Category Archives: Travel & Tourism

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.

Taiwanese Motels = Opulence + Fun + Kink

Everyone has heard of Japanese love hotels. The Taiwanese have their own—superior—version of the love hotel. It is the motel. Taiwanese motels are not the utilitarian roadside refuge for long distance travelers that they are in North America. They can be stunningly elaborate love palaces. Even the most basic motel room probably includes a one- or two-person Jacuzzi and a spa shower, a shower cabinet with eight or more nozzles. It is common for a motel room to also have a steam bath, massage chair, at least three free porn channels (one American, the rest Japanese), and a sex chair.

The invention of an octogenarian Taiwanese women, the sex chair was inspired by her desire that she and her equally venerable husband could continue to enjoy an active sex life. The chair is an intriguing mash-up of a gynecological examination table and an elliptical trainer. Basically, the woman sits on the chair, placing her legs in the thoughtfully provided stirrups, so that she may… present, as they say in animal husbandry. At the business-end of the chair there is a pull-out foot stool for the man to kneel on, and a pair of long handles to aid in his exertions. The handles give the apparatus that gym equipment appearance. If used as a mobility aid the chair offers significant improvements to an elderly or disabled person’s quality of life, but, you know, it is used in much more creative ways by perfectly able-bodied people. [Caution: If there is a large weight differential, with the male being heavier, when he kneels on the pull-out foot stool—which is attached to the chair—the unit becomes a teeter-totter, with a fulcrum point between the stool and chair. In such a case, the female could easily be launched over your left shoulder, sent flying across the room, and land on the floor in an upset puddle of naked chick, hypothetically speaking,… or so I’ve heard somewhere].

Motel rooms get more elaborate from there. Plenty have bathtubs large enough to function as small lap pools, some rooms even have pools. Often there will be a room with an elaborate sound system and karaoke machine. These rooms function more as a party room than a den of iniquity. Some motels even have theme rooms. You know the type; a Hollywood themed room, a Hello Kitty room (because this is Asia), a pirate room, etc. Not all amenities are elaborate, sometimes it is the small touches that show they care. Many motels have a vending machine in the room selling various sex toys. If not, the room service menu will likely offer a dozen or two, in case you didn’t have a chance to stick a dildo in your purse that morning. Virtually every motel provides a complimentary condom and free lube. That’s just plain classy.

That conscientious attitude extends beyond the room. You don’t need to leave the car until you’re hidden away in the room. Check-in is done via drive-thru window. Afterwards, you’ll park your car virtually inside the room. The most common method is for your room’s private garage door to open upon check-in. You drive your car into the garage, close the door, and then take a private staircase—occasionally a private elevator—to your room. Some motels even have a button on the room’s sound system that mimics an MRT station or other benign environments, in case of an ill-timed phone call from home. If you’re using the room for something other than a rendezvous with your wife, don’t worry, the proprietor’s got your back.

One of the things that is odd about motels, and indeed Taiwanese-run hotels, is that they can be rented for a xiuxi (休息), or rest break ranging from 1.5 to 3 hours. A new motel, or one that is popular for some other reason, will offer a shorter 休息. A rest, generally, is half the cost of staying the night. For obvious economic reasons motels prefer to run a hot-sheet joint. Sexual swashbucklers pay better than tourists. Motels in Taipei normally don’t allow you to check-in for an overnight stay until after 6 pm. If the motel is very popular it might be later than that. Popular places also have a maximum stay of 8-12 hours.

Taiwanese think they’re copying Americans. Bless their kinky little hearts—but, no. From movies or visits to the West, they see motels are common along city outskirts. What Isn’t appreciated is North America’s size, and that if people are traveling by car, they might be in their car for days. Motels in North America serve a practical purpose. They provide a relatively cheap place for travelers, allow drivers to stay on the highway and avoid going into the city center. Indeed renting a room for a short stay (休息) is illegal in most places. The Taiwanese are way out in front of the West in the naughtiness sweepstakes. They just think they need to catch up. That’s natural. The grass is always pervier on the other side of the fence.

I’m a huge fan of Taiwanese motels. For what you get, they are stunningly economical, especially considering that rooms with these features simply don’t exist in the West, or are reserved for Vegas high-rollers. I don’t use the rooms for any nefarious purpose. I like to go to a motel that is slightly past its prime. During weekdays they’ll let me check-in for a stay between noon and 2 pm. As long as they have a spa shower and powerful Jacuzzi, I’m happy. All I want is to sit in the Jacuzzi for 10-12 hours, reading a book, and drinking. I’m married; my days of making a woman do a half gainer off the sex chair are probably in the rearview mirror…. I checked with the wife, she says—definitely. Still, motels are great for de-stressing.

 

“Why Are the Taiwanese So Angry?”

Having recently hosted a foreigner visiting Taiwan, I was reminded that the Westerners I have shown around Taiwan have had the same question while here, “Why are they [Taiwanese people] always so angry?” The first time a traveler asked me this I was taken aback, for I know the Taiwanese as warm, friendly, and outgoing. The particular person that asked me this was a veteran world traveler who had been living in Japan for over a decade. When I questioned him further, he explained that he was referring to the Taiwanese tendency to yell at each other—rather angrily—upon first meeting. This basic question has been echoed by virtually every Westerner of my acquaintance who has come to Taiwan.

It’s an interesting question that requires some cultural information, a bit of linguistics, and a smattering of the psychology of culture shock to answer. As I imparted to my companion, the first thing that needs to be thought of are cultural norms. In Taiwan there is a cultural concept referred to as renao (熱鬧). I don’t think English has an exact translation for this word. Basically renao refers in a positive way to active, boisterous, happy, good-times surrounded by lots of people. Think of how happy the Taiwanese seem to be in a night market with hawkers and touts yelling while the crowds jostle each other. Though it may make the average Westerner’s skin crawl, to the Taiwanese, these moments are almost the definition of happiness—this is renao.When two friends meet on the street, restaurant, or school hallway, they will tend to try to create this happy, warm feeling of renao. The foreign visitor to Taiwan experiences this as a cacophonous barrage of Chinese that seems to increase both in tempo and volume until the people are virtually yelling at each other. In most parts of the world this is what a fight looks like. For the Taiwanese, they are simply trying to create the amount of noise necessary to feel happy. In their mind’s eye they are recreating the night market, banquet hall, or whatever other noisy environment symbolizes good times for them. The yelling is not done in anger, it is joyous.

There is also a linguistic component to why the Taiwanese tend to sound angry. Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones: the first tone is a high tone; the second tone is rising tone; the third tone is a swooping tone, where the voice starts high, falls only to rise again at the end of the syllable; and the fourth tone is a falling tone. It is the fourth tone that is of interest here. The fourth tone starts high and drops quickly into the pit of your stomach, it pretty closely approximates the anger tone in European languages. Imagine that you are having a really bad day and your children are dancing on your last nerve as you try to get them ready to leave the house. In frustration, you snap, and yell, “Come here!” You will have said both come and here using the Chinese fourth tone. It is that sharp falling tone that denotes anger.

In Chinese, it does not connotate anger at all. It is simply the tonally correct pronunciation of the word. 20% – 25% of Chinese characters use the fourth tone. Inevitably, Mandarin sounds angry to those used to the sounds of Romance and Indo-European languages. The tendency to speak loudly combined with a snappish sounding language explains why foreign travelers think the Taiwanese tend to be irritated.

The psychology of international travel also comes into play. One of culture shock’s “joys” is a tendency to regard all interactions in the vicinity, that you can’t understand, as being related to you. Under these circumstances, being surrounded by people speaking loudly, with a mad or at least anxious tone, while gesturing vigorously can cause a near panic-attack in travelers try to guess how they caused the kerfuffle. Partly this is the result of the natural tendency to see oneself as the nexus of all things. Also, as travelers find themselves immersed in a totally alien environment they come to realize they don’t understand what is happening around them. It is natural that this growing discomfort manifests itself as anxiety that they inadvertently did something wrong to cause the heated discussions.

No, the Taiwanese are not rage-prone. They are some of the warmest people in North-East Asia. Random smiles from passing strangers is one of Taiwan’s charms. Visitor can count on a helpful smile and assistance should they ask a stranger for help. The Taiwanese are not choleric—those “angry” noises on the street are sounds of joy.