26 October 2010

The Local Night Market

There's a night market near the part of town known as "Little Canada"; the subway station name is translated as"Kaohsiung Arena" but in Chinese? Jui-Feng, the name of the market. It's also nowhere to be seen on my map, despite being the biggest and most popular one in town. I was the only foreigner there when my local friend took me; it was so packed I felt like I was back in Taipei.

First start off with a small bit of something fried:

The Taiwanese know how to do bacon - I went for one of the pink ones at the front. The meat is almost raw (no, I didn't get sick afterwards) wrapped around green onions. So you get to really savour all that amazing fatty-ness but it's offset by the fresh onions. So it tastes light. Oh, yeah, he also used to work at this stand. So we didn't pay for anything the whole night. Awesome.

Then we move on to heavier fair: Barbecued tofu with pickled cabbage.


The tofu is really soft, but given great texture by getting a crisp outside and then being topped off with pickled cabbage. Then a bunch of hot sauce and sweet barbecue sauce is thrown on. These are things that people in the West trying to cook with tofu need to remember: texture and flavour - you gotta work both for it to be good. But it really, really can be.

An amuse - bouche of taro, strawberry, melon, and mystery flavoured sweets:


They're kept on ice, and very cold. The outside is gelatinous (think flavour-less jello) and then the inside is flavoured in a powdery yet doughy way. It's light and refreshing and not too sweet. Like I said before, interesting textures, not very much sugar.

Finally, I love being on the ocean; the seafood here is amazing.


Snails: chewy, lightly cooked, spicy. Eating them involves and expert digging system with an oversized toothpick and lots of napkins.


Best sashimi and roe - fresh, nothing on top.

Then a nightcap of gambling:


Pick 15 blocks, flip and match the pictures. If you get a diagonal, you win. I didn't, nor did I see anyone else who did. Thankfully my food stupor kept me from caring too much.

22 October 2010

First Typhoon Day!

I've been an absolute heathen about posting - but with good reason! I started training at my job yesterday and am hopefully going to sign a lease tonight, weather permitting.

That being said, I was a little horrified when I got the text message today "don't come in, the school is closed because of the typhoon". What? Really? But when it comes down to it, it's just the Taiwanese version of a snow day. So after a somewhat embarrassing trip to the 7-11 to stock up on pot noodles and chocolate; I'm ready to blog, read the news, and watch movies all day. I have to say, I'm looking forward to it.
[Edit: I ended up doing the pre-move-in Ikea trip today, it turns out that all the stores are open and shopping is how most people pass the time if it's not too bad out]

A note on culture shock, I've become completely addicted to iced tea in all of its miraculous forms.


It comes with everything here and there are about half a dozen tea stands per block. This picture shows a buffet lunch with free iced black tea (which is "red tea" in Mandarin). Ordering tea here is an art form:

First, you decide what kind of tea you want: black tea, green tea, and occasionally fruit tea. Then there are many, many flavours. Favourite black teas include: special pudding tea and black milk tea. Often black teas have tapioca, "bubble tea" to us North Americans. Green teas often come with amazing fresh fruit juice, at present my two favourites are passion fruit and grapefruit.

Now, even getting to this preliminary step can still be a challenge. It often involves taking out things people have written down for me in my phrase book and attempting different gestures to describe that I want tapioca.

Thankfully, the next two steps are easier because once you know what they mean, they can be done with pointing at the menu. They let you decide the level of sugar you want: supersaturated, normal, low, or none. Now, for fruit teas it's my personal taste to go for low sugar or no sugar, because they're usually sweet already. But for black teas, you're definitely going to want normal because low sugar is way too bitter for North American taste buds.

Then it's time to decide how much ice you want; I find though I'm often tempted to go for the low, normal levels keep me from slurping down these ridiculous concoctions too quickly.

Also, another note.

Adjusting to the humidity, I've attempted a few things:

The first, as shown in the picture, is trying out those buffets as a way to increase veggie intake. They're usually just lightly pan-friend. So what you see is pretty much what you get. (Also, that brown oval? It's an egg that's been hard boiled in, yep, tea - they're aromatic and delicious. But you have to be careful, they sell them everywhere and sometimes they've been sitting out for a long time and have gotten a rubbery skin on the outside. It's best to go either right at the beginning or right at the end of a meal time when they've just been changed) I was also trying not to drink too much tea, because it really was getting excessive. But I then found myself ridiculously lethargic. I was all grumpy and headachey and it was hard to haul my butt up stairs.

But I had some instant coffee this morning - and I feel amazing! Staying over-caffeinated might be reasonable for the time being. It's at least more useful than what this guy has to say.

13 October 2010

On a Personal Note...

I left the insanity of Taipei - and slowed my eating and touristing quite significantly. So to those people here after food porn, you'll have to wait a minute.

After just over a week there trying to recover from my initial culture shock (and jet lag) I decided it was time to get down to the business of deciding what to do with myself while I was here. So I made a quick trip down to Taichung, and then a little further into Kaohsiung.

View Larger Map

I really enjoyed Taichung and found a community of women my age in a place called the Cat Cafe where I played Jenga, ate some truly horrendous food, and learned how to order bubble tea in Mandarin. But it didn't quite feel right, so I kept moving.

Kaohsiung hit my gut the second I walked off the train. That feeling has only gotten stronger the longer I spend here.

Look, look! Wide boulevards with lots of space to catch ocean air, a huge, palm tree-lined park in the centre of town, and a bike rental system not unlike my beloved bixi.


There's a general attitude about town that just makes me smile:


And, yes, I am listening to The Band right now.

I have also, it should be noted, developed an extremely guilty pleasure:


MOS Burger, which was described to me as the "Japanese McDonald's" has an oddly quiet environment (all of them, and they're everywhere), fantastic packaging, and delicious yet slightly odd food. The burgers have an onion-y stir fry sauce on top. The sides include fries, but also fried chicken, red bean rolls, and this really, really gross salad concoction. They also have an English menu - and after a couple of weeks I have to admit, that there are some moments when I'm just not prepared to accidentally end up with organ meats (which I don't presently have a taste for, although I hope to develop one) or, say, fish heads. It's nice to just sit, chill, and watch the high school students staring at me.

So then, job hunting, and maybe some rants about body image and beauty ideals?

08 October 2010

Not very sweet, but chewy.

To begin with, two famous cakes:



Both are chewier and less sweet than what I'm used to for dessert. The former tastes a lot like lemon shortcake, the latter like nothing I've had in North America. Both are pleasant and accessible flavours and textures to my palette.

Another Taiwanese speciality? Frozen condensed milk with fruit piled on top. The fruit is much sweeter than the milk, the juices all run into it and the whole thing is refreshing and lovely.


Then we have the bizarre interpretations of American favourites.

An oddly dry and not sweet donut pastry with two different types of jam going on the inside of each tube. What?


These cupcakes were purchased at an upscale department store attempting Western desserts. The pastry here sucks. Again, dry, unsweet, and filled with gushy jam stuff. But damn, they look gorgeous.


At a Hong Kongese restaurant they served us cream soda with milk - apparently a favourite. Again, the milk makes the cream soda less sweet. But the whole thing gave me a tummyache.


Finally, we just have the inexplicable:


Got boobs?

04 October 2010

Go Tell it on the Mountain

This is the first time I've experienced sublimity in its original sense:


This picture was taken (Thanks, Greg!) from the top of Seven Star Mountain at Yangmingshan National Park yesterday.

This summer a friend of mine said, "If someone asks you if you're going to something - say yes." Greg asked if anyone wanted to go with him and I immediately agreed.

(A brief paranthesis: I speak absolutely no Mandarin and Taiwan isn't consistent in which romanization it uses for names. Thus, it's often difficult for me to figure out what is being referred to in conversation because I can barely understand what's being said and I'm unsure of how to spell anything. I often only figure out where I'm headed once I'm on the way and I can ask people to show me on a map. This has yielded excellent results though I'm not sure how long it will last before it becomes unreasonable that I'm not learning Mandarin. I can't wait to start blogging about how difficult a language it is.)

I thought I was going for a relaxing day of hot springs when this little adventure began. In fact, it was a two hour hike (with some pretty serious uphill action) for which I was thankfully prepared after a summer of trekking about BC with my pack. It ended with a group of elderly locals who'd hiked part way up the mountain with tea and cakes which they offered to us and my better-educated travel companion charmed them in Mandarin enough to chat for three cups of tea.

Afterwards, what better way to unwind than going to a night market and eating my own weight in food? I ended up at Shilin where we feasted on Taiwanese Steak, a lovely concoction of tender beef, mushroom sauce, overcooked pasta, and an egg that cooks as you eat the steak - all served with a rich, custardy bun!


Unfortunately, at this point, we had to ditch the Australian (Matt - he's a really nice guy who knows a lot about the local food. No weird stereotypes here.) because he has the ridiculous quality of not liking to shop. So the ladies took off!

Of course, this just lead to dessert.


Deep fried milk; a light crispy batter with sweet rich dairy on the inside.

Which lead to second dessert...


Candied fruit! It pretty much tastes like what one might put on a candied apple, except that those perfect-looking red globes in the middle? They're actually cherry tomatoes! It seemed utterly bizarre to me at the first bite, but by the second tomatoe I was experiencing them as a fruit and not a vegetable. This was a first for me and contributed to my "Asians don't like overly sugary desserts" theory.

And that lead to my embarrassing facebook picture, which I will leave you to peruse at your own leisure and curiosity.

Today I went to Jinguashi with a new friend who's from the south of the country. At the market, all the food stands offered free samples and he took me, had me try everything, and explained what they all were to me. I ate giant ocean snail thingies!


Not only did his charming family take me out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner - but they also took me to my first tea house.


It overlooked the windswept ocean and mountainsides dotted with temples. They wouldn't let me touch the tea, though. But I watched and managed to glean this:

First you wash the leaves with boiling water and pour this into your cups to heat them and imbue them with the flavour of the new tea (in the event of switching varieties).

Then, you steep the second bowl very briefly and pour; each bowl is steeped for a progressively longer time (presumably learned by watching your parents and intuition).

You don't say thank you when someone re-fills your cup (which happens about every 2 - 5 minutes), but simply continue eating delightful little pastries filled with various sweetened, fermented bean pastes and jellies or watching mountains, or chatting. The latter was made difficult by my not speaking Mandarin and the family not speaking English. Not that I had words after this almost obscene display of generosity.

I've never had a more perfect day.

29 September 2010

Immediate Impressions

The first thing I noticed about Taipei was how wonderful it smelled. I'm in a ludicrously densely populated sub-tropical city and all that's running through my head is my nose automatically scrunching at the thought of London, New York, or Toronto in the summer. Here, a typical street smells of Buddhist incense and amazing food. The temples are even more incredible - offerings of flowers and fruit (and the occasional bag of doritos) and sticks of incense nearly as thick as my wrist. The first temple I visited was Longsham.

More interestingly, though, was that after I went I somehow got sucked into participating (read: cat whisker face paint) in a "Taiwan heritage cat festival". The origins of which remain unclear; however, I did end up seeing an exhibit explaining some of Taipei's history with some cool old photos (the killing of all political dissidents during the Chang Kai Shek era was never mentioned, just the building of infrastructure). Here is a picture of teenaged ballet students putting on a show for the festival:


After some culture shock at an outdoor market (live chicken getting its head chopped off!), I got taken out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Ximen where they serve you on your knees. Oh, wait. More culture shock! Thankfully, my hosts were very supportive of my food porn project. Also, I learned that the way to eat pork from a hotpot is to dip it in raw egg with your chopsticks and then put the whole slimy, fatty bite in your mouth. Awesome.


The next day I worked up an appetite hiking Elephant Mountain with a hostel buddy and making friends with some local college students, it was time to eat!

Luckily, this time we had a local to take us to the most famous restaurant in Taiwan. Their specialty is steamed dumplings with broth already inside! So there's some delicious salty-chewy meat and broth all in one delicious bite. Word to the wise: no matter how much you want to just gobble them up, give them a minute or you'll just burn your tongue. Also, they were served with a small dish of pickled ginger; add some soy sauce and rice vinegar then dip for the full effect. It's definitely interesting trying to get all of this into my palette at once.


After that it was time for dessert! Head over the the Shida night market for some fresh mango served over ice and brown sugar with a scoop of mango ice cream on top.


The fruit is sweeter than the ice cream! And the Chinese character for brown sugar is black sugar! There's not too much else to say, how could this not be good?

But, since we were lucky enough to have a local guide for the evening, we were told that we shouldn't stop eating:


This is not a chicken pie. It's just really basic fried chicken. The batter is pretty thick, but it's spicier than you would get in Canada. Overall, really good if a little greasy. But when is fried chicken not good?

Today was less exiting food-wise but I did get to take the gondola to MaoKong today!

And so now, a question to whoever might be reading this (and is able to work commenting features!) do you want the booze post or the dessert post next? In the mean time, feel free to head over to my flickr stream for the ol' digital camera dump.

28 September 2010

Group Poll

So they sell these shirts in my hostel:


From what I can tell, the idea is to wear the shirt then fold it into the envelope on the front. From there, you can mail it to loved ones.

And then they can smell you even when you're far away.

So, loved ones, how do we feel about this as a group?