Tuesday, April 12, 2011

All Day Long I Dream About...Chopping, Peeling, Boiling, Woking

Green Onion Asian Fried Snails. Sort of.
Since when did this become all about food?

As I write this, I am simultaneously freezing fresh strawberries (in preparation for leaner days ahead, as the mangos come in and deliciously snuff out the competition), simmering turkey soup, and planning a nectarine cobbler as a post-work relief for tomorrow.

And though it might sound crazy, at the end of the day, usually even my worst day (which tends to be Wednesday, because I teach a horrible class of awkward, unmotivated pre-teens in the last hours of my day), I would rather cook than anything. Saturday morning, outing? Heck no, brunch! Does it even matter where the passion began? I don't think so. What matters is, it's happening, and if you're lucky enough, it might benefit you, too.

The tortilla station.

Taiwan used to seem like a desert (not dessert) of familiar food items, and now, on my ridiculously lax budget, I can conceive and create practically anything. And it's all here, in Taoyuan (not even in Taipei).

Carrefour: white flour, couscous, black olives, canned sardines (no laughing until you've tried them), red wine, French cheese

Green/Yellow Sign Wholesale Baking Store: anchovies, flour tortillas, spaghetti, canned tomatoes, prolific spices, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, nuts and dried fruit

A-Mart: pinto beans, hot sauce, Guinness, ice cream - WOW, a fabulous new combination!

And of course, everything else comes straight off the street. I still carry everything home in my reused bags - eggs, fruit, veggies, meat, fish - which I now can order straight off the stainless steel market slab, instead of packaged.

And then I bolt for home, giant bags in tow. Saturday, I lugged home one bag of produce and a 10 pound watermelon. Then, I hit the countertop. In a 1ft. by 1ft. space is where I chop. On my one burner is where I multitask cook. It's blissful. It's orchestrated. And less and less, I make things I want to throw at the OhYa Hotel across the street. It's damn good. And I'm inspired, on a daily basis, to get better and better. (And praying, please, let me have TWO stove burners and a real oven in the Czech Republic...)
Floppy enchiladas, oh so good!

So whatcha makin', Caitlin?

Oh, you know, just green onion pancakes. And Mexican food. Ever since the arrival of the masa harina, the world has been a bit brighter. Have you ever made corn tortillas? GO. DO. IT. It takes no time at all and by the time you're finished rolling out the balls into creative circles, all your worries from your day are gone. Poof, into the tortilla. Enchiladas, fajitas, salmon tacos. Next up, we go sopes and tamales.

So, in quick conclusion, this was a little "Hello!" to tell you about something I'm loving, something I want to share with you, and something that I'm pretty sure will keep steering my interests the rest of my life. I am 23 years old and I love to be in the kitchen.

Now what do you think of that?
And to finish, the giant salmon tacos. Made in Taiwan. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Jiufen: Or, Why I Have Never Been So Grateful To Have a Seat

It's time, of course, to wash out your old ancestral cleaning bucket and haul your fanciest travel-sized brooms out of the closet: it's Tomb Sweeping Weekend!
And who would have thought it would just...POOF...disappear?

Sure, it's a holiday that I don't practice, most obviously because I have no such tomb to sweep, but I certainly can get behind a four-day weekend where everyone gets their clean on and spends time with their family. My version is simple: four days of no plans, no work, and lots of new sights. 

Hiking sounded like a tremendous idea, especially because the weather looked like it was promising another day of sunshine, so we decided to combine a "check" on a tourist destination with a nice big mountain climb. Not just any climb, but climbing "Teapot Mountain," which sounds right up my alley, considering I down no less than three cups a day.

So off we go on a scooter-train-bus ride that is to take around 4 hours from door to...old street. Our first encounter with the holiday weekend begins at the train station. Was there a line? Oh baby, there was a line. We thought we could simply breeze through with our new convenience cards, the Taipei EasyCard, but it turns out, the logic behind where you can use the EasyCard is not so easy. So off to the ticket line we go, and then onto the platform, where things are so crowded that moms simply don't notice their children running over the yellow safety line and nearly onto the tracks.

No wait, maybe that's not the holiday weekend talking. Come on, parents, keep your little genetic insurance policies behind the recommended "live or die" line, please. It makes me nervous. 

The train arrives. My first thought: Awesome. I've always wanted to go to India and this must be what trains are like in India! I mean, there's pushing, there's little breathing, and then the train takes off, and it is noisy. James can't believe his ears. Somehow in the tiny space people are chatting on cell phones, to their buddies, playing games, and who knows what else (because hey, my conversation comprehension skills don't go far beyond *"Wei? Ni hao? Wo zhidao, wo zhidao, mei yo...chingmingding huo chur chingmingding dien hao hao hao hao. Bye bye!" 

After the first half hour, we score two seats, which makes the whole reading while on the train venture significantly easier. The train, to me, seems to be moving backwards. I never knew the local train stop so many times on the way to a seemingly simple destination. A little girl standing near us makes up a little Chinese song to the tune of "Twinkle, twinkle little star" that says something like " Doors open, doors open, next stop, next stop..."

We pull into Keelung, Taiwan's northernmost port city, and the sun is shining. It's one of our only encounters with the ocean while in Taiwan and it's gorgeous. In the harbor, we ever seen a Greenpeace boat. How delightful! Onto the bus, where again, we are lucky enough to grab seats. How lucky we are we don't know until we hit traffic. In fact, I'm not even sure it's traffic. It could just be that the streets were designed too small for full-sized buses. Or rather, the buses are too big for the streets. Either way, we aren't moving anywhere quickly. 

Minutes drag on. Lunch hour passes. Uh oh. Those who are aware of the family trait for passing lunch time know what happens next. I start gently pounding my head against the window. We start driving into the mountains finally, and the bus once again stops moving. The trick is, there are buses coming the other direction too, around corners too tight for a cop on a scooter, let alone two buses. The head pounded gets a bit more severe.

"Can't we just get out? NOW? PLEASE?" becomes my plea, and though I'm not proud to admit it, it got a bit ugly. We could literally see where we needed to get off the bus in Jiufen, our old mining town destination (and apparently everyone elses destination as well), and yet spent ten minutes simply looking at the bus stop from 10 meters away. 

And finally we were there. So we embarked down the old street, which was not only one of the longest old streets I have been on in Taiwan, but also one of the most narrow with the largest amount of people. Oh yeah, we did. We went into the old street of no return. Jiufen's food specialty is fish balls, and thus our view was robot motion crowds and...fish balls. They also have something that looked delicious but not delicious enough for a ridiculously long line, which was some sort of ice bowl with taro balls and sugar. And something green, gelatinous and filled with something stringy. It all depends of your level of experimentation, I think. 

After many minutes of shoving and overtaking, we emerge, fishball fed, at the other end, where we see yet another beautiful view of the ocean. This view is gorgeous. Ocean views with harbors are way better than those without, I think, because they're a good combo of man vs. sea. Anyway, up to the mountain!

Oh when the clouds, come rolling in...
After a series of unprecedented ups and downs of stairs and windy streets, we find ourselves at the stairs of the mountains, looking up to the top. With a big breath, we begin. Until, after a quick off-road bathroom trip, we notice something unusual. The clouds are sprinting to the sea. They are the fastest moving clouds I have ever seen, and where two minutes ago the view to the top of the mountain and to the sea were clear, the clouds had spilled over everything. Within a few more minutes, the mountain was covered so far you could hardly seen ten stairs up. 

Down the mountain we go, in good spirits for trying, taking pictures with some tourist families as we go. (I wonder how many family albums I will someday be featured in :D...) But back to the bus? No deal. No more head-banging for me.

So we walk 4k down the mountain to the train station, get on the train, find out it's the wrong train, try to catch the right train, miss it, get on another train, switch trains, and are finally on the right track but unfortunately, have no seats for the first hour. 

Ah, such is the experience of a four day weekend...

Finished off the day with a new favorite find on "the other side of tracks." This is quite literal. If you go to the train tracks and take the underpass pedestrian tunnel, you end up in the Thai/Vietnamese/Malay community, which means awesome, non-Taiwanese food. Ate body burning thai curry and papaya salad and faced ultimate satisfaction. You can't help but feel good about a day that ends in a meal like that. 

*Translation in my head: "Hey? Hello? I know, I know, I have...chingmingding train chingmingding time good good OK OK. Bye bye!"