Sunday, July 26, 2009

Alley Cat

There's a new branch of Alley Cat pizza near Yongkang Street - it's just to the west, the next street over from Yongkang, and only a little south of Xinyi Road. There's only a very small sign to distinguish it but it's a full Alley Cat's (unlike the one at Ximending) with all the pizza choices plus their homemade tiramisu!

Woohoo! The only reason we didn't go to Alley Cat more often was that the Songren Rd. and Zhishan branches are too far, and Ximending isn't a full service branch.

Monday, July 20, 2009

台北不是我的家: A Day Trip to Lugang

Some photos from our trip to Lugang on Saturday. Brendan has never been, and our regular Saturday morning class postponed, so we figured it was a good chance to head down and give him a taste of the town. As he describes it, Lugang is more or less 'the Ultimate Old Street' - the archetype against which all Old Streets (老街)across Taiwan are judged.

It's also loaded with traditional craftsmen, friendly locals, old temples, living tradition, great food and a lot of cats.

I classify "carrying around adorable dogs in bags" as a great Taiwanese cultural tradition, a piece of heritage to be protected. We call this breed a 'teddy bear dog'. I think you can see why.

Angry dude.

One of the highlights of a trip to Lugang is the food - here, grilled giant mushrooms in a tangy, spicy marinade. Other local specialties are pressed powder 'phoenix eye' cakes, 'cow tongue' cakes, all manner of chewy, nutty sweets, and oysters. Zhanghua, the next city over, is famous for being the birthplace of mba wan (肉圓).

Longshan Temple through the gate - this is my favorite temple in town because it's quiet, a lot less fussy and blingy than other temples, very romantically quaint, and an easy place to sit and relax on the wooden or rattan chairs strewn under the gates and awnings.

The outer courtyard of Longshan Temple is home to several statues in various poses.

An old kiln/oven/place to burn paper money and offerings - I think this is from Longshan temple.

Gilded statues behind glass, donated to the temple.

One of the best parts about our day in Lugang was hanging out with locals - whether chatting with Wu Dunhou's assistant, the people who ran the restaurant where we ate loads of fried oysters, day trippers with toy dogs, or the folks in this neighborhood to the west of Longshan Temple - every evening around 6pm they feed the local cats, who wait in that area and meow until a specific door (they know which one) is opened and a man comes out with a bag of food and several plastic bowls.

The southern end of Zhongshan Road is lined with woodcarvers - the guide book says it's furniture and coffinmakers, but we found it to be mostly made-to-order idol carvers and makers of wood products (such as screens and altar tables) for temples and home shrines. Their work, as well as items in for repair, can be seen on the sidewalk.

On display at the Ding Family Mansion (丁家大宅) which is a lovely place to wander around along the far end of Zhongshan Road not far from Longshan Temple, not mentioned in the guidebook. It's free and open until 5pm, and sometimes Lao Ding (who was born and raised there) will leave his retirement community to come by and hang out in his house. They rent out one side to Makeni Coffee and set up tables in the courtyard, so this is a good place to recharge after a long walk in the hot sun.

Obasan shelling oysters.

The Ding Family Mansion main entrance, beyond the outer walls.

On display at the Ding Family Mansion.

On display at the Ding Family Mansion.

Zhongshan Road is lined with early 20th century shophouses, including this one above, and the one below. Most are in good condition and still inhabited.

We stopped in Wu Dunhou's lantern shop - Old Wu was asleep, or resting, or busy, but his assistant was quite personable. He asked me if A-bian should be released ("I don't know - that's up to the courts. But he deserves a trial even though he probably did steal that money"), and then to rank the presidents of Taiwan first by corruption, then by how good they have been for Taiwan. That's hard to do, but let's say that Chiang Kai-Shek topped the list for most corrupt, and bottomed out the list as worst for Taiwan (though he did develop the economy, that doesn't excuse the White Terror). I actually named Lee Tung-hui as the best for Taiwan.

Then he had me write some English with Chinese under it so he could study - he wanted "台灣真好“, ”台灣比大陸好“ and “台灣加油" for reference.

Then he painted two small lanterns for us to celebrate our upcoming wedding - one says "Eternal Union of Hearts" (aww) and the other says "Double Happiness Something Something" (I can't read the characters) in Chinese. We'll use them to decorate our wedding venue, wherever that ends up being.

More lanterns.

Wu Dunhou's assistant painting our lanterns for us.

We then went to Tianhou Temple, near our hotel (the Mazu Believers Hotel, which is more affordable than it looks). We threw money into this pond with other locals, and I got a coin in the fish mouth to the side but none in the dragon.

Red Colored Prayer.

Double Happiness papers on the Old Street - after that, we went to the Old Street and wandered around, buying sweets and a pair of huge mugs for drinking copious amounts of coffee.

To round things off, here's a cool dragon for you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Three Fusion Recipes

Thanks to Michael Pollan, whom I now want to either hug or kick in the teeth for making my culinary life so difficult (wait, so you're saying that fresh squid is good, but squid chips are bad?), I've been shopping a lot more at my local traditional market - the one that sets up in the Jingmei Night Market area except, well, in the morning.

I've been asking the vendors where they get their food from and have been generally pleased with the responses - a fresh, grassy green from Wulai, tender bamboo from northern Taiwan, some sort of tasty bamboo shoot-like thing from Puli, sweet potatoes from Zhanghua, and I've been slowly trying every kind of green available with the exception of ku gua (苦瓜), which I know I hate.

The good thing is that this forces us to eat healthier because, by cooking our own food, we know what's in it (though we still occasionally chow down on night market goodies, but try to eat fewer octopus dough balls and more sweet potato leaves). It also forces us to eat what's in season.

This presents a conundrum, because while something is in season, it's everywhere, really cheap and really tasty - but there are only so many times and so many ways you can cook the same thing and you start praying for the next season to arrive and sweep away all that food you're sick of eating.

My guide as I seek to create new recipes for locally-grown Taiwanese food has therefore been the simple mantra - "If you are a boring cook, your food will make you bored".

This has resulted in a lot of odd fusion meals. The following three recipes are for the three most successful of these (though all of them have been basically good).

Recipe 1 - Sake Bamboo with Buckwheat Noodles


tender bamboo shoots or something of similar taste/consistency
about a cup of dry sake per half jin of bamboo (or to taste - I actually use more)
one large red chili
ginger, to taste, sliced into coins
two cloves of garlic per half jin of bamboo
salt to taste
a dash of chopped fresh coriander
1 drippy, generous tbsp Taiwanese honey per half jin of bamboo (clover honey is best, but whatever)
lemon juice (fresh) to taste
about 2/3 stick of butter per half jin of bamboo
one chopped green onion and a bit of chopped yellow onion (or to taste)
buckwheat noodles (duh)

Boil buckwheat noodles in separate pan. Set aside.

This is nice and easy - finely chop/press the garlic, red chili, coriander and various onions, slice ginger into coins, and saute in the butter until it smells good. Add the bamboo, chopped into slender rectangles or half-coins. Saute and make sure it is well-coated in butter. Add sake, lemon juice, honey and salt and stir-fry 'till done. Serve over buckwheat noodles with lots of the reduced sauce.

Wine - a nice, lightish red (I don't really go for white wines) or a Syrah
Dessert - fresh lychees, of course!

Recipe 2 - Mutant Fried Rice/Risotto Thing

Ingredients to serve 2-3

1 cup brown rice
3 regular-size, very ripe tomatoes
3 snake eggplants
2-3 giant mushrooms (you know, those big firm white ones)
Something a little crisper (I use tender bamboo but you could use whatever)
If you want meat, fresh pork is the way to go
paprika or capsicum paste (available at many organic markets)
red chili paste in the little glass bottle (the kind with vinegar, sesame oil and garlic)
chopped sweet onion to taste
a buttload of garlic
salt to taste
a hint of vinegar - balsamic vinegar or a darkish one is best
a good swig of red wine
any other seasonings you want - basil or coriander would work
a big bay leaf
olive oil

To cook - boil 2 cups of water plus a little extra with a touch of salt. Use to cook brown rice, which needs to steep a lot longer than white. Set aside for longer than you think you need to.

In a big pan, warm up olive oil. Roast the garlic in it, then add other seasonings, then onions, then finely-chopped tomatoes (do not peel, and don't use the ones from a can. Seasonal ingredients, remember?) after the onions have softened. Saute until it starts to look more like a sauce than a pile of vegetables. Add chopped tender bamboo or whatever your 'crisp' vegetable is. Add mushrooms chopped into nice fat coins, then eggplant a little later. Season to taste. When the eggplant is almost done, add the brown rice and cook risotto-style until it all melds together and the eggplant is thoroughly cooked. Serve hot.

Dessert: red dragonfruit wedges
Wine: a heavier red - a Malbec, Pinot Noir or Shiraz would be good

Recipe 3 - Green-Wrapped Fish


a big ol' degutted fish (the red or grayish-kind from Keelung are good - the darker ones hold up better...anything seasonal)
Some sort of green leafy veggie - I got something grassy, but sweet potato leaves, bamboo leaves, those purple/green leaves or anything that is more leaf than stem will work
a couple of fresh limes
Lao Gan Ma black bean pepper paste in oil (this can be hard to find - try Jason's at Takashimaya)
You guessed it - garlic and ginger
A bit of soy sauce and rice vinegar
Sesame oil
A good swig of aboriginal millet wine or sour plum wine (optional)
Chopped green onion and/or coriander
A few sprigs of lemongrass if you can get it
Black pepper

In a low but generously sized cooking pot with a wide bottom and lid, put a bit of water (enough to steam up and cook a fish) and a metal rack which you can buy at any cheapo store in the night market. Throw a little of your seasoning in there, including a bit of the sauces. On the rack, lay out your green leafy veggie, which should be cut so as to have as much leaf and as little stem as possible. It should form almost a sheet with only a few open spaces over the rack. Put fish on rack. Squeeze the juice of as many limes as you like over it and into the gutted area. In a bowl, mix up your other seasonings (except lemongrass or anything you may use that has an obviously odd texture) with all the sauces into one huge pile of gloop. Spread that generously over the fish. Then stick in the lemongrass (if any) or lay it on top. Cover top of fish with more of your green leafy veggie. Set heat on low/medium, put lid on pot, and steam the heck out of it. It's done when a fork run lightly over the top brings up tender chunks of cooked fish meat.

Serve with a side dish - mashed sweet potatoes, a stir-fried green veg or some sort of cooked gourd/melon work well.

Dessert: Custard apple
Wine: I'm gonna say white this time. Pinot grigio.


Rules of Engagement

It's now out in the open (and more or less official) that Brendan and I are engaged!

Out in the open, in that everyone knows.

Official in that we're shopping for venues and caterers. We're doing that now, over a year in advance, because living abroad presents a few logistical issues that require more time and better planning - plus with our busy summer schedule and half our friends either teaching or in grad school, there's only a very narrow time frame in which we can have the wedding we want (not so much a wedding but a party to celebrate a marriage with all of our friends and family).

"More or less" in that I still don't actually have the ring. But it has a dragon on it. I'll have a Dragon Ring! Like the Chosen One from some Hong Kong kung-fu flick. But I've been assured that it's coming soon and since nothing about our relationship, engagement and eventual wedding has been or will be traditional, it doesn't really matter.

Wedding planning already stinks - it's fun shooting e-mails back and forth to mom, but actually looking at our options, or more specifically what they cost, is saddening. I love a good party, though, so I'm sure it'll be fun again once we find a venue that doesn't have stratospheric prices (what is it with the Hudson Valley? Or do people all over the country really think it's acceptable to charge that much for a venue?) and a caterer who can do better than Rubber Chicken and Generic Meat Surprise (and why do caterers think it's OK to charge $100 a plate for food that isn't even good?).

I guess what I mean is that it'll be fun once it stops being 'planning a wedding' and starts being 'planning a big party'.

We could always elope, if my family would ever forgive me...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

[Redacted], Government of Taiwan

So we didn't get chosen to be among the top 50 teams in the Taiwan Explorers contest.

I'm not sure why - everyone who saw the video thought it was hilarious and I personally felt our idea was quite strong. While some videos were undoubtedly better (Forumosa Adventurers comes to mind), I felt our personality and character more than made up for a lack of swish in the video. Could be that my blog was linked there and it's an unabashedly pro-independence, politically UN-neutral, China-hatin', leaning-green blog. Could be that the government lackeys in charge of reviewing the entries didn't get our vision of Taiwan and love of local culture.

But hey, I got to be a sore loser and drink a lovely Malbec last week, when the wounds were fresh. Nobody ever said I was gracious in defeat (or ungracious...usually just tipsy).

So this week - [redacted], Department of Tourism, and [redacted], KMT. I never liked you anyway, though you're worlds better than China and at least you were sort-of elected. We're gonna go to Orchid Island sometime next month and enjoy it doubly. Because we can.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reason #7? to Love Taiwan


I got off the bus today on the night market side and what was I confronted with but one of those big blue trucks that are so common in Taiwan. If they are not involved in manual labor or construction, they're often used by vendors, and fruit is sold out the back with some fluorescent lights strung up and a big sign saying "Fresh Pineapple" or whatever they are selling.

But not this time.

This one had a huge sign that said "北京烤鴨" (Beijing Duck) and the dude had strung up roasted marinated ducks, a giant wok that sputtered over huge flames and other accoutrements. He was selling Beijing Duck 'to go' - NT250 (about $6 USD) for half a duck (which is just enough for two people with a little left over).

You get duck that can get rolled in crepes with plum sauce on a plate, the little crepes, onions and plum sauce, and he takes the rest, chops it up (bones and all) and stir fries it in all sorts of savory goodness including piles of red chili on extremely high heat for a minute or two. You get it all neatly wrapped up in a large bag with a sturdy plate bottom.

Let me tell you, it tastes mighty fine with the Argentinian Malbec we cracked tonight and a few very lightly cooked vegetables.