Category: Food and Shopping


 

Recently, a friend of mine suggested I write a post about things that Americans should bring with them to Taiwan.

Although I understood his perspective, it was difficult to write this post. I’ve been living abroad for two years. It took me longer to find certain things at affordable prices in Poland than it did here. By the time I got here I was already adjusted to living without certain creature comforts, and once I got adjusted it opened my eyes to a world of new comforts that I have adopted. There is just not that much that I can’t live without or can’t substitute. When you live in a developed society it’s difficult to not get your hands on whatever it is that you want. It may take some hunting around, but that  makes the joy all the sweeter when you’ve finally found something you’re craving.

Nevertheless, although you can get your hands on the things you need, you can’t always get your hands on all the things you want.

Below are a few that can be problematic.

10. Smarties, sweet tarts, and nutty bars. You can find a lot of the same candy here, but I have yet to see any of those. I love them its true, but when it comes down to it, I can live without them.

9.  Diet Pepsi. I’ve heard its around. I’ve yet to lay eyes on a single can. Coke products are all over the place, and regular Pepsi is not difficult to find either, but diet? That is an exotic drink over here reserved only for the most resourceful and the most privileged.

8. Solid Mexican food and salsa. Salsa can be found at Costco, Jason’s Market, City Super, and at the occasional Wellcome Mart. Quality salsa, on the other hand, is difficult to find. I’m still searching and I may resort to trying my hand at making some. There are a number of Mexican food restaurants around. I’ve tested out my share, but other than Chili’s, which is so expensive here I’ve only managed to go twice, they won’t measure up to what you can get in the States. I make better Mexican than these yahoos.

7. Quality pizza.  There is pizza galore around but quality pizza is a different story.  We do have Dominos pizza, which I like, but because they’re stupid bastards they can’t be bothered to have their website translated into English. Seriously, who do they think is eating most of their pizza considering they’re an American-owned brand? Jerk offs. That’s just crappy and lazy marketing in my opinion.

We also have Pizza Hut. While they are smart enough to have an English and Mandarin page, they still haven’t quite mastered making pizza. It tastes like DiGiornos. Now that I think of it, I’ve never seen that around here either, but who really craves DiGiornos anyway? To add insult to injury, their only redeeming quality-their bread sticks are not sold here at all. There are also a number of smaller foreign-owned pizza places. Mary Janes comes to mind. Owned by a couple of pot heads their pizza is good, but…it just isn’t the kind of pizza you can find in the US.

6. Bread sticks. Oh. My. God. I have NOT found ANY good bread sticks ANYWHERE in Taiwan. Some places offer some dried crust with dipping sauce and  call it garlic bread. Carrefour does sell a decent garlic bread baguette, but awesome to-die-for bread sticks, in the expected American style with pizza is not to be found.

5. Decent, strong, long-lasting deodorant. I use Ban here and it works for me, but it is also the only brand I’ve found here that works well, and I would never have touched that stuff in the States. I haven’t found Secret anywhere. Brands, such as Nivea deodorant, generally suck. They stop working after four or five hours. In a sweaty humid environment like Taiwan, that’s simply gross. Although Ban can sometimes be difficult to find,  I do occasionally locate the odd dusty stick of it in the strangest places like Family Marts or pharmacies. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to be very popular here and every place you would expect to find it doesn’t carry it.

4. Shoes and clothes. A lot of stores don’t carry anything past a size five or six for women. This is completely ludicrous as there are plenty of tall Taiwanese women and this is nothing short of discrimination against them and anyone else who doesn’t have disturbingly small child-like feet. I wear a size eight for crying out loud. When I do find something that fits it’s usually ugly and made for old women. I love shoes, I love shopping for shoes, hell, I love shopping in general. Not being able to readily find shoes and clothes that fit ( at 5’6 and 138 lbs I’m hardly an over-sized monster) turns shopping from the lovely adrenaline pumping, gleeful shopping spree that it should be into an annoying exercise in frustration.

Don’t even ask about underwear and bras. When I go back to the States I’m loading up.

3. Car. There are plenty of them around and not a single one belongs to me. In Taipei its less convenient to have a car than to use the public transport system. It’s difficult to find parking, it takes forever to travel anywhere because of the traffic, and they are expensive to maintain here. That being said, I seriously miss being able to pack up and go outside of the city on a whim. Traveling by train and bus can be fun, but when it comes to rain or traveling outside of Taipei its a drag. Outside of Taipei, a car or scooter is a necessity because many other cities have poor public transport systems. Sometimes buses only run once an hour.  I could get a scooter here no problem but that reeks of setting down roots, and for another year I’m not sure its worth bothering with. We’ll see. I haven’t ruled it out yet.

2.  Turkey Breast. I can’t believe I almost forgot turkey! Costco sells a frozen roast turkey, and Carrefour (the bigger ones) will sell sliced turkey at rather high prices. That’s it. It’s not in the delis or any of the typical grocery stores.  It took some serious investigative work and about six months to find even these two stores.

1. Blonde hair dye. I was worried about this when I first moved here. All the normal local places don’t carry it. However, I did find one Taiwnese store that does sell it and I’ve been good since. It’s the only place anywhere around that I’ve seen it too. It has no English name but if you’re desperate to find some, just ask. Although I am catty enough to snicker when I see some girls walking around with long grown-out dark roots, I’m not so catty as to hoard this secret location all to my selfish greedy self.

What are some of the things you can’t find in Taiwan? What are some good places to shop? I already know about the mall and Zara’s, but do you have any other suggestions?

 

Jiufen

The streets of Jiufen.

Jiufen, or Chiufen, or Jiuofeng, also known by several other creative spellings, is a small town in New Taipei county.

Famous for its old architecture and gold mining history it’s a “must see” in Taiwan. I finally saw it this past weekend.

It’s  a tourist trap. There’s just no denying it.  I’ve walked the streets of a few major cities at this point overflowing with history, culture and charm so a small town version isn’t awe-inspiring.

That caveat aside, I enjoyed myself . It is a perfect day trip for people wanting to get out of Taipei.

Jiufen is halfway up a mountain somewhere near the sea. When we went it was foggy and drizzly (no surprises there) but the streets were still crowded with tourists.

We wandered down the main streets which were filled with store after store and restaurants selling the usual crap, Taiwanese style.  Then checked out the view of the sea and stole up some random stairs that led to an old abandoned  shrine. Unfortunately, for a time, most of the views were obscured by a thick wall of fog that blew in from the sea over the course of five or ten minutes.  While we were climbing to the shrine we had a chance to see some spectacular views.

I say chance because the fog was so thick at that point all we saw was a wall of white.  The stairs themselves were eerie and worthy of mention and presented the beauty of that little detour.

Jiufen’s famous local food is apparently a type of dumpling. It’s not like your typical dumpling which consist of some meat or veggies wrapped in dough.  Instead these are very solid and made from a paste like substance of whatever it is you are eating.  For example a shrimp dumpling is made from shrimp paste, a pork dumpling from ground up pork mixed with I don’t know what, and boiled.

They were good. We ate these at a local restaurant that my friend had been to before and where the proprietress had clear narcissistic tendencies.  The walls of both floors of the restaurant were completely covered over with pictures of herself.  Occasionally, she allowed some local celebrity to grace her walls, but only when she was in the picture herself.

Who does this, seriously?

Even the people sitting next to us sarcastically remarked at that it was tough to eat under the watch of so many eyes. I told Jimmy, my friend, that she must be an absolutely awful mother in law, because, seriously. Who does that?

After lunch, we wandered around some more and eventually had tea at a tea restaurant. The decor was beautiful and old-fashioned.  We spent a couple of hours there enjoying our tea and toward the end we got lucky with the weather. The fog finally cleared and we were gifted with a gorgeous view of the coast.   Ten minutes after that it was raining hard. Luckily we were sheltered in yet another restaurant eating a famous dessert made from glutinous rice and beans, in a sweet broth.  It was tasty.

On our way back to the bus stop, we stopped at an artist’s store and he painted my name in Chinese.  I have a similar poster that I bought in New Orléans once, but this one is cooler by far.

Despite the rain it was a lovely way to spend the day and I would recommend it, if for no other reason than it’s a cheap and quick ride outside of Taipei to try something a little different.

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Taiwan’s Local Food

Delish vegetarian Meal with stinky tofu, vinegar noodles, marinated tofu, assorted veggies and rice pudding.

(Just a quick update: I’ve found that its actually called purple rice pudding, not red rice. For the sake of accuracy I decided to go ahead and update the post).

 

In truth, I’ve been doing nothing BUT eating local food for quite some time.  There are many different kinds of strange things I’ve tried from octopus to sticky rice to a strange pudding made from egg yolk.

It would do no good to talk about it though unless I happen to snap a picture of it.  So here are a few I’ve finally gotten around to catching on camera:

Bao Zi                                   

Bao Zi

Basically, these are little dough buns filled with either meat or vegetarian items and steamed.

I tried these a long time ago in Danshui. Those were filled with pork and mushrooms. They were ok, but kinda plain.  The bun itself is mildly sweet, and tasty to eat in its own right.  I’ve since had some in a few different places. There is even a restaurant in Taipei that specializes in them.

I’m ashamed to admit that rather than running around town trying out the numerous tasty authentic versions that are out there, I’ve instead fallen victim to the cheap mass-produced 7/11 variety.  I don’t know what it is. They’re not even that good. But late at night when the craving overtakes me I’ve been known to visit up to 4 local 7/11s in the hopes of finding one.

Tea Egg

Tea Eggs. Don't ask me what that floating thing is either. I have no idea.

Next, I finally talked myself into trying a tea egg.

I first saw these the day I arrived in Taipei (in a 7/11 of course) fresh from my chicken claw experience in the airport in Shanghai.  I was instantly repulsed.  With their cracked shells floating around in an inky black fluid they look ready to give birth to a prehistoric slime creature at any moment.

Surprisingly, I was told by a couple of expats that they’re pretty tasty and I shouldn’t knock them till I try them.

So I tried one and what do you know? I’m a die-hard fan now. They are slightly salty with a vague “other” taste to them that is altogether yummy. Full of protein, Vitamin D and low cal to boot, the tea egg is a pretty decent late night snack. As an added plus it can be found in any 7/11, OK Mart, or Family Mart in the city.

The Duck Egg

chicken egg and duck egg.

Flushed with the success of my recent experiments I next took on the hard-boiled duck egg. Don’t be fooled by the glowing recommendations in this link.

When I first bought these at the local farmer’s market I was warned that they are a little bit salty.  And I thought, ok. I like salt. I salt a lot of my food. I put salt on my hard-boiled chicken eggs. I’m sure I’ll love these.  Larger than a chicken egg and with a pleasantly blue-toned shell I figured these would be a shoo-in.

Then I tried one for lunch while I was at school one day and nearly barfed up my first mouthful.  Not only were the egg whites more rubbery and jiggled in a gut twisting way, but these damn things couldn’t have been more salty than if I had dropped them in a box of salt and rolled them around for half an hour.  Even the yolk tasted different in a way I can’t even describe. There is no question that the difference between a duck egg and a chicken egg is immediate and palpable.

I tried to give them the benefit of doubt. I waited a whole day and then warmed up another egg, thinking maybe it would taste better warm, but no. I had to toss the second egg too, and ended up throwing out the rest of the ones I had bought.  Clearly these are an acquired taste and not one I’ll be acquiring anytime soon.

Stinky Tofu

Stinky Tofu

Good old stinky tofu.  A famous delicacy in Taiwan and one you can’t get away from even if you try.  It’s everywhere.

At first, when I heard about it I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. So ok, the tofu kinda smells but it’s supposed to be really good. Well all right then. So what?  It took a few weeks of wandering around the streets of Taipei for me to realize that the rancid rotting animal smell that I kept running into was NOT coming from the sewers like I had thought. Oh my god, no. That, my friend, is stinky tofu.

Well there was just no way I was ever going to eat something that smelled like maggot ridden ten-day old festering animal meat.  No way. No way, no way, until one day I gave in and tried it.

The first time I tried it was in Tainan and it didn’t taste like much of anything. Just fried food. Again, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

More recently, I tried it again last weekend. This fried tofu retained some of the taste which complimented the way it smelled quite nicely.  Dipped in a hot chili sauce it was actually quite good.

Strange to say even the foul detestable smell doesn’t bother me much anymore.

Purple Rice Pudding

Red Rice Pudding

You wouldn’t think that red rice would make a good snack but it does. The closest picture I could find on the net was this white and red mix which isn’t the same but probably close enough.  Basically its a pudding-like desert with sweetened purple rice. It’s supposed to be healthy but probably isn’t.

Tastes good though.

Nutrition Biscuits 

Yum

I first ran across these when one of my students offered me a bite of her snack.  They were in little stick-like shapes. I’ve since found them in a regular cracker shape.  I’m not including them in this post because of their exotic flavor or charming appearance, nor their nutrition or amazing biscuit-like properties.  In fact, they are not biscuits at all nor are they remotely nutritious.

I’m including them because  I’ve been mowing down on them ever since I ran across them with no end in sight.  They’re animal crackers that have lost their exciting animal shapes.

As I’m writing this I happen to have one in my mouth, and therefore, I feel they deserve an honorable mention.

There are so many unique and exotic foods in Taiwan that I would have to devote an entire blog to food if I wanted to name them all. That  won’t be happening anytime soon, of course, but I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse.

If there are foods out there that you strongly recommend I try while I’m here, I’d love to hear about it.

I became interested in vinegar when I first learned to cook about two and a half years ago.  It adds tons of flavor and cut a major amount of fat from your diet.

I quickly learned that the sweet and tart tastes of many types of vinegars were very appealing.  Balsamic and red wine were my first true loves.  Later on, I branched out and tried rice vinegar,  rice wine vinegar,  apple vinegar, and white wine vinegar. And that was it, as far as I knew. I never saw any other vinegars out there on the food shelves, other than the standard white vinegar which is just as often used for cleaning as it is for any cooking.

I’d heard of malt vinegar too.  I’ve tasted it once with french fries and thought it was disgusting.  I can’t say as I ever recalled seeing it in the stores.

Little did I know that was the tip of the iceberg.

It wasn’t until I came to Taiwan and began taking a look around the grocery stores that I made an intriguing discovery.  While browsing in the sauce and vinegar section for some balsamic (a must have in any decent kitchen) I saw something called pomegranate vinegar.  Sitting right next to it was some Cranberry vinegar.

Amazing! Shocking!  I couldn’t believe my eyes. Pomegranate and cranberry vinegar? What does that taste like? My mind was racing.

I promptly forgot about it as my quest for  balsamic continued.  It was tough to find. Later, I learned that Costco had it but I needed a liter of balsamic like I needed a punch to the face.  What reasonable human being needs that amount of vinegar ever?

More recently, I accidentally bought  black vinegar, which I had been avoiding, because I have no clue what its made from. Turns out it tastes just fine and its made from rice, wheat and some other random stuff.

I took a gamble and bought plum vinegar. It’s surprisingly sweet, and great for stir fries and sweet and sour sauces. I use it as a substitute for sugar all the time.

Then one day I turned down the soft drink and juice aisle at Carrefour, and hit pay dirt.  There, before my disbelieving eyes, I found orange, pineapple, pomegranate, cranberry, kiwi, strawberry, and a slew of other vinegars I didn’t know existed.  They even had lime vinegar. Lime!  Lime is pretty sour already and a juice I put to good use in a wide variety of dishes. Just what does lime vinegar taste like? I’m burning to find out.

I had to forcibly restrain myself. I couldn’t just dump seventy or eighty bucks on fifteen to twenty bottles of vinegar. I have a boat load of other condiments, spices and sauces waiting to  be used and I’m running out of space.  But, I did indulge myself and bought the cranberry vinegar.

I can’t wait to start experimenting with it.

I don’t know how long I’ll be in Taiwan but I am determined not to waste another second.  I’ll be buying a new type of vinegar every time I go to Carrefour from here on out. A whole new world has opened up begging me to explore it.  How could I possibly resist this challenge?

Christmas at the Market

After celebrating the Christmas Eve festivities with some friends, a friend and I went for a walk around my neighborhood primarily to mouw down on some food.

Along the way we stumbled upon an open air market that I hadn’t realized existed there. For all that I live in this area of Taipei, I haven’t much explored my immediate surroundings. I usually hang out in other parts of the city and when I’m home I don’t eat out much. And frankly, I’m just lazy.

It was charming to realize there were so many fresh food options that don’t involve going to a grocery store and, of course, this finally gave me a chance to take some pictures of some of the more exotic types of food that can be found everywhere in Taiwan. Before I left the States I had been looking for a market similar to this, but in comparison, the farmer’s markets I found near my old home where tiny, lacked selection, and were way over priced.

I know some of you must be wondering at this point why I talk about food so much. What can I say? I love food. Taiwanese food is pretty awesome.  And ultimately, the food here is really different from anything I’ve ever seen before. I have never seen such a collection of random different fruits, veggies, mushrooms and the like anywhere else.

I hope you enjoy looking at these pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them. My friend Zona, also known as the “Best damned local tour guide ever,” helped me put English names to the whole selection and provided the more detailed explanations that are included on some of the photos. She was also patient enough to walk with me through the market in the first place. Without her I wouldn’t have known what I’m looking at and this post would have been much, much more boring.

If you want to see larger  images you can click on a picture and go through the whole gallery from there.

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