Last night strolling with friends at the Raohe Night Market in Taipei we came across a gorgeous temple dedicated to Ma-Tzu, the goddess who protects fishermen from the dangers of the sea.

The main part of the temple was completed in 1757 during the Qing Dynasty.

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Panoramic street view of the Song Shan Ma Tzu Temple. The partial images of people and vehicles capture the hustle and bustle of the nighttime street.

The velvety cool air of the night was perfumed by thousands of sticks of incense, and worshippers left fruit and flowers for their beloved dead. Holding bundles of incense they bow quickly from the waist three or four times, visiting different stations through the immense temple.

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Carvings of forest scenes, battle scenes, and sea scenes all lovingly covered with gold leaf.

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Fierce grimacing brass incense burners fill the air with sweet smoke.

The details of carvings were exquisite, everywhere you look are amazing and intriguing sights!

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Like incense smoke, ethereal dragons curl through this beautiful stone carving. The golden lights behind commemorate real people honored by their families at the temple.

An exceptionally lovely lantern sculpture graced the street next to us.

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In this lantern display, roosters and hens preside over a bounty of flowers, fruit, gold ingots, and chicks. I especially like the chinese cabbage lantern to the right!

My next posting will show you a panoramic view of one of the most breathtaking pieces of temple art I’ve ever seen! Stay tuned!

This blog will make you wish you were at the table, chopsticks ready.

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Today I’ll share one of my family’s favourite traditional restaurants in Singapore. It’s a place we go for authentic Hokkien comfort food and Beng Thin Hoon Kee is definitely a household name that has been around for a long time. The restaurant has been very successful and favourite with many families since it  was founded in 1949 by Lim Yew Hoon who sadly passed at 91 quite recently. It moved to its current premises at the OCBC Centre rooftop carpark in 1979.

Overall: ★★★★☆
Price: $$ – $$$

They serve up a variety of sets for different numbers of people, but on average, you can expect to pay about $35-45 each per pax if you go for the full works including soup, fresh fish and seafood like prawns and crab claws.

One of my favourite dishes here is definitely the Cold Duck Salad.

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This is a wonderfully appetising start to the meal with…

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For Reba: Lights near the Ximen District (old western gate of the Qing Dynasty walled city).

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Beautiful lights gleam in the twilight streets during Lantern Festival.

View of temple of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, during Lantern Festival. I didn’t photograph the huge golden goddess who is seated inside, with curling incense smoke and worshippers in front of her feet.

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View of temple of Mazu, Taiwan’s Sea Goddess who protects fisherfolk, during Lantern Festival. I didn’t photograph the huge golden goddess who is seated inside, with curling incense smoke and worshippers in front of her feet.

It is Lantern Festival time, and hordes of hungry celebrants wander the parks and streets of Taiwan to enjoy beautiful displays of light and color. It’s a Rooster theme this year…

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Lanterns are made of fabric stretched over wire, then lit from the inside. A park or street full of these is quite magically lovely.

Street food is now in high gear. Dad and I worked the booths in Taichung Park, and although the treats were many and varied we unanimously decided that Oa Bao, oyster dumplings (and a palindrome too!) took the prize.

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Oa bao anatomy, visible before they are sealed.

Giant circles of wonton wrappers are placed in a bowl, seasoned cabbage placed on the bottom, a raw egg in the center, oysters arranged around the egg like flower petals, then covered with more cabbage, wrapped and sealed, and simmered bottom down in hot oil. Once they’re sealed, they’re deep fried golden brown.

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The well-oiled machine: night market stall workers in a choreographed sequence they repeat hundreds if not thousands of times. A hard life and I’m very grateful for their work and culinary expertise!

The end result is salty and crispy on the outside, with hot sweet nutty juicy oyster-y eggy awesomeness inside. A squirt of Taiwan’s unique sweet and sour fishy sauce is optional (see Cathy Erway’s book Food of Taiwan for the recipe). You can make a meal of one oa bao, Dad and I polished off five.

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Dad needs both hands to handle one.

When I first came to Taiwan I was struck by the playfulness of women’s fashion. Unlike their sisters on the mainland, young Taiwanese women blend together influences from American coeds, Japanese manga bondage girls, and old China in a unique fusion.

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Night market fashion: the lightweight sundress and sneakers on the girl in front compromise feminine and funky.

 

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Coco, a young museum curator, demonstrates Taiwan casual winter chic.

Yet echoes of the Chinese past continue to infuse Taiwanese life. Near my cousin’s apartment, old temple art depicts Imperial women in splendid layers of silk brocade, with dangling jewels and ornate hairstyles with blossoms woven in.

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A Qing Dynasty lady from a temple painting more than 250 years old.

Ancient Chinese fashion on a living woman can be breathtaking. I recently saw a young Beijing Opera actress in a demonstration. With a dainty, butterfly-like lightness she mimed sewing, gardening, and feeding her chickens.

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Chinese Opera ‘young miss’ mimes sewing with needle and thread.

This was balanced by the grace and power of an older actress who played a doomed concubine bidding farewell to her emperor, then committing suicide. The scene where she drives the sword into her chest was electrifying. Taiwanese society has many such surprising pairings of tradition and modernity…

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This actress rocks a gold and blue cape embroidered with cranes, dragonflies, and lotus blossoms.

 

 

My neighbors invited me and my Dad over for a hotpot party the other day! Ingredients:

A cauldron; a small tabletop heater/gas cooker; chopped veggies (taro, asparagus, chiles, sweet potato, broccoli, spinach, baby corn, potatoes, turnips); yummy soybean treats (various tofu/the firm kind, also Buddhists are ingenious at creating meat substitutes like faux meatballs, faux shrimp, and faux bacon!); and real meat in chunks (pork loin, abalone, fish, anything that can withstand boiling. Duckblood cubes are also really popular.)

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Ready to rock and roll.

Next, put water in the pot and fire it up to boiling. You can add a little salt and oil if desired while it warms up. Everyone grabs chopsticks and starts tossing their favorite bits into the boiling water.

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Dad couldn’t wait! Claimed he was just doing quality control.

When you judge something is ready, fish it out and snack (carefully, it’ll be HOT). After a few rounds, the broth begins to build…then you ladle it into your bowl on top of the choice bits. This is a really fun party food, participatory and delicious.

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We had two Buddhists in our group, so a vegetarian hotpot was also featured. Unexpectedly savory!!

Along the Marongarong River are several archaeological sites; hard to spot in the jungley growth, they are haunting. I don’t know how old they are.

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Stone wall and corner, age and function unknown, along the river at Fafokod. Poisonous snakes kept me from bushwhacking off trail to investigate.

While at the pig feast honoring Amis soldiers of the second World War, I munched and sipped next to two young women. They looked like 20-somethings everywhere–fresh-faced, wearing faded plaid shirts and jeans. But these girls were special: members of the Amis tribe, both had lovely designs henna’ed onto their arms.

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Beautifully wrought henna design depicting Amis tribal archaeological site.

One looked just like an archaeological site in the jungle reminiscent of the one I had seen just north of there … The girls told me they take care of several sites like this, clearing the undergrowth and stabilizing the stonework. They do it on their own time, proud of their archaeological heritage. I was bowled over!

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Three cultural heritage stewards.

While walking along the Mawaku River toward the sea, I spotted an unusual set of footprints in the mud.

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Dainty pawprints of the golden-bellied marten. Note the dog pawprint in the lower center of the photo for scale.

They were made by the golden bellied marten (Martes flavigula), a large and lovely member of the weasel family. Longer-legged and heavier than American martens, Taiwan’s marten is capable of hunting baby deer! Now that the clouded leopard is extinct and the Formosan bear increasingly rare, these beautiful secretive creatures, equally at home scaling mountain cliffs, slinking through the jungle undergrowth, or climbing into tree canopies, are Taiwan’s top mammalian predator.

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The gorgeous Martes flavigula, showing off impressive canines…photo in the public domain. 

I hope to see one while I’m here!!

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Hanging out waiting for a fat squirrel… this photo also in the public domain.

Sometimes during my life as an anthropologist I am overwhelmed by incredible events; things that seem to come out of books or dreams. Last week in the small town of Atolan on the beautiful east coast of Taiwan I watched as a whole pig, spreadeagled, was slowly turned on a huge grid-shaped spit over roaring flames.

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Amis tribal members preparing pork for a special lunch to bring home the spirits of lost WWII warriors.

Siki Sufin, a sculptor of the Amis tribe, has been dreaming of the restless spirits of Amis warriors: men who were conscripted by the Japanese military to fight in the second world war. Many of these men, who fought in New Guinea, the Philippines, and other islands of the Pacific Theater, never returned. You remember those stories of old Japanese soldiers who hid for 30 years in the jungle only to emerge in the 1970s? One man, Attun Paladin (Teruo Nakamura was his Japanese name) was an Amis tribal soldier.

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Attun Palalin, also known as Suniuo or Teruo Nakamura, an Amis soldier who held out on the tiny island of Morotai for decades. Garlanded with flowers upon his return to Taiwan in the mid-1970s. Photo credit to the Taipei Times, available in the public domain.

This sculpture by Mr. Sufin invokes the spirits of Amis warriors to fly back home to Taiwan and be at rest.

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A fabulous chainsaw sculpture by Amis artist Siki Sufin shows wings raised in flight for returning soldiers’ spirits. This is a cast: the original was dedicated in New Guinea.

To tempt their appetites, Siki sponsored a lively pig roast and sing at the community center. The aroma of roast pork rose into the pearly grey sky along with voices raised in complex woven songs. My eyes burned from the beauty of the songs and the fumes of millet liquor that was continually pressed into my hands…

In the small Amis tribal gardens and fields, between the rows of familiar crops is a riot of mysterious edible wild plants and native domesticates lovely to behold. This is a uniquely tribal approach to farming.

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Mr. Gao’s field. Wild greens grow between the crops, and when added to soups or lightly fried with garlic and salt are a delicious part of a typical Amis dinner.

The wild plants offer shade, keep soil moist, and some fix nitrogen. The pinkish red Taiwanese quinoa, above, was domesticated by tribes thousands of years ago and exists only on the island.

Common wild veggie dishes this time of year are dadugum and bird’s nest fern. The leaves of the former, and the baby fiddleheads of the latter, are coated in a light egg batter and deep fried, then dipped in a powdered mixture of salt and hot pepper (do NOT breathe this)!

Dadugum leaves taste like young dandelions: tangy with a light peppery after-taste. The fern fiddleheads are wonderfully succulent, like baby zucchini but a little sweeter. Our ancestors enjoyed lots of wild veggies too.  Let’s re-discover wild vegetables in our own gardens and farms!