Saturday, May 26, 2007

Afternoon Tea

We lived close to Shimen Resevoir (shi men shui koo) when I was growing up. I never really appreciated how lovely the flora was around that area until returning to it many years later. According to guidebooks-for-white-people-looking-to-do-things-off-the-beaten-path, it is a great day trip destination if one were a tourist in Taipei.
This is the field in front of the place where we had afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is usually reserved for cultures influenced by the British Empire when it was an empire, but the practice can be adopted by anyone who has nothing better to do in the afternoons than chat with one's friends. I've always marveled at how skinny Taiwanese people are despite how much they eat. If you think about it, they have 5-meal days: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and latenight snack at the night market...and model-sized is considered "big-boned." I'll have whatever they're having.
Notice we are carrying umbrellas on a sunny day. One should just get in the habit of using an umbrella, rain or shine. Later that day, it started flash-flooding, and the umbrellas that were previously preventing us from tanning sheltered us from the rain.
I think this bottle of mint water was just for decoration, but the commercialized version of that, metromint, is one of my favorite beverages.
Standard offerings at a Taiwanese afternoon tea parlor, clockwise from left: whole wheat bagel, mango flan/custard (mang guo nai lao), green tea and sesame stick of some sort, and whipped cream drizzled with mango coulis. Bagels are a relatively novel food item in Taiwan, and the nai lao is the latest craze in custard-looking desserts. There's even a restaurant in Nei Hu (in Taipei) that sells ONLY nai lao!

Every Taiwanese kid has had an infatuation with boo ding at some point in their lives. It is called flan only to make it comparable to something in the Western world, but the Taiwanese version is actually more gelatinous and less creamy than Spanish or South American flan. Nai Lao hits somewhere between the creaminess of traditional Spanish flan and the bounciness of Taiwanese flan. This ramekin of mango nai lao is covered in mango coulis. I thought it went well with the vibrant fuschia of the flower.
Here's another plate, this time with a blueberry bagel. The green leaves are fresh mint.
I ordered a iced green milk tea, but it came out as matcha-flavored milk with ice and some stewed sweet red beans as garnish. Not the best I've tasted, as it was slightly too sweet, but it makes for a pretty beverage.
I should have gone with the hot green milk tea, pictured below.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hakka Cuisine

So I know it's been almost a year since I spent a lovely summer in Taiwan, but I still have gajillions of photos of phood that I need to unload somewhere. Don't be surprised if random photos from long time ago pop up every so often.

I get peeved when people try to label Taiwan as being Chinese. There's really many many different subcultures that make up what is Taiwanese nowadays. Hakka is one of the larger groups, centralized in the western (mid-western) part of the island. Briefly: Hakka people come from the south east part of China, and their cuisine and traditions are different from other groups of Taiwanese people.

We went to a Hakka restaurant in the next town over from where I grew up. The restaurant was essentially the downstairs of somebody's house, but was known to have excellent food. The owner's cat is a tricky one. It insists on drinking and eating out of the plates that they leave for the gods. There's the proprietor of the restaurant, pulling out a bottle of plum juice or plum wine or some sort of alcoholic beverage involving plum.
The style of this painting is very similar to french impressionism. I thought it was particularly interesting, because it shows a scene looking down the historic main street of the little town next to our town.
Two small plates of "pickled" things. The black one I think is some sort of plum. The yellow one is unripe mangos, I think. I can remember how it tastes and what the texture was, but I can't remember the fruit.
Tenderized pork with egg over cucumber. Very subtle flavors for Hakka cuisine.
An interesting peanut duo. On the left, a creamy peanut paste drizzled over cucumbers (very good). On the right, a spicy sauce with bitter greens and peanuts, poured over bitter melon slices. You should note that fresh flowers are usually part of Hakka cuisine as well.
One fish eaten three ways. This dish is just chunks of one simple white fish, presented with three different sauces. The tan sauce on the left is a sweet and sour sauce similar to the taste of Tang Tzu Yuu (sweet and sour fish, literally: sugar and vinegar fish), but more focused on the sweet and sour flavors and not the savory flavors. The next bowl holds a spicy, soy sauce based sauce that reminds me of the random spicy szechuan sauces that my grandma pours on everything. The last sauce was by far the most mindblowing - it is a thick miso based sauce that wasn't pungent despite the wasabi that was in it. The sauce is smooth and warm on the tongue, capturing the flavor but not the burn of wasabi. Miso really goes brilliantly with white fish.
Tofu and thick chunks of fatty pork (like mei gan ko ro). Not too exceptionally weird. Those of you who are not as daring would love this one.
Last but not least, a bit of soup to warm the body. Taiwan is a sauna during the summer months, but one can't let weather hinder the consumption of "chinese voodoo medicine," as I like to call it. This particular soup wasn't as offensive as the real medicinal soups. It had chicken (oh, and ALL parts of the chicken except for feathers), and probably gogi and ginseng, two essential ingredients to making Chinese medicinal soup.

Friday, May 11, 2007


Madeleines are small seashell-shaped "cookies" that are really miniature sponge cakes. They are synonymous with Marcel Proust (the npr story examines the question: why is my madeleine crumb deficient?!!) and his giant 7-volume memoire, a la recherche du temps perdu. The little seashells look very unimpressive until you actually see, touch, and taste one with tea. I recently purchased a flour sifter and a silicone madeleine mold just for the purpose of cheering myself up. Madeleines are most commonly had with tea, and for a good reason. The sourness of the lemon aftertaste (as with the ones I made, but some other common flavorings are almond, cocoa, etc) goes perfectly with the sweet aftertaste of tea. It's one of those combinations that goes beyond peanut butter and jelly, to enter in the realm of soy sauce and sesame oil - so simple and subtle yet so mindblowing. The only downside to making madeleines is filling each individual mold just right, repeatedly, so that the batter doesn't overfill and leave an unattractive skirt around the edge of the seashell. That took a couple batches to correct, but the baking took almost an entire night.
I highly recommend getting a silicone mold if you're going to be making madeleines. The tin molds stick and tend to burn the madeleines. With the silicone mold, all you had to do was pop the finished cookies out. Clean up for the molds involved light sponging. Non-stick silicone is my new best friend!
Madeleines are usually completed with a light dusting of powdered sugar. It's sort of hard to control where the sugar goes if you're using a sifter to dust, but some people have used stencils to make fun patterns on their madeleines.
The roommate and I had some fresh strawberries and blueberries around, so we made little strawberry (plus rogue blueberries) shortcakes. They are bitesized and SO CUTE! Oh, and the whipped cream was freshly whipped! I've never whipped whipping cream before, but it's not rocket surgery. A bit of sugar and some whipping cream makes for a workout for your forearm and tasty whipped cream. (textbook peak! so exciting!)

I got a little carried away with the tiny sculptures, but you can see how some berries and a madeleine can make for a fun session of miniature sculpting.
Some of the madeleines tasted like our refrigerator (read: don't use butter that has been sitting in the refrigerator for a long time), so as a way to compensate, I used this dirty little trick I learned from Jean Georges. Nothing quite beats the aroma of freshly grated lime zest. Add to that a bit of sugar, and you have a colorful citrus coverup that will do away with any odd flavors (refrigerator or otherwise).
Madeleines can also make good dessert hors d'oeuvres.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spaghetti Night

It was Sean's birthday last Thursday, and as a birthday present to him, I promised that I would proclaim the tastiness of his spaghetti on the fblog. Since August 2006, I have spent almost every Thursday night eating Sean's excellent spaghetti. Spag night has become somewhat of a ritual, or a family-dinner-type gathering for our group of young professionals/college students. While our families might drive us crazy at family gatherings, Spaghetti Nights are ALWAYS excellent.
I don't really know all the top secret ingredients that he puts in the sauce, but I can tell you that he makes everything from scratch. From the looks of it, chicken could be an ingredient.
The magic sauce also has mushrooms, though not magic ones.
Give it all a stir...(haha so far from all the hard work that is actually done to make the sauce)
...add some more magic ingredients... voila! Spaghetti night.
The bread is from La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC. (we slather it with garlicky herby butter)
...And in honor of Sean's birthday, a Guglhupf from the bakery of the same name located in Durham, NC.
Guglhupfs are essentially German versions of brioche. Shaped sort of like the top of a fire hydrant, they are dusted with a serious layer of powdered sugar as a finishing touch. This particular round had raisins in it, but the Czech wikipedia page shows that it is possible to make one with cocoa in the middle.