Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chip Flavors For Taiwanese Tastebuds

For you who are interested in potato chip flavors around the world, here are some found at the local 7-11 in Da Shi, where the bus from Taipei deposited my childhood best friend and I.

Top picture, from left: Cheese flavored, sushi nori flavored*, Korean kimchi flavored.
Bottom picture, from left: chicken juice flavored (literally, usually just salt and chicken broth), Thai "leaf" chicken flavored, and regular ol' sour cream and onion.
*the baseball player you see on the nori package is Wang Chien Ming, Taiwanese pitcher extraordinaire for the Yankees.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Din Tai Fung, Best Soup Dumplings In The World

I can say with absolute certitude, that Din Tai Fung makes the ultimate, BEST tasting soup dumplings on the planet. Standing outside of the restaurant gives you no hint of any of the deliciousness that await you inside. All you see are mobs, waiting, sometimes literally around the block. Right under the red Din Tai Fung sign on the right side of this picture, is a huge line of Japanese tourists. In Japan alone, there are 11 branches of this restaurant, whereas, in it's native Taiwan, there are only 2. You know my theory: if Japanese tourists flock to it, it must be REALLY good. The wait was so long that some people were going to the bookstore next door to waste time before sinking their teeth into the tender dumplings.
A typical soup dumpling meal starts with condiments. From the left, starting from the cup of tea: ginger, vineagre, and two things of soy sauce on the caddy.
I suppose this is a form of what English speakers call Kimchi. It's marinated/pickled/preserved cabbage, but it's simple and not spicy at all. There are no complex scales of acidity or mix of spices. The cabbage is stored in a salt solution and eaten while relatively fresh.
Seaweed and do gan appetizer. I've never encountered the occasion where I had to use do gan in an English context. I guess you would call it dry tofu, but when I think of tofu I think soft. Do gan is actually pretty tough or chewy or crumbly. Not soft at all.
Swan La Tang: literally, sour and spicy soup. English speakers know this as hot and sour soup. I dare not try the versions they serve in Chinese take-out type restauarants because they add too much cornstarch and the soup turns into more of a slime. This soup was just the right consistency - thick but not goopy.
...and the famed soup dumplings.
In every steaming chamber there are exactly 10 dumplings, and each dumpling has the same number of folds at the top (15 or 16, I forget). The skins that hold the meat are very thin and very stretchy, one wonders how they possibly stay intact to keep the savory soup inside the little delicate pouch. At lower quality soup dumpling places like Joe's Ginger/Joe's Shanghai, they don't pay enough attention to the skins and they break inside the steaming chambers or when you pick them up with your chopsticks. The meat is soft and slightly chewy full of juice, with the flavors perfectly balanced so that the carnal taste of meat is a mere subordinating shade contrasted with the other ingredients. There is no way anybody could stop at just one. Din Tai Fung soup dumplings are perfectly shaped and orgasmically flavored bites of joy; a food group in its own right worthy of being placed on your "ten-things-to-eat-before-I-die" list.

The secret to there being actual soup in these dumplings and not in other types of steamed dumplings or buns, is that they put pork broth that has been solidified into gelatin (simply by refrigeration) inside of the skins along with the meat. When the dumplings are wrapped, they are cold and the soup is solid. When the dumplings are steamed, the soup returns to its liquid form and presto! soup inside a soup dumpling.

The proper way to eat these dumplings:
1. pick one up from the steaming chamber and place in soup spoon.
2. bite a small hole to release the hot steam and blow so that the soup does not burn your mouth.
3. drink the soup from the small hole you've made
4. dip the dumpling in the vineagre/ginger dipping sauce that you made while eating the appetizers
5. eat the soup dumpling in one bite.

I don't exactly do it that way, but everybody has their own way of eating soup dumplings. This is how I do it:
1. pick a dumpling up from the steaming chamber and place in soup spoon.
2. bite a small hole to release steam and drink the soup
3. drink some of the soup, leaving about 1/3 of the original volume of liquid
4. chomp the remaining soup and dumpling in one bite
5. chew dutifully
6. smile

After dinner is a traditional Chinese dessert, sweet sticky rice. It's called Ba Bao Fan, or 8-treasure rice. I don't really remember the eight treasures that go in it, but some of them are nuts, or dried fruit.
On our way out we saw the true secret to consistently great tasting soup dumplings: a gaggle of masked chefs quickly folding their way through gajillions of dumplings every night. All this, just to satisfy the hungry regulars (my aunt) and tourists who make the pilgrimage to Din Tai Fung.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gratuitous Saturday Afternoon Sweets

I've got nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to load vintage ppotos of desserts. These are from a traditional Chinese bakery around Shi Men Ding. I've always wondered why Americans have such a hard time adopting the concept of bakery. In France, you have a boulangerie on every block, as dense as coffee shops are in Seattle. In Taiwan you have the same thing. People like sweet baked goods. I like sweet baked goods. The closest thing to that is Panera ... I guess. You can find comparable products (though not as adventurous) at bakeries in Chinatown, like Tai Pan Bakery (pink) or Fay Da Bakery (green) around the corner from it, in the opposide direction as that one fish store on Canal St. (I don't remember the names of stores, just the general color of their storefront. Tai Pan is the pink bakery, Fay Da is green)

This is the blueberry creme cake that my aunt and I bought for "our birthdays," since they're pretty close to each other. The other side is a bit smashed, but it was wonderlicious.
I have no idea what these breads are, but they look like monster clams made from pate feuilletee, the same type of dough with which you make croissants and pains-au-chocolat. It looks like there might be complicated knotting involved too?
This reminds me of animals. I think it's a pretty standard bun with a spiral of purple batter and coconut on top. From the looks of it, I postulate that the inside is either redbean paste or some sort of sweet coconut paste.
Checkerboard Tiramisu, I presume.
These just look suspicious. Smooth chocolate with egg-imitating custard? I should have gotten one just to see what's under that veneer of tastiness.
Coffee sponge cake, probably.
Hmm...this one puzzles me. I know it's probably some sort of berry creme icing with chocolate sponge cake and chocolate shavings on top, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Campbell's Chunky Soups To Go

I didn't have time to make myself a lunch, nor did I have bread or lunch-making materials, so I stopped by the local Teeter and grabbed a bowl of Campbell's Chunky Soup to take to work with me. It was extremely unsatisfying and vile, and I'm pretty sure I'm not going to consume any more of their canned soups.

The offender: Grilled Chicken with Vegetables and Pasta
Not only did I think it was overpriced (I was in a bind, but normally I would NOT pay more than 2 dollars for a can of ubersalty soup.), it was just gross in general.

1. Of the approx. 17 pieces of "white chicken meat", only one(1) piece was free of gristle and/or fat. They even drew brown "grill" marks on the meat to make you think that you're eating a cut up piece of grilled chicken breast. What they didn't realize is, you can't grill chicken fat, and if so, the fat is still not going to have "grill" marks on it.

2. The addition of "smoked" flavor (check the label, it really is one of the ingredients) makes the already unbearably salty soup even more bitter than they intended it to be.

3. The label says the soup only contains 2% or less of chicken fat, but the liquid itself is basically homogenized chicken fat. If you set the plastic lid down on the table after microwaving the bowl, all you get is a ring of beta carotene-dyed chicken fat. MMMMM...delicious! gag.

4. After your sodium levels spike and you're regretting that you even bothered to get a soup with meat in it, all you want to do is shoot Douglas Conant, president and CEO of Campbell's soup. Their #2 or 3 business objective is to consistently "improve the packaging and quality" of their products. What a load of crock. Maybe the packaging has been getting better. The quality of Campbell's soups has definitely been on a dedicated quest to crap on itself in the lowest of low craters on the face of this planet.

I disapprove, and do not recommend this or any other Campbell's canned soup products to anybody who is 1) not suffering from sodium deficiency or 2)living with disfunctional tastebuds.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Borscht for Brains

I had borscht for lunch. Everytime I think of borscht I think about how Natalya in Golden Eye (my mom's most favorite James Bond movie) says, with Russian accent, "Borscht for brains". Pretty much every culture in the world has their version of borscht. I think wikipedia says it's originally from Ukraine, but even very traditionally Chinese people like my grandma know how to make a version of it. The version of borscht that I had today was the Hong Kong version, substituting the traditional beets with tomatoes. A typical borscht has potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and a variety of other vegetables and maybe meat. Ours has cubes of beef.

It is really interesting how something so Russian (including surrounding countries) can be such an integral part of Chinese cuisine. Luo Song Tang (Luo Song = phonetic translation of "russian", Tang = soup) is definitely on a traditional Chinese menu, and for the longest time I thought it was something Chinese. I'm 100% sure that my grandma never makes anything non-Chinese, but she does make Luo Song Tang.

Ask me what I'm having for dessert

(papaya! I'm having papaya and borscht! <--not many people can say that)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Arugula Pesto

I had a whole container of fresh baby arugula leftover from a picnic a long time ago. Arugula is my favorite salad leaf. It has the same texture as baby spinach, with a nice mild bitter flavor that isn't unpleasing like dandelion leaves. The leaves weren't wilted but they were definitely not the freshest, so I thought perhaps I could make pesto, because pesto tends to use up a lot of leaves for a small volume. Pesto is typically made with basil, but I didn't have any at the time. The result is something that looks like pesto but tastes entirely novel, like nothing you've ever tasted before. It was pretty good.

a ton of old arugula
some parmesean I found in the dairy drawer
pine nuts
olive oil
a drop of sesame oil
a bit of green onion
one clove of garlic
salt and pepper (i also added white pepper. that stuff is awesome)

I like to fry the garlic and green onion to bring out the flavor before adding it to anything. All you have to do is blend everything together, and PRESTO, you have pesto!

My First Pizza

Due to an abundance of arugula pesto (see other post), I decided the only way to use a ton of it at one time was to make a pizza with pesto sauce.
I did what I usually do when I make things I've never made before (every time I cook), and looked up ingredients online. Since we don't have any yeast, I had to go with yeast-free dough, making the dough a bit tough. Kneading dough is so much fun! I think I had too much fun and produced too much gluten in the dough to add to the toughness. At one point, I was tossing the dough with one hand and talking to Fish online with the other.
It isn't bad if you bake it so that it's like a crispy thin-crust, which was what I was going for in the first place. Also, I mixed in a bit of dried oregano into the dough. It made for a very fragrant bake.

Sliced Roma Tomatoes
Fresh basil leaves
Slices of chili pepper
cheddar, mozzarella, and Maasdam cheese

The final result wasn't too bad:

Unless it's pepperoni or anchovies, I really think you should put toppings underneath the cheese. The tomatoes were my favorite part.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Slices of Lung..mmm tasty

Chinese newspapers aggregate in the basket of commode reading in my bathroom. I rarely look at them, as I always bring my own reading material. I noticed yesterday that there was an advertisement for a Chinese restaurant somewhere in the Triangle that listed a bunch of names of dishes. This is an uncommon occurance in the US, as people tend to think "beef and broccoli over rice" or "general tsao's chicken" when they think of Chinese cuisine. Not so fast. Those aren't actual names of dishes.

I don't know too much about nomenclature, but I'm pretty sure that Chinese dish names are like proper nouns - there is only one way to make it, and everybody calls it the same thing. Most of the time you can't tell from the name of the dish what it's made out of, simply because the name of the dish comes from some historic story that nobody remembers.

Example: One of the dishes advertised bye the new restaurant was "married couple's lung slices" (Foo Chi Fey Pian). mmmm yummy.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Fong Da Coffee

My "big aunt" and I walked through this bizarre department store for young people who like to pretend they're Japanese, and ended up at this coffee shop to escape from the heat. Fong Da Coffee has been around since my "big aunt" first moved to Taipei when she was in college. I had no idea coffee, let alone coffee in Taiwan, had existed for so long. The coffee pot etched here in the metal tables of Fong Da Coffee is a Bialetti Moka Express, the original espresso maker. These three are elaborate contraptions for ice cold brewed coffee. How do you cold-brew something? you ask. The truth is, I don't know. I have never seen these contraptions EVER, but they seem to be the next big thing in Taiwan. It's even more expensive than already-overpriced espresso! In a country where $100 NTDs (around $3 USD) can buy you a feast, spending close to $200 NTDs on a beverage is a WILD concept. It was worth it though, the coffee was smooth and mild without lacking in flavor. SO GOOD. All I know about it is that there's ice cold water in the top compartment that flows into the middle compartment, and the resulting mix dribbles down throw the spiral into the round bottomed flask at the end of the set up.
Ledena kava, Taiwanese style, in the clutches of my big aunt. Coffee flavored ice cream with coffee bits, in a glass of Fong Da's excellent cold coffee.
I got this frozen concoction, which was much easier than the other cold coffee drink to make, but definitely did not taste as good.

Big Wheel Sushi

My first encounter with my mom's oldest sister (big aunt) after 11 years of not seeing her was getting a cultural tour on Taiwanese teens, in Shi Men Ding. Our first stop (after passing by countless stores peddling pink, lacy, and anime accessories to teens with disposable income) was the Giant Wheel revolving sushi bar. I'm not sure why it's called Giant (da) Wheel (treh luen); maybe it has something to do with the train that was pulling the sushi? Left: Giant asparagus spears with a sour plum sauce. Very strange feeling, eating asparagus with plum. If you disregard the internal instinct to gag when you think of plum sauce, it's actually not bad.
Right: noodles made out of a vegetable called mountain medicine (shan yao). It's more like shreds of some sort of root that comes out slimey but very subtle in taste.
Both are served cold.
Cone, I think this is salmon.
The REAL train pulling the sushi. Many revolving sushi restaurants have a conveyor belt that passes little covered dishes in front of diners. This restaurant put the effort into building a huge set of train tracks that went all the way around the dining room, from the front of the store to the back, taking great care to pass through the window display so that people outside can see too. They had to weigh down the train in certain areas because the food it was pulling was too heavy and would make the pulling engine tilt.
Giant shrimp tempura. I love tempura because the batter is so light and crispy. The key to having excellent tempura batter is to mix the powder with ice water right before dipping food in it. This makes the batter light, and non-chewy.

Om Hum Cafe

The one thing that I love about Taiwan (and Japan, and France, ok, and pretty much anywhere on earth except the US) is that they don't make a big distinction between commercial real estate and residential areas. It is completely normal to find a bakery, cafe, or restaurant next to somebody's laundry line. In Slovenia, our favorite and the most puzzling jedilnica was hidden somewhere in Vic (veech), next to some houses and the school. Things are so integrated, I can't even tell you where the grocery store was that we used to go to in Ljubljana.If you wanted me to find Cafe Oh Hum again, I probably couldn't tell you where it was. All I know is that we walked through Shih Da (National Taiwan Normal University) night market and wound up somewhere in a back alley beside an empty elementary school and a bunch of houses. The entrance was so secluded and hidden in vegetation that I was actually shocked to find the cafe almost full. Among the hip coffee bar crowd were some French people, and some people who pretended like they spoke French. I did not pretend like I spoke French, but secretly I was listening in on their conversation. It might have been about poodles...
I don't really understand why an Indian/buddhist themed cafe would have a kimono, but I'm not a professional at differentiating asian clothing, so that's ok.
My iced coffee was perhaps overkill after the huge dinner we had at flower hotpot. The iced coffee part was a little too sweet, and there was too much cream at the top.
I would have probably been better off getting the citrus tea, something light to counteract overeating.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Paper Hotpot

After 11 years of not seeing my 2 best friends (ok, my only 2 friends in Taiwan), they took me out to "paper hotpot." A hotpot can be any variety of things where a liquid is heated in a pot and you dip things into it. It may include shabu shabu, sukiyaki, and I even include fondu, because you're still doing the dipping motion. Clockwise from black spoon on the right: the black spoon is flat and wide, used to manipulate the bits of food inside of the pot so that nothing is over- or undercooked; chopsticks in a paper sleeve; bowl of rice; special sauce that is typically spicy and salty, usually made of some sort of shrimp or brine; the paper hot pot with vegetables, corn, fish balls, taro root, and tofu.

The restaurant not only specializes in using paper as a pot, but using flower teas as the broth for the hotpot. What you can't see is a teabag of flowers somewhere buried under all the food in the pot. The paper pot can last up to 6 hours as long as the liquid level does not go under the first metal ring of the holder, and as long as the flame is burning. The water inside keeps the paper from burning, and the fire keeps the paper from becoming soggy and breaking. This particular ensemble was mine, called the "body trimming" package. It included shrimp, thinly sliced chicken, and some other stuff that you could put in your boiling flower tea.
This ensemble was my childhood bestfriend's. I think it was the "beautifying" package, with a special blend of flowers in the tea that apparently "beautified."
This ensemble is my nextdoor neighbor's. I think it was "body fortifying", because she had been feeling a bit out of sorts.
I still can't believe it was paper that was cooking on top of an open flame.
The body fortifying package included little baby squids. So adorable to look at, a little creepy to eat.
Mine was normal. Thinly sliced chicken, taro root, a bit of a gourd, shrimp, and part of a daikon.
This stuff was already in the hotpot when they brought them out. Green leafy vegetables, fish balls, quail eggs, taro root, daikon, carrot, corn, and broccoli rounded out the stew.
For dessert, despite having eaten a pot full of food each, we had small pieces of cheesecake and iced jasmine milk tea.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


This has nothing to do with food, but I took some pictures for my aunt Josephine while we were wandering around Shi Men Ding one afternoon. Shi Men Ding is a smaller version of Shibuya (Tokyo, Japan) in Taipei. Commonalities: street food, hormone-charged tweens, pink/white frilly "cute things" for girls, cos-play stores, avalanche of advertising.

Shi Men Ding
Shibuya. V-Dub, representing Deutschland!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dinner on a Train, brought to you by 7-11

We rode the train back from Taitung to Taipei, bringing us past miles and miles of green, vast expanses of rushing waters. It felt like a page out of Goodbye South, Goodbye, only through the windows of a train and not on a motorcycle. We were going north. They in the movie were going all over Taiwan.
Beverages are big. This is not the first or last time I rant about beverages in Taiwan. This bottle from the local 7-11 (or just "seven", in colloquial Taiwan-speak) is chocolate milk tea. What it actually tasted like was sugar plus water plus cheap non-fat dried milk and a hint of tea. I don't care. I still like beverages.
Even when the food stands have gone to bed for the night, you can still find all sorts of hot and cold food 24 hours a day at 7-11. This riceball has a very complicated system of packaging that keeps the dried seaweed wrapped around the rice separate until right when you remove the plastic for consumption. Don't ask me how it works. I just pull the arrows in the order they're numbered, and a fresh riceball with crispy seaweed appears.
This is what I am referring to when I say pudding. It is most similar to Spanish flan, but more gelatinous and less creamy. When we were little, this was our snack of choice. There are a variety of ways to eat it. Perfectionists choose to dump it out inverted on a plate, like the serving suggestion pictured on the packaging. Some people eat it without mixing the dark caramel part with the eggy part. Me, I blend it all up into the smallest pieces I can possibly manage.
How do you eat yours?