Category Archives: Asia

Chiang Rai Interlude

The ingredients for saa pak, a Northern Thai salad

The ingredients for saa pak, a Northern Thai salad

It’s been a while since I posted, and for that I apologize. I have an excuse: I have been working, and so unused to actually having to do something productive with my days that I have been unable to do almost anything else. Whatever free time I have had lately has been spent eating and obsessing over Beyonce’s “Formation” video. Writing anything beyond what I’m being paid for has been too tiring to contemplate.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the time for a quick weekend jaunt up to Chiang Rai. Because if the opportunity presents itself to taste my aunt Priew’s cooking yet again, obviously I will take it. And my friends will take it too! We all headed up to Chiang Rai, determined to eat as much of our way through my hometown as possible.

One of our first stops was at Chiwit Tamada (“ordinary life” in Thai), which I’ve always thought was a strange name for this place. That is because it is not ordinary at all. It is frankly beautiful, a burgeoning restaurant/cafe/spa/Ralph Lauren ad that now takes up two renovated colonial-style houses by the river, set in lush gardens that would make any green thumb weep in appreciation. As a result, everyone and their second cousin who has ever trekked up to the Golden Triangle wants to go there, and the line is out of this world. To snag a table here without a reservation, be prepared for a long wait, for either a seat or for your food. All the same, the fact that it remains so packed — in a town where the locals are usually too cheap to eat out — says something about how truly transporting the surrounds are.

Lunch at Chiwit Thamada

Lunch at Chiwit Tamada

Naturally, no trip up North is a trip well trodden without some khao soy. We thought we might try something new by darkening the door at Sarika, a Muslim curried egg noodle specialist located on the way to the airport. Here, the broth is extremely thin — more like a regular bowl of soup noodles and less like a curry — which makes it a lot less satisfying for those of us who are drawn to the dish for its coconut milk-enriched taste. A lot more popular with our table was the khao mok gai, a Thai-Muslim chicken biriyani  that actually had some flavor in the turmeric rice and in the chicken meat, thanks to a healthy smattering of deep-fried shallots, a sweet chili dipping sauce and a bracing oxtail soup metallic with chilies.

Sarika's chicken biryani

Sarika’s chicken biriyani

But of course the main event was aunt Priew’s house. I have a couple of dishes I request every time I go there, and this time, aunt Priew was kind enough to give a cooking demonstration of both. One dish, saa pak, is only available in the cold season and incorporates 12-15 different types of (mostly seasonal) greens, including mango leaves, slivered Thai eggplant, macerated water olives and a very tart local tomato that is hard to find anywhere else. What really makes this dish, however, is the dressing: the flaked flesh of a grilled fish (in this case, tilapia), with the pounded flesh of roast chilies, shallots and garlic. It’s a real labor of love to make this dish because it’s so time-consuming.

Saa pak

Saa pak

The other dish I always request is gang pak pung, a sour, clear soup based on a broth brewed from sour fermented sausage (naem) and bulked up with the (again seasonal) bud-like vegetable known as pak pung. Aunt Priew tells me the most important part of this dish, surprisingly, is the naem used to flavor the broth, not the vegetable itself.

The main ingredients for gang pak pung

The main ingredients for gang pak pung

The finished ingredient looks like this:

gangpakpung

The table was heaving with plates of food by the time aunt Priew was finished cooking. Besides the vegetable salad and sour soup, we also had nam prik nam pak, a chili dip of pureed pickled vegetables that I’ve written about before:

nampriknampak

Then there is gang gradan, said to have been invented when someone set out a soup during the “intense” Chiang Rai cold season and awoke to find that soup frozen through. Being a cost-conscious Northerner, they cut it into slices and served it. Voila, gang gradan.

In actuality, I think this dish has Chinese origins. The dish resembles the jelly kha moo (pig’s trotter terrine) that my husband’s Chinese-Thai family likes to eat at family gatherings, garnished with Tabasco and, of course, lots of Maggi. My friend Tawn tells me his father is fond of making a dish known as moo nao (“cold pork”), which has Teochiew origins. There are probably variations of this dish all over the world.

ganggradan

For dessert, we had something that my father is always requesting from aunt Priew: khao niew na nga (black sesame sticky rice), which is a two-parter: the rice itself, mixed with roasted black sesame seeds, and the accompaniment, blocks of pulverized sesame mixed with sugarcane juice for a very, very slight and fleeting sweetness.

sesamerice

No meal is complete, of course, without some moo yaw (steamed Vietnamese-style pork pate), sai oua (Northern Thai sausage) and sticky rice. Completely stuffed, we managed to toddle our way back to our rooms at the Wiang Inn, but not before a long walk downtown in an attempt to feel less like walking sai oua ourselves.

Addicted to that feeling of fullness, I have since been consoling myself by stuffing my face with more food than I’ve had in weeks. I hope that this means I’m turning a corner, and that the wintertime blues will soon be behind me. I have Chiang Rai to thank for that.

We are already planning our next trip up North:

Northern Thai sausage at Wannapa

Northern Thai sausage at Wannapa in “downtown” Chiang Rai

 

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A day with Worapa

The finished product: our kanom yodmanee, under Khun Worapa's direction

The finished product: our kanom yokmanee, under Khun Worapa’s direction

Chin (www.foodtoursbangkok.com) is always full of surprises. A lot of the time, those surprises involve exerting oneself via a long, brisk walk and some elbow grease, so I always try to psyche myself up before our next excursion. This isn’t because days out with Chin are an ordeal. It’s because I need to hide the fact I am terribly lazy and would prefer to burrow myself into the faux-leather confines of my mother-in-law’s hand-me-down couch, pretending to watch “Outlander” for all the historical information on Jacobite Scotland, and not for a reason that rhymes with “Shmamie Shmaser’s shmass”.

But I’m excited for today, because @karenblumberg is with me and the surprise du jour involves trekking out to Samut Songkhram, where we will learn how to make a Thai dessert known as kanom yokmanee — “bundles” of cooked pearl tapioca flavored with pandanus leaf extract and rolled in fresh coconut flesh. Before we get there, however, we stop off at “Thalad Rom Hoop” at Maeklong, so named because an honest-go-God train runs through the center of the marketplace about four times a day. This necessitates display tables on retractable rollers and awnings that can be pulled back, hence the market’s name.

When the market is not busy hiding from the wrath of an onrushing train (that is traveling at roughly 5 mph), it is busy selling the stuff that most Thai wet markets sell, like the famously delicious Thai mackerel:

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

And offbeat snacks that I mistake for fish meatballs, like these rolled-up balls of potato and coconut, grilled just enough to form a thin crust over a fluffy, soft center like a sweetened, globe-shaped French fry:

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

But gradually, it becomes time to finally head over chez de Khun Worapaa Thai cook whom Chin discovered after sampling some of her wares at a nearby temple. Thai desserts are often a tricky proposition because they sometimes manage to incorporate a jarring, almost metallic sweetness that tends to set teeth on edge. Unfortunately, this becomes the only thing that people remember of them, instead of the fresh ingredients and old-fashioned methods of preparation (usually steaming and boiling, if they are old-fashioned central Thai sweets). Worapa’s desserts, however, come from 100 percent natural ingredients — most from her own garden — and as a result, bear natural, almost muted flavors and a delicate balance of sweet-salty that is the standard signature of any true Thai dessert.

Before we cook, though, we have to eat. Luckily for us, Khun Worapa has lunch covered, too, setting out a jungle curry flavored with fish entrails and Thai eggplant, a sour curry of maroom, a type of thick-skinned gourd broken open to reveal a soft, custardy flesh meant to be scraped from the peel like an artichoke leaf, and this flaked fish stir-fry that Worapa assures us is made entirely of fish, instead of being bulked up by breadcrumbs like at other vendors’:

 

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Like any good cook, Worapa has control freak tendencies. This becomes obvious once she starts critiquing our eating technique (“Why are you piling everything on your plate at once? Why don’t you try everything one at a time? Your food isn’t going anywhere!” and “Why don’t you sit up straight? You will be able to fit more food into your stomach if you don’t slouch!”), but her friendly patter only enhances the dining experience, because we love being bossed around as long as it comes from a Thai person who cooks good grub.

Alas, the time to put us to work draws near and we begin to slow down. Karen confesses she is nervous, because we have just learned we will have to stir the tapioca mixture in a copper pot over the stove for a full hour in order to get it to the proper consistency. What kind of consistency? Think super glue, but stronger — something you can build a brick wall with. Worapa says this kind of back-breaking labor forms the heart of all Thai dessert-making: “The ingredients are cheap,” she says. “It’s the labor that makes up the value of a dessert.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, you have to make the tapioca mixture. It’s a package of tapioca, mixed with 2 glasses of pandanus leaf juice (squeezed from a handful of julienned leaves that are steamed), a glass of coconut water, and 3 glasses of rose water steeped overnight from Worapa’s own pesticide-free roses (in summer, Worapa advises using jasmine instead):

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

This mix is earmarked for the copper pot, which conducts heat more evenly and acts as extra insurance from burning.  We take turns stirring this big pot of green, which is quickly taking on the appearance of Ghostbusters slime. Those of us not stirring our arms off are set to work on yet another backbreaking job, scraping gobs of shredded flesh from halved coconut shells:

Getting to work

Getting to work

Worapa has opinions on both work fronts: “Shave from the rim!” she instructs Chin, before telling me how I should place my hands on the wooden paddle as I stir. All of this must work, because before long we have a pot full of a thick, heavy, glutinous green mass and two trays full of coconut shavings to steam (steamed coconut keeps for longer than the fresh kind). After only 50 minutes (!), the tapioca is ready to be poured out and cooled, before it is hand-rolled and covered in coconut.

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

The taste is as it should be: slightly sweet, salty from the coconut and fragrant with the smell of pandanus and rose. We go home with our newly-made candies sticky in our bags and our bellies bulging with food, and we fall asleep in the car with our hands smelling of fresh leaves.

To learn more about cooking with Worapa, contact Chin of Chili Paste Tour at chilipastetour@gmail.com.

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In praise of the porky

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

No one wants to be a pig. The very worst thing one can do is to eat like one, squeal like one, or sweat like one. Don’t even think about looking like one. That is the worst that bad can get.

But when cooked over a grill, crisped and sliced over a mound of fluffy white rice or minced and folded into an omelet, the pig becomes something that every Thai food lover wants a part of. Few dishes demonstrate this more than guaythiew moo, or pork noodles: a mix of pork meatballs, minced pork, stewed fatty pork and pork liver, simmered gently in a pork broth before a quick dunk in a plastic bowl with a handful of rice noodles, some blanched bitter greens, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts and deep-fried garlic bits.

Because many Thais refrain from eating beef for religious reasons — as followers of “Mae Kwan Im” (a Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion now popular among many Thai-Chinese Theravada Buddhists), they are encouraged to cut out beef in view of eventually going vegetarian — pork noodle joints are probably the most numerous of all the noodle vendor varieties scattered throughout the city. This means there is tons of competition, and more pressure to set oneself apart from the rest of the noodling fray (I’m not counting bamee, or egg noodles, with the rest of the pork noodle crowd because the emphasis there tends to be on the noodles and the toppings are different — that said, there’s lots of competition there too).

Some vendors bomb the crap out of your tastebuds with a plethora of chilis, and some are nam tok specialists who add a touch a pork blood to their broth. It’s the rare vendor who lets the pig stand on its own porky merits. That is Wor Rasamee (corner of Silom and Saladaeng roads), a longtime pork noodle shop run by a deeply efficient elderly man who is the Thai street food equivalent of Rene Lasserre. Every need is fulfilled quickly and with as little drama as possible, sometimes before you have even thought of it. And the time it takes for a bowl to get to your table? 10-15 seconds, tops. Really.

Not to say there’s no little gimmick to set this little stall apart. Here, it’s the unique sauce, set atop every table and served alongside the four-pronged usual condiment selection of sugar, chili flakes, chili-studded white vinegar and fish sauce. It has no name, but it does have ingredients: vinegar, garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and an irresistible hit of fermented tofu, my culinary Achilles heel, a quicksilver sweetness in a pork broth smelling faintly of Chinese 5-spice powder.

sauce

How can I say no? It is food crack. There are surely more ingredients in this sauce than were relayed to me, and I will try to spend the next few weeks ferreting them out. Until then, I will have to risk heading back to this crowded, busy neighborhood in the heart of the central business district in the hopes of snagging a seat in the midst of all the Japanese tart cafes and fast food chains.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, pork, Thailand

Northern Thai sausage kings

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Everyone has a secret superpower, and I am no different. Some people are wonderful dancers. Some people can catch anything that is thrown at them. Some people can multiply large sums in their heads. And me? I can clear a 3-foot radius around me in about 10-15 minutes without even trying. When I tell people about this, they shake their heads and think, She’s at it again. Exaggerating her uselessness. But they’re not around to see it. I can guarantee that, if I sit on one side of a room before yoga class, everyone else will try to sit on the other side. At a large dining table, if no one is assigning seats and no one really knows me very well, one or both chairs to either side of me will remain empty. I have even had people switch seats at a movie theater in Thailand — where there is assigned seating — to move to an empty seat further away from me. I don’t know if it’s my smell or what. It certainly isn’t something I do on purpose. And it is almost never useful. It’s just something that happens, more often than not.

It’s a shame my secret superpower isn’t something useful, like languages. I am ashamed to say it, but I only have room in my head for 1.5 languages, as full as it is of Game of Thrones trivia and a detailed chronology of Jack White’s past haircuts. As you might have guessed, English makes up one of those languages. The other 0.5 is up to where I am living at any point in time. It used to be French, when I was studying cooking in Paris. Then it was Japanese, when I was working as a financial reporter in Tokyo. Now it is Thai, my “native” language, which makes it all the more pathetic when I open my mouth to order a meal or give directions or make small talk — whatever it is that people do to wile away the time until you get to go to sleep. People will frown and say, “Where are you from?” And I will smile and say, “The Philippines.”

Sometimes. Just sometimes. Other times I have to go into the whole rigamarole of how I moved to the States when I was a baby and came back and blah blah blah blah. It is the penalty that life exacts for speaking such terrible Thai. So it is no surprise when I find myself with a spare 10 minutes in Chiang Rai (the town of my birth) and head over to Sai Oua Pa Nong  (San Kong Noi Road, across from Chetupon Temple, 082-760-4813) for what a few locals said were the best sai oua (Northern Thai sausages) in town. That is hard for me to believe because 1.) the best Northern Thai cook I know is my Aunt Priew, who lives in Chiang Rai and 2.) I make my own sai oua too, and it is not bad. It might even be good, if you are my friend and you just spent an entire afternoon making sausages with me.

The minute I get there and ask for “50 baht of sausage” in Thai, the man in front waiting for his own sausage order to be grilled narrows his eyes at me. “Where are you from?” he says, and I’m still thinking if I should choose “Filipino” or “Japanese” when a sprightly little old lady carrying what looks like 1000 baht worth of sausages looks up at me and grins.

“Can I just get a little bit of this sausage?” I say. “I just want one or two bites,” and she says “Certainly!” with a great big smile.

“And what’s this?” I ask, pointing at a bunch of small plastic baggies filled with a thick green liquid.

“It’s nam prik nam pak (vegetable juice chili dip),” she says. “You should get it, it’s very good.”

I run over the rest of the menu with her, asking for recommendations and whatnot and it’s only when she turns to leave do I realize that this lady is a freaking customer and I’ve been running my mouth at the wrong person for something like 10 minutes.

“The smallest order of sausages for takeaway is 150 baht,” says a 20something man behind the counter.

“Do you work here?” I ask. He may or he may not, but he throws in the vegetable juice chili dip for free, just so I can try it out.

It turns out the sausages are thick, closely-packed and meaty, peppered liberally with big melting chunks of pig fat. They taste like they’re supposed to, salty and herbal but with a generous kick of chili spice, so I get why people like them. The real revelation, though, is the chili dip, which is fibrous and green, yes, tasting just like Claussen dill pickle juice. I love it.

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Super chicken

The famous "gai super" at New Tiem Song

The famous “gai super” at New Tiem Song

There are a few things that I absolutely will not do, not even while in the pursuit of the culinarily fabulous. One of those things is eating with my hands. I absolutely loathe it. This is particularly strange for me, since a lot of Northern Thai and Isaan food involves sticky rice, which typically includes eating with one’s hands. The rice is rolled up into a little ball with the fingers and used to mop up whatever chili dip, soup or protein there is on your plate in a swift, neat little action called pun khao. The unfortunate thing about this is that all the crap that is on your hands — imaginary or real — ends up in your mouth. And that is really gross.

I know you are thinking, why don’t you wash your hands first then? which is something I do already. Or you could be thinking, but you stuff your face with potato chips and hot wings all day long, and aren’t bitching and moaning about getting your icky hand grossness all up in those tortilla chips heaving with guacamole. And this is true, mom! But it’s not the same as getting soft, soppy stuff all over your fingers. So, sorry Ethiopian restaurants and banana leaf curry stands.  I will never eat you the way you are meant to be eaten. I will always be asking for a spoon and fork. Because that is the way people should eat everything, always (except for potato chips, hot wings and tortilla chips with guacamole).

I like offal meats. You could even say I seek them out. I love kidneys, and sweetbreads, and liver, and grilled chicken gizzards sprinkled with sea salt. I don’t even mind brains, if they are battered and deep-fried, or grilled in a banana leaf. I enjoy shirako with ponzu sauce and a scattering of sliced chive, and I think a cube or two of congealed pig or chicken blood is the perfect touch for a great Thai noodle dish. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me at all.

Except when it comes to feet. Or anything with bones, pits or seeds in them, really. Because if I loathe eating with my hands, I absolutely HATE spitting anything out of my mouth. This is why I don’t eat mangosteens, and why I stay away from grapes, unless they’re seedless. The thought of regurgitating some little something that has to sit there as a reminder of all your salivary grossness is just unbearably vile to me. I would just rather swallow these things, if I can. This is probably why fishbones are so infuriating.

So chicken feet is a no-fly zone for me. It’s a shame, because the most important men in my life — Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu (haha, jk) — really love them. It’s a street food dish called gai super (“super chicken”) which, when I first heard it, made me really excited because I thought it referred to either chicken wings or some sort of crispy, boneless chicken part, like deep-fried cartilage. Alas, it is a stewed mass of splayed, spidery chicken legs, plonked into a broth simmered from their cooking and accompanied by a mash of bird’s eye chilies.

Just another look at the same dish

Just another look at the same dish

The meat is supposed to be coaxed gently from the bones via the gentle suction usually meant for a milkshake through a straw, but HELL NAW. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. You can sue me now, or make me watch a Mark Wahlberg film. Instead, there was the broth, which was deeply chicken-y even without those gross-ass feet all over them, a slight twinge of coriander, and the metallic fire of a dozen pulverized chilies. All in all, it was MEH, unless you are really into the sort of masochistic task of getting those skimpy bits of flesh off of all those little bones. And some of you are like that, if the gigantic pile of toothpick-sized bones on my dad’s and husband’s plates are anything to go by.

So, no judgment. If you are headed to Dinsor Road close to the Chinese Swing, go over to New Tiem Song, which is the open-air shophouse across the street from Bangkok’s City Hall and only a couple of doors down from Mont Nom Sod — the wildly popular toast restaurant credited with being the first eatery to bring fresh milk to the Thai masses. Or, well, you could just go to Mont Nom Sod, and wait in a big long line with Thai teenagers for … toast. Either way, there is something awesome for you waiting on Dinsor Road, whichever way you choose to go.

 

 

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Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, Thailand, yen ta fo

Glutton Abroad: Taipei Bang-bang

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

On the way over to Taipei, I saw an episode of the TV show “Louie”, which features American comedian Louis CK. In this episode, Louie and his friend brother engage in a practice they refer to as “bang-bang”: having a full meal at one venue before going to a completely different type of place and getting a second full meal there. There are different combinations they play with before deciding on “Indian-diner”, which, to me, is just an OK combination since you can cheat on the “diner” side of the quotation with just a Greek salad or something, whereas something like “Italian-barbecue” is a real, full-on, genuine pig-out. (This, from the person with $^%&ing GERD.)

Anyway, when they are talking to the waitress at the diner later, Louie treats his “bang-bang” mission as something to be hidden and ashamed of. This marks my first disconnect of the day: that this is something to hide away. Because I do this shit all the time. It is called “lunch” and “second lunch”. Sometimes it is “second breakfast”. I am too old to have “second dinners” anymore. The point is that this is perfectly normal behavior that every food lover worth his or her own weight in potato chips understands and engages in. Sometimes there is not enough time to try everything you want to try. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it! What’s the problem?

Faced with only two full days in Taipei, I was grappling with this very conundrum myself. There are a gazillion eateries in Taiwan’s capital, and only a few hours to taste them all. Do you think this meant I would have to do without something or other? HELL NAW. It was my first time in Taipei, and my very first experience with real Taiwanese food. I wasn’t going to chuck this opportunity with concerns about “diet” or “health” or “looking nice”, etc.

Thais like to consider Cantonese food the foundation of all great Chinese food. They say Cantonese food is the epitome of classical Chinese cooking, and a celebration of the light, natural flavors coaxed out of superior ingredients. I find this interesting because, even now, I still don’t get it. I still find it leaden and unappetizing, coated in gelatinous, saliva-like sauces. I know I am in the minority here, and likely traumatized from my childhood spent in every Cantonese restaurant located between Pittsburgh-Cleveland.

But no, I see Taiwanese food as the real embodiment of this light/natural aesthetic — minimal manipulation with great ingredients, minimal fuss, and unusual, thought-provoking combinations. The great difference between this and what Thais like is that there is no grand wallop of flavor. It’s introverted food, subtle, a little cerebral … some might even call it retiring or shy. It takes a little time with a dish to get to know it well. It’s not out to seduce, like Thai food, or wearing its resume on its sleeve, Cantonese-style. In this way, I feel like I can relate to Taiwanese food in a way I can’t with the more ESFP-geared charms of a place like Thailand or Hong Kong.

So when there were three places I really wanted to hit on Yong Kang Street, one of Taipei’s most well-known areas for food, I was determined to find them all (a “bang-bang-bang”, if you will). The first, and most obvious, is the famed xiaolongbao eatery Din Tai Fung, an Asia-wide dumpling empire that has been lauded by the New York Times. Its flagship is just around the corner, on Xinyi Road, and is a huge tourist draw. How much of a tourist draw? The girl in front speaks fluent Thai, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Cantonese. Despite its tourist attraction status, its famous soup dumplings may be even better than anywhere else. The standard pork and chicken soup dumplings are available, but there are also variations like pork and black truffle, which require an entirely different spoon and absolutely no sauce.

Din Tai Fung's pork and truffle soup dumpling

Din Tai Fung’s pork and truffle soup dumpling

The second place featured one of my very favorite noodle dishes in all the world, danzai or “dan dan” noodles. I wanted to make sure I got them at Slack Season Noodles (also known as Tu Hsiao Yueh, located at 9-1 Yong Kang St), started in 1895 by a fisherman who made noodles in the off-time spent away from his fishing boat (hence the name “Slack Season”). Today, there are several branches of this place, but the most famous may be on Yong Kang Street, where a noodle vendor is still located out in front of the dining room, patiently enduring tourists taking endless photos of them.

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

The final, third place was the hardest to get into, featuring the longest, most intimidating line. If it wasn’t called Yong Kang Beef Noodle (No. 17, Lane 31, Secion 2 Jinshan South Rd), I would have certainly walked away, but I didn’t come all this way to wimp out and deprive myself of Taiwan’s famous beef noodles. So in the line I went, listening to countless American tourists walking by and remarking on how some people are so “crazy” as to stand in line for food.

Well, let me tell you, the line was worth it. It’s not a beef noodle like in Thailand, where the broth is either thickened with cow’s blood and a representation of all that is beefy, or a clear broth that ends up being light and refreshing — it’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between those two. The broth is hearty and beefy, yet light, and the noodles chewy and satisfying, but it’s that beef that is the real star: thick melting slabs generous marbled and tender enough to be cut with a single chopstick.

beefnoodle

But the real discovery here was the “spicy dumpling”, which featured a sheet of nearly-melting dough around a nicely-seasoned ball of mince, doused in a sauce thickened with fermented tofu. Could I resist a generous dollop of macerated red chili with garlic to accompany it? Of course not.

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

 

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Filed under Asia, beef, food, noodles, restaurant, Taiwan