Monday, March 2, 2015

Food Post 6: 夜市 ye shi (lit. night market) Night Market

I turned to Fiona in the car and said, "Taiwan has a great economy: people work and buy things all day, and then at night they work and buy more things."  We were talking about the prevalence of night markets, the exotic, bustling, loud, annoying, wonderful, delicious markets that pop up around 4 o'clock each day and go into the wee hours of the night.  Any respectably sized city has one, if not two night markets.  Even a small town like Baihe has two different night markets that are open about three nights a week.

Night markets are something beyond the normal street markets that you go to early in the morning for produce.  They mostly encompass food: fried, sauted, rolled, stewed, chilled, barbecued, etc.  But you can also buy clothing, from underwear, to jeans, suits, and even suits.  You can probably find a place to sit down for a meal if that's what you like, or you can just oogle at the sights as everyone seems to let loose a little bit.  Walking into a night market reminds me of the movie, Spirited Away, a Japanese tale where an abandoned amusement park becomes alive with all sorts of fairies and ghosts when a young girl gets lost there.  If you visit a road that hosts a night market at day, it looks abandoned, almost unrecognizable.  Also you can find--now that I have kids this is increasingly more important--all kinds of amusements and games at night markets.

This is Raohe Night Market in Taipei:

This photo below shows that they also sell exotic things, like chocolate cake with blueberries on the top!

Of course, they have the same old, same old as well, such as chicken crowns, butts, hearts, and feet!

Watermelon drink!  Delicious:

Fried whole fish:

It's actually quite hard to describe what a night market is, so how about you take a look at some video I shot, instead!  The best part is the end, where you can glimpse the national pastime of the Taiwanese, which is shrimp fishing.  Shrimp fishing, with a little pole and string.  There are complexities to this pastime, and what you see here isn't the same as if you went to a shrimp fishing establishment, but I won't get into those subtleties.

Food Post 5: 小籠包 xiao long bao (lit. small basket bun) Steamed Dumpling!

The white characters on the red background say Din Tai Feng (the name of the famous Taipei restaurant where I bought this these xiao long bao) and the big black character with white background says again "Din."  Din Tai Feng has the most famous xiao long bao in all of Taiwan.  The restaurant even earned one Michelin star, and as far as I know it's the first time I've eaten at a Michelin rated restaurant.  Certainly it is the first Michelin rated restaurant that I ordered take-out from!

What is xiao long bao?  They are a dumplings with a very fine skin that is folded together in a spiral about the top, allowing all of the juices of the meat to collect in the bottom.  They are steamed in bamboo baskets, stacked sometimes perilously high.  Then they are served with lots of thin spaghetti-like strands of fresh ginger and a very light soy sauce that has a little bit of vinegar in it.  The secret of Din Tai Feng, apparently, is the number of folds that they flute about the top: 18.  Apparently it's the perfect amount of folds so that the xiao long bao experience is not too doughy, but I feel as this explanation is a little bit like a magician telling you to look over here while he does something else behind his back.  In any case, something amazing is going on with the dumpling skin--it really does have an incredibly soft, unobtrusive, but chewy texture.  Usually you puncture a side of the xiao long bao with your teeth and then suck out all the juices.  Some people put the xiao long bao in a spoon to eat it.  It's almost like wonton soup, where the soup is actually in the wontons instead of all around it!
Here is the Mandarin name for Wonton:  雲吞 yun tun (lit. cloud swallow).  Wonton is called "cloud swallow" because they are like clouds in your soup and they slip down your throat also like clouds.  I guess the English "wonton" derived from these two words, "yun-tun."

Another interest language tidbit is the name for basket: 籠 long "basket".  This word is composed of two other words, the character 龍 long, which means "dragon" and the radical 竹 zhu, which means "bamboo" (竹 is squashed significantly until it is small enough to hover over 龍).  This character is different than, say, 仙 xian, which means "immortal," which is composed of a man and a mountain and gains meaning from that juxtaposition.  籠 on the other hand takes two already established characters 龍 and 竹 and uses the sound of one, "long" (the sound for dragon), and the meaning of the other, "bamboo."  籠 and 龍 are pronounced exactly the same, with even the same rising tone--the only difference is the bamboo radical on top.  This is one way that characters--though not phonetic--can provide significant clues as to their meaning and their pronunciation.  Say I knew the word for dragon and bamboo and I had often eaten and talked about xiao long bao without ever investigating the individual meaning of the words.  If one day I came across a sign that said, "小籠包" I would be 99% certain of what I was reading. I would definitely be able to "read" the sign, even though I had never before come across that character.  I would know by context primarily, but I would have the overwhelming confidence of knowing that "dragon" which is a significant part of this new character is pronounced exactly the same.  I would also be able to guess, because of the very explicit way xiao long bao are steamed in bamboo containers, that "long" meant exactly those baskets, because of the addition of the "bamboo" radical.  So while Chinese characters seem very cryptic, they are built intelligently with a single purpose, and once you discover that purpose, or story, you almost never forget that character again, as though each character was a mnemonic device for itself.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Food Post 4: 臭豆腐 chou do-fu (stinky "bean rot") Stinky Tofu

If there is one treat that I consistently think about while living in America that I can only get in Taiwan, that one treat would be Stinky Tofu.  I've simply never seen it anywhere in America.  I suppose it is out there, but, the conditions really have to be right.  For one thing, anyone a block away would complain if a stinky tofu stand opened up anywhere in America.

The shop that Fiona and I used to go to is this one:

As you can see it's on the side of the road.  There is no sign, but it doesn't need one.  It's obvious what is s(m)ells.  We went with a friend at around 4 o'clock on Friday.  There was a 30 minute wait for their stinky tofu.  People kept pulling up in cars to pick up orders they had called in.

Why is stinky tofu so good?  I'm not sure.  The smell is really funky but it isn't as bad as some cheeses.  This is how they serve it:

Each piece of tofu is fried until it is a crisp box, and then when they put it on a plate, they break open the top, where there is still the soft white tofu.  Then they spoon chili sauce and garlic puree on top.  Then, finally, they put a sweet, tangy cured cabbage on top.  There is a great contrast between the textures, temperatures and flavors.  The textures are especially pleasant: the tofu is crisp and soft, the cabbage crunchy and rubbery.

In Chinese cooking special attention is given to 6 "flavors", which should all be balanced (they include a "spicy" and a "bland" beyond the normal four); well in this dish they add a 7th flavor: STINK.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Drink Post 3: 愛玉 ai yu (lit. love jade)

Oh another Asian jelly-ish thing!  While 燒仙草 was made from a variety of mint that has been dried and cooked, 愛玉 is made from a variety of fig that is only found in Singapore and Taiwan.  Here is how 愛玉 was discovered (courtesy wikipedia):
"According to oral history, the plant and the jelly were named after the daughter of a Taiwanese tea businessman in the 1800s. The jelling property of the seeds was discovered by the businessman as he drank from a river in Chiayi. He found a clear yellowish jelly in the water he was drinking and was refreshed upon trying it. Looking above the river he noticed fruits on hanging vines. The fruits contained seeds that exuded a sticky gel when rubbed.
Upon this discovery, he gathered some of the fruits and served them at home with honeyed lemon juice or sweetened beverages. Finding the jelly-containing beverage delicious and thirst-quenching, the enterprising businessman delegated the task of selling it to his beautiful 15-year-old daughter, Aiyu. The snack was very well received and became highly popular. So, the businessman eventually named the jelly and the vines after his daughter."
This story makes me chuckle a little bit.  Asian people have a reputation for eating just about anything and this story seems to confirm.  Personally, if I saw "a clear yellowish jelly" that was floating in the water I was drinking, I wouldn't try it!  Thankful, he did though.  愛玉 is a wonderful drink.  Just like 燒仙草 it cools you down.  The texture, as a jelly, is a little less clingy.  It can be sucked easily up a straw and once in the mouth it dissolves.  Below you can see what the ripe fruit looks like, and then what it looks like after it's been rubbed and dried.  All that's left are the seeds.

Now when you order 愛玉 you can get it in a variety of ways, but the classic and best was is with lemon.  Above in the video you can see the lady ladle out the 愛玉 then put in some ice, then she puts some black syrup in the drink and then the lemon juice. The black stuff is 黑糖 hei tang (black sugar) which we've seen before with 黑糖饅頭 hei tang man tou (black sugar steamed bun).  It's a type of cooked sugar, like molasses, though it's most often sold in a granulated form.  Here is the menu for 愛玉.  See if you can find what I got: "黑糖檸檬愛玉" hei tang ning-mung ai-yu (lit. black sugar lemon Ai-Yu).

Also not that the drink sizes run across the bottom.  You can get 大 da "big" or 中 zhong "middle".  

Drink Post 2: 燒仙草 shao xian cao (lit. boiled immortal grass) CookedGrass Jelly

If you remember the post about Narcisses flowers you might remember the character 仙 which is composed of the two radicals 亻 (person) and 山 (mountain), which together means immortal.  The character is used here again.  The English name for 仙草 is "grass jelly" and is usually found as a black jelly-like treat that is usually cut up into little cubes.  The herb that it is made from is indeed a plant, medicinal in this case, which is believed to have cooling properties when prepared in this way.  From Wikipedia, "Grass jelly is made by boiling the aged and slightly oxidized stalks and leaves of Mesona chinensis[1][2] (member of the mint family) with potassium carbonate for several hours with a little starch and then cooling the liquid to a jelly-like consistency.[1][3] .... The jelly itself has a slight bitter taste, a light iodine and lavender flavor, and is a translucent dark brown or sometimes perceived to be black."

The Taiwan twist, and where 燒 comes in, is that it is re-cooked (or perhaps never cooled in the first place) and then served in a bowl with lots of sweet additions, usually beans, tapioca, and barley.  As you will see in the video below, my 燒仙草 has, in the order taken:

紅豆 hong dou (lit. red bean), known as adzuki beans
地瓜 di gua (lit. earth melon)* sweet potato
大豆 da dou (lit. big bean) soybean**
綠豆 lu dou (lit. green bean) mung bean
粉圓 fen yuan (lit. powder ball) another name for the black tapioca balls that are in zhen zhu nai cha ("bubble milk tea")
湯圓 tang yuan (lit. soup ball), similar to fen-yuan but I think made from glutinous rice flour instead of tapioca 
地瓜圓 di gua yuan (lit. earth melon ball), similar to tang yuan but made with sweet potato starch
芋圓 yu yuan (lit. taro ball), similar to di-gua-yuan but made with taro root starch

It's actually quite a medley of flavors and textures. It's more of a meal than a drink, I guess, and as it grows colder as you eat it, the xian-cao which started as a thick liquid begins to turn into a jello-like substance. 

Foot notes: 
*other things that are a "gua" 瓜, melon, in Mandarin are watermelon, honeydew, papaya, cucumber, and gourds. I'm not sure what the classification standard is but I think it is the general oval shape with tapered edges that qualifies something as a "gua". 
**what we think of as soybean is 黃豆 huang dou (lit. yellow bean) but apparently 大豆 also translates into soybean.  I'm not sure what the difference is.  Soy milk, "dou-jiang," and soy sauce are both made from huang dou.  As far as I can tell, da dou looks similar to a kidney bean in size and color but not shape.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chinese Lesson Post 3: 生日 sheng ri (birth day) Birthday!

It's my birthday today, or 生日. This is the card that Fiona and William picked out for me.  Can you see how they disguised the second character?
Originally 日 was a pictorially derived character to represent the sun. What not just a circle, as children draw?  I'm not sure but my guess is that since the character based system began by carving on bones and tortoise shells at the beginning of Chinese culture as we know it, it wasn't easy to carve circular lines. Why is there a line in the middle?  Most likely to distinguish it from the character 口 which means 'mouth'.  日 looks similar to the character for moon which looks like this 月. They can be joined together to make another character pronounced, 'ming' 明.  Ming has two very different meanings, both of which make perfect sense when you consider that it is composed of 'sun' and 'moon'.  One meaning is 'bright' which means literal brightness as the light of the sun and moon would be together, and just like in English this 'bright' transfers over to also mean intelligent. Ming also means 'tomorrow', as in, after one sun and one moon passes, it will be 'tomorrow'.

One last thing. I always thought it was curious that when 生 and 日 are combined in their own character, 星, xing, it means 'star'.  In my imagination, it suggests that our birth and our 'stars' are connected, a latent belief in astrology. 

Chinese Lesson Post 2: 四 and 死

First look carefully at the picture of the elevator control panel from our hotel -- something is wrong with it yet it is approximately the same as every elevator I've been in in Taiwan.  Do you see it?  Or, as I should say, do you not see it?

In Mandarin the word for four sounds like 'si' with a descending tone, while the word for death has the same phonetic pronunciation as 'si' but with the lower, descending then rising tone. The characters don't look anything alike:
四 = four
死 = death

In any case, because the words are homophones, only varying in tone, 'si' is the most dreaded number in Chinese culture. Your cashier will shudder if your change is 444. And, more importantly, no one would rent a room on the fourth floor, so hotels and apartment buildings do without them. When I first moved to Taiwan, I rented a room on a 'fifth' floor, which was really a fake fourth floor. 

When you buy a Chinese set of teacups there will be five cups and never four in the set. Who wants to drink tea with the phantom of death lingering in the air!?

Other numbers are luckier however, especially 八 'ba' 8 which only has good connotations with lucky homophones. License plates, phone numbers, and security deposit boxes can often be auctioned off for thousands of dollars. The Beijing Olympics apparently started the opening ceremony at 8 seconds, 8 minutes after 8 o'clock on 8/8/08.