Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eating My Way Through Taiwan: My Locust Impersonation

Typical Carts - This one serves "Salty Chicken"
I thought about titling this post: Eating My Way Through Taiwan: The Return to Stink, but I realized I’m not going to the same place with this one. How many pieces can you write about Tofu, stinky or otherwise? It’s just bean curd after all. But the adventure didn’t end in the Stinky Tofu place. The adventure had only just begun, although it now became a bit less dangerous.

To tell the truth, there is only so much Stinky Tofu one can eat at one sitting, and that amount is nowhere near enough to be filling. In short, I was still hungry. So we decided to be like ravenous locusts descending on downtown Taoyuan City and lay waste to any unsuspecting cart that smelled like something delicious was happening there.

In my opinion, the food carts are where it happening in Taiwan. Anyone can walk into a restaurant and find a delicious meal. But you have to pay a price. I went to TGI Fridays, recently, they have them in Taiwan; for $15.00 USD I ate a hamburger and French Fries. I tried to offset the price and make it a reasonable value by drinking approximately 12 gallons of ice tea. But after about a gallon or so, I had to make too many trips to the rest room and had to abandon that plan. The food was marginal, (like all TGI Fridays) and it took me about ten minutes to order Iced Tea. I eventually ordered Hot tea and large glass of ice, then had show all of the waitresses what I was doing. They don’t do iced drinks in Taiwan, because in the words of one waitress drinking iced drinks with a hot meal is not “good for your healthy.” If you are the manager of TGI Fridays, please do not construe this as criticism; I don’t want to go to jail.

There are a number of reasons I like the carts. 1) I can eat at the carts all day for much less then $15.00 USD. 2) I can only order what they cook. Most do only one thing and some do it very well; and 3) This is where you will find the real foods of Taiwan.

Ten "Xiao Long" stacked and ready to steam
After the Stinky Tofu cart, we plotted a course through town. The first stop was purely educational in nature. My friend had brought breakfast one morning and he bought, Xiao Long Bao, from a particular vendor. It was delicious so I asked him where he had gotten it, he promised to show me one day and this trip was his first opportunity to keep that promise. Xiao Long Bao, is similar to Bao zi (steamed buns), but it is steamed in a container called a “Long.” A long is a bamboo steamer tray that is stacked up to ten high over boiling water and the Bao (either pork or vegetable) is steamed and served by the long. There are six to eight bao zi per long. “Xiao” means small. So xiao long means small containers, there are also large containers called “da long.” Because they are “xiao long bao,” the bao zi are a bit smaller. The vendor graciously took me through his kitchen to see the process. One long of xiao long bao costs $60 NTD (about $2 USD). This is a filling breakfast.

Fried Bao zi vendor, look at all the customers
After that excursion into education it was time to begin to do our locust impressions. The first place we swooped was a fried bao Zi vendor. These bao zi are a bit larger than the xiao long bao, and they’re fried as opposed to being steamed. I had never tried them like this. They are served hot off the grill, with a sauce, either spicy or mild, in a plastic bag. The idea is that you are going to take them someplace to eat them, because there is no place to eat them at the cart. This cart was incredibly busy. The man was cooking fifty bao zi at a time and couldn’t keep up with the demand. We had to wait about ten minutes to eat. The price was $10 NTD per bao zi (about 30 cents USD). The spicy sauce was perfect for me and the pork was well seasoned and delicious. I could see why this cart was so popular. One thing I should mention about frying in Taiwan is that there is very little oil used. Oil is mostly for flavor, water is added to the oil prior to heating it.

Cong You Bing or "Spring Cakes"
Next stop was for Cong You Bing. I don’t know what to call these in English that would mean anything. I have heard them called Spring Cakes, but that name is really meaningless. The name translates to Green Onion Oil Flat Cakes. The bing or cake is made of a potato starch and seasoned with green onion then fried. You can order Cong You Bing with an egg fried onto it, as well. These were delicious and once again I ordered mine a little spicy. $30 NTD (about 1.00 USD each.)

We followed that up with a trip to the Night market for Oyster Omelots. These are omelets made with eggs, fried with oysters and mustard greens. They were made famous by the teen idol drama, “Corner with Love,” starring Barbie Xu and Brian Luo (aka Show Luo.) Unfortunately they were closed, so we went for Spare Rib Soup at another place.

"Show" Low and Barbie Xu - Corner With Love
The spare rib soup consisted of a light beef broth and held on spare rib. The soup was delicious, but quite skimpy in my opinion. The price was $30 NTD or $1 USD for a small bowl. There is a lady near my home who makes Noodles. In there she includes, home-made noodles, pork, and vegetables. She serves the best noodles I have ever eaten, a filling bowl for $40 NTD ($1.30 USD), a much better bargain.

Finally, I was about full, but my friend had one more stop. We stopped at one last place for “Spring Rolls.” I call them the Chinese Burrito. They are made of vegetables, a fried egg powder and sometimes have pork as well. They are wrapped in a white flour wrapper that looks like a tortilla, but isn’t. They are really delicious. They’re about the size of burrito and cost about $30NTD ($1 USD).

Rollin' up a "Chinese Burrito"
My friend is a much more intrepid adventurer than I am. He was ready to continue on, but I couldn’t. I was done. I was afraid that if I continued to eat that at some point my food would make an unfortunate reappearance. I’m not into gluttony. I like food, but I know my limits. I should comment that I weigh about 76.6 kilos or 168 lbs, about three pounds more than I weighed at my high school graduation thirty-eight years ago.

Other posts you may be interested:

Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  Bao zi
An American Presence:  What I Don't Miss in Taiwan
Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  Niu Rou Mian

Corner With Love photo credit: asianpopcorn.com
All other photos;  Chris Banducci

Monday, July 18, 2011

Random Asianess: The Written Driver's License Test

Today, I want to go back to the Driver’s License test. I’ll get to part two of the, “Stink of Adventure,” (July 11, 2011) soon. But I ventured away from this and I want to be sure I finish it. In the way of total disclosure, I need to say that I still haven’t gotten my Taiwanese Driver’s License. I can pass the test, I’m sure of it. It’s just that I don’t really have time to jump through all of the hoops that have been placed before me. But I’ll get there. I just need to get one of my friends to spend a day with me and I think I can meet all the objections.

I’m a disabled person, which makes it a little more difficult to get a license. One of the requirements for the license was that I add a “suicide ball,” or as it is known here, a “wheel handle knob.” This is a little spinning handle that attaches to the steering wheel so that you can use it to turn the wheel. The wheel handle knob is easily attached with four little Allen screws; the knob even comes with an Allen wrench with which to attach it. But the MVO requires that a licensed professional attach any disabled vehicle modifications. So I need to have a professional do it. I can’t get it done by a mechanic at Ford either; it must be done by someone holding a special disabled modification professional’s license. So that seems to be the holdup. It seems a bit extreme, but rules are rules. All of this must be done prior to taking the written exam.

The infamous "Wheel Handle Knob"
I have taken the written exam once…and I failed it. The test can be taken on the computer, in English. The difficulty is that the study materials are printed only in Chinese. If I could read the study materials, then I wouldn’t need to take the exam in English. There are a number of practice exams on the Internet. If you practice them and carefully check which answer you miss, you can learn to take the test.

The first time I took the test the English language version had a number of problems. Some of the questions made no sense at all. There were many misspelled words and some words I couldn’t find in an English dictionary. But since that time President Ma Ying Jiu has encouraged his staff to rework all official uses of the English language so that they are more accurate and understandable. The result is a much more easily understood test.

There are still some things that need improvement. Some questions are still not easily understood, there are still a number of spelling errors and there are still some made up words. But I have easily passed all the practice tests I have taken recently. So great strides have been made.

The test can be taken in eight languages: Chinese, English, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Burmese (Myanmar). The MVO staff encourages you to take the computer practice tests prior to trying the written test at the MVO. In the past, one was only able to take the written test in English in Taipei, but now it’s available in any MVO office.

The test consists of a series of questions on road signs, rules of the road and penalties for violating traffic laws. These are mostly about penalties for drunk driving or the use of drugs and alcohol on public roadways. But there are questions abot professional licenses, such as truck drivers and taxi drivers. There are also questions on penalties for driving without a license. These are the most difficult to learn. The signs are pretty obvious most of the time. The rules of the road are similar to the rules of the road in California. But the penalties are different and sometimes don’t seem to make much sense.

Finally, most of the questions that are not worded properly have been weeded out, but you come across one or two in the test that may confuse you. The following question is from the test.  See if you can figure it out, before you look at my answer:

Drivers are required to:
(1) pull their vehicles out of the lane and stop on the road are required toer, and wait for rescue.
(2) Stop immediately and ask passengers to get off the vehicles to seek rescue,
(3) Call their friends to tow the vehicle if their vehicles break down on freeway.

Toer?  Oh I see you mean the shoulder of the road
This is a difficult question because I can’t find the word toer in any dictionary. The appropriate answer is (1), because what I have determined the answer is saying is to pull over onto the marked shoulder of the road and wait in the car. They don’t want you walking around on the freeway or having non-professionals towing your car, because these things may create more danger to you and others.

I will probably complete the process in the next few weeks, meanwhile, you can find the written practice tests here.

Other posts you may be interested in:
Random Asianess:  Driving in Taiwan
Cultural Unawareness:  The Wheels of Bureaucracy Turn Slowly
Cultural Unawareness:  You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eating My Way Through Taiwan: The Stink of Adventure

There is Adventure on the Horizon!
 I debated what to call this post. I toyed around with the idea of calling it, Eating Around. But there was more to it than just eating in a lot of different places. It was kind of a culinary adventure, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t really all that adventurous, well not for me anyway. I’ll try eating just about anything once, maybe twice depending on whether or not I got the full gastronomical sensation the first time. (Some of these words make it look as if I’m getting paid by the letter.) I’m not like my children who consider mushrooms on their Pizza to be the worst possible hardship. I don’t even want to think about their reaction to Anchovies!

But on to the adventure…My family left for a visit to America, I was to follow a week later. So, I was on my own. When living in the same house and sharing space with my wife, I am required to follow certain rules and regulations, which are enforced for the good of my marriage. Aside from the obvious marriage breakers, my wife enforces some fairly strict culinary requirements. You may think that she’s thinking of my health, not allowing me to eat high cholesterol or fatty foods, ensuring that I don’t become a casualty to heart disease, cancer or diabetes. You might think that, but if you did you would be wrong. Her concern revolves around something much more sensitive than those things, her concerns are olfactory.

World Class "Xtreme Cooking" Practitioners
Taiwanese people occasionally engage in “Xtreme Cooking.” This kitchen-based sport revolves around liberal uses of odiferous spices, herbs and other things. It may even make use of foods, that in themselves, have a high stench coefficient. These types of foods have been included in the “illicit foods” list in our household. I have been told, on more than one occasion, that if I come home with the scent of any of these contraband food substances on my breath, in my skin or on my clothing that I will be sleeping folded into my desk chair, if I’m allowed in the house at all.

But for the moment, the storm troopers, er, uh…enforcement team was gone. So I did the only thing I could do, I immediately checked the “Summary of Forbidden Foods.” What should I do first…More Garlic snake? No, that’s too mundane. Do I need to make a trip through the night market, allowing my nose to guide me to the Xtreme Cooking experts? Completely unnecessary. A friend who had heard me speak wistfully of a food, which was at the top of that list, a sensitive person, who obviously cares for the real essence of manhood, solved the dilemma with two questions. Two questions which speak directly to the core of  mankind’s need for adventure. Two questions which were shockingly simple. They weren’t complex and requiring great thought. They weren’t like the question that caused Charles Mallory, an early pioneer of Mt Everest, to hesitate and shyly answer, “Because it’s there.” No these were direct, to the point, there could only be one answer for each of these questions. The first, was a call to adventure, it was framed, on the idea that the time was now…that opportunity may knock only once and then drift off to find someone who would answer more promptly. In other words there was an urgency to this question that could not be denied, “Did your wife leave for America, today.” I was tingling with expectation. The question that followed was so obvious that I was embarrassed not to have thought of it myself, “Do you want to try Stinky Tofu.” It was brilliant, I almost wept at the elegance of the idea.

Of course, I wanted to try it. Every time, my wife smelled it and wrinkled her nose and complained that the odor was the worst thing she had ever smelled, I had to wonder what something like that would taste like. The smell was like a siren call to me. It tantalized, no less than the mermaids of old tantalized the men of the sea back in the day. Although, I will admit that as food it is entirely appropriate in it’s name. But perhaps, to an adventurer that was the allure.

After all, what caused men to climb the highest peaks in the world? No one who has ever climbed a mountain has ever been heard to exclaim, “I want to do it because it will be easy and I just love a nice, cozy tent.” No! The cold, the danger, the difficulty, those were the things that drew men to death zone of Everest. The danger and the discomfort were the draw. This is what makes an adventure, an adventure. I was ready to throw aside the comfort foods, I cared not for the delicately flavored tasty combinations; I had a hunger for adventure. There are two ways to prepare Stinky Tofu, I had only to choose one, and my friend like a trusty Sherpa guide, would get me there.

What is Stinky Tofu? It’s Tofu with a twist. They take the soy bean curd, (that’s what Tofu is) and they ferment it. People in Asia do this with a number of foods. Kim chi is fermented cabbage. Thousand-year-old eggs are fermented eggs. Stinky Tofu is fermented soy bean curd.

They either steam it or deep-fry it. I have heard, from more than one source, some of them were even Taiwanese, that, steamed Stinky Tofu, tastes exactly like it smells. I’ve seen it, and it looks like it smells, as well. Hey, in food, even for me, presentation is important. So I opted for the deep fried type. The lust for adventure runs deep in my family…but not that deep.

Stinky Tofu, at Arm's Length
I found it to be surprisingly tasty. It was covered with sauce and topped with cabbage and raw garlic. In Xtreme Cooking using odor combinations garners bonus points, for style.  I have spoken to a number of Taiwanese people about food. In fact, I talk to everyone about food. Most of the Taiwanese people I speak to name Stinky Tofu among their favorite foods. I met a bunch of seventh graders who claimed they liked Stinky Tofu better than ice cream, to them the greatest of all possible foods would be Stinky Tofu flavored Ice Cream.  I wish I could remember where I left Ben and Jerry's personal cell phone number, they could make a fortune in Taiwan with that flavor.

I enjoyed Stinky Tofu, the forbidden fruit of Taiwan; well, forbidden in my house, anyway, but I think it’ll be a while before I eat it again. My wife isn’t planning on traveling again any time soon.

See, It Looks Good Enough to Eat
 Note:  This adventure didn’t end with just the consummation of my desire to taste Stinky Tofu. It was, after all, an adventure of monumental scope. We traveled throughout Taoyuan City stopping at a number of food carts. These are little carts where people prepare food, right on the side of the road. These are the places where you can really get the taste of Taiwan. I’ll talk about the rest of the adventure soon.

Other Posts you may be interested in:

Eating My way Through Taiwan:  Hei Tong Cuo Bing
Eating My way Through Taiwan:  Buddha Jumps Over the Wall
Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  Niu Rou Mian

Monday, July 4, 2011

Taiwanese Tradition: The Hidden Temples of Taiwan

Taiwan is a religious country. The traditional Taiwanese religion permeates just about every facet of society. Almost all of the holidays and events in Taiwan are based on religious festivals. Only a few notable days like, Double Tenth Day, the celebration of the Wuchang uprising, or 228 which marks the slaughter of 10,000 innocent Taiwanese are “political” holidays. The other holidays are religious in nature.

New businesses are often opened with a blast of fireworks and the traditional lion dance. The purpose of the lions is to drive out and devour evil spirits. Building are designed with Feng Shui principles, (yes, Feng Shui is religion) designed to insure prosperity or harmony. It is extremely common to drive down the street and see people burning “Hell Money” to bless their dead ancestors who may be awaiting reincarnation. People care for stray dogs and remove cockroaches from the house and take them outside out of concern that they may be some poor unfortunate person doomed to that life because of bad karma in their previous life. Taiwan is a religious country.

So it isn’t surprising that on a recent scooter ride that I stumbled upon a number of “hidden” temples.

Within a radius of ½ kilometer of my house there are no less than eight temples. This isn’t unusual. Only one of them is of any size the others are small hidden temples, dedicated to local deities. There may be others that I haven’t stumbled upon yet.

The one I most recently discovered, I found as I rode through the rice fields. I love rice fields, I like to ride through them and look at the rice. I usually do this in the early morning, when the birds are feeding there. This particular morning I was deep into the cultivated fields when I saw a couple of tombs. They were family tombs, built on the family’s fields so the family could properly care for them. Behind the tombs was the family’s personal temple. They built the temple as a way to honor their ancestors buried there. Incense from early morning worship was still burning.

There is another small neighborhood temple about a half block from my home. I often see neighbors there bringing offerings of fruit and liquor, burning incense and “Hell Money” or praying and asking the local deity to meet their needs or grant their wishes.

There is a huge park near my home called Yang Ming Park. On either side of the park there are temples. One is fairly large and often stages temple parades and festivals utilizing the park. The other is small and quiet and I sometimes see people sitting in the shade and meditating.

In the back of our neighborhood is another isolated and, no doubt, personal family temple. It is about 50 meters off the road and in an unused field. By the looks of the field they planted rice there at one time, but in the two years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, I’ve never seen anything planted or growing there. This temple is a bit more elaborate than some of the other small local temples, indicating that the owner may be a bit more prosperous than the others.

The people I’ve talked to coming from the temples are typically Taiwanese. They’re friendly, happy and eager to talk about their temples and their gods. There is one temple a number of kilometers from my home with a huge golden frog. The frog has a disc or coin in his mouth. A friend that was visiting wanted to stop and photograph the frog and two women who were at the temples waved to us and invited us into the temple to photograph the frog (and them with the frog) close up. My Chinese isn’t good enough to understand what the frog meant even though they patiently tried to explain it. Taiwan is a religious country.

Other posts you may be interested in:

Local Color:  The Temples of Taoyuan City
Taiwanese Traditions:  Ghost Month
Taiwanese Traditions:  The Beliefs of Confucianism