Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reasons #15 and #16 to Love Taiwan

#15: lots of fun Asian candy!

OK, fine, a lot of Asian candy - especially Chinese candy - is crap. At my friend Karen's New Year's party they set out some local weird white rectangle candy that a student had given her and it was quite literally one of the most disgusting things I've ever put in my mouth (and I've eaten raw stinky tofu fermented for 14 days in rotting vegetable goo at Dai's House of Unique Stink)

But so much of it is actually good.

For example, Taiwanese milk caramels in matcha tea, English black tea, plain, brown sugar and chestnut. All of them super yummy. These caramels are among the best packaged local products made in Taiwan. I have a strong preference for soft candy over hard, so the milk caramels really suit me.

Of course, not all of the great candy available in Taiwan is actually from Taiwan. Above is a melange of candy that we gathered to offer in lieu of favors at our wedding (we mixed it all up in a huge red fake lacquer bowl so people could take what they liked). Most of the above is from Japan: mango hard candy with gooey centers, rose candy which is actually rose-shaped and has a bit of a lemony-rose taste, and Japanese soft matcha candies covered in slightly bitter matcha powder (the brown package is of the Taiwanese brown sugar milk caramels).

Other good choices are Kopiko Indonesian coffee candies (I like the coffee+milk kind) and Ting Ting Jahe Indonesian ginger candy, available at the Indonesian grocery in Taipei City Mall.

Less appealing but always fun for bringing back your culture shock:

Some of the offerings here include durian candy (stink-tacular!), yoghurt candy, taro candy, sour plum candy, vinegar candy and a few others that are downright weird. Note the one that claims it is flavored like "Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee". Heh. Yeah, right. Like that canned coffee in convenience stores that calls itself "Blue Mountain Mandheling". Suuuuure. You aren't fooling anyone. Health food stores sell pink Himalayan salt candy. Yeah, not so much to my taste...but interesting!

#16 - Affordable, accessible massage.

About twenty meters from my apartment - and probably yours as well - there is a massage parlor, and no, not the sketchy kind. I just came back from a really good one hour deep tissue massage, for which I paid NT $700 (about $25 US). You can't get that for less than $50 back home, and you have to travel to and from a spa - not that I've ever gotten a massage in the USA. Here, if I want a ten minute foot or back rub, it's a hundred kuai ($3) and easy to find.

Considering my chronic neck, back and headaches, plus tired feet from being up in front of a class on most work days, having so many options is a godsend. I've never really taken "qi" seriously, or feng shui or what have you, but I have to say when a masseuse pounds on the muscle deep in my shoulder or pelvis and says "your qi is stuck here", honestly, whatever was bothering me enough to go in and get a massage disappears when (s)he's done.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Space Confucius!

I was writing another post - I have a few on the back burner right now - but have come down with an irritating headache on the right side of my face: I blame the constantly changing weather.

So instead, enjoy this photo I took at Dragon Boat last year.

I think it is especially appropriate that I picked a beer-in-yer-pocket photo because 7-11 is now stocking Sam Adams again. Yay! I still tend to go down the street to the specialty store for Erdinger or Duvel, but hey, I'll take a Sam Adams any day.

Almost related but not quite: I've learned recently that mixing local energy drink (that stuff in the brown glass bottles with white labels that looks totally foul) with canned Mr. Brown coffee is a big thing among the blue collar and laboring class.

So...nasty viscous energy drink and canned coffee?

Really there's just one word to describe that.

And that word is "Ew".

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Women in the Tech Sector

The Lack of Women in Technology and Startups and its soul-sister post, Horror Stories from Women in Tech: two Jezebel articles covering women in the tech sector.

Living in Taiwan, where tech companies, science parks, engineering and IT jobs, IT and the semiconductor industry is king, I do feel that it's worthwhile to reflect on why so few women enter this industry. I don't have an answer for that, but do not believe that it's because Taiwanese female students are discouraged from pursuing math and science related fields (I've met more women in scientific fields in Taiwan than in the USA, though I am not sure of the overall numbers). Certainly it is not implied to young Taiwanese women that "women are bad at math", if anything, from a culture-and-education perspective, female students are expected to be just as good at math as men. Back in the USA you can see the ripple effect of this in that a significant portion of the women you encounter in math or science related fields are Asian.

So why do so few of them enter the tech industry? I'm saying this from experience: in four and a half years of teaching classes at several tech companies, I've encountered a grand total of three - three - female engineers (I have taught women in tech companies who work in marketing, HR and other office-job, female-friendly fields, and am focusing on engineering here for a reason: it requires a different sort of training altogether from an HR professional, marketing specialist or event planner). It is not unusual to have classes made up entirely of men in those companies, or to have ten men and one woman.

I can't help but think that while women are expected to be good at hard science fields as students, that if they test into college majors that involve math or science, parents tend to push them more towards accounting or medicine, while pushing their sons into engineering. This is good for nobody: it takes away a female voice from an innovative field, it pushes women into less innovative fields (not talking about medicine here so much as accounting - one of the least innovative fields out there) which stifles female creativity, it creates a gender divide that can translate into prejudice - "there aren't many women in the tech sector" can so easily and scarily become "women aren't good in tech fields so they shouldn't take those jobs" to "As a boss, I prefer to hire men because women aren't suited to the tech sector" and suddenly, BOOM. Full-on discrimination.

And no, we are not saving Taiwan's women from famously long and arduous working hours - make no mistake, you'd feel a lot less ethically good about owning so many smart gadgets if you knew what the workers at some of these companies had to put up with in terms of work hours and expectations of workload and productivity. Accountants, especially young auditors, work just as long if not longer. I had a student once - a young auditor for a Big Four firm - fall asleep on break and snooze for a good 45 minutes because she'd been working 7am-2am every day, and sleeping three to four hours a night - it was tax season and that's what they have to do.

The Low Marriage Rate in Taiwan: Part II

There was an article recently in the China Post that I thought I'd address here, all about low marriage and birthrates in Taiwan.

I'll cover it in two sections - first revisiting the idea of marriage in Taiwan, and then I'll put up a new post above discussing the issue of the low birthrate. I'm very much anti short-form blogging (it has its uses but if you want to really get at the meat of something and consider every angle, it doesn't work and it promotes short attention spans) but it would probably behoove me to shorten my posts just an eensy bit!

I've already covered my thoughts on why Taiwanese women aren't marrying at anywhere near traditional rates but with the publication of this article, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic. I won't cover my reasoning and thoughts again - but I stand by what I said back then: the expectations of traditional gender roles in marriage and a rising consciousness and awareness that they don't have to stand for such treatment is probably what's keeping Taiwanese women from choosing to marry, along with feeling that Taiwanese men haven't kept up with the times and changing values brought about by modernity - the fact that hey, it's no shame to share an equal part in handling home, child and elder care duties and hey, it's OK if your wife out-earns or out-reputations you - yes, I made that nouny verb up - and hey, women ARE in fact equal to men. Different, but equal, and there is no shame in that so get over yourselves already.

To be fair, not all Taiwanese men feel that way. I am happy to be able to cite many men among my students whose wives are equally successful and of whom they are proud, not ashamed. I am happy that I can tell anecdotes of male students who, when asked what they did on the weekend, say things like "I took care of my baby" or "I visited my in-laws because my wife is on a business trip" or "I cleaned the house with my wife". Good for you. The world needs more of you.

To put it simply, encouraging the government to "instead of being pro-natalist, be pro-marriage" is just not good enough. The government, if it is to be pro-marriage, needs to do so in a modern, equality-minded way and maybe look into the reasons why women are choosing not to marry (again, covered in my last post, linked above). They need to take into account that marriage and children (mostly children) generally don't present a problem to men climbing the career ladder, but that they do present a problem to many women. They need to encourage men to accept more egalitarian household and child-rearing roles. Then we might see more marriages.

This story was linked to by Michael Turton, and I have to say that one comment on that post disturbed be a bit:

Dismissing marriage as simply a bad institution is a cop-out. There have been serious structural changes to Taiwanese society, economic in particular, that are not necessarily desirable. No, no marriage for marriage's sake, but we should think about what's changed rather than be so politically correctly dismissive. The decline of marriage, I think many will find, is a reflection of harsh realities for the generation coming of age and in its early adulthood. And the 1 year+ military draft on males just makes things worse (in a more traditional society, military draft didn't make as big of an impact, but today, that means women make more than men, at least early in their careers).

I would really, really like to know what "Anonymous" means by that. "there have been serious structural changes, economic in particular, that are not necessarily, it means women make more than men, at least early in their careers."

Um...I can't help but read this to imply that the pro-female changes that have taken place in Taiwanese society are, according to Anonymous, "undesireable", and most undesireable of all is the idea that Taiwanese women often make more than men.

Really? Like, for serious? Why is this a problem, and while I admit that for some, it is a problem, why should it be? What is so bad about a wife out-earning her husband? Is this so shameful that it is causing women to choose not to marry, or that - even worse - it's causing Taiwanese men not to marry Taiwanese women (and if it is, why are we focusing on the women - the problem in that case is with the outdated attitudes of the men).

I did have a few problems with the article: namely, why is it that when we discuss marriage in Taiwan, we always focus on women? Why isn't any one discussing how men feel about this? If the marriage rate of women is down, wouldn't it also be so for men? There are two possible issues at play:

1.) That the marriage rate isn't really down for men, as many of them take foreign brides, something Taiwanese women don't often have as an option.

If anyone has a statistic that can prove or disprove this, I'd love to hear it. Yes, I am a lazy blogger who doesn't want to hunt for her own statistics, which is why I'm a blogger and not a journalist.

Yes, many more Taiwanese women marry Western men than Taiwanese men marrying Western women (though I can point to at least one real-life example of a Taiwanese man-Western woman marriage, so it definitely can happen). I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I think the answer is both obvious and multi-faceted. Taiwan is more progressive than other Asian countries, but I have found it to be absolutely true that there are still traditional gender role expectations among many (not all!) Taiwanese men that Western women just can't accept. If there's a language barrier, I've found that a Western woman is less likely to accept this in her relationship - here are two anecdotes that don't prove anything but do make a point:

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I posted on a popular travel forum that I was here and happy to meet up with anyone in town for drinks or a coffee (a fairly popular way for travelers to meet up in the age of the Internet). I ended up having lunch and tea with a Canadian in town for a week visiting friends, on her way to the Philippines to go diving. She told me about her last boyfriend, who was French Canadian - English was not his first language and she didn't speak French fluently. She clearly remembered a conversation they had in which she just couldn't make the nuances of her point clear to him in a way he understood. She said that she knew right there that that the relationship would not end in marriage - she couldn't be with someone that she couldn't express her thoughts to and couldn't communicate with fluidly in a common language.

After I'd been here for awhile, I changed jobs and had a coworker (who still kind of works for us, but in a limited capacity) - in order to make a point clear in a seminar we were co-teaching, he told the class about his wife, who is Taiwanese. He talked about how sometimes, she would try to say something and end up speaking pidgin, children's English because she knew what she wanted to express but just didn't have the words to get it out - so they ended up communicating in simplified language (there is a similar anecdote in the Amitav Ghosh book, In an Antique Land, which I thoroughly recommend, about his research into an individual who lived during the Indian Ocean trading decades in the 1100s. He was from somewhere in the Arab world, and his wife was south Indian - Ghosh surmised that they must have communicated in a type of pidgin language). He thought this was perfectly OK, but I remember thinking "Wow. Well, good for him, but I could never do that. I need someone I can have long, winding, tangled-up conversations with." I don't mean this as a slam against him - he's a great guy. Just...different strokes for different folks.

There's also the fact that, let's face it, there is still a prejudice towards couples where the man is bigger and the woman is smaller, and we Western women tend to be taller and curvier and so many Asian men are shorter and thinner. This is, once again, not always true, and I know many men in Taiwan who are taller and burlier than I am, but it probably is a factor. Is this fair? Well, no, but it's probably true to some degree.

And finally, there's the fact that Taiwanese men are - honestly - a bit more shy about asking women out and there is still a bias towards men asking women on dates (I've never felt that this should be an issue, but apparently it is).

2.) The more sexist reason - it's not seen as "important" or "an issue" if a man chooses to remain a bachelor, but heaven forfend that a woman might choose the same.

I would really like to think that this is not true. If it is, it's so deeply sexist that I don't even know where to begin. I mean, seriously [redacted] that [redacted]! (My in-laws read this thing - you can fill in the expletives).

Unfortunately, it probably is true, at least to some degree. Take these two paragraphs:

The largely single status of Taiwan's most popular female entertainers is also worth noting; if their chosen predicament is not a direct reflection of society, then it certainly serves as either affirmation or a consolation for the unhitched woman. Lin Chi-ling, top supermodel and considered one of the most beautiful women in Taiwan, turns 37 this year without an engagement announcement in sight. Pop Princess Jolin Tsai, despite her youthful appearance, is also pushing 30 and single. The same status goes for famed artists like A-mei (38), Vivian Hsu (36), Elva Hsiao (31) and many others.

On the other end of the public spectrum, both Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen and former vice president Annette Lu are single. Both women voiced their desire to run for 2012 presidential elections, although Lu publicly dropped out of the DPP primaries Tuesday, citing her concern for the environment outweighing her need to win in an election. Chen Chu, the incumbent mayor of Kaohsiung, is entering her 60s and has never married.

The first paragraph - "then it certainly serves as either affirmation or a consolation for the unhitched woman" - the writer makes it sound as though being an unhitched woman is some sort of disease that deserves neither consolation nor affirmation. Really? Seriously?

Then the writer goes on to name several high-profile single women - never once mentioning high-profile single men. Jay Chou is single - why not mention him? There must be a few unmarried male politicians and captains of industry in Taiwan, and I have met more than a few unmarried engineers working for Taiwan's major tech/IT firms.

So why is this only a problem vis-a-vis the women - particularly the successful women - of Taiwan? Why all the hullabaloo about the low marriage rate regarding women? Why this assumption that it's fine to be a single successful man, but worthy of a mention in the newspaper if you are a single successful woman?

Feeling generally annoyed with this double standard - that the low marriage rate is somehow a woman's problem and not a man's (AAAAAARRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!1111!!!!!111!!!!one! NOOOOOO!!!) - I've been asking Taiwanese men since I wrote my last post what their thoughts are on this issue.

I don't have a huge sample size, but I've gotten a few answers:

- Women aren't interested in traditional gender roles

- We (the men) who would have married in an earlier era are not doing so, because we work so hard that they have no time to date (notably, engineers)

- A lot of the women who would have married in an earlier era are not doing so because they also work so hard that they have no time to date (notably, accountants)

- Taiwanese women are more interested in studying or living abroad or advancing their careers (maybe in the cities, but the countryside? And even in the cities, I already addressed how most "office jobs" in Taiwan are so uninspiring and require putting up with difficult bosses and long hours that I can't imagine that that's why women aren't marrying - we aren't talking about a new generation of women who are passionate about their work)...and Taiwanese men want women who are more interested in family and children.

- We (the men) want women who are more traditional, and Taiwanese women aren't fulfilling that (if true - and I am not sure it is - that makes me really sad)

- Taiwanese women insist that any man she marries has sizeable savings and can afford to buy an apartment and a car (not sure how true this is, but someone did say that so it's worth mentioning)

- Taiwanese women are sick of putting up with the traditional expectations of in-laws and don't want to deal with the pressure to have a baby that they may not want, so they just have boyfriends, they don't marry

- We (the men) aren't changing our outlook fast enough and the women aren't going to tie themselves to someone who can't bring himself to do the dishes (this from one of my more progressive male students)

- We (the men) can get a foreign bride so we don't necessarily care why Taiwanese women don't want to marry

- We (the men) are so scared off by the white men that Taiwanese women date that we are too shy to ask the girls we like on dates (I smell BS on this one, personally).

And of course, the Internet, which is full of all sorts of horrible comments, has dredged up some other ideas, notably that Taiwanese women aren't keeping themselves as pretty as they used to - more body fat, less makeup, hair that's not done up - and so men are losing interest. I call BS on this one because I've met plenty of average-looking married Taiwanese women (and as an average-looking American woman I can say that not being "hot" is not much of an issue of you are looking to marry a man who isn't superficial).

In short, when looking at low marriage rates in Taiwan, why is everyone watching the women, and why isn't anyone looking at the men? Aren't they half the equation?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Travel and Vegetarianism

A few years ago, my husband received an e-mail from some friends of ours. These particular friends were heading to Nepal for a trekking vacation (they're both quite athletic) and had an overnight in Seoul, Korea. Brendan had lived in Seoul for two and a half years, and they wanted restaurant recommendations, specifically for trying Korean food that they could eat.

They were (and are) both vegetarians, of the religious variety - Hindu, in fact.

Brendan mulled it over, and mulled it some more. He racked his brain and even asked me for advice - I'd visited him for four days in 2003, so while I've been to Seoul, one can hardly say I know the city. My culinary memories of Seoul, beyond regular Korean food, were a.) that I dragged the poor man to Starbucks on the first floor of Jongno Tower - I was living in Guizhou, visiting from China and had neither seen an espresso nor a Western-style sweet in months - even Starbucks was acceptable at that point; and b.) eating a tentacle pancake (haemul pajeon I think) with sochu in a brown-carpeted dive bar near a complex of 30 identical white apartment buildings.

Oh yes, and c.) those little cornbread nuggets filled with custard cream sold in boxes at subway stations. You can buy them at MRT Jiantan now, next to Sushi Take-Out. Just so you know.

One thing I definitely did not remember was eating anything that was even remotely vegetarian. Even kimchi has seafood-based ingredients, and as everyone knows, kimchi is the lifeblood of Korean food.

Brendan sent back a carefully considered reply, noting that while Korean vegetarian food does exist, it's extremely hard to come by and not to trust things that look vegetarian: there's a good chance there's meat-based seasoning or oil in there somewhere - so no kimchi. He recommended several places where one could eat vegetarian food. The kicker? Not one of them served Korean food, because he couldn't think of a single place in Seoul where it was available.

So to a pair of Indian/Indian-Americans wanting to try Korean food in Korea, he recommended mostly south Indian vegetarian restaurants and similar places, because he wasn't sure where else one could eat with their dietary requirements!

Yes, it does exist, by the way: you can eat vegetarian Korean meals in some temples, and I am sure a vegetarian who lived in Korea for as long as Brendan did would have sourced a few places that Brendan never thought to look for, being a meat-eater. On the whole, though, going veg in Korea is as difficult as eating doing so China - if not more so. With one night in the country, getting to such a place would be near impossible.

That's kind of the central issue I've been debating since I began traveling: I've wanted to become vegetarian for years, and it's quite easy to do in Taiwan (although giving up 肉圓 might prove to be impossible - so delicious!). While not necessarily healthier generally, vegetarianism would be healthier for me: I'm not one of those goody-goodies who eats baked chicken breast and lean pork. I like my aboriginal fatty mountain boar, my bright pink pork slices with ginger, my bacon, my sausages of all kinds (from Asian to German to Polish), my Taiwanese fried chicken, my Thai red curry beef, my lamb kebab and mutton curry, my butter chicken and pork vindaloo, and my super calorie-tastic 排骨 (basically a giant hunk of fried or otherwise unhealthy pork attached to a bit of rib). I don't do lean breast, I do scrumptious leg. Vegetarianism would certainly improve my overall health, even though some theoretical person who prefers healthily-cooked meat (I don't know who this person is, because everyone knows that the best tasting meat is usually the least healthy) wouldn't necessarily be any healthier for giving it up.

It's not really about health, though - it's more about ethics. It is possible to eat meat ethically, and I am not against continuing to eat meat that was raised well and in an environmentally sound way - let's face it, the conditions at most chicken batteries, cattle and pig farms would be considered animal abuse if not for the influence of the meat industry - and killed with ethically sound principles. In the USA, I could have found a co-op, farmer's market or direct meat delivery that would have satisfied my desire for ethically sourced meat. Unfortunately, especially in Asia, one can't be sure of that. I'm generally happy to eat mountain boar (山豬肉) because I've been to aboriginal communities where I've seen it raised and it looks ethically sound, but there's no way to find out where the mutton in my mutton curry came from, where the pork in my 肉圓 came from, and I've really decreased how often I eat chicken because you can be sure that no chicken in any meat you eat in Taiwan was treated well: even the woman down the street with a chicken coop - honestly, those poor things are cooped up (pardon the pun) in stacked cages, and if she's the neighborhood chicken lady, then I shudder to think how chickens in bigger farms are treated. I do have an "all things pig" butcher in Jingmei day market who raises his pigs in Bali, near Danshui, and says they're treated well. I can't be sure of this unless I actually go visit, but one can hope.

There's also an environmental factor, and for that reason as well I've been trying to decrease how much meat I eat, even though I haven't given it up entirely. At home I more or less cook entirely vegetarian, although I've been known to very occasionally break that rule and make Indian or Thai curry, beer cooked sausage, Ethiopian doro wot, baked pork loin or satay at home.

That said, it is possible to raise animals for meat in an environmentally friendly way: Michael Pollan's outlined it, it's been discussed on TED and it's generally known that while it's possible to make meat an environmentally friendly choice, it's generally not being done now. In the USA you can source meat raised this way, but abroad it's basically impossible.

Which brings me to the central conundrum: it's easy enough to go veg in Taiwan as well as India, where religious traditions have made it a culturally accepted and accommodated practice, but when one travels as often as we do, how does one go veg while traveling in so many other places? Of course one can do it - I've met vegetarians in China (not sure how that worked out for them, but OK) and I'm sure that more than one vegetarian has taught English in Korea. I know a vegetarian who studied in Prague. I've been to Prague and I can promise you that your only realistic choices if you don't eat meat and want to eat out are bread, deep fried cheese and potatoes. How does one go veg in Mongolia - I've never been there, but I've taught Mongolian students who cooked the real deal for me (ie not Tony Chen's Mongolian Grill but actual Mongolian food) and it's mostly meat, starch, onions, potatoes and fermented milk. I never tried the fermented milk - I've heard it's rather horrid - but the other stuff was good. How can a patty of ground meat covered in hashed potatoes possibly be bad?

How does one travel in countries where one doesn't speak the language and can't easily request vegetarian food? Those vegetarians I knew in China told stories of how they'd say "我不要 ______" (pointing to their phrasebook) and ended up with an extra portion of it on their plate. I've heard that old "probably an urban legend" story about the vegetarian in western China who got into an argument with a local restaurant cook over whether chicken was a vegetable. I've heard stories of foreigners in Korea requesting no meat and having the waiter smile and nod - then their meal comes with meat - as Brendan puts it, "from the waiter's point of view, that person was being rude. The waiter, very appropriately in his mind, did not draw attention to this by not pointing out that it is impolite to ask for a change to the order". In Taiwan, I took a vegetarian to a Thai restaurant thinking that they had plenty of veggie food, only to find that all of it - even the vegetables - was cooked with some sort of meat product or topped with ground meat or oyster/shrimp sauce.


There's also the issue of knowing whether an ingredient contains meat in a paste, gelatin, stock or oil form, because you often just can't find that information out - you can check beforehand to see what common ingredients in that culture's cuisine contain meat, but you can never be entirely sure: another reason why Brendan stressed a bit over the e-mail to our friends. If I were to go vegetarian, I'd basically have to accept as an avid traveler that I would be ingesting meat-based products even if I wasn't ingesting the flesh itself, and there's basically nothing I can do about that. (A public service announcement to vegetarians in China or Korea - unless you are super strict about it and only eat at home or in temples/dedicated vegetarian restaurants, you probably have ingested a meat product of some kind. Sorry, but it's true). Most Thai and Indonesian dishes contain fish or squid oil. Most kimchi contains shrimp or fish paste (or both). Most Japanese food contains some sort of seafood-based flavoring, although it is easier to eat vegetarian in Japan than many other parts of Asia: you end up consuming a lot of udon, soba, egg and rice balls, basically.

Other parts of the world are not so challenging: although it might be a bit monotonous you can get by on cheese, eggs, beans and rice in much of Latin America. I don't have much experience with Africa - Egypt may count technically but...well...not so much culturally - but in Egypt and much of the Levant you can get your fill of hummus, pita, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, falafel, lebneh and foulle (not sure of the spelling). Ethiopia has a fine vegetarian cuisine. Western Europe is fine, but start heading east and you'll run into problems.

Never mind that as an avid traveler, I like to experience the best cuisine that my chosen destination has to offer. Yes, I can go to Sichuan and not try hot pot, ma po doufu, kung pao chicken, shui zhu niu, or pork-stuffed peppers. I can go to Guizhou and not try the famous flat rice "skin" noodles (topped with ground pork or lamb) or lamb noodle soup. I can go to Egypt and never allow shwarma or roast pigeon to pass my lips (pigeon is really good, by the way). I can go to Donggang and not try the world-class seafood, and go to an aboriginal area and not get the mountain boar or flying fish. I can go to Ethiopia and never touch doro wot or yebeg alecha. I can go to India and never touch a vindaloo, tandoori chicken or Hyderabadi biriyani. I can go to Panama and avoid bistek picado or pollo asado as I am forcing yet another helping of rice and beans down my gullet.

I can - but do I really want to? Am I not missing out on a key cultural experience by not trying the local food, which so often is made with meat? On the "do good" scale, does the importance of eating ethically outweigh the satisfaction - not to mention tastiness - of experiencing the culinary aspect of regional culture? Do I want to be like our Indian friends - whom I admire greatly for their commitment to vegetarianism, by the way - who stopped in Korea and probably didn't eat one bite of Korean food, because they couldn't? I love Korean food.

It also brings up some sticky comparative moral points: if I were go to vegetarian (and I'm not saying I will), would my refusal to try local meat-based cuisine be some sort of judgment call on locals who do eat it? Is that anywhere near fair? (Simple answer: no). If they are morally just fine eating meat - and I believe they are - then am I really any better for not eating it? And yet, can I reconcile that to the way most animals slaughtered for meat are treated?

The good news: if you're traveling in the countryside of a developing country (but not an urban area), there's a much better chance that the animal that died to make your meal lived a better life than the animal in a farm or battery in the USA.

I already know I can't possibly make sure that all the meat I try abroad is ethically sourced, so if I became vegetarian, it would leave me with the difficult choices of:

1.) Travel less, and limit it to countries where I can procure food with minimum difficulty;
2.) Travel to those other countries and reconcile myself to lots of crackers and dried fruit in the hotel, and sadness over missing out on trying the local cuisine;
3.) Be "vegetarian" with the knowledge that I probably am ingesting meat of some kind in ingredient form, and pretend I don't notice. I can accept that sometimes even if I ask for a vegetarian dish, it may end up containing meat, and that it's OK to not make a scene by refusing to eat it - I do believe that offending locals with such scenes is worse than eating meat. OR to quote the Dandy Warhols: you get what you got and you learn how to like it.

None of these are really viable except #3, which would basically make me not a vegetarian.

What it's come down to is this: I'm not a vegetarian and while I'm still traveling I probably won't be. That doesn't mean I can't do better: I have started to cook vegetarian at home because that's an easy change (although I still stock fish oil and will continue to do so). I will still occasionally enjoy a local delicacy or indulge my taste for Taiwanese meatballs or Tainan-style dry noodles, while eating mostly vegetarian. I can accept that in some countries, within some regional cuisines, it is OK to eat meat. I can (and do) avoid styrofoam-wrapped cuts of antiseptic meat from the supermarket and buy it at the day market, from the guy who raises the pigs himself. When possible I can seek out humanely-raised and slaughtered meat or even halal meat, which doesn't necessarily guarantee it was raised well, but does mean that it was at least killed humanely.

In short, I can accept that I'm not a vegetarian, but that doesn't mean I can't do better when it comes to health, the environment and meat-based ethics.

I wish I had good advice for how to deal with this if you are vegetarian and want to travel, but honestly, I don't. It is restrictive and unfair, and there's no easy answer, just like there's no good riposte (or re-post, ha ha) to the "it's harder for women to date in Asia than men" problem. It would boil down to things you can read in a guidebook:

1.) If in Asia, seek out meals in temples
2.) Stock up on food you can eat in your hotel or cook in the hostel kitchen
3.) Do your research on ingredients before you go
4.) Accept that vegetarian versions of many famous local dishes won't be available
5.) Prioritize countries with ample vegetarian options, such as Taiwan, Mediterranean countries and India
6.) Figure out how to say "I am a vegetarian, I don't eat meat or meat products" in the local language of any country you visit, and if possible, cite religious reasons (whether or not it's true - which is also morally ambiguous but if you are vegetarian for ethical reasons, it is probably the lesser of two evils) - saying "I'm a Buddhist vegetarian" in China will get you farther than "I'm a vegetarian" - they'll understand what the former means, and will either ignore the latter or look at you like you just grew a foot on your head.
7.) This is going to sound awful, and I don't mean it to be, but it's cold hard truth: if possible, consider not being vegan if you are leaning that way and it's not for religious or allergy reasons. You might be able to avoid meat, but you can forget avoiding meat, dairy and eggs in most countries (Taiwan and India are still good options for travel, though).

How about you? Any vegetarian world travelers out there have better advice or stories to tell about how they got by without eating meat in countries where vegetarianism is not generally known or accepted? Any success stories of living veg in Korea, Mongolia or China? Did you get to enjoy local cuisine at all or did you have to be hyper-vigilant and picky? Who knows - you might (maybe - probably not, but maybe) just convert me!

Dreary Day DIY

The purple and silver necklace I made on this chilling, gray Saturday

Every time I've complained about the weather this past winter, I've thought that "well, I'm complaining now, but it's not that bad - I mean it couldn't get any worse than this, so it can only get better from here."

(I'm like that because, as I've said before, I'm an Obasan-in-Training. At barely 30 years old, I am doing a superb job of being ornery and opinionated and - dare I say it? - crotchety. I like to think it's endearing).

Right. So, I was wrong. I didn't realize it was possible for the weather to grow more dismal and dreary but somehow, it did. Clearly the God of Gray Skies (I like to think it's Chiang Kai-Shek) has decided to shed his "favor" upon us with more gloomy vigor.

And when it gets this nasty out, what else is there to do but drink good coffee and do some DIY? You can't go to a museum, because those'll be too crowded on a cold, rainy Saturday. You can go out to eat but how long can you faff about in a restaurant (quite a bit, actually, but only if you don't mind servers "subtly" swiping the broom under your feet at the point where you're staying just long enough to make it awkward).

Not really how I want to spend my Saturday, though. So we headed to George Coffee, where I've done my DIY beading before and they don't mind - I'd feel weird doing it at a lot of the places we otherwise frequent, and many of them have cats. It's fine when my cat bats a bead off the table and I can retrieve it, but a cat in a cafe flinging beads onto the floor is a new level of annoying. The folks at George as so cool about it that the bring me a spare table light so I can see what I'm doing more clearly.

As you may know if you read this blog somewhat regularly, I am totally into DIY, mostly beading and jewelrymaking (I draw, too, but that's different). I made my own wedding necklace:

Photos above and below by Keira Lemonis

...and for our musician (a good friend) and female attendants:

...including the feather-leaf corsage.

And what a good use of the day, too! In weather that would otherwise render me thoroughly unproductive (but I'm also 3/4 of the way through a longer post on vegetarianism and travel, so there's that) I managed to finish off the necklace above. I made a similar one for my friend Emily - in black, green and silver - as part of a "Pay It Forward for Creative People" Facebook challenge, and I wanted my own. So I hunkered down and made it.

The best DIY shops, by the way, are all in the vicinity of (but not necessarily on) Dihua Street. I'm planning to head back to that neighborhood soon, and when I do I'll get the true addresses of my two favorite spots for DIY beading and jewelry supplies and post them here as an update. One of them gives out a discount VIP card (a small keychain you show them) that gives you a 20% discount on most merchandise, and they have some good stuff: from truly expensive pearls and semiprecious stones to crystal to shell to glass to plastic.

The beads in the necklace above are mostly crystal and glass, but the larger ones are all real amethysts (not an expensive stone, so fairly affordable to buy real). The fixtures and findings are, of course, not real silver, but who cares.

Which actually brings me to Reason #14 to love Taiwan: cheap, accessible, generally high-quality DIY materials, especially for jewelrymaking! I bought every one of these supplies in Taiwan, from around Dihua Street, from Yongle Market (the feathers), from the Jianguo Weekend Flower Market (dried leaf skeletons), from Taipei City Mall (a few places that sell semiprecious beads) - all for a lot less than they charge for that stuff back home.

I'm curious to hear how you spend your dreary days in Taipei: we get an awful lot of them and ideas on what to do - what you do - through these depressingly gray months would surely be of help to other bored, gloomy expats in Taipei on days like this.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Uh...Space Confucius.

Yes, I did totally just head off my post with a snapshot of an adorable kitten to get your attention. Who can resist an adorable kitten? Nobody, that's who! And yes, I took the picture myself - that kitten, along with a more mature cat, are residents at Cafe La Boheme, one of our favorite haunts on Wenzhou Street.

Anyway, the weather's been crap all week - all cold and gloomy and not uplifting at all - and my posts of late have been similarly gloom-and-doom, and I feel like posting a pick-me-up because I'm fairly sure the steely skies over Taipei aren't clearing anytime soon (and when they do, it'll be so they can pour plum rains on us).

So, enjoy a few photos I've taken over the past few months but haven't posted that should give everyone a nice cheer-up, like a good Maker's sour.

This is the creepiest Santa Claus I've ever seen, made of recycled bottles, fairy lights and, uh, I'm not sure what else. Either way, ACK.

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awaaaake...

One of the lovely two girls I have English playtime-class with on the weekend - we finished up our time by building a giant blocks/stool/cards/Japanese cartoon figurine castle.

Last weekend gave us brighter, though polluted, weather. For the last time the sun was seen in Taipei, we went to Da'an Park and saw all sorts of animals, including the big fellow above and the tiny guys below.

Just look at the sun hitting the grass and trees. Oh sun. How I miss you. I wish you'd come back!

The La Boheme kitten is fascinated by the Taiwan Pen Twirl (you know what I mean - that twirly thing that Taiwanese people do with their pens when they're daydreaming).

Yeah, uh, I don't even know what to say to this. We've seen a lot of great store names recently - there's this one, "Croissant de Louvre", "Versace Home Art", "Ho Mart"...but this store? It's for man!

"I guess I'm sleeping on the couch tonight."
On one of those warm-ish sunny weekend days we didn't know were numbered, we headed up to Wenhua University and had coffee at TBRC before watching the sunset by the university.

But now we're back to being freezing and glum, and all we want to do is this:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reason #13 to Love Taiwan

Healthy Street Food!

At the corner of Heping and Fuxing Roads, near MRT Technology Bldg, there is a woman who sells the most delicious vegetarian lumpia (倫餅 - I think. Please correct my Chinese if not). No disgusting rou song (pork floss - ick) here: crushed peanut, alfalfa, some leafy green goodness, a few slices of apple, raisins, carrot slices and red lettuce all stuffed into a healthy wrap of deliciousness. Next to her, or sometimes down the road, is an old guy who sells super tasty red guavas when in season. Across the street, a woman sells dried fruit and nuts - including Taiwanese Irwin mango, which I love to eat dried.

A little bit west of MRT Minquan W. Road, there is a tiny stand inserted neatly into a little alcove with stairs leading up to...somewhere. Just steps from three different places to buy fried chicken, they sell vegetarian fantuan with that mottled purple sweetish rice, or sticky purple rice, full of more peanut powder, something pickled and a few other tasty things. They also sell a bulghur and chick pea salad, marinated tofu, a selection of vegetables, salads and veggie rice and bottled health drinks.

Near MRT Jingmei Exit 2, in the mornings there's a guy who sells vegetarian sticky rice (素油飯) from a large wooden rice bucket. He and his wife are retired, and they make a batch each day (I estimate about NT$1500 worth) to sell: I haven't asked directly but I think it's something between a hobby and a bit of extra money to pad out a pension and savings. It's really good sticky rice and it doesn't get more mom-and-pop than a retired couple making it and selling it from a big wooden bucket every morning. Near him is a woman whose family owns a farm in Zhanghua County - she sells the best baked sweet potatoes (starchy, but a great source of nutrients so you get a lot of bang for your carb-tastic buck) I've ever had.

These folks are scattered across Taipei - I've just named a few of my favorites, for whom I am a regular customer (in my neverending quest to just put down the sweet potato fries already and eat something good for me) and I love what they sell.

I love them because they're small businesses and I enjoy supporting that kind of entrepreneurialism. I love them because what they sell is actually good for you. I love them because what they sell is tasty, too. I love them because I have a good network of food vendors from whom I can grab a meal on the go - as someone who runs around Taipei to various offices all day often has to do - and know that I'm being good to myself, to the mom-and-pop economy, and I don't have to force down yet another 7-11 or Take-Out Sushi seaweed triangle (though I admit it: I like those too).

Finally, I love that Taiwan's economy and culture is such that they can do this, be successful and make a reasonable wage at it here. I'm not sure those Falls Church pupusa guys can say the same, and that's too bad.

All around goodness. The USA could use folks like these (not that I begrudge the pupusa guys in the DC Metro area...pupusas are great, just not healthy).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Re-defining Rape in Taiwan?

It's worth taking a moment to read Chen Yi-chien's editorial in the Taipei Times today: Rape law needs to be reformed.

I wasn't sure I got her point, exactly, in the beginning: it sounded as though the current law on the books is comprehensive and not anti-women's rights. This is a big change from how things used to be - a "crime against public decency" that valued chastity, and not the sexual autonomy of women. It's sad that the women of Taiwan had to wait until 1999 for that to happen - really? For serious? 1999? The old law sounds like something from the 19th century. It just goes to show that the advent of women's rights in Taiwan, which now make it one of the best - if not the best - country in Asia for women is a relatively recent reform in both culture and law. So recent that at times it still seems tenuous.

The reason for her writing of the editorial was that, after a bit of public debate and outrage last year due to "a number of" accused rapists being aquitted when they allegedly shouldn't have been, there was a proposed change:

...the Ministry of Justice and the Executive Yuan have seen fit to act in the wrong way, so wrong that I am very angry. They came up with a proposal to reform the rape law. One of the major revisions was the removal of a phrase that an offense was committed “against the will of the victim” (違反意願).

I completely agree with Chen that while this may seem to be a solution on the surface - that the prosecution would no longer need to prove that the act was against the victim's will, theoretically making it easier to reach a conviction - that what it in fact does is remove the idea of sexual autonomy from the law and make it again about chastity. If rape isn't about consent or will, then what is it about? As Chen says, "so are we heading back to the good old days of 'presence of force?'" Can we trust the proposed change or are they trying, as in the USA, to re-define rape and make it so that a woman has to fight nearly to the death - to the point where further resistance is impossible - in order for the crime to count as "rape"?
Being cynical as I am, I fall on the side of "can't trust 'em", especially in a KMT-led government.
Although I'm just as cynical about the DPP, the KMT has a lousy track record on promoting women's rights (and female politicians - ahem). It is true that a significant chunk of current laws aimed at women's rights were passed in 1998 and 1999 - just before the DPP took the presidency, which you think would speak well of the KMT: but I can't help but wonder if it was done in an attempt to court the female vote in 2000 and not necessarily out of a genuine caring for the rights of women (if it had been, why didn't they pass those laws earlier, when their tenure was not in danger)?
As a result, I am leaning towards interpreting the proposed change negatively, as Chen is. It reminds me of the recent debacle in the USA in which the Republicans sought to re-define rape, insinuating through language that there is a difference between rape and "forcible rape" (and, with clever use of language, making it so that an abortion will only be a procedure eligible for government funding if the rape is "forcible"). It sounds so similar that it kind of gives me shivers.
And yet, I was still wondering from where her desire for reform stemmed. Towards the end of the piece it became clear:

Through the so-called democratic process, the rape law can easily be changed; a phrase dropped here, or a few more years to a prison term added there. The legal culture will never change until we come forward and change the perception that just because a female does not scream herself to death or fight for her chastity until death, she has agreed to engage in a sexual act.

She is absolutely right - the law as it is now protects a woman's sexual autonomy and defines rape as a sexual act with a "lack of consent" - but it is all to easy to change that, and all too easy to do that without raising public ire if done quickly and quietly enough. The reform needs to be in the acceptance that rape is a sexual act with a lack of consent, is a violation of sexual autonomy (not chastity), is not so much an issue of "public decency" but is a crime against a person's body and has nothing to do with how much force was used and how much the woman tried to resist it. This needs to be immutable - this needs to be so obvious as to be a tautology. That's where true reform lies.
The scary parallel here isn't just the outdated and frankly misogynist attitudes behind attempts to change the law, but that we (both American and Taiwanese women) live in cultures where this could even be considered - in the USA the push to de-fund abortions in most cases was made by the conservatives and we all know that they're not exactly pro-women's rights (as much as Sarah Palin may disagree, she can can fill in the rest). Here in Taiwan, the push to "re-define rape" ostensibly stems from a push to help women and further the cause of justice in the realm of women's rights. The fact that that is where this proposal would come from is far scarier, indeed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux V: Panama!

And now we come, at last, to the beginning of our trip!

Exhausted, with me getting over a nasty cold picked up in New York (I think it was wedding stress finally come to a head - I also spent the first week of our honeymoon annoyed at the angry red line of zits marching across my jaw, a sure sign of burnout), we arrived in Panama City at about 11pm. Panama City is the safest and most developed of the urban centers of Central America, which is why we chose to start there. Regardless, it's not a place where you want to land at 11pm - although a friend of mine who not long ago landed in Manila at 3am had it much worse.

We caught a taxi into town, all of the collectivos being done for the night. Driving through the red light district that rings the old city at midnight, Brendan said, "Why do I have the sinking feeling that this looks like some of the nicest parts of cities we're going to see later?"

I grimaced, because I knew he was probably right. He probably was, but we miraculously managed to avoid spending a night in any of the other major cities save Tegucigalpa, and there we got ourselves to a decent hotel before you could say "thugs with guns are going through our luggage".

We stayed in the Hospedaje Casco Viejo ("hospedaje" being Latin American Spanish for "crazy cheap place that foreign backpackers stay in") which was pretty nice. Great location, safe enough inside Casco Viejo, with bare-minimum rooms that are fine for US $20 a night, good tourist info and free Internet and wifi. The bed felt like it was basically a square of styrofoam three feet deep, but hey.

We took our breakfasts in Cafe Coca Cola which, despite this guy bagging on it, has exactly what you think it has: cheap, filling breakfasts that deliver exactly what they promise and really good orange juice.

We spent the first day, still exhausted, wandering Casco Viejo, visiting crumbling churches and old colonial buildings. A bunch of children in a gazebo near the Cathedral of Panama were crunching on these things - I forget the name - so we got some too.

It was like Taiwanese shaved ice, only VERY VERY PINK, and it tasted as pink as it looked. Ask me what the "flavor" of it was, and I'll answer "Pink. Pink with sugar".

Brendan in the old city - yes, I posed him like that and he's such a good sport that he actually did it.

We never made it to downtown Panama City - I got the feeling it would look close up much like it does from a distance:

Whereas charming (and slightly grimy) Casco Viejo has a lot of back street charm.

...but isn't always all that nice:

It's advised not to wander too much at night, though as a pair we felt OK in this part of the old city. We enjoyed the Cathedral of Panama by twilight before heading out to dinner.

The next day we walked straight up the pedestrian shopping street leading out of Casco Viejo to Plaza Cinco de Mayo. Every other way out of Casco Viejo is, to be frank, a slum - this is the only reasonably safe way out on foot (which is why a lot of people who stay in Casco Viejo take taxis).

From Plaza Cinco de Mayo, you can catch a bus to a terminal way out in some urban offshoot, from where you can catch yet another bus to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. It's touristy, but totally worth it (and a bit of a long walk from the road).

Even today, it's still a technological marvel, and yes, the sailors on the cargo ships get a kick out of waving to people as they go through.

And yet, people still hang laundry from the sign.

The next day we caught a bus to David and transferred to a minibus to Boquete. We stayed at the Pension Marilos - a bit out of town but highly recommended. They have two friendly dogs and a parrot named Ricky (Me: "What's your name?" Ricky: "RICKY!" Me: "Are you a good bird?" Ricky: "RICKY!") and comfortable digs. Reserving in advance is a good idea.

Boquete is cooler, and in the hills. In the rainy season you get dewy, cool mornings and overcast, rainy afternoons every day. On our first day we trekked up to Cafe Ruiz past several homes owned by wealthy American retirees - it's not a myth: Boquete really is a major retirement hub. On the upside, it helps the economy. The downside? Areas that were once coffee farms are now gated communities for rich, old folks and the locals can't afford to live on their own land - a similar problem is cropping up in Costa Rica.

We took two tours with Cafe Ruiz - the coffee tasting, in which we drank a lot of coffee and discussed flavor profiles and such 'n such (I'm a total sucker for that stuff if it means I get to drink coffee), and then a coffee plantation tour.

We learned about coffee growing at Cafe Ruiz from beans... drying and roasting.

We were given free coffee beans as souvenirs (their signature light roast which is delish) and I also bought some Panama Guessha/Geisha coffee - $10 US for a bag that would make one pot - which is one of the rarest and most expensive varietals in the world.

I had my buddy at Drop Coffee (滴咖啡) brew it for us (he did it for free - the "fee" was that he got to drink some, too) and I will say it was...basically...the best coffee I've ever had. Sorry, none for you!
Friendly dog at Pension Marilos - he matches the parquet

The next day we went zip line touring with Boquete Tree Trek, which was loads of fun. One of the guides brought along his five-year old, who's been doing this since he was about three (so it's perfectly safe):

Aww, isn't he just Mr. Happy?

...riding with his dad, of course.

Boquete has one of the longest zip lines in the world, with one stretch of line that is several hundred meters long and thoroughly exhilarating.

It's also exhausting, and my arms, legs and chest (chest?) ached for days afterwards, long after we arrived in Costa Rica.

Brendan recovered more quickly.

The next day we grabbed a bus back to David (a small city near the Costa Rican border which inexplicably has a TGI Friday's) and were at the Costa Rican border by noon - more on how we wandered into a band competition in my previous post.

I do wish we'd spent more time in Panama, and would definitely go back to explore everything we missed. The Golfo de Chiriqui, the Parque Internacional la Amistad, the San Blas Islands...maybe not Bocas del Toro, though. Or maybe just for a weekend.

It's not a commonly considered vacation destination in its own right, the way Costa Rica and Guatemala are, but I would say in many ways that Panama was as rewarding as either of those countries and worth a visit in its own right.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Sweets and Desserts in Taipei

Ah, the Pacific Rim. So much about the food here is unparalleled - and yet it can be really hard to find decent sweets (and baked goods - no, I do not want my bread bun covered in mayonnaise). Local sweets can be "good enough" - I'm OK with Japanese chocolate, those caramel candies that come in different flavors, coffee, tea, mango and rose candies from Japan or Indonesia and maybe, just maybe, the "Italian" chocolate mousse cake from Cafe 85 (the only good thing they make, and it's not stupendous). On a hot day I love a good mango shaved snowflake ice, and on a cold day hot ginger dou hua (tofu pudding in sweetish broth) can be lovely.

But, let's face it, the sweets we all keep coming back to hail from the West. Asia may be neck-in-neck (if not ahead) with us when it comes to first-rate food, but we rule the roost in sweets. Not so in India, where I was amazed to lose weight considering the sheer volume of milksweets, samiya payasam, kheer, halwa and gulab jamun I ingested, but definitely so in East Asia. (There was one sweetmaker in Madurai who made these round Indian milksweets reminiscent of maple candy that would melt in your mouth in the most delightful way - if I ever find him again I'll import him to Taiwan).

There are places in Taipei to get your sweet on, however. Lots of them. This is a fairly small list of all that's available - just naming some of my favorites. I've put the two places to get fantastic high-end European-style noms at the top, with more common - but just as delicious - options below.

1.) Caffe Libero
#1 Lane 243 Jinhua Street, Da'an Dist. Taipei (near Yongkang St).

They close at 6 on Sundays (for shame!) and have good, but not mindbendingly tasty, coffee. In the back, however, through some darkly-lit rooms, there is a small French-style patisserie that makes some of the most delectable goodies in Taipei. We're talking the real deal, high-end Paris cafe goodies. The care and quality of the choices reminds me of when I was actually in Paris (for four days, with my parents, not some exciting and wild trip) and we stopped in a little pastry shop to try a few things - we did that a lot: we stopped the next day in a famous chocolate shop and bought chocolates, too. I picked out a little tart, glistening with apricot glaze, ringed by a crumbly, buttery crust and bursting at the top with plump strawberries in that ripe shade of red that screams "eat me", pushed down gently into a soft, forgiving custard.

I've never forgotten that tart, and though I didn't order the tart at Caffe Libero, the taste and quality of the dainties we did order brought back the memory. I especially recommend the blackcurrant-pistachio sweet - in alluring shades of of deep pink and soft green, it's unforgettably good.

#125 Zhongyang Road, Xindian (MRT Xiaobitan, Exit 2, turn right)

Go for the great Italian food, and stay for dessert. We had a plate of three - an Italian cheesecake, a brownie and a tiramisu. All three were over-the-moon delicious - I especially recommend the brownie. It was velvety on the inside, chock full of chocolate but not too sweet, with a slightly crisp crust that gives a delightful mouthfeel. We had them with grappa but you might prefer them with coffee.

Wenzhou St. just south of Xinhai Rd., Taipei

While not haute cuisine like the two listings above, this is undoubtedly the best hot chocolate in Taipei (the waffles are good enough, but the hot chocolate is truly memorable). It's as though they took six months' worth of a normal person's chocolate consumption and concentrated it into one mug. I'm not sure how they do it - with real chocolate or just lots of good quality cocoa powder and cream - but someone there has a magic recipe. They offer it in several flavors - try the Wild Aztecah, which features a hit of spice along with some alcohol.

#3 Lane 93 Shi-da Road, Taipei

I know that Hungry Girl didn't care for the place, but I still go there as my main source of American-style baked goods (I go to Cafe Goethe, below, if I want more German-style sweets). The cakes are just the sort of sugar frenzies you'd want at a good birthday party, and are always soft and moist. They do a great apple pie with Grandma-style crust (sweet, a bit crunchy, puffed up from cooking) and a delicious, homemade filling dotted with raisins like sweet little jewels. Very good with espresso.

5.) Beard Papa - creampuffs
Breeze Taipei Main

This Japanese brand makes the best cream puffs I've tried outside Europe (and I've eaten a lot of cream puffs in Europe - no, I don't call them profiteroles). They're big and chock full of flavorful vanilla cream with a crust that is just the right balance of soft and crispy: almost so big as to be sinful. When my uncle was married (the first time) in England, they had a croquembouche as their wedding cake - the profiteroles stacked to create it were passed around with strings of spun sugar still attached and chocolate sauce for dipping, and it was divine. The puffs themselves, though delicious, were rather small - not a bad thing, but contrasting that to the giant Beard Papa creampuff you're eating might make you feel as though you are making a glutton of yourself with more than your fair share of the world's goodness.

Several locations across Taipei - best ambiance at Huashan restaurant

Be careful of overcharging here (it happened to us/people I know twice and while I can excuse the confusion over one bill - which we had to correct three times - as the result of a newbie in dire need of experience, I can't help but suspect it's done on purpose when it then happens to someone else I know at the same location), but as long as you keep a wary eye on the bill, be sure to try the tiramisu.

Tiramisu at Johnny Cucina Italiana is light fare of impeccable quality and layers of flavoring - cocoa, cream, coffee, liqueur. Alley Cat tiramisu is a big, soft, messy square of deliciousness often served in tinfoil. If made well, it's soaked with alcohol and can be enjoyed just for what it is: something you don't eat delicately with a tiny gold fork but something you dig into with vigor as you finish the last of your beer.

7.) Cafe Goethe - German cakes and pies
#11 Lane 283 Roosevelt Rd. Sec 3 (near Sai Baba pita bar)

Ever been to Cakelove in Washington, DC? The owner bakes is his cakes the way your German great-grandmother might have done. They're thick, they're heavy, they've got more butter in them than you care to think about, you can pick the slices up with your hand as you eat them and they are utterly delicious (and filling).

Cafe Goethe's cakes are made on much the same principle - they're as delicious as they are stolid. Where Caffe Libero's fare is a flighty French maid flitting about in Belle Epoch buildings, Cafe Goethe's sizeable cakes are pushing plows in the field.

My husband has never cared much for citrusy sweets (lemon cookies, lime bars, orange chocolate etc.) and even he thoroughly enjoyed a slice of their orange-flavored cake. Of their Sachertorte he said - "I have one word to describe this, besides delicious." "And what would that be?" "Structural."

Go for the cakes (and pies - they sometimes have good pies on offer), stay for the coffee which often comes as a deal with the cake. If your stomach can handle the onslaught, try some of their very good food and beer (I recommend the jagerschnitzel and the wursts sure look good).

Pick up some bread on the way out, too.

8.) Zabu - banana bread and chocolate brownie
#9-4 Pucheng Street Taipei (near Shi-da)

The desserts at this arty, indie-music supporting Japanese-style student cafe are served in Japanese portions: you don't get a lot, but what you get is high quality. The banana bread is stuffed with banana flavor, and the brownies are rich and chocolatey. The brownie comes with two choices: a brownie square a la mode, or two brownie squares (I always get the two squares).

9.) The Diner - cinnamon apple pancakes
#6 Lane 103 Dunhua S. Road Section 2 (and) Rui-an Street #145, Da'an Dist.

The Diner is often seen as the epicenter of good Western food in Taipei, and I'm not one to disagree (it's certainly better than Friday's - ugh). While they always tell me that they can't do coffee with whiskey although I know full well that they can and I have to argue with yet another new server, and while I wasn't blown away by their Eggs Benedict, I stand by their apple cinnamon pancakes as the best deal in town for sweet, syrup-drenched pancake goodness (I think it's fake syrup, though, which is sort of a crime).

10.) Taipei Snow King (台北雪王) - crazy flavored ice cream
#65 Wuchang Street, Taipei (near Ximen and Zhongshan Hall)

This place has its avid fans and its customers, unimpressed by offerings of Taiwan Beer, Kaoliang, pig's foot and chili pepper ice cream, who go away saying "meh", but I love the joint. It's small - easy to miss with no English sign and run mostly by a little old lady with a round, curly gray 'fro, and has the wildest ice cream in town (I'd say Movenpick has the "best" ice cream, but Taipei Snow King has the corner on uniqueness). Recommended: chili pepper, honey, wasabi, rose liqueur, plum wine, mint, cinnamon, ginger, carrot. If you try the Kaoliang (Gaoliang), get another scoop as a chaser. You'll need it - they use real Kaoliang in that stuff and the ice cream maker doesn't take away the potency!

11.) That German restaurant in Shinkong Mitsukoshi Xinyi: chocolate cake
Can't find the name or the address

I've never been able to find the name of this place and am too lazy to go back to Shinkong Mitsukoshi to check. It's a brewery-restaurant with decent beer (not as good as Jolly's brews), middling food (try Goethe instead) but really good chocolate cake. It's not heavy like Cafe Goethe or super sweet like My Sweetie Pie - it's just a soft, airy, chocolatey standard that you won't regret - and it goes well with dark beer.

12.) Taiwanese sweets: Mango Snowflake Ice and Hot Ginger Dou Hua
Mango Snowflake Ice: Sugar House @ Nanshijiao Night Market (entering the market from Nanshijiao MRT Exit 2, turn left at the T and it's on the right mid-way down) - Zhonghe, Taipei County

Hot ginger dou hua (薑汁豆花) - Sanxia Old Street, Sanxia, Taipei County (suck on that, KMT)

The Taiwanese do make a few local sweets worth mentioning. I'm not a fan of their sweet bread-based products, all the best chocolate is of course imported, the caramel candies are nice but not unforgettable, but they do a good shaved ice and dou hua.

Sugar House uses good fresh fruit (make sure to order in season though) - if you order mango or strawberry shaved ice in season you'll be in for a sweet treat. They also do good fresh smoothies.

I've always liked, but not loved, hot dou hua - the sweet broth is a bit too pallid for my taste and while the boiled peanuts, taro and sweet potato goo balls and red beans are nice additions, it doesn't bring it up to the level of true excitement. Add a little ginger juice, though, and suddenly it's one of my favorite things to eat during the gray Taipei winter. Sanxia is the best in northern Taiwan (Anping, one restaurant in particular on the old street, in an old brick house with a lion lintel, has the best all-around dou hua in Taiwan) and specializes in the ginger flavored variant.

13.) Bongo's - Sticky Toffee Pudding

The rest of the menu is at par but not really above-par, and there is better Western food to be had in Taipei (although I do enjoy their wraps). Really, go here for the used books and the toffee pudding - it's a cake-like thing, moist with soft boiled condensed milk toffee (the kind you'd find in banoffee pie) and topped with vanilla ice cream, and is generally just YUM.

14.) A bunch of places that surely exist, which I haven't tried yet

Among other places, you may have noticed that I didn't include Paul - a French bakery that actually bakes the sweets in France and flies them to Taipei. That's because I haven't been there - it's expensive as heck (more so than anything listed here) and I have heard that they bake the pastries in France and fly them in. I do think it is possible to make great sweets in Taipei and I find that flying them in from Europe is not only environmentally unfriendly, it's kind of pretentious. Why eat a pastry that's had time to go stale on a transcontinental flight when it is possible to make good pastries here? I'll stick with local and fresh, thanks.

I'm also a fan of Mom's Pies, but prefer My Sweetie Pie's apple pie and they're either back-of-a-van or delivery only. You can't go in and just have a slice of pie.

There are surely other places, as well, and I look forward to any recommendations you may have!