Taiwan: Food, Finally!

I've never seen it as my duty as a good little "foreign" guest here in Taiwan to say that "everyone knows that Chinese food is the best food in the world". To tell the truth, I don't agree with this. You won't see me making top ten lists with Chinese food at number one. For me, Chinese food is too rich, too greasy, too (piping) hot and too hard to dig into. I'd much rather eat Greek, Italian, Cajun or Indian. I especially don't like expensive Chinese food, such as is served at feasts or wedding banquets. I simply nibble at these meals to be polite. And I absolutely detest anything with "herbal medicine" in it. I not only can't eat that stuff, but I can't even breathe it. There are exceptions of course like Szechuan food, which is spicy yet simple and Cantonese food, with its crunchy noodles and fun-to-eat dim sum offerings. Thus I am happy to see Taiwanese becoming more democratic in their tastes. Where I come from, it's more like "everyone knows Chinese food is quick and easy takeout. Make sure you have something to wash it down with." Nobody has it ranked number one.

My friend John was telling me the other day that the reason "foreign restaurants" are taking off in Taiwan is people here are afraid of Chinese ingredients, like everything has melamine in it. I don't see it that way. I think the population has become more worldly, more adventuresome and less susceptible to Sino-centric brainwashing. This bodes well for me, because boy do I like to eat. I threw some pics down below as further evidence of Taiwan's democratization.
Vietnamese spring rolls over noodles served at a the Pho Cafe, a nice little place near my office in Taipei. The owner, a friendly Cantonese fellow, comes from Vietnam.

I had this pita sandwich and spicy fries at a Middle Eastern restaurant called the Sababa Pita Bar www.sababapita.com, a restaurant in the newish Breeze Center, upstairs at the Taipei Train Station. I asked one of employees, I think his name was Eddie (an overseas Taiwanese from the Philippines) if they had a "foreign" cook hidden away in the back. He said "no", and that the owner was a Taiwanese woman. But he also told me that restaurant was a franchise. Sababa buys all of their sauces from the original branch, which is run by a Canadian. I'm guessing the Canadian, or his parents, come from some place cooler than Canada. This guy can really cook. Let's just hope the owner of this branch doesn't get it into her head that they don't really need to keep paying up, that she can do just as well on her own. When/if this happens, the Sababa Pita Bar can kiss its sales goodbye.
Moroccan eggplant, yogurt sauce, tomatoes, dill (I think), pita and drink for NT$180 (US$6).
Korean food in Hualien (花蓮), Taiwan: for the life of me, I couldn't remember eating this. It was in my Hualien pics file stored on my Mac, from the spring. I must've enjoyed it, because I love Korean food. Hualien has also started to go cosmopolitan. The tiny airport there serves international flights. And I do remember eating at a Chinese restaurant and having my order taken by a Russian in a chipao.
This jarred my memory. It was definitely Korean.


Tainan, Taiwan's Wa Gei

I had this traditional dish which is called Wa Gei in Taiwanese - no idea how to write that in Chinese - yesterday in Tainan. It's like a hard cream of wheat with salty shrimp mixed in. The concoction is topped off with a salty, tangy goo that is really delicious. Taiwanese people usually douse Wa Gei with a garlicky wine sauce that calls for a cold beer to wash it down. The dish, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty (明朝), comes in a solid chunk that needs to be chopped up with a fork before it can be handled with chopsticks. Yesterday, I was in a bit of a predicament as I was on my way to a school to give a speech to some teachers. Inebriation and foul breath don't usually go down well at these moments.

Just as I was considering my options, a middle-aged woman pulled up on her bike and said: "Good. You gave 'the foreigner' a fork", noticing my chopping utensil, "because he can't [even though I have been in Taiwan since the nineties] use chopsticks." That's right. If there's no fork available, I just eat with my hands. I put ketchup on my dumplings too. And I simply talk louder when people don't respond to me. I know that everyone can speak English. But many people are hard of hearing.
I've blogged about this before, but I still can't get over the range of temperatures in this small country. When I left Taipei yesterday morning on the high speed rail, it was drizzling and cold. An hour and forty minutes later, 274 kilometers south of Taipei, I stepped off the train to a tide of warm air. I checked the baseball thermometer coming down the escalator in the Tainan High Speed Rail Station; it was registering 26 degrees Celsius - just another beautifully sunny day in Tainan without a strand of cloud in the sky. When I returned to Taipei seven hours later, the city was so cold and wet that my eyes watered and nose became red. Today, at three o'clock in Taipei, it was 15 degrees Celsius. We had a humidity of 67.5 percent.
The Taiwan HSR is running a promotion right now. If you ride during an orange hour, you save 35 percent on your ticket. If you go in a blue hour, it's 15 percent. Otherwise, you save nothing. When I purchased my ticket down, I was charged NT$875 (around US$25). "No," I explained, "I want reserved seating. It should come to NT$1080." I know this because I go down on an almost weekly basis. That's when I found out about the color-schemed savings. For my trip back, I, actually my company, was charged NT$1350. I'm figuring that costs are going up in general. The color times are a way to put sugar on this fact.


President Chen, Come Out!

This has been going on outside my friend Celia's apartment, which is across the street from President Chen's apartment, for the past couple of months (I grabbed these shots on my cell phone yesterday at around two p.m.).

When it first came out, thanks to Swiss authorities, that Chen & Family had been laundering the millions of dollars it ripped off from everyday Taiwanese people, the press was out in droves. They waited all day just to grab a pic of Chen or his wife, or perhaps a family member, shielding their face(s) as they drove out from the underground parking complex that is part of the ex-president's luxurious new pad in East Taipei, about a five-minute walk from Taipei 101 and in one of the cities swankiest neighborhoods. Since then, the amount of press stalking Chen directly outside his apartment dwindled, to where it has just been one or two student-ish individuals timidly crouching in the shadows of Celia's apartment, enough away from the secret service not to catch it, with their cameras, looking lonely, miserable and kind of cold. According to Celia, there has been one or two photographers under her eaves 24/7. With Chen's arrest last week, the mayhem has returned big time.
President Chen's lawyers (bald guy in the middle) gives a press conference right in the middle of the street out front of Chen and my friend Celia's apartment, oblivious of the traffic.

Reporters and photographers taking over Celia's apartment even brought their own chairs and playing cards. Instead of shooing them off, the security simply slept through it all with both doors to the building flung wide open.


Neili (內壢), Taiwan

Urban farming in Neili (內壢), Taiwan.

I visited Neili (內壢), Taiwan for the first time on Tuesday. Neili is one stop on the line, not reached by any of Taiwan's express trains, north of Chungli (中壢). I had to take a local train from Taipei, meaning no assigned seating and that we'd stop at every station along the way. This is my favorite kind of trip, to somewhere obscure - somewhere off the map. Once on the ground, I began to ask people about the demographics, but couldn't get exact figures except that "we're mostly Hakka people". I'm guessing I took in a town of around 50,000.

Usually when I travel Taiwan, I take the High Speed Rail. Moving at 300 km/hr, it's a sanitized ride. We don't get to see the grassroots and grub of Taiwan in the same way we do on a slow train that chugs along, removing big chunks out of the morning. A ride on a local train includes stops at every single one of the Japanese-era stations. The views of shacks and farming along the tracks, in every crack of free space along the way, are magnificent.

I googled Neili when I got back to Taipei and came up with stats for Chungli, which Neili is kind of a satellite of. Chungli has a population of 355,707 (as of 2006). I also came up with this: "Ethnically, it is considered a kind of capital city for the [Hakka] people who live in great numbers here and in surrounding areas. In recent years a large number of foreign workers (mainly from the [Philippines] and [Thailand] ) have also settled in and around the city, making it a center for foreign laborers". This much is true. The place is bustling with a cheery-faced cosmopolitan community. There's a certain energetic street-life thanks to the inhabitants that is missing from other places.

Jiou Chong Flowers at the Hsinchu (新竹) Train Station in Northern Taiwan.

I bugged several people waiting on the platform in Hsinchu, which I traveled to today, before I could get a name for these flowers. Finally, I found a woman that squinted and then, after walking part-way down the platform to get a closer look, informed me they were jiou chong flowers. I still have no idea how to write this in Chinese or how it translates either, so I grabbed a shot (above) on my cell phone to get help later. "When they bloom, we know winter is here," she said. It ended up that she was sitting next to me on the train back to Taipei, and then on to Keelung. She's a high school social studies' teacher who commutes back and forth on a daily basis. With Taiwan's low birthrate - .91 and second-lowest to Italy in the world - we'll see a lot more of this teacher-chasing-the-student-around scenario here in Taiwan. Thankfully, we've got "foreigners", people "settled in and around the [cities]" now. One in five babies born in Taiwan has a parent born in a different country. 

As write this post, there is a Taiwanese newscast buzzing in my ear. It's about 老外 or "honkies" from France enjoying oyster omelets. I think I'll go watch them being disparaged now.


Obama Wins

Answering an invite from the Democrats Abroad Taiwan, I hurried over to the Brass Monkey Pub in Taipei with a colleague on my lunch break for beers and a bit of celebration. The place was fairly full and everyone was soaking up Obama's victory speech: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America." He said we should also be inclusive of gays and disabled individuals at that time.

McCain gave a nice concession speech. Some of the people were anxious about taking Arizona, but I figured "let McCain have it". He got stuck with a lot anger that should have been directed at Bush. I'm happy Obama won; I was thinking about something I heard an African-American scholar say on the radio this morning. This guy is one hundred years old and was reminiscing about what an adviser had told him in the early 1930s: "America will never be a democratic country until a 'negro' is president". I'm not one to stand in the way of history; and I know that Obama's victory will probably take a long time to sink in because it is, simply put, so wonderful. But McCain has honorable qualities. It's too bad he's getting lumped together with Bush.

Here I'm just linking: Undergoing MyBlogLog Verification


You Really Want to Say this Stuff Still?

You ever wonder why little kids in Taiwan point at you and say "foreigner"? I came across these pages in book I guess I bought - for NT$350 - called Baby's Body. Here's a translation, starting with the line across the top: "We are yellow-skinned, but there are also white-skinned, black-skinned and brown-skinned people". The bottom follows: "Wearing a swimsuit, you can see every different kind of skin color." Then "Skin can be cold, hot, soft or rough and give you every different kind of feeling!" The book, put out by http://www.windmill.com.tw/, was not published in 1920 but rather December, 2007.

Over the past few years, Taiwan is, like any place on the globe, becoming more multicultural. According to recent stats, one in five babies born in our country has at least one parent from somewhere else (I'm not sure these stats even consider kids with two "foreign" parents as citizenship in Taiwan is still conferred by the parents instead of place of birth - meaning you can be born here but still not be able to obtain rights based simply on your race). So what on earth is up with this book? Right now, I'm trying to figure out which picture/color/texture my daughter, with her Taiwanese mom and American dad, gets slotted into. I'm already steeling myself for conversations that I'll inevitably have to take part in. Will my Taiwanese daughter see herself, as my sociology professor at National Chengchi University put it, a "problematic child in this new generation of Taiwanese"?

Where does this continued emphasis on skin color lead us?