Taiwanese Breakfast: Youtiao, Shaobing, Soy Milk, Xiao Long Bao, & Taipei 101

January 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

After securing some coffee and green milk tea from a convenience store in the morning, we set off in search of a more traditional Taiwanese breakfast beyond the neighborhood we were staying.  It wasn’t long before we stumbled across one of the many places serving up some youtiao (油条), shaobing (燒餅), soy milk, and of course xiao long bao (小笼馒头).

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Taipei: Serving Up Ramen and Their Very Own Lu Rou Fan

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of my favorite things about Taiwan is that not only does it have some dishes and food of its own that are delicious in their own right, it’s easy to find a large variety of authentic styles of cuisine due to the rich cultural blending over the course of its history.  There is an especially notable influence of Japanese culture from their 50 year rule over Taiwan, and the Japanese restaurants I tried there were easily as good as what I later experienced in Tokyo often at a fraction of the price.

I’m not entirely sure when my ramen cravings began.  I got the idea in my head at some point last year when the weather turned cold and my weekend Buford Highway explorations turned to the quest for “broth, broth, broth.”  Good luck finding really fantastic ramen in the states is all I have to say.  I managed to find a few places that have been reasonably good, but I knew they weren’t as great as they could be.  I became wildly curious about getting to try ramen on this trip especially after hearing there was excellent Japanese food to be found, and I suggested it just about every day.

Our host guided us to a place that he felt was the best nearby.  Rakumenya 樂麵屋 (7, Ln 10, Yongkang St, Taipei City (台北市大安區永康街10巷7號) is one of the more popular ramen places in the area and his food opinions so far had yet to lead me astray.

We saddled up to a busy bar while the noodle slingers and broth ladlers greeted us loudly in Japanese…sort of like the Moe’s burrito chain where they always call out a greeting in unison, only here they had something far more superior to offer than fast food burritos.

check out the menu with the pictures of perfectly styled ramen:

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Taipei: Even More Coffee, Jade and Flower Market, & Shanghai Feast at Sogo

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

So it was morning, and morning means coffee.  I’m starting to realized that no matter what corner of the earth you’re on, there’s likely to be a Starbucks around waiting for you.  Anyone that knows me knows that I really don’t bother with Starbucks.  I generally don’t care for anything on their menu since it’s either too caffeinated or too sweet or both, and I think their teas are uninteresting and overpriced.  I wasn’t intending on checking out Starbucks on my trip, but seeing as a lot of the coffee places here don’t seem to open until at least 10 or even later we took a chance.  There’s a curiosity about different menu items with familiar chains, so I let it slide and saw what they had to offer that was different than the standard US menu.  Surprisingly, it was easily one of the best Starbucks experiences I’ve had.  There were a lot fewer items and none of that Tazo tea nonsense–I’m sure they wouldn’t stand for that here.

Click here for coffee, flowers, coral, and Shanghai cuisine in Taipei

Taipei Afternoon: Coffee, Tea, French Macarons, and Xiao Long Bao

January 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

After meandering through Daan Forest Park, we were guided around more of the nearby neighborhoods that we might want to explore more thoroughly on our own later.  We found ourselves near a fancy coffee and tea house complete with linen tablecloths and heavy crystal water glasses and decided to indulge.  We sat outside on a small patio and were handed a fairly large menu to browse.  Of course, the first thing that stood out to me was this:

Click here to read about Kopi Luwak, afternoon tea, and world-renowned xiao long bao

Taipei Morning: Coffee, Bubble Tea, and a Walk in the Park

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Hungry and eager in the morning, we took off in search of coffee.  Despite the prevalence of tea, there is a surprisingly well-developed coffee culture in Taipei.  The only issue is that many of the coffee shops don’t seem to open until after 10 or 11 am.  There were still a few cafés that served coffee in the morning, but they weren’t nearly as numerous or sophisticated as the ones that opened much later in the day.  You can always get your fix at a 7-11 which serves some decent coffee despite what you might expect as well as espresso drinks, and there’s a chance you might be near a Mr. Brown coffee chain which seems to have broader hours and the optional addition of whiskey as a flavor enhancer, but I’ll get into that later.

We settled on Ikari Coffee, a Japanese café around the corner with a small variety of coffee, tea, and light food options.  There was a nice foolproof menu with pictures and translations outside for their breakfast offerings such as:

Click here to see more interesting breakfast items, bubble tea, and the park

First Taste of Taiwan: Beef Noodle Style

January 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Disembarking was surreal due to the lack of late evening activity in the airport and general post-plane delirium.  I was still buzzing with curiosity and excitement even though I felt a haze of exhaustion from the long flight.  Since it was past 9pm, there wasn’t much day left to focus my energies, but it was probably for the best to rest early to help ease into the tremendous jet lag yet to come.

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was quiet yet orderly with people including a very large group of school children waiting patiently and obediently for everyone else to go through before they even approached the line.  This was when I started to notice the surgical masks people were occasionally wearing.  Combined with the notifications of quarantine beagles and disinfecting mats along with an area where they use sensors to check you for fever, I realized how much more seriously they seem to take contagions over there.  I was almost a little bit concerned that being overheated on the plane for 14+ hours was going to light me up as a threat in the fever sensing area.  At the very least, I felt my inner temperature rise a little with anxiety, but I didn’t manage to set off any alarms that I was aware of.

Once we managed to navigate out of the convoluted parking lot, we decided to get something to eat before trying to rest.  Weary, bewildered enough to leave my camera behind with the rest of my luggage where we were staying, and not even entirely sure if I was hungry, I followed our host through the narrow, quiet maze of streets.  It was clear that the city was still awake; we saw several people going about their business renting movies and eating at a few of the restaurants on the way.  There were a fairly large number of people buying fruit at a stand down the street right next door to an internet café full of gamers.  I presume if one were planning on raging hard into late hours pwning n00bs, they could hop over and snack on some dragonfruit at 11pm if they really wanted to.  There’s something about a city that’s so quiet but alive at late hours that delights me.

We entered what I can only describe as exactly what you might imagine a quintessential noodle shop to be.  There was a bay of windows at the front and two rows of long tables pushed together with little plastic stools to sit on.  Little plastic stations of maroon plastic chopsticks and black and maroon spoon, pickles, chili oil, and tissues (used as napkins) lined up on the tables.  There was an element of organized messiness to the place–it felt as if it was obviously quite busy at times even though it was quietly serving its few late night diners.  Behind us were trays heavily dusted with flour that had probably recently been used for making piles of fresh noodles.  Stacks of trays and pots towered near the kitchen, and there was what appeared to be a few pieces of hanging laundry on the railing of stairs that I presumed led down to a residence underground.  Despite this bit of clutter or character if you will, all the dining tables were pristine even though the place felt not necessarily dingy, but just worn…used.  I’m sure these walls had witnessed more broth and hand-made noodles than I could even begin to imagine.

One thing that’s fantastic about the food that I experience on the trip is that so many of the places that we went to really specialized in one particular thing and did that with excellence.  So often every element served in the restaurant or street corner cart or open-air corner shop was made entirely in house.  When you’ve likely mastered something over countless years and aren’t stretching yourself too thin trying to serve a huge menu and manage to survive in an environment so ridiculously saturated with other food vendors, it’s probably going to be good.  The specialty at this noodle house in particular was Taiwanese beef noodle soup, or niu rou mian which is also the national dish of Taiwan and is featured in an annual festival in Taipei.  They also served a few different types of dumplings as well and a few variations of the soup.

The masterful ordering began.  I was agreeable to the mala beef broth with traditional northern style thick noodles and the two types of dumplings that were ordered from the woman running the place in her red apron who seemed weary from what was likely a very long day, but competent with an air of no-nonsense to her.

There was one young college-age kid slumped over his bowl of beef broth and noodles when we came in.  His neck seemed long and gangly as he bobbed and chewed his noodles in relative silence with the exception of the occasional, welcome slurp.  I’ve trained myself over the years to try not to slurp, and over the course of this trip I didn’t do very well at breaking my habit.  Yet the distinctive sound of slurping and noodles tickling the broth in the background of my meal has become reminiscent of such deliciousness.

Very quickly, the food arrived.  The broth was deep in color and speckled with orange oil.  There was a lovely, rich beef flavor with the perfect amount of heat to it that didn’t overshadow the stock but added that extra level of sinus awakening and tingle.  I didn’t find it particularly numbing, but I didn’t need for it to be.  The noodles were a little thick and very slightly uneven as a nod to their homemade origin, but perfectly fresh and just chewy enough.  There were generous pieces of well-marbled beef, and the fat had been cooked down so much that the striations of it were soft and gelatinous and the whole bite was quite delicious and the bowl was the humble price of TWD$100 which was at the time of the visit roughly $3 US for a sizable bowl.

All of the items were served painfully scalding in temperature, and despite trying to work my way up to being able to tolerate hotter things, I was still being a little tentative in attacking the items before me for fear of singing my palette for a few days.  Apparently this is a foreigner thing that is recognized as when one behaves in this way, they are said to have “cat tongue” in the way that cats gingerly lap their water.  I eased a little bit into not fearing the heat and worked my way up into rolling it around in my mouth, and into slurping in a lot of air with every bite, but I never quite worked it out perfectly.  It was as if the scalding broth was taunting me because it was so delicious I didn’t want to wait for it.

The wrappers on the dumplings seemed a little thick at first, but they melted away nicely to the simplicity inside.  There’s nothing quite like a really great homemade dumpling as I realized the first time I had some made for me.  It’s one of those things I’ve always gone back to, and there have been so few times I’ve been able to relive that in the US, but that was not an issue here.

This meal was magical for me, and honestly, it was easily one of my favorite meals from the entire trip in that it was so amazingly simple and disarming.  It was my first real taste of Taiwan, and it was something that I knew would likely be difficult or impossible to recreate or find at home.  I think sometimes the first time you have something new or really great the shock to your palette and senses hold onto that one particular experience and that precise version of it.  I managed to have another bowl of the same style of soup elsewhere and it wasn’t quite the same.  This place sort of won me over because the broth was so deep with beef flavor.  Maybe it was all a delirious dream at that point, too, but I really fell in love with this place in particular.  If I get the chance to go back, I’m going to undoubtedly request to go there first.

While I have no pictures of that night, I stopped to take a picture of the outside when we passed it on another day.  Here is my first and favorite place:

We stopped into a 7-11 on the way out and while you hear how much nicer and more exciting they are than ours, you don’t really understand until you see it for yourself.  They were clean and tidy with cute character mascots and full of what ended up being a pretty tasty array of viable food options.  They have an amusing variety of interesting and useful goods from beauty vitamins that look like candy and taste like salty minerals and bb cream to disposable underwear and terrifyingly potent baijiu very simply and deceptively labled “the cup.”  You can pay your bills, buy tickets to the metro, or do all sorts of stuff there.  I think we ended up stopping at a convenience store of some variety at least a few times a day for water or random drink exploration at the very least.

The first day of sorts was over, but there was a lot more of Taipei to consume and see.  Long days were ahead for certain.

Traveling to Taiwan: What’s to Eat in Economy?

January 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s such an element of curiosity that I have in regards to airplane food especially in that it has become so increasingly elusive over the past few years.  It seems you pretty much need to travel internationally to get any sort of food service, and other than notoriously being considered undesirable, people don’t seem to talk about it much.  I can only vaguely recall the salty, mushy fare served to us at obnoxious hours in hopes of acclimating us to the new time zone from my first international flight, and beyond that I am not sure I’ve experienced it since, so I was anxious to start off my trip across the world with unfolding the mystery of what’s in those frozen parcels of East meets West on the flight to Taiwan.

The leg from LAX to TPE was the only one that was going to be through the codeshare China Air, and I had heard that the food and service were generally much better on these International brands.  I figured it couldn’t be any worse than some of the domestic flights, could it?  Upon boarding, we were greeted with an abundance of attentive staff dressed in cheongsam-esque uniforms of feminine lavender and mauve tones who spoke both English and a few different dialects of Chinese quite well.  There was a way about them that even if they were reprimanding you, they did it in a way that was oddly warm and humorous, but still got their point across.  If you ever needed to get their attention or pushed the call button, they were happy to respond and didn’t make you feel like a total jerk for asking for anything which was a welcome change from the norm.

Very soon after we took off, we were greeted with our choice of drink and given the standard snack.

The snack was really kind of delicious in a mildly sweet and salty way.  It was an Asian rice cracker mix with yummy fried green peas and peanuts.  A much more interesting and flavorful snack than bland peanuts or pretzels for sure.  I also got some pretty average cheaper white wine since beer and wine are free on international flights (although it seems someone I know just got free scotch on his economy international flight, so maybe we got short-changed here).  I later figured out that light, somewhat hydrating Asian beers were the way to go and they were great to help combatant the heat over the course of the flight until they ran out.  The heat is a cultural thing I’m certain, and even though I’ve dealt with plenty of hot environments in my lifetime, this plane was beyond stiflingly and unavoidably warm.  There’s not much worse to me than trying to sleep and waking up covered in sweat.  I had the misfortune of this experience quite a few times especially since my base layer was a long-sleeved shirt.  It never occurred to me that a plane would not be freezing.  I’ll keep this in mind for next time.

Dinner was served shortly after, and we were given the option of beef or chicken.

I chose beef because I believe it’s a lot more forgiving when it comes to the brutal reheating process that occurs.  It looks a little grim, but it wasn’t bad at all.  The simple salad was surprisingly fresh and clean with a hyper-tangy American style Italian dressing.  The meat was tender with some mild spices, and the rice was overcooked sticky and gummy but edible.  The veggies were beyond soft continuing the cooked and overheated to death theme, but the flavors were just fine and my hunger allowed me to find the simple meal pretty satisfying.  The mildly sweet brown roll was the clear weak point as it was unbearably dry and crumbly.  The fruit was cold and hit some happy sweet and bitter notes, and I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying the dessert.  It was light and deliciously creamy with a cheesecake coffee flavor.  As far as the reputation of airplane food goes, I was satisfied.  I also like how all the International flights had a cup for tea that they would come by and fill a few times.

After a long night period, we were offered our choice of Western or Asian breakfast.  Of course, I went with the bigger curiosity.

The result was an Asian-style breakfast of congee, plain baozi roll, some fruit, and some sweet soy tofu skins.  Also randomly included was some Promise faux buttery spread for buttering your baozi, apparently.  Well, this just dove right into an Asian breakfast format for me.  The congee was made moderately tolerable by the bright peas and the tiny slivers of raw ginger, but there was not much helping the completely bland flavor and over-cooked gluey texture tinged with the essence of something just sort of odd.  I guess it was really just the essence of the dried scallops that had rehydrated into chewy knobs of unpleasantness that I was picking up on in every bite including those without scallops.  In all fairness, I did eat one scallop that wasn’t rubbery, but it was a gamble I became less willing to take as I ate.  I’m aware that congee isn’t normally this bad, but I suppose this version didn’t translate well in the plane reheat format.  At least the plain steamed baozi made more sense than the brown roll from earlier, but it was a bland counterpoint to the bland congee and it just made me wish that it was stuffed with some delicious pork instead.  On the other hand, the frosty-cold bits of tofu skin were far from bland, but were painfully chewy and were overwhelmingly pungent, sweet, and tangy enough that I did not enjoy them.

By this time, I was beyond restless and had no sense of what day it was since we had been flying into darkness the entire way.  I just knew despite the excellent service from the flight attendants, I was more than ready to land and get some real food.  Bring it on, Taiwan!

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