Friday, November 25, 2011

Post 68: Taipei - Never Too Far from Dessert

No matter where you are, you are never too far from dessert in Taipei.  Around every corner, at every intersection, and down every alley, you can find a plethora of post meal refreshments such as handmade mochi, shaved ice, fresh tropical fruit, milk tea, and ice cream.

One of my favorite sweets is mochi (麻糬).  Although the invention of mochi is usually accredited to the Japanese, the Taiwanese have their own balls of rice cake as well.  Whereas the Japanese mochi is filled with sweet pastes such as red bean paste or peanut butter, the Taiwanese version is often not filled at all.  Taiwanese style mochi is dense the entire way through and is also much smaller in size.  The mini mochi balls are commonly rolled in peanut powder, black sesame seeds, granulated sugar, or a combination of the above.  The flavor factor is on the outside rather than enclosed within the layer of pounded rice.

Mochi can even become a form of entertainment at some dessert shops.  I found this out at Sweet Rice Ball (雙連圓仔湯), where I was served one giant blob of mochi (燒) plopped within a sandstorm of peanut powder, black sesame seeds, and little bits of sugar crystals.  A few toothpicks were placed alongside the enormous sphere of congealed rice.  My aunt picked up the toothpicks and started puncturing the rice cake.  After she had perforated the rice cake, she separated it into a dozen or so miniature mochi balls and rolled them around in the sweet peanut and sugar mixture.  She did it so quickly that I didn't even get a chance to try it for myself.  But no worries... I saved my energy for chewing the ridiculously elastic and malleable sticky rice balls.  No chocolate, no syrups, no heaviness.  Just naturally and slightly sweet.  It's even more fun to eat because it can be popped into your mouth in just one bite.

Sweet Rice Ball also serves shaved ice, which is one of my favorite chilled desserts.  Shaved ice is one of the most powerful ways to combat Taipei's horrendous heat and humidity.  What I like about the shaved ice at Sweet Rice Ball is that they not only have the traditional shaved ice toppings such as red bean, peanuts, and mochi, but they also have lots of unique toppings that other shaved ice shops don't offer as well such as sweet taro paste, corn, and white wood ear fungus.  I would choose this over artificially flavored, multi-colored snow cones any day.

If traditional or unique shaved ice toppings isn't your thing, count your blessings because Taipei has a wealth of shops that serve mango shaved ice and green tea shaved ice. Literally around the corner from world famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung is a shop that specializes in shaved ice called Smoothie House (思慕昔). What's cool about the shaved ice there is that fruit and condensed milk has been infused directly into the ice.

Every part of the dessert is covered in either fruity mango ice, fragrant Taiwan mango (艾文芒果), or golden yellow mango ice cream, so every bite of shaved ice tastes like a milky avalanche of sweet, tropical mango.  It's not even shaved ice or shaved snow anymore.  It's like a shaved mango bonanza. 

The matcha green tea shaved snow here is just as good.  It is as green as Kermit, which means the flavors of Japanese green tea have been truly conquered every part of the ice.  The hill of green tea ice is covered in a mound of sweet, soft azuki bean, and topped off with a panna cotta that is smooth and supple.  It tastes like an East Asian Christmas party.

If healthy is your thing, then you are in luck.  Taiwan is one of the best places in Asia to get fresh fruit.  With its sub-tropical climate, harvesting tropical fruit such as bananas, guavas, lychees, mangoes, mangosteens, pineapples, and wax apples are no trouble at all.  Fruits from Taiwan are, in a word... beautiful.  The first thing you notice about the guavas at the sidewalk fruit stands is the bright color of the fruit.  It's nothing like the pale pink that we get here in the States or in our cartons of Kern's Nectar.  Its fruitful fertility beckons you over the stand, which is when you smell the utterly fragrant scent of the bananas, mangoes, and pineapples.  Those are smells that literally open your eyes and take your breath away.  It's no wonder that the Taiwanese have one of the highest rates of fruits and vegetables consumption in all of Asia.

If you're like me and hate peeling and cutting fruit, then skip the fruit stands and grocery stores altogether.  Instead, head over to a café that serves afternoon tea.  My favorite place to munch on juicy, succulent fruit is in Tamsui, a district of New Taipei City on the edge of the coast.  Red 3 Café (淡水紅樓咖啡館) is atop a staircase that appears to have a million steps.  But the hike to the top is worth it.  There are ample fruits in the afternoon tea selection, and of course, there is a view overlooking the Tamsui River.  Did I mention the beautiful castle that sits halfway to the top? A reward for your efforts on the brick Stairmaster, no doubt.

Too full from dumplings or beef noodle soup and can't hold down another bite? Well, Taipei offers the best iced beverages around.  There are tea houses everywhere that serve fruit infused tea and milk tea.  You may even see some familiar stores such as Quickly, Ten Ren, and 85C.  If you are craving a Frappuccino, Taipei is abound with three or four-storied Starbucks stores.  Almond milk tea? You got it.  Crash milk with grass jelly? You got it.  Lychee flavored Slurpee from 7-Eleven? Not even a problem.

What you may not know, though, is that Taipei also has plenty of coffee houses.  Taiwan is not a major player in the coffee bean industry, but its climate makes for rich and aromatic coffee beans.  Cama Café is brews its Joe (Chou in Taiwan?) to order.  From first hand experience and according to A Girl Lost in Taipei, you can smell their coffee from way down the street.  Their iced chocolate is also good.  It's not just syrupy sweet... it's packed with chocolatey cocoa punch.  Just enough sweet to seal off your appetite.  Oh, and it's just plain cool that they delivery your coffee on bicycles.

Anywhere you go in Taipei, you will find a dessert that is sweet enough for your palate.  Personally, though, I'd say you can't leave Taiwan without having some fresh fruit and some shaved ice.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 201109XX

Monday, November 21, 2011

Taiwan - Din Tai Fung Black Truffle Juicy Pork Dumplings / 鼎泰豐松露小籠包 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北市: 大安區)

Being a food tour guide that specializes in Taiwanese dumplings in Arcadia means that I get to eat the juicy pork dumplings (xiaolongbao / 小籠包) from Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) virtually every weekend while on tour.  Guests on tour often ask me if there is anything different between the Din Tai Fung dumpling house in Arcadia and the original Din Tai Fung restaurant in Taipei.  The first thing that I say since my return from Taipei is that the DTF in Taipei is the only store (as of now) with black truffle juicy pork dumplings (松露小籠包).

These black truffle xiaolongbao come five per long, or five dumplings per bamboo steamer.  Each steamer of five delicately wrapped dumplings are 450 NTD, which amounts to roughly 15 USD.  If there are five dumplings per steamer, and each steamer is 15 dollars, then each bite-sized dumpling is just about three American dollars each.  Those are some expensive dumplings.  They had better be worth it.

I can now tell you from personal experience that three dollars per dumpling is worth every bite.  From the moment the server delivers the dainty delights, you know they're special.  The server instructs not to douse these dumplings in the black vinegar that is typically used as a dipping sauce for the xiaolongbao.  Heaven forbid that we use soy sauce on them too.  Instead, the server advises to take a sip of hot tea in order to cleanse the palate.  Wash away any remnant of cucumber or seaweed appetizer that may have lingered behind.  Just one bite, he says... and beware... they're hot!

In this one bite, the subtle flavors of buttery truffle oil permeate through the tender yet firm pork and travel up through your nostrils while hitting every single pleasure sensing nerve within your oral and nasal cavities.  If you go against what the server advises and take just a mere half bite instead, you would know that the little black specks in the dumpling are causing this sensory overload in your mouth.  And you would definitely know that these little black specks are not black pepper.  They are the shaved black truffle pieces, and they are the reason why you are charging this meal to your credit card.

If you are lucky you might spot a large shaving of black truffle within one of the five dumplings.  And it might look like the dumpling is sticking its tongue out at those who have not yet experienced the indulgent taste of steamed black truffle juicy pork dumplings.  It might.

Let's face it though.  Even though the black truffle juicy pork dumplings make you feel like the caviar consuming first class passengers on the Titanic, you can only afford perhaps two steamers of those suckers before you realize you're still going to go home hungry.  Well, if you're here for dumplings, you have to settle on the house specialty of regular juicy pork dumplings.  These come ten per long at a much affordable price, although pricey for Taiwanese standards.  And of course, the regular xiaolongbao can be dipped into the black vinegar.  The vinegar's tangy taste contrasts the dumpling's overall savory flavor to bring out the sweetness for the pork.  And all I can taste inside the dumpling is succulent pork soup.  No buttery truffle? How boring.

In case some readers aren't able to tell, that's a speckle of sarcasm.  The house specialty is an absolutely unparalleled steamed pork dumpling.  However, I will tell you I would have much rather had finished all the regular xiaolongbao before moving onto to the fancy flavors of its truffled cousin.  An anti-climatic meal is slightly disheartening.

But I must give credit to Din Tai Fung for putting this winning addition on the menu.  A product that has been dug up by French pigs and then later infused into fresh Taiwanese pig? Well, that's a somewhat cannibalistic double pork whammy! Did they get this idea from the company mascot, a seemingly happy xiaolongbao that courageously serves up a steamer of ten miniature versions of itself? What will they think of next?

Before that question gets answered, though, do yourself a favor and drop by the original Din Tai Fung store on Xinyi Road in Taipei.  And I would suggest you hurry.  Because oolong-milktea loves his Din Tai Fung, and he loves his truffle.  And oh, he can eat up a storm.  If he gets there before you do, there's a high chance you're going home hungry.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐)
台北市大安區信義路二段194號, 永康街口
Taipei City, Da An District, Xinyi Road, Section 2, No. 194
Intersection of Yong Kang St.

ML - 20110908

Friday, November 11, 2011

Post 66: Taipei - Braised Pork Rice

Braised pork rice (Taiwanese: loh bbah bun, Mandarin: lu rou fan /肉飯 or 肉飯), also known as stewed pork rice, is a truly marvelous Taiwanese dish.  There's nothing like it.  Chicken and rice may come close, but fatty pork over rice simply can't be beat.  Beef may have some beautiful marbling, but only pork has that half protein, half fat, yin and yang balance that is the perfect complement for a bed of fluffy white rice.  In this sense, pork is quite unique because its fat carries such heavy importance.  And it's this sultry fattiness on the outskirts of the pork belly that makes a wonderful bowl of braised pork rice.  Just think about a tender cut of pork that's stewed in its own rendered, juicy lipidity along with seasonings such as soy sauce, garlic and brown sugar.  One bite of this beautifully braised pork over a bed of steamed rice tastes absolutely sinful.

Any trip to Taiwan requires multiple outings for braised pork rice.  Whether it's from a street vendor, a chain store like Formosa Chang, or a traditional Taiwanese restaurant like Sit Fun, the outings must be made.  And since I went on a trip to Taiwan, it meant that I went out for braised pork rice... multiple times.  I embarked on a trifecta of trips to obtain different versions of this precious braised pork rice... and I found a tantalizing bowl with shreds of bamboo shoots interlaced with pork from a sidewalk stall in Jioufen (九份), another bowl served with pickled ginger from Formosa Chang (鬍鬚張), and a final heart-stopping bowl with extra pork gravy from Sit Fun (喫飯食堂).  Mmm....

Although it's called braised pork rice, the pork is really stewed.  The braising portion of searing the meat and simmering in merely its own juices occurs never really happens.  There are actually three main ingredients which get tossed into the simmering stew... swine, soy, and sugar.  If you ever uncap the pot of swine, soy, and sugar while the pork is cooking, you'd see that the fat still hugs the pork and has barely melted away.  You might even wonder if the fat is soluble at all.  In actuality, little bits of fat from the rims of the pork have dissipated into the sweet soy sauce, and they get reunited with the meat when it gets soaked up within the sinews of protein.  Circle of life, much?

It is rare to find a bowl of braised pork rice in the States with the same essence as one from the motherland.  I recently had a bowl that seemed to come close, but perhaps it was because hunger took over me, or perhaps it was because the waitstaff suggested the loh bbah bun to me in the native Taiwanese tongue.  Whatever the reason, the braised pork rice that I held in my hands was tops at the time.  No bowl of chicken or beef donburi could knock the pig from its place at the top of the throne.  Until I find one that beats it, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20110904+07+12/20111106