raw and the cooked: taiwanese food in all its glory tomorrow!

1465852_733332440022216_2186114124468236670_oI hope you consider at least one of many fine films in this year’s Cinema Pacific Film Festival, now occurring at the Bijou and other places around town.  I’m particularly interested in Monika Treut’s The Raw and the Cooked: A Culinary Journey through Taiwan, which “artfully documents the pervasive passion for cuisine throughout Taiwan, and delves into the social issues surrounding food production. We witness, for example, the efforts of Taiwan’s young environmental movement to resist the rapid pace of urbanization. Your mind will be provoked, but the film’s radiantly beautiful visuals and jaw-droppingly delectable dishes will ravish your other senses.”

Even better?  The Taiwan Eugene Association will provide tasty Taiwanese treats.  For more info, click click click.

I researched, visited, and wrote about Taiwanese food a few years back. Under fortuitous circumstances, I found myself suddenly in Taipei, surrounded by seafood, stinky tofu, and paparazzi.  It was an engaging and educational trip, one of the strangest and most memorable in my life.  I’m looking forward to learning more about this singular place.  Maybe I’ll see you there.

 

happy year of the dragon!

Gung hay fat choy! May your soup bowl contain many treasures.

This is a Fujian classic, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall soup, served at the Silks Palace Restaurant next to the National Museum in Taipei.  It was set up for a photo shoot during our luncheon when I was in Taiwan.  They took a bunch of photos of me pretending to eat, too.  Never thought I’d be a fashion magazine model!

Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is a deceptively simple-looking soup.  It has dozens of ingredients, including shark fin, abalone, chicken, ham, quail eggs, and many vegetables and herbs.   It’s served at the New Year in Taiwan.  You can read about the preparation and ingredients used here.

And the name?  It’s one of those stories with conflicting legends.  But it seems that the smell of this soup cooking drove a Buddhist monk to distraction, and he either jumped over a wall to get to it or away from it, depending on the version. Read more about it on the Taiwan Food Culture website, which provides an excellent synopsis.

The version we had at the restaurant was in a ding, a ceramic version of a traditional cauldron.  The lunch was really cool — we were treated to the Imperial Treasures Feast, a set menu with food prepared to evoke artifacts in the National Museum. We ate a poached replica of a baby bok choy made of jade, a thankfully more tender interpretation of a braised pork belly carved from agate, and nibbled on miniature deserts nestled in a model of a famous curio box.  There’s a similar menu on the Silks Palace website, and more pictures.

 

culinaria eugenius in seattle: truffled and juicy

Seattle

Taipei

I’m at a loss for words, really. Life has sent me two orders of Taipei-based megadumpling chain Din Tai Fung’s juicy pork-truffle soup dumplings in one month. Just imagine this: minced pork with a spoonful of broth in fluted wheaten skins, all sealed up and steamed in delicious, juicy packages. Now imagine adding black truffle and some deeper, richer broth that has enough gelatin in it to make your lips slickly tacky, your salivation glands work overtime. It’s a dumpling so decadent it doesn’t require sauce or ginger, and they even bring you a clean plate and chopsticks to eat it.

Now imagine eating that twice. Thank you, life.

I will not even complain about being here at my discipline’s massive, angst-filled annual conference again this year.  It’s a dreaded moment in the cycle for many English academics, where all the interviews are held, tortured panels on arbitrary topics take place, and old colleagues and frenemies mingle among sweating graduate students who can’t afford to fly across the country during the holiday break.  You know why?  Because I have truffles perfuming my décolletage and gilded pork juice glistening on my lips.  I may look like a dumpling, but I have the blood of angels.

culinaria eugenius in taiwan: preserving traditions

Part V of a photo essay of my trip to Taiwan.  See Part IV on paparazzi in the night market here, Part I on crabs here, Part II on fish/seafood here, and Part III on fruit here.

As a certified Master Food Preserver, I was quite interested in master food preserving in Taiwan.  I already posted about our trip to the Agrioz Candied Fruit Factory.  But all manner of foods were preserved.  I was most surprised to see the varied traditional uses of preserved meat, including indigenous salted pork products.  Sausages are often made with unusual ingredients like fermented black bean soy sauce, tuna, glutinous rice, and rice wine.

At traditional and wonderful Nanmen Market, the Jinhua ham, smoked over sugarcane, hung at several market stalls behind sausages hanging overhead.  Below ground, there was an entire area for pickled vegetables, about the size and shape of a cheese cooler-counter in a good deli.

It almost pains me now to look at the gorgeous, fresh whole heads of cabbage and greens pickled in various stages of funk. It would take me a year to eat through the varieties at this single stall alone.

We mustn’t forget (to kill that gnawing appetite of mine) the tubs of duck and pork blood cubes the size of tofu loaves next to the pickled vegetables.  I won’t post the picture, as a courtesy to my more delicate readers.

But even odder preserved meats were offered at newer places, including canned roast beef in a supermarket and finely shredded “floss” beef jerky-coated bread loaves at a fancy bakery in Taipei 101.

To each his own tastes, no?

We visited, as I’ve explained before, a splendid teppanyaki restaurant Shen Yen Teppanyaki restaurant in the township of Loudong in Yi-lan Province.  You can see that the restaurant looks rather humble from afar, crouching under the green roof on a river that floods the rice paddies and plains around it.

But as we approached the front door, we were greeted by the jars of fermenting apples in juice, which apparently are turning into vinegar.  I captured a few more shots of the fermentation process for apples and, I believe, dates.  Perhaps these liquids were used to make the drinking vinegar we sipped at the start of the meal, or even the wonderful homemade liqueur at the end.


Also just outside the restaurant, crocks of thick, rich soy sauce made with little fish burbled away.  The chef allowed us to try several kinds of his own soy, without question the best soy sauce I’ve ever tasted.  I tried to find premium soy sauce to take home, without success.  Next time.

In Loudong, we also visited a farmers’ cooperative.  The city slickers in our group were less patient with the tour, but I love these kinds of places, as they provide small producers a way to provide their goods en masse and house the beating heart of an agrarian community.  Could have done without the requisite introductory DVD presentation, but I still regret not buying the green onion paste, a specialty of the region, offered at the cooperative.

Oddly, we didn’t taste green onions or almost any fresh produce, with the exception of a pomelo that I spied in the office area stacked along with the wall with dozens of its brothers. Instead, we made our own tofu and drank a range of bottled soy milk products.

We also visited a small production facility that was making 1,000-year or lime eggs, a preserved duck egg that ferments in its shell in a tub of solution for over a month.  When it emerges, two studious workers tap each shell for quality control and the eggs are sorted by size (below).

What emerges when open is a multi-hued, beautiful, and strange creature, a jellied egg in a range of greens and reds.  The interior holds a slightly sticky black yolk.  The crystalline formation on one end of the egg indicates it is of the best quality.  The 1,000-year eggs are eaten with the morning congee rice porridge.

Other delicious preserved products included the fresh passionfruit jam we ate at breakfast each morning and the variety of Japanese and Chinese breakfast pickles that attended rice and congee.

Ah, yes, and we drank fermented beverages.  The Taiwanese aren’t big alcohol drinkers, but they’ve managed to make quite decent beer and whisky.  Aged in Kentucky oak barrels but named after an indigenous tribe and bottled in small glass versions of Taipei 101, delicious Kavalan whisky, redolent of tropical fruit and vanilla, was sipped.  The stuff is sadly unavailable in the U.S., another purchase I regret not making.

I can buy, luckily, oolong tea, which is grown in the mountains south of Taipei.  We visited a demonstration tea garden ringed by camellias and kumquats, and tasted the famous Iron Goddess of Mercy (tie-guan-in) oolong grown in the region (below).

I only wish we had had more time to explore Taiwanese tea culture.  We didn’t have a chance to visit any traditional tea houses or try tea cuisine.  Luckily, we’ve got J-Tea in Eugene (and a new, expanded website with online ordering, ooh!).  I consulted with Josh, the owner, who lived and studied tea in Taiwan for many years, about the trip.  I’m glad I can stop by the shop for a little bit of Taiwanese culture when the urge hits.

And last but not least, we ate (or some of us ate) the Taiwanese national snack, stinky tofu.

Fetishized in the media as the enemy of foreigners, stinky tofu has the texture of a well-wrung sponge and the flavor of a slightly mildewy sponge.  Does that make it bad?  Well, no. I actually liked the fried stinky tofu surrounding the soup.  It was served with a quick-pickled cabbage and salty umami sauce.  The soup, strongly scented with stinky tofu from the big pieces swimming in it, however, was not my favorite.  I heard from a friend that there are more deeply stinky, creamier versions that mimic good, strong cheese.  I wish we could have tried that!

culinaria eugenius in taiwan: paparazzi

Part IV of a photo essay of my trip to Taiwan.  See Part I on crabs here, Part II on fish/seafood here, and Part III on fruit here.

We got off the bus at the Ningxia Night Market and I saw the cameras.  Oh, someone famous must be here, thought I, as we headed toward them, we’ll be able to get a closer look.

And a closer look we got, indeed.

Yes, so close that we were surrounded in this little market in an old area of Taipei.  We were  followed down the narrow alley through the most remarkable, clean little food stalls I had ever seen.  The camera spotlights were kind of handy for taking my own shots, but I got in trouble for trying to stop and ask questions, or, even worse, wandering off to explore a particular stall.  This is why food writers do not make good TV stars.

For some reason, the Taiwanese specialty called stinky tofu, a slightly fermented tofu cake either fried or served in large pieces in a soup at the market, was just about the only thing the very young, very green reporters were interested in.

Yum — and here I am eating stinky tofu and showing the world I use my left hand as a scoop for food that falls out of my mouth when I’m stuffing my face.  In fact, this might be the least flattering photo of me ever:

Or is this?

The reason for the paparazzi?  No, not me.  Our trip was made possible by the Taiwanese Government Information Office, at the request of rather dashing Minister Philip Yang, above.  Yang holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UVA, and he has devoted his career to public relations and raising awareness of the deep well of Taiwanese culture.  Not too shabby!  He invited us to Taiwan to promote the government’s new international website for Taiwanese foodCheck it out in a Chinese video of the press conference.

And here we are, eating bottarga, or mullet roe, with host and food critic Mr. Wu and Minister Yang (photo courtesy of the latter’s Facebook page).

In a realm where such sites are usually horrible, the Taiwanese food site really quite good and nothing else matches it for breadth or depth in English.  I wasn’t joking when I said it was a real service to the world at the press conference.

But the problem with being the guest of a public relations mastermind is that the man sure does like media.

Wondering what I’m taking a picture of at the night market?  Well, as dashing as Minister Yang was, I couldn’t help but be more interested in a GIANT FRIED BALL OF EVERYTHING.

Yes, that giant fried ball of everything.  In the earlier photo, Minister Yang was pointing out all the ingredients in the ball, which seems to be made of vegetable fried rice, six oysters/shrimp depending on your choice, a raw egg, and god knows what else, all wrapped up in dough and deep fried. (Photos of me courtesy of what appears to be a news photo outlet on the Internet.)

I was a bit more vivacious and less thunderstruck at the next stall, a Taiwanese spring roll vendor whose stall has been at the market since 1951.  The sweet old lady making the spring rolls was positively unflappable.

I had to squeeze between the lady and the cameras, as such:

Time to make the spring rolls!  Photo of me (and a great one, thanks!) is courtesy of Saúl Cepeda, my TV star partner in crime.

A  bit more like a burrito than a spring roll as we know them, but still tasty.

For much of the week, we were documented during meals.  Saúl and I started messing around with the cameras to break the tediousness of being constantly filmed. In fact, some of my favorite shots are with the paparazzi.

Here I am being carefully considered by a young man who took his art seriously, if invasively, outside the highly recommended Shin Yeh seafood restaurant.  I was entranced by the tanks of dozens of different fish and shellfish.  He was entranced by me.

Alas, parting is such sweet sorrow.

The experience, I have to admit, really does make one understand why famous people turn into divas and smash cameras and such. Here are a few of my favorite shots of others.  Saúl poses for Culinaria Eugenius as the poster boy of steamed shrimp, Jean Louis comments on everything he has eaten, and Egami-san makes tofu for Taiwanese media at a farmers’ co-operative in Yi-lan province.

And I even managed a half-smile out of John at Din Tai Fung in Taipei 101.  I like to think my success was due to my charmingly constant shutter-clicking during lunch, which made him feel quite at home.

Jean-Louis, who took the bullet on the photo opp behind John, will appear somewhere holding Din Tai Fung dumplings.  Sadly, it will not be at my doorstep.  I can’t even look at my photos of the truffle-pork xiao long bao dumplings without wanting to hijack a plane to Taipei.

See?  Ack.  Drool. Now that’s much more interesting than a picture of me taking a picture or eating stinky tofu.  Worth every click and bright light and interview.

OK.  What next?  I have so much more to say about Taiwan.  A preservation post is in the works.  And somewhere out there in the ethernet is an amusing interview of me, Saúl, and Minister Yang talking about food while we voluptuously (“more please, Jennifer, show how delicious it is!”) eat some amazing prawns.  But I think after that I’m going to hold off until the future allows me to say more.  After all, I do have other matters to discuss that are closer to home.  Until then, dear readers!  May you eat well and look pretty on camera as you eat.

culinaria eugenius in taiwan: fruit loops

Part III of a photo essay of my trip to Taiwan.  See Part I on crabs here and Part II on fish/seafood here.

More Taiwanese food, on a day we could all use a little tropical sweetness.  (24 hours to go ’til grading is due!)

Fruit is one of the main daily luxuries in Taiwan; with a subtropical climate, every kind imaginable is available. At the hotel, we were greeted by three different types of fruit that changed on a daily basis.  They even provided a little card that explained what was being presented.  Note the size of the starfruit, above.  It was almost as big as a brick.

The hotel also provided two fruit stations at the breakfast buffet, so we could either get juice and sliced fruit, including papaya, passionfruit, guava, and pineapple, or chopped up fruit “stew” in a rainbow of colors for yogurt and granola.

Since I have so many images, I thought I’d try a gallery of thumbnails.  Click on the photo for a bigger version.  The series above is mostly from the Agrioz Conserves Factory, a couple of hours from Taipei in Yi-lan province, a coastal area on the northeast side of the island.  The factory candies fruit, a traditional snack for families.  Kumquats are their most popular treat (growing above at the Tea Promotion Center in a different area).  A worker individually packages each candied fruit in a small production area.  The four kumquats on a plate represent different stages of candying and drying.  The one furthest away from the camera has been dried to a leathery nugget and is most like a jujube candy.  The sweet little owner served them to us to try.  She is responsible for the jars of preserved fruit in the last photo, as well.  They’re just for display.

At every meal, we were served fruit as dessert, and often a glass of juice or drinking vinegar made from fruit at the start of the meal.  I usually think of fruit as a cop-out dessert (and therefore my kind of dessert), but in Taiwan, it was really the nicest thing that could follow a meal.  Above, you can see a pomelo we were served at a farmers’ co-op in Yi-lan province; an apple wine/vinegar being fermented in Yi-lan; a rather over-the-top ice sculpture modeled on an ancient Chinese vessel in the National Museum, poised on a bed of dry ice and topped with a fringe of fruit kebabs; and a simple plate of melons, guava, and dragonfruit with the most wonderful ume plum powder used as a sprinkle of sour-sweet-salt on the fruit.  I made it home with two jars of the stuff.

Just seeing the varieties in the market blew my mind.  I fancy myself a greengrocer connoisseur, someone who has a decent understanding of exotic produce.  But I was out of my league.  I recognized the dragonfruit, gigantic avocados and grapes in the first image, but what in the heck were the green things next to the red apples.  Why, fresh dates, of course!

The coconut fruit in the middle and the cherimoya in the fourth shot I could identify, but the delicate red wax apples I had never seen before.  They were fragile and brittle and watery clean in taste.  I recommend them.  Look for dark purple ones, or jade green ones, should you have the good fortune to land in Taiwan.

And last?  That’s a purple glutinous rice “cake” topped with candied fruit for celebrations.  The reddish rice is a lucky color.  A much nicer way to celebrate a birthday than a grocery store sheet cake made from Crisco and powdered eggs, thank you very much.

To you, Taiwan, and your glorious fruit!  I toast you with some passionfruit juice.

culinaria eugenius in taiwan: i seafood, i eat it

Part II of a photo essay of my trip to Taiwan.  See Part I here

One of the chief delights of Taiwanese cuisine is seafood in all its divine mystery.  I already gave you a hint with my pictures of crabs in the last post.  That was merely, only, scarcely, barely the beginning.  Above: uni (sea urchin) sashimi on a bed of seaweed at the Shi-Yang Culture restaurant in Xizhi City, Taipei County; I’m not sure what the fish next to it is, probably a relation to mackerel.


Grilled wild eel (front) and greater amberjack (back) served with house-made soy sauce seasoned with tiny fish. Shen Yen Teppanyaki restaurant, Loudong, Yi-lan Province.

Simple grilled fish with lime and prune at Ba-Ian Hot Springs Resort restaurant in the Yamingshan National Park. One of my favorite dishes of the trip.

Nanmen Market fish, prêt-à-porter, Taipei.

Shin Yeh Seafood restaurant sauteed spicy squid, Taipei.  At this restaurant, you’re able to pick out a great number of fish and shellfish in tanks outside the restaurant, priced by the kilo, then have the chef prepare it in a number of ways.  The dishes were garnished beautifully — not sure if that was just for us, since we had government VIPs in the group.

Black parrotfish sashimi at one of the most unusual and lovely restaurants we experienced, Shen Yen Teppanyaki, Loudong, Yi-lan Province.

Shrimp and abalone sashimi at Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant.  Taiwanese abalone are quite small and have electric blue outer shells.

Oysters with fermented black beans, a dish often served at home over rice.  Ba-Ian Hot Springs Resort restaurant.  Special guest star: the arm of my excellent guide, Jeff Lee, who introduced me to the dish.  Thanks, Jeff!

Steamed fish with soy crumbles, a specialty of Sichuan province.  Served at Shao Wei, a humble family-style Sichuan restaurant in Taipei.

Nanmen market fish cakes in the shape of bunnies, in honor of the Year of the Rabbit.

Prawns are brought in live to the Ningxia night market and prepared in inventive ways, like this oven simulator (aka a hair dryer).  Looks good enough for a date with a handsome press minister, no?  Stay tuned, dear friends, stay tuned.

Grilled whole fish at Shin Tung Nan Seafood Restaurant, Taipei.  As a part of our banquet meals, we were always served at least one whole fish: steamed, grilled, or fried.  They were often some of the best dishes of the day.

Shrimp and pork crown dumplings and smoked Shanghai-style fish at the renowned Ding Tai Feng dumpling house in Taipei 101, the mile-high wonderbuilding.

And last but not least, gloopy shark fin supreme soup at Palais de Chine, Taipei.  I wasn’t a fan.  Couldn’t get the image of finning out of my mind.  Some gourmet, huh?  The “surf and turf” tenderloin with scallops in the background was good, though.

Full yet?  I’m not kidding about this is just the beginning, folks.  I’m still overwhelmed just looking at the pictures I took.  I keep forgetting about an entire meal and relive it again when I browse the set.  More to come, then.  Allons-y! (Can you tell I spent a week with a dashing French restaurant critic? Stay tuned!)

culinaria eugenius in taiwan: wait, what?!

Yes, I’m in Taiwan. These two pictures and the one above are of the Grand Hotel, once owned and run by Chiang Kai Shek’s wife, the infamous “Dragon Lady,” Madame Chiang.  See?

The trip was pretty much a surprise.  Just a few weeks ago, I was invited to visit Taipei and the surrounding countryside to learn about Taiwanese indigenous cuisine and regional Chinese styles as interpreted by Taiwanese chefs.  It was kind of bad timing, and kind of impossible not to go.

I’ve already learned much, and am thinking of ways to integrate the Asian diaspora into my classes.

So much to tell already.  I’ve only been here 12 hours and I’ve already been photographed for a local magazine and tried many new things to eat, including this delicious international buffet in the lobby of my hotel with fresh Taiwanese fruits,  Swiss pastries, congee, dim sum, a full Japanese breakfast, and bacon-sausage-eggs.  More soon!

taiwanese dim sum, yum yum: culinaria eugenius in seattle

I have never made it a secret that I am perfectly happy to be bossed around by someone who knows what they’re doing.  If I were in the culinary biz (and lucky to secure felicitous employment) I’d be an eternal sous chef.  That might be why I’m such a happy customer when it comes to a well-run house.

Imagine my surprise when, on my recent trip to Seattle, we landed in the good graces of a no-nonsense, helpful waitress at Chiang’s Gourmet in the Lake City neighborhood in NE Seattle (7845 Lake City Way N.E.). Our experience mirrors this humorous review, in which a white couple are initiated into the mysteries of Taiwanese-style dim sum.

In my case, I was rather more arrogant about it all.  (If you didn’t catch my latest appearance co-hosting KLCC’s “Food for Thought” radio program last Sunday, I talk about it here as my meal of the week).

When asked if we had had dim sum before, I said we had, but I couldn’t understand which items were which because the Chinese translations seemed a little unusual, with many more “buns” and “cakes” than usual.  Where was “har gow,” for example?  If there is one thing I know, it’s har gow.

She smiled at my ignorance and said that we were about to eat a kind of dim sum we had never had before: traditional Taiwanese dim sum.

Had we really just chanced upon a completely new cuisine for me?  We had been led to the restaurant by a recommendation, but in a very unusual moment for me, I hadn’t looked at any reviews or menus ahead of time.  And I was kind of grumpy that we hadn’t been able to eat at my favorite Sichuan restaurant due to scheduling.

So, basically, I had to trust someone…about food?

Yee-haw!!!!!!!!!!

Our waitress at Chiang’s Gourmet basically ordered for us, and we couldn’t be happier.  I just wish we could have eaten more.  Taiwanese food is something to which I have had little to no exposure, and it’s a varied and unusual combination of many regional Chinese specialties.  The diversity is actually a bit startling.  Oddly enough, my big Culinaria China book had only the sparsest mention of Taiwan.  I had to study this guide on popular food culture just to get a sense of what the island offers.

One of the main staples is pork, and there are indeed plenty of pan-fried wheat dough “cakes” that contain ground pork, like the flatbread we ordered, above, with minced, soured dried daikon.

When she brought out a pile of garlic flecked gai lan and the spicy, soupy dumplings pictured at the top here, I thought I was in heaven.

But when we received the above dish, I had no idea what to expect.  Glutinous purple rice steamed in plastic wrap was odd enough — and the interior, an odd mix of dried, shredded pork, a sweet powder, and the fried dough fritter usually served with congee?  And yet the combination worked: a strange mix of all the five flavors, plus an interplay of soft and crispy textures in each bite.

We finished our meal with hand-cut Shanghai-style noodles, shrimp and spinach, another house specialty.  I’m sad that I missed the pork and sesame topping served to the table next to us, but we couldn’t go wrong with a dish like the above.

And it gives us more reason to go back.