Monday, October 31, 2011

Post 65.3: Taipei - Traditional Taiwanese, Part 3 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北: 大安區)

As the last post in a three-part series on traditional Taiwanese food, I have decided to dedicate this post to a restaurant group that is known for their traditional Taiwanese dishes. 

The Shin Yeh restaurants (欣葉) are known for preparing local fare in upscale settings.  Many of the restaurants sit on upper level floors of buildings that overlook Taipei's main thoroughfares.  Some are even set in lounge like atmosphere with dim lighting, trendy music, and novel cocktails.  This is a stark contrast to other traditional Taiwanese restaurants like Little Lin's Seafood and Sit Fun, where the fresh ingredients are laid out by the entrance in refrigerators or over ice.  According to its history, the owner of the original Shin Yeh knew that Taiwanese fare was a simple food and dedicated herself to developing it into a gourmet cuisine that could be served in banquet settings.  The food here is still whipped up in that distinct Taiwanese style of fresh ingredients and simple preparation.  And of course, the main ingredient in the dish is given the spotlight as the essential star of the show.

My family and I dined at shinyeh' table, a sister restaurant of the original Shin Yeh that targets a younger crowed.  Shinyeh' table (蔥花) occasionally names their dishes in creative ways, utilizing puns and analogies and other tongue-in-cheek methods of capturing the guests' attention.  Not all the dishes have amusing names though.  In fact, most of them are pretty standard, but the ones that do bear amusing names really do stir up a chuckle here and there.

Pork song rice (猴囝仔拌飯)
Pork song (肉鬆), also known as pork floss in some bakeries, is a staple in every Taiwanese household.  It's shredded, dried pork that acts almost as a condiment in items such as rice porridge, sandwiches, and even hot soy milk for breakfast.  The texture has been described to be similar to cotton candy, something that melts in your mouth but still provides a slight crunch on first bite.  It's a great addition to basic, steamed, white rice.  The crunch of the pork song is initially a contrast to the steamed rice, but it eventually blends in with the fluff of the rice as easily as the famous little chocolates melt in your mouth.

Wok seared rice noodles (蔥花米粉)
Although a rice noodle dish may seem relatively simple, there is a lengthy preparation that occurs prior to the final step of stir-frying.  Vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, celery, mushrooms and snap peas need to be cleaned and chopped... pork or chicken should be sliced into strips, and even eggs have to be scrambled.  Most of the preparation, however, is focused on the rice noodles.  The best rice noodles are said to originate in a oceanside city called Hsinchu (新竹), about one to two hours outside of Taipei.  The makers of rice noodles there hang the strands of noodles out to dry with the natural sunshine and ocean breeze of Hsinchu in the same way that laundry is hung out to dry in the yard.  It is this process that gets each rice noodle dried into individual threads, and it is that separation of the noodle that makes the best stir-fry.

Poached cuttlefish with five spice sauce (無情軟絲)
Squid served with a side of soy sauce paste and wasabi, fresh shredded ginger, and pickled radish is a dish that captures the essence of the Japanese influence on Taiwanese cuisine.  The soy sauce paste, as the name indicates, has five different spices in it, only one of which I can actually pick out... minced garlic.  It probably took more time for the chef to fan out the squid and to shred the ginger than it did for him to actually cook the sublime sea creature.  Simplicity and presentation in detail... the epitome of a Taiwanese dish.

Wok fried loofah with garlic (翻滾吧絲瓜)
Loofah, garlic, and oil... the simplicity here gets carried all the way to mom and pop shops in Agoura Hills.

Great Wall of pig intestine (半里腸城)
The title employs the Great Wall of China (chang cheng / 長城) as a homonym for walls made of intestine (chang cheng / 腸城).  Presented in a way that mimics the Great Wall across the Strait, the mustard greens and soy will protect you from the invading fears of consuming a digestive organ.

Crispy fried soft shell crab (啵棒軟殼蟹)
Deep fried soft shell crab.  Crispy basil and spicy chili.  Done deal.

Prawns stir-fried with tropical fruit (果粒纖蝦)
We all know honey walnut shrimp, but I can guarantee that these prawns dotted with pineapple, kiwi fruit, and bell pepper confetti will completely wipe honey walnut shrimp out of your mind afterward.  A mouthful of natural sweetness oozes from the pores of the slightly crispy shrimp with each bite.  It's a stir-fried version of what I'd eat everyday if I were trapped on a deserted tropical island.

One of the dishes that had an amusing name was a pork and bamboo stir-fry called Teacher I'm So Sorry (老師對不起).  I didn't understand the attempt at humor at first, but my aunt explained that back in her elementary school days the teachers would use bamboo poles to smack the rear ends of misbehaving students.  Consequently, someone must have thought of combining strips of bamboo shoots with tender slices of pork in a stir-fry dish.  It's humorous in a slightly morbid way.

Some of the other amusing names are listed below.  These will require a knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and perhaps a familiarity with the Before & After category on Wheel of Fortune to fully extract the humor:
  • 歐麥咖哩麻辣燙 - a spicy curry seafood hot pot roughly translated to Oh My G--rry Spicy Hot Pot.  Fill in the blanks with either 'od' or 'cu,' and the idea reveals itself. 
  • 心肝寶貝 - Precious Liver; a liver dish using liver as a pun for honey, precious, or baby as a term of endearment.  In English it implies that the liver is precious because it's an essential organ to the body.  Well, yeah...
  • 白鱈公主 - Snow White Codfish; steamed codfish that uses the character for codfish (xue / 鱈) as a homonym for the snow in Snow White (xue / 雪).
  • 虎咬豬 - Tiger Bites the Pig, a pork belly pacman bun (gua bao); the bun supposedly symbolizes the tiger's mouth, and the pig (pork belly) is trapped within its jaws.
  • Q呆呆杏仁豆腐 - Dummy Almond Jelly (also known as almond tofu), a dessert that implies that the jello is so dumb that it just sits in the bowl idly.
  • 這個那西米露 - tapioca dessert that had the name slightly altered from Ziga Zaga (zig zag with an Asian accent) to zhege nage, which means this one and that one, implying that there are plenty of tapioca balls in the dessert.
  • 等超久蔥花小麻糬 - Waited So Long House Mochi, titled so because the patrons truly wait for a lengthy period of time for the kitchen staff to prepare the hand-made Taiwanese rice cakes to order.
Hopefully this series of posts help everyone gain a better understanding of what traditional Taiwanese cuisine is all about.  It's rare to find this kind of truly authentic Taiwanese food Stateside, so perhaps this will encourage foodies around the world to take a trip to Taiwan for a culinary inspired trip.  Until next time, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

shinyeh' table (花)
台北市 大安區/ Taipei City, Da An District
忠孝東路 4段 201號 2樓/ Zhongxiao East Road, Section 4, No. 201, 2nd floor

How I get there:
MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua Station (捷運忠孝敦化站)
exit no. 2; entrance is across the front door of Starbucks

ML - 20110903

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Post 65.2: Taipei - Traditional Taiwanese, Part 2 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北: 大安區)

Like black white slice restaurants, the restaurants that serve the most traditional local fare in Taiwan typically don't have menus.  The freshest ingredients are laid out by the front entrance in a refrigerator case or over ice, so when the customers arrive they are able to view the meat and seafood selection for the day.  Ordering is done by selecting what looks the freshest and then letting the chef know how it should be cooked... deep fried, stir fried, blanched, boiled, steamed, or made into soup are popular choices.  After ordering, customers walk in and sit down.

One of my first meals in Taipei was at a traditional Taiwanese restaurant called Sit Fun (喫飯食堂).  Now... there's something to be said here about a restaurant called Sit Fun in Taiwan.  What doesn't make sense is that "sit fun" sounds like a translation for eating (食飯) in Cantonese, which is not typically spoken in Taiwan.  What does make sense, though, is that to sit down and to have fun is what eating is all about! Am I right, or am I right? 

Here are some Taiwanese dishes from Sit Fun that we had.  They are cooked in the simple style of traditional Taiwanese cuisine.

Braised pork rice (魯肉飯)
Cubes of fatty pork are braised and rendered down until the juicy fat almost melts in your mouth.  Topped over steamed white rice, this bowl of pork and rice is as simple and as tasty as it gets.  Although it's one of the best rice items at Sit Fun, what this restaurant specializes in isn't braised pork over rice but actually just pork oil over rice (豬油拌飯).  Lard, you say? Let's just call it pork-infused oil.  Two words... disgustingly delicious.

Appetizer platter (拼盤)
Usually the first dish to arrive, the Taiwanese appetizer platter almost always includes the following items: fresh sashimi, tender bamboo shoots, and crisp asparagus.  The sashimi for on this plate consisted of salmon, yellowtail, and whitefish... but why sashimi? Doesn't that seem more Japanese than Taiwanese or Chinese? Actually Taiwan was colonized under Japanese imperial rule for over 60 years, so it can be said that the sashimi at the start of the meal represents the large Japanese influence in Taiwanese cultural and culinary history.

Bamboo and asparagus are typical favorites for Taiwanese.  And as always, those two items have a light layer of Japanese style mayonnaise for a sweet contrast.  Also served on the platter are freshly cut pumpkin as well as baby octopus, both of which are the fresh picks of the day.

To truly make this a pu pu platter experience, the appetizer dish is served with toothpicks.  It's the closest to finger food that we're going to get without going barbaric.

Salt water chicken (鹽水雞)
No, the chicken was not raised in salt water with the fish of the ocean.  Rather, it was poached in salt water and served with a side of garlic soy.  Salty much? Not so.  The majority of the salt doesn't get far past the skin, but the portion that does bypass the skin serves to tenderize the chicken while it's cooking.  The method of cooking is so effortless that it seems almost primitive, but the true sign of tradition and authenticity.

Tempura shrimp (炸蝦球)
Who doesn't love fried shrimp? Silence.  Okay, who doesn't love spicy mayo? Continued silence.  Now... who doesn't love fried shrimp with spicy mayo drizzled all over the top? Cheers.  I think you get the picture.

Barbecue pork (台式叉燒肉)
What we typically know as Cantonese style BBQ pork is chasiu pork, that crimson colored sweet pork perhaps akin to the Mexican al pastor.  Well, here lands the Taiwanese version... a less red, less sweet, more moist and more thinly sliced version that is served with both pickled ginger and honey vinegar.  It's tastes like a moist jerky made from honey ham, and it's moist enough to be the most tender sweet and savory meat you will find this side of the Strait.

All of the dishes above have common characteristic of an easily identifiable main ingredient and an accompanying side sauce, both of which are features of traditional Taiwanese dishes.  After reading the previous post, you'll notice similar characteristics.  These simple dishes made from fresh ingredients is one of the ways to distinguish Taiwanese cuisine from others.  And it's this simplicity that makes the dishes so delicious.  Until the next simple and delicious meal, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Sit Fun (喫飯食堂)
台北市 大安區 / Taipei City, Da An District
永康街 8巷 5號 / Yong Kang Street, Lane 8, No. 5

ML - 20110907

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Post 65.1: Taipei - Traditional Taiwanese, Part 1 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北: 大安區)

Taiwanese food is a simple food.

Whereas many Chinese stir-fried dishes employ the yin and yang concept of relative equality (meat and vegetables in balanced importance), Taiwanese cooking does not.  Instead, Taiwanese cooking utilizes one star ingredient and complements it with a subservient sidekick of seasoning, spice, or some form of dipping sauce.

Think of it this way: Chinese cooking is like an ice cream sundae.  The ice cream, bananas, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and even the cherry on top share equal roles within the sundae.  Take one ingredient away, whether it's the ice cream or the cherry, and the harmonious balance of ingredients is greatly disrupted.

Taiwanese cooking, on the other hand, is more like frozen yogurt with sprinkles.  The sprinkles, while important, plays a supporting role to the frozen yogurt.  Take it away, and... well, you still got yogurt.

Here's a look at some of the Taiwanese dishes that I had... along with just a... wait for it... simple explanation.

Star ingredient: Clams (海瓜子炒九層塔)
Side seasoning, spice or sauce: garlic and basil
Cooking method: Stir-fried

There's something about the combination of garlic and basil that makes anything taste good.  From Italian pasta to Taiwanese seafood, the fragrant basil and biting garlic form a flavor that simply can't be beat.

Star ingredient: Shrimp (燙鮮蝦)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: soy sauce and wasabi
Method of cooking: Blanched

If it weren't for the shrimp being barely boiled, these sea creatures would be considered sashimi.  Halfway between shrimp cocktail and Japanese prawn sashimi, dabbing cooked shrimp in the soy and wasabi combination gives tribute to the olden days of Japanese colonial rule.  This is simply the way seafood was meant to be eaten.

Star ingredient: Pig's feet (紅燒豬腳)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: Soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, garlic, ginger
Method of cooking: Braised

Let's face it.  The pig's foot isn't the most appealing body part for first timers.  But if the same animal can bring joy to people with its bacon, pancetta, and sausage, how can the foot hurt at all? Its fattiness is the most flavorful part.  It's part salty (soy), part sweet (sugar), part spicy (garlic and ginger), and all around tender (rice wine)... this is a great way to experience a traditional Taiwanese birthday food.

Star ingredient: Oysters (蚵仔酥)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: Salt, white pepper powder, basil
Method of cooking: Deep fried

Think popcorn chicken.  Okay, now sub the chicken with fresh oysters.  And then add a forest of deep fried basil and a sahara of salt and pepper that you can dip each oyster oval into.  That's a formula for heavenly indulgence... if not a heart attack in the making.

Star ingredient: Beef (烤牛肉)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: Black pepper sauce with raw onions
Method of cooking: Grilled

This house specialty is highly recommended by the chef's wife.  Funny, because she runs a restaurant that specializes in seafood.  The chef sears the beef to perfection on the outside while heating the inside to a degree that is just barely passed rare.  The beef is truly tender and flavorful.  If you get a little squeamish about rare meat, there's a bed of raw onions under the loins to help kill off the potential rawness.  Really.

Star ingredient: Frog's legs (鹽酥田雞)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: Salt and pepper
Method of cooking: Deep fried

I had my first experience with frog's legs with these little bites.  If the Colonel cooked this up in one of his famous extra crispy batches, it'd just be extremely firm, lean chicken.  Roll them around in the salt and pepper powder, and you would just think that it tastes just like a moist version of chicken breast.  Seriously, even the name in Mandarin means, "chicken of the field."

Star ingredient: Fresh spinach (炒菠菜)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: Garlic
Method of cooking: Stir-fried

Everyone needs their greens, right? The best way to have Popeye's favorite is stir-fried with just a few cloves of crushed garlic.  The natural water from the leaves mixed with the garlic infused oil from the wok makes a simply awesome sauce.

Star ingredient: Rice and eggs (蛋飯)
Side seasoning, spice, or sauce: Green onions
Method of cooking: Wok fried

Still hungry? There's always fried rice.  But this, once again, is as simple as it gets.  No meat, no other veggies... just rice, scrambled eggs, and finely chopped green onions.  It's wok fried with pork fat and soy in such a high heat that the grains of rice separate into individual grains and eventually melt into the fatty soy sauce.  So good.

Chances are you won't be hungry, though, because chances are that you will be chasing each bite with a sip of Taiwan Beer.  The simple brew is so popular with Taiwanese dishes that Little Lin's Seafood Shop even has a PYT to help serve and pour it for each table.  The pretty young thing could be considered poor young thing; she works the entire night in stilettos.

Not shown are the steamed whole fish, stir-fried rice noodles, and stir-fried Taiwanese cabbage.  Other Taiwanese food and travel blogs such as Angie's Blog, Gygy, and Deep Blue No. 5 all have pictures from their experience.

Although the experience with Taiwanese food always starts off simple with perhaps just a few dishes, it winds up with a multiplex of various meats and seafood and even a few veggies here and there.  Similarly, this post evolved from a simple explanation to a multitude of paragraphs.  Chiah pa! Until some more simple food, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Little Lin's Seafood Shop (小林海產店)
台北市 大安區 / Taipei City, Da An District
光復南路 574之1號 / Guangfu South Road, No. 574-1
大門口在延吉街 / Entrance is on Yanji St.

ML - 20110902

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Post 64: Taipei - Black White Slice / 台南意麵黑白切 (Taipei: Jhong Jheng District / 台北: 中正區)

Black... white... what?

Well, it's definitely not black white magic... even though it might taste magical.  Black and white placed next to each other in any Taiwanese phrase means whatever, anything, a myriad of something.  If you black white talk (ouh beh gonh / 黑白講), it means that you're saying something that is black, but you're also saying something that is white... you don't know if you mean one thing or another.  In essence, it means you're talking nonsense or talking bullshit.

If you black white walk (ouh beh jow / 黑白走), it means that you are walking here, but you are also walking there... you're wandering, or you have no idea where you're going.  So that means that black white slice (ouh beh tzeh / 黑白切) means that you can have slices of this and slices of that... a little bit of everything

A little bit of this... a little bit of that... and that's exactly how to eat at restaurants that serve in this black white slice style of eating.  Upon visiting an ouh beh tzeh restaurant (Taiwanese: ouh beh tzeh, Mandarin: hei bai qie / 黑白切) for the first time, I was greeted first by a refrigerator case running the length of the chef's chopping counter, which is just inches longer than my wingspan.  On display in the refrigerator case were all the freshest items that the chef had picked up from the supermarket and anything that the chef felt was suitable for the evening meal.  From freshly boiled shrimp to bright red sausage to the greenest asparagus to a thick and tasty meatloaf to glistening white calamari... you name it; the chef's got it.

Point to something.  Choose whatever you please.  The chef will slice up whatever you want to eat.

The most popular dish at my favorite black white slice institution is actually not in the refrigerator at all.  It's goose.  And it's located next to the fridge.  The chef lays the glorious geese (whole body intact) out for everyone to see.  And I mean everyone.  It's sitting pretty right at the restaurant's entrance.  Walking to your table? Ya can't miss it.

There are usually two types: salted goose or goose with soy sauce... take your pick.  The chef tosses fresh basil leaves and thinly sliced fresh ginger around the tender cuts of poultry for an exotic contrast in flavor.  He also throws in some sweet chili sauce just to cover any potential gamey taste that it may have.  Still apprehensive about goose meat? No worries... it tastes just like chicken.

Whether it's alive or dead, the second of my favorite black white dishes may scare you too.

Perhaps you've had shark fin soup before, but have you ever had the actual meat from a shark? Probably not.  I don't know many cultures that consume the meat from a shark.   Well, Taiwanese do.  And by the way, a shark is a fish too.  It's just... a ferocious, fierce looking, predatory kind of fish.  If you've seen Nemo, you know that sharks can't possibly be scary... fish are their friends.  (Hopefully, you didn't get past the fishaholics anonymous meeting.)  But I digress...

Smoked shark meat is really just smoked fish.  I'm not going to say it tastes like smoked salmon because it doesn't.  It's nowhere close.  It's got more of a firm, white fish flavor combined with a soft beef tendon texture.  Contrasted with the spicy wasabi and the salty soy sauce paste it's served with, the meat actually has a hint of sweetness.  If you're wondering whether it's too tough to chew on, it's not.  But it's not fatty either... the meat is actually pretty lean.  After all, the shark swims all day looking for friends to play with.  Am I not really selling it? Okay, chicken.  B'gok! It's just one of those things you have to taste for yourself to understand.  And you have to try it once in your life.  Ohhhh, so this is shark.

The next item is also something you have to try at least once in your life... Taiwanese stinky tofu.  Wow, I just introduced the scariest three items from a black white slice restaurant... goose, shark, and stinky tofu.  Good job, Michael.  

The tofu is steamed and then simmered in this spicy sauce that is made with tons of garlic, red chili pepper, and Szechwan peppercorn.  The tofu is served in a metal dish that gets fired up right in front of you.  The on-the-spot simmering and boiling causes wafts of aroma from the spicy sauce to drift past your nose.  It's fragrant, not stinky.  I dragged my hungry friends from China and France here for dinner.  They were a bit apprehensive at every dish I ordered, but I'm not lying when I say that the delicious goose, unique shark dish, and tasty tofu got them hooked on black white cuisine.

But if the trifecta of black white glory doesn't hold your attention, this magical bowl of chek-ah noodles (Taiwanese: chek-ah mi, Mandarin: qie zai mian /仔麵) definitely will.  What's awesome about these noodles is that it's just noodles and broth... and it goes with each and everything that the chef has sliced up for you.  Take a look around the black white restaurant, and you'll notice that every single patron has a steaming bowl of chek-ah mi in front of them.  Some even have two bowls... one recently finished empty and one freshly made.

Each bowl of noodles is complete with fresh goose stock and topped off with crunchy, deep fried onions, deep green leek, and crisp bean sprouts.  The leeks and fried onions add a depth of flavor to the goose stock.  The profound taste of chek-ah noodle soup becomes more of a feeling than just a means of sustenance.  It presents a feeling of home and heart, perhaps the same feeling you get when you have Mom's chicken noodle soup in a warm kitchen while the howling winter winds rage on outside.

There's a deftness of chopsticks usage throughout the restaurant.  Groups of co-workers, young couples, and even, ahem, friends with their tourist guests work quickly from the spicy tofu to the platter of goose, then quickly again to dip the shark meat into the soy and wasabi combination, all while swiveling noodles up in between bites.  The cheap bamboo chopsticks in everyone's hungry hands are stained with red chili oils and dark brown sauces.  And bits of fried onion can barely be shaken off with the nimblest of movements.  It's a whir of commotion and a blur of action.  Don't be surprised if you hear a loud slurping of noodles and broth.  After all, it is this simple bowl of noodles that brings the whole meal of black and white together.

But wait.  There's more.

The freshest item in the chef's fridge was the cut of salmon.  Its orange hue caught my eye, and dreams of sashimi began forming in my head.  Not a problem.  I pointed to it, and the chef knew that it would pair with my chek-ah noodles perfectly. 

Now... I can't say this is the healthiest of meals, but we did have a lot of lean protein (poultry, tofu, fish in two forms).  Why not further our health by selecting the two staples of any black white restaurant? 

Crisp asparagus (蘆) and tender bamboo shoots () are both blanched (arguably the most popular way of cooking vegetables in Taiwan) and then served chilled with sweet Japanese mayonnaise as a dip.  Both asparagus and bamboo are symbolized by a common Han character (), which perhaps is an ancient Sino way of saying that these two vegetables go very well together.  Each is sweet, fibrous, crisp and refreshing, and they both snap quickly with a firm bite.  And after tons of protein and a bowl of noodles, I think fresh, crisp veggies are the only way to go.  Even after my tourist buddy exclaimed that she could eat no more, I caught her chopsticks veering toward the vegetable plates... "Except this."  She picks up another piece... "I can still eat this."

Well then, bring on another bowl of noodles! I think we've still got some stinky tofu to finish anyway.  Until the next black white whatever, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Black White Slice (台南意麵)
台北市 中正區/ Taipei City, Jhong Jheng District
濟南路 2段 53-8號/ Jinan Road, Section 2, No. 63-8

How I get there:
MRT: Zhongxiao Xinsheng Station (捷運忠孝新生站)
exit no. 2; walk through the park;
pass Mos Burger, Starbucks, Formosa Chang, 85度C
make a right at Jinan Road, Section 2 (濟南路 2段)
do not pass the produce store

ML - 20110909

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Post 63: Taipei - More Szechwan Flavors / 更多川味 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北: 大安區)

Although beef noodle soup is the supposed national dish of Taiwan, it is rumored to have origins in the Szechwan region of China.  Since its creation, beef noodle soup has been altered by the many generations of Taiwanese to what it is today.  However, other Szechwan-branded dishes such as mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐), hot and sour soup (酸辣湯), and dan dan noodles (擔擔麵) have generally remained constant throughout their culinary histories.  There may have been substitutions for different or better quality ingredients and perhaps slight tweaks in flavors to suit regional palates, but for the most part, these famous items are still considered Szechwan dishes.  Chili House Restaurant (四川吳抄手) in Taipei is a great place for a taste of these traditional spicy Szechwan flavors... but it's also a great place for discovering some non-spicy items too.

On my previous visits to the restaurant, I had ordered the usuals: red chili wontons (紅油抄手), super spicy mala noodles (麻辣麵) that numb your tongue, and hot and sour cabbage pork (酸白菜肉絲) wrapped in steamed shaobing pockets (燒餅).  This time, though, I had a sudden craving for fatty pork.  I doubt the Szechwan origins of this dish, especially because the only remotely spicy ingredient in it is minced garlic, but hey, a craving is a craving.  The English translation of this dish is cold white cut pork slices (蒜泥白肉), which doesn't sound appetizing in the least... so let's just use my translation: fatty pork in minced garlic and soy sauce.  Yum!

Hey, that's exactly what it is, anyway.  Lean slices of pork, which are blanched just quick enough to cook the meat, are bordered by thin, wrinkles of fat without a hint of grease.  Before anything else is done to the pork, it's chilled so that the meat becomes stretchy and tender, and the curls of fat on the pork taste almost al dente.  Soy sauce paste, a thickened and more pungent version of soy sauce that is widely used in Taiwanese cooking, is later drizzled over the top of the meat.  And the minced garlic? Already in the soy sauce paste.  No need for rice.  It's like chomping on bacon and not worrying about the eggs.

But I guess you can't really eat at a restaurant that serves Szechwan cuisine without ordering any spicy food at all right? Bring the red chili wontons, please.  In fact, these red chili wontons are exactly what anyone coming to this restaurant should order.  After all, the name of the wonton dish (紅油抄手) is in the name of the restaurant (四川吳抄手). 

The chili wontons come six in an order, and they come sitting in a puddle of soy and chili oil... unmixed.  You can relish in the tossing, mixing, and marinating of the flappy, Chinese ravioli before indulging in these bite-size poppers.  They're mouthfuls of savory, salty, and spicy bliss.  And what's even better is that you put effort into these one-bite wonders, and you know... it always tastes better if you've had a hand in the work.

After devouring half a dozen little fists of cloud-like wontons, I dug my chopsticks into the mound of hot and sour cold noodles (冰鎮酸辣麵).  The noodles were topped off with Chinese celery, chili and chili oil, green onions, sesame, and bean sprouts... a combination of of ingredients that provided notes of sour tang and chilled bursts of crunchy refreshment.  The celery, sesame, and sprouts opened the way to cooling off during the hot and humid Taipei summer afternoon.

A bowl of noodles usually sustains my hunger, but after discovering the refreshing delight from the Chinese celery and bean sprouts, I perused the menu for another vegetable dish.  Typical Szechwan vegetable dishes include dry fried green beans (乾煸四季豆) and fish fragrant garlic eggplant (魚香茄子), but somehow I landed on a tofu dish that contained more seafood than it did veggies.  The treasure chest of seafood (海至尊) came in a shallow dish filled to the brim with kryptonite green peas, cubes of diced sea cucumber, shrimp, clams, squid, and smoked ham submerged in a sauce made from salted egg yolk.

This was the most disturbing looking dish of the meal.  Perhaps the house specialty appetizer, bean sprouts wrapped in tofu skin (芝麻豆皮捲豆芽), was a better choice just based simply on appearance.  But this pool of sulfuric tofu was actually pretty tasty.  Each item of seafood was diced to the size of the tofu, which meant every bite had equal parts of tender tofu and springy seafood.  The salted egg yolk gave the dish a hearty and homemade taste while binding the plethora of ingredients together.  It looked ugly, but it tasted pretty damned good.  Hey, we aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover anyway, right?

One tofu dish led to another tofu dish... except the next tofu dish was a dessert, and it came compliments of the restaurant.  Almond tofu (杏仁豆腐) is typically a simple, homestyle dessert, but I understand why it's offered after a spicy meal.  The soft jello (it's not really tofu) has an almond fragrance with a sweet taste that soothes the tongue better than any other spice retardant... better than iced water or cold milk.  With or without spicy food, the springy, jiggly tofu in disguise was a great way to end any meal. 

Chili House has become a regular stop for me whenever I get a chance to visit Taipei.  Hopefully, everyone finds their own favorite spicy, Szechwan stop.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Chili House Restaurant (四川吳抄手)
台北市 大安區/ Taipei City, Da An District
忠孝東路 4段 250之3號 / Zhongxiao East Road, Section 4, No. 250-3

How I get there:
MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua Station (捷運忠孝敦化站)
exit no. 4; walk east on Zhongxiao East Road
make a right on Lane 248 (248 巷); restaurant is on the left

ML - 20110915

Monday, October 3, 2011

Post 62: Taipei - We Love Beef Noodle Soup / 我們愛牛肉麵 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北: 大安區)

Okay, tell me.  Who doesn't love beef noodle soup?

Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese, locals and tourists, whoever has discovered this savory soup noodle has fallen in love with it.  It doesn't matter if other cultures have variations of this dish (think Vietnamese pho); even they have the occasional craving for soupy noodles swimming in beef juice.  Even our friend Diana, whose eating habits borderline vegetarianism, will have beef noodle soup.  Meat on the side, please. 

There are thousands of beef noodle soup restaurants in Taiwan, many of which claim to have made the champion of all beef noodle soups.  It's no wonder that many of these shops are concentrated around Yong Kang Street (永康街), a main tourist area in Taipei with hundreds of visitors from Japan and Hong Kong, many of whom come specifically to visit world-famous Din Tai Fung dumpling house... and to get a taste of Taiwan's beefy national dish.

So Yong Kang St. is where Diana and I took Rina, our special guest from Seoul, who indeed fell in love with beef noodle soup (and gua bao, among other Taiwanese specialties).  We sat down at Lao Zhang Beef Noodle Shop (老張牛肉麵), the 2006 champion of the annual Taipei beef noodle soup competition.  Lao Zhang (also known as Old Chang's) specializes in Szechwan flavors, which means they use plenty of chili pepper, garlic, and Szechwan peppercorn, a spice that effectively tingles your throat with a numbing spiciness.

While Rina slurped up the soy and tomato infused soup and while Diana enjoyed her meatless version (think clam chowder without the clams), I took delight in Old Chang's cucumber and green bean appetizers, both of which are peppered with red chili.  But what I really enjoyed from Old Chang's was the famous spicy steamed pig intestine (粉蒸肥腸).  Yup, you heard me... pig intestine.

The spicy steamed pig's intestine is a fen zheng (粉蒸) dish, which roughly translates to a dish that is powder steamed.  The powder it refers to is a type of rice powder, a sort of rice or grain that resembles couscous.  The grains of rice look like they have been broken in half by a crushing, grounding, or pounding process.  Added to the the rice powder are usually spices such as star anise, five spice powder, pepper, and sometimes cumin or cinnamon.  Wash the imagery of intestine coils out of your brain, and fill them with thoughts of tofu skin with sticky rice covered in garlic, chili, pepper, star anise, and the ever fragrant Szechwan peppercorn.  You will think it's amazing-delicious. 

Even Rina, who may have been slightly averse to internal organs prior to tasting this dish, tried it... and liked it.  When I showed oolong-milktea pictures from my trip, he made some hunger-induced oooh and ahhh noises.  What he ooohed and ahhed over was the version of the fen zheng dish made with pork spare ribs (粉蒸排骨)... equally as delicious as the intestines and perhaps just a tad less gut-wrenching.  Oh, and did I mention that there's a layer of soft and fluffy sweet potato at the bottom of the bamboo steamer soaking up all the spicy flavors and fatty oils that have dripped from down from the pork? Oooh, hell yeah.

But back to beef noodle soup.  Before I could even finish the bamboo steamer of pork, Rina and Diana had already demolished their bowls of noodles.  Tender beef? Gone.  Chewy noodles? Gone.  Spicy soup? All gone.  Although the fen zheng pig intestines were good, it was clear that the star of the show was still the beef noodle soup.

If you can stomach it, I'd suggest heading to Taoyuan Street (桃園街) to try another famous beef noodle soup institution (one of oolong-milktea's favorites).  There are tons of beef noodle stores, stalls, and restaurants in Taipei... including one owned by a Persian man married to a Taiwanese lady.  You're sure to find one that you love.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Lao Zhang Beef Noodle Shop (老張牛肉麵)
台北市 大安區 / Taipei City, Da An District
愛國東路 105號 / Ai Guo East Road, No. 105
麗水街口 / Intersection of Li Shiu Street

ML - 20110911

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Post 61: Taipei - I Have Returned / 台北我回來了 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北: 大安區)

The last time I visited Taipei was just a little over two years ago.  In the time that has passed, it appears that I have lost my Taiwanese aura.  Pedestrians used to asked me for directions, but now they ask me how long it's been since I moved to America.  Uh...

I didn't want to feel like a foreigner in the city that used to feel like a second home to me, so I headed straight for my favorite beef noodle soup stall in Taipei... to eat and be amongst the locals... and to somehow find my Taiwanese mojo.  Along the way to the noodle stall, I noticed that the potsticker shop that I used to frequent had since been closed... but no worries, Old Chao's Noodles (老趙刀切麵) was right where I had last seen it.

Everything was just as I had remembered.  There was the assembly line of noodle production... meat sauce and sliced cucumbers for zhajiang noodles (炸醬麵), diced green onions, roasted beef tendon, cuts of braised beef, and a boiling vat of beef broth... all in steel containers on the counter.  And the makeshift condiment station had the pickled mustard greens and extra green onions for those who need it... in same location as before. 

Old Chao and Chao Jr. stood at the stall.  Mr. Chao, wearing bright blue board shorts, was stirring the boiling pot of noodles.  Young Mr. Chao silently took orders just as his father used to.  A nod of his head and a stare in my direction was his way of asking me what I want to order.  He spoke only to clarify whether the noodles will be eaten here or taken to-go. 

And that's when I noticed the one aspect that has changed since the last time I visited.  The price.  A bowl of beef noodle soup used to be just 40 Taiwan dollars, which was just a little over one US dollar back then.  That same bowl of noodle soup is now 100 Taiwan dollars, which is a little over three US dollars.  I was surprised when I handed Mr. Chao a 100 NT note, and I didn't get any change back.  He looked back at me, and his silence asked, "What are you waiting for?"

Nothing, I guess. 

If you hadn't gotten the picture from before, let me repaint the picture.  This is a serious beef noodle soup stall.  The noodle bowls are washed on the curb between the stand and the street, and needless to say, the bowls aren't exactly towel dried.  Never mind the potential hepatitis infection.  Taste takes precedence here... not cleanliness.  Around the stall there are two prop-up tables with stools scattered around them.  Office workers in dress shirts, delivery boys with bike helmets, and complete strangers share the communal tables... and eat in silence.  One in every ten customers is a woman.  But the woman usually loses her patience and leaves for another stall with a shorter line.  

I picked up my glorious bowl of identity crisis medication, and I plopped myself down on the metal stool barely supported my oversized American dexterior.  In the 90 degree humid heat of Taipei, I devoured each strand of noodle one of bite at a time.  A bead of sweat dripped down my forehead with each strand of noodle consumed... and with each strand of noodle consumed I felt increasingly reacquainted with the land of my parents' birth. 

Comforted with this feeling, I gazed upon the hustle and bustle of the noodle stall.  Mama Chao appears from nowhere and begins bussing the twin tables, with chili oil still dripping from a previous customer's used chopsticks.  Young Chao, who looks like he's in his thirties, helps his father pour freshly brewed beef broth from a large kettle into an even larger vat... all while smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone.  Then he tends to customers who want a second helping of beef soup... free for those who still have noodles left in their bowls.  By the way... the large vat of beef soup? Yeah, it could totally swallow Mr. Chao alive.

The waft of brewing, beef broth drifts my way and cuts through not only the thick humidity but the exhaust from otobai that speed past the noodle stall as well.  Deep breath.  Ahhh... the smell... the smell of freshly sheared noodles sinking into boiling water.  Ahhh... here in Taipei, food reigns over weather and pollution.The last time I wrote about a piping hot bowl of beef noodle soup, it was perfect for a rainy, winter day.  Ironically, I was enjoying this same steaming bowl of beef noodle soup in the hot summer heat... but it was just as exhilarating as ever.  The true exhilaration, though, was the feeling that I could declare to the city, "Taipei, I have returned."

Until the next bowl of beef noodle soup, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Approximate address:
台北市 大安區/ Taipei City, Da An District
信義路 46056 號/ Xin Yi Road, Section 4, No. 60-56

How I get there:
MRT: Da An Station (捷運大安站)
exit station; walk two blocks east towards Taipei 101
make a right at Da An Road, Section 2 (大安2段)
pass the stall for hand made egg rolls
do not pass the stall with fresh fruit and shaved ice

ML - 20110908