February 26, 2004
Food of Taiwan
I'm back from a two week trip to Taiwan. We stayed in BanQiao, which is a suburb of Taipei. Basically all you do in Taipei is eat, shop and eat. It's heaven if you ask me. I proudly present a gastronomical tour of some of the food i ate (and some that i didn't) during my vacation.
We flew China Airlines from Los Angeles to Taipei. It was a 14 hour flight. We started off with some peanuts and mixed in were the little fried peas that I love so much except these didn't have the spicy wasabi coating on them like I like. I'm always very excited to fly foreign airlines so I can see what kind of foreign foods they serve on the airplane. Well, I didn't stay excited for long.
Dinner consisted of some kind of steamed or boiled chicken and a few pieces of chinese sausage over rice, fresh fruit, a bean sprout salad, fruit, a roll with butter and milano cookies. The milano cookies were the only good thing about this meal. They even, somehow, messed up the fresh fruit.
My tummy was rumbling in the middle of the "night" since my dinner consisted of half a roll, two pieces of fruit and a milano cookie, so I asked for some noodles, upon my mom's advice. She flew China Airlines about 10 years ago and she said they served these instant noodles that were so good she couldn't stop thinking about them. Unfortunately, these noodles were not the same ones she so fondly remembers. It was seafood flavored, had tiny pieces of dried Tian Bu La (japanese fish cakes) and was very salty. Yuck. But it still amused me that they serve instant noodles on China Airlines.
Breakfast on the plane consisted of Congee (chinese rice porridge, traditionally eaten for breakfast), with bits of chicken and shredded egg, a selection of pickles and marinated wheat gluten (to eat with the Congee), fresh fruit, a tiny ManTou (chinese steamed bread) and hot tea. Again, not good, although better than what was served at dinner. I don't recommend ever flying China Airlines for the food.
The next morning, in Taipei, I was greeted with a lovely traditional northern chinese breakfast of Sao Bing You Tiao and Dou Jiang that my uncle bought off the street. Sau Bing is a flaky flat bread covered in sesame seeds and You Tiao is a fried cruller. Some genius thought it would be a good idea to put the fried cruller inside of the flat bread and eat it like a sandwich. Basically, it's a bread sandwich. You traditionally have it with Dou Jiang which is soy bean milk. You can have it sweet (pictured on the right with a straw) or salty (pictured on the left). The salty Dou Jiang has onions and other goodies in it as well as vinegar which curdles the soymilk, so it's kind of like eating tofu soup.
Then we went to the street market in the neighborhood. My uncle handed me this small green fruit that I had never seen before. I bit into it and was in heaven. I asked my mom what they were. She said they were fresh dates. I couldn't stop eating them. The white, crunchy flesh tastes similar to asian pears but is a bit crisper and has a fresher, "greener" taste. I think I ate at least six of these a day during the rest of my trip. I've never seen these in the states and I think I will miss these the most.
My mom's favorite as a kid are these "Horse's Ears", which are fried doughnuts that are shaped like horse's ears with just a hint of sweetness. My uncle bought some immediately.
My cousin took us to a fancy supermarket that looks like one of America's gourmet markets located under the 101 building, the world's tallest building, in Taipei. Here they have Pringles in special flavors. From left to right: Onion Crispy Crab, Chicken, Seaweed, and Black Pepper Steak. I only tried the Onion Crispy Crab. It was a bit too sweet and had a very fake seafood taste to them. I didn't like them.
Ma Po Dou Fu flavored potato chips. Ma Po Dou Fu is a classic chinese dish of spicy tofu, I'm sure many of you have had at your local chinese restaurant.
Ah, finally. Dim Sum. What I had been waiting for. From the top, clockwise: Sau Mai (pork dumpling), Fu Pi Juan (fried tofu roll) and Xia Jiao (shrimp dumpling).
More dim sum. The front item is a piece of fried sweet rice cake made from water chestnuts. I've never had it before, but it was GOOD.
Next to the Dim Sum restaurant was a lovely bakery.
We went to this cafe with my aunt. It was trying to copy a western or european cafe based on the decor and the menu items. I had an iced coffee with green tea and a piece of cheesecake. Both were very disappointing. But, I don't know if you can tell from the photo, but they had the tiniest forks ever. Only two tines!
Street food I think is the best. This lady is making Zhua Bing which means Grab Cake. It's sort of like a scallion pancake except it is rolled a bit different and then as she cooks it, she grabs it and kind of pulls apart the layers with her tongs. This creates flaky, more dimensional layers when you eat it. Yum!
Pork chop noodles with a side of tiny dried fish sauteed with onion, chile and peanuts.
The Chinese really like seafood flavored things don't they? I don't.
No, I didn't eat dog food. I took these pictures because I couldn't help but notice that the illustrations of the dog food looks very much like chinese food with the strips of meat and little chunks of sauteed carrots and peas. I wonder if the marketing people designed the pet food to look this way so it would look appetizing to chinese pet owners. If you think about it, here in America, we have lots of dog food that looks like beef stew covered in gravy or that even comes in its own gravy. Who in America doesn't love gravy? Marketing people are smart.
The sushi in the grocery store comes individually wrapped so you can pick and choose what you like. I like this idea very much.
You get to choose any 10 pieces for only 99NT, which is about $3. I chose mine based on color.
The prepared food aisle has lots of fried items.
The fresh baked pizza looked pretty unedible to me.
I remember having fruit flavored milk the last time I was in Taiwan when I was 13. I was looking forward to it again this time. I love it (and I know this will gross my friend George out) because it tastes like the milk leftover in your bowl after you've had a bowl of Trix.
Another thing I was especially looking forward to are Xiao Long Bao. They are small steamed dumplings with soup inside! You take a bite and suck all the soup out (or pour it onto you spoon) and then eat the rest of the dumpling. I love the ones with lots of ginger in them. These are one of my all-time favorite items and it is so difficult to find a good restaurant in the states that can prepare these correctly.
This is where I start saying everything is my favorite. Well, Dou Hua is definitely one of my favorites. It's the most tender tofu served hot with sweet ginger syrup and sweet boiled peanuts. It is the most delicious dessert you will ever have. I could eat 10 bowls of Dou Hua for every meal.
BTW, now we are in DanXui, which is where the river meets the ocean. It's kind of like a boardwalk with lots of carnival games and shopping and street food, including the Dou Hua picture above. These are little fried glutinous rice balls made from yam. They were alright, nothing like Dou Hua.
Fried mushrooms are also one of my favorites. The ones on top you see here are Enoki, the white, long, slender japanese mushrooms that come in clusters at the grocery store. So yum!
This is not one of my favorites. This woman is grilling Tsou Dou Fu, or Stinky Tofu. Basically, it's tofu gone bad. I don't know what the draw is to this dish, but it smells like sewer and you can smell it from blocks and blocks away. I am not exaggerating. But Chinese people love it, including my mom. And almost everyone on the street was eating one of these. I don't think I'll ever truly be Chinese because I will never be able to acquire a taste for Stinky Tofu.
These are my mom's favorite. They are called Hsieh Ke Huang. I don't know what the english name for it is. They are basically kind of like Sau Bing, the flaky flat bread, except these are smaller and are wrapped around different kinds of filling. We like the salty filling with green onions. They also have sweet read bean filling and ones with sauteed radish and vegetables. They are topped with sesame seeds and baked and best when served hot. We brought back a box of 20 of these on the plane. They were a nightmare to carry for fear of the flaky layers disentegrating. But I lovingly carried them back for my Mom.
We stopped at a famous restaurant (but I didn't find out for what) and had Dan Dan noodles. Apparently even chinese restaurants in Taiwan can mess up chinese food. These Dan Dan noodles were not Dan Dan noodles. But we still ate them along with fish meatballs and fresh sliced tomatoes which are the new hip thing to eat now in Taiwan because of the somewhat recent discovery that the gelatinous substance found around the seeds is good for you.
These are called Ma Wan. They are these steamed rice cakes with tasty meat and vegetable fillings. They are actually one of my favorites as well, but in Taiwan they keep them warm by letting them sit in hot oil. I've never had them served like this to me before in the states. This turned me off (for fear of getting sick) so I never got to try them. Now i regret it. Next time. Next time, indeed.
Fresh grilled squid! I bet these were really good, but no one would share one with me, and frankly, you can only eat so much in one day, and my day was not through yet.
This is in GiLong, a bit northeast of Taipei, where my mom and her family grew up. This is a famous stand for Tian Bu La, the japanese fish cakes, that literally means Sweet Not Spicy. And they are! They are sweet, not spicy! I have to say, I've never really like Tian Bu La all that much. But the Tian Bu La they make here was damn good. I understand why they are famous.
GiLong also has a place that is famous for its pig's feet. My mom makes pig's feet that has been braised in soy sauce, sugar and anise and other spices that is pretty tasty, but when they suggested I try these, that are basically just boiled in water, I hesitated. But I think they were one of the best things I had during my entire trip. They were served with this chile dipping sauce that was amazing. We had them with some sauteed green leafy vegetable that no one could tell me the name of, topped with the same chile sauce and also rice noodles topped with the same sauce. I think everything was served with the secret sauce. I understand why this place is famous too. My aunt says people drive from all over to come to this very restaurant to get the pig's feet to go to take home with them.
My Uncle took us to a japanese restaurant for fried pork chops. This is supposed to be one of the best places for pork chops. It was good, but a pork chop is a pork chop. I didn't see what the big fuss was about. It was served with a pile of shredded cabbage. My uncle kept raving about how the cabbage was all you can eat. This woman kept walking around refilling everyone's plates with finely shredded cabbage. This is supposed to be a treat? Plain shredded cabbage? I admit it adds a nice texture and contrast to the fried pork, but why is it all you can eat? After I'm done with the pork chop, I don't see how more cabbage would be appetizing. Well, everyone else seemed to be enjoying the dry shredded cabbage. Maybe I missed something.
Then I got really sick and for two whole days (!!!) I didn't eat anything but 4 crackers, a lot of warm water mixed with SuPau (chinese gatorade) and half of a Co-Lio, a fake oreo that didn't taste anything like an oreo. I'm sending my cousin two packages of Double-Stuff immediately.
While I was sick, my mom, uncles and cousin went to a fancy tea store that a friend owns and got to taste the most amazing tea that apparently was so good that I should've ripped myself from my warm bed and endured the evening without a toilet nearby just to enjoy this very (very very) expensive tea that has won all these awards and was sent from heaven by the angels themselves. I regret it now because they wouldn't shutup about it.
The next day I was feeling better and had exactly 2 days left to catch up on all the good food I had missed out on. Here is a big steaming bowl of Niu Rou Tang better known as spicy beef noodle soup, a chinese classic. It was so good.
This might be the highlight of my food adventures in Taiwan. I believe the restaurant was called the Chrysanthemum Room. I am told they own a Japanese baseball team. In any case, what is left over of the sashimi pictured here was to die for. I had completely forgotten to take pictures before devouring because I was in shock when i saw the plate. I've never had fish this fresh before, and the sashimi was at least a half an inch thick. Now, I don't eat that much sashimi or can afford to go to good, fancy sushi restaurants (or can barely find any in my town for that matter), but the sashimi I have had here in the states is sliced so paper thin you can read type through it. Well they didn't skimp here at the Chrysanthemum Room. These were like raw fish steaks. Unbelievable.
Huge, fing rolls. You can't tell in the picture, but they were about 4 inches in diameter. I think everything they had in the kitchen was stuffed into these rolls. Very tasty.
This is the tastiest Unagi I've had. I love that my uncle ordered it as a large filet instead of as nigiri.
A plate of Nigiri for me, again so fresh and delicious. The fish pieces were rather large, I'd say 1/3 larger than the pieces you get at Musashino here in Austin. Japanese etiquette asks you to eat nigiri in one bite. This was nearly impossible for me considering the size of the fish. Just nearly.
My aunt and I found a common interest. Fish eggs. As we fought over the eggs the rolls were covered in, we ordered a little bowl of tiny shrimp eggs. It was served over shredded daikon and cucumber slices
This is a grilled salmon head. Chinese love to eat fish heads. I've never acquired the taste for them, but this I could handle because there was a lot of flesh on this huge fish. It was really good. Freshness makes all the difference. They also cut it up for us so it no longer resembled a face.
At this point I was stuffed and did not partake of the seafood hot pot. But I heard it was good.
More grocery oddities: American Pizza
Then we went to my dad's favorite restaurant. It was really nice and the food was unbelievable. Here we are enjoying a clay pot with crab and tofu that is made from egg (!!!). It was delicious.
This is my dad's favorite dish, Si Zhi Tou, or Lion's Head Stew. They are tender pork meatballs that are braised while covered with cabbage leaves. The cabbage leaves resemble the lion's mane. It was really good, but I still think my mom's is the best
These are Jiao Yian Fei Tsang which are fried fatty intestines that are served with a little dish of salt and pepper. My cousin ordered these especially and she ate a lot of them. They were actually pretty tasty, but I was still recovering from my own fried intestines and didn't want to ingest too much grease.
And that's it. The next day we got on the plane. I didn't bother taking pictures of the airplane food on the return trip for as you can tell it couldn't begin to compare.