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: 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?


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.

food networking: culinaria eugenius in new york city

I had been meaning to go to New York to catch a wholly different act, an exhibition of the life of Samuel Steward, one of Alfred Kinsey’s primary sources on gay life in the 1950s and the subject of part of my book on mid-century sexuality, so I thought I’d combine an important conference in my field being held in Buffalo and the exhibition all in one trip.

When I saw that the Food Network was hosting its annual Wine & Food Festival in one of the old Chelsea pier warehouses during the exact time I’d be there, I jumped at the chance to go to the Grand Tasting on Sunday.

I’ve also been researching modernist menus — the fascinating clash of cultures in Greenwich Village in the first couple decades of the twentieth century — and post-modernist menus, in particular the way mainstream American media views the 21st century consumer.  And what better way (if you can bear the high price) to contrast old and new American media than a Food Network event in the old meatpacking district? Above, that’s me standing on the old Cunard Lines dock (Pier 54) where the Carpathia docked with its unintended cargo, the Titanic survivors.  And the apples in a pile?  That’s the plan for Pier 57’s future.

No, the Big Apple didn’t do its apples justice.  I eschewed the pile of refrigerated container apples and the supermarket ‘Red Delicious’ apples in the FN display.  Red Delicious in fall, really?  I like to think one jumped ship out of embarrassment.

So while the Occupy Wall Streeters were assembling, I occupied the Grand Tasting, a benefit for local food organizations.  There’s always something a bit off about mixing philanthropy and feasts to me, but they are always a quick and easy way to survey the territory.

We received lime green bags with a baffling range of swag in it — everything from sour gummy candy to a regular-sized box of pasta to a pack of red chili flakes to a Nutella-like spread made from those Biscoff cookies Delta gives out on their flights.  And Nutella.  With wooden spoons and olive oil packets and concentrated chicken stock and a packet of electrolyte powder for good measure.  More Biscoff cookies were distributed at the Delta booth, which occupied the space from which I’m photographing above.

I’ll confess, I’m not really a Food Network fan.  I used to be. I could happily watch Molto Mario all day long.  In fact, in my early days of graduate school, I would use Mario as a study break.  He managed to be both patronizingly didactic and still entertaining– he’d drive home the same point over and over again: undercook the pasta; add it to the sauce; don’t drown it; save the pasta water; and spoke at such a fast clip you could never quite follow the Italian names of dishes or regional variations he was introducing.  It was a cooking show you actually needed to pay attention to.

And what a delight.  You were there to eat what he wanted to give you and listen to what he wanted to tell you.  If anything, you could take a bit of schadenfreude in knowing you were at least as smart as his guests, who perched over the counter and asked him questions (Mario, but what is puttanesca?  Mario, could you use any winter squash instead of summer squash? Mario, is it called bench flour because it’s made out of benches?)

Food Network, you’ve come a long way, baby.

There were two stages, something I discovered embarrassingly late, after going to see several celebrity chefs that mysteriously seemed not to show up.  But I did get to see everyone I came to see:  Masaharo Morimoto (O he of Iron Chef Japan fame!), who made a rather gruesome (and I am sure amazing) marinated raw crab dish that featured chopped up live crabs that quivered and shook their legs in their soy bath throughout the rest of the presentation (above)…

…and Anthony Bourdain, who had advertised that he was going to speak about being a sell-out.  The first sentence of his conversation with the Destinations Magazine editor was “I am a whore,” but instead of being tiresome about it, he was actually quite entertaining and managed to convince people otherwise.  He spoke about the growing political side of his TV show on the Travel Channel, and didn’t mince words about the sponsoring network of the festival.  (He gained points with me when he said Molto Mario was the best FN show ever.) He discussed the resistance of various regimes to filming people in their countries.  The Egyptian government, for example, steadfastedly refused to let Bourdain’s crew film regular Egyptians eating their daily breakfast of ful.  Hmmm, what media privileges one type of eating over another in the U.S.?  And why?  It’s something we might want to keep in mind when we think about a day like today, Food Day, in the U.S.

I also saw…

…a few people I didn’t want to see, like the Deen brothers, getting prompted by their mom in the first row, and Anne Burrell (above), whose picture says it all.  Seriously, can’t we just focus on good cooking?

That seemed to be the question of the day, and perhaps the focus of my research.  When one deals with any media (this blog included) one needs to be wary of the message of its creators and sponsors. Running through the world of food is a slight distaste for eaters — a distrust, a disdain.  Most cooking shows not-so-subtly play on class anxieties and the brouhaha related to the American diet, but couched in rhetoric that carefully masks the corporate sponsorships needed to fund cooking shows and magazine.  Not much we can do about the latter, I suppose, but it would be nice to not feel so dumbed down and manipulated into buying into every last trend.

Luckily, there was enough good food in the tasting that I didn’t feel completely annoyed by the media and the stand-offish servers (I’d be stand-offish too, if I had to prepare ten gazillion bites and explain them each time I served them).  I tried a couple of great wines, and there were unexpected surprises, like the Lucid absinthe booth, where the owner of the company kindly fixed me up a fresh glass.  The best bites of the festival for me were:

A delicious and simple gazpacho from Cordoba, served by Salinas restaurant.  It differs from the usual by the addition of jamón, hard-boiled egg, and almonds. Yum.  The leaf is Talde’s version of the Thai salad miang kum, in this case a shiso leaf that one wraps around a single peanut, a tiny chunk of lime, bacon tamarind caramel, candied chili, and dried shrimp.

Worst bite was a drink: cake vodka.  And not one but TWO vendors hawking it to the wedding market.  I can’t imagine anything more vile.

In the center aisle of the festival was a very popular set of booths offering bites made with processed food, like these cones of Campbell’s soup (tomato?) with what looks like grilled cheese sandwiches.  People ate it up, literally.

I was pleased and surprised to see oysters in one booth.  Here they were served ceviche-style with some plantain chips.  Indeed, there were quite a few delicious seafood dishes, including a pickled mackerel with a persimmon purée and celeriac salad from August Restaurant that I had to try several times, wonderful house-smoked salmon bites from a German place whose name escapes me, and Aureole’s ruby shrimp with a micro salad and coconut broth.

Also surprisingly, the West Coast obsession with variety meats and charcuterie wasn’t really represented well.  There was one booth (above) with pig face, and a few sausages here and there, and a completely non-distinct but high-concept pickle booth (whiskey sour pickles that tasted like regular pickles, for example).  Someone had a portable sous-vide, and braised short ribs and this-and-that sliders were popular.

But you know what I liked best in New York, in a city full of choices like this?


Yep, a slice of cheese pizza, eaten after doing research in the morning at NYU on a blustery day at a run-of-the-mill pizzeria in Greenwich Village.  Even after eating as much as I could for several days AND missing out on Babbo down the street because it’s closed for lunch, that’s amore.  Thanks, New York!

on ice

Hello, friends, just thought I’d drop in.  The complicated trip to New York and school starting just completely buried me alive, and I’m not making things easier on myself by taking on more and more, and I’ll explain more later, but allow me to say that Seattle is great, I inadvertently Occupied downtown today, and South African sausage, piroshkies, Japanese hot dogs, branzini, Beecher cheese curds, fresh apple cider vinegar, and Ramen chocolate bars can be all yours in this most excellent town.  Oh yeah, and every kind of salmon you can imagine…

Until soon!


culinaria eugenius at steens mountain

Every time I start to get a little unappreciative of Oregon, a little run down and tired, it tries harder to cheer me up.  That’s a good partnership.  Exhibit A: this gorgeous late summer in Eugene.  Exhibit B: my recent camping trip to the Steens Mountain area in the southeastern high desert.

Yeah, this place:

Hidden away in the remote high desert, Steens Mountain was cut into the land by glacial activity millions of years ago, and they’ve basically (in my imagination, at least) stayed the same since.  You can actually see the path of the glacier as it ground its way through the rock near Kiger Notch (first photo above).  There’s a world class bird refuge, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the mountains and Alvord playa, the ancient lake bed you see in the second photo almost miraculously filled with water after a freak thunderstorm. The third photo is Borax Hot Springs, and last photo is a Civilian Conservation Corps-built stone cabin in the middle of Malheur, graced by what I believe were olive trees, surely non-native.

Hot springs galore, including this full service one called Crystal Crane Hot Springs (in which I am floating above), where we stayed overnight, and Alvord hot springs near the playa, where I shared a soak with my friend Gregor Samsa in a primitive wood basin lined with tin (three photos below).

The wild and dangerous Borax Hot Springs, with a series of hot springs bubbling up along a fault, was in a class of its own.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese laborers were employed to mine sodium borate from the mineral rich ground, distilling out borax, the washing powder of old, in giant vats so it could be taken by mules over to Winnemucca, NV.  Luckily, Borax Lake, which is barely visible in the photo of the rusting vat below, has a singular, endemic population of little minnows called Borax Lake chub (Gila boraxobius), so the Nature Conservancy bought the property in the ’90s to protect it.

Walking on a hot August day and checking out the rusting vats and the pools, some of which had full spinal cords of unhappy small animals who got too close, made me shudder to think of the men working out there all day in primitive conditions to mine laundry detergent.  O America.

The Alvord playa/mud flats were mesmerizing.  My husband, after de-trenching our rental SUV from sinking in about 2 feet into a soft spot just off the ill-defined sand road, took a 7-mile jog in the heat of the day.  I poked about, watching birds and strolling along the shrinking water’s edge, taking photographs of mud patterns.

But you’re wondering about the food, aren’t you?

An easy two day trip from Eugene, we managed to dine well in Bend on the way, including this rather jaw dropping beet and pistachio salad over pistachio butter at 900 Wall for lunch.  It was so good, we even pondered staying overnight just so we could eat dinner there.

Well-stocked at a produce stand in Sisters, we had to rough it for 5 nights, eating grilled vegetables with everything, including this breakfast of radicchio, fried egg, and thick-cut bacon.

Poor us!  Last year’s tomato sauce came in handy for dinners of spaghetti and couscous stew over quinoa, and we used lamb, pork, and chicken sausages as flavoring, just to make sure we didn’t expire of lack of deliciousness.  As usual, I had to show off my rather mad marshmallow roasting skills to all present, and Retrogrouch outdid himself by not only improving the s’more with salt caramel chocolate bars, but also innovating marshmallow technology.  If you roast the remains of your marshmallow left on your stick after eating it, THEN add another raw marshmallow, you, friend, will have a nugget of caramelized delight WITHIN your toasty treat.

Best of all, we even got to eat out during the wilderness sojourn.  We lucked out at Fields Station, a store/gas station/café in the small hamlet of Fields, down the road a spell from the Alvord playa. Best hamburgers and shakes around!  Then again, they were the only hamburgers and shakes around.  But I’d classify them as best of show in even a city with lots of burger joints.  Dee-lish.

We had a few casualties, including three flat tires between the two cars we and our friends were driving on the washboard roads (necessitating the 120-mile round trip back to Burns to fix them!) but we managed to dodge a thunderstorm, being stuck in mud, and about ten million mosquitoes (having been bitten by only about 2 million). We didn’t get to see wild horses, but we were waylayed by cattle and horses in the road (the latter with a cowboy, so that was worth it), American white pelicans, black-necked stilts, yellow headed blackbirds, and golden eagles.  We saw marmots, coyotes, and snakes. I saved the lives of two fledgling sparrows in my spare time, too.  No internet or phone for me for a week; 3 G for my iPhone-bearing colleagues.  Not bad for a little state in the PNW.  Not bad at all.