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.