they are not afraid. People from Guizhou are afraid the food won't be spicy enough!

This place is a tiny little joint that's so popular that they've erected two benches outside for waiting customers. It's next to a fruit market and other similarly humble establishments. Just inside the door is a small wooden screen and just beyond that are groups of people eating the best food of their lives. Mainland accents (specifically, Sichuanese accents) mingle with people speaking Taiwanese.

Other than the massive amounts of red chili - Sichuan ren bu pa la - one notable thing about this restaurant is their hua jiao - or flower pepper. Fresh, good quality hua jiao has the effect of numbing one's lips and tongue, but not of blunting flavor; in fact, it deepens the flavor. Those who have been to that area know what I'm talking about. Most hua jiao in Taipei is a joke; it comes in little plastic canisters and has zero flavor. It most certainly does not numb the lips.

But this place imports its hua jiao from Sichuan. Normally I am not a fan of anything produced in China, but this is one huge exception. They then use whole peppercorns - handfuls of them - in their cooking.

All of the staples are here - the not-too-spicy yu xiang qie zi (fish-scented eggplant, which does not include fish), siji dou (green beans cooked in a distinctive and delicious combination of spices), gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) and fish boiled in chili oil.

Yes, you read that right. Fish. Boiled in chili oil.

It's not all chili oil - there's some water/fish stock in there too, as well as a few kinds of onion, garlic and ginger, soy sauce, more chopped red chilis (both dried and fresh), handfuls of the aforementioned hua jiao and pickled greens. But mostly, it's chili oil. And it's absolutely delicious, especially when washed down with some beer or restaurant tea.

A warning: this place is always packed, so be prepared to wait.

Also, the chef is a bit, shall we say, temperamental. He's the Soup Nazi of Taipei, but like the Soup Nazi, he's a genuine artiste. If he wants to take a break, he takes one, no matter if it's 7pm and you just got there. The place almost always stops taking orders by 7:30 because the chef wants to go home, and the waitresses seem terrified of him. But it's worth it. He's that good.

So get there early, sit back, order, and await your initiation by fire.

Famous Truffle Cake

Be prepared to spend a lot of money on this cake - it usually clocks in at about $50 USD for all ingredients, but that's only if you can get miniatures of all the alcohol.


For the cake:

· 3 cups all-purpose flour

· 2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder – the darker the better (I like Ghirardelli)

· 3 teaspoons baking soda

· a pinch of salt

· 2 sticks butter (I know…) – unsalted real butter ONLY

· 3 cups white sugar

· 4 eggs

· 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

· 3 cups buttermilk

- 2 tablespoons honey (optional – adds moisture)

- nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and a pinch of crushed cardamom to taste (optional – to add depth of flavor)

- 2 shots chocolate liqueur (preferably better than crème de cacao but that’ll do in a pinch) – more if you want

- ½ cup dark chocolate shavings

And one of the following:

- ¼ cup flavoring of your choice. Some suggestions:

Grand Marnier, Chambord, amaretto, Frangelico, Jameson, Ararat Raisin Brandy, osmanthus paste, rose syrup, dark spiced rum, extra dark espresso+kahlua, kirschwasser...basically any flavor of your choice – make sure you can smell it in the batter before you pop it in the oven or it won’t carry any taste when it comes out


For the filling:

1 bag dark chocolate chips (or equivalent chocolate blocks) – semisweet or dark. I prefer Lindt, Ghirardelli or any higher-quality brand. Dark chocolate makes a better cake than milk

1 ½ cups cream (one small blue carton in Taiwan, one mini-carton in the USA) plus ¼ cup extra

flavoring to taste – I like to use a complementary flavor – so for coffee-flavored cake I might add a little coffee to this as well as some Frangelico (hazelnut) or Jameson (whiskey). For osmanthus, I add a little matcha tea powder. For rose, try to get some violet liqueur or even lavender liqueur.

½ stick butter (again, I know…)

Other things to make truffles

Powder of your choice – cinnamon, powdered instant coffee, cocoa, confectioner’s sugar, all good…


For the syrup:

White sugar

1 ½ cup flavor of your choice (see below for ways to play with flavors used here)

For the icing:

A bag of pure dark chocolate chips (you could use less)

¼ cup cream

topping of your choice including powder, shaved chocolate, fruit, nuts etc..


Process:

Make sure the cake batter is runny the way normal batter is. If it’s too wet or too dry, that’ll reflect in the cake that comes out. Add flour if too runny, add cream or buttermilk if too thick.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Mix sugar with the butter until it’s a paste, then slowly add eggs. In separate bowl combine other solids. Slowly mix together. Don’t stir too much or it’ll activate something in the flour that’ll muck up the consistency. At the end add vanilla, spices, chocolate liqueur and other flavors to taste, making sure to adjust the batter consistency as needed. Throw in chocolate shavings.


Remember alcohol evaporates, so if alcohol is making it runny don’t worry as much.

Grease 2 9-inch baking pans and add cake mixture above. Bake for 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.


Syrup:


While cake is baking, take chocolate liqueur and the flavoring of your choice for about 1 ½ cup total of liquid and put it on the stove (do not allow to boil, just warm it up). Add some sugar (to taste – I don’t like it too sweet) and mix until mixture cooks down to 1 cup. Tip: for rose flavor, don’t do this with rose syrup. The regular syrup is fine. For osmanthus flavor, don’t use the paste, rather make a strong concoction of osmanthus tea and add just a little paste. For the fruit flavors, use the jam/marmalade of that fruit along with the alcohol – but choose a nice, unsweetened organic version. For the coffee, it’s always a good idea to dump in an extra shot or two of Kahlua or Tia Maria.

When cake is done, while cooling use a pastry brush to brush the warmed syrup over the top. Give each layer two to four brushings, allowing each to soak in.

When cake is cool, turn one upside down, out of pan and onto tray. Brush with more syrup (which may have come out more or less as water-consistency; that’s OK) but don’t allow it to get mushy. Do not turn the other yet.

Set aside.


For filling:


In saucepan or pot, boil water and set a large bowl that fits over the top that will hold all ingredients. Do not allow water to touch bottom of bowl.

In bowl, heat up cream and melt butter in it. When cream is hot but not boiling, slowly add the chocolate chips, adding more as the old ones melt.

Add flavor to taste.

When the entire mixture is liquid, remove a small amount (one soup bowl fill), cover and set in fridge. Add a bit more cream to the rest, put in separate bowl, cover and set in fridge. Allow to set completely (at least a few hours or overnight).

When totally set, take out the portion with more cream. Using a very strong metal spoon, take out teaspoon or tablespoon (whatever) size chunks and roll them into balls. Place balls on top of upturned cake until entire top is covered in balls (hee hee). Use any extra to fill in the gaps/valleys between the…balls.

Flip second cake on top of first cake. Brush with more syrup as above.


For icing:


This is easy. Make another steam-cooker with a bowl over a saucepan of boiling water and melt chocolate – I use a full bag of chips but you could safely use less.

Line area below cake with wax paper. Trust me.

When chocolate is melted, pour over top, using pastry brush to make sure it evenly coats the sides. Brush over sides when you have a nice thick coating on top.

Set aside, allow to cool completely.

When cool, use a sifter, fine sieve or even a ‘tea spoon’ for loose tea (the kind with holes) to finely sprinkle confectioner’s sugar and cocoa over the top. You could alternately use shaved chocolate or really whatever you want.


Take out the rest of the chocolate batter. Using a strong spoon, take out teaspoon sized chunks, roll into balls and coat balls in powder/crushed nuts (heh) of your choice. For the osmanthus cake, I use matcha tea powder with confectioner’s sugar. Use balls to decorate cake. I like to put them around the top with some cut strawberries, chocolate curls, cherries or nuts, and then squish a few at regular intervals between the two layers to hide any irregularity there. Then set a few around the bottom.


Peel away wax paper to reveal a cleanly decorated, beautiful cake.

Keep in fridge until ready to serve.


For ideas on how to decorate it, just Google images of "chocolate truffle cake" - many people are far more creative than I am. I like the cube cake with truffles up the side but that would require altering the recipe.


I used to have a picture of this cake but I apologize, it seems to have been lost in the transition between computers.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Small Eats

This post has been updated!

A Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei regularly holds (or maybe it was only once) votes on the best eats in Taipei.

I always enjoy reading these, and keep abreast of that blog as I search for more delicious food in this city, which isn't hard to do anyway as it's a mecca of delicious food.

The thing is, I've always felt that the voting sections and reviews in general focus too much on foreign/Western food and not enough on Taiwanese food, which is far more delicious because the people making it really know what they're doing. I realize that posting on where to find great Taiwanese food in Taipei is like a fish telling some other fish where to find water, but there are times when a glowing recommendation is in order.

Therefore, instead of doing a vote, here's my little run-down of the best food in Taipei as chosen by me, myself, I, moi, mi, yo, je, ziji and wo.

Most of it is Taiwanese food, but some of the below is foreign and I just like it enough to recommend it.

Many of these will seem like rehashes of previous posts, but then if I liked it enough to run home and write about it once, obviously it's good.

The best...

...goose noodles

A-Li Gang Goosemeat

Gongguan, on the same road as Sai Baba but closer to Roosevelt Road, almost at the intersection of Roosevelt and the first road north of the Gongguan Starbucks on the right.

Delicious. Savory broth that requires no added sauces and tender, oily goosemeat in generous portions, as well as lots of other things on the menu.

...
lumpia (lun bing)


Shinkong Mitsukoshi B-1 food court

Shinkong Life Tower, Taipei Main Station

I bet you weren't expecting that. But it's true. The lovely laobanniang who makes this lumpia does a fine job of it.

...shrimp pancake

Yangon

Gongguan, near the northern end of Gongguan Night Market by that creepy kids' park

Wonderful chunks of whole shrimp in a lightly fried, not too oily Thai-style shrimp pancake. This place will be mentioned later, for Yunnan/Burmese food...

...beef noodles

That beef noodle joint in Jingmei just up from MRT Exit 2, with the fat chihuahua named "Meimei"

Dark, savory broth packed with flavor, generous cuts of tender meat and homemade chunky noodles make this my favorite among the many beef noodle options in Taipei (though Zhang Mama on Heping E. Road is also good).

...teppanyaki

The teppanyaki joint in Tonghua Night Market with the red decor (near the Keelung Road entrance, on the right)

I was struggling with whether to name this place or the one in Jingmei Night Market where the chefs where spiffy blue uniforms, but the Jingmei one took kimchi pork teppanyaki off the menu so they lose. This place gives free vegetables as they all do, but they include qingcai (the dark green celery-like vegetable so popular here) which is cooked beautifully, rather than the usual cabbages and bean sprouts.

...oyster omelets

Ningxia Night Market

No question. Next!

...onion pancake

Ruiguang Road, near the Barista Coffee, Neihu

I know it seems odd to recommend something so literally pedestrian as onion pancakes, but these are really good. Extra garlicky. Right next to the giant bus stop on Ruiguang Road.

...cup of coffee

Black Bean Coffee

Zhongshan North Road just south of the Zhongshan-Zhongzheng intersection in Shilin (MRT Shilin)


Try their Monsoon Malabar, ignore the odd music ("The Entertainer" on a harp, "I Am The Walrus" nonvocal piano cover).

or...

The coffeeshop in Naruwan Indigenous People's Market, Huanhe/Guangzhou Road intersection, Longshan Temple area. Delicious coffee, all grown in aboriginal areas in Taiwan. Who knew that Taiwanese coffee could be pretty good?

Update! Roger Cafe - Keelung Road just north of Liuzhangli, east side of the street next to George Vocational Technical High School bus stop.

Go here for the ginger latte! The coffee is good but not gourmet, though they're better than Dante and the prices are fantastic. Plus, well, they have ginger lattes...

Update! - Guy in a little coffee stall just east of the Shida campus (the one on the north side of Heping E. Road, not the main campus). He makes a lovely cup of coffee and has several different beans available. Not cheap by coffee-stall standards. The Mom's Pie's guy often sets up next to him on Thursdays.


...seafood

Shengmeng Seafood

In the small night market just south(?) of Bao'an temple, MRT Yuanshan

Quite simply the most delicious seafood I've ever had in a seafood-and-beer joint in Taipei (and not, say, next to the ocean). Try their pineapple shrimp.

...expensive food with a view

Hongmu (Redwood) Tea House, also known as "Mountain Tea House"

Maokong, not too far from the currently nonoperational Maokong Gondola Station

The tea is alright, but the real attraction here is a double-whammy of great food and a fantastic view of Taipei, especially by night. Try their cubed lemon chicken (li-mon ji ding or something), their mountain pig (shan zhu) and top it off with some sweet potato leaves (di gua ye).

...shrimp roll
on rice


Dihua Street, the little shrimp roll stall near Xiahai Temple

Hands-down.

...dan zai mian (Tainan-style noodles)

"Tainan Noodle Restaurant"

Songde Road north of Xinyi, south of the Prudential building which is at #171

These guys - a family who lives in the same building as the restaurant - are from Tainan and make their local food extremely well.

...American-style trans fats

Tie: The Diner for typical American restaurant fare, Yuma Southwestern Grill for yummy, fattening Tex-Mex

The Diner is near Dunhua South Road, around the corner from Carnegie's (blech). Yuma is off Zhongxiao and it's easy to find - just Google. They advertise a lot.

Most expats will be aware of these two so no need to say much.

...Hakka Food

I'm sorry. Hakka food is always wonderful. There is no best restaurant because they're all fantastic. Here are the four I enjoy the most:

- Hakka Food -
Taipei Main Station, turn towards 2/28 Park at the corner just south of Zhongxiao where there is a restaurant with a 'rainforest' themed-sign, just near Shinkong Life Tower, keep walking, it's on the right - cheap, quick Hakka food with lots of oil

- Hakka Noodles Restaurant -
hidden in a lane just in front of the branch of Shida in Wanlong, south of Keelung Road (bus stop is "Shida Branch"). They don't make much but their dry Hakka noodles are fan-tast-tic and the dumplings are also great. Dou pi ("tofu skin") is vinegary and delicious. Also run by a friendly family who lives just behind the restaurant. They're from Xinzhu.

- That hidden Hakka restaurant behind Taipei Main Station -
except I can't seem to find it again. I'll ask the person who took us there and post an update. Good for sharing dishes with a large party.

-
Hakka Restaurant - in a lane off Yongkang Street, on the righthand side coming from Xinyi Road. Pretty good all-around Hakka food.

...mba wan (rou yuan)

Yuanlin Rou Yuan, Heping E. Road and Fuxing S. Road, next to Shengli Store (the discount 'everything' store on the corner)

Sooooo good. The obasan who work there speak wonderfully expressive Taiwanese and wear hairnets. The mba wan comes in thick brown gravy with bamboo and mushrooms added to the mix.

...tiramisu

Alley Cat.

Branches at Zhishan MRT, Tianmu and on Songren Road far south of Xinyi.

No question. There's a small branch behind Red House Theater in Xinyi but I think they only do pizzas. The pizza is also fantastic, but their tiramisu...wow. It's the real thing, made with real alcohol.

...pizza

Alley Cat - see above

Delicious, thin-crust pizza with high-quality ingredients

...Yilan-style onion pancake with egg

Little stall at MRT Shilin

...in the courtyard in front of Exit 1

They'll make it with a variety of seasonings, including basil. Yumm-o!

...Filipino Food

Zhongshan North Road, eastern side lanes between MRT Minquan W. Road and MRT Yuanshan, go on Sunday

It's all good. A lot of it is made with innards, though. Any restaurant in this area - all are open on Sunday to cater to the crowds returning from church - is wonderful.

...Thai, Yunnan and Myanmar Food

Yangon -
Gongguan Night Market (see above) - good for the Myanmar and Yunnan-style dishes as well as shrimp rolls

Thai, Yunnan and Myanmar Food -
Ruiguang Road, Neihu (ignore their Gongguan branch - it's not as good) - great for the Thai food on the menu, especially coconut red curry chicken and coconut tofu. Their hot coffee with condensed milk is also fantastic.

Nanshijiao (Zhonghe)
- I haven't found it yet, but apparently there is a street in this area with tons of Southeast Asian food stalls that are all fantastic, catering to the local population.

...Vietnamese food

Xindian Night Market stall

the little stall near the chain-link barrier before the suspension bridge


Delicious pho. Absolutely the best I've had outside Southeast Asia.

...Southeast Asian "Small dishes"

The "Thai and Vietnamese" hole-in-the-wall to the west of Keelung Road

In the lanes - just north of Xinyi, enter the lanes across from the World Trade Center/Grand Hyatt.


Run by a friendly Vietnamese guy who speaks English. It's all good - get their cold rice noodles with fried pork roll for NT100. So delicious!

...home-style Taiwanese food

Auntie Xie's

#109 (?) Bo'ai Road, Ximen area - near Hengyang Road intersection, in a tiny walk-down stairwell, across from a giant white horrorshow of a place that I think is intended for tacky weddings.

This is the stuff that the taitai'll cook if you are ever invited to a Taiwanese family's home for dinner. Wonderful. Not to be missed. If you haven't tried this, you haven't tried Taiwanese food.

...hand-roasted tea

Mingcha Yuan

Maokong, Wenshan District, Zhinan Road Section 3 Lane 40 #32-1
A very hard-to-find little spot in Maokong far from the gondola with a nice view (but not as good as the places near the gondola station).


The guy who works there roasts all his own tea and it's all fragrant and delicious. Unlike many places, they don't provide meals but they do have snacks. It's mostly a place for locals to meet and play cards or mahjong.

Wang's Tea,
the famous tea store near Dihua Street (Chongqing N. Road Section 2, Lane 64, # 26) is also good.

...chocolate dessert

My kitchen

I make better truffles - which are surprisingly easy to make in Taiwan - than anyone else seems to offer in this city. I can also make a truffle cake (if you ask nicely I'll even e-mail you the recipe) that makes gods cry, but I don't have an oven so I can't make it in Taiwan.

But if you can't come to my kitchen, well, I don't know what to tell you.

Chocoholic
(Yongkang Street, first lane on the left) makes a nice dark Venezuelan spice hot cocoa, but it's not as cocoa-y as it could be.

Chocozing
(near Zhongshan Sports Center) makes a good dark chocolate cocoa and pretty good truffles but their regular cocoa is too light.

Cafe 85
makes one good chocolate dessert - the Italian chocolate mousse cake. It's actually quite good. But nothing else is spectacular so I dunno.

Starbucks makes one good dessert - the chocolate cake with the goo inside. It is very chocolatey and worth the NT70. But that means you have to go to a Starbucks!

Update! Dean & Deluca - Breeze Center at Zhongxiao Fuxing - these guys do some damn good chocolate cake and other chocolate delectables. Don't buy their chocolate bars though; most are off-date and are white and crumbly.

Update! Salt&Peanuts Cafe - 2nd or 3rd lane on the right of Shida Rd (before the lane with Grandma Nitti's but not too much before, near the guy who sells socks on a blanket) when coming from Roosevelt, near the Korean restaurant. - Get their "hot brownie" which comes with vanilla ice cream. It's very chocolatey and truly wonderful!

...wine

Maison Alexandre


Zhongshan N. Road north of the park/Japanese school, near Whose Books and Mary's Hamburger

Good duck and smoked salmon baguettes (though they use cheap cheese), decent house wine NT 150/glass. Woo!

Near it is a place called "The Wine Closet" that we haven't tried yet.

Vino Vino

The food here is mediocre-to-bad, but they have a huge wooden balcony overlooking Shida park and house wine for NT800/bottle or 200 a glass. It's a fine place to just enjoy some wine with fantastic outdoor seating. Eat elsewhere first.

...Belgian Beer

For selection - Cafe Odeon, lane 86 (?) off Wenzhou Street, Gongguan (turn into the lane away from Xinsheng at the Bastille)

For outdoor seating and a great atmosphere - Red House (Hong Jia) in Shida, next to the park - it's tiny and can only hold maybe 25 people, but if you can get a table it's brilliant. Music varies, but it's in an old-style house that is very narrow.

...south Indian food

Exotic Masala House

#19 Pucheng Street, Shida

Because it's also the only south Indian food. Their idli and dosa are merely "alright" but their curries - especially the Madras chicken cooked in coconut, are fantastic. Also, I recommend the aloo parothas.

...north Indian food

Ali Baba's Indian Kitchen

Nanjing E. Road, not far from Jianguo Road

Not because the food is amazing, but because if you ask them to make it the way they (the waiters who are from the subcontinent) would want it, they do a pretty good job of preparing a decent curry.

...Pakistani food

Alla-Din Indian and Pakistani Kitchen

Raohe Night Market

Fiery hot spiciness, wrapped in more fire. Vegetables cooked in real ghee.

...Night Market

There are three that I recommend, and one that I haven't tried yet but was recommended to me.

Raohe Night Market -
I don't care what they say about Shilin and Shida, this one is the best for pure choices of food alone.

Jingmei Night Market - great food, local stuff, friendly people, and more great food. Jingmei has been a town for longer than Taipei has been a cohesive city, and so there are many famous stalls here which have been in continuous operation since the time when the area wasn't called "Scenery Beautiful" but rather "End of the River" in Taiwanese.

Ningxia Night Market - for down-to-earth Taiwanese snacks, it can't be beat.

...and recommended to me was:

Nanjichang Market - it means "South of the Terminal" and I have no idea why (though apparently it's because many of those who settled here worked for the railroad company, and Wanhua Station is not far away, to the north. It's just south of Xizang (Tibet) Street in Wanhua, in the lanes along Zhonghua Road.

...deals on drinks with outdoor seating

The open-air bars behind Red House Theater, Ximen

Ximen MRT Exit 1

A very alternative-lifestyle friendly area. Don't expect to meet and flirt with a member of the opposite sex here, because he/she likely plays for the other team. Not that it matters, but worth mentioning if anyone reading this is looking for gay/lesbian friendly nightspots. Very lively area with scads of outdoor seating - everyone manages to get a seat even on balmy weekend evenings. Being in back of Red House means that the scenery isn't typical Taipei scooters-and-cement, but a lovely old-style courtyard. Plus good food is on offer; there's a branch of Alley Cat here!

...Thai desserts

Raohe Night Market

Most Thai restaurants in Taipei make decent food, but they all fall flat on desserts, which are some variation on tasteless-pink-goo-in-ice. This little stall near the end of Raohe Night Market (the end where you can pick up buses along Nanjing E. Road, not the end near Songshan Station) makes great banana crepes, with your choice of honey, chocolate, condensed milk or a combination.

...Korean

That joint whose business card I lost

In a lane near the Shida Road-Roosevelt Intersection.

Seriously, the only good and basically authentic Korean restaurant in Taipei. The other famous place on Pucheng Street is good (really, it is) but it's not authentic. This place does it fo' reals. Lots of small dishes including kimchi (duh), a real barbecue, not a barbecue-style stir-fry, dolsot bibimbap in a real hot stone bowl, and great gooey rice-gluten thingos in tasty sauce - teokboki.

...shameless plug for my neighborhood 'standard fare' restaurant

Lao Ma (Old Mother)

#230 Jingfu Street, Wenshan District, Jingmei MRT Exit 3 (across from the Hi Life)

I love this place, but not because it's special - seeing as spots like it are open all over the city, in every neighborhood. They make the standard noodles, dumplings, beef rolls, Chengdu dishes, copper hotpot, onion pancakes etc. with a fridge full of small dishes and beer. It's no different than any other spot like it, but it's in my neighborhood so it's my basic spot. If you're in this area and looking for food, and the night market hasn't opened yet and you don't want beef noodles, come here.

...Buns full of curried or spiced meat

nice lady with barrel full of buns

Roosevelt Road Lane 333, Gongguan

Their spicy lamb buns are to die for.

...sweet potatoes

nice Zhanghua Lady

by Jingmei MRT Exit 2

Another barrel of delicious food, this woman's family owns a farm in Zhanghua and once a week they truck their potatoes up to Taipei where she cooks and sells them. Wonderful. In the mornings, next to her you will find a friendly older gentleman or his wife selling a wooden rice bucket full of vegetarian sticky rice (su you fan) with tangy pink sauce. Also delicious.

...stinky tofu

Another plug for my neighborhood, but the lady near the 7-11 on Jingfu Street by MRT Exit 3 who sets up every evening at about 5pm makes a fine fried stinky tofu in a tangy, spicy sauce with pickled cabbage. Her laogong sits with his friends and drinks Gaoliang out of teacups with his buddies while she mans the tofu stand. If he likes you, he'll give you some to warm you up (and burn your intestines) while you wait.

...dumplings

Shanghai Dumplings
Minsheng E. Road, east of Dunhua but not very far, near the Dunkin' Donuts

I like this place more than Dingtaifung, because while Dingtaifung is delicious, it's simply way overpriced. This place has comparable dumplings but, not being famous, they're expensive but not quite so much as Dingtaifung. About NT100 for a steamer.

...shaved ice

Sugar House

Nanshijiao Night Market, in the road that branches to the left after entering the market from Nanshijiao MRT

This place does shaved ice the way foreigners usually like it - with lots of fresh fruit and condensed milk. The ice is available in water and milk snowflake, with a variety of seasonal fruits. You can also get sundaes and old-style sua bing with the toppings that most Taiwanese seem to like (gooey things, goo balls, bright pink goo, peanuts, red bean, corn, tomatoes, taro goo and salty candied goo).

...hot pot / buffet

A specific all-you-can-eat hotpot, seafood and buffet restaurant on Fuxing S. Road between Da'an and Technology Building MRT - but I can't remember the name, on the western side.

It's not cheap - at least $1200/person I think (I was treated so I don't really know) - but it's spectacular. The hotpot is great, as it usually is, with tons of fresh ingredient options to add.

Along with the hotpot, there is a seafood buffet lined with expensive goodies such as octopus sashimi, sea urchins and giant raw oysters with radish, wasabi, ginger and garlic mash to flavor them as you suck 'em down. There's also the usual array of free noodles and other hotpot additions, drinks (including all you can drink beer) and dessert - cake and ice cream (the ice cream is pretty decent).

These restaurants abound in Taipei, but I single this one out for the great selection, especially in the seafood buffet, and the really good hotpot broth.

...update: Sichuanese Food

I bet you all think I'm gonna say "Kiki" across from Zhongxiao Fuxing Breeze Center. But I'm not.

Kiki is good, but it's not the best Sichuanese in town (though they are the only ones who have the pork-stuffed green peppers, which are astounding).

For the real stuff, go to Dingxi MRT in Yonghe. Apparently this area hosts an enclave of Sichuanese waishengren, so the food in the restaurants there is finger-lickin' authentic. And it truly is. Go here:

Tian Fu Jia Chang Cai (Zheng Sichuan Wei)
Yonghe, Renai Road #5, Dingxi MRT

It's a small place near a fruit store with a little wooden screen in front of the door. You would never know it was anything special from the outside; but the inside is packed with people, enough so that this humble establishment has set up benches outside for people to wait.

You'll see young families here, and people with unmistakeable Mainland accents - Sichuan accents, notably - mingling with people speaking Taiwanese. All enjoy the food, which is the real deal. Seriously!

Normally I am not a fan of things imported from China, but there is one major exception - hua jiao (flower pepper). The hua jiao you find in those little containers in other restaurants is nothing. Tasteless. It does. not. compare. This place gets its hua jiao from Sichuan itself, and you can tell by the whole peppercorns and the fact that unlike the junk in containers, it truly numbs your lips and tongue, adding an extra layer of flavor to the scathing red chilis that adorn most dishes.

Get the chili-soaked fish, which is fish more or less boiled in chili oil with water, fish stock, onions, pickled greens, more chopped chilis and handfuls of hua jiao peppercorns. Prepare for initiation by fire.

Also delicious is the Sichuanese restaurant across the street from Emei in Gongguan.

...soy milk and you tiao

No surprises here - Yonghe Soy Milk! They're the best in the city, methinks, and famous for a reason. Get the cold soy milk with "you tiao" (a kind of pastry that my Taiwanese cookbook translates as "deep fried greasy stick") wrapped in a sesame-encrusted pancake. Dip the you tiao in the soy milk as you drink it.

...Taiwanese desserts

Meet Fresh
All over Taipei

Try their Japanese peanut muaji, then you'll see. For a chain establishment, though this chain is really quite new, I have to admit I love their desserts. I'm also a fan of their brown sugar cake ice and several other items on the menu.

Whew. That's all I've got for now. Enjoy!

More Slap-Happy Fun

So I am sure we all know about the unfortunate, childish, and totally hilarious slapping that went on in the Legislative Yuan the other day. I love living in a country where politics is a spectator sport.

And apparently I am not alone in this.

Over beers with a friend last night, she mentioned that Yahoo! Taiwan put the article about Chiu slapping Lee in...hee hee, get this...the sports section. I love it. Apparently someone over at Yahoo! Taiwan has a fine sense of humor. Great minds think alike and all.

It's hard tell, but here's a screen shot:



Yahoo! Taiwan has already corrected the error, so no use heading to their website to see if it's still up.

Commentary

A really good piece today in David's blog at David on Formosa. I'm linking here because I know my blog has several readers who are friends and family of friends who might not know that David's blog exists, as they don't live in Taiwan.

How the KMT Constructs History

For anyone who reads this and wonders why I get all het up when talking about politics, things like this are why.

Only a party who instigated human rights abuses (ahem, the KMT) would be so daft as to try to close down a human rights museum discussing and exhibiting the crimes they perpetrated.

And only a party who seems to think they have a right to re-write history would attempt to excise two important pieces of their own history - the first being their former human rights abuses, the second being to ignore Lee Tung-hui (the first elected President of Taiwan - I am so sick of my Shi-da instructor pretending that Chiang Kai-Shek was a "President" - he was a dictator). Why? His political views are, shall we say, inconvenient. From reading up on things he's said recently and politicians he's supported, you'd think he was a member of the DPP.

It makes you think about why this particular, and entirely unacceptable, belief that they can control the writing of history, seems to be shared between the KMT and the Communist Party of China right across the strait.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Two Questions and a Comment

Thanks to the wonders of modern science, telekinesis is now something that is technologically feasible. We also have robots - sort of, that child robot I saw on the news looked more creepy than useful - and I am sure it is within our technological capability to create cars that fly and jet packs. We have a system called "Teh Internet" that we can connect to literally almost everywhere, plugging into a worldwide grid of people and information. We can position ourselves exactly by satellite and get it downloaded to a telephone.

We're every 1950's-era teenage boy's dream world, except for the thing where we're not on Mars yet.

So how is it that we can't seem to do anything about global warming?

Brendan thinks it's because global warming is about getting people to get their collective acts together, not solving something in a lab or whiz-kid's garage. I agree partially, but also think that some of it can be solved in a lab (chemical that turns all the carbon dioxide in the air into breathable oxygen, solidifying the carbon which we would then collect, anyone?). I mean we've figured out alchemy. It costs several million dollars but we can turn a little lead into gold if we want.

Second question - newspapers have massive readerships online. Huge. People around the world can now read papers that they had no access to just a decade or two ago. Those online papers are chock-full of advertisements. Some of them are quite annoying - they open out and obscure the story and you have to click them away - or they roll down from a banner, or they look like photos that go with the article but are really ads. Sometimes they're in the middle of the article. I accept all that as a necessary evil.

But then, with all those readers and all those ads, how is it that newspapers are not profitable anymore, and so many are in trouble? Are they not charging enough for these ads? Are they not choosing good ads that people may actually click on? Newspapers in ye olden days were profitable because of their advertising, not because of their subscription fees...those barely paid for the paper the paper was printed on. So what's the deal?

I'm sure there'll be some comment with two perfectly logical answers that I, a being of lesser intelligence, didn't think of. But hey. Ya gotta ask.

In Taiwan-related news, the members of the Taiwanese legislature are getting slap-happy. A KMT rep (Li) called a DPP rep (Chiu) a "violent shrew" and Chiu, who may not be a shrew but certainly is a little violent, opened a can of whoop-ass (apologies for sounding like a teenager from the '90s) on him. It would be wonderful if it weren't terrible. Hitting is never OK, but I'm all in favor of metaphorically beating down people who use sexist terms like "shrew" as if they're acceptable. I realize this is one incident - though not an uncommon one - and I probably can't judge a whole party based on the words of one representative but...err...I'm going to do it anyway.

It makes me wonder what other reactionary, old-skool, woman-hating beliefs the KMT holds, if they think it's acceptable to call a woman a 'shrew' in this day and age.

And it makes me wonder how on earth such a violent streak made it into the elected representatives of the DPP, if they think it's OK to go slap slap slappin'. Though anyone who wants to say "see, the DPP is the violent party" needs to take a really close look at history. From, oh, say, 1950-1975 the violent party (the only party) was most definitely the KMT.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sanxia

My pengyou crew - Sasha and Cara, and Cara's friend, with Brendan in the back.

I've been short on free time these past few weeks - lots of work - so please forgive me for not putting these through GIMP for color and contrast before posting.

A few weeks ago a group of us went to check out Sanxia. The only other time I've been there was as a side trip from Yingge (which was fun, but heavy on shopping and I didn't have a lot of spare cash at the time), it was getting late and the Old Street had really not been developed yet.

It's amazing what two years can do; when the guy who wrote Taipei Day Trips went it was mostly dusty store fronts and a few coffin makers. When I went in 2006 (or was it 2007?) it was three or four gift shops and closed store fronts.



This time around, almost every shop front was open. The stores themselves were nothing special - the usual teacup shop, porcelain shop, glass shop, traditional wooden toy shop, "Everything for 100 Kuai" shop, local delicacy shop...you know, the usual. It was nice, however, to see the place looking spiffy and well-kept, and to see money flowing in.

One lovely tea shop was in a half-collapsed building; only the walls remained so it felt quite reminiscent. I don't recommend them though; the menu says that individual tea is 50NT each; after you finish they charge you 100 NT (50 for "hot water").

The temple in Sanyi is also very well known and I personally feel it's one of the most beautiful temples in Taiwan. It's small, but every inch of it is carved, twirled, decorated, engraved or embossed into a hurricane of styles and patterns.

On rainy days - all too common in Taiwan - the inside exudes a warmth that, while not actually warm, makes you feel a little less chilly. Metaphorically speaking.

And of course, the day we went was a rainy day.


Sanyi is also famous for its fantastic food; tiny shops selling all sorts of delicious things line the streets (even the regular streets, which are the usual gray-ugly of small Asian towns). Besides the ubiquitous bull's horn croissants, which taste of sesame and remind me of my great-grandmothers Armenian cheorog (don't ask how that's pronounced). Like bagels, they're slightly crispy on the outside - just a little - and chewy and thick on the inside.

It's also famous for traditional medicines and herbs, including ginger root. Ginger root tea, dou hua (a dessert made with silken tofu) and other foods are almost as common as the bullhorn croissants.

Many food stalls have been visited by famous people.


...and this one has been visited by more than one famous person:

(The owner's brother told me the autographs are fake. He says the one on the right is "Ma Ying Ba", older brother of Ma Ying Jiu).

And, of course, the many bullhorn croissant shops need to stay competitive in attracting customers, so they employ traditional Taiwanese imagery in order to advertise themselves and their delicacies. You know, traditional Taiwanese imagery like Santa Claus in a Viking hat.

No, really.

Really.



You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hidden Gems


"I'll take the strawberry ice cream crepe with chocolate sauce and dog head, please."

Over the past two and a half years, I've come to discover what a hidden gem Taiwan really is. I may complain to friends that this wonderful little island - a rough-cut green emerald in the South China Sea (with a few gray spots, to be sure) - gets so few tourists. That it feels like the entire world, including the traveling world as exemplified by tour buses at one end, and Lonely Planet-totin' kids at the other - has collectively decided to ignore* Taiwan. If someone who has visited, worked or lived there mentions the trip, many back home will initiate the following conversation:

"So, how was Thailand?"
"Thailand? How should I know? I didn't go."
"Yes you did; I could swear you went to Thailand."
"No, I went to Taiwan."
"Oh, so you were in China then."
"No, I was not in China, I was in Taiwan."

It's kind of sad, really. Between having its own rich history, being the repository for a huge chunk of Chinese history now lost to the Mainland, all of the outdoor activities it offers - when the weather cooperates - the friendly people and the magnificent food, Taiwan should be ranking up there with Japan on travelers' itineraries.

That said - yes, I complain about it. But secretly, I like it this way. I like not having to share my mountain peaks with hordes of backpackers. I like that banana pancakes are only on menus insofar as Taiwanese people seem to like them (though you're more likely to find a fruit waffle than a pancake). I like that even the most "touristy" spots aren't touristy at all, and that the locals haven't sold out to travelers' wallets. Well, maybe in Sun Moon Lake to Chinese wallets, but that's about it. I say this hoping that Penghu doesn't become the next Macau, what with allowing casinos and all. One Macau is enough, thankyouverymuch.

So part of me wants to broadcast to the world what Taiwan has to offer; part of me wants to zip my mouth and keep it all as one big, delicious (literally delicious) secret. If hordes of buxiban English teachers can come, stay a year or two and never really discover what Taiwan is about, what's the point of trying to promote such laid-back, subtle beauty to a world of people who've never even been here?

Which brings me to the next point of this post - within the island that is a hidden gem are several other, smaller little treasures, some tiny and some the size of buildings. I'm talking about the little things that make Taiwan beautiful, but aren't significant in and of themselves, and are usually overlooked. Things like a picturesque old brick wall winding its way up the side of a mountain settlement. A fat, friendly cat lounging on a warm scooter seat.



A huge image of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, perched atop a tiny Buddhist temple on Shuiyuan Road (#155 I think) just after it leaves Wanhua District and heads into Zhongzheng. Even from the street, you wouldn't know that this massive statue exists - and by the way, such statues are quite common down the west coast, but I rarely see them in or around Taipei. To see this one, you have to head to Zhongzheng Riverside Park and look, well, up.

I met someone in Zhongzheng Park who told me that this temple has been around since the 40s (the current statue is newer than that) and was erected because that site - just north of Guting and south of Machangding Memorial Park - used to be a popular and safe swimming area for local families. The temple was erected to keep swimmers safe. These days, I wouldn't dare jump into the Xindian River, for fear I might dissolve.

You see it on the two or three decrepit shophouses dotting the streets here and there, or the outlines of old brick arcades.

If you wander deep enough into the alleys, you begin to lose sight of the endless concrete and see the curious potted plants and vines, the friendly old lady with her ancient dog, or the lovely little shrines to all manner of gods you never knew existed.

My favorites of these gods, by the way, are the Yin-Yang God and the God of Insomnia (you can find his shrine deep in Wanhua District, not far from Huanhe South Road). The God of Insomnia doesn't cause insomnia; apparently he cures it. The shrine even has two tall god costumes for participating in parades, and seems to see a reasonably steady stream of locals praying for relief from their sleeping troubles.

You might even come across an unusually beautiful temple, full of artwork that's three centuries old, or older. We came across just such a temple in Wanhua recently - can you tell we like Wanhua? - dedicated to Matsu, goddess of the sea.



Matsu temples are fairly common here, but this one was especially lovely. It has only been at its current location for 30 years, but the idols and altars within it are all several centuries old, and were imported from Fujian with some of the first immigrants to Taiwan. Most of the temple is made of stone and wood.



In the back, we discovered two volunteers doing repair work on one of Matsu's companions (I forget if this one is Thousand Mile Eyes or Long-Hearing Ears).



Down Wanda Road, we also came across a relatively new temple whose dragon columns had especially beautiful lines.



...and at the end of this trail of tiny, insignificant-in-themselves, but beautiful-as-a-whole gems, you might just find an incense shrine topped with a beer can...or a tiny food stall autographed by the President of Taiwan (in Simplified Chinese?)...or a vendor whose specialty seems to be "dog's head crepes" (see the first photo).



*although I have noticed more recently that a huge contingent of visitors to touristy areas do in fact come on tour buses; they're just Korean, Japanese and Chinese so they blend in.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Never Forget

This has nothing to do with Taiwan, but it's something very close to my heart and my family history.

Telling the Truth About the Armenian Genocide

Armenian Remembrance Day is April 24th. That's the day to commemorate and remember what happened to Armenians living in Turkey circa 1915.

If you don't know what happened during that time - and don't let anyone convince you that it was anything other than a genocide, and a government sanctioned and premeditated one at that - now is a good time to learn some history. The article above is a good introduction to that history.

Because my last name comes from my dad's side, few people realize that I'm actually just as Armenian as I am Polish, despite my "So are you from Warsaw?" last name and my fair complexion.

Not only am I Armenian, but that side of my family was living in Mousa Dagh (a part of Turkey) at the turn of the century, and thus was directly impacted by events at that time. My great grandmother's family was captured and my great-great grandfather executed. My great grandfather was in the military - the Turkish military - and didn't know what was going on for awhile. When he found out, he used his training to become a freedom fighter and was one of the best snipers that the Armenian resistance had. He eventually reunited with my great-grandmother and they escaped to Greece, where they married and had children. When World War II came around, they left Greece for the USA (Hitler was quite well-versed in what happened in Turkey - see his famous "Who remembers the Armenians?" quote - and used it as an assurance that he, too, could get away with ethnic cleansing. It was not a good idea to be an Armenian in a place where Nazis were heading, especially if you were a former freedom fighter).

But, well, history is written by the winners. Many countries do not recognize the genocide (including, until recently, the USA), preferring to keep Turkey and its political thugs happy rather than speak truth to power.

One of the reasons I have great faith in Obama is that he isn't doing this; in his recent visit to Turkey he refused, as the Washington Post put it, "to disavow his earlier statements that the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire before and during World War I was genocide."

Thank goodness we have a President who is finally willing to take that necessary, courageous, and yet altogether obvious step.

Living in Taiwan has taught me a lot about countries with painful histories. What happened in Taiwan during the White Terror may have stopped short of a full-blown ethnic cleansing, but it created its own set of horrors that society plainly hasn't gotten over. Both sides have their tales to tell - not only what the long-settled Taiwanese have endured at the hands of the Japanese and, later, the KMT, and not only what the aborigines have been through almost since their beautiful island was discovered by neighboring lands, but also the hardship endured by many waishengren who made the trip over here not all that long ago.

It's that sort of sadness, the kind that's pushed aside for every day life and yet never quite forgotten, that compel me to remember even more strongly what my own family went through, not long before what happened here.

So, April 24th hasn't come yet, but it's still a good time to start remembering. Besides Obama's wonderfully principled stance on the matter, new books are coming out this month regarding the genocide, including Armenian Golgotha, which I am very interested to read if it ever becomes available in Taiwan.

Now that we are remembering and beginning to admit, let us not backtrack and let us not forget.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Good Week for Gods

The coming week is a big week for festivals in Taipei, all celebrating the birthdays of various gods.

For Baosheng Dadi (a medicine god, rumored to have been a real person), Bao'an temple usually holds several days of festivities. As far as I know now, the firewalking (devotees allow themselves to become 'possessed' by various gods and walk across hot coals) will take place at Bao'an temple (MRT Yuanshan) this Thursday, April 9th. It usually happens around 2-3pm. Anyone interested in a truly Taiwanese experience ought to make it out there.

On the same day at about 2pm, there will be a god procession for Baosheng Dadi near Longshan Temple. It will start just off Bangka Blvd (from MRT Longshan Temple, head down Xiyuan Road and turn left on Bangka Blvd. Walk down past the 350 block and hang a left at the 7-11) at about 2pm.

On Tuesday (the 7th) there will be another big celebration in southern Wanhua. It will start at about 11:30 am at a temple off the southern end of Wanda Road (south of where it merges with Baoxing Road, not far from the river) and go all around Wanhua. We came across an old Matsu temple in our ramblings around that area today and they told us it was a particularly nice god parade. The Matsu temple was repairing its Thousand Mile Eyes da sen ("big doll" - tall god costume) at the time of our visit.