Sometimes I think of Taiwan as one big convenience
store. It is just so easy to buy all kinds of things, day
or night. Food especially. Just about everywhere you look
there are small, rustic restaurants. I am talking about
your proper, walls-and-a-roof-sit-down place, rather than
roadside stands, though there are plenty of these too.
Typically they sell tasty traditional food that is cheap
and quick – if you order at the counter on your way in,
the food might be on the table even before you settle into
your seat. However, if you are looking for a nice, quiet
eatery where you can chew and chat, then you'll need to
find one without a blaring television set, and that is
not an easy thing to do.
Chinese, you see, are incapable of doing
anything quietly. Why should eating be any different? The
Chinese dream meal consists of plate loads of special delicacies,
shared amongst a decent sized group of chopstick clicking
diners – a banquet in other words. Chinese banqueters don't
just eat food; they have good time with it – festive is
the word that springs to mind. Diners may engage in some,
or all of the following behaviours: slurping soup, loud,
incessant talk, joke making, belly laughing, playing drinking
games, getting drunk, burping, and singing karaoke. All
this can be great fun if you are part of the group. But
if you are sitting alone at the next table trying to finish
the crossword, you may think differently.
Chinese, you see, are incapable of doing
anything quietly. Why should eating be any different?
In the cheaper restaurants the television
acts as poor man's surrogate festive atmosphere. With all
kinds of interesting (and LOUD) on-screen dining companions,
the lone diner need never feel lonely. The offending black
box is bolted high on the restaurant wall. All eyes are
trained on a pretty female newsreader who, in a shrill
voice, reads at turbo-pace. Trying to follow this monologue
always taxes my language skills, and sometimes my patience.
Locals have no such problem, and in noodle shops, I've
noticed that slurping sounds increase dramatically during
To some degree I am used to the noise, but
the TV can be loud enough to make your teeth chatter. Like
recently when I tried to order dinner. The owner threw
his hands up and said, "Ting
bu dong," (I don't
understand). I suggested he might comprehend if the TV
volume was turned down. But he didn't catch this either,
so I not-so-calmly walked over to the table where the remote
control sat, and I turned the sound down to about halfway.
Then, without further drama, I ordered steamed dumplings
and a seaweed soup.
As I ate, I looked around the little restaurant.
There were a couple of small groups eating together and
a two or three solitary diners, like myself. Though nobody
seemed to be straining to hear the news, and nobody complained
or turned the volume up, the atmosphere was definitely
more somber, and I seemed to be the only customer who was
happy about that.
Ten to the Dozen: Taiwan Egg
Taiwan's produce markets sell eggs loose.
You can buy as many fresh chicken or duck eggs as you
like. The supermarkets, like supermarkets everywhere,
sell eggs in cartons. I must have brought eggs from the
supermarket twenty times before I realised that a Taiwan
egg carton is exactly two eggs short of a dozen. Eggs
are sold ten to a carton.
The association of dozen with eggs is
so strong in my mind that the two words almost seem glued
together. I certainly never questioned this, until the
day came when I needed exactly ten eggs. After I had
prepared whatever dishes I was making, I went to put
the remaining two eggs from the carton into the fridge
but found they had vanished. What followed was
five minutes of utter confusion before I decided to count
the cavities in the empty carton. "One, two, three,
four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten … ten?" No
wonder a dozeneggs had always seemed
Thin noodles are one of the
specialties of Jinmen (Kinmen), a Taiwan island which
lies just off the coast of China. Jinmen (meaning golden
gate) is better known to history buffs as Quemoy These
thin noodles are stir fried or served in soups. The best
known dish is probably oyster noodle soup. Jinmen, because
of its dry climate, became a major producer of kaoliang (sorghum)
liquor, after the arrival of the KMT in the late 1940s.
Taiwan Rice Porridge (xi
I have been eating a lot of rice porridge
lately. Once a day, at least. This is a big turnaround
from my early days here in Taiwan when I thought of it
as a very boring dish. I would avoid it, (as a dentist
friend of mine likes to say), like the plaque.
That was until two years ago when for
my birthday I asked for and got a clay cooking pot. It
came with instructions recommending seasoning the pot
by first cooking a batch of rice porridge. So, I decided,
if I had to cook rice porridge, I might as well learn
to prepare it right.
A major clue to the original rationale
for rice porridge lies in its name. Xi fan means
sparse rice. This is best explained by comparing rice
porridge to steamed rice. Steam a cup of raw rice and
you will end up with about three cups of cooked rice.
Boil a cup of rice and you'll get about six cups of porridge
- much more if you cook it for longer with more water.
The rice is 'sparse' in relation to the water used. It
is a very effective way of making rice go further.
So I trotted off to my local grocery store
where the elderly owner recommended a bunch of different
canned and bottled items to use as side dishes. Boiling
the rice, I underestimated the water to rice ratio and
found myself having to add more water every few minutes
to stop the rice from sticking to the pot. But my first
effort turned out alright, and for the first time, I
enjoyed rice porridge. I enjoyed it so much that I ate
it several days in a row.
There is no absolute formula for cooking
the rice as long as there is enough water to do the job.
A shorter cooking time, (you will need at least 20 minutes),
results in a thick porridge with the rice grain structure
intact. Cook for longer (some people cook it for an hour
or more), with more water to create a more viscous mix.
Add copious amounts of liquid to make a very watery version.
Unlike the congee (zhou) of Guangdong,
which is usually flavoured and includes other ingredients,
Taiwanese rice porridge is cooked in nothing but water.
Not even salt goes into the pot. Traditionally it is
the standard easy-to-digest baby food of the rice eating
regions of China, as well as a bland food for the infirm,
particularly the gastricly unwell. For the rest of the
population rice porridge served with a selection of mostly
pungently flavoured side dishes, used to be the standard
breakfast. These days though, rice porridge has somewhat
fallen by the wayside in the wake of greater choice and
busier lifestyles - it does not lend itself well to take-a-away
or a quick clandestine gobble in the office. It has been
relegated to the role of comfort food. A friend recalls
eating rice porridge as a child every morning with nothing
more than a few pieces of pickled cucumber to liven it
up. It was a régime she grew thoroughly sick of.
These days, she eats rice porridge only occasionally
but always with delight, especially as there is now much
more than pickled cucumber to complement it.
To get a nice balance between the bland
and the savoury, rice porridge is best eaten with a range
of side dishes such as those pictured: from left, clockwise:
Chinese sausage, fermented tofu in chilli, dried Oriental
radish (daikon), bamboo shoots in chilli oil, stewed
peanuts, pickled young ginger, pickled celtuce stem,
and in the centre, salty duck eggs.
Preparing rice porridge is not difficult.
In fact it can be very quick and easy, after the first
time, if you keep some rice leftover. One large batch
of rice can be stretched out for several days just by
adding water and reheating. And, as many of the accompaniments
are pre-prepared, it is just a matter of opening some
cans or jars to make a meal. If you vary your side dishes
a little from meal to meal, things rarely get dull.
The origin of noodles (not to mention
the whole pasta category) has long been in dispute. Who
really invented this string-like dish? Was it the Chinese,
the Arabs, the Persians, or the Italians? All have their
advocates. Well, now it seems we know.
The incredibly well preserved millet noodles
shown here, were recently discovered at the Lajia Ruins,
Qinghai, China in an upside-down bowl. They are about
4,000 years old. Previously the earliest evidence traced
noodle making in China to East Han Dynasty sometime between
AD 25 and 220. The new find pushes the known Chinese
use of noodles back by over 2,000 years. Lajia, like
many of north China's ancient sites, is on the Yellow
River. If the other countries want to challenge this
record, they had better get digging. more
from the BBC.
Bowl o' Guts
What could be more fortifying that a big
bowl of assorted pig and chicken guts?
Hours in Hong Kong
Hong Kong – I was met
at the airport by my old friend Jeffery at 9 pm. It made
no difference that I said I had eaten on the plane and
wasn't really hungry; by 10 pm we were ensconced in a
Vietnamese restaurant in Yau Ma Tei with five dishes
in front of us. I don't know Vietnamese cuisine that
well, but to me it seems basically like Chinese with
fish sauce and a few Gallic touches. In any case, it
was good. We ordered a French beer bottled in Vietnam
called 33 Export, just for the novelty of drinking a
French beer. I had never thought of the French as beer
drinkers, and now I understand why they are famous for
wine and not ale. Our brew was sickly sweet even though
it advertised itself as extra dry.
The next day, on our way to a late breakfast,
we wandered through a produce market.
"Nearly all this stuff," said
Jeffery, "comes from China or overseas."
It has been decades since Hong Kong has
been able to feed itself, and if China ever turned off
water faucet, many Hong Kongers would be dead of
thirst within a month.
I felt like eating something typical and
traditional. What I got was a bowl of congee with tiny
dried fish and peanuts. I had eaten most of the congee
when I discovered some pork pieces at the bottom of the
bowl. One taste told me that the time lag between being
butchered and served had been too long. So I left the
pork alone. Instead I helped Jeff finish his three treasures
soup; the 'treasures' being pork balls, fish balls, and
wonton. We finished off with warm sweetened soy milk.
Traditional enough, I thought.
With breakfast disposed of, Jeffery clearly
felt obliged to show me one of the local tourist attractions.
He led me a few blocks to what he called "the
Temple Street Temple," but I'd seen it before
and only gave it a couple of minutes attention. Jeffery
is not a particularly energetic type, and all this activity
had caused him to sweat. This required a rest on a bench
in the small park outside the temple, and a couple of
cigarettes. Scattered around the park, in various low-level
states of consciousness, were a dozen junkies, looking
like very ragged rag dolls - whether sitting, sprawling
or staggering, none of them seemed to be equipped with
a spine. If the movie Dawn
of the Dead had been filmed here, the producers could
have saved a bundle on extras.
I had forgotten how fast people drive
in Hong Kong. Fast, that is when they move at all, as
traffic gets jammed in many places. Still, it is wise
to cross roads quickly and carefully, as local taxis
become little more than dangerous red flashes as they
speed around corners.
We wandered a few more blocks before Jeffery
suggested stopping at a small restaurant. He wanted me
to try a famous coffee/tea concoction. It did not sound
appealing. Sometimes it seems like the world is divided
into two groups: the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers.
Surely coffee beans and tea leaves are opposing forces,
and don't belong together in the same cup? Yuanyang (Yuenyeung
in Cantonese) in fact is a delicious cold milky drink,
unique to Hong Kong. The name literally means mandarin
duck. Mating pairs of ducks are known for their devotion
to one another and are regarded in China as a symbol
of love and marital fidelity. This name was appropriated
for this pairing of coffee and tea.
The skyscrapers that straddle Nathan Road,
the main street, act as a conduit for heat and pollution
from the traffic and air conditioners. Every time one
of Hong Kong's trademark double decker buses speeds past
- which is about every five seconds - a great, hot, foul
blast is created.
To get out of this 'bus storm,' Jeffery
shunted me through a nearby door. It belonged to the
Yee Shun Milk Company, a steamed custard specialist.
But we just had breakfast, I protested. I couldn't eat
another thing! But I did, and it was a perfectly smooth,
creamy and white custard that slid down my throat effortlessly.
The taste, though definitely not the texture, reminded
me of a Thai sago and coconut milk dish. Jeff had the
egg version, which looked and tasted more like a western
At noon, we met up with some friends of
Jeffrey's for lunch. We walked down the road to the London
Restaurant, a dim sum place that one friend, Mr. Ye,
has been going to for twenty years. The place was crowded.
All the waitresses were busy ferrying tiny dishes around
on trolleys, or rushing thermoses of water to tables
to replenish empty teapots. Eating in a Chinese restaurant
is never a sombre affair. Big Chinese restaurants can
be very noisy. But even by Chinese standards, Hong Kongers
are particularly boisterous eaters, and I suspect that
prolonged dining in restaurants such as this, may lead
to minor hearing loss. But there are different kinds
of noise, and what I was hearing was a happy, rollicking
kind of commotion.
Much of stuff we had was familiar dim
sum fare. What I enjoyed the most was the chicken feet,
and the mango pancake. The chicken feet were the best
I have ever eaten - the skin was very tender and came
off the bones easily. I had never eaten anything like
the mango pancake in a Chinese restaurant before – mango
and whipped cream wrapped in a beautiful thin yellow
pancake shaped into a square bun. So fresh … Of
course we drank loads of tea. On the way to the toilet
I noticed the restaurant had large stocks of four kinds
of tea leaves. I guessed they also had other, more expensive
teas stashed away for those who request them. We had
Tie Guanyin or Iron Boddhisatva tea, one of the best-known
Wulong teas from Fujian.
A couple of my dining companions had lived
in Taiwan for several years, so I took the opportunity
during lunch to ask them to compare the food
of Taiwan and Hong
Kong. According to a Mr. Tam, the two cuisines are
stylistically similar, but there is some divergence in
taste and of course, ingredients. Jeffery, a Taiwanese
who has lived in Hong Kong for years, said local meals
are a cut above Taiwan's, but Taiwan has better snacks
and appetisers, and a far greater variety of them.
You don't have to worry about sea sickness
at The Star Seafood Floating Restaurant. It isn't really
floating. It sits on a massive concrete base that I am
sure is driven deep into the river bed. It is a huge
place, festooned with thousands of light bulbs. It is
located in Sha Tin, and that is where we drove for dinner.
The highlight of our eight course meal
was roast pigeon chicks. This was my first experience
of any kind with pigeon, and I can report unequivocally
that it does NOT taste like chicken. It tastes like … pigeon.
We also had Australian lobster served on noodles with
a cheese sauce, a type of sea snail braised in a spicy
sauce, stir-fried cuttlefish, a braised chicken dish,
shrimp with broccoli, and the largest shrimp I have ever
seen, the only dud of the meal - six inches long, two
inches wide, fished out of the Philippines, someone said.
It was deep fried and cut into five sections. We all
ate one. The flesh was membranous and chewy - about as
succulent as polystyrene. Shark's fin soup followed,
before the fruit platter. Not a bad way to finish a fine
full day of dining.
But we were not finished. Back in the
car, after driving for half an hour, I was informed that
we were heading to Saigon to drink beer. “But I
don't have a visa for Vietnam,” I said. No, no,
Saigon is by the beach in the New Territories. What,
they moved it? Saigon turned out to be a popular weekend
getaway actually spelled Sai Kung, that featured a bunch
of open-air restaurants. With an electrical storm brewing
and a typhoon on the way, it seemed a strange time to
be going to the beach. But that was a thought that was
lost by the time I was half way through my first beer.
Of course no one was hungry, but snacks were ordered
It was nearly midnight as we approached
my hotel in Yau Ma Tei. There were lightening flashes
high in the sky and distant thunder, but apart from a
few drops, the rain had yet to arrive. We drove through
the same produce market we had visited in the morning.
Dozens of shirtless, sweaty men were now unloading boxes
of fruit and vegetables from trucks before delivering
them on trolleys to small roadside store sheds ready
for the next day's trade that would begin in a just a
few hours. In the morning Hong Kong would awake hungry,
as usual. But not me. I was tired and still very full
when I went to bed, and I had absolutely no intention
of eating anything until I boarded my noon flight to
The incorruptible government
official will have nothing but salt to eat with his rice.
With this Chinese proverb I
begin my first blogging effort. The quote says much about
the importance of food to the Chinese. Nobody understands
better than they, that food is more than sustenance. Food
should also excite the senses. Fortunately for me I am
neither a government official nor incorruptible. In fact,
living here in Taiwan, I eat extremely well, and in The
Chopstick Chronicles I will share some of my eating and
cooking experiences with you. Apart from that, we will
just have to see where this little blog takes us.
I can say though that it won't always be
a hug-fest. As much as I like Chinese food, I don't enjoy
everything, and I certainly don't appreciate it when the
food is badly done. When it is, I will say so.
I don't know how often I will write. Posts
will appear either when I think I have something worth
saying and have the time to say it; or when I have plenty
of time, nothing worth saying, but say it anyway.
The Chronicles part of the blog title was
lifted from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles,
a book I have never actually read. I got the idea for the
Chopsticks part from ... well, a pair of chopsticks.
Anyway, I have to pack for a trip to China
tomorrow. I'll be hitting Hong Kong and Guangdong in the
south, and in the north-central area, Hebei and Shanxi
provinces. I am not expecting a dull trip. I will write
again soon. Till then.
Even the English, known for their plain cooking, use salt when boiling potatoes and carrots. Yet the Chinese cook rice in nothing but water. In stark contrast to the way most other foods are prepared in China, rice is a singularly pure, simple, even bland dish; the perfect foil for well seasoned meat and vegetable dishes.