Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Taipei Diary. El Toro.

My parents have been talking about El Toro for a while now, a small Spanish restaurant in Taipei whose chef/owner is a Spaniard who married a Taiwanese woman and moved here. It seems silly to come to Taipei and eat Spanish food, but then good food is good food, no matter what. I have eaten amazing French and Italian food all over Asia, including a perfect spaghetti al pomodoro at an Italian/Lao-run ecolodge in Laos last fall. I had high hopes for El Toro. I heard my dad discussing "black rice with squid" on the phone.

We head to the restaurant, the three of us plus two of my dad's colleagues visiting from the States. It's a small place, hidden away on a back alley, with a room at street level that looks into the glass-fronted kitchen, and a slightly more spacious room downstairs, which is where we sit. My dad brings his own wine, an unopened bottle and a partly drunk bottle already decanted. The chef comes down to talk to my parents about the menu, and throws around suggestions. We settle on the aforementioned black rice, blood sausage, red prawns with rice, roast leg of suckling pig, and pigeon served two ways.

First up, though, is a little snack: a little chunk of chorizo served up in a spoon and a martini gelée, complete with green olive. The chorizo is pretty tasty, but I have never had a martini, so I have no idea what to make of the gelée. Then the blood sausage shows up, and I forget about everything else. This is not your traditional blood sausage, the kind I ate in a tapas bar in Santiago de Compostela on a chilly January day some four years ago. This blood sausage is light, airy, almost soufflé-like, fried crispy on one side to give it some heft. I eat two pieces. I have never met a blood sausage I didn't like, but this one is transcendent.

Next is the red prawn, a huge, bright red shrimp resting on a bed of rice like a loose risotto. I suck out the brains, which are soft and sweet, and eat the body, which perfectly cooked, and scrape up every bite of rice, which is awfully tasty. The black rice arrives, crusty on the bottom like a good paella, the squid firm to the bite without being chewy. It is delicious. Then the pigeon two ways comes to the table, the breast seared and served almost rare, the legs and thighs and wings cooked until it almost falls off the bones, in a dark, savory sauce, with purple potatoes on the side. The rare meat is shockingly flavorful, tender and smooth; the roasted meat is more intense.

Last to arrive is the roast suckling pig, the rear leg section (including the tail) of a very small pig - it couldn't have weighed more than 20 lbs, whole. The skin cracks apart in translucent sheets like a porcine praline, more fragile than the thicker skin of an older pig. The meat is incredibly juicy, the best I've ever tasted. There is some sauce on the side, more pure pork juices, but it doesn't really need anything. It is the best damn suckling pig I have ever eaten, and I try to eat suckling pig as often as I can. Which is not very often, unfortunately. Maybe I should come back to Taipei more often, as my mother's godfather tells me. Once a year is not really enough.

We finish with a few bites of dessert, a light lemon mousse anchored with a nutty crust, a pouf of whipped cream on top. I notice a shard of chocolate that fell off the top, and when I bite into it I am met with the shock of pepper, I think, and something that tastes like those sour-sweet-salty dried plums I ate as a child. Then I have a bite of chocolate cake, still warm, with nuts and dried currants, perhaps, and the softly tart perfume of lime.

I'll be back, yes. I hope.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Taipei Diary. Do It True.

For dinner we head to an old restaurant, Do It True, which has been around since about 1945. It serves Northern-style (Beijing) Chinese cuisine and has pictures of the owners with George Bush (the elder) on the walls. We are having dinner with my mother's godparents, and they have been coming here for some forty years. I always try to see them when I'm here, as they are like my own grandparents. My maternal grandmother died over twenty years ago (my paternal grandparents being dead 13 and 25 years before I was even born); I only met her a few times as a small child and never really got to know her. I have been lucky for a few of my mother's old friends who have stood in her place.

We order, quickly, tons of food, too much food. There are whole-wheat shao bing, round sesame-encrusted biscuits, served hot, which you stuff with sliced braised pork butt (I think it's the butt) or boiled beef shank, like sandwiches. There is a spicy cold salad (spicy like horseradish spicy, not pepper spicy) of celery sticks and another of shredded cabbage and tofu and other unidentifiable things. We have fried pork dumplings that are like potstickers, if potstickers were the size of fat cigars, and sticky dark rounds of sliced red-braised intestines, salty-sweet. A plate of thin pancakes is passed around, to be filled with a chunk of fluffy plain omelet and stir-fried veggies, with a smear of plum sauce and a log of scallion. There is soup with little meatballs and translucent, jade-edged slices of cucumber, a plate of cold hacked chicken, the skin glazed with soy sauce, the meat falling-apart tender.

Soon, all of us are full, declining any dessert save for a plate of sliced yuzu (in other seasons it might be oranges, or apples, or pears). The food is good, but eating with my mother's godparents always makes me a little nervous, because she and her godmother always argue about something. It is hard to watch, but I understand; they're getting older, nearing or just past 90. They are alone in Taipei, their children scattered across the globe. In thirty years I will have the same worries, the same guilt and frustration and sense of duty and love intermingled. It is bittersweet to be with them, but for now, we are together, at the table.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Taipei Diary. Road trip, day 2.

We have an early buffet breakfast (not-very-bitter bittermelon! green beans! Various kinds of pickled vegetables, none of which I can identify! Oh yes, and waffles and congee, plus soy milk) and then wander around some nearby greenhouses and garden nurseries. The town we are staying in - I never did figure out what the place was called - is a patchwork quilt of nurseries and fields growing flowers and plants that get shipped all over the island, to flower markets and florists shops and nurseries. We go to half a dozen or more nurseries, picking up a couple of (small) trees along the way, which have to be arranged somehow in the (very small) backseat of my mother's (very small) car.

By now, I want to go home. I don't like the humidity. My pants are sticking to my butt. Every step feels like I am wading through mud. I am tired of heaving myself out of the backseat (can you tell I am not used to sitting in the back of a two-door coupe) with the grace of a hippopotamus being reluctantly pulled from the swamp. I want to throw myself on the ground and kick and scream like a four-year-old, but I am twenty-five years too old for that. I understand, finally, somewhere around the seventh greenhouse, that my parents are taking me around Taiwan, not just to torture me or spend more time with me, but to show me where they are from, in the time we have left. I feel ashamed that I am not treasuring this experience more, but it is humid and my camera weighs heavy around my neck and I am out of sorts.

We head to a restaurant called "Grandma's Private Cuisine," or something like that. It is big and bustling, catering to the (mostly local - I have seen maybe two Caucasian faces this entire weekend; most visitors seem to come from Taichung, relatively close by, instead of Taipei, all the way up north) tourists. They come by bus or car, or park at a big central lot and rent those two-or-four person bicycle carts that have cute little roofs for shelter as you pedal around the fields. We have rice - which comes with little chunks of sweet potato - and red-braised pig's feet, a sort of omelette with scallions and bits of dried preserved radish, fresh and hot and nicely browned. There is soup with dried pickled cauliflower and daikon radish, and a slightly oily sautéed eggplant. I feel less cranky, but mostly because we are leaving after lunch.

Like the rest of the meals we've had, the cooking is simple and straightforward, fresh and quickly served, perhaps a little oily for our tastes, but overall excellent. Time to pile back in the car, and head home.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Taipei Diary. Road trip.

At some ungodly hour on a weekend morning I am unearthed from my bed to pile in the car with an overnight bag and a bag of bottled water to sleep straight through a three-hour drive, waking in the parking lot of the B&B where we are to spend the night. We check in and then head to the town of Lukang, about forty minutes away. Lukang was an important shipping town, a harbor city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the sea receded the town became farther and farther inland, and therefore ceased to exist as a port city. Still, a core of old brick buildings remains, a maze of narrow alleyways and a few substantial temples at the heart of a modern city (although a small one).

Everywhere there are stalls selling snacks and souvenirs, ice cream and iced tea and a guy making wax molds of people's hands (my mom tells me I should get one of my hand - giving someone the finger). We keep going, and the snack stands give way to something more substantial - grilled sausages and then narrow sidewalk restaurants with live seafood and open kitchens, and dining rooms behind glass doors in the rear. We keep going, past stalls with all kinds of cakes and more snacks, the "cow-tongue" cakes (shaped like flat ovals), people calling to us to come try, come buy, sit and have lunch.

We have lunch at one of these restaurants, classic Taiwanese street food: scrambled eggs with oysters, doused in a thick, sweetish brown sauce. There are soft noodles with scallions and a clear soup with clams, and deep fried shrimp with a crackly thin shell. I swig a Vitamin C soda in the sweltering (to me) humidity and dream of cold Seattle fall days. We walk back towards one of the temple, one of the oldest in the area, and come back out again to buy a deep-fried rice cake, sliced into smaller cubes and doused in a sticky-sweet sauce much like the one on the scrambled-eggs-and-oysters from lunch. We continue wandering through the narrow, tourist-packed alleyways, my parents taking turns dispensing history as we go.

Eventually we run out of old alleyways and temples to explore, and pile back into the car to find some dinner. We wind up at a larger version of the lunchtime sidewalk restaurant, still with the open kitchen (and fishtanks) out front, glassed-in dining room in back. We order more noodles and fish soup and fish steamed with soy sauce, ginger, and scallions, and a whole steamed crab (smaller, sweeter, and fattier than the Dungeoness crabs I am used to), and some vegetable side dishes. It is all very simple and fresh, the best kind of seafood cooking.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Taipei diary. Din Tai Fong.

It isn't a trip to Taipei without a meal at Din Tai Fong. Now they are a chain, with four restaurants in Taipei and several foreign outposts, but I've only ever eaten at the one near my uncle's Taipei apartment (another frequent dining place is Du Xiao Yue, just down the street, where we go for noodles with a savory minced pork gravy in broth; the sign says that it has been there since 1895). I wait all year - sometimes a few years, depending how much time passes between trips back to Taipei - for the chance to eat xiao lung bao.

Usually there is a long wait, the sidewalk outside choked with Japanese and Hong Kong tourists, led by umbrella-wielding tour guides. But today we are late, and my aunt has already snagged a table. We order xiao lung bao (of course!), pork-and-chive wontons, shrimp-and-pork wontons in a soy sauce instead of broth, sautéed spinach, and hot-and-sour soup, as well as a cold appetizer that seems to be composed of slivers of seaweed (the thick, slippery kind), dried pressed tofu, and bean-thread noodles. It is all slippery texture, a challenge for my chopsticks, but we always order it.

If I am particularly lucky and just come here with my mom, I get away with eating more than my fair share of xiao lung bao - they come ten to a basket - but tonight there are three of us. The service is incredibly fast, and before I finish the first cup of tea the bamboo steamer tray of xiao lung bao is set before me. The dumplings are loose and baggy, the skins almost translucent. For fear of tearing the fragile skin and losing the precious soup I peel it gently off the paper lining of the steamer tray. A dip in a saucer of black vineger, meanwhile gathering a few strands of ginger, then land the dumpling safely in my spoon. Gently I bite a hole in the wrapper, letting the rich soup spill out into my spoon, burning my tongue. I always burn my tongue on the first dumpling.

They are as good as ever, fine dumpling skin, neat pleats, round ball of sweet, tender pork, steaming broth, chased with the dark bite and sharp heat of vinegar and ginger. I eat four. Our wontons arrive, fat with chunks of shrimp, lightly slicked with soy sauce. The hot-and-sour soup is neither hot (in the spicy sense) nor sour, but I don't care. I got what I came for, xiao lung bao, enough of a taste to leave me wanting more. Much more.

Monday, October 5, 2009

How Twitter changed everything.

I am not by nature a hugger. No one in my family is. There has always been warmth, and love, but no hugs. I was fine with that, but then I joined Twitter, and was swept up into a whirl of people who greet complete strangers (although we are not complete strangers, having Tweeted back and forth for weeks or perhaps days) with a sweeping, bosomy embrace, usually accompanied by the tantalizing perfume of baked goods or barbecued chicken wings. Twitter stripped away the last of my shyness, enabling me to show up to parties knowing only one other person there, enabling me to strike up conversations with everyone and anyone, talking and drinking and eating until my voice dwindled away into a hoarse whisper.

It became clear to me, some time ago, that the circle - or rather many overlapping circles - of people in Seattle who love food is incredibly connected on all levels. We are a small town, and it seems it is no accident that a high population of computer geeks overlaps rather significantly with a high population of people who love food. There are lots of local food blogs, and everyone comments on everyone else's blog. People meet at restaurants and at farmer's markets and food blogger conferences. Twitter takes this all to another level entirely. Only connect, said E.M. Forster in the epigraph to Howards End, a century ago. The extent to which people carry that idea in their hearts would blow his mind, as it has done mine.

There are a lot of people - people who aren't on Twitter - who criticize or make fun of it. Some of it is true - no one cares what I ate for lunch. On the other hand, people do care. They want to know what you had for breakfast/lunch/dinner, what you cooked/ordered at the latest diner/pizzeria/tapas bar, which market purveyor has the best bacon/cheese/tomatoes/peaches/fresh raw milk/still has eggs. They are eager to tell you - you need only to ask - where to have a meal in a strange city or what to do with a pig's head. Someone once referred to Twitter as "one giant circle jerk." There is a certain amount of public masturbation going on, to be sure, but then I consider how much better - or if not better, then certainly different - my life is now.

The trick, as with all things, is to take the absolute best thing about something, and run with it. The absolute best thing about Twitter is that someone will mention an idea, then someone will answer to it, and the next thing you know a haze of booze is hanging over your living room and sixteen people are sitting around eating several different desserts that are all basically booze in solid form. Or a week later what was supposed to be just you and one of your new friends making bacon rice krispie treats turns into eight people at your dining table consuming bacon-and-chanterelle soup, bacon-dressed salad, bacon-and-corn salad, bacon cupcakes, and yes, bacon rice krispie treats, and later falling asleep on the sofa surrounded by stuffed animals while watching My Neighbor Totoro. You head out for an impromptu pizza dinner at the new place everyone is raving about and wind up watching Top Chef at the home of a (no longer) complete stranger with one of the stars of the aforementioned Top Chef sitting at your knee. Yes, Seattle is a small town, and never has it been more clear to me than in the past few months.

The absolute best thing about Twitter is that you will ask a question and five people will answer in about sixty seconds, that you will discover a wonderful group of people, the kind of people who greet and take their farewells with a round of hugs, hugs all around.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Taipei Diary. Sunday with the cousins.

We have lunch with my father's family, his two widowed sisters-in-law, and six of my cousins. There are a couple of husbands and sons in the mix, and lately any meal with them usually involves a hotel restaurant with a private room and a very large table. I am the youngest; the oldest cousin is in her early fifties. The next generation of three cousins spans a gap of eight years - another cousin lives in Hong Kong, the only girl - but here they are brothers, the way cousins who grow up together become as close as siblings. It is a precious kind of relationship, one I miss by living an ocean away.

The food moves by in a blur, and what I remember is a selection of sliced meats - kidneys, intestines, gizzards, steamed chicken. There is a whole, giant steamed fish with scallions and ginger and soy sauce, probably rice wine, pure and simple, the classic combination I will have again and again on this trip. Platters of small steamed crabs are passed around, rich and fatty. There are wide, flat, rice noodles stir-fried with beef, scallions, and bean sprouts, rich but not oily like those found in American Chinese restaurants, and a smooth, light spinach soup swirled with a creamy chicken puree. There is more, but this is all can I remember.

For dinner we meet up with my mother's family, my uncle and his two sons, who I grew up with when they lived with us through the rocky pre-teen and teenage years. They are like my brothers. We go someplace simple, a narrow shoebox of a restaurant with three or four floors connected by a steep staircase or a tiny elevator. We start with a soup thick with fat bean-thread (more like bean-rope; I've never seen these thick ones before) noodles. There are cold oysters in some vinegary marinade, a little sweet, a little tart, and quickly boiled shrimp. We each get one whole steamed fish (like the miniature version of the one we had at lunch), one whole fried fish (I like the fried one better; who wouldn't?). Then there is steamed crab (not quite as tasty as the one from lunch), and deep-fried fish balls.

The food is served and eaten quickly, the conversation interrupted by the crunch of shrimp peels and crackle of crab shells. Soon we are finished, saying our good-byes outside in the rain. It might be another year before we are together again.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Taipei Diary, day 2.

Calvin Trillin once spoke disparagingly of the so-called "Continental Cuisine" so popular in the middle of the last century, describing the style as La Maison de la Casa House, a mishmash of generic European cuisine served with much fanfare and little imagination. I missed that kind of cooking by at least a couple of generations (except for on cruise ships of the 1980's), but after I ate an excellently prepared but unexciting meal at a nice-ish restaurant in Taipei I found Trillin's words coming back to me again.

We found ourselves sitting at the sushi counter of a restaurant that is either Japanese or Chinese. Perhaps it is both, but I can't tell. We order the set menu - personally, I like set menus, because my Chinese is terrible and I don't like making choices, but sometimes it can backfire - and sit back. There is a Western-style salad, with crunchy lettuces, slices of apple, and sweet kernels of corn. The Chinese like to put corn on everything, including pizza. This makes me sad, but the salad is tasty, so I suck it up. Next comes a fat blob of uni on a totally unnecessary bed of grated mountain potato. The icky mountain potato (seriously - it is simultaneously crunchy AND oozy, and that is just wrong) is resting on a thin slice of lime, which goes well with the sweet uni.

Then we have sashimi, with sweet spot shrimp, fatty salmon, oily, sharp mackerel, and mild tuna. It is excellent, at least as good as anything I can get in Seattle. Later my mom tells us that the sashimi was all presliced, and the "sushi" chefs behind the counter were merely arranging the presliced fish on platters before sending it out. This is wrong, but it was still all very tasty. There is steamed fish, simply cooked with scallions and ginger and soy sauce, and a small bowl of noodles in an oily shallot-spiked broth. We end with fried crab, hot with peppers, and yellow-skinned chicken, hacked into pieces, Chinese-style. To finish, there is fruit, and the dreaded red bean soup.

It is one of those meals that begin with a Western-style salad, continue on with a Japanese-ish starter course (why did it have to be mountain potato? WHY!?) and sashimi, and then a succession of standard Chinese dishes. You see it all the time, in this sort of restaurant - clean, modern-looking, decently priced, with a wide variety of set menus to choose from, each more elaborate and expensive than the last. Each restaurant interchangeable with the next; they could be in a hotel, or at a busy intersection of some main street. The Eastern version of "Continental" cuisine, Trillin's Cuisine La Maison de la Casa House.