Sunday, December 28, 2008

Shunyi Museum of Formosan Aborigines

Brendan and I visited this museum today (Tues-Sun 9am-5pm, closed Mondays, admission NT150) and were pleasantly surprised.

I've long been interested in Taiwan's aboriginal customs and cultures, although can't claim to have more than a cursory knowledge. I'm hoping as I spend more time in Taiwan that this will change. Not only do I think it's important for Taiwan to explore, celebrate and advertise its non-Han cultural roots, but it's also just plain fascinating to learn about cultures that existed before "Han Chinese" ever became an ethnicity...cultures that, from linguistic evidence, are theorized to be the root of all Austronesian cultures and languages.

It was well-designed and aesthetically pleasing, with lots of informative plaques and wall displays in English and Chinese. With a few exceptions ("Man's Knief") the English was pretty good. The flow of the place could be improved; the men's and women's hats in the basement should be on the 3rd floor with clothing and ornaments, but that's really a small thing.

It is not a large museum, nor is it tiny. At a strolling pace, you can take in the entire museum in about 2 hours. It's a very good way to spend a cold, rainy morning or afternoon and doesn't boggle the mind and exhaust the legs the way that the National Palace Museum does - I also think the inside is better-decorated and more streamlined than Gugong, but hey).

The basement houses spiritual items and other crafts, and has the biggest exhibition space; it's worth it to start any trip here in the basement after reading wall plaques about the various recognized tribes on the 1st floor. The 2nd and 3rd floors are quite small; one has pots and other daily life utensils, and one has clothing and ornaments. Only rarely is the information only in Chinese.

The biggest pleasure of this museum, besides learning a lot about the history, festivals and culture of Taiwan's aborigines is learning how greatly each tribe differs (I experienced this firsthand when we stayed with an Atayal couple after Pasta'ay and they knew almost as little about the Saisiyat festival as we did; they just went to socialize and see the dancing). The exhibits are made with an eye to the aesthetically pleasing, so it's also a pleasure to just wander and admire the artwork; the weaving, carving, pottery, metalwork and beading of various pieces. This is what we liked about the Sanyi museum; not too much technical information, just lots and lots of beautiful things to look at, soak in and admire.

Both the ticket clerk and shop clerk seem to speak good English. Don't worry about crowds; we went on a lovely Saturday - today - and the place was almost deserted. One group was being given a tour by the director, and a few random visitors slunk through. Otherwise we had the place mostly to ourselves. The big tour groups were all at Gugong gettin' their Han heritage on.

It's worth a spin through the shop; unlike many souvenir shops, it doesn't sell irrelevant crap. many of the items are made by aboriginal artisan groups and many make good souvenirs or gifts. I picked up a few printed greeting cards to send people for birthdays.

The park across the street with stone tablets commemorating the different tribes is a good place to enjoy a picnic lunch before or after your visit.

All in all, a very pleasant trip.

To get to the Shunyi Museum of Formosan Aborigines, go to Shilin MRT and take any one of the buses heading east (right) along the road in front of the square (Zhongzheng Rd.) to the National Palace Museum...not every bus goes there. Get off at the National Palace Museum stop and cross the street, heading in the same direction along the road you came on. It's just past the terrifying kindergarten that looks like a castle on the right.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Taiwan-friendly ethnic food recipes (Ethiopian fusion satay)

Just a few favorites I've managed to concoct with a reasonable level of authenticity from ingredients available in Taiwan...nevermind that a lot of these seem to come from Jason's (Taipei 101 and Takashimaya) and City Super (the green SOGO).

I've compiled a list of ingredients for each and as I put them up, will note where one can buy each ingredient, at least if they seem hard to get.

All will be saved under the tag ethnic_food_recipes with the food described in the title.

I was going to start with something easy - Iranian salad - but decided instead to begin with something difficult - Ethiopian food.

It is possible to make real Ethiopian food in Taiwan, at least I know one can make various wots, alechas and tibs, but you can't get teff flour so it's impossible to make the injera bread that it's all eaten with. I had teff sent to me from the USA but not everyone has that I've concocted this delicious recipe as a compromise - keeping the original flavor of Ethiopian wot (spicy tomato based gravy) dishes but in a form accessible to those in Taiwan.

Hence, Ethiopian fusion satay. These were a huge hit at the Christmas party - a few pounds of chicken gone within an hour. Trust me, they will be well received.


white breastmeat chicken (real doro wot is made with drumsticks, but whatever, you need injera to eat that), cut into largish chunks - any Wellcome or day market

cucumbers - the small kind are better - any market

satay sticks - Wellcome

one large tomato and 1/2 white onion - any market

2 cloves garlic and about a teaspoon of chopped ginger - any market

1 bay leaf - spice section of large Wellcomes or Jason's

ghee (clarified butter) - Indian spice shop off exit 4 of Taipei City Hall MRT 2nd floor of a nondescript building near the Dante, Taipei Milk King and Korea Viand)

1 cinnamon stick or some powdered cinnamon - spice section of any supermarket

berbere spice powder - make your own from this website:

(It's not as hard as it sounds - spices all available at aforementioned Indian spice shop, Jason's or Cafe Alexandre on Zhongshan N. Road, Tianmu)...and you can use it again to season meat or soups.

salt, black pepper and lemon juice - anywhere

paprika - Jason's

some red wine if you feel like it


Slice the cucumbers into wide coins by working diagonally. Set aside.

Rub the chicken with some berbere, salt, lemon juice and black pepper to taste.

Chop onion and tomato finely.

Put ghee - measurements according to what is needed to cook your chosen amount of chicken - into a wok or cooking vessel and melt. Add a lot of paprika (1/3 of the bottle or so if it's sweet paprika, much less if it's spicy), some berbere, the cinnamon stick, garlic, ginger and bay leaf. Allow to cook briefly until it smells really good.

Add onion and tomato and cook briefly.

Add chicken.

Cook for awhile, then add more lemon juice, salt, berbere, black pepper etc. to taste. Throw in a little red wine at the end if you wish. Cook until chicken is just finished - any longer and it starts to get tough - and it should be coated now in a thick, spicy red gravy. Set aside to cool.

When the chicken is hot but manageable, don a pair of gloves or scrub your hands and skewer on satay sticks, alternating chicken/cucumber slice - I find that two chicken chunks and 2 cucumbers is good.

Serve as is, or with the spicy gravy left in the wok added to a little chicken broth with flour to thicken, or with a sauce of your own concocting. I use a sauce I make with alecha spice powder, lemon juice and turmeric but that's a whole other production).

This sounds hard, but really the only tough part is the berbere, and that isn't so tough once you have all the ingredients together. It helps to get a mortar and pestle to grind the ones that come whole, though a hammer and Ziploc bag works almost as well.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Southeast Asian Food

There are a lot of tips, hints and links for Southeast Asian food on offer in Taipei, but I thought I'd put forth a few suggestions I haven't yet seen knocked about online as my favorite destinations for food from the peninsula and islands.

Yangon (Myanmar)

Gongguan Night Market, near the Molly's Used Books behind Taipower Building. From Gongguan Night Market, turn in the alley near the Vietnamese Restaurant and head to the end, where you come across a small park and the end of the night market. It's on the road on the far side of the park, between a Korean BBQ and a coffeeshop.

Yangon looks like a Thai restaurant that happens to have a Burmese name - no, I can't figure out if I should call it Myanmar or Burma - and if you order incorrectly from the menu, you'll get just that, Thai food. But order correctly, or better yet, compliment the owners by specifically requesting Burmese food recommendations, and you are in for a real treat. We ordered three dishes and a green papaya salad. The eggplant dish felt very Chinese, with sweet soy sauce and a flavor reminiscent of Yunnan cuisine. The meat-in-a-stone-bowl was curried, with flavors from northeast India. The papaya salad and shrimp fritters (I know, I know, but I LOVE shrimp fritters) were very Thai. Put them all together and you have Rangoonian bliss. Also, very affordable.

South East Asia Food Center Xinyi (all kinds)
(at least that's what I think it's called - I've lost the card)

Near the International Trade Building with all the consulates in it (that tall square building between the Grand Hyatt and the World Trade Center) - cross Keelung Road and head slightly to the right. It's the first lane to the left of a place offering Singaporean food, which we haven't had the pleasure of trying yet. Walk down the lane a bit and it's on the right.

The owner, whom I believe is named Winston, is Vietnamese but the place offers food from all over the peninsula. He speaks great English, and the place is packed with Taiwanese office workers coming for a good-value lunch in Xinyi, who want Southeast Asian food but don't really want to pay Shinkong Mitsukoshi prices for it. They have Singapore noodles, Vietnamese pho and spring rolls, green papaya salad, curry fried rice, laksa, Thai curries and more...all for excellent prices.

The green papaya salad is more Lao in flavor than Thai, so those used to the hot, sour Thai style and unfamiliar with the more coriander-and-oniony, crunchy, lemony Lao style might be surprised.

Borneo (Indonesian)

Shida Night Market, at the very end - turn in the road that begins at the Fubon Bank (Shida branch) on Heping E. Road and it's visible on the left

Not exactly Indonesian food, but good. They do not do Padang-style 'small dishes', something I remember quite fondly in Sumatra when we gorged ourselves silly on Padang food in Padang itself...but what they do offer is quite nice. Be sure to request 'extra spicy' or 'local style' - the chef is Indonesian and can cook it up for you the way the staff would eat it, but if you don't say anything you get something a bit milder. They do standard Indonesian fare - nasi goreng, mie goreng, rendang, satay - at bargain-basement prices. I don't think I've ever paid more than NT100 for a meal there. Plus they have a cute white dog named Oliver.

The vendor guy next to him who sells crispy Thai spring rolls on a stick also cooks up a tasty treat.

Pinoy (Filipino) food of all kinds

Sundays on Zhongshan N. Road between Minquan W. Road and Yuanshan MRT stations. Walk up between the two and turn right into the lanes at just about the halfway point. Options abound.

I would make specific recommendations but frankly, pretty much everything is good. Try one of the places that looks like a Taiwanese buffet, but you pay by the small dish of food (1 or 2 per person, go with a group and share or go alone) so just order whatever looks good and, frankly, it probably is. If you have no stomach for innards, stay away from the sisig. I could handle sisig in the Philippines because it's soft and tender and bears no trace of its, um, gutsy origins, but the sisig in Taipei is a little more blatant in advertising exactly what it is and where it comes from. This is food for Filipinos in Taiwan on their way home from church on Sunday, so you know you're getting the real thing.

New Bangkok Restaurant (Thai)

Easily found in a lane on the eastern side of Fuxing N. Road between Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT and Breeze Center.

Their fried eggplant and shrimp fritters left something to be desired, but it's worth it to go for the amazing minced basil chicken and green papaya salad, which is among the best I've had in Taiwan. Its hot, sour, sweet and savory flavors are perfectly balanced to create a heavenly chord, like the end of a good Bach fugue, on your tongue.

Thai, Yunnan and Myanmar Food (Neihu branch ONLY) -

Ruiguang Road, Neihu, across the street from the large bus stop of the same name, near E-Ten's office and the Barista Coffee - incidentally the onion pancake guy next to that Barista does an awesome pancake.

Other branches of this restaurant have disappointed me with lackluster tea and mediocre food, but this branch does something very right. I've always been happy with everything I've eaten here, including the soft tofu in coconut sauce, the red curry chicken, the green papaya salad, the greens with sliced pork, and, well, everything.

Tiny Vietnamese pho stall on Heping W. Road

Basically if you head west on Heping W. Road from Roosevelt Road and just continue on for about ten minutes not too far before the pedestrian overpass directly before the botanical gardens and old Academy of Science Building (as well as the other historic buildings surrounding it), and it's on your right in a barely noticeable little card-table-and-white-wall storefront.

I can't remember the name of this place, but the pho is so good and so authentic that it's worth a mention. Really. If you are in that area, maybe heading to the botanical gardens or bird market, it's worth planning a lunch or dinner here if you are a pho fan. The owners are a very friendly Vietnamese couple who are delighted to hear that their food is excellent, and a steady procession of overweight dogs from the next store over comes in as you eat (this is more adorable than it sounds). Really, it's good. Forget Madame Jill's or Yongkang Street and head straight here.

Pho stalls in Xindian and Tonghua Night Markets (Vietnamese)

There's one on the righthand side of the road in Xindian, not far from the pedestrian bridge and partially hidden by some metal fencing. The other good one is in Tonghua Night market about halfway in, down one of the small lanes lined with food stalls (righthand side lane if you enter from Keelung Road, righthand side stall). The one in Xindian makes excellent pho with loads of basil and the other has delicious fresh spring rolls with large whole shrimp for a steal.

If in Xindian, start with a bowl of pho here and head to Athula's on the other side of the pedestrian bridge entrance for a curried meat roll.

Fried Banana and Thai Iced Tea stall (Thai)

Raohe Night Market, near the far end if coming from Houshanpi MRT...opposite end from the temple, but near the bus stop with buses down Nanjing E. Road

This is really just a tiny stall that sells fried banana crepes with a choice of topping - honey, condensed milk or chocolate - and Thai iced tea. It's on the righthand side if you begin at the temple/Wufenpu Fashion Street end of the market and almost at the opposite end. A perfect ending to a meal at Ala-din (delicious, spicy Pakistani food with unlimited vegetables and naan - the veggies are fried in real ghee, not the crappy vegetable oil substitute one so often sees), also in Raohe Night Market.

More on Xmas

Now that Xmas (again, I do mean ex-mas, like in that Futurama episode) is over, I'm already sad it's gone.

After the giant gift grab (my boyfriend scored a new camera for traveling and a microfiber blanket, among other things, I scored a silver bracelet from said wonderful boyfriend and a new MP3 player, among other things. My sister got a Chinese-style shirt in cinnabar, natural fiber with hand-embroidered flowers and a jade pendant) we hung out for awhile, then began preparations for the Christmas bash.

I made an Iranian salad and my sister and I rolled the truffles from the batter I'd made last night. Then we all went to Geant for some last minute supplies - drinks, Pringles and a few extra plastic chairs and began chopping fruit and setting out other dishes (hummus, babaghanoush and Ethiopian fusion satay among them).

I'm afraid I have no photos - the party was so much fun that I truly forgot to take them.

It began with a few early-comers - our friends Sasha and Cara and one of Cara's friends. They helped us chop the bread and set out other food - and by 9pm had a party going of about fifteen - half expats and half locals. By ten we were at more than twenty, and numbers didn't start to dwindle until approximately 1am (those left at midnight figured they'd be taking taxis anyway, and a few people crashed on our floor). I made hot wine at 1am and the last of us chatted as we drank. By 2:30 the apartment was reasonably clean, with our friend Joseph helping out with the clean-up, and we collapsed into bed at 3.

All in all, it was a pretty classy affair - no wanton drunkenness or untoward behavior, but lots of merriment. We got one call from the landlady's niece about the noise, but any good apartment party gets one of those. Only one person collapsed in our bed, but it was someone we know well. We only found one stray pair of glasses this morning.

I noticed the manifestation of a true cultural divide - our Taiwanese friends left at about midnight ("I have work tomorrow") to get at least a snippet of sleep, whereas the expats stayed on until the wee hours ("Doesn't matter at this point anyhow") and just slogged through work exhausted and possibly hungover. Brendan and I were fortunate not to have class today and spent Boxing Day eating leftover hummus and Gouda's Gilde Siroopwafelen (caramel wafers available at Jason's) and generally schlubbing around the apartment.

All in all, a great party. Every expat should have one of these to go to. I've been lucky and had good Christmases every year I've been abroad (in China, I visited friends in Guangzhou for a family Christmas. In 2006 I went to Lishan with Cara and last year Brendan and I had a quiet day together and went to Red House Pub in the evening).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Taiwan Xmas

Xmas - pronounced ex-mas - finds its true home in Taiwan.

Basically, this woman got it right: No Reason for the Season - I'm not an atheist, more of an agnostic who doesn't try to answer questions she can't answer and prefers a secular basis for morality and goodness, but I see where the writer is coming from.

You see, I really think it's time all we secular folk accept Christmas for what it awesome mid-winter pissup whose true meaning is family, friends, presents and candy. (Hey, I said "friends and family" first, and I mean giving gifts as well as receiving them).

Taiwan is especially good at this because most Taiwanese are not Christian, and yet they really, really seem to like Christmas, especially at kindergartens and in the Xinyi shopping area. I work at two different buildings in Xinyi so I'm there a lot, and let me tell you they've gone so Christmas-crazy with the LED lights, the fake trees, the advertising-decked Christmas trees (I especially like the Tiffany tree outside 101 mall), the giant Christmas cake (?) that the whole place looks like something out of a freakish holiday Star Trek. Bling bling!

The true meaning of Christmas rests here. Both are in great abundance, while almost nobody goes to church or celebrates for religious reasons. Other important parts of Christmas - santa hats, cheesy Christmas carols and things made out of tinsel - are also right at home in Taiwan.

Our own Christmas morning is proving to be great fun - I'm blogging this as my sister runs to Cosmed and my boyfriend heads out to teach his one class for the day - lots of gifts, sugary cereal and those caramel wafers from Holland. Woohoo!

Later tonight we'll hold a big party - about 20 people - in our smallish apartment with loads of food, drink, cheesy music and fun. Ahh, Xmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

We're planning our trip to southern India next month and I'm looking into accommodation in Wayanad. A few interesting things about the homestays and hotels available there:

Apparently one of them is called "Mountain Dew Homestay"...which makes me think that the beverage of the same name has never really caught on in India.

One of them offers "homely food". That's good, I don't like my food to be too good-looking. (I think they mean 'home-style food').

Another one says "The best time to visit is between December and March, when coffee and vanilla is harvested. If you like incessant fog and rain, you can also visit in June and July." Wow, sign me up for the July "rain and fog" special...

Don't get me wrong, I love India and I love Indian English; if I didn't, I wouldn't have studied there or returned three times afterwards.

Anyway here are some pictures of our cat, just because we like him.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Back End of Maokong

We went hiking up the backside of Maokong today, starting at the gondola station (which was frighteningly deserted) and winding our way up, over and across to Maokong Peak. Maokong Peak seems much higher than it is (about 560 meters) because of the tricky terrain - nothing an enthusiastic hiker in good shoes couldn't cover, but still requiring ropes and a good sense of balance - when you get there, you feel you've climbed much higher.

We were originally aiming for Erge Shan, but when we realized exactly how far it was, we scrapped that plan and stopped early. You see, we'd wasted the morning with a hearty 'hiker's breakfast' of cranberry scones, muaji-red bean buns, toast with jam, pomegranate, oranges, apples, coffee, goat milk and of course Bailey's Irish Cream (breakfast of champions!). If you set out at 11:30 from Jingmei, you aren't going to make it to Erge Shan in a day.

The hike starts at the trail behind Sanxian Temple (not sure about the Pinyin there), which is directly across from the final stop of the (hopefully not erstwhile) gondola. Climbing lots of stairs, you pass a small tea farm run by a friendly man and his dog...

...and then eventually make it back into the shade, where rockier, more 'natural' stairs take over. By 'natural' I mean "better looking, but less comfortable to climb."

Hiking aficionados will be happy to hear that the stairs end here, and what begins is a real trail. Dirt, rocks, tree roots and everything. An honest-to-goodness hiking trail! So much of hiking in Taiwan, especially around Taipei County, is stair-based that it's a relief to finally do something that really feels like walking and not just, well, stair climbing. The scenery also gets a lot greener.

...with lots of really big bugs to gape at.

The signage is not very good as the trail progresses, but there's always at least one sign to point the way if you speak Chinese. Not far after a lovely clearing the trail splits in two - take the lower; the upper goes to an electrical pylon. Then a narrow ridge of a trail (one member of our group did fall off, but only fell a few meters into the undergrowth) winds along, with hiker's ribbons and lots of signage...if you can read Chinese. Fortunately most of our group can.

At only one point in the trail is there no signage whatsoever; there is another lovely clearing with bamboo and a flat rock, perfect for a picnic. Heading towards Erge Shan/Maokong Peak, awhile later you will reach a T-junction with no guidance. (Head left). You'll pass a bamboo clearing with a camping/BBQ area and after a few tricky sections requiring ropes, you'll be at the top.

We tried to descend the fast way, that is, straight down, but soon became discouraged with the condition of the trail in this area, as well as the 70 degree straight drop. We're not entirely convinced it was a trail, and with fading daylight we felt that it would be much smarter to just head back the way we came.

All in all, Maokong Peak is a great idea for a quiet day with great weather, when you just want to get out and walk around in nature. The views are mostly obscured by forest growth and bamboo, but the air is clean and you can make it there and back in half a day.

We settled in at a teahouse (Mountain Tea House, next to Red Wood House). Mountain Tea House may not have a very original name, but they're friendly and down-to-earth and their upper balcony has the requisite amazing view of Taipei. They also have mountain pig, lemon diced chicken, mountain vegetables and other delicious items on the menu for around 200 NT/plate. The lemon chicken comes with diced sweet potato and is served in a tart, tangy sauce. I highly recommend it.

One more thing before I sign off for the day - go to Maokong, people! The tea is still great, the teahouses are still there and the view is still the best in the city (and I work on the upper floors of Taipei 101 a few times a week; I should know). Did you know former president Lee Tung-hui refused to have the teahouses, which were illegal at the time, torn down because he loved them so much. Well, Lee might be KMT but he's got good taste in tea and views, that's all I can say.

It's not as expensive as you think to drink tea at some of these places, and the food is generally pretty good at the more homey ones, the ones without all the tourist frippery.

And yet, because the gondola is out of service, nobody's there! On a beautiful Sunday night, with a bright night sky and reddish clouds rolling in over a spectacular view, we were the only customers in that teahouse, and looking in the others, all were doing slow business. Nevermind that the gondola is perfectly safe (I have a good source and I believe this person) and should never have been closed in the first place. You can still get there for about 200 kuai in a taxi - which is nothing, if you're sharing with friends - or take the Brown 15 bus from Taipei Zoo station every half hour. Any teahouse owner will happily tell you when you can catch one back.

Not only will you enjoy the treat of having Maokong all to yourself - no crowds, no irritating music, no shouting kids, no tourists - but you'll be helping out a sector of the economy that is really feeling the economic crunch.

Go to Maokong!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sanyi and Surrounds

Sorry I've been so horrid about updating; I was sick on top of a killer schedule plus a lot to get done for Christmas - we're throwing a party! - so just haven't had the time.

We spent Sunday in Miaoli county, wandering around Sanyi and it's well-known surroundings. In general it was a lovely trip - we did some holiday shopping, ate delicious Hakka food, saw the very good and very underrated museum (I think it's better than the Yingge ceramics museum) and hiked along the abandoned train tracks near Shengxing, a Hakka "village" that thrives mostly on its heritage and old buildings.

As Brendan rightly pointed out, Miaoli seems to be full of old folks. I mean that in a complimentary way; after all the more mature generation of Taiwan has endured, they deserve a hearty hats off with some applause thrown in. We have both noticed that all of our students seem to have at least one eldery relative in Miaoli - a grandmother, great uncle, distant cousin, aunt or great great great great grandfather. "What did you do last weekend?" is so often met with "We went to Miaoli to visit our grandmother" that we coined a new slogan for the county's tourism campaign:

Miaoli: Home to Every Taipei Resident's 92-year-old Hakka Grandmother

I think it has potential, no? There could be an entire series of commercials...oh well. Nevermind.

There were a lot of day trippers and visitors but all of them were Taiwanese; I find this a lot less irritating than finding places thronged with foreigners including tour groups from Japan, China and Korea. It's crowded, sure, and loud...but also great to see Taiwanese people enjoying part of their cultural inheritance.

And for anyone who still argues against Taiwanese food being delicious - Prince Roy, I'm looking at you - the Hakka food we enjoyed for lunch decisively put that debate to rest. It was wonderful. All savory dried squid, fragrant pork and chicken, winter melon, taro and...just good. Much better than a lot of local cuisines of the mainland (like Beijing) and able to put up a good fight against Sichuan food.

Some photos from the day:

The broken bridge about 5km from Shengxing was quite atmospheric, although the market, parking lot and other tourist amenities set up near it kind of ruined the mood. Still, there wasn't another foreigner to be seen and we enjoyed seeing locals and day-trippers taking pleasure in their own history. That's me snapping a photo (this photo is Brendan's).

The train tracks between Shengxing and the collapsed bridge are scenic if you look ahead, scenic if you look around, and even scenic if you look down at the old wood forming the base of the tracks.

My sister making lei cha (blended/pounded tea) at the well-known restaurant where we ate lunch. We all took turns with the mortar and pestle and ground the various nuts until the mixture was a paste, shining with the oil of pulverized nuts. Then some other powder and hot water is added to make a starchy "tea" (not really tea at all) that is also sweet and quite filling.

Kids on the old train tracks. Not many people hiked further than this; the day trippers drove. We hiked, and got a taxi back (worth it, though I would have hitched if it had been just me or me and Brendan).

Delicious winter melon blob! Under the blob you can find taro, cabbage, pork and some other stuff. Very nice flavor, hearty on a chilly day.

Old-skool house...Shengxing is full of these and is worth the trip from Sanyi town. Then you can return to Sanyi to shop (but buy the sweets here).

See what I mean? Lots of friendly older folks. I'm sure these guys have third or fourth nephews or grandkids who have office jobs in Taipei. I bought some stewing spices from the foreground guy - long, fragrant plants grown in the mountains and rolled up. The guy in the back seems to love his cigarettes.

We saw these signs all over the roads - the header says "Everyone Come Learn Hakka" and it teaches some basic phrases in Hakka for drivers or pedestrians. A lovely facet of Miaoli that makes a sincere effort to promote local culture. I love it!

Walking in the countryside is a wonderful treat, especially in the late afternoon as the sun takes on a warm, filtered quality.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Taiwan gets more media attention

...this time for a story in the New York Times on jitong, or "shamans" who become possessed by gods and spirits and can divine things, deal with illness or consult people on their troubles.

If you've read the past few entries in this blog, you'll remember that my friend and I saw a jitong a few weeks ago at the Qingshan Wang festival:

...but the sight was far scarier than the happy drinking monk who possesses Ms. Chang.

The article says that the practice still survives in China as well, but I'd never heard of it being done there, not in modern times anyway. It seems like the sort of thing that would have been quickly eradicated by the Cultural Revolution.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Life is Quiet

There's not much going on in life right now; haven't been to any good protests, have been out to a few good restaurants and will write about those later - although at least one is famous, so what's the point? - and generally been either working or sick in bed with a cold.

After a week of working my butt off (including on Sunday, in Taoyuan of all places), having Monday off really brightens things up. I'm finally not sick anymore, either!

While in convalescence, we put up the Christmas tree. We have a little fake one from Canada that a coworker gave us, and ornaments from IKEA. As you can see, the cat likes it too. Very homey. We even put on holiday music and had some millet wine afterwards, enjoying our 'fireplace' (a space heater). We're "doing" Christmas this year; having about 25 friends over for food, drink and talk, so I'm happy we've got the tree.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Reason #4 to Love Taiwan

Comfy student cafes in Taipei.

We - we being four Americans, an Australian and a Taiwanese girl - celebrated Thanksgiving at Exotic Masala House, the new Indian restaurant featuring idli and dosa. I think they're losing money; some menu items are gone, the rice is no longer saffron-colored and we had to ask to get the same orgasmic cardamom & cinnamon kick to our tea.

Well, the Taiwanese member of our group noted that it might have been spiced less dramatically to cater to Taiwanese tastes; maybe other customers didn't like it the old way.

It's still a good restaurant though, and the tea is still fantastic as long as you make sure it's got the right amount of cardamom.

After that, we tried to retire to Cafe Salt & Pepper, but it was full. Not interested in the smoking area (even the girl with the stuffy nose could taste the air) we moved on to Cafe Bastille (Shi-da, not Gongguan).

I love how Taipei has no end of these cafes - Cafe Odeon, Latte (or Shake House - we're not sure), Lumiere, Red House, Bastille, Salt and Pepper, Giuliano, and about a million more. Good beer at a reasonable price - yes, NT180 for Belgian beer is reasonable, the same beer in an American pub would cost you far more - comfortable seats, great atmosphere. Funky and fun without being ratty or juvenile. The actual food at some of these places could stand to improve (although Red House does a decent meal and all of them do good brownies) but relaxing with a Delirium Noel in a tatty grandma-chair with good music and a good vibe...that can't be outdone.

Here's where I put in my plug for Malheur 12% Bier. You have to try this stuff at Red House Pub (nobody else seems to have it). This is amazing stuff. Black as night, so fuzzy and deep that it foams right out of the bottle once opened; you have to have it already tipped into the glass if you don't want to lose any. It tastes like everything that's good in the world. Imagine coffee cake, raisins, peaches, pumpkin pie, well-cooked high-quality steak, a crackling fireplace in the dead of winter, Christmas carols, richly flavored tea, gingerbread, black chocolate, dark cherries, cooked apples, cinnamon, Ethiopian coffee, old mahogany, evergreen trees, nutmeg and the sweet sound of your mother's voice - all distilled into an amazing beer experience. Try it.


It was great that out of our group, the Americans talked about Thanksgiving and the others replied with "Yeah...I've heard about that" for things we consider not only normal, but indispensable. 8-hour bus rides home, cold weather, bickering with relatives (all because you love them, of course), cooking all day, watching parades and American, or as I call it, real football, and eating fabulous amounts of fabulous food, followed by swigs of alcohol and getting along famously with the relatives you bickered with earlier in the day.

Thanksgiving as an expat - the rating: 8. Not as good as being home, but still pretty damned good.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mom's Pies

OK, so I'm not making an artistically-minded post about old photos of Formosa, nor am I blogging about the state of the Taiwan economy (I pay taxes; where's my voucher?*), but this is quite important matter itself. I'd say its existence is not only important, but truly vital to expat life in Taiwan.

I'm talking of course about Mom's Pies.

Nevermind that the van can be hard to track down, and that they give you some missionary Christian leaflet with every pie. It's really good pie.

Mom's Pies has a van that circles Taipei, hitting up all the spots where people are likely to want pie; the universities (we've seen it at Taida, Shida and Zhengda), AIT, Tianmu and a few other spots. The only regular stop I know is near Shida/Guting on Thursdays from 4:30-7pm.

They also have a call-in service (02-2627-5040 or 02-2627-2051) and they do deliver.

Did I mention that it's really good pie? It made my day on Thursday, which was otherwise a bit cool and gray, and involved a rather strange work schedule that made nothing convenient. They have all sorts of flavors, from apple, pumpkin and cherry cheesecake to red bean, green bean and purple yam. The only downside is that their outermost crust is a little hard...but the filling was so good - so thick you could pick it up and eat it like finger food - that I didn't mind.

Another thing that's vital to expat life, as I'm learning, is having an adorable pet. Here's Zhao Cai, who is as needy and affectionate as a dog, but can be left at home alone for longer periods:

*Just kidding. I only pay 10% taxes and Taiwan's been very good to me financially, once I stopped working for Kojen. I don't mind that I'm not getting a voucher. But then that's $3600 I'm not using on a ticket to Orchid Island or a hunk of jade.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Qingshan Wang III (Dang Ki)

Some photos of the dangki - otherwise known as a jitong or martial diviner - we saw at San Qing Gong near Guilin Street on the day after Qingshan Wang's birthday.

As mentioned in a previous post, dangki invite possession by spirits who then control their movements. They are handed a 'tool kit' of implements to injure themselves as per the inhabiting spirit's wishes, and while they don't injure themselves deeply, there is a lot of blood loss. The blood is used to write talismans or texts used in divination.

It's a...scary sight, to be sure.

Qingshan Wang II

Just a video of some costumed guys dancing to techno (above), bajiajiang and dragon dancers (below). Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Qingshan Wang Festival I

We saw Dang Ki! In Taipei! Dang Ki (in Taiwanese), or Ji-tong in Chinese, are young men or women who offer themselves up for spiritual possession and then beat themselves with painful implements (pronged clubs, spiked mallets and balls, whips and long needles, to name a few) while their bodies are in the deity's control rather than their own. The blood shed - there is always blood, usually from the back or forehead - is used to write talismans and charms.

It happened today (November 19th) in Taipei, at Sanqing Gong between Guilin Street and Huanhe Road, between 3 and 4pm.

I do have photos and a video, but had to take them on a friend's camera (unfortunately the video has no sound) so they will be posted later.

This is all related to the birthday of Qingshan Wang, and the festivities that take place the day after. More photos and information below.

So I've spent yesterday evening and this afternoon in Wanhua, enjoying the Qingshan Wang birthday festivities. For those who don't know, Qingshan Gong is one of two temples at either end of the famous section of Guiyang Street, north of Longshan Temple and southwest of Ximen. Qingshan Wang - or Lord of the Green Mountain - was a guy named Zhang Gun from the Three Kingdoms era sent to Fujian. Due to his wise, benevolent rule, the locals in Fujian worshipped him as a deity who protected from epidemics and brought peace.

He is called Lord of the Green Mountain because, a thousand years later, an official named Cui brought his likeness to the top of Qingshan, or Green Mountain, as per a verse found on the back of a tablet.

A statue of him was brought to Taiwan when Fujianese settlers moved there, and it is said to have ended up on Guiyang Street because, while carrying it through town, it became too heavy to move in one spot, marking the place where he would like his temple to be built.

His birthday is on the 21st day of the 10th lunar month (this year's November 18th), though the best party in Wanhua is the day after, starting at noon and going until midnight.

Other than the Dang Ki - that is really quite rare, especially in northern Taiwan (I hear it happens a lot more often in the south) it was a noisy street festival such as can be seen at all times of year, celebrating any number of Daoist deities. They began at Qingshan Temple at 5pm (the best photos come from the pre-processional line-up, loop around Wanhua, head through the Guangzhou Street Night Market, stop at Longshan Temple and then continue through the small streets.

One other interesting note was that they did not have typical ba jia jiang. These performed similar duties to ba jia jiang but were made up quite differently. Anyone with any information on this is encouraged to comment; I'd like to know why.

They had red guys...

...and green guys...both of whom reminded me of Thousand Mile Eyes and Ears that Follow the Wind (Matsu's companions), but then there was this fellow:

I haven't seen him before.

There was also a Wealth Beckoning Child - at least I believe this is what he is portraying. I haven't seen one before. Around him were palanquins of the temple's sponsors (you can ride in a sedan chair if you contribute $100,000 NT or more to Qingshan Gong. A few older ladies - probably the wealthiest women in Wanhua - were doing just that.

We also took some great photos of the masks of the largest costumes:

...and of course a generally good time was had by all.

The next Qingshan Wang birthday processional will be held on December 7th, 2009 at 5pm, with the biggest festival taking place on December 8th in the afternoon.