Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving - Do It True, My Sweetie Pie

L to R: Jane, Cara, Brendan, me, Joseph, Emily, Sasha

Last year on Thanksgiving we went to Exotic Masala House for an Indian feast. A good time was had by all (me, my sister, our friends Joseph, Emily and Sasha - Brendan had work and joined us later).

Because, you know, even though Thanksigiving more or less commemorates that time the Native Americans were nice to us Europeans before we started killing them all, Americans (generally speaking) feel the need to make a big to-do about it. I think this is equally because we get two days off and are meant to go visit our families (which can be tough if you live far away, as you're more likely to go see them on Christmas just a few weeks later) and so it's a time for good food, warm houses and a huge helping of family drama...

...as well as because it's the start of the Christmas season, which is truly The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Not for all that religious stuff - I'm not religious beyond thinking that Daoism is cool and Christianity has a few moral codes that are quite sensible - but because of the obvious stuff: cheesy songs, Christmas lights, trees, gingerbread, hot red wine, cookies and yes, Christmas gifts! Giving just as much as receiving if not more so.

So what does an expat do on Thanksgiving? Well, we wanted something new and we wanted a bird of some sort, so we settled on Do It True - an extremely famous restaurant known for its exceptional Beijing (sorry, Beiping) traditional cuisine. We figured they'd have Beijing Duck as well as other dishes, so that'd take care of our desperate need for Thanksgiving fowl. Which is good, as duck is hands-down more delicious than turkey, at least commercially sold turkey.

Well...

Do It True was good. It was. The food was just fine - especially the spicy braised pork with oodles of lard that one stuffs into sesame buns (called "sesame bums" on the menu, tee hee) and the cedar-scented bean curd (a bean curd with some oil and green chopped vegetable with a strong whiff of woody cedar...not sure how they accomplished that).

But honestly speaking, there are plenty of Beiping-style restaurants in Taipei and while Do It True was quite a nice meal, I feel like we could have done just as well at a local joint.

And they don't serve Beijing duck. Their pine-smoked whole chicken was sold out, so our bird ended up being a plate of kung pao chicken! (Which is more or less fine - it was pretty good considering that this was not a Sichuanese restaurant).

This is not to say I give them a bad review - it really was a good meal. I just wonder why it's sooooo famous. (I did hear a story that the owner retired and left it to his children, who kind of screwed up, and quality went down. Then they redoubled their efforts and things got better, but the food is still not quite as good as it used to be. I wonder how true that is.) Is it worth trekking out to Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall to eat here? Yeah...sure. But if you're really after good Beijing food - which incidentally is hard to find in Beijing these days - a local place will suffice. And if you want truly amazing regional cuisine from China that will knock your socks off, try Hui Guan for Ningxia food or the Sichuan place with the crazy chef at #5 Renai Road in Yonghe (MRT Dingxi).

Then we taxi'd over to My Sweetie Pie* (owned by Grandma Nitti's across the street) in Shi-da for some good old-fashioned dessert, which we picked up along with Belgian beer from Cafe Bastille (I got "Satan Gold") and headed over to a friend's for pie, beer and chatting.

What the food scene in Taipei really needs is a cafe that has My Sweetie Pie quality desserts and Cafe Bastille beer. The desserts at Bastille are "meh" at best and their food is, as the article says, atrocious - and My Sweetie Pie doesn't seem to do alcohol and definitely doesn't have a wide selection of good beer.

*I'm happy this place got reviewed in Hungry Girl but I would have focused more on the amazing cakes and pies and less on the rest of the menu, as really the best reason to go there is to eat a slice of cake or pie or get a real dessert treat in the form of a whole cake for someone special. I don't mind that the slices are smaller than back home because I'm not one of those naturally thin (or unnaturally thin come to think of it) people who can eat fat slices of cake all the time, and I love raisins, including in apple pie. Also, they make a very good espresso.

Jolly

I recently ate at this restaurant and brewery for the second time, and all I can say is that I loved it the first time, but I love it even more now.

The article above describes it about as well as I could, if not better, so I won't do a full-on review. But I will give my impressions.

First of all, the ambience is downright cool. A brewery and Thai-style restaurant that is affordable but not bargain-basement, with a mix of age groups but generally in the young-but-not-too-young age group (that is, our age group of about 25-35) with a laid-back atmosphere, decorated in good taste -I could do without the sports on television sets, but hey whatever. It is a more than welcome change from the usual nightlife options (young&studenty&too-cool, young&glossy&trying-too-hard, and old&smarmy&gross seem to be the other three options, and while I'm down with the first of the three, it's nice to be able to feel like you aren't a ramen-swilling artist once in awhile, especially when, ahem, you're not).

After 9pm on any given day, the lights go down and while you can still eat, the place takes on more of a bar atmosphere, but not so loud that you can't talk around a table. I like that. The music is fun and international.

Secondly, complementing that ambience are beer choices that are honest-to-goodness delicious. Really. They're just extremely good. I'm something of a beer snob so this is a HUGE compliment.

Thirdly, the food is fantastic. Well, mostly. When we first went there, after a day at Xiao Wulai, we weren't expecting much. Usually places with sports matches on TV and alcohol with nice settings don't serve the best food, but the friend who suggested it is something of a foodie, so we decided to give it a go. We were mightily surprised by how truly great it is - the best dishes being Massaman curry, quick-cooked watercress, papaya salad and shrimp "cakes" (which are really spring rolls filled with shrimp cake paste and fried). The country-style curry was also really good.

The second time we went, which was just a few days ago, we got beef with basil (also excellent) and lettuce bundles (fan-tas-tic). I didn't love the fish cakes quite as much, though.

For dessert, I wasn't a huge fan of the milk and taro balls but that's just me - I like richer, creamier European desserts or fresh fruit as a general rule. The stout tiramisu, however (tiramisu made with stout instead of the usual liqueurs), is amazing and you have to get it. You HAVE to. No...no, I don't want to hear that you're too full. YOU HAVE TO. It's a law or something.

As it's no secret that Thai food goes well with beer (just like most Sichuan food and stinky tofu, and of course Indian curry), Jolly is basically just heaven for anyone who values a good meal and a good place to hang out with friends.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Haha. hahahaha. Haha.

Now I feel a little bad - I haven't had time to update in the way I'd like these past few weeks. It's not wedding planning (please shoot me if I ever spend so much time planning a party that I don't have time to write or do anything fun) - it's work. This month (and October to some extent) has been busy, because this is the time of year when accounting firms seem to have a lot of downtime and buy lots and lots and lots of seminars. You'd think with the end of the year coming that wouldn't be true, but hey, it seems to be - at least in Taiwan.

For the past two weekends, for example, I would have loved to have gone hiking or done something fun, but I actually had weekend seminars. Not long-term courses at least, but still.

To fill the void a bit, here are some fun pictures for you that are of nothing in particular:


No blog post with random photos is complete without My Nuts.

(I realize plenty of relatives and soon-to-be relatives read this blog, but I also figure I've put my foot in my mouth so many times thanks to my chronic foot-in-mouth disease that it's basically all cool at this point. And come on, this is a really funny name for a bag of nuts.)


Yeah! You better not let your dogs...err...at least not ANYWHERE!



"It's the most wonderful time of the year" (cue sleigh bells)


"Are you going to iron? I love irons! They're warm like MY heater which is MINE."



Mmmmm delicious grilled tentacles.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kung Po Chicken Ding (宮保雞丁)

That's the menu name of kung pao chicken that my sister found in a Chinese restaurant in the Hudson Valley. Awesome.

Anyway, the other night I made kung pao chicken and invited a few friends over to help us eat it. Best NT $620 (for ingredients) that I ever spent. One friend provided beer, another saved the day with hua jiao (花椒) when my local Wellcome turned out to be sold out. Not as good as the fresh hua jiao used in the Sichuan restaurant in Dingxi that has my heart, but still good. Two more brought desserts, including a selection from My Sweetie Pie, the awesome bakery owned by Grandma Nitti's.

The meaning of "gong bao" (or as we say in the American language, "kung pao") is "palace guard" - a lot of Chinese food has fancy names like "Buddha Jumps Over A Wall", "Cross The Bridge Noodles", "Eight Treasures", "Four Gods Soup" etc. that don't really tell you what it is. So this one is Palace Guard Diced Chicken (ji ding).

I realize every kung pao chicken recipe is different, but here is mine (serves 6-8)

Ingredients:

Eight breasts of chicken (I bought 4 packages from Wellcome with appeared to have approx. 2 breasts' worth of meat each in them)

Unroasted, unsalted peanuts - at least 2 cups or to taste

1 sprig of green onion, chopped into chunks

2 cloves of garlic finely minced (optional but I would never leave it out)

a few ginger coins - about half a thumb's worth (optional)

1 tall shot glass or larger Chinese tea cup full of Shaoxing rice wine - no you can't use cheap cooking wine or some other kind of cheaper rice wine. NO YOU CANT NO NO NO! Dry sherry would be OK, though, as that will mimic the effect that the flavor has on the sauce, or a really good, rich rice wine.

1/2 cup regular soy sauce or 1 cup low sodium light soy sauce

1 capful of rice vinegar

sprinkle of sugar to taste - I put about half a palmful

salt to taste

1 tbsp lemon juice (optional or to taste - I like the tangy flavor it gives the sauce)

A **** ton of cooking oil...you can use olive oil if you like (I know that sounds weird but it actually works)

sesame oil - 1 tbsp or to taste

If you like - it's my little secret - a sprinkling of squid oil. You can't taste it in the final product, but it lends this amazing, full, rounded flavor even under all the chili (below)

And now, for the best part!

2 handfuls (or to taste) of hua jiao - flower pepper, which creates that classic numbing feeling
2-3 tbsp Lao Gan Ma black bean peanut chili in oil from Guizhou
handfuls and handfuls of dried red chilis - really you can't overdo this, but you can underdo it, so figure out the point where it seems ridiculous then add some more
about 1 tbsp black pepper
3-4 chopped fresh red Sichuan chilis (any small, thin red chili will do)
Some of that not-too-spicy chili paste with garlic and vinegar you can buy cheaply at Wellcome

(In the USA, all you need is some chopped fresh chili, dried chili and hua jiao, though a chili paste would also be good - not all of the above may be easily available)

Process:

Dice the chicken breasts and put in bowl, adding the soy sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, salt to taste, shaoxing wine, sugar, a bit of the garlic, and the chili pastes. Set aside.

In a wok or large pan with huge lip, heat the cooking oil. In it, lightly roast the black pepper, flower pepper, dried chilis, the rest of the garlic and ginger until it smells awesome. Use as much oil as you like - if the whole mess is deep fried it's great, but if you just want to stir fry, that's OK too. I stir-fry because I'd like to not have a heart attack when I'm 34.

Add peanuts. Just dump 'em in.

Cook peanuts until lightly golden. Add chicken. You can add the whole marinade for a more 'cooked' taste, or if you want the raw awesome of all that chili, leave it out for now.

Cook chicken until tender and just exactly done - when I think this is happening I take a larger chunk out, cut it in half on a cutting board and check the center. Do not overcook. Nothing is more gross than overcooked chicken, except maybe overcooked fish.

Quickly add the chopped onion, giving it a few whisks around in the hot mess, before turning off.

Use a slotted spoon or other straining thing to get the chicken, onion and dried chilis onto the plate while leaving behind the **** ton of oil. If you did not add the marinade to the mess, dump as much of it over now as you like. (adding it while cooking makes it taste 'cooked', adding it after makes it taste 'raw' - I like it both ways.)

Breathe fire, young grasshopper!



Thursday, November 12, 2009

Playing Chicken

I almost always vote Democratic (nowhere I've lived has had a Republican nominee I'd vote for - though I think that even though I am more liberal than most liberals, that I'd vote for a good, socially liberal Republican if one came along in my voting jurisdiction who clearly deserved my support).

But, I agree with this article. Completely. I vote Democrat because, as a woman who is consciously and actively aware of and in support of the struggle for women's rights and equality (true rights and true equality, in society as well as under the law - something that's definitely better for American women than most other women in the world, but could still stand to improve), I'm still consistently disappointed with the Democrats' fight for women's rights. I don't take my support away because the other choices are to vote Republican - which I really can't do when it comes down to the candidates I've had to choose from so far - or not vote. I could and would be an activist if I lived in the USA, but other than blustering on the Internet there's not much to be done from Taiwan. But still. What is up with the Democratic party? As the article states, they're chicken.

We're chicken.

I'm chicken, for continuing to vote "in support of" these measures...though I feel like I was forced into that role.

Why is that?

I feel like it's a massive Prisoner's Dilemma (sort of) for 51% of the population. Seriously, 51% and we can't even keep our rights safe? What's up with that? I'd love to see every likeminded woman in America suddenly turn activist, and what's more, refuse to vote for any candidate who does not support - in full, no chicken - our rights. I know that sounds extreme but it seems like that's what it's going to take. And yet nobody's willing to stand up and start taking that risk, not knowing if refusing to vote in favor of cowardly politicians of both genders.

And it's frustrating. To be pushed down that road. To have to choose between compliance and extreme, crazy left-wing action, and to know that those who would like to see our rights taken away know we won't go to that extreme.

Frustrating...and sad.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bye Bye Pod Houses


Two Things:

1.) We took a bus from Danshui to Jinshan today, and ended up in Jinshan eating all things sweet potato. A nice town to stop in if you're in the area but not really worth its own day trip. But the purple yam ice cream there is fantastic and you'll love the local food on offer if you like sweet potatoes.

Also, though the "old street" isn't really "old" at all, you can at least stock up on the usual Old Street stuff that you may like - for me it's black sugar cake (黑糖糕) and those smelly glycerin soaps in a million scents, and the little camphor balms. Also got some ginger herb tea (薑母茶) chunks because it tasted so good.

But we didn't go to Jinshan because we'd planned it that way - we originally set out to find these:




To, you know, look around, take some photos, marvel at the total freakiness of the place. We've been by there on the bus a few times so we knew where they should have been...but they weren't there! They're gone! They are (or rather were) quite close to the highway - you can practically see in the windows from a moving bus - and we kept our eyes peeled out both sides of the bus all the way past Laomei and Cape Fugui. And they're definitely gone.

Boo. There should be a law against demolishing creepy, old fantastic things that may be haunted.

We also walked to the tip of Cape Fugui after the sun had set, which made the walk extra atmospheric - with the lighthouse beacon, lapping waves, frightening military installations, large domes, sea breezes and garbage truck song playing from nearby Laomei Village and all. Plus, out there, you can see a lot of stars - about as many as I remember being able to see from my parents' rural backyard on a clear night.

We did not, however, make it to Jinshan Beach, so no awesome photos of the nuclear reactors on either side.

2.) I just realized why I love posted photos from American-based message boards so much - no matter the topic of the board.

Whether it's a photo contest in which someone enters a picture that involves the inside of their house, or Fail Blog with the picture of some heinous Fail taken while displayed in a living room to a woman trying on her wedding dress in her den...

...it's the houses. On some weird, subconscious level, I may not be homesick, but I feel a weird desire to visit home whenever I see the insides of American houses. Doesn't matter what room. And not from movies or magazines, because those houses are all impossibly expensive or fake. Seeing real people's homes reminds me of what it was like to live in a big American house with things like a "den" (do you have any idea how long it's been since I've been in someone's den? Do dens even exist in Taiwan) or even a garage or rec room. Bonus points if it has wall-to-wall carpeting or an installed setup that I recognize from lots of houses from that era, like my grandparents' pre-installed "stone fireplace" that so many suburban homes have, or wood paneling on one wall, or *gasp* a bay window.

Anyway I'll stop there - it's clearly a very weird outlet of homesickness and I swear it's not creepy. It just is what it is.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

So, last weekend before our delicious dinner at Hui Guan (回館) - which I still highly recommend by the way, they seem to do no wrong - Emily and I went to Dihua Street. In my free time, I've been rambling around their fabric market looking for wedding dress fabrics because hey, what a great reason to get a pretty dress made. By the time I brought Emily along, I had a good working knowledge of where to get what in that area - which street has the most bead and ribbon stores, which sells the most expensive fabrics, where to get funky borders, which stall in the main market has the most Chinese fabrics to choose from...so we managed it in pretty short order.

The tailor I like works in the stinky part of the market next door, but I've had her do stuff for me before and she's done an excellent job, so even though her stall is tiny and the market smells like fish guts, I'm having her do the honors.

I've known for awhile that I don't want a white dress. I have a lot of reasons that I won't get into now (I typed them out and it sounded a bit 'ranty' so I deleted the paragraph). Suffice it to say that I just don't like the white-spectrum (white, ecru, champagne, ivory, bone, cream) dresses that the Wedding Industrial Complex insists we buy. I don't like 'em and they're too expensive, to boot.

So, I chose this:

The main color will be cranberry dupioni (Thai double-weave silk) (top left), with the others as accents, mostly in the wide sash you can see on one of the 2 dresses that I'm using for inspiration.

It's hard to tell but the ivory dupioni (bottom) and vintage Japanese obi match perfectly, the copper is darker and shinier in real life and the cranberry, when in the light, takes on something of a flame color.

For shoes, I want these, though I may also get a pair of heels, since I'll wear them again anyway:


Monday, November 2, 2009

A Day in Meinong

After the King Boat Festival in Donggang ended two weeks ago, we headed to Meinong for the day before catching the HSR back to Taipei. Meinong is the center of southern Taiwanese Hakka culture and is famous for its oilpaper parasols, which are beautifully handpainted and sold in several places around town. At least they would be if half of the old street weren't torn up by construction at the moment.

The food is excellent too - we really enjoyed everything we ate at the well-known restaurant on the outskirts of town (which is actually called "Traditional Hakka Restaurant" but is quite good). We had lotus leaves, cold peanut "tofu", flat board rice noodles cooked two ways, basically all of their famous dishes. All of it excellent.

Below is a set of photos.


The dog and the couch suit each other quite well I think.

For old architecture enthusiasts, Meinong is full of examples of traditional homes. You'll see a lot of them in this post.

Dongmen, the only gate and most famous landmark in town, sits at the end of Yongan Street (the "old street" which isn't very old and is currently partly under construction).

A piece of door calligraphy (this year is the year of the rat). I just liked it.

Something in an old temple.


Dongmen in black and white.


A pretty cornice (?) thing on Dongmen, partially painted.

Hakka woman on bicycle, taken from the 2nd floor of Dongmen.



Old guy watching his front stoop get torn up by construction.


Temple lion.


Three sets of fortune blocks in a temple.


Side column of a traditional house.


Traditional houses (above and below)


Shi Jin Lai is 100 years old and has made traditional Hakka blue clothes since the 1920s. His relative/apprentice here now does most of the work (Shi himself sits in an easy chair and says hello to visitors and is generally celebrated by the town, which sounds like a pretty good deal for a centenarian.) I ordered a blouse because they're pretty, and I like to support the traditional arts.

Cool dragon thing outside of a quirky shop.

Another traditional home - the friendly owners allowed me inside.

Baskets of things (yucca? yam?)


The back of the old Matsu temple (the front is brand new)

The brand-new front of the Matsu temple.

Oil paper parasols above and below - I bought one for my aunt as a Christmas gift - not the yin-yang - I bought some pretty purple...flox or irises. (above and below)