Monday, October 26, 2009

Ding Wang Spicey Hot Pot (鼎王麻辣鍋)

Tonight was my student's last night before he leaves Taichung to begin his year of mandatory military service in the Taiwanese army. Shawn (the guy with the shaved head in the top-right of this picture) is a very popular guy, and so about 15 of us (1/2 students and 1/2 teachers) got together after class tonight for spicy hot pot - ma la guo (麻辣鍋).

The Taiwanese love hot pots and although when I first arrived in Taiwan, I wasn't a big fan of hot pots, I have grown very fond of them over the last year. Spicy hot pots are especially popular in Taiwan and our office just happens to be right next door to a famous hot pot restaurant here in Taichung - Ding Wang Spicy Hot Pot (鼎王麻辣鍋).

Tonight, we ordered Ding Wang's specialty: "Yuan-Yang Guo" (鴛鴦鍋) which is a hot pot split down the middle with two different broths. The red side is the traditional spicy hotpot or "ma la guo" (麻辣鍋) that comes with duck's blood (鴨血) and tofu (豆腐).The white one is a sour hot pot that comes with pickled cabbage (東北酸白菜鍋).

Personally, I'm not a such a big fan of the sour hot pot, but I do think it's really good if you mix the two kinds of broth together - mm mmm delish! One of my absolute favorite things at this hot pot restaurant is the duck's blood. If you go to this restaurant with foreigners, it's very common to hear "wow, I really like that brown tofu! what's it called?"

It is a bit like tofu, with a mild flavor and a smooth texture, although it's not as light as tofu - it gives you something you can bite into. It's really unlike anything I've had before, it's just so smooth! I love it.

As this is specifically a hot pot restaurant, the tables all have built-in burners in the middle. As soon as you decide which hot pot you want (three choices - red, white, or combo) they bring out the pot and sit it in the middle of the table where it continues to cook throughout the meal.

If you order this hot pot, you get unlimited duck's blood and tofu in the spicy, red side, unlimited cabbage in the white side, and unlimited broth for both. Then you can order anything else you want to put into the pot. We had 15 people, so we got tons of food to put in our hot pot including:

slices of beef, chicken, and pork (all raw - it cooks in the pot)

meat balls and mushrooms

Fried tofu skin

lots of different kinds of dumplings - these ones are hand made

and fish paste - which turns into a fish meat-ball when it is cooked in the soup!

Hot pots make for a very social and busy meal. Everyone is helping out - dishing out food or broth or putting things into the pot to cook. The pot is relatively small and you can't fit everything in at once, so this is a continual process through out the meal and everyone pitches in. It's a really fun way to share dinner, although it can certainly get a bit hectic with 15 people!

Of course as you eat, and as the pot cooks, you run out of broth, cabbage, duck's blood, and tofu, but the ever-attentive waitresses are always there to fill the pot back up and make sure things are running smoothly.

One of the awesome things about this place is that when you leave, they will fill the pot back up with soup, cabbage, tofu, and blood, and then you can take it home with you - along with any other goodies you haven't eaten yet. I certainly don't know of all-you-can-eat places in the US that will let you take your leftovers with you, so I think this is a pretty cool feature.

mmmmm hot pot!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dim Sum - the Chinese Tea Party (點心)

I remember the first time I went to China Town in Philadelphia. My friend's mom took me to a traditional Dim Sum restaurant and I instantly fell in love with it.

Dim Sum (called dian xin - 點心 - here in Taiwan) is a Cantonese tradition of drinking afternoon tea while eating all kinds of delicious treats. It's a bit like brunch mixed with a tea party.

When you go to dim sum, you basically order a bunch of very small dishes - like dumplings and spring rolls - that arrive at your table usually in bamboo steamers or on small plates, and you all eat family style.

Unfortunately, Dim Sum isn't that popular here in Taiwan, and I'm not exactly the best food detective there is, so I haven't had it too many times since I moved here. Recently, though, Angel took Nick and me out for lunch and I was plesantly surprised when we ended up at a dim sum resturant (which happens to be blocks from where I live).

Our meal included an array of traditional dim sum dishes, like radish cake (蘿蔔糕 luo puo gao) which is a mild flavored, soft cake of mashed radishes (or white carrots)- yummy when dipped in sauce.

and Char Siu Bao (叉燒包), steamed bread filled with sweet ground pork - I love this snack!

Lotus leaf rice (糯米雞 lou mai gai) which is a lotus leave full of glutinous rice (or sticky rice) and some other stuff. For some reason I actually didn't eat it on this particular day, but I have had it once before and it was sweet and absolutely delicious!

lots of different dumplings, these here are small shrimp dumplings (小賣 shao mai)

and Green dumplings - which as far as I can tell are just regular dumplings with some green food coloring

some delicious - and a bit sweet - brown fluffy bread

Rice noodle rolls - basically large rice noodles wrapped around meat. We had shrimp and beef ones and in my opinion the beef were far superior. This was one of my favorite dishes of the day

Little red-bean dough balls (Jin deui or Matuan (煎堆 or 麻糰) These things are covered with little sesame seeds and have a red-bean filling inside. They're sweet and doughy on the inside with a bit of a crunch on the outside - yum!

And last but not least: Chicken Feet!

There are some foods hat you can eat and you can say something like 'well I don't like the idea of eating frog, but when I eat it, it just looks like chicken, so I can get over the idea of it'

well... Chicken feet is definitely not one of those foods!

These definitely look like what they are. BUT They're actually really good! There isn't much meat, just some tasty skin and cartilage so they're a bit gelatinous and chewy.

There are a lot of bones, but they're not difficult to eat. YOU just stick the chicken foot in your mouth, bite off one section of the toe, suck all the goodness off of it, spit the bone out, and get started on the next knuckle. Easy as pie! (or easy as chicken feet!)

I have eaten chicken feet once, and I really liked them, but I'm having a difficult time convincing myself to eat them again because - well, they're chicken feet!

I would have to say that dim sum is one of my favorite ways to enjoy Chinese food. I absolutely love all of the treats that are served at this kind of restaurant. It's a really fun way to eat lunch with a group of friends; everything is shared, so it's a very social experience. And of course, everything is delicious!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hualien (花蓮)

Hualien.... what a place.

Hualien is what I imagined Taiwan to be like before I left the US. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful place in Taiwan. Say what you will about Kending or Green Island, but I really think Hualien is the place to be.

Our vacation in Hualien was by far the most relaxing week that we've had all year, and although I am very happy that we ended up living in Taichung, if I could do it all over again, I think I would definitely have chosen to live in Hualien.

Hualien is sandwiched right between the ocean and the mountains, and offers easy access to both. Every time we hopped on the scooter, I found myself scrambling for the camera, trying to capture the roadside scenery - which, of course, is almost impossible.

Highway 11 is a beautiful drive south of Hualien, first winding through the mountains,

and then along the beautiful coastline

My absolute favorite place I've been to in the entire country is "Cow Mountain" (牛山) Beach. Cow Mountain is an isolated black sand beach about a 1/2 hour scooter drive south of Hualien. There used to be a nice paved road going down to the beach, but it was destroyed by a typhoon a while back, leaving this rugged path as the only way down.

Since it rained off and on all week, the drive down was a bit muddy and slippery, but it was definitely worth it. Besides one or two locals collecting drift wood from the beach, Nick and I were the only two people on the beach. It was serene.

And why, you may be asking your self, is it called Cow Mountain? Well, I believe it has something to do with the fact that there are actually cows on the beach. Actually, we didn't see any cows while we were there, but we definitely found evidence that this is a place frequented by our bovine friends:

(cow beach - cow pie)

Right next to the beach is a little restaurant that serves local food. The cuisine was mediocre, but the atmosphere was pretty chill. The place was filled with hand carved drift-wood furniture and all kinds of bizarre tchotchkes. Check out the awesome chairs we found at our table:

A drive down Highway 11 past Cow Mountain, continues to deliver fantastic vistas around every turn, and we had a fantastic afternoon exploring the coast.

But the beauty of Taiwan's east coast isn't isolated to the drive south of Hualien. A drive to the north of Taroko Gorge, also has awesome views of Taiwan's mountains

and the rugged coast line

the cliffs of Qingshui (清水)

I feel all warm and happy just thinking about Hualien. It is beautiful place with a laid back atmosphere that is often hard to come by.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

黑人 - Taiwan's "Darkie" Toothpaste

Last week I was in the store with a Taiwanese friend of mine looking for some new toothpaste, when she suggested that I try Taiwan's most popular toothpaste brand: 黑人牙膏 (hei ren ya guo) which literally means, "Black Man Toothpaste."

Although the box that I bought didn't have an English translation, (yes, I am a bit ashamed to admit that I actually bought this tube of toothpaste) I am told that the English name of this toothpaste USED to be Darkie, but in the name of political correctness, they changed one letter, and now the English name is Darlie. The Chinese name, however, remains unchanged "Black Man Toothpaste."

(this picture comes from another foreigner's Taiwan blog post)

According to this other blogger:

"Many years ago there was a very popular brand of toothpaste in Asia called "DARKIE". It featured a minstrel-show Al Jolson-esque man in blackface, and was a very famous brand of toothpaste. In 1985, the company that produced Darkie (Hazel & Hawley) was bought by Colgate, who obviously decided to change the name and packaging. Darkie is still available, but it is now called "Darlie" and features a white guy in the top hat and tux."

It's amazing to me that in 2009 this remains an acceptable name for a product! I can hardly wrap my brain around it, but when I said something like "this would NEVER fly in the US" my Taiwanese colleagues all jumped in "but the meaning is, u know when a black person smiles, you can really see their white teeth!"

"YES!" I interjected, of course I understand the meaning behind the toothpaste name, but the fact remains that it's completely inappropriate - at least by my American standards! Of course, one would have to assume this would be an unacceptable brand name if there were any black population at all here in Taiwan but in reality, there just isn't.

The fact is that this country is almost completely devoid of black (or white) people who are not foreign born. According to the Wikipedia entry 98% of Taiwanese citizens are ethnically Han Chinese and the other 2% are aboriginal peoples. So let's see, that leaves exactly 0% who are white, black, or anything thing else.

It is also for this reason that it is common to hear a Taiwanese person say something like "I'm black" or "I don't want to become black" or "Look at you! You're black!"

What they mean is tan or dark. "I'm tan," "I don't want my skin to become dark," "Look at you! You're so tan!"

This always leads to some giggles in class when I explain to my students that because we actually have black people in America, we cannot say "I don't want to be black" or "tsk! Just look at you! You're so black!"

But, I guess I just have to have cultural sensitivity to their cultural insensitivity! Taiwan is a country without a black population and without a history of discrimination against black people, so the Darkie toothpaste goes largely unrecognized as completely inappropriate.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lugang (鹿港) Take Two!

Friday was this semester's trip for the Chinese Language Center at my school (Feng Chia University - 逢甲大學 ) and we all went to Lugang (鹿港).
Last time Nick and I went to Lugang, we went on a weekend and drove ourselves there on scooter - went spent 2 hours getting there (hopelessly lost), neither of us were feeling very well, and it was very crowded - needless to say, it wasn't a very good day.

THIS time, however, was much better. The weather was fantastic, there were hardly any people around, and the trip was planned by someone else! All we had to do was show up and enjoy ourselves.

Our first stop was to the Lukang Folk Arts Museum (鹿港民俗文物館).
The building was originally the home of a (very wealthy) man from the area and was converted into a museum housing ancient Chinese artifacts. There are some pretty cool things to see inside like an ancient Chinese ear scratcher!

It looked kind of like this:

but much smaller and with only three little metal prongs, I was all about it - I think I should get one and keep it on my key chain, for ear-itching emergencies!

They also had some old Chinese toys outside that visitors could play with, so we spent some time trying out the stilts. My Japanese classmate had no problem walking around on them:

As for myself... let's just say my balance leaves something to be desired. Despite extensive help and support, I couldn't quite make it on my own.

My favorite part about the museum was the landscaping. The inside was cool, but the outside was beautiful. It seemed like the original owners built it as a sanctuary from the hectic city life, it had such a relaxing feel to it. It was a gorgeous day as well, so we spent some time just sitting in the shade enjoying the garden. It was great.

After the museum and some lunch, it was on to a semi-guided walking tour of Lugang. First stop was the Lungshan Temple(龍山寺).

This Temple was by far my favorite stop of the day. It was absolutely beautiful - I couldn't stop taking pictures of it.

From the Lungshan Temple, we made our way to Old Market Street(古市街)

where we lazily meandered through narrow red-tiles streets lined with ancient buildings and lots and lots of vendors. I really love all of the old doors on this street, they're fantastic.

As it was a weekday, there were hardly any tourists walking through the old streets, so we were able to take in all the sites and enjoy a nice relaxing stroll.

Lugang is famous for Oyster Omelets and Ox Tongue Cakes (牛舌餅). We weren't feeling in the mood for the Oyster Omelets again, but we did get the Ox Tongue Cakes. They are sweet flaky pastries which kind of taste like a soft, doughy sugar cookie, I really liked them.

We also bought some Chinese decorative fans as souvenirs. The fans were hand painted and after we purchased them, the shopkeeper (with an awesome comb-over) wrote some calligraphy on them for us so that they would look more beautiful. I'm not sure what it says, but it was pretty cool.

Our walking tour ended at the Tienhou Temple (天后宮).

Although on the inside, it is a beautiful temple, the outside apperance leaves much to be desired. Scores of vendors have planted themselves right out front in order to capitalize on all of the tourist traffic that the temple attracts. They mostly sell Oyster Omelets and other local delicacies. It is amazing how the mystique of an ancient building (17th century) can be totally lost by a flood of entrepreneurs and a digital scoreboard.

The biggest eyesore of them all is the Family Mart convenience store that is actually located ON the temple grounds! It is situated just behind the temple's gate.

All of the commercialization really put me off at first, but once you actually go into the temple, it is quite a relaxing and beautiful place.

Lugang is a photographer's dream, although my attempt to capture it is amateur at best. I really had a great day lazily walking through the town and soaking in all the sights.