Category Archives: Food & Drink

Convenience Stores in Taiwan and What They Say About You

There are many things about Taiwan that might stick out in a new arrivals mind. One of the most mundane, and therefore most interesting to me, is the surfeit of convenience stores throughout the nation. In Taipei there seems to be at least one, usually more, convenience store on most blocks. Though these convenience stores may share the same name as their Western counterparts they are different. Most convenience stores in Taiwan are part restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, snack bar, pub, bank, ticket vendor, pharmacy and post office—not just places to get pepperoni sticks and a gallon of gas.

There are four main convenience store chains in Taiwan; 7-Eleven, Family Mart, OK-Mart, and Hi-Life. There’s a correlation between convenience store choice and the expat’s level of integration into Taiwan. This is all very scientific, using only the most up-to-date social research methodology [natch], as you’d expect from TheSaltyEgg’s  journalistic endeavors.

7-Eleven is the granddaddy of convenience chain stores. It’s run by Uni-President, and is ubiquitous throughout the island. For many foreigners they just seem “to have what you need while the others don’t”. Logical considering it’s a giant multinational administered by one of Taiwan’s biggest food companies. Their supply chain connects to America in a way that outstrips the others. 7-Eleven is the most likely to have the Western snack you desire, including—for one glorious and still remarked upon summer—salt and vinegar chips. FOB and not yet comfortable with salted duck egg flavored goodies? This is the place for you. I lived out of a 7-Eleven my first two years. It’s great when you just want cheezies and a tampon without having a “cultural experience”.

Family Mart is the next largest chain in Taiwan. It is a Japanese based company and more likely to have products from around Asia. Family Mart appeals more to the longer in the tooth expat who’s developed a taste for Asian snacks. They have a wide range of Japanese snacks like dried wasabi green peas, Hokkaido ice cream, and Japanese salty mixed rice crackers. They also have items from around Asia. This is where you go to assuage that 2:17 am craving for Singaporean fish skin crisps [actually pretty awesome] or Korean roasted seaweed snacks.

Things begin getting a little more Taiwanesey with OK Mart. It is part of the Canadian-based Circle K group of stores, still OK Mart has less international selection. For salty snacks you have the omnipresent Cheetos and Kyushu Seaweed Lay’s potato chips, or other Asian flavors. If you’re craving dried instant noodle snacks, they have a wide selection of this Taiwanese answer to the potato chip. If OK Mart is your bodega of choice, you’re on the road to acclimatization, next stop…

Hi-Life, a Taiwanese-run convenience store chain, with less international feel than the others. My local Hi-Life doesn’t even stock Coke products, but they have a pretty solid selection of grass jelly teas, red bean and taro ice cream bars, and 乖乖 (a tasteless puffed corn treat, like Cheez Doodles without the cheez). If Hi-Life can assuage your cravings—congratulations you’re Taiwanese.

However, the journey is not complete until you find yourself shuffling down the alley to the local mom-and-pop corner store in your betel nut stained wife-beater, nylon shorts, and blue rubber flip-flops, carrying an armload of empty 米酒 (Taiwanese rice cooking wine) bottles to exchange for a fresh bottle and some Longlife cigarettes. Then, and only then, will you be a 台客 (Taiwanese good ol’ boy), my son.

Starvation Culture in Taiwan

I had a Chinese history professor who used to say  Western culture is sin culture, while Chinese culture is starvation culture. As a student should—I’d nod sagely—pretend to understand the implications, and carry-on with my day. Even living in Taiwan was not quite enough to really understand how food underpins Chinese culture. I understood some things; but I never totally got it until I started living with a Taiwanese family.

Famine has hit parts of China near annually since written records began. The last widespread famine—the Great Famine in the aftermath of the Great Leap—happened around sixty years ago. Hunger is not an artifact of some distant place or time, but a painful shared memory. Even today, with the flooding, there are credible concerns of famine. Uncertainty over food assures it’s uppermost in people’s thoughts and a central social concern.

The obsession with food is immediately noticeable in Chinese language. Now it is pretty common for people to greet each other with 你好嗎 (how are you), but this is an import from European languages. A more orthodox Chinese greeting is 你吃飽了沒 (have you eaten). Asking about food, or your state of hunger, is the traditional way of greeting someone and starting a conversation. The whole hi-how-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-you-and-you conversation  is a piece of  modernity, conventionally in Chinese,  upon meeting you’d express concern over the person’s stomach.

I believe ethnically Chinese people generally spend more time fantasizing and talking about food. It seems more central to daily thinking than in the West. The quantity of conversations where people wax lyrical about a previous meal, or verbalize anticipation of the next meal is amazing. A twenty-first century expression of starvation culture is the Asian habit of producing in-depth photo essays of meals. Will future-you really want to see past-you’s Three Cup Chicken? The first time I traveled to Taiwan I enquired at a banquet about table manners and was told almost anything goes. No niggling little rules should slow or inhibit the full-throated enjoyment of a meal. The Taiwanese are the desperately horny teenage boys of  food and cuisine. These conversations happen among Westerners, but don’t hold the same rabid fascination.

One place these differences become obvious is when comparing Taiwanese and Western social gatherings. In the West, drinks only parties are pretty common. “Come on over for a few”. There is no such thing as a food-free party here. My wife and I host many get-togethers. Recently, for the first time, I hosted a soirée for some foreign friends and provided only light store-bought snacks. That simply isn’t done. My wife kept trying to cook. Usually we cook for a day or two before a party. I wouldn’t let her, knowing my friends would be happy with a couple forties. As I was laying out the “spread” she kept saying, “this is so weird, this is so weird, this is so weird,” and avoided the party. My friends, long-termers with some Taiwanese thinking, understood that type of party and it was successful, with much less muss, fuss, stress, and cooking.

With food being so central to Chinese culture it is not surprising that it’s an expression of love and affection. There is an endless circle of rotating food underpinning Taiwanese life. We buy groceries for ourselves, and then proportion some out to the in-laws. They in turn send us foodstuffs. Thus ensuring each household has food they never wanted and now have to use. That’s love. Does it give a familial feeling of warmth and nurturing? Sure. Is it annoying? Damn straight. Food needs to constantly be schlepped back and forth. The circle of food-giving, and the creation of that close-knit feeling, sometimes extends to close friends.

Food is a sign of affection. When dating if you go for dinner and your date gently places a choice morsel in your bowl with their chopsticks that’s a good sign. I’m not saying you’re getting lucky, but you’re in the right ZIP Code. It’s an expression of caring. If you’re invited to eat with a Taiwanese friend’s family often your friend will slip a bite of food into your bowl, not serving you, but sharing. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but they’re acknowledging you as some type of friend to their family. If you’re feeling like a cultural explorer, try putting a little food into your friend’s bowl and watch the family’s reaction. It’s interesting stuff.

College-aged me vaguely understood, but I didn’t see the multivariate ways China’s history of starvation influenced Chinese culture.

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.