Taiwan, finally!

Typical night market in Taiwan

Typical night market in Taiwan

I have been traveling to Mainland China since 1984. I spent time there as a student, have led several study abroad groups as a professor, have attended academic conferences, and so on. I’ve traveled all over the Mainland, from North to South, and East to West. I lived in Hong Kong in the early 80’s and have traveled to Macau. But in all these years, I had never been to Taiwan. I have friends and colleagues from Taiwan, and many of my students have spent time there, but I guess I never felt overly compelled to go there. Maybe I didn’t believe all the hype about how great Taiwan was. A year and a half ago my daughter moved to Taiwan. Suddenly I had a great deal more interest in Taiwan.

Earlier this month I finally made it to Taiwan. I am working on a new book on Chinese culinary culture (basically a foodie’s guide to China), and practically everyone that I talked to told me that I couldn’t possibly do a book on Chinese food without including at least a section on Taiwan, especially Taiwan’s famous snack food. So, after spending a couple weeks in Guangzhou and surrounding areas researching Cantonese food, I stopped in Taiwan for six days to check out the culinary scene. And I was not disappointed.

In addition to meeting up with some former colleagues and a friend or two, I spent most of my time eating. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it, as the saying goes.

Here are some of my initial observations about Taiwan, mostly compared with the Mainland.

1. Taiwan is really clean, neat, and orderly. Even the traffic is well behaved and I didn’t feel like I was going to get run over. In fact, I had bus drivers actually wait for me while I crossed the road. That’s pretty rare in the Mainland.

2. Taiwan people are generally friendly, polite, and eager to chat with a foreigner. Coming from China, and a socialist attitude toward customer service (i.e. non-existent), this was really surprising to me. At one night market I sat down at a tiny table to eat some delicious 甜不辣 tiánbúlà and since it was a bit quiet, the lady running the stall sat down with me and we chatted for a half hour or so. She kept giving me more food to try, on the house.

3. Taiwan is very Westernized. I guess this was not too surprising. There are lots of foreigners in Taiwan. I saw them all over (at least in Taibei). It is evident that Taiwan is heavily influenced by Western ideas, fashion, food, etc. There is also a very noticeable Japanese influence as well.

Overall, I had a very nice time in Taiwan and will definitely be back. I originally planned on going down to Tainan to try some of the famous snack food down there, but I ran out of time. I spent time in Zhongli, Taibei, and an evening up in Danshui.

Below are just a few of the delicious dishes I sampled at some of the night markets. I spent time in the Shilin Night Market, The Shida Night Market, and the Danshui night market.

Night market 'restaurant'

Night market ‘restaurant’

魚丸湯 yǔwán tāng; Fish ball soup

魚丸湯 yǔwán tāng; Fish ball soup

蚵仔煎 ézǎi jiān; Fresh oyster omelet

蚵仔煎 ézǎi jiān; Fresh oyster omelet

甜不辣 tiánbúlà; hard to translate—it is fish paste formed into various shapes, then boiled in a broth and topped with a miso gravy.

甜不辣 tiánbúlà; transliteration of the Japanese tempura—it is fish paste formed into various shapes, then boiled in a broth and topped with a miso gravy.

This is the nice lady running the tiánbúlà place

This is the nice lady running the tiánbúlà place

筒仔米糕 tǒngzǎi mǐgāo; tube rice pudding (with pork and mushrooms)

筒仔米糕 tǒngzǎi mǐgāo; tube rice pudding (with pork and mushrooms)

肉圓 ròuyuán, but more commonly called ba wan from the Taiwanese. It is a large rice flour dumpling.

肉圓 ròuyuán, but more commonly called ba wan from the Taiwanese. It is a large rice flour dumpling.

大腸包小腸 dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng ;Small sausage wrapped in a large sausage; the big sausage, which acts as a bun is actually sticky rice in a sausage casing.

大腸包小腸 dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng ; Small sausage wrapped in a large sausage; the big sausage, which acts as a bun is actually sticky rice in a sausage casing.

滷肉飯 lǔròu fàn; fatty seasoned pork on rice

滷肉飯 lǔròu fàn; fatty seasoned pork on rice

蔥抓餅 cōngzhuā bǐng; flaky scallion pancake w/egg

蔥抓餅 cōngzhuā bǐng; flaky scallion pancake w/egg

牛肉麵 niǔròu miàn; beef noodles

牛肉麵 niǔròu miàn; beef noodles

I went to Taiwan with a list of about 40 or so things I wanted to try. In the end, after 6 days I was able to try about 22 items on my list. The food was fresh, delicious, and quick. Next time I really need to get down to Tainan as I have heard the food there is pretty amazing as well.

Dimsum Highlights

Typical dimsum menu

Typical dimsum menu

Guangzhou is a wonderful place for excellent dimsum. For nearly two weeks I was able to sample some of the best dimsum the city has to offer. Below are a few highlights in no particular order. This represents several dimsum meals.  Later I’ll do another post and discuss the world of eating dimsum in more detail.

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The Cantonese Really Know How to Eat!

Sunrise over the Pearl River, Guangzhou, China

Sunrise over the Pearl River, Guangzhou, China

I’ve been in southern China, specifically Guangdong Province, for the past couple weeks and was reminded of how seriously the Cantonese take their food and eating. Back in the early 80’s I lived in Hong Kong and learned first hand how much the Cantonese love to eat. Food was everywhere and people ate all day long it seemed, and late into the night. I remember once in the early 90’s I was in Guangzhou for a couple weeks working on a Cantonese language project. One night my Cantonese colleagues and I finished up our work at about 11:00 pm. I had a flight out the next morning at 7 am and figured I’d head back to my hotel and go to bed. But they had other plans. They suggested we go out and get something to eat. Why not? A little snack would be good. Boy, was I wrong. We found a small restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. The dishes kept coming and coming. We ended up with 12 different dishes and ate until 2:00 am.

One the first things the foodie may notice in Guangzhou is that there is food and eating everywhere. It is common for small restaurants to set up tables along the sidewalk and at the best places people will be lined up waiting for a table.

People eating and lining up to eat.

People eating and lining up to eat.

Eating is THE social activity in Guangzhou

Eating is THE social activity in Guangzhou

Even white tablecloths at some places.

Even white tablecloths at some places.

The number of restaurants in Guangzhou is staggering. Street food is also pretty serious business in Guangzhou as well. Busy pedestrian malls, night markets, near bus and train stations, and shopping areas are packed with vendors selling snacks from their carts. The streets are lined with countless small shops selling everything from milk tea to ice cream. And everyone is eating.

Snack food in Guangzhou

Snack food in Guangzhou

This shop sells 牛杂 niǔzá, literally 'misc. beef' but really means beef innards like tripe

This shop sells 牛杂 niǔzá, literally ‘misc. beef’ but really means beef innards like tripe

Milk an bubble teas are very popular.

Milk an bubble teas are very popular.

Dried seafood is a very popular snack in Guangzhou, especially squid.

Dried seafood is a very popular snack in Guangzhou, especially squid.

Of course Cantonese food is probably most notable for its dimsum and the dimsum in Guangzhou is spectacular. I will be doing several more posts on the eating scene in Guangzhou as it is one of the major cuisines of China.

Also watch for an upcoming posts on eating in Chaozhou and Taiwan.

 

 

 

 

 

Eating Seafood in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Tianjin for the first time. I have to admit that previously I had not had a great desire to go to Tianjin. I always imagined it as a big, dirty, industrial city. But I guess things have changed over the years. I had a couple days in Beijing where I met some friends so we decided to take the new bullet train out to Tianjin. It only took 28 minutes.

I had a former graduate student who was from Tianjin. Her parents were kind enough to pick us up at the train station, show us around the city, and feed us well. For lunch they took us to a fabulous seafood restaurant called 鹏天阁酒楼 péngtiāngé jiǔlóu. It was a large, well decorated restaurant. On the ground floor were dozen of large fish tanks full of turtles, lobster, shrimp, all kinds of fish, and so on. There was also many varieties of fish and other seafood on ice. There were also refrigerated cases full of side dishes. The way these kinds of restaurants work is you walk around, followed by a hostess, and you tell her what you want. You even select the specific fish you would like to eat. They write everything down, and in some cases, net the seafood right there on the spot for you.

Tanks full of live seafood

Tanks full of live seafood

Netting our selected fish

Netting our selected fish

Selecting other dishes

Selecting other dishes

After we selected our dishes we were ushered upstairs to a private dinning room. At most nicer restaurants it is common for larger private parties to have your own private dinning room. You will usually have a waitress assigned specifically to your room.

A typical private dinning room

A typical private dinning room

The Chinese are gracious hosts. I had worked with this graduate student for several years, had hired her, wrote letters of recommendation for her, and so on. Her parents were probably feeling somewhat indebted to me, so this their way of saying ‘thank you.’ As is usual in this kind of situation, they ordered way more food than we could eat. This is also the Chinese way of showing respect for a guest. In total they ordered 11 dishes. Some of those dishes are below. Chinese restaurant food have notoriously creative names and they are difficult to translate. I have provided more literal translations to these dishes and sometimes have avoided the more difficult to translate phrases.

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried  four-sided beans)

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried four-sided beans)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel roles)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel rolls)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè
(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ
(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

It was a really memorable meal. Chinese dining is a group experience with all dishes placed in the center of the table on a lazy Susan. Everyone then serves themselves from these dishes. Everything is communal. It is great to eat wonderful food with good company.

And I quite liked the city of Tianjin.

Breakfast in Beijing

I love Chinese breakfast food, especially what you get on the streets, such as 煎饼 jiānbing. A few months ago I was in Beijing with some good friends and they took me to a simple little restaurant for breakfast. Nothing special, but nonetheless delicious. This is pretty typical fare for breakfast in the North of China.

That morning we had 素包子 sù bāozi (vegetarian teamed dumplings), 油条 yóutiáo (fried bread sticks), 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed meat dumplings), and hot 豆浆 dòujiāng (soybean milk).

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

包子 bāozi is a generic term for steamed bread. They can be simply steamed bread with no filling or they can come with a variety of fillings. Vegetarian ones usually have spinach, mushrooms, and a number of other kinds of vegetables. Meat fillings are usually pork and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and will often have scallions, or mushrooms. They differ by region as well.

油条 fried break sticks

油条 fried break sticks

You can find 油条 yóutiáo all over China. They are commonly eaten for breakfast, either alone, or as part of another dish. For example, 煎饼 jiānbing will often have a 油条 inside. It is often eaten with 粥 zhōu in the south. Sometimes it is cut up into chunks and tossed into the 粥 zhōu sort of like croutons.

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo are a variety of 饺子 jiǎozi that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar. are a variety of 饺子 that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar.

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 dòujiāng is simply soy milk, but is often very fresh. In the Winter it is usually served hot in a bowl, like in the photo. It is a great way to warm up in the morning.

Below are a couple photos of 油条 yóutiáo in 煎饼  jiānbing. In the first photo you can see it just under the 煎饼 and in the second photo it is rolled up in it.

Making 煎饼

Making 煎饼

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Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Book Review

ref=dp_image_0Dunlop, Fuchsia. 2008. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

First off I should say that I love eating in China. In fact, that is what I most look forward to when I am heading to China. The variety and quality of the various cuisines in China is truly extraordinary. I really related to this book, not only for the eating adventures, but also because I also was once a young student in China trying to figure things out around me. Dunlop was a young girl studying Chinese in Chengdu when she became distracted by the heady smells and tastes that surrounded her. She enrolled in the local cooking school and dove headfirst into the wonderful world of Chinese cuisine, specifically 川菜 chuāncài, or Sichuan cooking, in her case.

What makes this book so readable, and persuasive, is Dunlop’s ability to engage the reader with personal and intimate stories of regular people and homestyle cooking.  As a speaker of Chinese she is able to share experiences with ordinary Chinese that would not be possible without a knowledge of the language. For example, she befriends the cook at the local noodle shop and eventually persuades him to give her the recipe for his famous dandan noodles, which she shares with the reader. I know I have said this before in other book reviews, but knowing Chinese really opens up all kinds of doors and allows one to experience a China that would not be possible if you did not know the language.

She correctly states on page 206, “Food has always been of exceptional importance in Chinese culture. It is not only the currency of medicine, but of religion and sacrifice, love and kinship, business relationships, bribery, and even, on occasion, espionage. ‘To the people, food is heaven,’ goes the oft-repeated saying.” Though the book focusses on Sichuan cuisine, she does give insight into China’s other culinary traditions as well.

The book is engaging, entertaining, and very informative. It is obvious that she has done her homework and knows her stuff. She gets added credibility because she experiences all this first hand while she lived in China and on subsequent trips back after returning to the UK.

The reader comes away from this book fascinated with Chinese food, and really hungry. The food she describes is the real thing. This is a well written memoir and I highly recommend it.

Fuchsia Dunlop is an active food writer and blogger and is the author of at least three Chinese cookbooks Her blog can be found here:

http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/

China Street Photography 2

This is a series of street photos taken in Nanjing, Yangzhou, and Huai’an (Northern Jiangsu Province) in February of 2012.

Night market

Night market

Breakfast

Cantonese style breakfast

Nighttime snacks

Nighttime snacks

Water chestnuts

Water chestnuts

Noodles

Noodles

Lining up for breakfast

Lining up for breakfast

Rainy day in Huai'an

Rainy day in Huai’an

Yangzhou alleyway

Yangzhou alleyway

Kebobs

Kebobs

煎饼 jiānbing

煎饼 jiānbing

Yangzhou street food

Yangzhou street food

Yangshou 酥饼 sūbǐng

Yangzhou 酥饼 sūbǐng

Fresh noodles

Fresh noodles

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Bottles

Bottles

Yangzhou night

Yangzhou night