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.

Prêt-à-Preposterous: Taiwan’s Fashion Evolution

Those who know me best, know me to be a fashion-forward, trend-setting, gadfly (comment here). As a devout fashionista, it should surprise no one that I’ve spent a lot of time observing Taiwan’s fashion trends.

With the expansion of globalization and free trade over the last couple decades, fashion has become a bit more uniform around the world. When I first arrived in Taipei, twenty years ago, the Taiwanese were definitely reading from a different fashion script than the rest of the world. It was the period in Taiwan typified by what I call Haute Clown Couture. Taiwanese women were dressing like clowns. No joke. It was not odd to see a woman wearing a puffy and frilly wide-collared white blouse with giant primary color polka dots, and a pair of flared bell-bottom flood pants striped in discordant colors of puce, deep purple, and neon green. The overall effect resembled nothing so much as a colorblind clown.

A favorite memory from that time is of standing at an intersection one evening waiting, with a group of Taiwanese, for the walk light to cross the street. Suddenly a scooter driven by a foreign man screamed to a halt in front of us, and his girlfriend riding pillion whipped out a camera and fired off 4-5 quick pictures of the women around me. The rapid fire flash stunned the women. They gazed out dumbstruck like deer in the headlights. It was a drive-by paparazziing and the poor women had no idea what the was going on. I did. They were dressed in the ridiculous fashion of the day, and the foreigners, undoubtedly on their way back home, wanted to show their friends what was being worn in Taiwan. Of course, they could have simply tried to describe it—but who would have believed them? I smiled my wry little smile and nonchalantly walked across the crosswalk while the women around me struggled to collect themselves. The fashion really was that ridiculous.

While clown couture was at its height, trends in footwear were likewise extraordinary. It was like every shoe manufacturer was dumping their tackiest remainders from the 1970s, along with their failed prototypes, on the Taiwanese market. Shoes were so bizarre that when I had free time in the evenings, I would sometimes head over to the Main Train Station and sit at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi building, then a popular gathering area, and watch the shoes go by. There were knee-high boots that seemed to have been directly copied from KISS’s stage gear. Tall platform heels with the clunky overall shape of moon boots detailed in the gaudiest ways. Even women wearing conservative lace-up flats managed to find shoes that were in some way bizarre. The trend toward shoes with very wide toes that narrowed to normal dimensions at the heels were a particular favorite. Essentially they were clown shoes—but not so long. It gave the women a retarded Orphan Annie look. Though, when worn with Haute Clown Couture it did complete the ensemble appropriately. There were also the extra-long very pointed shoes that overtime rolled up at the toes, since the last 2 or 3 inches of shoe had no foot in it, giving that timeless Aladdin look. I never got bored in Taipei. There was always a lot to marvel at.

There doesn’t seem to be such a high level of gaudiness in Taiwanese clothing anymore. As a long term resident I struggle to recognize whether Taiwan has changed, or I’ve just gotten used to the weirdness and don’t recognize it anymore. As regards fashion, Taiwanese norms have shifted. A trip to the current favorite hangout for the young and cool, the Hsinyi shopping district around Warner Village, rarely reveals any giggle-worthy ensembles. You could be in Tokyo, New York or Paris. Taipei is just another major center, conversant with world-wide trends, and a part of the fashion world’s conversation.

There are still some small local fashion design shops that go their own way, and champion Taiwan’s traditional embrace of fashions that make you feel a little sad for the wearer. Whipple is one such design shop. They are the current purveyors of the Retarded Orphan Annie look. They built their name on baggy knickers in ugly cuts and colors, paired with blouses that look like the Little Lulu cartoon character accidentally misbuttoned her dress. Even Whipple has toned it down and offers clothing more in line with world norms, perhaps just adding a small misshapen element for accent. It seems that fewer Taiwanese women want to look like that special little cousin who has both oars in the water, but on the same side of the boat.

It’s a bit sad. During the time I’ve been here, Taiwan has increased its global trade relations, and receives a higher proportion of its consumer items from abroad. The advantages are manifold (here), but as uniformity between Taiwan and the West has increased something has been lost. The street scenes are noticeably less colorful. When I first arrived, fashion provided visual proof that you’d landed in a place distinctly different from where you’d left. Was it tacky? Sure. But, it was also unique and fun. I love to face the world with a wry grin, and Taiwanese women kept me smiling. Now when I go out people watching there’s much less to smirk at—I have to be satisfied with just watching the hot girls.

Why Taiwan?

In a previous post (here) I give a broad explanation of my path to becoming an expat, but why choose Taiwan, after all the choices were virtually limitless.

Asia was booming at that time and a natural draw. I had a familiarity with the region, along with an interest in the history and culture. That background gave me enough cultural sense to be relatively comfortable. If I’d randomly chosen to go to Africa—I wouldn’t have had a clue. I understand the appeal of thrusting yourself into the total unknown, but when living abroad, an ability to contextualize your experiences increases the likelihood you won’t bounce back home in a couple months, emotionally exhausted from the weirdness. So it was Asia for me, I just needed to choose a country.

I had just finished a one-year teaching contract in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. It was a thoroughly rotten experience. That was around 22 years ago, and Korea had a strongly xenophobic culture. It still does, though expat friends stationed there tell me it has improved a bit. If you’re going to stay in a country long term, it is nice to be allowed to fit into the society to some degree. At least there should be a chance of forming genuine friendships and even finding a girlfriend. Life without these basic social contacts with locals is a reality for many expats around the world. It takes a heavy toll on their emotional equilibrium, and can make them extremely crusty. I wanted to avoid any external factors that would create a cycle of negativity and make me more irascible than my basic nature dictates. I knew that I needed to find a country where the population wouldn’t ostracize me as a matter of principle.

Korea was out. Japan was eliminated for the same basic reason. Though perhaps not as overtly xenophobic, Japan is still very insular, and I feared a repeat of my Korean experiences. I had a job offer to teach at a university in China. I was likewise concerned about anti-foreigner sentiment there, but ultimately rejected the offer for financial reasons. I had a student loan debt that needed to be serviced, and the salary, though lordly in China, wouldn’t make the monthly payments. I considered Thailand, a country I love—that is certainly foreigner friendly—but rejected it for the same reason, not enough money. Other South-East Asian nations posed the same practical problems. I needed a certain level of earnings.

Thankfully there was Taiwan—the perfect fit. It was possible to make enough money to live, plus service my loans. The people are relatively open compared to other North-East Asian countries. I had been to Taiwan before, and liked it. Plus, I had some friends from Saskatoon already living in Taiwan, so there was a bit of a social network already established.

That’s how I ended up in Taiwan; but, why stay for 20 years? There have certainly been opportunities to move on. The expat community in Taiwan is unusually stable. Many choose to stay permanently. It’s unusual. In most countries there is a higher turnover of expats. I can’t speak for others, but for myself the primary reason is the people. They are open and friendly. At the simplest level, interactions with strangers on the street are handled with kindness and patience. During the early stages of my life here, this alone was enough to predispose me to like Taiwan. The fact that when lost, or confused, I could count on passersby to go out of their way to help was wonderful. The fact that the aid was invariable delivered with patience and a smile was icing on the cake.

That the Taiwanese’s warmth extends into deeper relationships is important. They are open to establishing friendships with foreigners. The friendships can be genuine and deep on both sides. I have found in other Asian countries that native-foreigner friendships often have a look-at-my-new-pet-white-guy cache for the Asian that precludes meaningful friendship. At work youare the company’s Caucasian, paraded out on formal occasions to give the company face as an international player. At the interpersonal level you can find yourself fulfilling virtually the same function for a group of guy friends out for the night. Hey chicks, look at us. We’re so international and sophisticated. See—we got a whitey. Or, when dating, you can become the white eye-candy giving face to some girl. (It took me a long time to figure this one out, somehow the fact that I was functioning as arm-candy didn’t instantly occur to me). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a little of this in Taiwan. However, it is not so prevalent as to preclude genuine interpersonal relationships.

Taiwanese society isn’t so overtly racist as to use moral suasion to prevent inter-cultural relationships. First a little anecdote, when I lived in Korea I had a coffee date with a charming Korean girl. When she got home in the afternoon, her father was waiting for her at the door. Someone had seen her downtown with “that foreigner” [I was the only one in Yeosu at the time] and phoned him at work. He took the rest of the day off and rushed home to confront her. Needless to say, that ended that. Fathers can play havoc on your dating life anywhere. Taiwanese fathers, and Canadian fathers, can be real bastards, totally unsympathetic to your sexual needs. However, in Taipei it’s hard to imagine friends or neighbors ratting out a girl to her family for dating a foreigner. They don’t have the concept that there is a social and moral responsibility to preserve the flower of Taiwanese womanhood. As weird as it sounds, that very notion exists in much of Asia.

These considerations were very important factors in my decision to stay in Taiwan. If you’re going to live long term in a foreign country your social needs should have a chance of being fulfilled. You need friendship, you need to be able to date, perhaps marry, start a family, etc. This is why I’ve stayed in Taiwan. Taiwanese society gives foreigners the chance to feel at home, what you do with that chance is your own responsibility. Of course there are other smaller reasons to continue to live here. Taiwan is very comfortable. There is lots of foreign food, Western entertainment, access to English entertainment, it’s relatively unpolluted compared to many other regions of Asia, has good public transport, jobs, etc. But, the real reason I’ve remained is the people—I love the Taiwanese.

恁北係台湾郎。

Vignette #3: Kickin’ it Old School with GenX

Recently, while browsing my Facebook feed, I came across an inquiry in one of the groups I subscribe to. The young man was considering moving to Taiwan to look for an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching job. He was seeking the normal information; job prospects, working conditions, living conditions, cost of living, etc. He received a lot of accurate information within hours. He went on to ask how people had ever managed to move abroad pre-Internet.

Well, let me tell you how it was back then, you, you… Millennial.

Of course we tried our best to do research before leaving, but there just wasn’t much information. You might be able to find government stats on the local economy, but you really had to use your imagination to glean from those charts the lifestyle you might expect to live in that country. You might comb your contacts for someone familiar with the country. These tended to be immigrants from the country, but often their information was wildly out-of-date and irrelevant to a newly arrived foreigner. Ultimately, after doing what research you could, you just had to man up and fling yourself into the unknown.

Some countries in Asia had ways of arranging jobs from Canada, that at least took care of one major worry. Taiwan did not. When I decided to move to Taiwan I had to accept that my job search would begin after my plane touched down. Unlike many others, I was [sort of] fortunate to have two friends living in Taiwan that I could phone for advice. As you might expect, their advice took the form of, “Yeah Man, come on out. There’s work here. You’ll do okay. Come out, Dude. We’ll party.” It was a little reassuring, but ultimately not what you want to stake your future on.

But, I did. I had no choice. The job market in Western Canada at that time was a soul-destroying sinkhole. Desperate times make desperate men.

I was broke, so I bought a plane ticket to Taipei with a credit card I shouldn’t have been allowed to have. I took a cash advance for whatever remained on my credit limit, so I’d be able to live, hopefully for a month, while I tried to find work and accommodation. That gave me about a month to get settled in Taiwan and find work. If I couldn’t get it done in that time my food and accommodation would run out, and I had no way to get back home. Those were the stakes. I gave my balls a tug, got on the plane—with one backpack, a mountain of credit card and student loan debt—and flew to Taipei, with very little sense of what awaited me, or how well I’d survive.

That’s how Generation X rolled back in the day, Son.

The Hot Pot Conundrum Explained

Hot pot (火鍋) has to be the single most popular dish in Taiwan. It is served on virtually all occasions, and is the most common choice for dining out among a group of Taiwanese friends.

Hot pot is served by placing a bowl of hot soup stock at the table. Normally the stock is kept hot with some type of burner, built into the table at a restaurant, or a portable burner when done at home. The diners then choose from a variety of Asian foodstuffs placing their choice in the soup. Normal hot pot dishes include seafood, thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables, various dumplings, wontons, mushrooms, blood cake, and different varieties of tofu. The diners place just a few items in the stock at a time, eat them, and then repeat. Eating hot pot can go on for hours as each person repeatedly cooks and then eats their food.

In Taiwanese restaurants the most common way to serve hot pot is in a chafing dish that has been divided in half, one side containing ma la (麻辣) soup base, which is hot and spicy, while the other side of the chafing dish is a non-spicy soup base. After cooking their food, diners have a number of sauces that they can dip the food in before consuming it.

Hot pot is okay. I don’t hate it. There’s nothing nauseating about it. In my humble opinion, there’s not much to love about it either. Once or twice a year, on a cold winter’s eve, it can be perfectly charming. Where I find it frustrating is that when going out with Taiwanese friends it seems all they ever want to do is have hot pot. It’s not that great. Think about it. What is the worst possible way to prepare food? Answer: Boiling. It leeches all the flavor, color and texture out of the food. That’s not opinion. It’s chemistry. At the end you’re left with a relatively tasteless blob. That’s why a coterie of dipping sauces are needed. Ultimately all you’re tasting is the sauce.

The Taiwanese can really wax poetic about the fine differences in taste between the hot pot at this restaurant versus that restaurant. Don’t believe them. Boiled water tastes the same no matter where it was boiled. Years ago I was going out for dinner with my then girlfriend. We went to a place that had three hot pot restaurants beside each other. One was empty, one was about half full, and the other had customers on every seat, and standing around trying to get seated. I wanted to go to the empty one—that would have been the most comfortable. She wanted to go to the ridiculously full one, because she felt it must be the most delicious. I pointed out to her that they would all be the same. It’s boiled water and the empty restaurant couldn’t screw it up even if they tried. We ended up going to the moderately full restaurant, and when we emerged at the end of the night all three restaurants were equally full, because of course boiled water is boiled water. I recently took a trip to Japan with my wife. While there she wanted to go out for shabu shabu シャブシャブ (Japanese style hot pot), presumably because she thought the boiled water in Japan would taste better than the boiled water in Taiwan. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

If you eat hot pot in a restaurant, the restaurant does virtually nothing in terms of preparation and presentation. They put a pot of hot soup on your table and turn up the burner. The customers themselves prepare the food. Yet, the price of dining in a hot pot restaurant is comparable to what you might expect to pay at a Chinese restaurant where the food is prepared, nicely presented, and served to you. My personal issue with hot pot restaurants is the food is boiled, thus inherently not particularly delicious. I have to cook it myself, while paying the restaurant a healthy fee to do what? Boil water? There are so many other, better, options for dining out in Taiwan.

When I point out these obvious facts to Taiwanese friends they’re stunned. They’ve eaten hot pot their whole lives and never noticed that the food is poorly prepared, and that—in a restaurant—they’re paying for nonexistent service. After the shock subsides, and they consider it a bit, they usually come back with—it is all about the soup. “Ahhh, we Taiwanese are a soupy people.” And it is true, if you spend several hours boiling various foods in a broth, at the end of the night you are left with an extremely rich and hearty soup. But, here’s how I know they’re lying, either to me, or to themselves. At the end of the evening they don’t spend a lot of time savoring the soup. Generally it just gets a few sips on the way out the door. Having spent hours eating subpar food they spend only a minute or two on the soup, the supposed pièce de résistance. I don’t think so.

I believe the Taiwanese have been eating hot pot their whole lives for its social benefits. Hot pot takes a long time to eat, and I think this is ultimately why hot pot is so popular. The Taiwanese are social eaters and hot pot allows them to eat and socialize for hours on end. There are all kinds of warm emotions associated with the dish, moments of camaraderie with family and friends. They are eating their emotions. The happy memories blind them to the dish’s flaws. Hot pot is the unofficial Taiwanese national dish not because it represents excellent cooking, but because it represents good times with good friends. For this reason I also enjoy hot pot when surrounded by wonderful people.