Archives for category: food

Back in Idaho now, on a warm summer evening I sip a cup of Taiwan tea…organic, from the high mountains.

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Holding the tea canister, a gift from Fulbright Taiwan. This is from V&L Organic Tea Farm, in the central mountain range above Taitung in the south.

Amazingly, the tea is cooling as well as fragrant, smooth, full-bodied, and all out wonderful. The flavor of that wonderful place.

 

I’ve been lucky to enjoy Taiwan tea in peoples’ kitchens, living rooms, dorm rooms, offices, forest ranger cabins, and indigenous villages. Everyone there loves it and knows how to brew it. The health benefits of drinking lots of tea are well-documented, maybe this is why most Taiwanese are so slim…?

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Red Oolong Tea brews up to a lovely color!

Here’s an abbreviated guide to getting the most out of your Taiwan tea.

The main point is, you need two teapots, one to brew in and one to serve from; also you need to have hot water (with small bubbles but not a rolling boil) on standby, and a small bowl or bucket to pour off excess.

First, rinse the pots and cups with hot water. In your brewing teapot, add the tea. Don’t stint–fill your pot about 1/4 to 1/3 full with dry leaves. If the tea is organic, steep for about 45 seconds and pour into the second teapot for serving. You can drink the tea after the first steeping although it won’t be its best. If the tea is non organic, just pour it out, this is a ‘rinse’.

The second steeping should be a bit longer, about 60 seconds. If you have enough leaves, you should see them reach the top of the teapot. Pour into your serving pot. While sipping, always leave the tea leaves as dry as possible with the lid just propped up over the top.

If the tea is truly good, you should get at least 5-6 steepings and each one will taste different! There are many good web pages. and of course any Taiwanese person can show you how. I intend to spend a lifetime discovering Taiwan tea.

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This is how the tea leaves look after the fifth steeping: their fragrance lingers even after so many cups.

Fruit vinegar drinks are common in Taiwan. I was served some at a dinner party recently and really enjoyed it. This drink, known just about everywhere except America, is wonderfully refreshing and offers many health benefits. Before you make a face, just try it once.

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Dad is really good at cutting slippery mangos.

You can order it on Amazon. But I’m making my own batch using mangos right now.

Below is a recipe I derived from Taiwanese friends (rooftop kickboxing buddies), who love to drink a cold cup of this over ice after a workout.

  • 5 parts fruit pulp of your choice (mango, berries, apples, etc.)
  • 3 parts Cider Vinegar or Rice Vinegar – organic apple cider vinegar recommended
  • 2 parts sweetener of choice (Turbinado Sugar or Raw Honey recommended

Put the pulp in a large jar and pour the vinegar over it. Let it sit for 4-5 days, and strain through a cheesecloth slowly. For sweetener; either include it right from the start and shake from time to time to incorporate — or slowly heat the fruit vinegar mixture after 4-5 days along with sweetener to create a syrup. You can pour over a lot of ice, or dilute with a bit of water depending on your taste.

The hip bartending crowd calls this a ‘shrub’.

Virgin or not, this tangy sweet fruity drink tastes fabulous in the hot weather, especially after over-indulging in the grilled or greasy foods that always show up at backyard get-togethers!

 

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Red eye of the sun winks at the horizon, it’s twilight in the Taipei mountains.

After riding the gondola up to the beautiful mountainside town of Maokong that overlooks the vast metropolis of Taipei, Dad and I stroll around looking for tea cuisine.

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The city below us; Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world, is to your right.

High above the sultry humid city, cool breezes rustle. A small opening in the green beckons us down to a delightful restaurant whose laid-back, Japanese ambiance in the evening calm evoke a Miyazaki moment.

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Shan Shui Ke Tea House: ‘Mountain Water Guest’. There are flowers and frogs tucked in everywhere. Seemed like kodamas, the tiny forest spirits of Princess Mononoke, were perched just out of sight.

The tea-oil chicken is so tender it falls off the bones, with a delicate tea-flavor throughout. It is graced with paper-thin crispy ginger slices that are so awesome Dad and I duel with chopsticks to grab them.

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The fragrance of tea rises from all three dishes…is your mouth watering yet?

A heap of crayfish have been shaken with sweet potato starch, salt, and white pepper, then fragrant oolong tea leaves are tossed in. The crayfish are fried to crisp perfection and scattered with chiles and scallions.

The fried rice also has crushed tea leaves along with shreds of egg, scallion, and pork. The delicacy of the tea flavored food and beauty of the setting are a treat never to be forgotten as the lights of the city wink on below us. The proprietor of Maokong Shan Shui Ke Tea House, proudly tells us that the chef working the miracles in the kitchen is his wife. For those of you in Taipei: go, go; for everyone else, I hope this entry gave you a few relaxed minutes in your day.

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Lights twinkling and trees rustling in the evening cool.

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A big bunch of djulis, ready for harvest.

Thousands of years ago during the Neolithic period, the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese tribes tinkered with a common weed to create a protein-rich super food. It’s related to quinoa, but much more beautiful.

The Paiwan call it djulis (‘JOOlis’), the Amis call it kowal (goWALL). It’s scientific handle is Chenopodium formosanum (as in, Formosa, the old name for Taiwan).  Together with millet and dry-cultivated rice, this mysterious scarlet crop was a key food for most of Taiwan’s tribes, and even their domestic animals, for many generations.

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Just outside Taitung, a field of scarlet djulis in front of a Taoist temple.

Under Japanese and Chinese governance, this crop has slowly declined and now very few people know how to cultivate it. I’ve been lucky to learn more from Paiwan and Amis elders. Due to its beauty and alleged high nutritional value, djulis has recently gotten some serious attention from scientists and agronomists. A key characteristic: it likes to be dry. This could be a benefit in Taiwan’s increasingly frequent droughts…

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A Paiwan couple create a lovely wreath out of djulis from their field.

The recommended cooking method is sprinkling in a handful with rice for flavor and color. But djulis is pretty good in cookies too! If you are in Taipei, come visit the nice djulis garden on the National Taiwan University campus, just to the left of the Anthropology Museum.

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I am crowned with the wreath!

 

 

 

 

 

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The color of the bountiful ocean off of Lanyu; home to big schools of flying fish!

In Taiwan, if you want an amazing seafood meal, you need to go the source: the harbors. Next to the big busy warehouses where the fishermen unload and auction off their catch, small eateries attach themselves like limpets. Their humble appearance (tiny stools, sticky tables, cooks and waitstaff in Disney character tee shirts and rubber boots) belies the unbelievable quality of the food you can get there. Are you ready for some serious foodie writing?

In Chenggong Harbor on the east coast, we ordered four red and pink squirrel fish, their eyes a-goggle. Two were cooked in a savory sauce of brown bean, wine and chile with plenty of garlic and white pepper, garnished with crispy sweet slivers of green and red peppers. The other two fish were seethed in a delicate soup flavored with a hint of garlic, ginger matchsticks, and baby basil leaves.

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The weatherbeaten but colorful boats of Chenggong harbor. This photo from http://tour.taitung.gov.tw/en-us/Travel/ScenicSpot/619/Chenggong-Fishing-Harbor

Dad also grabbed a plate of ‘whatevers’—scraps like heads, eyeballs, a golden wad of fish eggs, mysterious bony fish bits, handed it to the cheerful, pretty cook, and asked her to do her best. Her best was delightful: the odds and ends were stirfried in a sweet dark umami sauce redolent of brown beans and garlic; the meat fell off the bones, the eggs melted in your mouth, and even the tough head pieces became flavorful and fun to pick apart for small savory rewards. We needed two bowls of fragrant sticky Taiwan fonglai rice to soak up all the sauces.

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Flying fish, sacred to the Yami People of Lanyu (Orchid Island), are hung out to dry in the fresh sea air.

Next, we travelled by ferry to the tiny island of Lanyu (Orchid Island). There we encountered the evolutionary and culinary wonder that is flying fish! After we sweatily dragged our bags to an indigenous lodging house, we hit the streets at twilight looking for dinner. A busy little local joint served us one crispy fried flying fish each. Their winglike fins and pretty tails were so crisp they shattered in the mouth and the flesh was firm, fresh, nutty, and delicious.

Side dishes included tender strips of pale white and pink raw clam meat on a bed of fresh cabbage, topped with handmade mayo and sprinkled with chili flakes; sea cucumber shreds in a salty black bean and soy sauce; and tender green ferns (a new species to me, curled like baby fingers) lightly braised with garlic and more chilis. Alongside was a bowl of delicately flavored algae broth and a savory dried shrimp omelet finished with fresh scallions. Oh what a dinner! For both of us it was just over $7 US.

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This is a public domain photo–they look exactly like this! So pretty, beyond words really.

On the ferry ride home Dad and I stood on the back deck in gale force winds, reveling in the clean air and huge beautiful rolling waves like dark blue glass. Lo and behold! A flying fish burst from the waves, wiggling like mad, its glassy fins blurring like a dragonfly’s. It seemed to float above the waves, a tiny miracle of evolution, before vanishing again. Underneath, a big predator — probably a swordfish — was chasing them. The flying fish continued to zing above the waves in silvery flocks, soaring for hundreds of meters. In these choppy seas when they hit a crest they somehow ‘skipped’ themselves to add another flight just like I would skip a pebble on a pond. Exquisite! Dad, I and several Taiwanese passengers whooped as each flock took to the air!

Have you ever eaten a fern? The young uncurling leaves, called fiddleheads in the US, can be amazingly tender and delicious. The Amis people love ferns, called ‘lokutl’ in their language, and gather them wild or cultivate them in gardens and forest plots.

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Mr. and Mrs. Wang’s fern garden. Can you see where the leaves have been harvested?

Our Amis friend Mr. Wang showed us a beautiful mountain spot, in his family for many generations, where he and his wife carefully grow the ferns for the local market.

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The stuff in the middle is damp, partly rotten, and smells like the soul of the forest.

The mulch that collects in each fern is collected as clean organic mulch for their gardens in town. Sadly, all of their children are working in modern jobs in remote cities with little interest in this Amis style of cultivating wild vegetables.

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A muntjac, or barking deer, spotted in the central mountains. They adore ferns, as Mr. Wang complains…

You might remember that Mr. Wang sold us fern leaves last month and the local restaurant covered them in a light batter, flash fried them, and provided a dipping mixture of salt and Taiwan white pepper (a more fragrant and complex cousin to the familiar black pepper in your shaker. To die for!! The tiny barking deer agree, and raid his garden regularly…

 

 

Anthropological fieldwork in the sub-tropics can be hot and sweaty business. I took this shot yesterday while surveying a field where my father, an Amis lady, and I went to gather wild greens for dinner.

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I could use another hand or two.

Zhong Mama, as she is called, is a youthful 72 years old. Her wild veggie gathering kit consists of a beautiful handmade basket of grasses and a small knife. A whole basketload to feed five adults took only about 15 minutes from start to finish.

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Zhong Mama in farmwoman fashion attire: sensible headgear and a touch of makeup!

The veggies are called sama, dadugum, and gachipilay in Amis language. T

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Gear: handmade basket, twine, and a tiny knife.

They were lightly stirfried with garlic and salt, then some water added for a light broth, and finished with Taiwanese white pepper. Delicious peppery flavor, a tang of bitterness like young spinach or dandelion leaves.

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Eat up! It’s organic!!

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.

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! 

Today at lunchtime I foraged in the maze of lanes just north of National Taiwan University. A humble Buddhist vegetarian buffet beckoned; unlike American buffets, Taiwan’s are generally very fresh and very cheap.

This little restaurant, staffed by serene women in eyeglasses and aprons, featured meatless Buddhist dishes. Long before tofurkey, rich and savory flavors and textures in Asian vegetarian cooking have used a wide variety of fungi (lovely mushrooms of every shape and color and those crunchy black delights termed ‘mu er’ or ‘tree ears’), tofu in every form imaginable and some never imagined (silky, crunchy, in noodly ribbons), and an ingenious selection of wheat gluten nuggets in sauces sweet, salty, and spicy.

Rubbing shoulders with students and monks, I loaded my plate with delicious food for the US equivalent of $3. Nirvana.

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Vegetarian Buddhist buffet. A happy sight for hungry eyes!

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No one can prepare cabbage like the Chinese. When it’s fresh and cooked just enough, it retains a hint of sweetness.

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Chinese stewed boiled eggs: salty, savory, satisfying.

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Lotus root with red chiles; a lovely delicate flavor with slightly nutty overtones.

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Crunchy ‘tree ear’ fungus with red chiles.

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At least four different kinds of mushrooms evoke flavors of secret forests in Taiwan’s mountain heart.

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Stir fried tofu chunks in a sweet and sour sauce.

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Carrots, edamame, and tofu shreds in a light gravy.

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Mysterious sheets of tofu, just a bit chewy with nice star anise flavors.