Saturday, September 22, 2012

Everyday Taiwanese Food

Previous posts have covered Taiwanese breakfast and snack foods, so this post will detail some of the things I ate for dinner and lunch.  I am intentionally limiting this post to cheap, Average Joe-type food.  More extravagant and expensive offerings will be shown in an upcoming post.

I'm sure this will come as a total shock but many Taiwanese meals revolve around rice or noodles.  A pretty standard formula is starch with a meat topping and three veg equals meal.  Let me show you what I mean:  

Here, you can see a giant piece of fried chicken dusted with salt and black pepper sitting atop rice with spicy dried daikon radish.  Three veg from left to right: 1. Soybeans with black pepper 2. Some random stir-fried green vegetable 3. Sigua (絲瓜 aka loofah vegetable) cooked with ginger.  
Aficionados of Taiwanese food will recognize the ubiquitous "lunch box" known locally as bian dang (便當).  I dare say that lunch boxes form the backbone of the entire Taiwanese lunch system.  They are served on trains, office workers scarf them down, kids at school go out and eat them etc.  They are popular, cheap (~$2.50) and I recommend that you try at least one if you ever visit.  Ordering is pretty easy.  First, specify which, if any, kind of meat you want.  Next, you can point and choose which vegetables you want.  Here's an example of a pretty typical offering:  
You'll notice that there are many vegetables to pick from and all of them have been freshly cooked.  For non-Mandarin speakers, just point at the ones you want.  Finding a good lunch box joint is pretty easy.  Just look for a place which is busy and you'll do fine.  Here's a map to the place in Taichung where I bought the fried chicken lunch box.  The vegetables at this restaurant are really good so you'll not do too badly if you forgo meat and order a vegetable lunch box.  

It's marked in red on the map and you'll know it as the place with the funny little chef in front of it.  It'll make sense when you see it. 

A lunch box is clearly meant for take-out, so what if you are dining in?  Let me show you: 
Ta-dah!  You'll just get everything served on plates.  You can see all sorts of stir-fried vegetables, a fried egg with thickened soy sauce and pickled vegetables.  There is also a seared, slightly sweet Taiwanese sausage called xiang chang.   Xiang chang (香腸) translates as "fragrant sausage" and many butchers in Taiwan make their own.  They are pork based and one distinguishing feature is that they have large pieces of minced fat mixed in with the lean meat.  They are generally flavored with soy and a good bit of sugar.  Other flavorings may include 5-spice powder and some versions I tried tasted rather strongly of rice wine.  I LOVE xiang chang and really miss the homey, freshly made version I found at my neighborhood butcher's stand.  

Anyhow, this particular restaurant only opens at 9:00PM and serves a mostly older crowd.  I want to point out that this restaurant is very Taiwanese-y.  This might sound like a weird thing to specify but, in most of the restaurants I frequented, both Mandarin and Taiwanese was spoken.  I almost never heard any Mandarin at this restaurant.  This is what their serving table looks like:
As before, just point and choose.  They'll ask you if you want any meat on your rice and you can choose from pig's trotters (zhu jiao 腳), braised pork belly (kong rou fan 空肉飯) or minced pork (lu rou fan 滷肉飯).  In addition, this place also makes a delicious dish with stinky tofu (chou doufu 臭豆腐). Stinky tofu is tofu which has undergone a fermentation process.  Most Westerners think it smells rotten and inedible.  However, I happen to like it very much.  This restaurant serves some delicious stewed stinky tofu in a hot and spicy Sichuanese style ma la (麻辣) broth.  Give it a go if you are adventurous!!!  Here's a map:

By now, you probably understand the basic format of the average, Taiwanese meal.  I'm just going to post a few more pictures from some of my favorite restaurants.  
Clockwise starting with the pork stomach soup in the upper left corner, bamboo, pickled greens, tea, fried pork and bean thread noodles.  The pork deserves special mention. In Chinese, it's known at 紅糟炸猪排 (hong zao zha zhu pai).  The zhu pai simply refers to a flat, pork steak.  Zha means "to fry."  From what I understand, the hong zao aspect of the dish refers to the use of rice wine lees.  This leftover yeast is turned into a paste and a thin layer of it is spread on the pork before it is coated in rice flour and deep fried.  Hong zao is a typical ingredient used in Fujianese cooking.  The yeast imparts a subtle, fermented, yeast-y flavor to the pork.  Really good and, at this restaurant, the pork is fried to order so you are guaranteed crisp, freshly cooked meat.  Their kong rou fan is also really good. 
Just go to the 7-11 at that intersection and face south.  Directly across the street, on the corner, is the restaurant you are looking for.  

I've mentioned kong rou fan (空肉飯) a couple of times now so let me explain what it is.  Kong rou is a type of soy braised pork and fan refers to cooked rice so kong rou fan is just braised pork on rice.  It's very popular and everyone has their own version.  Proper kong rou is made with skin on pork and it's generally got a nice bit of fat on it.  The meat isn't minced and comes in a big chunk.  In the picture below, you'll see a bowl of bitter melon soup, some bamboo and the kong rou fan with pickled ginger.  This is from my favorite place for kong rou fan.  I first visited back  in 2009 and loved it.  When I returned in 2010, they were still there, still turning out the exact same menu.   I only ever saw them make the pork, bitter melon soup, miso soup and bamboo.  Occasionally there was some braised napa cabbage.  I like their dedication to the same menu, 7 days per week for years on end.  As you might guess, this specialization has led to a very, very good end product.  The meat, while fatty, is rich without being oily. 

 Here's the guy fishing out a piece of meat from the day's vat. 
 And here are the two people who run the stand. 
Map:  If you are at this intersection, you'll see a green awning over a few chairs and tables.  This is the place.  Just look at the tables to confirm.  Everyone will be eating kong rou fan.

Similar to kong rou fan is something called lu rou fan ( 滷肉飯).  Again, soy braised pork but this time it's minced up.  It is basically used as a pork sauce for bland, plain white rice.  It's one of those things that helps make the rice go down a little more easily.  Lu rou fan is a ubiquitous Taiwanese dish which you will find everywhere from dawn until dusk.  Like kong rou fan, it's usually part of a meat/rice/couple of veg meal set.  

Although it is always flavored with soy, one major variation is the cut of meat.  In this first picture, you'll see a pretty standard version, a little bit of fat, mostly lean.  Very typical.

But, woah!!!  Take a look at this version!  Very little lean, almost all fat.  It might look gross to you but man is it delicious.
 A bowl of lu rou fan will run you somewhere between $0.75-$1.00. 

Another of the meat on rice dishes is huo ji rou fan (火鸡肉飯).  Huo ji rou means "turkey meat" and fan means "rice" so turkey meat rice.  Think poached, shredded turkey meat on top of rice dressed with a little rendered turkey fat and a mild soy dressing.
It's quite a bit lighter than some of the pork-on-rice offerings so it's nice if you aren't all THAT hungry.  In the picture, you'll see the huo ji rou fan in the foreground, a fried egg and bitter melon on the plate and a bowl of seaweed soup.  The dish is a specialty of the city of Chiayi and there are two fairly famous turkey rice joints right across the street from the main train station.  

Since we're on the topic of large birds, let's talk goose.   Although goose (鹅肉 e rou)  has never really gotten much attention in the U.S., it's quite popular in Taiwan.  There are entire restaurants which specialize in it and it is offered in a few forms.  Of course, the liver and other assorted offal are on offer but the meat itself is cooked a few different ways.  Most common is goose which is gently simmered in salt-water.  The leftover goose stock is used as a base for soup etc.  You can also find smoked goose and goose which is steeped in rice wine.  This restaurant offers all three variations:  

For this meal, a simple plate of sauteed water spinach (空心菜 kong xin cai), some salt-water goose and a bowl of rice.  If you order a random plate of greens in Taiwan, chances are that you'll get kong xin cai.  A pair of dipping sauces, one is fish sauce and chili, the other is based on mashed, fermented beans.  The goose is served with Asian basil and strands of ginger.  Very basic, about $4.00.  
 Although this restaurant excels at goose, they serve lots of other things.  Here's a picture of their display case. Lots of vegetables and they even serve raw fish!!!

You'll notice that I haven't written about fish very much.  Taiwan is an island and, as such, you would expect there to be excellent seafood.  There is.  However, most lunch joints specialize in pork and chicken.  If you want seafood, you might need to open the wallet up a little more.  However, it's not prohibitively expensive.  This is the kitchen/ordering area of one of my favorite restaurants in Taichung.  I probably went there 40+ times during the final year of my tenure.  

These sorts of places are generally loud, boisterous affairs.  Many of the patrons are getting piss-ass drunk and it creates an air of conviviality.  They're fun places to kick back, eat and have a drink or two.  However, ordering can be tricky if you are a non-native.  I generally went and had a brief discussion with the head hostess.  We would consider the main protein (clams, squid, fish etc.) and a method of preparation.  These sorts of restaurants have a  general idea of what they want to do with a certain ingredient but they can be flexible.  For instance, maybe they generally fry a certain type of fish but you want to have it steamed.  No problem!  Now, the issue for non-natives is that you need to know a little Chinese to make this happen.  If this is a problem for you, just go to another table and point.  There's absolutely no shame in doing this.  In the US this would be a faux pas but not in Taiwan. 

Here's some of the stuff I ate.  The bottom plate has stir-fried clams, duh.  On the left is something my girlfriend and I nicknamed "crack nuggets."  If you zoom in, you can see some peanuts, chili and these little round balls.  Those balls are the muscle which surround a squid's beak.  They don't have much flavor but are fried so you get a crispy shell and a toothsome bit.  Absolutely addictive.  The vegetable at the top is bird's nest fern.  In Mandarin it is called shansu (山蘇).  It's just a wild edible which was once popular with only the aboriginals but has now gained widespread popularity.  It's flavored with little dried fish and the fern itself has a crisp bite yielding to a slightly slippery chew.

I feel both ashamed and thrilled that I like this next dish.  It consists of batter fried shrimp, canned pineapple chunks coated in mayonnaise with cupcake sprinkles on top.  Sounds bizarre but it somehow works.  The other bowl consists of rice with a pickled vegetable called cai xin (菜心). 
As I mentioned before, I ate at this particular restaurant 40+ times.  My girlfriend and I would always order the crack nuggets, stir-fried clams (she liked to spoon the clam liquor over her rice), a vegetable and a wildcard.  Sometimes we would get panfried milkfish (shi mu yu 虱目魚) which was prepared in an interesting way.  Instead of slitting the fish through the belly and then removing two fillets, they opened up the fish from the top and left the belly in one continuous piece.  Mmmmm, fish belly fat!!!!  If interested, here's a picture:
(I cribbed this picture from this webste.)
Anyhow, these sorts of restaurants, both the seafood one directly above and the goose restaurant up further are great, casual ways to acquaint yourself with Taiwanese food.  Also, they aren't bad places for foreigners because you can always place your order by just pointing to the stuff in the display case.  They're a bit more expensive than many of the other restaurants in this post but the 4 dishes featured above still cost only around $12.   Here's a map to my joint but you'll find many more peppering (no pun intended!) Taichung.

Another foreigner friendly place I ate at was called "Good Old Days."  Don't believe me?:

Why do I think it's foreigner friendly?  Check out their menu:
You can see the holy trinity of travel dining!  1. Native language. 2. English translation. 3. Picture.  You really can't do much better than that.  My girlfriend and I ate here quite often while we were in the area shopping.  Here is our typical order:
Salt-crusted panfried mackerel, pickled cucumber (to help cut the fat of the fish and pork), rice for my girlfriend, grilled pork and rice and soup.  On this visit, it was pineapple, bitter melon and chicken soup.  Kinda strange, wasn't my favorite.  Their pork meatball and mushroom soup is quite a bit better.  About 5 bucks.  Here's a map:

Now, here is someplace I don't think anyone will ever visit, but I loved it because their pork intestines were positively divine.  I know it sounds strange using that word to describe intestines but these are the best innards I ate during my 2+ years in Taiwan.  I encourage you to order intestines and other offal in Taiwan.  You will earn the respect and admiration of the local people.  This shop isn't even a restaurant proper, just a little two storefront stand on a random side street.  Here's what I usually ate: Rice, intestines-served dry (no broth) with ginger, and a side order of tofu and pickled greens soup.  About two bucks but worth many, many times that. 

And here is the janky little serving area.  This jumble of bowls and pots is not uncommon in Taiwan. 

Noodles.  Here is a picture of your barebones Taiwanese bowl of noodles.  A little meat, a few greens, a bit of whatever flavoring the shop uses. 

To order such noodles, just tell the owner that you want a bowl of noodles (Wo yao yi-wan mian我要一碗面).  The vendor will likely ask you if you want your noodles with broth(汤tang-de) or dry ( gan-de).  Dry simply means that there is only a minimal amount of liquid, just enough to keep the noodles from clumping up.  I tend to order mine dry...keeps the flavoring from getting diluted.  Also, the greatness in a bowl of noodles lies within the noodles themselves.  If you fack up the noodles, the entire dish is ruined.  For this reason, I stopped ordering noodles for take-out. Something about holding noodles in a plastic bag until I got home just turned them to complete mush.  Horrible.  Noodles similar to those pictured above can be found just about everywhere in Taiwan.  A cheap snack or the cornerstone of a larger meal.

Here's another bowl of noodles.  This time, it's a specific noodle dish called ya rou mian (鸭肉面).  Ya rou means "duck meat" and mian means noodle so "duck meat noodles."  The duck was simply roasted and shredded on top of some delicious, chewy noodles.  Some shallots cooked in duck fat (I think) provided the sauce and flavoring.  As usual, a few vegetables thrown in there.  Really delicious.

This vendor is also famous for his soy braised items.  These are simply different things cooked in a star-anise infused soy broth.  There are tofu products, eggs, kelp, pork skin, pig ears etc.  Lots of things. 
As I mentioned, Mr. Lin's shop has been written up in the local press! 
Here's a map.  At that same intersection is a good stand for roasted sweet potatoes.  If you go south on Wanhe Road you'll find a nice temple.  It's only a block away or so. 

Man, I did not realize how long this was.  Congrats if you read more than 10% of the text.  :) 

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