Friday, 19 June 2009

Taiwan Treats: Shaved Ice.

Of all the Taiwan Treats I've cataloged, likely none are as distinctly Taiwanese as shaved ice. It's designed with Taiwan's climate in mind, as it's the perfect refreshment for a steamy-scorching subtropical summer. It can feature a variety of toppings that evoke the cuisines and produce of the island, from syrupy mango to starchy-sweet redbean and taro. And perhaps more than any other dessert, it shows off the playfully inventive nature that makes Taiwan so unique.

First, a layer of shaved or crushed ice is taken from a larger cube. Sometimes it is served 'fresh', elsewhere it is soaked in a sweet syrup. This is heaped generously into a vessel, which can range from a modest cup, to a family-sized platter. Next, toppings are heaped on- one topping, two toppings, or maybe nearly a dozen, depending on the creativity of the vendor.

I had read about shaved ice before coming to Taiwan, and I was intrigued to try it. So on our first afternoon in Taipei, Bordeaux and I found a rather modern shop that specialized in it. With stark white walls, glowing red lanterns, and an open hi-tech kitchen, it hardly resembled the simple shaved ice shops described in out guidebook. We later found out that this was a national chain, with locations all over Taiwan. The shaved ice we sampled that afternoon was 'pineapple ice', which sounded tempting, and was described on the menu as being the most traditionally Taiwanese. We took the glass mug out onto the porch, and tasted it. Though the flavor was pleasant, the pineapple flavor was way too sweet, and the syrupy consistency was terrible for the tropical heat of late afternoon. I left the shop feeling more sickened than refreshed. We tried another Meet Fresh a week later, and sampled an entirely different concoction- shaved ice with red bean, taro, and lentils. Though the wholesome starchy flavor was delicious, the ice was again way too syrupy and filling.

Thankfully, I wasn't put off from trying it all together. We searched out a different shaved ice shop, and tried a new dish- pudding shaved ice. As I've written before, pudding in Taiwan is more like a flan, or a caramel custard. The pudding was placed in the bowl first, and it was topped in a mountain of ice and sweetened condensed milk. Against all expectations, this dish was actually less filling and far more refreshing than the two we'd tried before. The non-flavored ice nicely countered the sweetness of the pudding, instead bringing out its rich milkyness.

But perhaps the best bowl we've had came after out lunch at Hsinchu's Eating Temple. In a neon-painted four story tower next to the temple, we ordered a bowl of mango shaved ice. The ice was crushed into a feathery texture, and spooned over a bowl of fresh mango and pineapple. The tropical fruits mixed perfectly with the finely shaved ice, making the ideal tropical treat for a humid tropical afternoon.

In Search of the Stinky Snack.

Though Taiwan has countless local specialties and hundreds of unique delicacies, few dishes have are as iconic of the island as one: chou dofu, stinky tofu. If you’ve ever been in the same neighborhood as a stinky tofu vendor, you’ll need no explanation of its name- its aroma (for which there is no polite description) is nearly strong enough to knock a passer-by off his scooter.

Though the stink failed to tempt me, I was curious to try the dish. I don’t seek out food simply because it sounds strange or unusual- but I was curious to see how stinky tofu could be so popular despite its smell. In search of the food, Bordeaux and I visited a popular weekend market. We strolled among other food stands and carnival games, brushing past the inviting aroma of grilled squid and sizzling scallion pancakes, in search of a less pleasant stench. Eventually, we caught the smell- quick, disgusting, and gone. We backtracked, but failed to find the source. We circled around, made enquiries, and finally found the stinky tofu. We ordered one, and took it away to try. Piled with pickled vegetables and drizzled with a spicy sauce, it almost looked tempting. But it only took one bite to dispel me of that feeling- it tasted much like it smelled, a mature barnyard flavor that didn’t compel me to complete the dish.

The experience left me feeling unsatisfied. It was gross- but not so disgusting that I felt sick after eating it. Nor did it taste so good that it was worth suffering through the smell. It was just mildly unpleasant.

Thankfully, I got the chance to try it again. At a raucous ghost month parade, I caught the familiar stench among the singed scent of fireworks. The smell grew stronger, almost overpowering, as I approached the stand. I ordered a skewer, and took a bite. Amazingly, though the smell was considerably worse, the flavor was considerably better. The tofu was firm, flavorful, and nicely spiced with the pickled vegetables and chili. It was much better than the first, proving that even the stinkiest foods deserve a second try.

Taiwan Colors: Taiwan Teal.

Teal is not a color you encounter often. Too clinical to be comforting, too out-dated to be hip. But strangely, it seems almost to be the national color of Taiwan. It appeared in plastic phones, on pharmacy walls, and faded wooden doors. Yet odd as it is, it works. It paired surprisingly well with ocher bricks and vibrant red banners. And almost to assure us of its place in the Taiwanese color spectrum, it flows vibrantly through the halls of the new airport terminal.

Eating Taiwan Famous.

If you mention that you're visiting another town in Taiwan, you're more than likely to be told what kind of food you should eat when you get there. Despite its small size (or perhaps because of it), every town in Taiwan seems to have a local specialty, a 'famous food' that all visitors are obliged to try. Taiwan has a highly developed internal tourism infrastructure (unlike its international tourism infrastructure, which I'll discuss later), and one of the highlights for most Taiwanese travelers is sampling all the famous dishes of the island. People will pile into a car to try stinky green-bean curd, or board a bus to sample a rice lunch box. After a month and a half living in Hsinchu, Bordeaux and I decided to join these culinary travelers. We set out on a railroad trip around the entire island, and top of our itinerary was trying Taiwan's famous dishes.

The town of Chaiyi sits at the line where Taiwan dips into the tropics. Yet it's special dish hardly evokes its torpid climate or lush landscape- turkey rice. It's nearly as simple as it sounds, strips of tender turkey eaten over a bed of white rice, and paired with a chunk of pickled turnip. It has a wholesome and hearty quality, reminiscent of a plate of Thanksgiving left-overs.

Our next stop was Kaoshuing, Taiwan's largest metropolis, and an attractive oceanfront city. After browsing in hip shopping streets, we headed over to the city's largest nightmarket. There we sampled a regional specialty, more associated with nearby Tainan than Kaoshiung. Named 'coffin bread' in English, it's a thick slice of texas toast fried, cut open, and filled with a creamy seafood chowder. Looking at it for the first time, I remarked to Bordeaux that it was the strangest food we'd eaten in Taiwan. He rightly pointed out that it's also the most American. It is in fact a remnant of American naval presence in southern Taiwan, and almost seems like a dish that could be served at an American seaside diner.

The next morning, we traveled across the Love River to the old area of town for another specialty, milk fish congee. It was a watery rice soup that contained not just milkfish, but also oysters, clams, and other fresh seafood. Eaten with chunks of long chinese donuts, it made a complexly nuanced breakfast- at times sweet and buttery, alternately fresh and salty.

Arriving for lunch at a famed restaurant in Hualien, we for the first time found a line of diners. We briefly wondered if we should reconsider- but eventually gave in and joined the queue. The line moved quickly, and we were soon ushered to a shared table in a cavernous dining hall. The wait for our dish gave us time to consider- is being famous a good thing? Are we going to discover that this dish rests on its fame, nothing else? Then the paper dishes of bianshji were placed in front of us. The light broth was browned with charred garlic, almost giving it the flavor of Vietnamese pho. But it was set apart by the plump dumplings that floated in it- filled with an incredible mixture of ground pork and shrimp. Looking around the room, we saw that some tables had wisely ordered an extra bowl, so that each member of their party could savor one more dumpling.

Our trip definitely gave me some ideas to consider about travel. In a sense our mission to try Taiwan Famous ran counter to the traveler mandate to seek one's own path- yet at the same time, it was fun to insert ourselves into another culture's mode of tourism. And as we saw with these foods, sometimes a food is famous for a reason.

Taiwan Treats: Avocado and Pudding Shake.

I've written before about Taiwanese pudding- a ubiquitous treat, rather similar to a spanish flan, or a caramel custard. Somehow, it seems to find its way into everything. At a seaside market in Hualien, Bordeaux and I sampled one of the strangest Taiwan treats yet- a smoothie of ripe avocado and Taiwanese pudding. We simply ordered an avo shake, but apparently the pudding is added to sweeten the mixture. It was blended until the ripe avocado and the chunky custard were smooth, then plopped into a plastic cup. And- surprisingly- it was delicious. Rich, creamy and decadent, with a richness from the avocado, and a caramel sweetness from the custard.

PS- Bordeaux and I totally got spotted by a reader while we were out shopping yesterday! This is a big world, and we definitely don't have a huge readership, so it was a totally surprising experience. Thanks for coming up and saying hi, and I hope all of my readers are as hip as you!

Taiwan Colors: NEON.

Taiwan Colors: NEON.One of the most surprising things about Taiwan was finding that it had a teeming urban youth culture- and that culture had a color scheme. NEON. You'd glimpse it in downtown alleys, on electric-blue cargo shorts, and hot pink baseball caps. But it came out best at night, when the hues of the neon signs seemed to reflect in hip night market stands and blazing arcade parlors.

Taiwan Colors: NEON.

Breakfast shop.

Does the ratio of staff to dining space say something about a restaurant? For though the dining area (and the kitchen, for that matter) at this Taipei breakfast shop were minuscule, the staff numbers were huge. There were at least nine people manning this formica canteen- one woman dishing out ladles of fresh soymilk into plastic cups and bowls, and eight or so men in white sweat-tinted uniforms working elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen. One tended the scallion omelettes, one handled steamed breads and foot-long doughnuts, another three unloaded the bamboo steamers, and the rest busied themselves in all of the other myriad tasks of preparing a delicious Taiwanese breakfast.

Of the three daily meals, the one I enjoyed most in Taiwan was breakfast. It was entirely because of incredible breakfast shops like the above, where I sampled delicious morning treats. I ate shaolingbao, soupy pork filled dumplings that dripped (ok, exploded) when I bit into them; danbing, tasty rolled egg pancakes filled with bacon, tuna, or cheese and spring onions; and scallion omelettes, eaten in thin sesame seed bread. And all, of course, eaten with a glass of fresh, chilled soymilk.