Taiwanese Delicacies #1: The Taiwanese Hamburger

I’m going to do a series of short articles introducing traditional Taiwanese foods, as opposed to Taiwanese takes on Chinese cuisine. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary and difficult to define, but I would consider these to be Taiwanese dishes. For the tourist to Taiwan, these are the things you should try.

I’d like to start with one of my personal favorites—Taiwanese hamburger. In Chinese it is called ge bau (割包), but don’t call it that, it marks you as a neophyte to Taiwanese food. Call it gua bao (刈包), the Taiwanese way of saying the dish.

Gua bao is made from a steamed flat mantou (Chinese bun). The particular mantou used is two flat breads, shaped like half-circles, joined together along the straight spine. You can open the mouth of the mantou and place the ingredients between the two pieces of bread. It is vaguely like pita bread, though the bread itself is thicker, fluffier, and whiter. If you’re familiar with Japanese food, it is essentially the same as harata buns. The Japanese absorbed this dish during their Taiwanese occupation.

In the classic gua bao, the bun is filled with pork belly that has been red-braised, meaning stewed in a combination of rice wine, soy sauce, and various spices. The resulting meat is fatty (it is uncured bacon), soft (it is stewed), savory, with the taste of five-spice powder. Pork belly is a common dish in Taiwan, usually served with pickled or lightly cooked vegetables, to cut the meat’s richness. Naturally when somebody decided to create a pork belly sandwich, some of those side dishes made it into the gua bao, specifically pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and Taiwanese-style peanut powder. These three ingredients are what makes it Taiwanese gua bao.

The pickled mustard greens are made by taking a head of green mustard and fermenting/pickling [lacto-fermenting] it in a similar manner to sauerkraut or kimchi. The result is a slightly tart and zesty green vegetable. The fermentation process, unfortunately, takes away some of the mustard’s vibrant green, and also makes it a bit limp. To counteract the poor visuals, and add a more lively mouth-feel, fresh cilantro is added. (The cilantro is usually chopped with the stems to maintain as much crispness as possible). It could hardly be called a Taiwanese dish without cilantro—it’s on almost everything. The final ingredient is the Taiwanese peanut powder. It is made of finely ground peanuts and finely ground rock sugar.

If you go to a shop and order gua bao you usually are offered a choice of lean meat, fatty meat, or a mix. In general, the fattier the better, I personally prefer lean or perhaps mixed, but it is meant to be a very fatty dish. If you’re going to try it, I’d recommend putting your cardiologist on speed dial, and trying a rich one. That’s really how it is meant to be eaten, and it is delicious—umami, sweet, salty, and tart rolled into one aromatic bundle. It has diverse textures and colors. Plus, it is messy enough to eat, that it is guaranteed to keep the kids entertained. It is awesome.

If you want to try this Taiwanese delicacy, the best place to begin your search is in, or near, a night market or wet market. That’s always the place to begin any quest for traditional Taiwanese cuisine.

What I Learned about Taiwan at the Urinal

If you’ve traveled much internationally, you’ve likely learned that different cultures prefer to maintain different levels of interpersonal space. Broadly, Southern Europe, South America, and the Middle East are considered contact cultures. While Northern Europe, North America, and Asia are non-contact cultures, prefering to stand further apart and touch less. Within that broad framework, gender, age, and climate are important factors determining interpersonal space. Across all countries, women prefer a greater social distance than men. The older you get the more distance you want. The largest factor determining socially appropriate proxemics seems to be climate, with warmer regions preferring closer social contact.

Since I come from North America and live in Asia, both non-contact cultural regions, you’d suppose that there’d be little problem. But, it manages to be an issue—more for me than the people around me. I suppose because I come from Canada, a place that tends to maintain a certain cool distance in all interpersonal interactions, and live in Taiwan—theoretically a non-contact culture—but, a warm country with warm-hearted people. They get in my space sometimes.

The preferred social distance with a stranger, in Canada, is approximately 100 cm. In China it is about 115 cm. There is no specific data for Taiwan, but personal experience leads me to believe it is closer than either China or Canada. When I first arrived here I had the classic proxemics culture shock. A friendly Taiwanese gentleman tried to have a conversation with me. As he talked to me, he kept coming forward, trying to get to his preferred social distance. I kept backing away, trying to maintain my comfort zone. He chased me around the room—in the friendliest possible way—trying to touch my shoulder the whole time. I was unaware that I was backing away. I’m sure he was equally oblivious that he was hunting me down. It was all subconscious.

During my first trip to Taiwan in 1986, forming a line was still an alien concept. In general, where you might expect a line up, the Taiwanese would form a scrum, and the most aggressive would emerge as the first person to get or do whatever. It was like China now. Normal rules of social distance did not apply in a Taiwanese “line”. When I came here to live that was changing, and generally people formed reasonably orderly lines. But, older people, whose social norms were established in an earlier time tended to not exactly understand the concept of lining up. They’d often cut in line, or join the line and then start pushing and shoving, like in the good ol’ days.

One day I was in line, enduring the constant jabbing and shoving of the geriatric obasan behind me. She seemed to be trying to speed me forward. I don’t know where she thought I should go. I was already close behind the person in front of me. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but I raised my hand up my side to just under my armpit, like a karateka moving into the horse stance. That caused my elbow to protrude behind me maybe 15 cm. I popped the old lady right in the middle of the forehead. I wasn’t trying to hit her. I don’t know what, if anything, was going through my head. I might have been trying to push back. When your space is violated the response can be instinctive. I still feel bad about that.

I’ve grown used to Taiwanese proxemics. I suspect they’re not too different from Canada, perhaps a slightly closer conversational distance and more intra-gender touching. I hardly notice it anymore, but there is one proxemics related thing that happens in Taiwan and drives me batty.

Why do Taiwanese men insist on violating international urinal rules? For the benefit of the ladies, the first rule of the urinal is thou shall not sidle up to a stranger, whip out your tallywacker, and begin performing essentially a private bodily function. If there are no other free urinals, then it is socially acceptable—keep your eyes forward. Pee-pee-makers must maintain a respectable interpersonal distance, like atoms in a gaseous state seeking equilibrium, fill the empty space first. Apparently, Taiwanese men are not signatories to the international peeing conventions. I blame China.

The bathroom at work has three urinals. If I need to use the facilities, and there is no one already there, I take either the left or right urinal. Thus, should someone come while I’m wrestling the snake, we can maintain the center urinal between us, like civilized human beings. It is frustrating how often someone will come in and take the middle urinal. This is not simply a function of the relatively small size of the facilities. Something similar happens in large bathrooms with a long wall of urinals. The Taiwanese just seem to be comfortable rubbing shoulders while tinkling.

The pissoir is the one place where differences in interpersonal space still cause me consternation. Between rubbing elbows with strangers and having a cleaning woman running a mop between my legs as I urinate, public washrooms can be trying for this bladder-shy expat.

Vignette #9: Taipei Burlesque

My first trip to Taiwan was in 1986, not too long after martial law was repealed. I came as part of a class studying Chinese folk religion. One of the things that stood out was the throwback nature of a lot of the entertainment; ballroom dance halls, taxi dancers, and burlesque. These amusement were on their way out, but they still seemed vital.

On one night out we went to a burlesque theater in Ximending (西門町). The local guide who was arranging temple stays, temple tours, and seminars with notable masters (師父) asked if we wanted to go see some strippers. When it comes to culture, you don’t have to ask me twice. I and most of the male members of the class joined the guide.

By that time, I’d spent a couple years in the navy, and my fair share of time in peeler clubs. I was expecting more of the same: loud canned music; a couple unhygienic stripper poles; and a handful of weary, trashy—and yet still appealing—women. However, I was transported back to a classier time, an age when eroticism was erotic.

We stood in line outside the theater underneath hand-painted posters of the performers that made them look like cigarette girls from 1920s Shanghai. I assumed the posters were hyperbolic, trying to conjure an atmosphere more than the reality. I was wrong.

When we were allowed in the place was a theater, not a strip club. There were show times. You didn’t just walk in on some naked woman, mosey by and grab a beer—hence the queues. There was a raised stage with theater seating. There were even stage sets to be used at appropriate times.

When the first performer came on stage, I knew I was in for something different. She was clothed (in more than just a puff of lingerie). She wore a beautiful qipao (旗袍) and was made up like what I imagine a Chinese flapper must have looked like. Then she started her performance. She sang a lilting Mandarin song, likely popular in the 1960s. You know the type, very lyrical with no discernable rhythm. Undoubtedly a love ballad. She was accompanied live, onstage, by a small quartet. I was certainly no judge of Mandarin singing at the time, but it seemed passably fair.

And, so the performances went. Each performer singing and moving sensually around the stage, alluding to stripping while not doing much stripping. The finale was a woman doing a dance with feather fans, alternatively using the fans to hide and reveal. The show was frankly very light on nudity. Afterwards we found out that the show’s managers hadn’t paid the police their bribe, so they’d been in the back of the theater ensuring no nudity.

The overall effect was that of a live variety show, a burlesque show. I do wish that the police had allowed the performers to do their complete acts. I’d like to have had the experience of enjoying my porn like a nineteenth century gentleman.

Say Whaa…?!?

I’ve talked before about the oddness of English personal names in Taiwan (here). Honestly, that’s natural. Usually it is people with very limited English trying to come up with an English name—totally forgivable. What is less excusable is when large companies come up with screwed up English names for their products or services.

Kymco, a Taiwanese scooter manufacturer, makes the Dink 125 scooter.  I can’t help marveling at the possible permutations of mistranslation between Chinese and common English usage that led them to the erroneous conclusion that this would be a good name for a scooter.  I can imagine groups of marketing people and upper-level management huddled together in brainstorming sessions, when suddenly someone declares, “Zoinks, I’ve got it!  We will call the new scooter ‘Dink’.”  Bizarrely no one thought to check a Chinese-English dictionary to see how appropriate this might be.  So it is now possible to see many Dinks riding around the streets of Taipei.

Dink has a few definitions, none of them very good. I suppose the most commonly known meaning is idiot or dumbass. It also has a verbal association with dinky, meaning tiny. But, where I come from dink was children’s speak for penis. That is still the association that I make with the word.

Kymco makes a 150cc version of the same scooter that I think is extraordinarily well named—the Grand Dink 150.  The best way I can think of to describe it is if you took a Honda Gold Wing and shrunk it for midgets.  Taiwanese law and tariffs make ownership of motorcycles larger than 150cc difficult.  Men who are trying to look cool, tough or macho have certain credibility problems when they climb aboard their scooters. After all, the scooter’s primary use in other parts of the world is to allow drunken Shriners to ride around in circles without killing themselves.  What is an aspiring tuff to do?  Especially when so many of the scooters are so obviously marketed to young—one might even think pre-adolescent—women, with such blood-stirring names as the Hello Kitty 90, an all pink bike featuring the popular Asian teddy bear/cartoon character of the same name.  Pretty hard to be macho bestriding that.

Into this void steps the Grand Dink 150.  It has a plethora of do-dads including a large fairing, stepped seat, backrest, etc. that make the Grand Dink a phallic symbol in the greatest automotive tradition.  Just don’t mention that the engine is the same size as your vacuum cleaner back home.  Now Taiwanese men with inadequacy issues can ride a giant, well, relatively speaking, phallic symbol like their American and Western European counterparts.  For this purpose I think that the bike’s name is unusually candid.  I mean none of this talk about wild horses or mythical creatures.  It just gets straight to the crux of the matter.  I personally ride one, and let me tell you the girls just “ooh” and “ahh” when you pull up straddling your Grand Penis.

If these types of mistakes can be made by large corporations, like Kymco, with researchers and market analysts whose only job is to come up with names and advertisements, you can imagine the mistakes made by smaller companies with fewer resources.  One extremely visible area where English mistakes can really make you stop and take notice is shop signs.   I’m sympathetic to shop-owners, who may have little formal academic education, but find themselves having to design a shop sign and wanting to add English for a bit of sophistication.  English use on sign frontage is common throughout much of Asia.  Nonetheless, I do feel compelled to lampoon some of the English signs I’ve noticed around Taiwan. (I wish I’d kept a record of the funnier signs from the last couple decades. There have been some doozies, most of them now forgotten). Still…

I used to work in TaoYuan, about an hour drive outside Taipei, and I often puzzled over a fairly enigmatic sign on the way there that simply said, “ASS”.  I’m not sure if it was an advertisement or an indictment.  If it was an advertisement—what were they selling?  If it was an indictment—was it aimed at me personally?  After passing this same sign for about a half year I finally went into the shop and inquired as to its exact meaning.  An exchange that mostly involved me pointing at the shop, the sign, and my own posterior and making shrugging gestures while repeating the Chinese word for the old vertical smile, pigu (屁股).  The proprietor not liking the quality of his shop impugned by an ignorant foreigner engaged me in a loud tirade of Taiwanese that clarified nothing.  If my Chinese is abysmal, my Taiwanese is nonexistent, with the exception of a few nasty words that I did recognize sprinkled into the conversation.  Finally after much gesticulating I was able to make him understand that I wanted to know the meaning of the sign in front of his shop.    The sign turns out to have a wholly benign meaning—Authorized Service Shop—a bit of a let-down really.

Another sign that gave me pause when I first arrived was the “Come in Back of the Bus” sign. It was one of those signs where a light behind the message turned on when it was the correct time to deliver the command—Come Now. Very intimidating. I spent a good number of years contemplating that sign, and considering giving it a go. For those not fluent in Chinglish, of course the meaning is that you should board the bus at the rear.  I don’t ride the bus much anymore and haven’t noticed this sign in a long time. Maybe the bus companies have fixed them, or I’ve become desensitized.

I used to work as an English teacher at the downtown Taipei YMCA.  In the wake of the devastating earthquake of Sept. 21, 1999, that YMCA established a daycare to take care of children while their parents were involved in the various tasks associated with rebuilding.  The downtown Taipei YMCA is the national headquarters of the YMCA and as such proudly hung a banner on the front of their building announcing that they were running the “Establishing Destruction Daycare.”  A sign that amused us English teachers to no end.  Knowing the basic nature of Taiwanese children the sign was oddly fitting.

Most of the previous examples were brought to you by large corporations, government offices, or in the case of the YMCA, an English language center. You would expect them to get it at least close to right. When it comes to small shopkeepers it is perfectly logical that things can get funky.

Hongers, Bangers and Mash: Hong Kong and the Asian-Based Expat

My wife and I just returned from a long weekend in Hong Kong. For a pair of Taipei-ites, Hong Kong offers a quick convenient getaway. The flight is a smidge over an hour and the multiple flights per day keep ticket prices reasonable. It is the Taipei equivalent of driving from Saskatoon to Edmonton for the weekend. Hong Kong has become a nice little escape – nothing more.  It wasn’t always that way. When I first began the expat life, Hong Kong was a lifeline, a beacon of westernization. A place I could go to find the Western products, food and amenities I craved.

I began working abroad in a place called Yeosu, on Korea’s southern coast, at the time little more than a fishing village. They had nothing. There was no Western food, not even snacks, fast food, or bread; nothing Western to eat. If you were inclined to cook for yourself there was no real hope of finding the necessary ingredients. Lettuce for a salad? Maybe on a good day. Steak or pork chops? No, any meat available was sliced paper thin for use in Korean soups and barbeque. Indeed there was a much wider availability of animal bones than meat. The bones were prized for making a healthful soup. There was a shortage of Western style drinks as well. Something as esoteric as a scotch and cigar, forget about it. Of course, there was no English entertainment, no books, no magazines, no TV, no movies; nothing in English. There was no way to buy clothes or other daily necessities. Deodorant? Sorry, not available in Korea.

I was in Korea in 1995-6. It is easy to forget what the world was like before countries joined together in the WTO. Now, even the most distant and disparate of countries are conducting trade, and the products of one country are, relatively, available within the other. We see this in our daily lives in the food we all eat. Cuisine has become much more international. (See: The WTO and My Waistline). Any moderately sized city is going to have restaurants serving a broad range of world foods. A scant couple of decades ago, that was not true.

The first time I came to Taiwan, in 1987, there was almost no Western food. The first McDonalds had just opened, and Jake’s Country Kitchen was operating in Tienmu. That was about it for authentic Western food. I recall being shocked that potatoes, hence french fries, were a rarity. I went to a Taiwanese owned, “American style” steak house, the fries cost a small fortune, and when the meal arrived, amounted to 5-6 hand julienned pieces of potato. I attributed the Taiwanese fondness for sweet potato french fries to the lack of real potatoes on the island. The notion that the Taiwanese might have liked sweet potatoes never occurred to me. Now Taipei is a foodie mecca, there are restaurants offering well-thought-out menus featuring food from virtually everywhere. For a veteran of the expat scene, the quality of the Western food available is stunning. Indeed, sometimes when I return to Canada, I find myself disappointed with the quality of the restaurants, as compared to what is available in Taiwan.

What the WTO didn’t deliver the internet did. The internet has brought a treasure trove of English entertainment and news worldwide. In addition, internet shopping allows the expat to buy virtually any product, in the desired size or shape.

When I first began my expat life in Korea, I used to fly to Hong Kong semi-regularly. I would hit Hong Kong like a whirlwind. I’d just go from fish & chip joint, to Irish Pub, to American style rib and burger joint, to Mc Donald’s in a near endless orgy of Western food intake, broken up sporadically by beers in Lan Kwai Fong, shopping for books, seeing some tv and buying enough stuff to (hopefully) survive Korea a while longer. When I first arrived in Taiwan, it was a similar situation, and Hong Kong was a place I looked forward to going for a touch of home. Things have changed. The availability of Western products and food in Taiwan beggars the imagination.

I still enjoy Hong Kong, but I don’t go there with the same need and yearning. My level of elation was once mirrored by the flight itself, coming into Kai Tak airport from the landward side, as the plane jinked left and right, I could gaze into people’s livingroom windows while the plane seemingly descended between apartment buildings. I would begin vibrating with excitement as the plane itself seemed to vibrate with Hong Kong’s frenetic energy. Now, arrival is a much more sedate affair as the plane slowly descends into the very large, modern, and rather antiseptic Hong Kong International Airport. It is still an amazing, vibrant and enchanting city, but it doesn’t quite make me chutter and soar as it once did.