Category Archives: Food & Drink

Dancing Octopus Legs

I have mentioned in passing some of the odd foods available here, and there are some doozies, but the weirdest dishes passed my palate while living in Korea. There was the ever-popular street food—silkworm pupae. I came to quite enjoy a cup of worms as I strolled around window shopping. The taste and smell are not the best, but when you bite into one there is an initial crunchiness followed by a spurt of goo. Very satisfying. Then there was Korean dog soup, a favorite on cold winter days. The meat is dark, tangy, and shockingly delicious. It reminds me a bit of moose. I only ever had it one time. I was hungry when I first tucked into the bowl and well-able to power through, but as I ate, I became less hungry, until eventually every time I raised the spoon to my mouth I thought: “This is dog. This is dog. This is dog.” And, that was the end of that. Still, by far the weirdest food that I’ve eaten came in a high-end Korean sushi joint.

Now, personally, I can pretty much choke down anything. I may not enjoy it, but I get it done. It is one of the social graces I’ve developed living in Asia. If you’re invited to have dinner with a friend’s family, you should suck down your lightly boiled pig’s intestine, roasted pork fat, and under cooked chicken—and smile. This is the story of a newbie to Korea, who lacked my gustatory disposition, and a formal dinner party we attended together.

Tammy was a fresh graduate from an Ontario university. She was about 22 years old, and spending a year teaching in Korea was to be her first big international experience. It all seems romantic and wonderful when you’re young and sitting in Canada, and then you get here. Tammy arrived in my little corner of Hell—living in rural Korea thirty years ago really was a horror—a giggling mass of excitement and good intentions. The school director was happy to see her as he was short-staffed. I was happy to see her because I’d been living as the lone white guy in that Korean fishing village for months and I was going stark raving mad.

To celebrate Mr. Lee took the entire staff out for a nice Korean dinner. At that time in Yeosu (여수) if you wanted to go out for a decent meal you had two choices, sushi or Korean barbecue. Mr. Lee chose sushi. Yeosu’s sushi was hardcore, as you’d expect from a Korean fishing village. There were slabs of raw fish, uncooked mollusks and sea urchin, which if you’ve never tried is really tough to get down—there was none of this California Sushi Roll shit.

So, off we went to a restaurant. As we were a group of perhaps a dozen, we were able to get our own little private room, that had one of those tables with the legs cut short so that you could sit cross-legged on the floor while eating, Japanese style. The table ran parallel to the back wall of the room, so nearly half the people sat against the back wall, with the table in front of them. Tammy, as the guest of honor, was seated in the center of the table, with her back against the wall. There were at least two or three people on either side of her. On her left sat the boss, Mr. Lee, and on her right sat Mrs. Lee. The rest of us were randomly gathered around Tammy, who was the evening’s focal point.

As I’m telling this story, you have to bear in mind that this was 25+ years ago, and the availability of different types of food around the world has increased exponentially since then (The WTO and My Waistline). This was a time when not every gas station in Canada was serving sushi rolls. Most small- and medium-sized cities had no sushi. For the adventurous western Canadian, you could go to Vancouver and try it. Probably Toronto had sushi restaurants too.

So, this was a new experience for our girl Tammy. She bore up under the strain pretty well. It was very obvious to me, watching her face, that she was not enjoying the meal, but she managed to put on a reasonable show. You know, smiling, nodding, joining the conversation, complimenting the food, having a bit of Soju, and just generally holding her end socially. Neither the boss, nor any of the other Korean staff seemed to suspect just what a difficult time she was having choking down the food. Of course they wouldn’t. It was a really fine, high-end, dining experience—they weren’t looking for signs of dietary distress or nausea.

But, Tammy was showing all the classic signs. She was barely touching her food, while doing her best to appear to be enjoying the meal with all the fake gustatory verve she could muster.  But, a slightly closer look revealed she was green around the gills. Whenever she put some raw seafood in her mouth you could see that it wasn’t going anywhere. She would chew, and chew, and chew, trying to get it down, but it just stuck there. Inevitably she’d have to take a drink, and try to swallow it like a pill.

I’m not as fully evolved as I appear, I’m definitely capable of enjoying a bit of schadenfreude from time to time. I especially enjoy watching people suffer through culture shock, I suppose because I’ve spent so much of my life doing the same. I was seated opposite Tammy, and had a terrific view of the whole spectacle.

The meal was coming to an end, and Tammy, realizing the ordeal was ending, was visibly beginning to relax. I was proud of her. Then the final dish arrived. The table hushed in anticipation as the server came from the kitchen carrying the pièce de résistance. I knew something was wrong when I saw Tammy turning from sickly green to pale white. I looked over my shoulder to see the waitress carrying a large platter of slimy looking things—and they were moving. I had never seen the likes before. It looked like a heaping platter of wet writhing worms.

I turned my head back to the table, just in time to see Tammy, who was trapped between Mr. and Mrs. Lee, move her head to the left, and forcefully puke down Mr. Lee’s side, from ear to waist. Such a pity, she had done so well.

But, on the plus side, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. Mr. Lee was an ass—it was awesome.

What had been delivered to our table turned out to be Korean-style Dancing Octopus Legs (video here). According to Wikipedia San-nakji (산낙지) is a raw long armed octopus (Octopus minor), a small octopus species. They are killed before being cut into small pieces and served. The octopus’ complex nervous system, with two-third of its neurons in the tentacle’s nerve cords, allows the octopus to exhibit a variety of reflex actions without brain activity. In other words, the tentacles move on the plate posthumously.

As a meal, the San-nakji was tough to stomach, but as dinner entertainment, it put on one hell of a show.

 

 

 

Taiwanese Delicacies #3: Taiwanese Meatballs

If your Taiwanese friend offers to take you for meatballs, you’re in for a surprise. 肉圓 (Chinese: rou yuan, Taiwanese: ba wan; for this dish the Chinese pronunciation is acceptable) literally translates as meatball, but has no resemblance to the Swedish or Italian versions. It is a large football-shaped blob of whitish or clear silvery gelatinous gluten-looking material, served floating in a reddish brown sauce.

The mucilaginous looks of rou yuan come from its outer layer of rice and sweet potato flour. Rou yuan is served either with a thick chewy [silvery] outer layer, or a softer, more delicate, [whitish] outer layer. Both are tasty, I tend to prefer the softer version—it is a less gloppy eating experience. The rou yuan’s filling is generally pork with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms. Sometimes there will be a vegetarian option.

Rou yuan is either steamed, or cooked in oil and left to soak in warm oil. It’s served individually in a small bowl, covered in a sweet chili sauce. The sauce is similar to the O-a-chian (蚵仔煎) sauce, basically a mix of ketchup, sugar, garlic paste, chili and rice flour, or similar ingredients.

Rou Yuan is generally easy to find, with many small neighborhood restaurants serving it. But, if you’re having a hard time finding it, as always, head to the nightmarket, the spiritual home of Taiwanese cuisine.

Taiwanese Delicacies #2: Oyster Omelette

The food served at Taiwanese night markets can be fad-driven, but this Taiwanese delicacy has stood the test of time. When thinking of Taiwanese street food this must be one of the first dishes that springs to mind. It’s called O-a-chian (蚵仔煎) in Taiwanese. Don’t bother learning its Mandarin name, no one will understand. In English, you could call it Taiwanese Oyster Omelette.

Oyster omelette is popular throughout southern China and the parts of south-east Asia where Chinese immigration has been strong. There are lots of regional variations in the omelette, even within Taiwan there is locational variety. Kinmen’s O-a-chian is different from what you might find at a night market in Taipei or Tainan.

The standard Taiwanese Oyster Omelette is made primarily of eggs, small oysters, some 小白菜 (I’m unsure of the English, it’s something from the Chinese cabbage/bok choy family), and sweet potato starch. The starch is combined with water and mixed with the egg, giving the egg layer a thick snot-like consistency. Then the omelette is covered in a slightly sweet sauce. I’ve never seen this sauce outside Taiwan. To help you understand its flavor, I found some recipes for making a substitute if you don’t live in Taiwan. One example calls for heating ketchup, vinegar, miso paste, soy sauce, and sugar together with cornstarch and water. I imagine that would taste approximately correct.

O-a-chian tastes good. It has a nice savory flavor, but what it’s really about is its texture. Chinese cooking is unusually concerned about textures and mouth-feel. Many things that seem inedible to outsiders are part of Chinese cuisine because of mouth-feel; tendons, chicken gristle, shark’s fin, bird’s nest, sea cucumber, etc. O-a-chian combines the chewiness of sweet potato starch with the delectable tenderness of the oysters. There’s the crispness of the lightly fried green leafy shit, along with the feel of golden fried eggs. It’s good taste and good feel combined.

If you visit Taiwan this is a classic Taiwanese street food that you really need to try. In Taipei, look for it in and around night markets. O-a-chian is more common outside Taipei, where you should be able to find it in neighborhood restaurants, as well as the night market.

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.

Food Names

Using English names in Taiwan can be a problem. Restaurant menus might be my favorite example. A lot of Chinese restaurants here feel compelled to offer an English menu. The owners think it gives their restaurant that certain je ne sais quoi. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t go to the effort.

Food inherently sounds bad in English, even if the translation is good. It is a problem with the language. Britain has contributed to world culture in many ways, but its contribution to world cuisine has been less than stellar, consequently food sounds singularly unappetizing in English. Restaurants in the West know this and put as much of their menu as possible in a foreign language. French and Italian sound delicious and are good choices.  Which are you more likely to order calamari or deep-fried squid, escargot or snails, ris de veau or a calf’s pancreas?

Such subtleties are inevitably lost on Taiwanese restaurant owners who think that an English menu gives their restaurant a certain continental charm. Many restaurants provide English translations for the dishes they serve.  Even small family run restaurants often have menus running up to three hundred dishes.  Developing the English menu is a monumental task that used to frequently fall to the eldest child, who still in school and forced to study English, must be up to the task. Usually they took a very literal approach, thus you could find yourself in a restaurant choosing between the Horse Urine Eggs or the Chicken Blood and Testes in Chafing Dish. I have seen both on Taiwanese menus during my earlier days here. I went with the Horse Urine Eggs. Delightful.

The arrival of Google has really helped with this problem. It is now possible for our hypothetical restaurant owner, or child, to go online and find a reasonable translation for many Chinese dishes. With just a few seconds on Google I was able to create this short English menu for a hypothetical restaurant.

 

豬血糕 Pig’s Blood Cake

皮蛋 100-Year Old Egg

臭豆腐Stinky Tofu

油豆腐Oily Bean Curd

靈芝金銀鴨血羹 Duck Blood, Mushrooms and Tofu Soup

麵筋百葉 Fried Wheat Gluten Puff and Tofu Skin

家常皮凍 Pork Skin Aspic

鹵水鴨舌 Marinated Duck Tongue

拌爽口海苔  Sea Moss with Sauce

米醋海蜇 Jellyfish in Vinegar

鹵水鵝頭 Marinated Goose Heads

拌雙耳   Tossed Black and White Fungus

紅燒牛蹄筋  Braised Beef Tendon in Brown Sauce

火燎鴨心 Sautéed Duck Hearts

美極掌中寶  Sautéed Chicken Feet in Maggi Sauce

幹鍋雞胗 Griddle Cooked Chicken Gizzards

咕嚕肉   Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat

臘八豆炒臘肉   Sautéed Preserved Pork with Fermented Soy Beans

米粉扣肉 Steamed Sliced Pork Belly with Rice Flour

梅櫻小炒皇 Sautéed Squid with Shredded Pork and Leek

幹豇豆燉豬蹄   Braised Pig’s Feet with Dried Cowpeas

芸豆燜豬尾  Braised Pigtails with French Beans

小炒脆骨 Sautéed Gristle

九轉大腸 Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce

鍋仔藥膳烏雞   Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs

 

The problem is, despite a sound translation, the dishes sound awful. If you’re unused to Chinese food, I can understand being turned off by the dish itself. Some of the dishes include things that seem inedible; goose heads, tendons, and gristle. Others just seem putrid; jellyfish, fungus, fried wheat gluten, pork skin, duck tongue, chicken’s feet, intestines, gizzards, pig’s feet and tails. But, among these dishes are some of my favorite Chinese foods. I’m not turned off by the dish itself, but I do find the English names off-putting. A 100-Year Old Egg? Why would anyone want to eat something that old? This is probably a nicer translation than Horse Urine Egg, but only marginally. Stinky Tofu is one of my favorite treats (here), but stinky is a horrible adjective for food. I know it is a translation of 臭, but I think the English has a more unpalatable feel.

The names provide almost no description and are merely a statement of what is in the dish. Despite this, somehow these names manage to be shockingly descriptive, in a negative way. Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat, it is the “with Fat” that makes this sound bad in English. In the case of Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce, even if the fact that they are intestines doesn’t bother you, the name is still unappealing. The juxtaposition of intestines with brown sauce leaves much to be desired. It is hard not to imagine intestine’s other brown sauce. Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs sounds bad in English. Why does the chicken have black bones? What’s wrong with it?

I wish restauranteurs wouldn’t translate their dishes into English.  Chinese is poetic and makes many dishes sound intriguing: 螞蟻上樹 (Ants Climbing a Tree) or 佛跳牆 (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall). I would rather order youtiao than Oil Stick, jiaoyan ruge than Fried Pigeon with Spiced Salt, or mao xue wang (毛血旺) than Two Types Blood and Two Types Innards in Spicy Sauce. If you find yourself faced with a menu that lacks English, do what I did for years, call the server over and randomly point at some dishes. It’s fun. It is like going into a store and buying a mystery box. When you receive the food, then you’ll know what the characters mean. It is a good way to learn Chinese and explore Chinese cuisine.