Showing posts with label cooking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cooking. Show all posts

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Good, The Bland and the Authentic: A Hakka Stir-Fry Journey


Months ago, I picked up Cathy Erway's The Food of Taiwan, cooked a bunch of my favorite Taiwanese dishes from it, and wrote about the experience. I structured it as a discussion of how it feels to be a foreigner who calls Taiwan home improving her ability to cook Taiwanese food, but also of what makes a Taiwanese dish both "good" and "authentic". Something might be "good" but not taste particularly like a dish as it's usually served in a region (for example, I like the Taiwanese take on ma po doufu 麻婆豆腐. I think it's good, but it doesn't taste anything like what I used to eat in Guizhou and Sichuan). Or, something might be "authentic" - maybe your 92-year-old Hakka grandmother in Yangmei made it - but, as I noted to a friend, not everyone's Hakka grandma is necessarily a good cook.

Of course, the best dishes tend to be both: they're deeply rooted in their places and cultures of origin, and also made well.

I also considered the tendency of Westerners to have endless variations of their own food, while thinking food of other cultures only had one "correct" form, and any deviations from that particular way of preparing it were somehow "wrong" and "inauthentic". Of course this isn't true. Different cooks across Taiwan cook the same dishes in slightly different ways, just as cooks might do from Ohio to Iowa.

With that in mind, I want to return to the Hakka stir-fry (客家小炒) recipe in The Food of Taiwan. There was a discussion on this in the "books about Taiwan" Facebook group I manage about the various aspects of the recipe, and also on my personal page. I complained about the inclusion of carrots and the lack of garlic greens, the lack of rice wine, the way the pork belly was sliced (not into matchsticks as is common in Taiwan, but into slices and pre-cooked), and the lack of specification about the squid, which it is implied in the recipe may be fresh squid. And, I'd like to add, the sparing use of "light soy sauce". Some of my friends - all Hakka - were horrified. Other commenters thought this recipe would make it easier for non-Taiwanese and those not in Taiwan to make a version of the dish, and it was therefore fine.

To me - caveat: someone who is very much not Hakka - this just doesn't produce the Hakka stir-fry I've eaten in Taiwan. It just...doesn't. Maybe it's "good" (I made the recipe, I thought it was...fine. Totally acceptable) but it didn't strike me as at all "authentic". It just wasn't the lip-smacking, flavor-intense dish of greens and chewy matchsticks of tasty pork, tofu and squid that I've come to know and love.

Of course, there's an added issue when you're not just a non-Hakka cooking Hakka food, but a non-Taiwanese cooking a Taiwanese dish. I know I can cook good food, but if I'm going to fry something up and call it authentic, it has to really taste authentic. There is less space for me to spin my own variation on something and call it "Hakka stir fry" (or anything Taiwanese that I might make). If I change things up too much, but claim to be making a particular food from a particular place and culture, I not only become culturally appropriative (not appreciating the host culture) but also forfeit any claim I may have to seeking to better understand Taiwan through learning how to make this food with my own hands.

So, last night, I decided to try again. Instead of using Erway's recipe, I just grabbed the first search result off iCook, just to see how it played out. I cribbed a few of the better elements of Erway's recipe: the use of ginger and chili bean sauce. Hakka friends had told me these were acceptable flavor enhancers and I thought they worked well. I also cooked up the ginger, garlic (not garlic greens) and white parts of the scallions in a little oil before adding the pork.

I also soaked the dried squid in Shaoxing rice wine (紹興酒) with a little water added because that would otherwise require a LOT of Shaoxing wine rather than water, because that's what my friend says his Hakka wife's family does. That's pretty legit.

Notably, this recipe called for matchsticked pork cooked in a wok (not boiled), thick soy sauce (醬油膏) rather than light soy sauce (add the chili bean sauce at the same time if you like), sugar, reconstituted dried squid rather than fresh squid, garlic greens along with the celery and scallions, and rice wine. And absolutely no carrots.

I stuck mostly to the iCook recipe to see if it would produce a Hakka stir-fry that was both "good" and "authentic" - and you know what? It did!


Looks pretty solid, no? This not only tasted great, but tasted (and looked) like something I'd get in an actual restaurant in Taiwan.

Contrast that to the result of using Erway's recipe (though I didn't quite follow it - I did use dried squid, I did matchstick my pork, and I did use garlic greens rather than carrot because I have principles). Same "food photography" filter, same level of photo editing:


Seems fine, right? But it was a lot blander. It didn't have that thick coating of slightly sweet, soy-based deliciousness tinged with the subtle enhancement of rice wine that the stir-fry I made last night did.

Now, that's not the end of the story. That friend's Hakka wife, from Miaoli? Her family apparently fries up each ingredient separately "to make sure each one is cooked to the peak of fragrance and texture", and doesn't use dried tofu (though she concedes it's an acceptable addition. I happen to like it.)

She's actually Hakka - her version is certainly more "authentic" than mine. And though I've never tried it, I can be pretty damn sure it tastes better, too. I don't believe there's anything genetic about cooking: one doesn't get to be good at cooking Hakka food just because one is Hakka, but I didn't grow up in that culture. I didn't eat this dish as a kid. My family doesn't run a restaurant in Miaoli. There's a lot of experience-based knowledge that I can't have. I accept that.

In the end, though, I can make a pretty okay Hakka stir-fry too, and I do think there's a "way" to do that where "good" and "authentic" intersect.

I am a firm believer in seeking to understand other cultures (not appropriating them), and I appreciate it when certain cultural knowledge - like how to cook commonly-served dishes - is made accessible. I don't think I have to be Hakka to make Hakka stir-fry, or Korean to make kimchi, or Mexican to make flautas (though I'd hesitate to attempt to make a profit doing so). But, if we're going to seek to understand through cooking, we do have to at least attempt to produce the real thing. No carrots, no long slices of pork, no fresh squid, no light soy sauce. Otherwise, we're just making stir-fry and pretending it's 客家小炒. We congratulate ourselves, but have learned nothing.

Here's my full recipe for White Lady Makes Hakka Stir-Fry: 

1 pack of pork belly (五花肉)from the supermarket, sliced into matchsticks (I never get up early enough to go to the traditional market)
3-4 scallions (青蔥) , white and light green section sliced, green sections sliced into thin matchsticks
1 large garlic green (蒜苗) - white bulb section sliced, green sections sliced into matchsticks
1-2 roots (which have several stems) of Chinese celery (芹菜), de-leafed (though you can chop and add the leaves too) and matchsticked
1 pack dried tofu (豆乾), cut into matchsticks
1 dried squid (魷魚乾), soaked in Shaoxing wine (紹興酒) with a little water for a few hours or overnight, with tentacles, sliced up into pieces about the same size as the pork - cut against the grain so it won't curl up when stir-fried
2 cloves garlic (蒜頭), chopped
1 thumb of ginger (薑), in coins
A little neutral-tasting oil (沙拉油) - don't worry about using a little. The fat from the pork will give the dish a satisfying oiliness
1-2 tsp sugar (to taste) (糖)
2 tbsp thick soy sauce (醬油膏) - this is the secret to getting the sauce to stick to the meat/tofu
2 tbsp chili bean sauce (optional) (辣豆瓣醬)
1/4 cup rice wine (米酒)
powdered white pepper to taste (白胡椒粉)

Cook up the garlic, garlic green bulb (the white part), white part of onion and ginger in a little oil until fragrant. (I use medium gas, which would be high on an electric stove.)
Add pork and cook until pink disappears
Add tofu and cook for a minute
Add squid and cook for a minute
Add rice wine, toss
Add thick soy sauce, sugar, white pepper and chili bean sauce, toss till well-coated and it starts to stick to the meat/tofu/squid
Add all remaining greens, cook briefly until slightly wilted

Serve immediately over white rice.

Boom! Done.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Cooking With Cathy


Awhile back, I went out and bought Cathy Erway's The Food of Taiwan (despite the annoying Tom Sietsema review on the back that condescendingly called Taiwanese food a regional Chinese cuisine - ugh, no, because Taiwan is not a region of China - but he didn't write the book so whatever.) I didn't make anything from it for the longest time, though, because despite being a damn good cook, I had always figured that I should spend my precious cooking time on food I can't get outside, or no restaurant I've found can make as well as I can (just try to find a brown rice pumpkin risotto with saffron and sundried tomatoes - you can't, unless you come over for dinner). Why make myself what I can get better and more cheaply outside?

Recently, though, I've reconsidered that position. It was starting to feel embarrassing that I'd been here for a dozen years yet hadn't learned Taiwanese cooking, despite being great in the kitchen. Other cuisines I've learned because I've lived in those places - e.g. Sichuan/Guizhou food, Indian food - I learned after I left, to my detriment. It was time to fix that, and learn how to make Taiwanese food in Taiwan. If anything, simply to better understand the culture I live in and try to be a part of in whatever limited way I can and am welcome to do so.

So, I cracked open The Food of Taiwan and set myself the task of making a selection of dishes from it. Essentially starting from a place where I knew what the food ought to look and taste like, but learning what makes it that way.

I approached the book knowing that her recipes would not be the final authority on how to make any one dish, but as a good English-language resource, as the only recipes I could find online that were any good were in Chinese. I can roll with that, but it's just easier to follow something in my native language.

I also planned to try any failures at least twice: I may know what they are meant to look and taste like, but that didn't mean I wouldn't get them wrong the first time around (and I did get a few wrong).

My overall impression? No one recipe is dead on, although some are very good. Often, the ingredient proportions or cooking directions weren't quite right (or didn't work with my kitchen equipment), in other cases, the ingredients called for didn't quite make sense. Some were acceptable variations, but at least one was completely off. (There's "normal variation" and then there's "every person I asked about this recipe shook their head in disbelief or wondered if Erway had ever actually had the real dish").

This cookbook is clearly meant more for cooks in Western kitchens going to the Asian supermarket for ingredients - which makes sense, as the market for a cookbook of Taiwanese food in English for foreigners in Taiwan is perhaps...uh, not that large. This was evident in some of the names of dishes ("Taiwanese burrito" for 潤餅  - huh?) But, for the cook who can just go to the traditional market or dry goods shop and get what she needs, there are unnecessary shortcuts and a few instances of confusing labeling.

So, here's what I made, and how it turned out:

Spicy marinated cucumbers / Cold pickled cucumbers (酸辣小黃瓜)

I like scallions on mine, too. 

This was one of the most successful dishes, although I have to admit I've been making it for ages - one of the few Taiwanese dishes I consistently put together. I happen to prefer to mix the salt, vinegar, sugar and other ingredients all at once, and refrigerate for a few hours. However, both Erway's version (which calls for salting the cucumbers first) and mine work just fine. I don't de-seed my cucumbers as I usually eat them same day, but if you're going to save them for a few days, it's a good idea. I also prefer more vinegar - I practically submerge mine rather than just using two measly tablespoons. That, however, is a matter of taste.

What I found odd was the addition of chili bean sauce (a condiment I feel Erway invokes far too often where it is not needed). These cucumbers are much better with chopped, de-seeded long red chilis. I was also confused by the leaving out of garlic - a burst of fresh garlic paste (or coarsely chopped garlic) added to the marinade makes the dish. Also missing is a topping of fresh cilantro, but that too is a matter of taste.

Because these cucumbers are (almost) as common a side dish as kimchi in Korea, the last time I made them I was reminded of something David Chang said not long ago: that he used to think white people shouldn't make kimchi. Later on late night television he walked that back, noting that if a white person makes Korean food really well, they might become a major advocate for the cuisine and that can only be positive - and in any case, I suspect he was talking about chefs making kimchi, not regular home cooks.

That comment got me thinking about being a white lady who often cooks Asian food - I may be new to Taiwanese cooking but I frequently cook dishes from other parts of the continent, most notably Indian. I understand the criticism of white chefs cooking traditional foods of people of color while the people of color themselves continue to be discriminated against for their non-white cultures and appearances - that is, making a profit off of something that when the originators of that thing are still otherized for having created it. However, I don't see a problem with my making Taiwanese dishes for myself - after all, I live here. Should I bar myself from learning how to cook locally because I'm not a local? Would any local think that a decision to remain ignorant of local culinary techniques because of my race was anything other than utterly ridiculous? I doubt it.

I've yet to meet real-life people who think otherwise, although I'm sure they exist.

In any case, I think as long as you aren't profiting off of someone else's culture while otherizing people from that culture (seriously don't do that), if you make the food well, you're fine. The proof is in the Hakka stir-fry.

Basil clams (塔香蛤蜊)

Needs more basil and soy sauce, less alcohol

This recipe was one of the closest to dead-on in terms of the flavor I've come to expect from eating this dish locally. There were no unexpected additions to the ingredient list, nor anything I felt was missing. However, the proportions seemed a bit off: the final flavor was far more alcoholic and not salty enough. The dish was successful enough that I didn't feel I needed a re-do, although I do intend to make it again simply because I like it. When I do, I'll reduce the rice wine from 2 cups (!) to 1, increase the soy sauce from 1 tablespoon to closer to a quarter cup - or use regular rather than light soy, or both - and make up for any lack of liquid with water. I also felt the dish needed more basil - about twice what is given on the recipe.

Be careful when making this one, as the clams are essentially cooked in rice wine, and...well I wouldn't know anything about any small kitchen fires that may have happened when a little bit of the alcoholic steam condensed and ran down the side of the pan and sir.

Other recipes add one ingredient Erway leaves out: sliced ginger. Trying to hew as closely to the recipes given as possible, I too left it out, but will add it next time.

After all, one of the things I've learned while living in Taiwan is that there is just as much individual, family and regional variation in cooking as there is in the US. It does seem sometimes as though Westerners who think themselves worldly 'flatten' the part of the world they don't live in: where they are from, they recognize that one dish can have a thousand variations. Everyone and their grandmother has a slightly different recipe. But get that same Westerner abroad and they think the food of the place they are visiting has only one "traditional" way of being made, with all others being "wrong" somehow. Like each one must either be the Platonic Form of itself, or it's a bastardization by someone who doesn't know better. So they rank different restaurants in, say, Vietnam by how 'traditional' their Vietnamese food is, when as far as I see it, if it's a restaurant in Vietnam serving Vietnamese food, it is authentic Vietnamese food. What else could it be?

So ginger, no ginger, whatever. Do what you like (but I seriously suggest a little ginger.)

Braised meat rice (滷肉飯)

This tastes so Taiwanese - braised egg was my idea, and it was a good idea

This is one of the dishes where there seems to be the most individual variation. One of my Taiwanese friends adds preserved tofu (豆腐乳) to give the dish depth. Another uses lean meat for health, and yet another adds chopped mushrooms. A Taiwanese friend who is an actual chef adds licorice root (甘草) and dried mushroom. There is a very good restaurant on Yanji Street whose 'signature' dish is braised meat rice, but including half a hard-boiled egg and shredded chicken. Some people serve it with a Taiwanese-style pickle (which I like - and you can buy them cheaply at any supermarket). Others add cilantro (I'm also a fan.) Many online recipes call for cooking the meat first, and using the pork fat to cook the garlic - and many call for adding the white part of a green scallion at this stage (I did this the second time around and it worked well).

I tried this dish twice, as the first one came out far too thick and salty - the second time using lean meat and chopped mushroom to 'imitate' the fat I was leaving out, and it tasted both wonderful and authentic. It was a reminder that I might know what a dish is supposed to look and taste like, and I've been here for awhile, but that doesn't mean I'll get it right the first time around.

My only quibble is that the first time, I simmered it for between 1-2 hours as Erway suggests. It thickened far too much and I found I kept having to add water to it - and it wasn't necessary as the cut of meat I'd bought was pretty good - I generally don't have meat scraps lying about as we often eat vegetarian at home. However, she was absolutely right in her suggestion of the proportions of low-sodium soy sauce to regular soy sauce.

Thick soup with meat (肉羹 - though I ended up actually making cuttlefish thick soup or 摸魚羹)

The carrot was not necessary, and I like more vinegar and white pepper than Erway does

I didn't make the fishcake-coated pork shoulder because I was short on time, so I bought pre-made cuttlefish cakes to add instead and they were fine. Otherwise, this recipe worked well, although I found the amount of cornstarch listed did not turn the soup sufficiently "thick", and I ended up adding more. I also added the noodles directly to the soup as the sizes they came in didn't work well for portioning into bowls.

This is one which created a bit of a labeling kerfuffle - Erway calls for "black rice vinegar", but just try finding something labeled that at a Taiwanese supermarket. They have it, but it's labeled 烏醋, not 黑米醋 (as one might find on Hong Kong brands if one Googles). Complicating this, some brands of black rice vinegar in Taiwan label it "Worcestershire Sauce", which I don't think it is, exactly. I knew this, but someone who isn't aware might spend quite a bit of time looking for something that is simply labeled differently.

There is at least one other thick soup recipe in the book, for squid - and I appreciate that the two are different rather than just "make thick soup, add thing you want".

The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of the vinegar and one of sesame oil for the whole large pot - I like a bigger dose and actually add a lashing of vinegar to thick soup when I eat it out, so I added quite a bit more to my bowl, along with a sprinkle of white pepper.

The carrot could be left out, but the bamboo and shiitake mushroom are, to my mind, essential. I left out the cabbage because cabbage makes me fart. I mean like to a concerning degree, to the point that my husband replies to my farts as though I am talking to him (like this:

Me: *frrrap*
Brendan: "That's not true!")

I once saw a doctor about it but he said nothing was wrong with me, I'm just, like, fartier than average. cabbage.

Sweet potato leaves (地瓜葉)
The garlic is a weird brown color because this was my second attempt, and I found I preferred it with soy sauce instead of salt

You'll be surprised to hear that this - the easiest Taiwanese vegetable there is - was one of the recipes I struggled with. The leaf wilts very quickly and grows bitter if you overcook it. The stems, however, never quite seem to be fully cooked (and, to be frank, I only like the leaves and often de-stem them now that I make the dish more often). I had to struggle my way around getting both parts of the plant to cook correctly given their very different textures. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm too tired right now to find it.

In any case, sweet potato leaves aren't even available in much of the US as far as I'm aware, and I wasn't aware they were a vegetable that could be eaten until I moved here.

Partly, I just don't think Erway calls for adding enough oil. 2 tablespoons simply wasn't enough. Partly, though, it's that I know what well-made sweet potato leaves look and taste like, but I just did not grow up in a kitchen where they were frequently made. It's one of those ways in which, no matter how long I stay, I can't fully assimilate into the culture because I just didn't have that cultural upbringing. If I'd grown up around parents cooking this dish frequently, making it might be second nature, the way making hummus is for me.

I also prefer them with a dash of soy sauce instead of salt, although I don't think that's how they are typically made. Damn it, white lady, screwing up our traditional foods with your weird changes! 

But seeing as other recipes call for adding ginger or MSG, and this one doesn't, I don't feel too bad about that.

Oyster omelet (蚵仔煎)

This was the best-looking oyster omelet I made. They all tasted good, though. 

This was probably the most interesting of the dishes I made - not just for the act of making it, but in my friends' reactions when I told them what I was attempting. In my experience, it just isn't one of those foods that's made at home very often (which is also interesting - as it's not any harder than any other omelet). I've asked and asked, and not found a Taiwanese friend who has actually made this themselves. It's always something you get as a snack when you eat out.

But here I am, making it in my kitchen even though nobody else I know does that. I feel like it almost makes me more foreign. I'm not even sure what the equivalent would be - a Taiwanese person who goes to the US and tries to make a Big Mac in her home kitchen? ("For a truly authentic Big Mac, you have to start with a patty that is just the right shade of grey.")

The first thing you do when you make this is prepare the sauce. In fact, I wonder how 'traditional' the sauce even is, seeing as the base is ketchup. But it works - it is a bit tangier than the typical sauce you get in the night market but very good.

The only real issues I had were that the bok choy didn't cook as well as I would have liked - I found that putting it in the oil just as the oysters are shrinking a bit, just before adding the sweet potato starch mixture, works well.

My oyster omelets all tasted good but looked like garbage. That's fine - my Western-style omelets are the same.

Chicken rice (雞肉飯)
I used pre-slivered chicken - probably better to shred it post-cooking instead. It was a bit dry, easy to overcook

This was one of those recipes with a head-scratcher of an extra ingredient - Sichuan peppercorn powder? Huh?

I decided that I was going to break my rule of following the recipes faithfully at least the first time, and omit this. I accept it is a possibly acceptable "variation", but I have never, ever eaten chicken rice that tasted like it had anything like Sichuan flower pepper in it, and a Taiwanese friend I mentioned it to just raised his eyebrows and words. But go ahead, try it, why not. I thought it tasted pretty authentic without it.

What I also found odd was that Erways' recipe calls for putting the fried shallots on top of the chicken, but it seems clear to me that they're meant to go in the sauce, where they turn into soft goober things that stick to the rice and chicken and make it tasty. I've never had chicken rice with crispy fried shallots, only soft goobered fried shallots.

Reader, I goobered my shallots.

Erway calls for steaming the chicken, other recipes call for boiling it. I think either is fine.

Hakka stir-fry (客家小炒)

Could use more color

This was the recipe that I had to throw out. It forever has a black mark - it's not so much that it doesn't work as that the result does not look or taste anything like Hakka stir-fry. 

Granted, "Hakka stir fry" has a lot of individual variation: even the name is fairly generic. It's like saying "New York Pizza". A very definite thing, but Giulio's, Mario's, Matteo's, Tony's and everyone else's are going to all have their own way of doing it. A Grimaldi's slice isn't quite the same as a typical Staten Island slice. So it goes with Hakka stir fry. Some varieties being fairly healthy-looking (they're not - they're full of sugar and oil) and others being...not that. Some involve dried tofu, others do not. Some include scallions, others do not. But all Hakka stir fries have a few things in common:

- They use strips/slivers of pork, not sliced
- They all include soaked dried squid, not fresh
- They all include garlic bolt/garlic green and Chinese celery
- They all involve some combination of garlic, rice wine or other alcohol and soy sauce, and some form of chili

Erway's recipe called for fresh squid (!), larger sliced pieces of pork, according to the picture (!!), no garlic bolt (!!!), no dried tofu (okay - I know Hakka people who don't include it), and...carrot (!!!!).

I wanted this to be just another acceptable "variation" on a classic, or to find out that I'm just a dumb whitey who has no business telling Cathy Erway - who is of Taiwanese heritage - how a Taiwanese dish is made. But it isn't and I think maybe I'm not. I posted about it on Facebook, and got, from a variety of Hakka people, people who asked Hakka people and people married to Hakka people, some variant of:

"Absolutely not"
"As a Hakka man who is over 30 years old, I have never had carrot in a Hakka stir fry"
"I asked my (Hakka, with parents who run a Hakka restaurant in Miaoli) wife and she says there is absolutely no carrot in Hakka stir fry and the meat should never be sliced like that."
"I asked my Hakka coworker and he just stared at me before saying ""
"Where is the dried tofu?"

So, "acceptable variation aside", I can only conclude that Erway just - didn't include an accurate recipe for Hakka stir-fry. There are limits to what constitutes acceptable variation, and the Hakka People Of Taiwan Whom I Know have spoken: this recipe crosses a line.

I have to wonder if Erway just doesn't know Hakka food - her recipe for "citrus sauce" sounds like Hakka kumquat sauce, but...uses orange juice? That's odd. Either make it with kumquats or don't make it at all.

I chucked the whole thing, cobbled together a few recipes online, soaked my dried squid (easier to do than you'd think but start well ahead of time, and be aware that it stinks up your kitchen - and use rice wine or shaoxing wine, maybe with water to create enough liquid to soak a whole dried squid) and came up with a pretty tasty, though perhaps slightly pallid-looking, stir-fry.

But this just...doesn''t look like Hakka stir-fry. I'm sorry. (Photo from The Food of Taiwan)

Erway suggests chili bean sauce (again with the chili bean sauce) rather than the sliced red chilis others call for, but she may be on to something here. Hakka stir fry I've had outside is redder/more colorful than what I came out with, and chili bean sauce might help with that.

* * *

So there you have it. The good, the slightly odd, and the unacceptable of The Food of Taiwan. I'll leave you with this thought: it seemed odd that it included a bunch of dishes I'm not really that familiar with - though maybe that's just because I don't order them often - but left out two of my favorites, which I would have thought would have made the final cut of any Taiwanese cookbook: scallion pancake (蔥油餅) and cold eggplant (涼拌茄子). I haven't made scallion pancake, but I did make cold eggplant, and it turned out great:

Why wasn't this in the cookbook? Two other eggplant dishes were. 

I used this recipe, but added a little cilantro at the end, put some thick soy sauce in the mix to make it stick to the eggplants better, drizzled some thick soy on them after setting them on the plate, and actually steamed rather than boiled them. They smell so good when they are steaming.

Happy cooking!

And please feel free to leave your own cooking experiences with Taiwanese food - or any tips, hints or suggestions you have - in the comments. I'm always looking to improve my craft.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Black Garlic in Taipei!

I've been a bit busy to post actual longer posts these past few weeks, but I wanted to share my latest culinary find: black garlic! I had heard of it before but not had the chance to try it - it's an extremely flavorful ingredient made by...I guess by heating it on low, and perhaps steaming it then drying it (?) for a month or more. It turns the cloves shriveled and black and gives it a soft, spreadable texture and a taste that's somewhere in between soy sauce, tamarind and balsamic vinegar.

 photo photo 3.jpg

Well, there's someone in Taiwan who makes it - the store is just called 黑蒜頭 or "Black Garlic". It's made from garlic grown in Yunlin County and it is delicious.

To get some, take the MRT to Xinhai station. Exit and look almost immediately to your right (slightly away from the road, down another small dead-end road). Alternately, follow the smell of sweet roasted garlic that permeates the air for several meters in every direction. There's a small shop with a can't-miss sign (you can even see it from the MRT train if you take it past Xinhai) that says "Black Garlic" in English and Chinese and has a picture of black garlic on it for good measure.

Don't live in Taipei? You can also call them at (02)2934-0535 or visit their website. Apparently they do deliver!

This shop also has black garlic wine, vinegar and other items - I feel like black garlic wine would be a wonderful thing to cook with and I will eventually go back for some.

You can use it in a lot of different ways - it seems like it'd be really good in Italian, French or Spanish foods, and also work well in Chinese food (imagine a sauteed whole chicken rubbed down with the stuff, which also flavored the broth at the bottom of the pan, or on a fish that could handle its flavor). It seems to go especially well with vegetables, tomatoes, chicken and cheese. I think it'd be delicious as a lamb chop rub or with stuffed mushrooms.

But black garlic doesn't come cheap. One large bulb is NT100, a pack of 6 small bulbs is NT250, and a large pack is NT600. If you wanted to experiment with this ingredient or just eat it (it's delicious eaten straight), an NT100 bulb will do just fine.

Make sure you pick up a copy of their brochure for this little gem. Then stroll to victory with your black garlic!

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Little additional note: If you take that main road to the right for a few minutes' walk you'll also come to Mr. Lin, who makes old-school tatami mats that are far higher quality than the ones sold at B&Q. He is the only guy I can find left in Taipei who still does this.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sauteed Persimmon and Smoked Duck Baguette: A seasonal treat

1240032_10152018931531202_1613492407_n I went to Lalashan recently - that'll be another post once I have more free time - with some friends right smack in the middle of persimmon season. I don't think I'd ever seen a persimmon in the USA (or I did, but I didn't stop to figure out what it was), but between mid-autumn and mid-winter in Taiwan they're everywhere. It's a great chance not only to eat them straight - yum! - but to mix them with yoghurt, bake them into breads (think banana bread but with persimmons), cookies and muffins, put them in fruit salads, but also to cook with them!

What I really wanted to try was a roast duck with persimmon glaze, but having never roasted a duck before, and not giving myself lead time to find a duck to roast - plus I'm not a fan of buying meat still on the bone and cooking it myself - the deboning part is never something I do gracefully - I ended up with a packet of smoked duck slices from City Super instead. 

What I made, however, was absolutely delicious, and a unique way to enjoy persimmon season in Taiwan if you're not into eating them raw, or just don't like them that way. It also just feels seasonally autumnal, in a way that's actually more authentic than pumpkin-based foods (which I also love).

It tastes best if made with just-ripe persimmons. Red and soft enough to have that intense spicy-sweet flavor, but still hard enough to slice up more like a peach than a tomato. A very deep nearly-red orange'll do ya.

You don't have to have this with duck, the two just happen to go very well together.

Makes 2-4 sandwiches

1 good baguette (try Lalos on Anhe Road between Xinyi and Ren'ai)
1 ripe persimmon (see above)
1 pack of boneless smoked duck slices - City Super at SOGO Fuxing Rd. has this, 150-200NT
Soft goat cheese - NT200 worth will do
A good lettuce - no iceberg, nothing too bitter, the sweetish one with green leaves and ruffled red edges does nicely
1/2 lemon (you only need the juice from 1/4 of it though)
Half a thumb sized piece of young ginger, pressed - MUST be young ginger and should be nearly pureed, you can do this in a garlic press
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika (NOT spicy)
a pinch of cinnamon powder
a pinch of clove powder, or 2 whole cloves
a pinch of nutmeg powder, or 1/2 a crushed whole nutmeg
(optional) a teaspoon of fresh rosemary leaves, chopped and crushed slightly
Oil - any good saute oil, butter may be OK (haven't tried this)
optional: a teaspoon of crisp white wine
A heavy-bottomed pan

Oil your pan with just enough oil to coat evenly and to coat the spices, heat on low
Add crushed ginger and while roasting, prepare other spices
Add other spices, saute on low (DO NOT allow to burn) as you slice your persimmon into "sandwich tomato" style slices
Use spatula to move spices evenly around pan, juice your half lemon
Add 1/2 of the juice to the pan (using more is optional), add rosemary, make sure it's all really evenly distributed around the pan. If you have wine, add it now.
Lay the persimmon slices in this oil-spice-rosemary mix and turn heat to medium-low
Gently saute, occasionally turning, until persimmon slices get a bit transparent around the edges and turn darker in the center, and are well-coated with the mixture
Layer duck slices on top - your goal is not to cook these, but to warm them and mingle the duck and persimmon flavors - continue to saute for about a minute
Turn the duck slices once and saute for another minute, liquid should be more or less cooked off by now
Turn off

Slice your baguette and prepare pieces for your sandwich. Smear top and bottom with soft goat cheese. On the bottom, layer the duck and persimmon (I do duck on the bottom - it doesn't really matter) and then add lettuce on top.


YUM! Amirite?

I made a really nice cherry tomato salad with this - a carton of halved cherry tomatoes, several cloves of well-roasted garlic (some shallot would have been good too), basic Italian seasoning (parsley, basil, oregano) with fresh thyme and rosemary, the rest of the lemon juice, some thyme-infused aged rice vinegar, some rosemary infused good olive oil, a pinch of salt and a handful of capers. You could also add cubed hard cheese, roasted shallot, walnuts, whatever to this. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Autumn in Taipei: Hipster-iffic pumpkin spice muffins


Today's the first day of fall that it's been chilly enough for me to briefly wear a long-sleeved shirt, and we've had a few other cool, gray days recently. So I figured, time to make something delicious and autumnal and rehabilitate the mainstream backlash against pumpkin spice.

For a few hours this week, my apartment has smelled like Hipster Autumn, and I just don't care. I'm not a fan of "pumpkin spice" coffee drinks, because there doesn't seem to be much actual pumpkin flavor in there, and because what flavor there is seems to be mostly artificially manufactured. But pumpkin flavored products with actual pumpkin in them? Sign me up! I love pumpkin! (For real - my favorite pasta is homemade pesto with chunks of sauteed pumpkin).

I couldn't find any canned pumpkin puree - what most people use for their pumpkin baked goods - so I took it up a notch and made my own (it's not that hard - use peeled sliced sliced pumpkin, or even butternut squash, but I prefer real pumpkin, it's got a creaminess, nuttiness and starchiness that butternut squash lacks and purees into a thick, creamy goo whereas butternut squash purees into the texture of applesauce. Cut it into chunks and sautee in nonstick pan with either butter and vegetable oil or butter and water, cover and cook until it's falling apart - with water this will be more like a steaming and with oil it'll be more like a frying - then whizz it in the food processor perhaps with a little water).

I topped it off with maple cream cheese frosting - even better if you add a bit of butter! - dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg and decorated with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon candy. I also baked walnuts and raisins into these delicious things.

And boom! Autumn in Taipei may be somewhat disappointing - you often get good weather but this year we haven't been that lucky, it's never cool/nippy (by the time it gets cool out, it's winter and always overcast), and I'm still in t-shirts - but this recipe will add a little fall to your expat life.

Pumpkin Spice Muffins (OK, cupcakes, shut up)

2 cups pumpkin puree (see above)
1 stick of softened butter (and a little more never hurt...almost anyone)
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla (REAL vanilla, NO FAKESIES)
A shot of your favorite thing that goes with pumpkin (I used whiskey for my first batch, nothing for my second as a pregnant friend will likely eat one of these) - brandy would also be very nice but stay away from anything too fruity or citrusy as you don't want to overpower the pumpkin
A pinch of almond extract or walnut oil would also be fine, but is optional

3 1/2 cups flour (substitute some for ground flaxseed if you wish)
2 cups packed brown sugar - really packed, you want that sweetness
Hefty amounts of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger (ginger can be fresh grated or powdered, I used powdered as it was easier to distribute in the batter) - and err on the side of too much, not too little (all of these can be purchased at City Super, Jason's or Trinity Indian Store near Taipei City Hall) - a tablespoon of each would not be overdoing it
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
Salt - should be one teaspoon but I find one spoonful from the tiny red spoon in my salt cellar was enough

Chopped walnuts to taste (I find half a cup works) - these tend to be cheaper at traditional shops and shops that sell traditional goods plus Chinese medicine
Raisins to taste (black ones are better than gold)
Butter or oil for greasing
An oven (sorry, I know these can be hard to come by but a cheapo electric one works)
A muffin tin
Ground cinnamon, nutmeg and other decorations (walnuts, raisins, cinnamon candy, whatever)
A rubber spatula scraper thing

1 packet cream cheese, softened
Half a stick of unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (real)
Icing tube and tips (optional - you could just spread it)

Preheat oven to 190C, grease muffin tin (I smear a little butter in each one and use a paper towel to smudge it around for an even coating)

1.) Sift all of the solids together. Use a colander if you don't have a sifter.
2.) Mix solids together completely - use an egg whisk, it retains the fluffiness of the various powders. Trust me.
3.) Mix all of the liquids together, you can do this by hand or give it a whizz with a hand mixer (that's what I did)
4.) Add the liquids to the solids and beat briefly until just about mixed
5.) Add raisins and walnuts if desired
6.) Beat, whisk or hand-mixer it one more time until just mixed but not a second longer (keeps the batter fluffy)
7.) Pour into muffin tin, make sure each depression is full to the top so you'll get a nice "muffin top"
8.) Bake for 20 minutes or until they look done (golden on the sides)
9.) While baking, beat softened cream cheese until fluffy, add butter and beat until fluffy again, add confectioner's sugar and keep beating it, add maple syrup one tablespoon at a time and keep beating. Then add vanilla and beat that too. I find a fork works best. Transfer to icing kit if using one. Do not refrigerate.
10.) Take out muffins, allow to cool. Use rubber spatula to get under the muffin brim and separate the muffin from the tin, this will make it come out more easily (you can usually just gently twist them out)
11.) Since we're not in America and our ovens are not big enough for multiple tins, clean muffin tin, re-grease, re-fill and bake more. Makes about 14 muffins, or 2 full tins + two more.
12.) Allow to cool completely, ice, dust with spices by sifting them through a tiny mesh colander, decorate with whatever you want, and then eat.

If you don't go all glutton and eat them all, you can then refrigerate them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Knife Is The Bomb

I just realized it's been two years and I haven't written about my awesome Kinmen knife. I'm not the first to write about this, but as the owner of one of these remarkable products, I can attest to the quality. Talk about a unique souvenir from Taiwan, and the ultimate in upcycling!

We were given one of these knives (basically the same as the knife pictured above) from Maestro Wu's knifery (is that even a word?) as a wedding gift, and I have nothing but great things to say about it. It's heavy - if you use it to cook a dish that requires a lot of chopping prep work, the first time you do it'll tire out your wrist - but onions, garlic, scallions, ginger, vegetables (even the harder ones) melt beneath its blade.

Earlier this week I made a pasta with sundried tomato sauce. I started out by finely chopping scallions and garlic. Then I added the sundried tomato paste, regular tomato paste, cherry tomatoes chopped in half (as their own stand-alone vegetable rather than a sauce component), chopped red and yellow bell peppers and mushrooms. Using my Kinmen knife, all of this prep work was easy, like spreading warm cream cheese or grating soft cheddar. It just melts through meat and vegetables of all textures. The week before that I had some coworkers over; I made stuffed peppers and tomatoes and a trio of Mediterranean dips. Cutting and goring all those peppers and tomatoes was a breeze, as was chopping up all the vegetables that went in them with brown rice, with my handy bomb knife!

Kinmen knives are made from the found shells of bombs hurled at Kinmen island when hostilities between China and the ROC (better referred to as Taiwan) - and as such, have the strength and durability of the steel that goes into bomb-making. They're really remarkable.

My one piece of advice is to get it sharpened before you use it - we used ours straightaway and it felt blunter than it ought to. One day I found a knife-sharpener in one of those little random storefronts that line the streets of urban Taiwan and brought him my Kinmen knife. He sharpened it right up (took him awhile, too - even he was struggling with the heft of that metal) and now, well, I've almost sliced through two fingernails along with my vegetables, it's so sharp. That was almost a year ago, and it's still as sharp as the day I brought it in.

They're not cheap, but if you get one, a Kinmen knife will not only last you through your days in Taiwan, but it'll be something you can use, well, for the rest of your life. Or at least for as long as artillery shells remain strong, which I would assume is a pretty damn long time. Just don't get your fingers too close to it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tastes of Childhood II: Making Fish Cookies in Taipei

In my younger years, whenever I'd go to a family gathering my Aunt Rose (who has since passed on) made these cookies. They were sweet, filled with a soft walnut center and, justifying their namesake, were cut into a herringbone pattern. They were coated with a sugar syrup and were so tooth-achingly sweet that you could only eat one or two.

Aunt Rose would show up with a Tupperware in hand, or, too frugal to buy tupperware, a regular baking tin that she'd wash and bring home. Inside would be layers and layers of sticky-syruped parchment paper separating layers of buttery walnut fish cookies. She'd set them out on a side table and through the gathering people would walk by and swipe a few.

Most of my relatives didn't care for them - too sweet - but as a kid I loved them (exactly because they were so sweet)!

Having recently obtained the recipe or something along the same lines from my mom, I tried to make them today, knowing that they should keep until next week's party if refrigerated well.

Mine turned out delicious, although much softer and more crumbly than Aunt Rose's cookies (and slightly less overwhelmingly sweet - I think my aunts and uncles would like my version more, in fact).

I can't link to a website for this, so I'll give you the recipe. 

The ingredients are: 

Filling: 3 cups of walnuts, finely chopped (cups of walnuts before chopping, not after)

5-6 tablespoons of sugar

1 flat tablespoon ground cinnamon

Mix together and set aside (and walnuts are easy to chop if you can't find pre-finely-chopped ones).


4 1/2 cups of flour (you could make very buttery cookies with 4, but the extra 1/2 lends them needed cohesion)

2 cups of butter (yes, you read that right)

3 tablespoons of sugar

A dusting of cinnamon powder to taste

1 cap-ful of vanilla extract (my own addition, not in the traditional recipe)

1 egg

1 cup milk (I used goat's milk)

2 teaspoons baking soda


3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

Some lemon juice to taste (don't overdo it)

pastry brush (silicone ones are best)


One egg and 1/3 cup milk beaten together

                                                                                    Different pastry brush

First mix the walnut mixture and set aside.

Then mix dry dough ingredients. Mix sugar into softened butter and then beat an egg into that. Slowly add the dry ingredients and when added and well-mixed, add milk. Mix and knead longer than you usually would for cookies (usually you don't want the gluten in the flour to do that thing it does when you over-mix cookie, cake and muffin dough but for these it adds cohesion). Don't knead as long as you would for bread, though. Allow to sit in a cool place or in the refrigerator as you would sugar cookie dough.

Preheat oven to 375F, or 190C.

Now, make the cookies by rolling small balls (a little smaller than golf balls but larger than walnuts) into ovals, flattening them with your palm and sprinkling a line of walnut mixture down the middle. Then push the ends together to create a dough "packet" filled with walnuts. Like this:

Take a pastry brush and brush them generously with the egg glaze. Take a small pair of scissors, like manicure scissors, and cut thin, close herringbones across the top - pull up a bit as you go to really get the right look (as you can see I was not entirely successful - I think I'll get better with practice).

Bake for 15-20 minutes and, while baking, mix the water, sugar and lemon and boil for 5 minutes. Allow to cool and set aside.

The old recipe calls for you to use tongs and dip the cookies into the syrup while hot, but if you make them super buttery they'll fall apart easily (as with the one above). You can do just as well brushing them with syrup with a pastry brush while still hot. 

What I love about these is that the sugar in the walnut mix melts in the heat and creates a sort of sweet walnut paste filling that is just delectable and not bitter (as walnuts can be).

Allow to cook and separate with parchment paper (you do not want to be wrapping plastic wrap around these babies).

And voila! Mediterranean sweet walnut cookies! 

And while my Aunt Rose's cookies always looked spectacular, not all falling apart like mine, I'd say that mine taste pretty damn good.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Just thought I'd post this for fun. The full and confirmed menu of what I'll be cooking next week to share the food of my homeland (Armenian Musa Dagh) with my friends. All I can say is: yum yum yum!

lahmacun - a flavorful "pizza" topped with ground lamb mixed with onion, tomato, mint, parsley and other delicious things, topped with raw onion, tomato slices, parsley and lemon juice

stuffed grape leaves - assuming I can get grape leaves from Yi Wei foods in time. My grape leaves are stuffed with white rice mashed a bit with ground pine nuts, salt, black pepper, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and a touch of black pepper (I also cook the rice with some of the tattered grape leaves to imbue a full flavor).

If I can't get the grape leaves I'll make something else - possibly yoghurt kofta (meatballs in yoghurt sauce), possibly something with phyllo, maybe stuffed tomato dolma

muhammara - a zesty red pepper walnut dip

hummus - chick peas ground to a fine dip with sesame paste, garlic (both raw and roasted), cumin, paprika, lemon juice, olive oil salt and pepper and topped with a dusting of fiery cayenne powder

babaghanoush - the same, except with roasted eggplant instead of chick peas

All of the above served with baguette rounds (cheaper and tastier than imported pita in Taipei, my relatives would appprove of the change considering that pita sold here tends to be stale) and assorted vegetables

cucumber mint yoghurt salad - just what you think it is, with some raw garlic and spices to give it a punch

tabbouleh - bulgur salad with mint, parsley, bell pepper, cucumber, onion and tomato among other seasonings

pilaf - rice cooked with fried pasta in butter and chicken broth with a few spices

fish cookies - named for their herringbone design, these syrup-dipped butter cookies are filled with a walnut-cinnamon sugar mixture

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Man-Child Brownies

A not-very-good picture of a Man-Child brownie - I tried for a lovely sky blue icing and it ended up looking like toothpaste. Oh well!

As a follow-up to my previous post on baking, here's my recipe for insipidly sweet Man-Child Brownies (I call them Man-Child brownies because they're the sort of thing a five-year-old would go for in terms of sugary awesomeness, but a bit of whiskey thrown in there, and some wheat flour substituted for health, makes them a bit more grown-up).


8oz baking chocolate - if it's unsweetened, add 1/8 to 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup regular sugar
1 1/4 cup flour (can substitute up to 1/3 with wheat flour)
3 tbsp ground flaxseed (optional but reduce liquids if you skip)
3 eggs
1/2 shot of your favorite whiskey
2-3 tbsp cocoa powder
tiny pinch of salt
a few handfuls of mini-marshmallows
crushed walnuts
half a bag of chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp honey (optional)

Another stick of butter
1 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1-2 tbsp milk or whipping cream
food coloring if desired
1 capful vanilla extract

Pre-heat oven to 190C (giving directions in C because it's Taiwan). Grease 8 or 9 inch baking pan.

Heat water in a pot with a bowl over the top (or use the metal in-pot steamer stand as I do and put the bowl on that), in bowl put entire cut-up stick of butter and 8 oz broken up baker's chocolate. Heat and stir constantly until melted together, adding confectioner's sugar if the chocolate is unsweetened (this is technically not necessary if you want less sweet brownies).

Pour that mixture in larger bowl and beat in 3 eggs, one egg at a time. Add sugar and flour slowly and mix well. Add flavorings (vanilla extract, cocoa powder for extra chocolate punch, pinch of salt, honey for chewiness) and continue mixing - do not over-mix once flour is added.

Fold in marshmallows, walnuts and chocolate chips. Spread into baking pan. Try to keep marshmallows away from the top (but don't sweat it if some are at the top). Bake for 25-35 minutes or until it looks done at the sides and a fork stuck in the middle comes up clean.

Allow to cool completely.

In bowl, use fork or whisk to beat butter until fluffy. Slowly add confectioner's sugar, vanilla and a bit of milk. Soon it will turn into icing and it should be easy enough to figure out when. Add food coloring if desired. Don't over-refrigerate before use, but don't let it get all melty either. You want it room temp and spreadable.

Spread on cooled brownies and top with sprinkles.


These brownies are gooey, heavy, chocolatey and will put you into diabetic shock if you eat too much at once. They're also delicious. Enjoy!

GET BAKED: Baking in Taiwan

Man-Child Brownies baked in my new-ish oven with my new baking dish from Nitori

Even after four and a half years, I get culture shock in some odd ways. Until recently, one of these was feeling irritated at my inability to bake.

Or maybe they're not that odd: in A Taste of Home (the second story in the book Expat: Women's True Tales of Life Abroad, which I thoroughly recommend), the writer has similar cravings, but for roast chicken, not Christmas cookies or truffle cake.

Back in the USA I was a baking dynamo: I made muffins every weekend - and banana bread when I didn't feel like muffins. I baked tons of cakes, from blueberry to pumpkin to black forest cherry to red velvet to chocolate truffle. I baked cookies every Christmas (and occasionally for the office) and while I didn't make them often, I was able and willing to make crepes, Levantine farina cake, Greek-style baklava and coffee cakes. I made some pretty mean pies, too.

So it was a bit of a shock to me to end up in Asia with a kitchen that had no oven. Like so much with culture shock, intellectually I knew that kitchens in Asia don't typically include ovens, but I never anticipated the feeling of loss that came with it. In India, I didn't stay long enough to try and bake (and it was too hot to bother, really), and in China, ingredients to bake and freestanding ovens were hard enough to come by, and if found, expensive enough, that I didn't try.

But I've been in Taiwan for far longer - I hadn't anticipated staying on this long when I first moved here but I'm happy I have - and the lack of baking was really getting to me. We were home for Christmas 2009 and I baked literally hundreds of cookies - sugar, gingerbread, chocolate melt, chocolate chip, "Swedish almond cookies with jam" (probably not really Swedish) and nutty oatmeal cookies. Even hosting a Christmas party of 14 people, including three kids, we couldn't finish them all.

So, after four years of feeling deprived, we went to Carrefour and bought an NT $2900 oven. Yay!

With an oven, though, one needs supplies. That's where this post comes in - it's taken me months to assemble various things for baking, and I'm still not quite done. Jason's and City Super sell a lot of this stuff, but mostly for jacked-up prices. You can do better.

Here's a reference guide of the best places to buy baking goods for a reasonable price:

(the one off Heping Road is closed)

I go to this one: Roosevelt Rd. Section 5 Lane 218, Number 36 / (02)29320405.
MRT Wanlong Exit 4, turn right to Cosmed, turn right again and it's down the lane next to Family Mart.

Scattered about Taipei, these stores sell all the things that the big department store supermarkets don't, or that they sell too expensively. Some comparisons: sprinkles at Jason's are NT$200+ for some German brand, and it's all they stock. Sprinkles of varying kinds and in varying sizes cost a fraction of that. Candy molds at City Super - NT$300-NT$800. Plastic candy molds at the baking store - NT$30, or silicone molds for NT$350. Icing bags and tips at the supermarkets - hundreds of NT. At the baking store? NT$70. Baker's chocolate is far less, seasonings are far less (at least NT$100 in savings per bottle), vanilla extract is a fraction of the cost, and they stock mid-range baking supplies whereas the department store supermarkets only stock high-end, highly-priced goods. You won't feel guilty about throwing away an NT$50 whisk from the baking store - why pay NT$800 for a fancy European one that you'll now feel you either have to keep or sell, seeing as it cost so much? Cookie cutters: NT$75 at City Super with little selection, NT$20-$30 at DIY baking stores with a huge selection, including little Taiwan-shaped cookie cutters!

In short, don't shop for this stuff at Jason's or City Super - don't let the greedy idiots win.

The DIY tores also sell hard-to-find items such as food coloring, icing gel (I saw it in pots only, not tubes), certain ingredients otherwise hard to come by and for cooks, they sell things like capers and tomato paste for far less than the big supermarkets.

You can also buy items like flour and confectioner's sugar in bulk. These are sold at regular supermarkets but usually in smaller packets.

By the way, you'll have to make your own icing - you can buy gel icing, but if you want royal or buttercream, you're on your own. Nobody sells it. Fortunately, it's easy to make.

Other items you can get here: mascarpone, light sour cream, flour in bulk, candy melts and flavorings beyond vanilla and almond.

Sheng Li
Corner of Heping E. Road and Fuxing S. Road - it's the big green 'everything' store

The third floor of this catch-all discount store sells kitchen supplies - get inexpensive whisks and rolling pins here. I got my super-simple rolling pin for NT $30.

IKEA and Nitori
Asiaworld Shopping Center, Corner of Nanjing E. Road and Dunhua N. Road, basement

IKEA is the place to go for springform-style pans (the kind you use when you need to turn a cake upside down after baking it), coffee cake and bread pans and other baking items. Nitori sells glass and ceramic baking pans - including the old Corningware style baking and souffle dishes, perfect for a chocolate souffle if you think you can handle it. Both of these stores sell baking items at far less than the department stores.

If you need regular, not baking chocolate, the own-brand candy bars sold at IKEA are your cheapest bet for acceptable chocolate.

Great for coconut spread if you are too lazy to make icing (this does work, by the way - buy Indonesian coconut spread and add a bit of food coloring if you want, and use that instead of icing), colored and chocolate sprinkles and interesting ingredients you may find you need such as powdered ginger in good quantities at affordable prices. You can also get coconut flakes at a good price.

Zhongxiao E. Road, ahead of City Hall Exit 4, near Dante Coffee, 2nd floor of a bland unmarked building

Great for coconut flakes, dates, tamarind pulp, almond and rose flavorings, occasionally saffron/safflower (better for color than flavor), jaggery and other elements for Asian baking. You can also get stick cinnamon, whole nutmeg, cardamom and other useful spices for interesting cookies and muffins.

Jason's and City Super
all major department stores

Really only recommended for chocolate chips (often whitened and old, but if you use them to bake they become good again once heated up), mini marshmallows, baker's chocolate. Jason's sells "Almond Dew" which is basically almond extract, and if you're in a pinch they do sell vanilla extract at exorbitant prices. Otherwise don't bother with their crappy baking aisles.

all over Taipei

Believe it or not, Wellcome does stock decent supplies of spices, kinds of flour, egg white powder (蛋白雙), molasses, confectioner's sugar, unsalted butter, cream cheese and other kinds of sugar. You can get a lot of what you need here.

Health Food Stores
I recommend the one on Roosevelt Road between Gongguan and Taipower Building. Get off at the Taipower Building bus stop (after Gongguan) and walk south - you'll see it.

This is a good place to get flaxseed, instant grains/oats as well as whole, non-instant oats that you can use in oatmeal or multi-grain cookies. Also good for flavored oils, healthful flours, organic raisins etc..

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Super Healthy Veggie Packed Fried Rice

I made this tasty, vegetable-packed dish today as a different take on the usual greasy, starchy fried rice. It's still got oil (olive) and rice (brown, whole grain) but with this many veggies, healthier fats and grains, flaxseed and optional protein, it's a tasty and colorful alternative to the usual stick-to-your-butt-no-matter-how-often-you-bike options in restaurants in Taipei.

It turned out fantastic - both flavor-wise and appearance-wise, with a lot of colorful veggies including pumpkin, red and yellow bell pepper, carrot and purple and green beetroot leaves. It was like a harvest-time reinterpretation of the fried rice genre!

1 cup brown rice
olive oil - need not be extra virgin or fancy (the flavor of extra virgin would get lost in cooking)
a pat of butter (optional)
1 whole bell pepper (or 1/2 each of two different colors of bell pepper)
2 cups of beetroot leaves (they're the ones in the market that are purple on one side and dark green on the other)
1/2 large carrot
1/2 small pumpkin (the gourd-like ones sold in Taiwanese day markets)
1/2 small sweet onion
To taste (optional): Thai fried shallots, black bean sauce, Lao Gan Ma, huajiao "flower pepper", salt, black pepper, fresh red chilis, sesame oil, soy sauce, paprika, vinegar, lemon juice, de-stemmed chopped cilantro, chopped fresh garlic, pulverized fresh ginger

three tbsp ground flaxseed (optional but really good for you)
a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and sesame oil to taste (optional)

Begin the long process to cook brown rice (it takes quite a while), adding a bit of salt, pepper and paprika to the water. Remember that brown rice requires more water (about 50% more), more heat, more steam and more time than white rice.

Set some water to boil to cook the pumpkin (if you want to be super-cool, cook the pumpkin chunks, including peeled skin, first, take out the skin and throw it away, set the cooked pumpkin aside and use the water to cook the rice to give it more nutrients and more flavor).

Wash and chop the onion and bell pepper, set aside
Wash, de-stem and chop beetroot leaves, set aside
Wash and grate or julienne carrot, including skin, add to beetroot leaves, set aside
Use a peeler to de-skin the small pumpkin, scoop out seeds, cut into chunks and boil until just cooked.

Wipe down a wok with just enough olive oil to comfortably cook, add chopped and powdered spices/salt to taste (no liquids yet, but you can add black bean paste, Lao Gan Ma etc). Cook on low/medium until it smells good. Immediately add bell peppers and onions and stir in thoroughly. Add soy sauce, vinegar, lemon juice to taste. Raise to medium heat.

When that is almost but not quite cooked, add beetroot leaves and grated carrot and cook until the leaves go a bit soft (not too soft). Add pumpkin. Mix well on medium (adding a bit of water if it gets a bit dry and threatens to burn).

Add cooked brown rice (ideally you prepared the rice well in advance as brown rice takes forever). Mix well and add flaxseed, stir in.

Add pat of butter and/or any flavoring oils at the end and stir well until it melts evenly into the mix.

The pumpkin should disintegrate somewhat and provide some consistency to the fried rice, but if you like the kind of rice that can be shaped into a dome, mix in one egg and mix well until thoroughly cooked in.

You can also add 1/3 cup cooked yellow lentils and/or walnuts, almonds or cashews if you want some protein (you can also add meat for that matter)!

Note: you can substitute or add vegetables - mushrooms would be great, as would small chunks of cauliflower or sweet potato leaves in lieu of beetroot. You could add tomatoes, bok choi, corn...really whatever you want.

Serve hot.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reason #9 to Love Taiwan - Seasonal Foods

Young snow pears being cultivated in Lishan

I teach a class in Tucheng Industrial Park every Wednesday morning (I know - and it's really hard to get up for that class on days like today with steely skies and bursting wind). On the way there I can barely keep my eyes open as the MRT snakes towards Yongning Station, but on the way back I usually plug in my headphones and play a few TED talks.

This time I listened first to Jennifer 8. Lee talking about the origins of Chinese food (I've been to the Wok and Roll and seen Yanching Palace that she mentions) and then to Jamie Oliver's prize-winning talk on the state of food and obesity in the USA.

Listening to Jamie Oliver caused me to stop at the market on the way home. I picked up snake eggplant, two bell peppers, a pile of sweet potato leaves, half a pound of tofu, two large carrots and a bunch of cilantro (and got some free green onions as one should). The entire bag cost a grand sum of approximately US $3.

It was bought off the back of a wooden cart, sold by the woman who helped grow it.

That's what I love about Taiwan: fresh, seasonal food. One year I decided I absolutely had to make chicken curry for dinner - so I went to the market to buy tomatoes. It wasn't the season for tomatoes, so there wasn't a single one to be found! Not even Wellcome had tomatoes (to be fair, my local Wellcome is quite small). Sure, hard, greenish ones were available at Jason's for three times the normal price, but that was it. No chicken curry until tomatoes came back.

And just try to buy a custard apple, green jujube, dragonfruit or pomelo out of season, or get your hands on cilantro when it's not growing well.

In the USA I felt divorced from the idea of seasonal food. Under the great equalizing fluorescence of the supermarket, I could get almost any fruit or vegetable I wanted from whatever continent could grow it at any time of year. In Arlington, Virginia, if I wanted an orange in January or asparagus in December, I could find it. It might cost more (not punitively so) and taste like a pale imitation of the real thing, but I could get it. It wouldn't even seem that expensive, although while American produce prices don't seem that high when you're there, my $3 bag of healthy goodness sure makes them appear stratospheric by comparison.

Here, if I went to the local wet market right now and asked for, say, a dragonfruit, I'd get laughed at by more than one vendor.

To be fair, not everything in Taiwan is local and you can get out-of-season foods if you are willing to pay more, but that's just it: you do have to pay more and often hunt them down. In the USA the costs might fluctuate slightly but not enough to punish out-of-season cooks who can't (or don't care to) discern flavor differences in less-fresh produce.

I'm not a total mushy-heart though - I don't for a second believe that the market vendors don't sell out-of-season produce because "it's not as good and not as nutritious". They don't sell it because some of them are direct representatives of the farm that grew the food, and you can't sell what you can't grow. Others are middleman vendors who buy from various sources (which is why you can get California and New Zealand fruit in the wet market, too), but they sell mostly seasonal foods because they know the frugal market shoppers - often grandmothers who will bargain you down for a shaved penny - aren't going to pay inflated prices. If nobody will buy it at an out of season price, they won't sell it.

That's what happened with the cilantro, anyway: when it wasn't available I asked why not. One vendor assured me she could get it but she wasn't going to, because "I'd have to charge 75 kuai a bunch and do you think these people are going to pay that?" she said as she gestured towards the crowd. It's the invisible hand of the market, but in this case, it works.

It forces me to think seasonally, cook seasonally and as a result eat seasonally - something that more people should be doing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It's Biriyani-Pilaf Fusion Night!

I'm working on two fairly long posts on two tough topics: cultural appropriation and sexism in the workplace for female expats - but it's going to be another week at least before either is published. I'm thinkin' I might actually do a 2nd draft of each, which will be a big change from my usual habit of "blurble on and on following my thoughts and hit 'Publish'." :)

In the meantime, enjoy this awesome recipe for fusion brown rice biriyani-pilaf - one of the many foreign dishes I routinely cook in Taipei with ingredients available locally.

(Serves 2)


1.5 cups brown rice, pref. organic
6 dates, pitted if possible
A cup of nuts (cashews are best but almonds or peanuts would do)
One large carrot
Small chunks or slivers of pre-cooked meat (cured pepper beef or ham, pre-cooked beef liver or pan-cooked mutton or chicken in spices would all do - I totally used the last nub of cured pepper ham in our fridge) - optional
2 heaping teaspoons ground flaxseed
Finely sliced and grated orange peel
1 tbsp ginger, cut into coins or crushed
As much garlic as you can stand
olive oil
Sesame oil (optional)
ground cumin, black pepper, turmeric, coriander seed, paprika, allspice (about 1 tsp each, give or take for taste and freshness) - all available at Trinity Superstores near City Hall MRT or at Jason's or even Wellcome - you don't need all of these spices, it's really to your taste. You only really need the cumin, pepper and turmeric
Salt to taste
A dash of cinnamon (optional)
cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
lemon juice to taste (about 1/5 cup for me)
2 tablespoons butter (optional)


Begin the cooking of your brown rice (this takes time - for every cup of rice use 2.5 cups water and a dash of salt) - You can use white or basmati rice but I try to be healthy with the brown

Julienne your carrot - I have a julienne peeler that I got as a Christmas gift and love so YAY - including the skin
Chop up your dates
Chop up your optional meat
Put nuts, dates, carrot and meat (already cooked if not cured) into a bowl and set aside

Sliver or crush your garlic
Measure out your spices
Coin or crush your ginger
Sliver or grind your orange peel

Put as much olive oil as you think you'll need into your pan - I use a wok because I'm awesome. You don't need extra virgin olive oil as the flavors in that cook off most of the time - but you can drizzle a little extra virgin over it when it's done.

Add dry spices, ginger, garlic, orange peel, turn on low heat and cook until lightly roasted and it smells awesome.

Add lemon juice, allow to heat up a bit and then dump in the carrot/nut/meat/date mixture, cook gently on low-medium heat until it smells good and looks just lightly cooked (you don't want it getting too soggy)

Add brown rice which should have already been cooked and mix together stir-fry style. When everything is well mixed and colored with the spices (should be yellow from the turmeric), add a tiny bit of sesame oil (good for you!) and monter a buerre (bad for you but oh so good) with the butter. Mix in flaxseed quickly (very very good for you) and serve hot.

If you want to do even better, substitute 1/3 of the rice with cooked yellow lentils, mixed right in (or just add lentils) - don't overcook them to soup consistency; you want them cooked so that they retain some structure and cohesion but of course soft enough that they are pleasant to eat, and lentils taste great with the spices in this recipe!

You can also customize this recipe with vegetables you like by adding or substituting: bell peppers, tomatoes, well-chopped spinach, cauliflower, onions and mushrooms all work a treat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kung Po Chicken Ding (宮保雞丁)

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

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

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

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


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

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

1 sprig of green onion, chopped into chunks

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

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

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

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

1 capful of rice vinegar

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

salt to taste

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

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

sesame oil - 1 tbsp or to taste

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

And now, for the best part!

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

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


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

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

Add peanuts. Just dump 'em in.

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

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

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

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

Breathe fire, young grasshopper!