Category Archives: Food & Drink

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.

Where’s the Beef?

My wife is a vegetarian, so I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about meat. I lust after it. I make elaborate plans for preparing it; the way I’d lovingly caress the supple flesh, gently rubbing in the dry spices, or how I’d pound a center-cut shank with my meat mallet until it yielded to my will and became the soft piece of beef I want. Don’t even get me started on boozy marinades, the combination of alcohol and beef could have me on an hours-long flight of fancy.

When I say I dream about meat I mean beef. No point fantasizing about chicken breasts. I come from Western Canadian, farming and ranching country. Beef really is the only meat there. Pork—the other white meat—is suitable for health freaks. Chicken and fish? Those are practically vegetables, appropriate for the daintiest of lady’s, hippies and assorted pansies. Beef. Grass-fed. Well-aged. That’s a man’s meat.

Since Taiwan joined the WTO you can buy almost any food that you want [here]. Good quality beef is a bit of an exception. For a price excellent steaks in high-end restaurants can be found. I had one of the best steaks of my life in a Taipei restaurant. It cost as much as a quick trip to Hong Kong for British pub grub, but it’s available. However, if you’re just a dude with a hankering for a slab of well-marbled beef to throw on the barbie—good luck.

Local grocery stores mostly carry anonymously sourced frozen beef. It’s sliced paper thin for boiling in a hotpot. There might be some relatively thin steaks from Australia or the USA. If those countries are capable of producing a decent piece of beef they’re not sending it to Taiwan. It is some sad looking meat. The US beef that comes to Taiwan is all corn fed, so—as far as I’m concerned—relatively tender, distinctly tasteless, and suitable for the trashcan. On rare occasions I’ve run across a nice piece of Aussie beef that somehow accidentally got sent to Taiwan. However, generally the quality is low, usually just a mix of muscle and gristle with no marbling. Of course it’s unaged—it would waste time and space to age such a piece of beef. The end result is a piece of flavorless shoe leather.

There are a very small number of specialty butchers, where you may, on occasion, find good quality beef. I’m aware of one that sometimes has aged, grass-fed, Alberta beef. It is to die for. In recent years a number of high-end groceries have popped up around Taiwan that have decent Western products. Often you can find a respectable looking steak with the right buzzwords on the package; grass-fed, aged and flash frozen. I haven’t tried a lot of these, because when I start finding myself spending around 1000元 on a medium-sized piece of sirloin, I start thinking someone ought to be cooking it for me.

If you do find a restaurant that has decently sourced beef, there’s a good chance that they’ll do a nice job cooking it. It didn’t used to be that way. It was ridiculously difficult to get a restaurant to serve beef that hadn’t been dried out like a sun-bleached turd. The server practically went into paroxysms of fear if you asked for medium-rare or rarer. Inevitably, when the beef arrived it would be overcooked. Ironic considering undercooked chicken is common, but beef—you practically had to march into the kitchen and cook it yourself if you wanted it rare. With the influx of Western restaurants consumers seem to be more knowledgeable and most restaurants are now willing/able to cook beef to the customer’s preference. Fewer of rare beef also explains why it is hard to find a steak thick enough for grilling in Taiwan. Why cut your steaks 4-5 cm. thick—it just makes them harder to dry out.

There are some Taiwanese style “steakhouses” here. They serve a thin minute steak, with lots of sauce, on a hot cast iron griddle with an egg and a bit of spaghetti. It is very affordable. In my early days in Taiwan, back before Western restaurants were on Taipei’s every corner, I used to frequent 我家牛排 and similar local steak joints. It was a pale imitation of a steak dinner, but it was at least an imitation. Funnily, paralleling the interminable rumors in various Western cities of cat being served in this-or-that Chinese restaurant, there were constant rumors of horse being served in this-or-that Western-ish Taiwanese steakhouse. I found it reassuring to see whatever ridiculous culinary xenophobia fueled such rumors in Canada almost exactly paralleled in Taiwan.

Taiwan has become something of a foodie paradise, so why is it so hard to get good beef here? I believe it’s because the Taiwanese are just not that fond of beef. It does not play a starring role in Chinese cuisine. There is an emphasis in Chinese cooking on the importance of fresh ingredients. The idea is if it’s on the plate at lunch, it was clucking in the field at breakfast. That might be good for fish, and okay for chicken or pork, but beef doesn’t work that way. You’re not allowing its flavor to come to the fore. Of course you’re also left with a stunningly tough piece of meat. It’s truly a marvel how beef in Taiwan can be cut paper thin, boiled, and yet still be too tough to cut.

It is even a somewhat common practice in Taiwan to observe a prohibition on eating beef. It isn’t exactly a religious ban. The idea is that farmers rely on cows to help around the farm, thus as a mark of respect beef shouldn’t be eaten.  Many farm families observe this prohibition. They didn’t really rely on cows for help—those were water buffalo, a rather different thing. I think this practice exists because giving up beef is not a heart break for many Taiwanese.

Where’s the beef? Not here.

Gratuitous beef porn. Enjoy.

Vignette #4: Gross-Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler

One of Taiwan’s little pleasures is the availability of pork intestines. [This isn’t the gross part]. They’re used in a number of different dishes, most quite delectable. It is so popular here that faux intestines are ubiquitous in vegetarian restaurants. Not tofu burgers, turkey, or sausage, but guts, that’s what vegetarians miss. My favorites on a cold day are a steaming bowl of 蚵仔麵線 vermicelli, oyster and pig’s intestine soup, or 五更腸旺 Sichuan style spicy pig’s blood patty and intestines. Deep fried chitlins, a common street food, are to-die-for. Of course, you could deep fry a salad and it would be great.

All that’s required to enjoy a steaming plate of poop-tubes is not to think about what passed through them before they passed into your mouth—essentially the same mind control exercise needed to eat wieners. That was all going fine for me, until a recent trip to Canada. While in Saskatoon I ran into an old acquaintance who works at a large meat processor there.

When he found out I live in Taiwan, he had a tale to tell—I wish he’d kept it to himself. It seems that they had a good business selling intestines to Taiwan. They were making a tidy little profit off what was essentially a by-product. They would take the guts, clean them, and send them off. It became so lucrative that the company decided to invest in specialty gut-cleaning machines, to better care for their increasingly important client. After the new state-of-the-art machines were installed there was a steady decline in sales. The company dispatched a representative to Taiwan to find out what was going on.

Turns out the new cleaning equipment was doing too good a job. There wasn’t enough fecal matter left in the intestines. Taiwanese customers found the intestines bland, lacking that toothsome shit flavor. [This is the gross part]. The company immediately went back to the old cleaning equipment. Taiwanese consumers got the proper manure-to-flesh ratio in their intestines and returned to the brand, and the company’s profits returned. Everyone is happy now—except me.

Now when I eat intestines, I taste the dung. It is hard to really enjoy your steaming plate of offal when all you taste is feces. I can even distinguish variations in fecal content. On a trip to Beijing I noticed that the intestines had a much stronger shit taste than in Taiwan. I’m afraid my friend, who merely wanted to share a cute anecdote, has lowered my quality of life in a small, but perceptible way.

The Incredible, Incomparable, Anything but Incombustible—Kaoliang

Most the world has its own nationally or regionally distilled rotgut, Italy has grappa, Portugal has aguardente,  Mexico has mescal. What these whiskies have in common is they are nearly indigestible to the uninitiated. Each has its local proponents whose love for their local libation is heavily tinged with nationalistic pride. In my opinion most of these drinks prize alcohol content over taste.

The Chinese rotgut genre is dominated by baijiu (白酒), a clear unflavored liquor, or more correctly distilled cereal liquor. There are several types of baijiu common throughout Asia, kaoliang (高粱) is the jet fuel favored by Taiwanese tipplers. Kaoliang means sorghum in Chinese, so unsurprisingly sorghum is the primary ingredient in kaoliang jiu (高粱酒). Kaoliang is made by taking sorghum mash, pouring it over wheat cakes, and fermenting. The mixture is distilled after an appropriate fermentation period. The product of the first distillation is allowed to sit and further ferment, before being distilled a second time. The result is a clear, strong liquor that—to me—tastes an awful lot like the homebrew of my youth. I guess I would describe the flavor as having a strong core of black pepper, hints of toasted cereal, in a fiery liquid with a kerosene finish. The main characteristic of Kaoliang is the burn. It goes down like lighter fluid, burning its progress from the mouth, through the gullet, to the liver; and if you’re unlucky, retracing the same path on its reverse journey. Kaoliang is available in various strengths, from 38% to 63% alcohol by volume, but the most popular in Taiwan seems to be 58% alcohol, around 120 proof. It’llto give your liver something to think about.

Kaoliang developed in Dazhigu, China, east of Tianjin, during the Ming Dynasty. Today it is popular in mainland China, Korea, and Taiwan. In Taiwan it is so popular that it is fair to call it the national drink. It is currently manufactured on the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. The industry developed in the 1950’s, when these islands were war torn areas that housed thousands of Nationalist troops fighting the Communists across the straits. The troops on Kinmen, like troops everywhere, needed hard liquor. Initially they made their own homemade baijiu, until a local entrepreneur saw an opportunity and set up Yusan Kaoliang Chiew which began producing Kinmen Kaoliang, still one of Taiwan’s favorite brands. The Matsu Distillery, based on one of Matsu’s islands, similarly developed during the Chinese conflict. The Matsu Distillery produces Tunnel 88, another popular Taiwanese brand.

As you might be able to guess, I’m not really a huge fan of kaoliang. Many of my Taiwanese guy friends seem to really enjoy this potent potable’s flavors, and will discuss the merits of one brand, or bottling, over another with the same passion Western connoisseurs have when discussing fine scotch whisky. For most of my time in Taiwan, kaoliang’s charms have eluded me.

I’m not alone among foreigners in failing to get kaoliang. I think this largely can be attributed to the fact that most foreigners have no idea how to drink kaoliang. My story is probably pretty typical. When I first arrived in Taiwan, I bought a bottle of kaoliang as I wanted to try the local liquor. I took my new purchase home and drank it as I would any other whisky. First I poured some in a tumbler over ice, and tried sipping it, like a fine scotch or bourbon. It had all the charm of a glass of formaldehyde. So, I regrouped and tried again. It’s a clear liquid, like tequila, maybe the answer was to shoot it back. I grabbed a shot glass and poured myself an ounce and a half and shot that down. Rookie mistake. It damn near shot straight back up—like it was on a bungee cord. So then I thought maybe cutting it with a mixer would help me get it down. So I hunted around the house to find some soda to make a kaoliang highball. I mixed about an ounce of kaoliang with a liberal dose of Coca-Cola. All that accomplished was to ruin a perfectly good can of Coke. In the end that bottle of kaoliang was used as lighter fluid for the barbeque—a task for which it was admirably suited.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the proper way to drink kaoliang, while at a banquet on Kinmen Island with a group of students. At first I was hesitant when I realized we were going to be drinking kaoliang with the native Kinmen islanders present at our table. I knew that in the ganbei (乾杯), bottoms-up, culture of such banquets, I would have little ability to demure. I feared the kaoliang’s taste might cause me to launch my meal across the table. I was deeply concerned for my dignity and dinnermate’s clothing. Luckily the kaoliang was served in shot glasses about the size of a thimble. The contents were shot back between mouthfuls of food, the burn being quickly ameliorated by the next mouthful of food. Drank this way, kaoliang proved to be palatable, bordering on enjoyable. Of course the warm congenial feeling it leant to the meal created one of the nicer memories of my time in Taiwan.

Cheers to Kaoliang.