Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Adventures in Eating

In most cultures around the world, eating together is an important part of social life. Unfortunately, especially in the West, we’re usually too busy to take part in what’s often referred to as Slow Food. Instead, we rush up to the fast food window, grab some unhealthy, fat-laden grub, then eat while we’re driving and cursing other drivers.

When my wife, Stephanie, first came to America, she commented a couple times about how life here seems different than what she expected. One day we stopped at 7-Eleven and grabbed a few items. When we left, I attempted to steer through traffic with my knee while holding a Big Gulp in one hand and a big donut in the other. Stephanie started laughing and said, “Now this is how I always pictured the American lifestyle.”

I enjoy cooking, but I’m not really that good at it and often don’t have the patience to make something really fancy. Stephanie is a good cook, but when you’re forced to cook every day, it gets to be kind of a drag. The worst part is deciding what to cook. Despite all that, we’ve tried to make a point of ensuring our family eats meals together, preferably home-cooked meals, whenever possible. I think that’s made a big difference in our family’s health and relationships, if for no other reason than it gives us time each day to complain to each other about stuff.

On our recent trip to Taiwan, we had opportunities to slow down and eat some awesome meals in very unusual locations. And not all of those were fancy, sit-down restaurants.

In the northern port city of Keelung 基隆, we stopped at a McDonald’s to buy french fries for Tian Tian, because that always makes him happy. Plus we wanted to use their air conditioner for a few minutes. Just outside the McDonald’s door, we met a young lady selling small pancakes shaped like various sea creatures. She stood out there in the hot weather most every day from morning until evening, making and selling these little cakes. It may not seem like a glamorous career, but she sure came across as happy and cheerful. And it made us happy after we bought a couple bags from her and had fun guessing what the creatures were.

Also in Keelung, we stopped at a noodle house where they made their own noodles. The kitchen stretched out onto the sidewalk, which Tian Tian found very interesting, so he took a picture with the cooks. He’s a picky eater, but he ate his entire bowl of noodles. Consuming noodles that are both temperature hot and spicy hot on a day that is very humid hot, seems a little counterintuitive. My son-in-law Colton made mention of that several times on our trip. But it sure tasted good!

In the kitchen of the noodle house, which was actually the sidewalk.
You can’t go to Keelung without visiting the famous Miaokou Night Market 基隆廟口夜市 which actually runs all day long. We ordered fruit drinks that are sort of like Slurpees, but a lot tastier and made with real fruit (no HFCS!). Each of us mixed and matched our own creation. Aarim’s mango pineapple turned out to be the best choice.

Icy Fruit Treats in the Miaokou Night Market
One day we ate with the whole extended family, in celebration of my mother-in-law’s eighty-fifth birthday. To be honest, the restaurant food wasn’t really that awesome, but it sure was fun eating with all our relatives, especially for such an important occasion. Tian Tian liked eating the whole fish, head included—he’s not picky about that. Most of us may forget what we ate that day, but we’ll always remember how happy Grandma was with her family around her.

Fish head dinner!
We had another meal with—and I’m not making this up—Stephanie’s classmates from her elementary school! She’s kept in touch with them all these years and it’s usually a good meal that brings them all together. They’re an interesting group, including a former pop singer and famous director, a well-known and much-sought-after fertility specialist, the owner of one of the largest tech companies in the whole country, among others, and of course a few normal people like Stephanie and I.

I mentioned in another post about our dinner at the Hualien Rainbow Night Market. The vegetables were great, the steak was so-so, but the atmosphere was something we’ll never forget. Night markets are always noisy, with a million different odors competing for attention, and you really feel like you’re not in Kansas anymore. We kind of had to toss aside any preconceptions about restaurant cleanliness standards. But maybe that’s why it all tasted good.

Steak and vegetable dinner at the Rainbow Night Market
It doesn’t take a fancy meal to make you happy. One afternoon, we took a gondola ride up to the small tea village of Maokong 貓空 in the mountains near Taipei. On that hot and humid day, the best thing was fresh-squeezed lemonade. And Maokong has a great view of terraced tea fields stretched out below, with the hazy city below that. Riding back down, we chose the Eyes of Maokong car, which has a glass bottom allowing you to see straight down. With the wind blowing the car around, it was definitely a butt-clenching experience.

Lemonade at Maokong
We can’t forget the “fun” food. One of the funnest and tastiest is the giant mango ice cream cones. Aarim got one at the Danshui 淡水 waterfront near Fisherman’s Wharf 漁人碼頭. It’s not easy to eat that much ice cream before it all melts in the tropical heat without getting a major brain freeze in the process.

Giant mango ice cream cone
My sister-in-law Liu-Ming took us to a Cajun restaurant one evening. Who would expect you could find good bayou food in the middle of Taipei? It’s a very outward-looking, cosmopolitan city, though, and you can find everything from Nigerian to Brazilian to KFC. Some has been Sinicized, but much is very authentic. My first date with Stephanie was at a KFC in Taipei.

The authentic Shaanxi restaurant
There are two meals from our trip that really stand out. One was in a restaurant near my mother-in-law’s house specializing in Shaanxi food. They’d designed the restaurant to look like a traditional shop, with curved portals and rough walls covered in graffiti. I really felt like I’d apparated to the middle of Xi’an. The food itself tasted great and further transported us to an exotic locale. And your neighborhood Costco food court definitely doesn’t have lamb kabobs, tree fungus, or duck blood soup on the menu.

Shaanxi duck blood soup. Poor ducks.
My favorite meal of the whole trip, though, was in the mountains of northern Taiwan, at the small town of Zhuzihu 竹子湖, with our immediate family and my sister-in-law, Olive. The town is famous for its Alocasia flowers 海芋花 that bloom beautifully each May. We missed the blooming display, but I specifically wanted to go to this restaurant after Olive took us there a year earlier.

Lunch at the Zhuzihu restaurant with Aunt Olive. Yum!
The restaurant at Zhuzihu is in the subtropical forest surrounded by cypress trees, bamboo, and giant ferns. The cicadas that time of year are incredibly loud, to the point you sometimes can’t hear one another speak. The short video below gives a sample of the sounds. Be sure to put on headphones and turn it up loud!

A soft breeze blows through the forest around the restaurant, just enough to make it comfortable. The tables surround a small koi pond and overlook the town below. It’s one of the more exotic and beautiful locations I’ve ever been to. A surprising quirk was the music they played—classic western jazz. Sitting there, surrounded by family and the forest, eating great food, while listening to cicadas and jazz, is definitely something I want to do every time I visit Taiwan.

Sometimes, I guess, it’s not really the meal itself that matters.