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.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Food Post 4: 鹹豆漿 xian dou-jiang (lit. salty bean broth) "salty soy milk?"

When Fiona said that this was good and that I would like it I thought that it was a drink because I heard, "xian dou-jiang" or "salty soy milk."  See the sign for it below:

It's actually a soup:

What's in it?  Well I think they cook the soy milk until it curdles, which I honestly didn't know it would do.  There is also 油條 you tiao (lit. oil stick) which is a long strip of dough that is fried until it puffs up.  You usually dip it in dou-jiang like one dips a biscoitti in coffee; here it's chopped up and put in the soup alongside big raw slices of green onion, pickled radish, 蝦米 xia mi (lit. shrimp rice), which is a very small shrimp the size and color of a grain of rice (see below), and I'm not sure what else is in the soup.  Case in point, when I finished the last bite, there was something clattering around my teeth and when I spit it out I saw that it was a small arm of a crab which, judging by the size of its claw, must have been no bigger than my thumbnail!  Here is the xia mi:

Here are some photos of the stand where we ate, which like most stands are simply on the side of the road:

Here is the menu, with all of what we ordered and the total (149NT, about 5 dollars):
Besides the man-tou and xian dou-jiang, we also got milk tea, scrambled egg, and what they call a "dan-bing" (egg with a flat bread squished on top) with pork chop.

Drink Post 1: 珍珠奶茶 zhen zhu nai cha (lit. precious bead milk tea) "pearl milk tea" aka "boba milk tea" aka "bubble milk tea"

It's hard to believe that the first stand to sell zhen zhu nai cha was in the 1980s in Taiwan.  Now it has spread all over the world, and it can often now be found in shopping malls in America or in any city with a significant south-east asian population.  But in Taiwan you can not walk down a street without finding a tea store, and if you are a tea store you also are most likely selling zhen zhu nai cha.

Served with a big straw and a top that has been heat sealed to the plastic cup, one must take the pointed straw and poke it through the lid and then take big gulps of milk tea mixed with fat chewy starchy balls of tapioca.

Here is a picture of the menu.  Can you find 珍珠奶茶?:

In the first video below you see a lady fill the shaker with tea, ice, and a sweet syrup.  In the next video they put the milk tea in the cup with zhen zhu and place it in the machine that heat seals a plastic top on.  In the third video, William drinks it!

I asked William 好吃嗎?  hao chi ma? (lit. good, eat, and "ma" indicates that it's a question)  "Is it good to eat?"
He replied, 好吃阿!          hao chi ah!  (lit. good eat  ah!)   "It's good ah!"
I guess with zhen zhu nai cha you can ask if it is good to drink OR good to eat! 

Food Post 3: 豆漿 dou jiang (lit. bean broth) "soy milk" and 饅頭 man tou, ("tou" means "head") "steamed bun"

A typical light breakfast is 豆漿 and 饅頭, and you can buy them nearly anywhere that sells breakfast on a Sunday morning like today.

The vat in front of the lady is filled with steamy dou-jiang.  Dou-jiang is usually served warm or hot and has a much thicker, earthier taste than supermarket soy milk in the states.  In the glass cabinent, which keeps the buns moist and hot, are the man-tou (note: coincidentally in the word for "tou" 頭 is the radical 豆 "dou" (bean) from "dou-jiang" ---  it's probably there because of the similarity of sound, as a clue as to how to pronounce 頭, but I also am reminded of British idioms where "head" is sometimes refered to as "bean"). 
We ordered two kinds of man-tou, 白饅頭, bai man-tou (bai means "white") and 黑糖饅頭, hei tang man-tou (hei means "black" and tang means "sugar", which is the same character used in the previous post about chestnuts, by the way); hei-tang is like a molasses flavor.  There is also 芋頭饅頭 yu-tou man-tou (yu-tou means taro root), which is purple.*  See the menu below (we've marked our order with a red marker).  They are each 12 NT.  31 NT = 1 USD. 

Inside they are light and steamy, with a light pleasant flavor that isn't too sweet.  I asked William if he had ever tasted a cloud, and then I told him that this was basically what a cloud tasted like!
*(Note: 頭 tou (lit. head) which you see in both the two character words for "taro root" and "steamed bun" is often appended to various nouns, e.g. rock is 石頭, but it doesn't add any meaning.  There is no good analogy that I can think of in English.  頭 doesn't change the meaning of the words 芋 and 饅, which by themselves still mean "taro root" and "steamd bun;" but as you can see it usually only is added to nouns that are roundish and perhaps hard.  The addition of 頭 evolved because Chinese is WAY too homophonic to begin with---there are probably 40 to a hundred words that are pronounced "yu" (rain, fish, leftovers, mistake, name a few) varied by the 4 tones, so 頭 is thrown in to distinguish some of the nouns apart.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chinese Lesson 1: 水仙

This is a pot of Narcissus and also, it looks like, some mint. The white tag says, "水仙 200 元".  
If you remember from the previous post, 元 yuan, is the Chinese currency, and it figures here as basically something similar to a dollar sign.  In Taiwan they have the New Taiwan Dollar, or NT.  In Mandarin it is called, tai bi, 台幣, or "Taiwanese Coin" but in any case sometimes you see "元" and sometimes you see"NT" after a number to indicate the Taiwan currency. 

水, shui, as some of my students know means "water"
仙, xian, is a word my students don't know, but they might know the two radicals it is composed of, 人(also written as亻), ren, which means person, and 山, shan, which means mountain.  仙 means an immortal being. 
Together 水仙 is like "water fairy" or "water immortal."  I'm not sure if this is a translation of the mythological figure of Narcissus, who stared into the water so long entranced by his own beauty that he became a flower, or if it's simply a similar take on the Narcissus flower that is known to propogate endlessly alongside bodies of water.  

Then take a look at the very complicated character on the flower pot itself.  It is actually a phrase that they squashed into one word.  The one word isn't in any dictionary, it's not a real word, so I can't even write it again here, but I can write the phrase: 招財進寶, zhao cai jin bao, "beckon wealth, enter treasure" one of the numerous four word phrases written on red strips of paper to welcome good luck and fortune in the new year.  

The words are not in any order, and they cheat a little bit but 財 and 招 are combined by writing 才 in 財 and the 扌 in 招 as one.  Also the 貝 in 寶 and 財 are also combined.  

Food post 2. 糖炒栗子 Li zi (lit. Sugar roasted chestnut)

The sign you see above is for roasted chestnuts
天津 = Tianjin, a harbor in China, the place where I assume the chestnuts are imported from, though perhaps they are grown in Japan (note the white Japanese character on the top of the sign)
糖炒 = tang chao, "sugar roasted."  The chestnuts are put in a machine like a clothes dryer with sand and brown sugar.
栗子 = Li zi, "chestnuts."
半斤80元 = ban jin "ba shi" yuan (lit. Half kilo 80 yuan)
ㄧ斤150元 = yi jin "yi bai wu shi" yuan (lit. One kilo 150 yuan).
Currently, one US dollar is about 31 Taiwanese yuan.  So how much did I pay for the half kilo that I bought?
 Here's the video!

Food Post 1. 蓮霧 Lian wu (lit. Lotus mist)

Baihe, where we are staying with my wife's family is a small district of Tainan province, which is fairly agricultural.  Baihe district has a similar population density of York county, which is as rural as it gets in Taiwan, the second most densely populated country in the world.  Because two thirds of the island is uninhabited mountainous terrain, on the ariable plains of the west coast the Taiwanese are very economical when it comes to land usage.  Even in the "country" houses are built almost on top of each other as they would be in a city.  There are no "yards" to speak of (literally---I have yet to learn of a mandarin equivilant).  If you have a nice house, maybe there is a courtyard, but otherwise, outside, land is used for personal vegetable gardens or fruit orchards--you even see scraggly looking sweet corn, which this time of year is getting ripe.  I've even seen people cultivate little patches on the stripes of land between roadways.  Everything else is farmland, and then mountains, where some fruit is grown and also tea at high altitudes where it grows more slowly, seasonally bathed in a steady, light mountainous mist.

Taiwan people are very fond of their tea and very proud of the fruit they grow: papaya, pineapple, white peaches, giant pears, plums of various sorts, huge sweet watermelon, strawberries, guava, mango, and so on.  To keep against insects and bruising, sometimes a styrofoam netting is used inside a plastic bag that is tied around the fruit while it still is ripening on the bough, thus you often drive past fields of trees all covered with white plastic bags, which is a sight I never get used to.

The most interesting, unique fruit that I've only ever seen in Taiwan is 蓮霧, referred  to in English as wax apple or mist apple.  The taste is light, sweet, but the texture is the strangest part. It seems as though the mountainous mist in which it was bathed crystolized into its present form-- something between styrofoam and cantaloupe.  A third of it seems to be air, and as that goes, you seem to be able to indefinitely eat them without getting too full, like a fruit from paradise that never becomes unsatisfying.  

This variety is referred to as 黑珍珠 hei zhen zhu (lit. Black precious bead) "black pearl".  

Cut in half--no seeds.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Not Vegetables, But Vegetation

During the Lunar New Year in Chinese cultures, you hear a lot about "Spring Coming", or see it emblazoned in gold on red paper, hanging or pasted on doorways and windows.  There is no hint of Spring coming in Pennsylvania with temperatures playing around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but Spring is definitely present here in Baihe, which sits on the Tropic of Cancer in a humid subtropical climate.  Check out these balconies:
Baihe District is about a tenth the size of York County, but with approximately the same population density (which means Baihe is as country as it gets in Taiwan, which otherwise is the second most densly populated country in the world), but with some of the region being mountainous, most of the population centers around Baihe town.  

Not only are balconies filled with potted plants but also store fronts from 7-elevens to mom-and-pops are lined with a tropical variety of fragrant and strange plants.  What are the plants exactly?  
Osmanthus, fragrant enough to smell across the street and a great plant to have if there are "off" smells on the street outside your store. 
This is a type of hanging fern that has antler-shaped leaves. 
Orchids are everywhere, as are cosmos this time of year!
Strange bamboo.
Baihe is known for its lotus flowers.  Here a rice field has been left for lotuses. Yes, even here in the town there are lots left for farming!  
On the outskirts of town, a vegetable garden!

Friday, February 13, 2015

飲料 : Drinks!

While food is essential to one's experience in Taiwan, drinks are omnipresent.  Every street has at least one tea stand selling all kinds of tea drinks, usually sweetened or with milk, but sometimes, if the tea is good enough quality, without anything at all to alter the natural flavor.  Often the teas are mixed with fruit (kumquat, passionfruit, apple -- popular choices) or sometimes jellies or tapioca creations.  Sometimes no tea at all is involved.  Watermelon milk, papaya milk, taro milk, and avocado milk drinks are just as popular.

So, here is the drinks list:

高山茶 gao shan cha (lit. high mountain tea) - High Mountain Tea
西瓜牛奶 xi gua niu nai (lit. "western-melon" cow milk) - Watermelon Milk
酪梨牛奶 ruo li niu nai (lit. "curdled milk-pear" cow milk) - Avocado Milk
燒仙草 shao xian cao (lit. "boiled-immortal-grass") - Shao Xian Cao (a boiled herb that turns into a jelly when chilled)
愛玉 ai yu (lit. love jade) - Ai Yu (another type of fruit/herb that when processed creates a greenish, transparent jelly-substance that is ultimately drunk)
太極紅茶 tai ji hong cha (lit. "The Supreme Ultimate" red tea) - Black Tea (from a tea store chain with the name Tai-Ji, or "The Supreme Ultimate", a mythological idea--the source of all things)
珍珠奶茶 zhen zhu nai cha (lit. "precious bead" milk tea) - Pearl Milk Tea ("bubble tea")

For both this drinks' list, and the previous post of food, there are many, many things that I didn't have time to conclude or thought of in retrospect.  I will therefore post anything and everything interesting I eat or drink while in Taiwan.  These were simply teasers.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The List

With the prospect of returning to a town where you once lived--slowly memories rise up and break on the surface of your mind.  As I look to return to Taiwan for two weeks--to Chiayi, where I lived for four years--similarly memories keep popping up, out of the blue.  Overwhelmingly, they are memories of food.  So, on scraps of paper about the house, I have started writing down items that I look forward to eating.  Some are traditional dishes that are common to many people's experience with Taiwanese cuisine, while other dishes are to a particular street, a particular vendor where I would most often frequent.  Some dishes are just plain amazingly delicious--and some are simply steeped in the sauce of nostalgia.  In any case, I'm challenging myself to remember, eat, and document as many as possible!

The list, thus far:

臭豆腐 chou dou-fu (lit. stinky "bean-decay") : Stinky Tofu
洋蔥沙拉 yang-cong sha-la (lit. "foreign-scallion" sha-la) : Onion Salad
火雞肉飯 huo ji rou fan (lit. "fire-chicken-meat" rice) : Turkey Rice
豬血糕 zhu xue gao (lit. pig blood cake) : Pig's Blood Cake
小籠包 xiao long bao (lit. small basket bun) : (a type of steamed dumplings!)
烤鴨 kao ya (lit. roast duck) : Roasted Duck
滷味 lu wei (lit. a stew in soy sauce and spices, flavor) : Lu Wei!  
麵線 mian xian (lit. noodle line) : Thin Noodles
刈包 gua bao (lit. ??? bun) : Taiwanese Hamburger

(刈包 gua bao : Taiwanese Hamburger)

That's it for now, but I'll be sure to add more.  Also, coming soon, a list of all the yummy drinks!