Sunday, August 23, 2009

Keelung Komestibles

Photos from Keelung's famous night market. It's late and I have work tomorrow (Sunday - argh...but I barely worked all week so it's fine) so I don't have time to add much narrative. I'll leave it by saying that this is one of the best night markets in Taiwan, if not the best, in terms of food. It's not huge - barely rates on the scale of Taipei city's major night markets size-wise - but packs more good food per punch than most of them.

Especially seafood. Go there and just eat seafood. And "nutritious sandwich". Despite the name, it is a piece of bread loaded with mayonnaise, ham, egg and tomato. Then it's deep fried. Not joking. Soooo not joking. It's like someone took a non-sugared Krispy Kreme doughnut, injected it with ham salad then stuck it in a deep fryer. Try it. Then call a cardiologist.

Anyway. Photos:

What a playboy!

"Oh, let me try a chicken foot, too."

MMMmmmmmm tentacles.

Thursday, August 20, 2009



We are pretty sure we've found a wedding venue...for real this time:

This is good, because I was getting really tired of Googling and waiting for mom to visit various sites and report back with reasons why they weren't suitable. We want to keep this as close to a 'party' as possible without hosting it at home (our house, while large, can't possibly accommodate my entire family, all of whom I am close to and all of whom are really excited about what is partly a family reunion). That is, NOT a "Wedding". A party. Parties - where you get to see, spend time with, and celebrate with your loved ones - are worth every penny spent on them. In these dark economic times a little fun becomes even more precious, I'd say. A wedding? So not worth the time and effort people pour into them.

As such, planning should be fun, not stressful. The minute it's stressful is the minute it starts to feel like a Wedding...not a party. Google-visit-google-visit-google-visit was starting to become stressful.

It's down-to-earth, a bit rustic without being inconvenient, affordable, scenic and friendly. Couldn't ask for better, really!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Creepy Dolls

In my last post I ended with the creepiest of the modern-style puppets (布帶戲)on display at the Red House Theater in Ximen. He was sort of a Chucky Meets Puppet Clown Meets Eastern Orthodox Priest Zombie, and utterly terrifying:

"Take your Communion, little Josef, and then I shall EAT your BRAIN."

But that exhibit had plenty more than Happypants the Exorcist Clown above. There were placards and signs with history and artistic notes on the puppets, but I won't repeat anything here. You'll have to go see for yourself.

There was also this guy:

Regal as he can be with Christmas lights on his head. And this guy:

...who is thinking very unhappily of something. Near him is one of the puppets that actually resembles traditional bu dai xi:

This guy and his monster/goblin/immortal/spirit brethren show up a lot in antique puppets and traditional shows. Unlike the guy below, who is quite unique:

...and seems to happy to have a foot on his head. Not nearly so serious as...

...this guy, who really needs a vacation. As for the puppet below, I once took a photo with far too much flash of a statue of Chiang Kai Shek, and it came out looking somewhat like this guy:

No really, it did:

Well, I think it did, anyway.

The guy below reminds me a lot of the demon Ravana from the Indian epic the Ramayana (sort of like the Odyssey of Indian literature. I consider the Mahabharata to be more like the Iliad, and it makes one wonder if the tradition of two great epics, one about a war and the other about a dashing adventure, has some sort of subconscious basis (but then Chinese literature has for epics and they don't quite fit those roles), or if those stories are rooted in extremely ancient Indo-European myths that are far older than we ever imagined.

Anyway, Ravana, Taiwan-style:

And for good measure, a random missionary?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wanhua Wand'rings

But first, my awesome, kick-butt, really cool (and within our budget) engagement ring:

It's got a dragon. I bet your engagement ring doesn't have a dragon. As one friend so rightly said:

"Check out my diamond" - boring. "Check out my kick-ass dragon" - AWESOME!

I've recently made a few other jewelry purchases - things I'm planning to wear when we get married but didn't buy specifically for that purpose. First, a pair of antique jade and gold-dipped earrings, which used to be ornaments on a Qing-era headdress (or so the dealer said, and I don't think he was lying):

And second, a hand-carved hair pick of fragrant wood, which I found at an artisan's stall at the craft market outside of Red House Theater:

And now, I present photos from some of our wanderings around the more historic parts of Wanhua District, my favorite district in Taipei (I'd totally live in an old shophouse if it were easy to rent out the top floor of one.)

The best walks begin at Longshan Temple MRT Station. There is a lot to see in this area - the Guangzhou Street Market connecting Guangzhou Street (duh) and an old Mackay medical clinic, now a restored building with free exhibits and fantastic architecture, and Longshan Temple Park, the park itself full of old folks enjoying themselves:

...Longshan Temple, which is always worth a stop, Mangka Gate and further along, the Naruwan Indigenous People's Market and the old Xuehai Academy, now a family shrine.

In the other direction, you can head up to Guiyang Street. On the way you'll pass lots of shops specializing in temple stuff - embroideries, idols, costumes, tall god costumes etc.. Lined with historic shops in turn-of-the century buildings (many of which have been continuously in business), you can turn one way and go to Qingshan Temple, where the God of Green Mountain resides - it's said that when immigrants from Fujian brought over his image, as they carried it down what is now Guiyang Street, it became too heavy to carry and then they knew that that was where the god wanted his temple to be. (Stories about idols and other sacred objects becoming too heavy to lift as a sign of that god's will is quite common around the world - read In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh for a few examples of this).

More information on the God of Green Mountain can be found in Private Prayers and Public Parades - a book available in Page One that every Taipei expat should own.

Guiyang Street during a festival.

Tall God Costume being prepared outside of Qingshan Wang's temple.

Ba Jia Jiang during the festival of Qingshan Wang's birthday on Guiyang Street.

In the other direction are several shops and old shophouses. One of them is a coffeeshop that doesn't get a lot of business, but is run by a friendly old family who is quite hospitable to guests (the coffee is pretty good, too, and they have food).

I call this "Welcome to Taipei" - old shophouse arcades, scooters, a brightly lit fruit stand and a dude with no shirt on. Ahhhh, yes. That says it all really.

Old Shophouses - some neglected, others not - line Guiyang Street.

Walking farther, you'll reach Qingshui Temple, set up by immigrants from Anzhou in Fujian. The gold work inside is quite amazing, as is the stone carving and painting. It's been rebuilt since burning down in the 19th century but is no less gorgeous:

The path to Qingshui Temple is lined with small eateries and locals hanging out.

Above and below: just some of the lovely artwork inside.

Sun sets as we leave Qingshui Temple headed towards Ximending.

Along the way we passed some more rows of old buildings, mostly in disrepair. The area also has a branch of NTU hospital and one fairly nice hotel (which seems to be just above an underground love hotel). There are several ways to walk from this area to Ximending, and the whole area is worth exploring.

Once in Ximending, you can enter via Chengdu Road - along the way you'll pass Calcutta Indian food, which has some great curries, a shopfront-sized temple that is gorgeous (and a bit smelly) inside that I believe is dedicated to Matsu, goddess of the sea, and Fong Da, a fun and retro vintage coffeeshop with Formica tables, strong coffee and big ol' diner-style sundaes. It's famous, and yet you can almost always get a seat.

You can also enter via Neijiang Street, which will bring you right to the main intersection of the pedestrian shopping area, which is of no interest to most people over the age of 20. It's called "Little Shibuya" by some, for its resemblance to the massive commercial center in Tokyo. There are some small hidden treasures in here, though, and even the Starbucks is in a historic building.

Head in the other direction, and you'll come to several crumbling temples far from the lights and activity of the main shopping area. Their locations are outlined in Rough Guide Taiwan and they're well worth a brief stop. A few are not in the guidebook at all but are easy enough to find with a little wandering.

Across the street from the huge intersection above is my personal favorite spot in Taipei, Red House Theater:

With theater and music performances upstairs, exhibits and a fancy coffeeshop (they have alcohol, too) downstairs and a funky independent artist's market outside and in the long adjacent building, there is no excuse not to pay a visit. Behind the theater is a newly-built but thriving outdoor bar strip that's quite popular in the gay&lesbian community. It's probably the best place in Taipei to grab a drink and sit outside on a pleasant evening.

At the moment, there's an exhibit going on inside on Taiwanese puppetry, focusing on the weirder styles of modern puppets. Most puppets (bu dai xi) look like this:

But these terrifying objets d'art look like, well, this:


(My next post will feature some more puppets from that particular exhibit. They're One dude has a foot on his head.)

From Red House you can walk up Hengyang Rd. or over to Wuchang Street, passing Zhongshan Hall - built by the Japanese, and a fine place to catch a concert if you're into the fine arts (we've seen two there, it's always a pleasure and we prefer it to the gaudy Look At Us We're Rich Mainland-style architecture of the National Concert Hall).

Along Wuchang Street in one direction is a covered market with all sorts of fun stuff, including traditional Chinese clothes and funky jewelry and handbags. In the other is Taipei Snow King, with its hundreds of flavors of ice cream ranging from basil to sugar apple to pig knuckle to honey to Gaoliang rice wine to Taiwan Beer to kiwi. It's locally owned and makes its own ice cream as it has for decades. (Even further along is an area packed with movie theaters).

If you turn toward Taipei Main Station along Zhonghua Road from there, you'll pass the old post office, the North Gate (my favorite of the still-standing city gates, it wasn't 'redecorated' during the KMT martial law period), a block of shops specializing in cameras and another in stamps, and yet another in luggage. Keep heading north on Yanping and you'll come to Dadaocheng and the Dihua Street area, which is worth an entirely new post, so I won't cover it here.

Happy walking!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lin Family Garden

First, a Public Service Announcement:

The Lin Family Garden (林家花園) is offering free admission through August if you present a Family Mart or 7-11 - one per entrant - receipt at the entrance. The garden is located in Banqiao, about a 5-10 minute walk from Fuzhong (府中) MRT Station or accessible by bus from either Banqiao or Fuzhong.

Since everybody in Taiwan - yes, everybody - has a few of those scrunched up in a wallet or pocket somewhere, and the usual admission is NT$100 (last time I checked), this is a really good deal. If you've never been but want to go, now is the time. If you've been, want to return but find it expensive, again, now is the time.

The Garden is beautiful, constructed during the Qing Dynasty back when Banqiao was a rural area, and done with winding pathways and little doors, inlets and passages in a kind of maze. In an age before photography, it was the perfect setting for portraits of young beauties with parasols delicately floating down its flowered paths and sitting in its pagodas. Even today, it takes well to photography - so much so that Brendan and I discussed hiring a photographer when money isn't tied up in the wedding and having wedding photos taken there (not necessarily in our wedding clothes, but just because it's nice to have good photos of yourself...and our other idea was to have photos taken of us in our wedding clothes running a Stinky Tofu street stand).

It's basically the closest you're going to get to a historic spot in Tainan or Lugang without leaving the Taipei metro area (not counting temples or the still-active Dihua or Guiyang Streets, of course). I highly recommend it.

Photos are below - the place had enough visitors that I didn't even try to avoid getting them in my photos. Instead, I did my best to include them in the pictures as a part of the scene, not a distraction. I think it worked pretty well with the girl in the blue t-shirt, at least!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Typhoon Cookin'

We spent most of our day off yesterday at an ultra-fun Typhoon Party at a friend's apartment - which is just as 'vintage' as ours but in a much quainter way. Theirs is ageing like the bejeweled and makeuped star of Sunset Boulevard, ours is ageing like the tenement in Rent.

Came home to find not too much of the kitchen underwater. Much better than usual for typhoon - so much for "super typhoon" predictions, this one came and went with hardly a bell or whistle.

Anyway, we're having a curry party tonight; it's been a long time since I've cooked up several curries at once and even longer since I've made curry for guests. The last few dinners we've held have involved the very popular Ethiopian doro-wot kebabs I invented. This time I'm making sevpuri chaat as an appetizer, channa masala, a Malayali coconut fish and butter chicken as entrees (and might make baingan bharta if I feel like it, or might just make Iranian salad) and gulab jamun as dessert.

I've also been reading up on increasing the umami in foods. Umami is a Japanese word meaning 'deliciousness' - what it describes is the deep, round savory flavor of the best foods. Think great wine, stinky cheese (or very hard cheese like parmesan), veal stock, good paprika, grilled onions, clarified butter, walnuts, squid oil, fish paste, good yoghurt, tomato paste, cream, soy sauce, some kinds of seaweed, even grapefruit juice and shiitake mushrooms (though many mushrooms have it), and of course dark chocolate. It's that full, rounded timpani drumbeat of flavor that is the hallmark of really awesome foods.

It's also the main flavor of MSG - which, while I'm not convinced it's as bad as everyone says it is, I try not to cook with because a.) it's artificially made and I prefer to use as many naturally-grown ingredients as possible and b.) despite lack of conclusive proof, when I was young and before I even knew what MSG was, I was a frequent victim of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" - getting a headache after eating Chinese food in the USA. Fortunately, there are ways to bring out that full, round flavor without resorting to a white powder...just as there are ways to sweeten a dish without cane sugar or - gasp - high fructose corn syrup. For example: when making chocolate chip cookies use dark chocolate chips and add a bit of honey to the basic recipe, as well as a few tablespoons of cream. The honey heightens the effect of a sugar in a pleasing way and the cream works well with the butter to create a lovely flavor.

I've been trying to cook with umami in mind for awhile, which may be why most of my best recipes seem to involve a shot of alcohol. Julienned bamboo with minced mushrooms, red bell peppers and a few dashes of squid oil, a funky risotto with tomato paste and a splash of wine, like that. Judging from the effects - that is, my fiance gulping it all down (though he never seems to gain weight, what's up with that? - it's working. If we ever have a kid, I hope she/he gets my cooking skills and his predisposition to maintaining a healthy weight.

So I made the channa masala last night and I think it came out really well. I threw in a few things - just tiny dashes that the palate wouldn't be able to dissect and identify in that big stewed mass of curry (the sauce for channa masala is basic masala with tomatoes and onions). A splash of grapefruit juice with the lemon/tamarind I usually use (I suspect tamarind is also good for umami but haven't read that anywhere), just a half-teaspoon of a ground-nut mix we have laying around, a hint of olive oil in the ghee, a half-capful of mustard oil (it's strong stuff), a bit of paprika - I could use more of this because paprika fits in well with curry spices while the other ingredients don't, and need to be added in only tiny amounts. Mustard oil does, but only if you're cooking a specific set of mostly Bengali dishes.

I'm not sure if the little bits of this-n-that helped, but from tasting it this morning they sure didn't hurt. The channa masala has the resounding flavor that I was going for; not as perfect as the best channa I've ever made (for a random dinner party years ago, when I wasn't that great a cook and just got lucky) but far, far better than anything you'll find at an Indian restaurant here and much better than my earliest attempts at Indian cooking.

The thing is, I really am not convinced the little dashes of things did much at all. While cooking with umami in mind, I realized that Indian food is full of umami bombs that work very well if you just stick to the recipe. Instead of just using hot pepper to spice a dish, all sorts of flavors are used, which create a fuller, deeper spice flavor. Use of clarified butter as an oil/shortening and cooking onions and garlic in it before adding the main ingredients also works. So does frying potatoes (which is why everyone, around the world, seems to love fried potatoes. It's not the salt - it's the potato itself that gives us the flavor we crave) which are common in Indian snacks and some curries. Liberal use of yoghurt, tamarind and other ingredients boost umami flavor, and some combinations are worshipped as the gold standard of cooking, and there's a reason. It's quite clear, when you consider the effects of umami, why of all the biriyanis, mutton is the most popular, why vindaloo must be made with pork to get the full flavor (something about how the pork fat interacts with the vinegar), why butter chicken seems to be the most addictive chicken curry dish, and why sambar (full of grilled-then-cooked lentils) is such a hit in southern India.

So really, for any Indian recipes you want to try out, just get a great cook - almost any Indian mom will do - to show you how and stick to what she tells you. It doesn't really get better than that.