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Dec 23 2005

TV Dinners

Sometimes I think of Taiwan as one big convenience store. It is just so easy to buy all kinds of things, day or night. Food especially. Just about everywhere you look there are small, rustic restaurants. I am talking about your proper, walls-and-a-roof-sit-down place, rather than roadside stands, though there are plenty of these too. Typically they sell tasty traditional food that is cheap and quick – if you order at the counter on your way in, the food might be on the table even before you settle into your seat. However, if you are looking for a nice, quiet eatery where you can chew and chat, then you'll need to find one without a blaring television set, and that is not an easy thing to do.

Taiwan TV Newsreader

Chinese, you see, are incapable of doing anything quietly. Why should eating be any different? The Chinese dream meal consists of plate loads of special delicacies, shared amongst a decent sized group of chopstick clicking diners – a banquet in other words. Chinese banqueters don't just eat food; they have good time with it – festive is the word that springs to mind. Diners may engage in some, or all of the following behaviours: slurping soup, loud, incessant talk, joke making, belly laughing, playing drinking games, getting drunk, burping, and singing karaoke. All this can be great fun if you are part of the group. But if you are sitting alone at the next table trying to finish the crossword, you may think differently.

Chinese, you see, are incapable of doing anything quietly. Why should eating be any different?

In the cheaper restaurants the television acts as poor man's surrogate festive atmosphere. With all kinds of interesting (and LOUD) on-screen dining companions, the lone diner need never feel lonely. The offending black box is bolted high on the restaurant wall. All eyes are trained on a pretty female newsreader who, in a shrill voice, reads at turbo-pace. Trying to follow this monologue always taxes my language skills, and sometimes my patience. Locals have no such problem, and in noodle shops, I've noticed that slurping sounds increase dramatically during commercial breaks.

To some degree I am used to the noise, but the TV can be loud enough to make your teeth chatter. Like recently when I tried to order dinner. The owner threw his hands up and said, "Ting bu dong," (I don't understand). I suggested he might comprehend if the TV volume was turned down. But he didn't catch this either, so I not-so-calmly walked over to the table where the remote control sat, and I turned the sound down to about halfway. Then, without further drama, I ordered steamed dumplings and a seaweed soup.

As I ate, I looked around the little restaurant. There were a couple of small groups eating together and a two or three solitary diners, like myself. Though nobody seemed to be straining to hear the news, and nobody complained or turned the volume up, the atmosphere was definitely more somber, and I seemed to be the only customer who was happy about that.



Nov 26 2005

Ten to the Dozen: Taiwan Egg Cartons

Taiwan's produce markets sell eggs loose. You can buy as many fresh chicken or duck eggs as you like. The supermarkets, like supermarkets everywhere, sell eggs in cartons. I must have brought eggs from the supermarket twenty times before I realised that a Taiwan egg carton is exactly two eggs short of a dozen. Eggs are sold ten to a carton.

Taiwan Eggs

The association of dozen with eggs is so strong in my mind that the two words almost seem glued together. I certainly never questioned this, until the day came when I needed exactly ten eggs. After I had prepared whatever dishes I was making, I went to put the remaining two eggs from the carton into the fridge but found they had vanished. What followed was five minutes of utter confusion before I decided to count the cavities in the empty carton. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten … ten?" No wonder a dozen eggs had always seemed cheap.

Recipe for Tea Eggs



Nov 1 2005

Drying Noodles

Dry Thin Noodles in Jinmen

Thin noodles are one of the specialties of Jinmen (Kinmen), a Taiwan island which lies just off the coast of China. Jinmen (meaning golden gate) is better known to history buffs as Quemoy These thin noodles are stir fried or served in soups. The best known dish is probably oyster noodle soup. Jinmen, because of its dry climate, became a major producer of kaoliang (sorghum) liquor, after the arrival of the KMT in the late 1940s.



Nov 1 2005

Taiwan Rice Porridge (xi fan)

I have been eating a lot of rice porridge lately. Once a day, at least. This is a big turnaround from my early days here in Taiwan when I thought of it as a very boring dish. I would avoid it, (as a dentist friend of mine likes to say), like the plaque.

Rice Porridge with Side Dishes

That was until two years ago when for my birthday I asked for and got a clay cooking pot. It came with instructions recommending seasoning the pot by first cooking a batch of rice porridge. So, I decided, if I had to cook rice porridge, I might as well learn to prepare it right.

A major clue to the original rationale for rice porridge lies in its name. Xi fan means sparse rice. This is best explained by comparing rice porridge to steamed rice. Steam a cup of raw rice and you will end up with about three cups of cooked rice. Boil a cup of rice and you'll get about six cups of porridge - much more if you cook it for longer with more water. The rice is 'sparse' in relation to the water used. It is a very effective way of making rice go further.

So I trotted off to my local grocery store where the elderly owner recommended a bunch of different canned and bottled items to use as side dishes. Boiling the rice, I underestimated the water to rice ratio and found myself having to add more water every few minutes to stop the rice from sticking to the pot. But my first effort turned out alright, and for the first time, I enjoyed rice porridge. I enjoyed it so much that I ate it several days in a row.

There is no absolute formula for cooking the rice as long as there is enough water to do the job. A shorter cooking time, (you will need at least 20 minutes), results in a thick porridge with the rice grain structure intact. Cook for longer (some people cook it for an hour or more), with more water to create a more viscous mix. Add copious amounts of liquid to make a very watery version.

Unlike the congee (zhou) of Guangdong, which is usually flavoured and includes other ingredients, Taiwanese rice porridge is cooked in nothing but water. Not even salt goes into the pot. Traditionally it is the standard easy-to-digest baby food of the rice eating regions of China, as well as a bland food for the infirm, particularly the gastricly unwell. For the rest of the population rice porridge served with a selection of mostly pungently flavoured side dishes, used to be the standard breakfast. These days though, rice porridge has somewhat fallen by the wayside in the wake of greater choice and busier lifestyles - it does not lend itself well to take-a-away or a quick clandestine gobble in the office. It has been relegated to the role of comfort food. A friend recalls eating rice porridge as a child every morning with nothing more than a few pieces of pickled cucumber to liven it up. It was a régime she grew thoroughly sick of. These days, she eats rice porridge only occasionally but always with delight, especially as there is now much more than pickled cucumber to complement it.

To get a nice balance between the bland and the savoury, rice porridge is best eaten with a range of side dishes such as those pictured: from left, clockwise: Chinese sausage, fermented tofu in chilli, dried Oriental radish (daikon), bamboo shoots in chilli oil, stewed peanuts, pickled young ginger, pickled celtuce stem, and in the centre, salty duck eggs.

Preparing rice porridge is not difficult. In fact it can be very quick and easy, after the first time, if you keep some rice leftover. One large batch of rice can be stretched out for several days just by adding water and reheating. And, as many of the accompaniments are pre-prepared, it is just a matter of opening some cans or jars to make a meal. If you vary your side dishes a little from meal to meal, things rarely get dull.

Recipe for Taiwan Rice Porridge



Sept 18 2005

Past Their Use By Date
The world's oldest noodles

The origin of noodles (not to mention the whole pasta category) has long been in dispute. Who really invented this string-like dish? Was it the Chinese, the Arabs, the Persians, or the Italians? All have their advocates. Well, now it seems we know.

4,000 Year Old Noodles

(Image: Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al)

The incredibly well preserved millet noodles shown here, were recently discovered at the Lajia Ruins, Qinghai, China in an upside-down bowl. They are about 4,000 years old. Previously the earliest evidence traced noodle making in China to East Han Dynasty sometime between AD 25 and 220. The new find pushes the known Chinese use of noodles back by over 2,000 years. Lajia, like many of north China's ancient sites, is on the Yellow River. If the other countries want to challenge this record, they had better get digging. more from the BBC.



Sept 19 2007

Bowl o' Guts

Bowl o' Guts, Taiwan Restaurant

What could be more fortifying that a big bowl of assorted pig and chicken guts?



Aug 27 2005

36 Hours in Hong Kong

Hong Kong – I was met at the airport by my old friend Jeffery at 9 pm. It made no difference that I said I had eaten on the plane and wasn't really hungry; by 10 pm we were ensconced in a Vietnamese restaurant in Yau Ma Tei with five dishes in front of us. I don't know Vietnamese cuisine that well, but to me it seems basically like Chinese with fish sauce and a few Gallic touches. In any case, it was good. We ordered a French beer bottled in Vietnam called 33 Export, just for the novelty of drinking a French beer. I had never thought of the French as beer drinkers, and now I understand why they are famous for wine and not ale. Our brew was sickly sweet even though it advertised itself as extra dry.

The next day, on our way to a late breakfast, we wandered through a produce market.

"Nearly all this stuff," said Jeffery, "comes from China or overseas."

It has been decades since Hong Kong has been able to feed itself, and if China ever turned off the big water faucet, many Hong Kongers would be dead of thirst within a month.

I felt like eating something typical and traditional. What I got was a bowl of congee with tiny dried fish and peanuts. I had eaten most of the congee when I discovered some pork pieces at the bottom of the bowl. One taste told me that the time lag between being butchered and served had been too long. So I left the pork alone. Instead I helped Jeff finish his three treasures soup; the 'treasures' being pork balls, fish balls, and wonton. We finished off with warm sweetened soy milk. Traditional enough, I thought.

With breakfast disposed of, Jeffery clearly felt obliged to show me one of the local tourist attractions. He led me a few blocks to what he called "the Temple Street Temple," but I'd seen it before and only gave it a couple of minutes attention. Jeffery is not a particularly energetic type, and all this activity had caused him to sweat. This required a rest on a bench in the small park outside the temple, and a couple of cigarettes. Scattered around the park, in various low-level states of consciousness, were a dozen junkies, looking like very ragged rag dolls - whether sitting, sprawling or staggering, none of them seemed to be equipped with a spine. If the movie Dawn of the Dead had been filmed here, the producers could have saved a bundle on extras.

I had forgotten how fast people drive in Hong Kong. Fast, that is when they move at all, as traffic gets jammed in many places. Still, it is wise to cross roads quickly and carefully, as local taxis become little more than dangerous red flashes as they speed around corners.

We wandered a few more blocks before Jeffery suggested stopping at a small restaurant. He wanted me to try a famous coffee/tea concoction. It did not sound appealing. Sometimes it seems like the world is divided into two groups: the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers. Surely coffee beans and tea leaves are opposing forces, and don't belong together in the same cup? Yuanyang (Yuenyeung in Cantonese) in fact is a delicious cold milky drink, unique to Hong Kong. The name literally means mandarin duck. Mating pairs of ducks are known for their devotion to one another and are regarded in China as a symbol of love and marital fidelity. This name was appropriated for this pairing of coffee and tea.

The skyscrapers that straddle Nathan Road, the main street, act as a conduit for heat and pollution from the traffic and air conditioners. Every time one of Hong Kong's trademark double decker buses speeds past - which is about every five seconds - a great, hot, foul blast is created.

To get out of this 'bus storm,' Jeffery shunted me through a nearby door. It belonged to the Yee Shun Milk Company, a steamed custard specialist. But we just had breakfast, I protested. I couldn't eat another thing! But I did, and it was a perfectly smooth, creamy and white custard that slid down my throat effortlessly. The taste, though definitely not the texture, reminded me of a Thai sago and coconut milk dish. Jeff had the egg version, which looked and tasted more like a western custard.

At noon, we met up with some friends of Jeffrey's for lunch. We walked down the road to the London Restaurant, a dim sum place that one friend, Mr. Ye, has been going to for twenty years. The place was crowded. All the waitresses were busy ferrying tiny dishes around on trolleys, or rushing thermoses of water to tables to replenish empty teapots. Eating in a Chinese restaurant is never a sombre affair. Big Chinese restaurants can be very noisy. But even by Chinese standards, Hong Kongers are particularly boisterous eaters, and I suspect that prolonged dining in restaurants such as this, may lead to minor hearing loss. But there are different kinds of noise, and what I was hearing was a happy, rollicking kind of commotion.

Much of stuff we had was familiar dim sum fare. What I enjoyed the most was the chicken feet, and the mango pancake. The chicken feet were the best I have ever eaten - the skin was very tender and came off the bones easily. I had never eaten anything like the mango pancake in a Chinese restaurant before – mango and whipped cream wrapped in a beautiful thin yellow pancake shaped into a square bun. So fresh … Of course we drank loads of tea. On the way to the toilet I noticed the restaurant had large stocks of four kinds of tea leaves. I guessed they also had other, more expensive teas stashed away for those who request them. We had Tie Guanyin or Iron Boddhisatva tea, one of the best-known Wulong teas from Fujian.

A couple of my dining companions had lived in Taiwan for several years, so I took the opportunity during lunch to ask them to compare the food of Taiwan and Hong Kong. According to a Mr. Tam, the two cuisines are stylistically similar, but there is some divergence in taste and of course, ingredients. Jeffery, a Taiwanese who has lived in Hong Kong for years, said local meals are a cut above Taiwan's, but Taiwan has better snacks and appetisers, and a far greater variety of them.

I was inspired enough by the meal to later buy a great little illustrated book called Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide.

You don't have to worry about sea sickness at The Star Seafood Floating Restaurant. It isn't really floating. It sits on a massive concrete base that I am sure is driven deep into the river bed. It is a huge place, festooned with thousands of light bulbs. It is located in Sha Tin, and that is where we drove for dinner.

The highlight of our eight course meal was roast pigeon chicks. This was my first experience of any kind with pigeon, and I can report unequivocally that it does NOT taste like chicken. It tastes like … pigeon. We also had Australian lobster served on noodles with a cheese sauce, a type of sea snail braised in a spicy sauce, stir-fried cuttlefish, a braised chicken dish, shrimp with broccoli, and the largest shrimp I have ever seen, the only dud of the meal - six inches long, two inches wide, fished out of the Philippines, someone said. It was deep fried and cut into five sections. We all ate one. The flesh was membranous and chewy - about as succulent as polystyrene. Shark's fin soup followed, before the fruit platter. Not a bad way to finish a fine full day of dining.

But we were not finished. Back in the car, after driving for half an hour, I was informed that we were heading to Saigon to drink beer. “But I don't have a visa for Vietnam,” I said. No, no, Saigon is by the beach in the New Territories. What, they moved it? Saigon turned out to be a popular weekend getaway actually spelled Sai Kung, that featured a bunch of open-air restaurants. With an electrical storm brewing and a typhoon on the way, it seemed a strange time to be going to the beach. But that was a thought that was lost by the time I was half way through my first beer. Of course no one was hungry, but snacks were ordered and eaten.

It was nearly midnight as we approached my hotel in Yau Ma Tei. There were lightening flashes high in the sky and distant thunder, but apart from a few drops, the rain had yet to arrive. We drove through the same produce market we had visited in the morning. Dozens of shirtless, sweaty men were now unloading boxes of fruit and vegetables from trucks before delivering them on trolleys to small roadside store sheds ready for the next day's trade that would begin in a just a few hours. In the morning Hong Kong would awake hungry, as usual. But not me. I was tired and still very full when I went to bed, and I had absolutely no intention of eating anything until I boarded my noon flight to China.



Aug 10 2005

First Blog

The incorruptible government official will have nothing but salt to eat with his rice.

With this Chinese proverb I begin my first blogging effort. The quote says much about the importance of food to the Chinese. Nobody understands better than they, that food is more than sustenance. Food should also excite the senses. Fortunately for me I am neither a government official nor incorruptible. In fact, living here in Taiwan, I eat extremely well, and in The Chopstick Chronicles I will share some of my eating and cooking experiences with you. Apart from that, we will just have to see where this little blog takes us.

I can say though that it won't always be a hug-fest. As much as I like Chinese food, I don't enjoy everything, and I certainly don't appreciate it when the food is badly done. When it is, I will say so.

I don't know how often I will write. Posts will appear either when I think I have something worth saying and have the time to say it; or when I have plenty of time, nothing worth saying, but say it anyway.

The Chronicles part of the blog title was lifted from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, a book I have never actually read. I got the idea for the Chopsticks part from ... well, a pair of chopsticks.

Anyway, I have to pack for a trip to China tomorrow. I'll be hitting Hong Kong and Guangdong in the south, and in the north-central area, Hebei and Shanxi provinces. I am not expecting a dull trip. I will write again soon. Till then.



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