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Friday, January 04, 2013

More Taiwanese Treats, Part Two

Ready to gain a few pounds vicariously?

Fried broad beans in several different flavors, including curry.

Auntie working on some more pan bread.  I asked her if we could make it together, but apparently with all the waiting it takes about five hours.  

It comes out shaped like Biscotti, but it's nice and soft and chewy.  

Homemade stir-fry with celery, onions, peppers, "dried tofu," and squid.

Auntie's sister brought over a pita filled with raw veggies and hummus.  I thought I'd have to wait until Turkey for one of these.

Marinated tofu skins.  Taste kind of like BBQ ribs.  "Kind of."

Chocolate-coated sunflower seeds.

At long last, a new street-food: julienned and then deep-fried taro (left) and sweet potato cakes.  The perfect warm, crunchy, chewy, fatty, spicy or salty (depending on which sauce you slather on snack to munch on while walking along the boardwalk.

Another homemade meal.  Celery and oyster soup, snap pea and button mushroom stir-fry, and sauteed  purple greens.  I'm betting there's another dish hidden behind the hot pot, but I don't recall.

Rice, three veggies, and one fried thing for $1.50 or so.


Hotpot places generally have a little buffet where you can make up your own dipping sauce.  Sesame powder, slices of green onion, chili flakes and oil.  Oil and fat and spice, ooh yeah.

Hot pot, again!  This one is Schezuan style.  Nowhere near as spicy as real Chinese stuff.

Tim the artist was too busy painting to enjoy the coconuts that dropped down onto his driveway.  Luke and I, on the other hand, needed something to do in between rounds of tossing the frisbee.  I

In the city, we found a bus stop called "fruit street."  The green things on the left are some kind of cross between an apple and a jujube.  The red ones on the right are wax apples, all light and watery and crisp, something like what celery would be if it were sweeter and not so stringy.  

Taidong is also known for its "Shijias," which I've heard called Custard Apples and Buddha's Head fruits.  Beneathy the warty surface is a big clump of ice-creamy stuff.  These cost about $4 a piece in Taipei, but only $1.50 per pound down in Taidong.  Unfortunately, none of these were ready to eat!  We bought a whole box only to find that all of the fruits were rock-hard.  Still waiting for them to soften up so we can chow down.

There were only two restaurants near Tim's place, so over the four days we had a chance to visit them both.  This was the Vietnamese one, where for about $3 each we got a six-course meal.  Here's the appetizer: fresh spring rolls, with shrimp for the omnivores and dried tofu for me.

Noodle salad.

 The other place was Italian, run by a Sardinian named Michele.  Not only did I get to break out my extremely rusty Italian, but I got to have some real authentic stuff.  We ordered one of everything on the menu - tomato and eggplant sauce, pesto sauce, oil, chili, and garlic sauce, and vegetarian carbonara.

In order to savor the pasta we ate it "rotino by rotino," i.e. spearing a single piece of pasta from one plate before moving clockwise to the next one.  It took the five of us at least half an hour to finish it all.  What with all the buffets and street foods, I had almost forgotten the pleasure of slow food. 

It wouldn't be Italian in Taiwan without some slightly funky Tiramisu for dessert.  This meal was my end-of-the-year splurge, and it cost me about $10.50.

In 2010 and 2011 I  really deepened my understanding and appreciation of Korean cuisine, exploring every nook and cranny of Daegu in search of local, organic, veggie fare, and even visiting farms and farmers to learn where it all comes from.  March and April took me first to Taiwan and then to Japan, I bid adieu to Korean cuisine throughout the late spring and early summer.  By September I was getting used to menus written entirely in Chinese characters, only to find myself mostly lost again when I landed in Taiwan in November.  Now it's a new year and within another month or so I'll be wrapping up my voyages in Northeast Asia and heading South-Southwest.  I can only wonder what wonders 2013 will bring.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Takin' It Easy in Taiwan

In which I am reunited with my official photographer/ukelelist/korean conversation partner/(what exactly do I bring to this friendship?)/ fellow cycle maniac MINGYULEE and we resume our hijinks.    

Ah, how distant those memories from over four months and six thousand kilometers ago!  Me and Mingyulee, cycling through Northern China, sweating our arses off, working the kinks out of our bikes and our gear, counting down the kilometers to Beijing.  In between sucking in daily facefulls of dust we scaled the Great Wall, visited several royal palaces, camped in unspeakable spots, and downed more Tsingtao's than I'd like to admit.  We went our separate ways at the end of October, keeping in touch mostly through blog comments and occasional emails. 

That is, until a few weeks ago when Mingyu hopped the same boat I had and showed up in this little slice of paradise.  Most Korean bicyclists looking to go around the world skip Taiwan, since it's not easy to return to mainland China after a visit.  Mingyu on the other hand came all this way for no other reason than to chill with me.  I felt I had better offer him some hospitality.  

Welcome to the home of "Uncle" and "Auntie."  Uncle is my mom's neighbor's younger brother and has now hosted me three times in Taipei.  I cannot comprehend how good  they are to me.  They listen attentively to my crap Chinese, and help me refine it.  They tell me what time they expect me to come upstairs for breakfast.  They cook me dinners and break out the fine wine (which is so strong that we only drink it in thimblefulls).  Their son takes me to the night market, buys me food, and doesn't force me to eat stinky tofu or duck blood.  I ask to borrow scissors so I want to cut my reflector vest into thin strips to save weight, and they go out and buy me a new lightweight suspender-style one.  I casually mention that I enjoy the occasional guava and Uncle is off on his scooter to buy me a bag.  Of organic ones.

And, as if all that weren't enough, they extend the same incredible generosity to my friend, and to a friend of my friend.  They don't even mind if we sit around, drink all their beers, eat all their snacks, and play cards until the wee hours.  I must have rescued one of them from certain death in a previous life.  The first three characters from the left are Didi, Apple, and Culture Man.  "Didi" means little brother.  I use that for him even though he's the same age as me, because I don't know his name, which in turn is because his family calls him "little pig" (they call his older brother "big pig"), which is too hard for me to pronounce. "Apple" is also a pseudonym, but it's what she goes by.  Even when she's not around, that's what people call her.  "Appo."   "Culture Man" is a poor translation of 문화인, Moon Hwa-in, Mingyu's college friend who is joining us in Taiwan.  I don't know what's braver of her, coming to Taiwan to cycle or agreeing to spend a month with the two of us.  

Auntie even invited us to join her, her sister, and a friend for a rousing six-hour round of Monday Morning Karaoke.  Of course, they didn't want to hear us screaming our rebellious punk music, so they got us a separate room.  

Nor was this any normal Karaoke experience.  The place even had a buffet!  All sorts of cakes, coffees, sodas, and even some proper food.  

Sing a song, eat some tofu.  Sing a song, eat some cabbage.  Sing a song, eat some waffle fries.  Sing a song, eat some noodles.  Sing a song, eat some...who knows what those little things were. 

Impossible not to play with your food in such a situation.

We also enjoyed some quality time bumming around the Beitou morning market, enjoying spring onion pancakes, crushed peanut wraps, 6-for-$1 guavas, and other market goodies.

In the evenings, it's off to Shilin night market to have a looksie at the throngs of people "spending money they don't have to buy things they don't need to impress people they don't know."* Clothes and toys and jewelry and trinkets of all sorts.  For the most part I'm immune to their charms, but I had to entertain myself while MG and HI were scoping out sunglasses.  I think I found the perfect pair!  If I ever have LASIK done, I'm going to get rid of my Weezer frames and grab a pair of these suckers.

*quotation courtesy of George Carlin

We also found a candy shop where it's possible to buy loaaaaads of wrapper-free candy.  I don't often get such an opportunity, so I loaded up on chocolate-coated sunflower seeds.  Totally not worth it!  Overpriced and way less delicious than local desserts.  Lesson learned.

 While walking around town, I taught MG and HI about the joys of Banyan trees.  Does any tree so perfectly reflect life itself?  Sloppy, messy, desperate, tangled; and yet enormous, beautiful, unfathomable.  I am stopped in my tracks almost every time I see one of these trees, with its roots dropping down from twenty feet up, landing on and twirling around their own branches.

An evening watching the sun set at Danshui boardwalk.

What to do on a slightly damp and chilly Wednesday?  How about a game of pong?!

It's been seven or eight years since I was reigning president** of the WashU Table Tennis Club.  But you know what?  I still got it!  I won't go into details about whether or not I creamed Mingyu, whether or not I bought his excuses about the loaner paddle, or whether or not I enjoyed the green onion pancakes he had to buy me.  

**though not top-ranked player

Next up: a trip to Luodong to visit Luke and Tanya (again).  A landslide had taken out part of the road down, and the weather sucked anyway, so we decided not to bike down.  We did briefly consider bringing this folding bike...until we realized that it was built for four-year olds.

A walk around Luodong's sports park.  Luke and Tanya really picked a great place to live.  Within a twenty-minute walk from their house, you can visit: the train station, the bus station, several parks, six vegetarian restaurants (and counting), and thriving morning and evening markets.

After a rousing round of double-disc frisbee practice, we sat down to watch a little doubles action.

Next day: Chilling in the Luodong Forestry Culture Park, or something like that.  Great for aking a 30-minute walk and scoping out bugs, birds, fish, turtles, and of course plants and trees of all varieties.

It wouldn't be Asia without the occasional "Lotus Growing in a Large Ceramic Pot"

I'll have to ask my psychiatrist why I felt compelled to take this picture.

Slowest slide ever.  Seriously.  I am not being ironic here!  It took nearly three minutes for me to slide down all fifteen feet of this thing.  Quite a bizarre little amusement they have here.

For New Year's, we went on a little trip...

....down to the house of a friend of a friend of Luke and Tanya's.  Joel lives up in the mountains near Donghe, just a bit north of Taidong.  He teaches by day and paints by night.

And kindly let us pitch our tents in his ginormous driveways.  We spent the days throwing the frisbee, playing board games, playing with his dogs (Winston, Mellow, Sophia, Lauren), and walking the 2 miles to and from town to get grub.  

Here we are at a hotpot restaurant, with handmade English menu!  After some deliberation, I chose the "Vegetarian Fennel Hotpot" over the "Vegetarian Pumpkin Hotpot" and was not disappointed.

Here's Mellow.  Shortly after Tim adopted her, she was roaming around in the mountains and got caught in a pig trap.  She was missing for five days before Tim's other dogs managed to find her.  Her leg was still attached by threads, but rotting and covered with maggots, so it had to be amputated.  Now Tim's working on figuring out exactly what the law is regarding these traps and perhaps trying to get them outlawed.

On New Years Day, we finally got some good weather and headed to the beach.  Some frisbee for the hipster in me, some litter pick-up for the environmentalist, some lying meditation for the Buddhist, and some staring at the sea for the everyman.  Waves breaking near and far, water zigzagging back to the sea in parallel little rivulets, a million perfect little rocks strewn about the beach, sand clinging in between my toes.  "Just breathing is happiness.""***

***A paraphrased and poorly-remembered line from a book by Lee Tae-geun, the founder of Heuksalim (Soil Savers), the organic farming company that Mingyu worked for.    

My resolutions for this year:
1: continue to do my best moment-by-moment on all the eco-stuff
2: be happy
(in that order?  I'm not sure.  Resolution 3: make them compatible.)

May you all have a 2013 full of good friends, good food, good times, and goodwill.