Category Archives: Food & Drink

Betel Nut

Some things that are no longer common for me, are an integral part of the Taiwan experience (see: Who Cut the Tofu?). Of these experiences, the one I’ll talk about today is betel nut, or more specifically betel nut juice.

Betel nut, or areca nut, bianlong (檳榔) is grown on a feathery palm tree (Areca catechu L. Family: Palmaceae) throughout southern Asia. The nut is chewed in a manner similar to tobacco, the effects are also similar to tobacco. It can give you a low-grade—head-spinning—type of buzz, similar to nicotine. It is a stimulant that can increase alertness, stamina, and give a sense of well-being. The effects are part of the reason that physical laborers, taxi drivers, and truckers are the primary chewers of betel nut. I suppose that’s why it used to be called the poor man’s opium. Personally, I enjoy the taste and feel of betel nut, but I’m unusually 台客 in my appetites (see: Are You Gay?).

There are numerous ways to prepare the betel nut quid. Two methods are common in Taiwan. One is to simply take the nut, wrap it in a betel vine leaf, with (white colored) slaked lime collected from seashells. The lime is important as it increases alkalinity, aiding absorption of arecoline, the nut’s stimulant. When prepared this way there is none of the characteristic red dying of the chewer’s saliva. The other way betel nut is commonly prepared in Taiwan is by cutting the green nut in half and placing  red slaked lime along with a slice of the female part of a flower into the nut. The flower comes from a plant in the pepper family. It provides the safrole that is mixed with the lime, dying it red. Safrole is used in the illegal production of MDMA and is responsible for much of the betel nut high.

The red colored lime paste used to cover Taipei’s streets and walkways as users expectorated in a manner similar to someone with a tobacco chaw. Mores have changed thanks partially to government education programs and an increasingly cosmopolitan attitude in Taipei. But, my stories are from the good ol’ days when the crimson juice flew everywhere, and Taipei’s streets looked like there’d been a massacre.

My first trip to Taiwan was almost thirty-five years ago. Things were different. One of those things was the rate and carelessness of spitting. In 1987 Taiwan, hawking phlegm balls was practically a national sport. On one disorienting occasion I watched a stunning Taiwanese woman, dressed in a beautiful qipao, walking elegantly down the street. Her hair, makeup, clothes were all perfect. But, as she walked towards me, she was—with verve and gusto—trying to gurgle up a ball of throat butter. I half expected her to close one nostril with her finger and suck up the mucus, for added volume and color. When she was just a little ways off, she spat, gave the catarrh a self-satisfied glance, and continued rolling her hips down the street, in one of the sexiest walks I’ve ever seen—well,…you know,…except for the whole phlegmy tuvan throat singer thing.

My point is, there was a lot of spitting going on, and it was pretty socially acceptable. It was heaven for the dedicated bianlong (檳榔) chewer. As you might expect, the sidewalks were often stained almost red.

Also, there was a pretty cavalier attitude among some about where exactly the spit was going. During this time, it was semi-common for people to hawk a loogie off their balcony, without much regard for what was going on below. On one memorable occasion someone spat a giant load of betel nut schmegma off the balcony. It plopped down right in the center of my traveling companion’s head, and rolled down his face, like a flock of pigeons with Irritated Bowel Syndrome had been doing a fly by. It was damn funny. [I was nineteen, and not yet the fully evolved and enlightened human being you see now]. And then it happened to me.

Just after moving here, I was riding a scooter on a stretch of freeway, zinging along as fast as my scooter would go, when the driver in front of me rolled down his window and spat a massive wad of bianlong juice out his window. I watched it, almost in slow motion, roll and tumble into the open, curve towards me, and then with my 70+ kph closing speed, hit me center mass. I unconsciously swerved and swiveled, nearly crashing. If I hadn’t observed what was happening I’d have thought I’d been shot. The red gore spreading across my white t-shirt was a reasonable facsimile of a high caliber chest wound. These things are much less droll when they happen to you.

It is all an example of something that’s changing in Taiwan. There’s a lot less public spitting, less betel nut chewing, and less unmindful spitting. Not something I miss.

Taiwanese Delicacies #5: Savoury Rice Pudding

Today we take a deep dive into Taiwanese cuisine. 碗粿 is one of the few Taiwanese foods that does not trace its origins to China. It is a truly native Taiwanese dish.

I couldn’t find any information, in English, about it on the internet so we’re stuck with my own tin-eared transliteration of 碗粿 from Taiwanese into the Roman alphabet—Mwa Guei. That’s the best I could do. The first syllable begins with a nasal “mng” sound, made while puckering the lips together as though about to kiss your aunt. Then the sound expands into a “wa,” while the corners of the mouth pull wide, into a kind of creepy—open-mouthed—grimace. The nasal twang is maintained through the whole syllable. The tone is high and even. If you know some Chinese, it ressembles saying 我 with a really bad head cold. The second syllable, guei or gway, sounds like 鬼. It is pronounced with a falling tone. Yeah, I know, that was useless, but try to order this dish in Taiwanese. Using Chinese to say 碗粿, alludes to 碗糕, which sounds like a childish curse in Taiwanese—and makes you sound like a knob.

If you’ve been in Taiwan a while you’ll undoubtedly have heard how fantastic the food is in Tainan. If you’re like me, you’ve thought, “What the hell are you talking about? It’s the same general stuff as at any night market in Taiwan.” The Tainan version of mwa guei is one of the things Taiwanese people are referencing. The dish is more common in the South. I actually didn’t know it existed for the first decade I lived in Taipei. I never saw it, in person or on a menu; I never heard it talked about. I don’t know how I missed it—it is available in Taipei, but I didn’t get introduced to it until I married a Taiwanese woman. Now every time I go to Tainan, I have to bring back a couple dozen for the wife and in-laws. The northern version is different, whiter, and at least for my family, less desirable.

Mwa guei is made from long-grain Indica rice (在來米) flour. It is made in a similar way to radish cake (蘿蔔糕). Generally, mwa guei contains pork, dried shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, salted duck egg, shallots, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar. In the southern version the ingredients are sautéed, placed directly in the uncooked rice paste, which is  then steamed, ensuring the savory flavor infuses the entire dish. The sauces leaching into the rice paste give southern mwa guei it’s characteristic brownish color. In the North the rice paste is cooked separately from the other ingredients, preserving its pristine whiteness. The other ingredients are then placed on top. Mwa guei is served with a typical sweetish Taiwanese sauce on top. Hot sauce and minced garlic are provided on the side.

I [inaccurately] associate mwa guei with breakfast. I suppose because it is somewhat commonly served at breakfast in the South. In reality it is a snack served all day, the Taiwanese just begin eating it in the morning.

Be sure to try this true Taiwanese classic.

Taiwanese Delicacies #4: Oyster Vermicelli

The next Taiwanese delicacy was a revelation for me when I first encountered it. I didn’t expect to like it—there were clearly intestines in it. Of course I tried it. My guiding culinary principle is to try everything. To my amazement, I enjoyed every mouthful and have since overcome any squeamishness about eating poop tubes. (See: Gross Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler).

We’re talking about one of the quintessential Taiwanese dishes, Oyster Vermicelli.

If you’re going to try it, you’ll need to learn to say it in Taiwanese. You won’t get far ordering it in Mandarin. The characters are 蚵仔麵線 pronounced ô-á mī-sòa in Taiwanese. Using the Roman alphabet to transliterate produces some pretty incomprehensible spellings; Oamisoir, Oh Ahh Mee Sua, Orh Aaa Mee Suan, etc. It’s a bit of a mouthful. Here’s my two-bit Taiwanese lesson: The first syllable (ô) is pronounced ehh, like someone just farted in your face or punched you in the stomach; the next two syllables are easy (á) is pronounced ahh, like you just had an epiphany; () is the same as the English pronoun me; and, (sòa) is hard to describe, it is a bit like saying the first part of suave, but then having the rest of the word get stuck in your throat, and become a guttural nng sound, while your tone simultaneously drops, and your mouth widens at the corners, like you’re grimacing. Make of that what you will. I suck at languages, so grain of salt.

Taiwanese Oyster Vermicelli is a soup. It has a delightful woodiness that comes from the Japanese smoked bonito flakes (katsuobushi) in the soup stock. The stock is geng (焿 or 羹), meaning thickened, usually with starch, giving it a smooth and slimy texture. Many Taiwanese soups are prepared this way. The vermicelli is made primarily of wheat flour, formed into noodles and steamed until tan-brown. The process allows it to be cooked for a long time without breaking down. The main ingredients are rounded out by oyster and intestines. If you order 蚵仔麵線 Oyster Vermicelli in Taipei you can assume it’ll include intestines, unless you specify otherwise. However, if you want to be very precise you can order 蚵仔大腸麵線 Oyster and Braised Intestine Vermicelli.

The soup is garnished with cilantro. Garlic paste and spice may be added. To suit my own taste, I generally add vinegar to any geng soup stock. The soup itself is a full-flavored hearty blend, dominated—but not overwhelmed—by the fish flakes, with oyster providing a touch of the sea, and just a soupçon of shit on the palate from the intestines. It is a well-balanced blend of flavors. The vermicelli, because it’s been cooked for a long time, is very tender. It hits the spot perfectly on cold winter days. It really is delicious.

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.