Friday, February 28, 2014

Taiwan Day 9. Childhood Memories Spawned by Zhuji Giant Potstickers / 朱記餡餅粥店 (Taipei: Zhongshan District / 台北市: 中山區)

While my aunt may reminisce her youth over a bowl of stewed pork rice, I get flashbacks of my childhood over a meal of rice porridge and giant beef potstickers.  For whatever reason, whether it was convenient location or affordable prices, my parents always took me to eat rice porridge and giant beef potstickers after a doctor or dentist appointment.  They probably believed that a blazing hot bowl of gruel would soothe the pain from an immunization shot or calm me down after a tough tooth pulling.  In retrospect, the logic doesn't quite work out, but I turned out fine... I think.  After running errands, my aunt and I stopped at Zhuji(朱記餡餅粥店) in the basement food court of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store where I got my comforting meal of porridge and potstickers. 

To be honest, this gritty millet rice porridge (小米粥) is not appetizing at all.  It does not have much flavor, and it even has an off putting yellow tinge.  But it is homey and warming, and it just needs to be paired with some patty-shaped potstickers to prevent it from being called poor man's food.

By the way, these things... these round patty things... they aren't really potstickers.  But how do I translate xian bing (餡餅) into English? Meat pie? Chinese empanada? Grilled Taiwanese beef patty? Giant round potsticker? Filled flatbread? All of the aforementioned touch upon the definition just a tad, but none of the above are exact.  My dad said to a co-worker once that they were our version of a burger, but that's not right since the Taiwanese actually have a variation on the American hamburger.  Let's just say it's a blend of sorts.

The most important thing to note, though, is not the English name of this thing but that this thing has a good portion of beef juice and meat oil inside that can be tastefully slurped up by the spoonful or purposefully poured into the jaundice colored millet gruel for added flavor.  I have done the latter ever since I can remember.  In fact, I would make everyone at the table relinquish their beef juice to me so that I could incorporate the meaty extract into my porridge.  What a brat I was... a culinary genius of a little brat.

Another one of my favorite foods that spawned some fond memories are scallion pancakes (蔥油餅).  What used to be simply a snack item in China has become so much more when it came to Taiwan with Chinese migrants.  It is now an accompaniment to dishes at noodle houses much like the bread that is inevitably served with Italian pastas.  What was once something that quelled hunger has become a comforting staple in a meal that frequently over stuffs the eater to a level of discomfort... how ironic.

The scallion pancakes that spark the most nostalgia are arguably the ones with the most layers.  In the struggle of pulling apart the layers, the warmth and heat of the flatbread itself remedies whatever struggle the eater had prior to sitting down at the table.  For me, it was the dreaded shot in the tender regions by the nurse or the absolute fear of foreign metal objects that the dentist used to inspect my teeth.  Thank goodness for scallion pancakes.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

What food or dish sparks memories of your childhood?

Zhuji (朱記餡餅粥店)
No. 12, Nanjing West Rd., Zhongshan District, Taipei City
Shin Kong Mitsukoshi, Hall 1, Basement 2
MRT: Zhongshan Station, exit no. 3 / 捷運中山站, 3號出口
multiple locations throughout Greater Taipei

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Taiwan Day 9: Childhood Memories of Stewed Pork Rice / 懷念三元號圓環老店 (Taipei: Datong District / 台北市: 大同區)

When my aunt finally had some time to hang out, I asked her to bring me somewhere that she and my dad used to eat when they were younger.  She led me to a restaurant that used to occupy a space within the central ring of shops at the intersection of Chongqing North Road (重慶北路), Nanjing West Road (南京西路) and Tianshui Road (天水路).  It has relocated just off the roundabout (圓環) due to the municipal government's mandated renovations, which many of the older generation locals in the area gripe about.  How often have you heard the elders mention that things just aren't the way they used to be?

The location may not be the same, but the flavors of its stewed pork rice (滷肉飯) have remained constant.  The stewed pork rice is old school here.  It is easy to see.  The meat is minced, ground, or chopped into bits and pieces and stewed in a sauce of soy and sugar.  When it is spooned atop the rice, it seeps into any space that it finds.  It is fully incorporated.  The meat is nowhere close to the glossy chunks or gleaming cubes of pork belly that are found in restaurants elsewhere.  The pork used here is lean ground meat.  It is far from greasy, but still... this is a hot mess.  It is saucy; it is soupy.  It is home style.  It is the way my dad, my aunts and uncles ate when they were little.  It is delicious.

It is hard not to imagine the thoughts, goals, and ambitions that ran through my father and his siblings' minds when eating a bowl of this messy, saucy pork rice.  Back then there was silence during meal time for my parents.  Not only was the pork stewing away in the pot, but the burrowed desires of a better life were stewing away in their heads as well.  Even to this day it is not easy for the elder generation of Taiwanese to express or communicate their emotions explicitly.

The only time a hint of their childhood memories come to light is when my dad makes this saucy, sliced garlic pork (蒜泥白肉).  This is another dish that elicits family history whether it is happy or painful.  For me, I only know this dish when cooked in our home kitchen in America, but my dad his siblings know of this dish the way that I experienced it.  The thin cuts of blanched pork are laid out on a platter before being drenched in sweet soy sauce paste, minced garlic, and a mound of freshly shredded ginger.  The raw biting garlic will undoubtedly leave a lasting taste on your tongue for a while... much like the memories of eating at the roundabout shops have left for the Lin family.

If this strangely emo post has not already turned the glories of pork upside down for you, continue reading... there's more! Not everyone is fond of their childhood memories, and not everyone appreciates the lingering garlic flavor on their tongue.  Fortunately, there is a pork spare rib soup (排骨湯) available to cleanse your palate and wash away bad memories.  The deep fried pieces of spare rib sink down deep into the depths of the soup, adding flavor and substance to the mild broth brewed from daikon.  A hearty yet mild flavor, the broth is substantial enough to rinse away any flashbacks of which you are not fond but just subtle enough to remind you that there were no regrets.

Oh, wow, that was a cliff of a conclusion.  Until next time, let's dream of getting S.O.F.A.T.

Read the post on 三元號 by TaiwanWalker in Chinese here.

三元號 (San Yuán Haò)
No. 11, Chongqing North Rd., Section 2, Datong District, Taipei City 

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Taiwan Day 8: Din Tai Fung Sets Itself Apart from Others, Part 1 / 鼎泰豐特色真的不一樣, 第一集 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北市: 大安區)

I am a loyal Din Tai Fung fan.  I truly believe that this world famous dumpling house not only makes a higher quality, more delicately prepared xiaolongbao, but they create classic Chinese specialties that set themselves apart from their competitors.  I have been to the Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) locations in America close to 200 times, and I have eaten at the flagship locations in Taipei on every visit to Taiwan.  The food and service have been so consistent that of these hundreds of times, I have never once said that one visit was better or worse than the other.  Here are some of the things that DTF really does differently.  (See the post from my previous visit here.)

First, the restaurant uses bamboo steamers at the locations in Taiwan and the rest of Asia.  This apparently does not meet the regulations in the United States because there is a chance of developing mold on the wood, thereby resulting in unsanitary conditions for the prized dumpling.  Also, the liner used in Taiwan is a reusable silk sheet rather than the disposable sheet of parchment paper that is dotted with holes.  The combination of the silk and the bamboo allow for a more even distribution of steam heat in the container.  With the parchment paper and steel containers used elsewhere, the steam is funnels through the predestined paths that the holes provide in streams that may not cook the dumplings as evenly as it could be.

Next, they offer black truffle juicy pork dumplings (松露小籠包) on the menu at certain locations.  This, in comparison to the dumpling house that places edible gold on top of their juicy pork dumplings, is actually an affordable luxury that patrons look forward to for an indulgent meal.  The truffles are not simply ground into flecks and blended with the meat, an entire slice is placed atop the round of pork before wrapping into 18 delicate folds.

The ever popular hot and sour soup (酸辣湯) is a world of difference here at Din Tai Fung.  The restaurant focuses on creating truly delicate flavors, so the soup here is neither spicy nor sour.  It is a very mild blend of quality tofu, bean sprouts, wood ear fungus, and get this... slivers of congealed duck blood.  I have not yet come across any other hot and sour soup with duck blood so stealthily concealed within the ribbons of egg drop.  The hint of sweet and tangy black vinegar that adorns the top of the soup eases the diner into the taste of this classic dish rather than slapping the heat and acidity right into the taste buds.

The shrimp fried rice (蝦仁蛋炒飯) is one of the best takes on traditional Chinese fried rice in the world.  I can easily count the ingredients used on one of my hands.  There is nothing more than scrambled egg and green onion that have been wok tossed feverishly over and over again with the grains of white rice until each ingredient has been rightfully separated from each other.  Did you notice that the grains of rice are still white? Din Tai Fung has successfully made a tasteful fried rice without using any of that black tarnish that we call soy sauce.  Not a single drop.  Amazing.

There are many more dishes that are easily distinguished and worth exploring... the potstickers happen to be one of them.  Luckily for me, the potstickers that come served with flaps of pork essence grilled to a thin crisp are coming to the Glendale branch at The Americana in California soon.  You can bet there will be a post on just that.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐)
No. 194, Xinyi Rd., Section 2, Da An District, Taipei City
MRT: Dongmen Station, exit no. 5 /捷運東門站, 5號出口

ML - 20130707

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

176. Taiwan Day 7: Tokyo Style Italian at Bellini Pasta Pasta / 日式義大利餐在 Bellini (Taipei: Da An District / 台北市: 大安區)

One of my favorite things about eating in Asia is the availability of fusion food.  The abundance of fusion fare comes not because the culinary world actually works to blend different cuisines but because it is almost inherently in their nature to do so.  The Japanese and Taiwanese especially have an affinity for Western cooking but use local ingredients to mimic dishes from their own culture.  These such blends are apparent in the dishes at Bellini Pasta Pasta, one of my favorite Asian inspired European restaurants, and I make a visit each time I visit Taipei. 

From spaghetti with shrimp tempura to sauce using squid ink or yuzu and mentaiko, there is a plethora of choices when it comes to Japanese-Italian fusion pasta.  One of my favorites is the spaghetti with shrimps & mushrooms in basil pesto sauce (羅勒青醬鮮蝦蘑菇起司麵).  At first glance it does not quite seem Japanese or Asian at all, but it does not appear to be authentic Italian either.  The creaminess of the pesto sauce, the use of full basil leaves, and the length wise cuts of the mushrooms create the Asian essence that the pasta exudes.  I love that toasted pine nuts and red chili flakes have been tossed in with the noodles already, and the sauce has a lightness that distinguishes it from other heavy cream sauces.

Since Japan and Taiwan are island nations, there is a heavy use of seafood in their traditional dishes.  This is reflected even in the fusion cuisine that they produce.  The pizza that we ordered, a mentaiko with calamari & tuna (和風明太子鮪魚中卷比起司薩), is another favorite.  The thin crust is toasty and crisp, and the cheese is light and does not take over the pizza.  The best part, though, is that nori is tossed over the top of the pizza right before serving.  With the tuna and nori combined, all that is missing is a bit of rice to make a sushi roll.  Yum!

We also ordered the Caesar salad, a beef carpaccio, oven baked clams & mussels, soup and desserts.  It's tough to contain myself here because all the dishes are made so well.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Bellini Pasta Pasta
No. 98, Zhongxiao East Rd., Section 4, Da An District, Taipei City
Bistro 98 Building, 4th floor
MRT: Zhongxiao Fuxing Station, exit no. 3 / 捷運忠孝復興站, 3號出口

ML - 20130706

Monday, February 17, 2014

175. Taiwan Day 7: The Warmth of A Taiwanese Breakfast / 台式早餐的溫暖 (New Taipei: Yonghe District / 新北市: 永和區)

Despite late night drinking and embarrassing events that need not be mentioned, early morning breakfast in Taiwan cannot be missed.  Bacon, hash browns and coffee are not quite the staple here, but a Taiwanese breakfast still offers a blend of protein, carbohydrates and a soothing beverage that warms the soul and prepares anyone for the daily grind.  Diana and I stopped by World Soy Milk King (世界豆漿大王) to get our traditional soy milk breakfast before starting our day.

There are plenty of choices when it comes to Taiwanese breakfast, and many choose a rolled rice burrito called fantuan to much on for their morning meal.  Diana and I, however, like something a little less filling.  We prefer a folded flatbread topped with sesame called shaobing.  Some like to add the crispy Chinese cruller known as youtiao between the folds of the bread, but we decided to sandwich our sesame shaobing with a savory omelette style egg instead.  The toasty exterior tickles my toes... and the egg inside of it could become preferred substitute for the blaring alarm clock.

We also ordered a duo of steamed buns called baozi, a pork and vegetable one for me and a vegetarian version for Diana.

There's nothing quite like prying open a fluffy, pillowy, white round of steamed bread to find a packed ball of savory pork product in the middle.  Ahhh... this is the moment that really warms your soul.

I love to have eggs in the morning.  My American upbringing almost requires it.  In Taiwan, eggs are not often scrambled the way they are back home, they are somewhat folded, similar to how we would have eggs over easy... but not quite.  Rather than dousing scrambled eggs with ketchup or Tabasco, soy sauce is often drizzled over the top instead, and it often flows into the lava like goo of the runny golden yolk.  Oh, hell yeah.

A personal favorite, though, is still the grilled daikon cake.  If the small plates of food haven't quite filled you up yet, these floppy squares of pureed radish surely will.  They are not the most sightly of the Taiwanese breakfast options; in fact, a lot of traditional items are white or yellow colored... but the cakes remind me almost of hash browns with slightly crisp edges that I know everyone likes.

If you are skeptical about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, perhaps a stop by a traditional soy milk shop in the morning will change your perspective.  But if you can't yourself up as the sun rises in the east, no worries.  Many soy milk shops like this one are open 24 hours a day. 

Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

World Soy Milk King (世界豆漿大王)
No. 284, Yonghe Rd., Section 2, Yonghe District, New Taipei City

ML - 20130706

Friday, February 14, 2014

174. Taiwan Day 6: Fourplay to Start off the Night / Fourplay 的飲料讓眼睛睜大 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北市: 大安區)

After a fun filled afternoon of teaching Taiwanese school children how to play American games like Big Booty, Diana and I needed to cap our day off with a few drinks.  It's so tough to deal with little kids, you know? We met up with a group of friends from home at Fourplay, a cocktail lounge that serves up the most inventive and innovative of liquored beverages in Taipei. 

Lo and behold, the... heroin, just one in the series of drug inspired drinks that the lounge conjures up.  Fourplay doesn't actually have any menus, so it's tough to remember some of the names of the craft cocktails here.  This is the one that Diana and I remember as "the crazy drink," you know, "the one that looks like an Adios at the bottom," you know, "the one with the dry ice?" Oh yes, that one... the "syringe drink."  You might as well call this the zài jiàn wáng ba dàn (Adios Motherfucker roughly translated into Mandarin) because you will definitely be saying bye bye after polishing off all three syringes and the supposed Absinthe-based Adios concoction on the bottom of the glass.  Oh, did I mention... this is a cocktail made for an individual? A four part drink for one... that's the kind of foreplay that foreshadows our night in Taipei.  Overkill? For sure.

The expression on Art's face as he takes what Christine and Diana dub as the "rite of passage" for all our American friends in Taipei is priceless.  Art is not a particularly dramatic guy, so just imagine my face when the "syringe drink" was placed in front of us.  And Jordan's face.  And Valerie's face.  Like, whoa.  Then imagine my reaction when it was explained that this cocktail was meant to be taken in a continuous sequence... one syringe after the next and chasing it all with the turquoise colored liquid at the bottom. Well, that's one way to start off the night, isn't it?

Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

For some more experiences with Fourplay, see the post by Taipei543 here and the post by Sugared & Spiced here.

No. 67, Dongfeng St.  Da An District, Taipei City

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

173. Taiwan Day 6: Fast Food from Formosa Chang / 快吃鬍鬚張快餐 (New Taipei: Yonghe District / 新北市: 永和區)

If you need a quick bite during lunch, Formosa Chang (鬍鬚張) is the place to go.  When I was a study abroad student in Taiwan, I frequently dropped into one of the many locations in Taipei for a speedy and affordable meal before heading to class.  A bowl of stewed pork rice, a side of vegetables, and an order of soup set me back about 145 NTD (less than 5 USD).  And I was always able to sit, order, eat, and pay in under half an hour... with time left to grab an ice cream bar from the 7-Eleven down the street.  On the sixth day of my trip to Taiwan, Diana and I dropped by Formosa Chang for some a fast lunch.  We were on the way to teach her class how to play some American party games (think Uno and Big Booty), and Diana planned to bring them ice cream from 7-Eleven for being hard working students.  It looks like we have a recurring theme here...

Our meal centered around the stewed pork rice (滷肉飯), a sweet and savory saucy mess of fatty minced pork poured over steamed white rice and served with pickled ginger.  Two small bowls, petite enough to hold in the palm of your hand... one for me, one for Diana.  The bowls also come to medium and large sizes for the famished.

Eating with Diana means that ordering a plate of vegetables is inevitable.  Luckily for me, I have no problem with veggies.  Today we ordered both the bamboo and a local Taiwanese vegetable known as A-tsai, which has a texture that is a hybrid of spinach and lettuce.  Although it has been blanched, it still retains a crunchiness and an inherent greenness that makes it seem like sort of a salad rather than a completely cooked dish... aside from the savory minced meat sauce that accompanies it, of course.

We also ordered soup too, but oh, would you look at that! Time flies when you're eating good food.  We needed to run, almost literally, to buy ice cream bars for two dozen already overly energetic Taiwanese elementary school children.  Gotta run! Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Formosa Chang (鬍鬚張)
No. 108-1, Yonghe Rd., Section 1, Yonghe District, New Taipei City
multiple locations in Greater Taipei and northern Taiwan

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Monday, February 10, 2014

172. Taiwan Day 5: Lan Family's Pork Belly Guabao Is the Best / 籃家割包最好吃 (Taipei: Jhong Jheng District / 台北市: 中正區)

On my last trip to my parents' homeland way back in October of 2011, I brought my friend Rina, a first time visitor to Taiwan, to Lan Family Guabao (籃家割包) for a taste of a traditional treat that I knew she would enjoy.  After this first experience with their pork belly buns (割包 / Taiwanese: gua bao), Rina swore that it was the best thing she had ever eaten in Taiwan.  This time I went back for a visit with my friends Grace and Brian to share one of my favorite foods with them.  I can see Rina turning green with envy already.  (See the post from the last visit here.)

Located in the Gongguan area near several schools and universities, the family owned shop sees high foot traffic and is very popular with students.  One of the pork belly buns costs only 50 NTD (less than 2 USD) and is a tasty snack that will satisfy a hungry student until dinner time.  If dinner seems too far from now, then add a sticky rice tamale (肉粽 / Taiwanese: bah-tsang, Mandarin: ròu zòng) and a piping hot four gods soup (四神湯 / Mandarin: sì shén tang) to your guabao for a satisfying meal that costs just 160 NTD (a little more than 5 USD).

In front of the shop sits the street stall where the buns are steamed in bamboo baskets and the pork belly gets stewed in a large steel cauldron.  Any passing pedestrian can see the Lan sons hard at work, packing the bun's pockets with either lean shreds of pork or fatty chunks of belly, whatever your heart desires.  This display of divine deliciousness undoubtedly attracts the passers-by with the visuals of succulent pork and the aromas of stewed soy, sugar and swine.

These guabao are also known locally as ho ga di, which roughly translates to tiger bites the pig.  Why, you ask? Well, the Pacman shaped buns are similar to the curvature of a tiger's jaw, and it seems to almost swallow the pork into its cavernous pit.  The pork seems absolutely helpless while the tiger devours it entirely... all the tender fatty bits included.

Just writing about guabao makes my mouth water.  If I'm craving a mouthful of this monstrosity, I long for the one from Lan's in Taipei.  No other pork belly bun is quite the same.  Just look at this thing... chopped up, juicy, succulent fatty pork, nestled against pickled mustard greens with crackling, crushed peanuts and fresh, crisp, green cilantro... all of it, all of it enveloped by an ungodly soft, fluffy, steamed bun.  Drooling or otherwise? Please, grab the Kleenex.

I want to be the tiger that bites the pig.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Lan Family Guabao (籃家割包)
No. 3, 8th Alley, Lane 316, Roosevelt Road, Section 3, Jhong Jheng District, Taipei City
MRT: Gongguan Station, exit no. 4 / 捷運公館站, 4號出口 

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