Instablurb: Taiwan’s Night Markets

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

Taiwan is often ignored by the dominant forces in travel publishing. It rarely makes the cut on any of the “Top Ten Tropical Getaways” lists that litter the interwebs, and the under abundance of drug induced beach parties largely keep it off the backpacker circuit, but the few glitzy websites that do give Isla Formosa some play almost never forget to include Taiwan’s night markets as must see attractions, and rightly so.

Similar to strip malls in suburban America (only less tacky) and Trattorias in Italy (only more crowded), you’re never too far from a night market in Taiwan. Ask any Taiwanese where their favorite night market is and they’ll probably give you two; mention your favorite night market and they’ll respond with one that’s better. The open air conglomerations of food stalls, clothing shops, carnival games and craft stands are best taken in with all senses–ideal places to smash on local food, try your hand at mahjong bingo, people-watch to your heart’s content and browse for everything from panty hose to house pets.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

For expats in Taiwan it’s sometimes easy to ignore the lure of night markets and it might take an argument over just which one is the best before you rediscover why making weekly visits to your neighborhood night market is a part of life for those who call Taiwan home. Fail to check out a few night markets as a visitor and you’ll indeed be missing out on an interesting chunk of Taiwanese culture.

Somewhat driven by a recent visit to the Labor Park Night Market ( 老公夜市) near my apartment in Kaohsiung, I snapped a few photos of night market scenes worth sharing and dug through my iPhone for old ones as well.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Probably the most highlighted aspect of Taiwan’s night markets is the food. The general rule when dining out in night markets ought to be to keep an eye out for stalls that have their food reviews on display or have a line of patrons. These tend to be long-standing tenants with reputations for serving up culinary crack. Of course this doesn’t mean you should pass up stalls without queues and newspaper clippings, but with so much grub competing for your attention, it’s nice to have some local guidance.

Rueifong Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Rueifeng Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Eating your way through a night market will also mean coming across some pretty weird shit. Chicken feet, pig blood cake and duck tongues are mainstays and I promise you’ll smell the stinky tofu long before you actually see it. Be as adventurous as you want, but I stop short of animal rectums (no chicken ass, please) and most insects (shoutout to Andrew Zimmern).

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

When I ask my students what they enjoy most about night markets the majority of them mention the games: toss a ring, shoot a bottle, pop a balloon; it’s all there–plenty to choose from if you’re looking for a place to win a stuffed Hello Kitty for your girlfriend or to park the kids for a couple of hours while you try on sunglasses and fish for live shrimp.  I often chuckle when seeing kids go buck wild at a game stall while mom and dad sit nearby scrolling through Facebook, passing money to the game operator every few minutes to keep the party going.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Even more interesting, there’s usually a gaming section devoted to mahjong bingo where for NT$15-$20 a game, you can flip over fifteen mahjong tiles with the hope of landing a straight line on the gaming board. You’d think gambling was involved considering how many people hunker down in front of the tiles, but prizes rarely exceed the normal collection of children’s toys and stuffed animals.

I’ve noticed that while there are common threads that run through almost all night markets, each one still has its own unique vibe. Some are massive and cater to tourists looking to snatch up a few Chinese made souvenirs and pose for photos while holding stinky tofu. Others are more chill and locally driven–narrow lanes where people stop to grab their favorite dumplings or grilled squid on their way home from school or work. Some night markets function better as social hubs: landmarks to meet at with friends and browse but never buy; places where broke teenagers can take their dates.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Some of my favorite night markets are mainly clothing markets selling T-shirts with incorrect English printed on them and wide arrays of clubbing garb, priced to sell and in line with the latest fashion from Korea, Japan and the U.S. Two years ago on my birthday I bought a cap at the New Shinkuchan Night Market in Kaohsiung loaded with so much bling that I felt like a Saudi prince as soon as it touched my skull. There’s no way you’d find that type of swag in SOGO or any other department store chain in Taiwan.

Still, there are some night markets that are unapologetic in their randomness, completely undefinable and seemingly unmatched in their versatility. Meccas of commerce that have no problem catering to those who’d like to pick up a new cell phone case, have a pair of jeans tailored, get a manicure and snack on strawberry glazed penis cakes all at the same place.

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Fengjia Night Market, Taichung

Find Dreadlock Travels on Instagram: @jaywoodson

Author’s note: If you’re in Kaohsiung, Taiwanvore has done a fine job mapping out a lot of the night markets in the city. Peep his Photo walk through the Labor Park Night Market post as well.

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Three Meals: Singapore

Photo: Bigfoto.com

Photo: Bigfoto.com

Singapore. The tiny island nation that could; a mega mash-up of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian influences; a blank canvas of sorts for the ultra wealthy and if you’re there on a lengthy layover, a foodie playground for vagabonds with fat kid tendencies.

When faced with less than 24 hours in Singapore, ditch the shitty must-see list you copy and pasted from Trip Advisor or elsewhere on the interwebs and focus your efforts on working your way through the diverse range of food offerings.

You won’t be able to try everything. There’s too much. Attempting to tackle it all too quickly could result in a mad dash from one district to the other with nothing to show for it besides a destroyed palate the bubble guts.

I scored two long layovers in Singapore on trip to Cambodia last summer (shoutout to Tiger Air) and like a chump, carefully plotted a route through several districts and several of Singapore’s famous hawker centers looking to get bent on shameless gluttony. This of course meant dragging my girlfriend around the island looking for “The Best” of everything, passing up plenty of local dankness along the way. No doubt there were a couple of meals that aren’t worth the digital space I pay WordPress for (shoutout to banana flavored Hi-Chews–BANANA), but once I kicked the idea of seeking out “The Best,” my search got a helluva lot less stressful and the food a helluva lot better.

Rather than jab you with a twenty-bulleted index of food-stuffs to go tramping around Singapore for, here’s three plates that I’d order again if given the chance and that can be found nearly anywhere on the island. Just look for the lines of locals. If everyone in the place looks just like you, chances are you might as well be eating at McDonalds.

Kaya Toast with Eggs

Original photo: Shenghung Lin, CC 2.0

Original Photo: Shenghung Lin, CC 2.0

On appearance, Singapore’s oft touted “national breakfast” looks more like dorm room slop. She may not be the prettiest, but she’ll take care of you in the morning and will most likely be there when your drunk ass comes stumbling onto the food court after a long night out. A healthy spread of kaya (a thick curd of coconut milk, eggs and sugar) sandwiched between crispy crustless toast and paired with two soft boiled eggs seasoned with salt, pepper and a few shakes of soy sauce; it’s straight crack, homes. If Singapore made it illegal, people would still sell it under bridges and in dark alleys. Expats and tourist would ask for it using code names. “Yo, you know where I can score some breakfast bricks and jelly beans?”

Throw in a hot cup of Kopi (coffee, typically served with sweetened condensed milk) and you’re set. I spotted plenty of locals dipping their toast in the egg yokes, but make sure you give the kaya its due respect by enjoying a solo piece.

We found ours at a small hawker center behind the Boon Keng MRT station, but you can get  kaya toast at pretty much any kopitiam (traditional coffee shop/cafe) in Singapore. Some ratchet up the swank more than others, but you should’t pay more than SGP $4.00-4.50 regardless of the establishment.

Wanton Mee (Wanton Noodles)

A cantonese classic gone global, wanton mee has about as many variations as there are countries in East Asia. Eaten as a soup or dry, Hong Kong serves it in steamy fish broth with shrimp and scallions, Thais take it with plenty of chili and sometimes a flick of sugar, Filipinos have a version with mung bean spouts. Similar to Malaysia, Singaporeans tend to serve the wantons in a soup completely separate from the noodles, but in Singapore you might come across a version that includes a thin chili sauce resting in the bottom of the bowl. Almost all are are accompanied with a few slices of char sieu (barbecued pork).

We’re in the middle of a to-eat-or-not-to-eat debate over durian when my girlfriend spots  a stall offering wanton mee just off Sims avenue in Geylang. “Isn’t that on your list?” She knows I already have a specific place in mind for wanton mee, but her tone is clear: drag me to another district for some damn noodles, and you’ll be dining alone.

We sit down and look over the menu options posted in front of the stall. There’s wanton mee dry, wanton mee soup, laksa and steamed pork wantons. I go for the dry and look on as the chef is painfully meticulous in preparing the dish, coating the bottom of the bowl with a deep red chili sauce, ridding the noodles of any moisture by hoisting the straining basket above his head several times before depositing it’s contents into the shallow red puddle along with the char sieu and leafy bits of cai xin. The side of wanton soup was nothing spectacular, but the noodles–in that sauce–crushed it. Enough spice that you’ll need periodic gulps of tea, but not so much that it robs you of the noodles and seared pork. It’ll run you SGP $4.00.

A hundred food blogs will tell you a hundred different places to find wanton mee in Singapore. I’d suggest letting that sexy red chili sauce be your guide. Anywhere you find it is worth sit down.

Claypot Frog and Porridge

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Photo: Kickerjean

 

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Photo: Kickerjean

I can’t knock a person’s reluctance to eat amphibians. I’ll hardly pretend that frogs, or salamanders are somehow more appealing proteins than chicken or pork because, if nothing else, frogs and salamanders have barely enough meat to justify the effort it takes to cook them. It’s for this reason that I couldn’t believe how wildly popular claypot frog is amongst native Singaporeans and and transplants alike. Many offbeat foods rose to delicacy status out of necessity: at some point in the past, due to poverty or famine, (usually both) people started eating weird shit because it was either that or starve. Singapore isn’t necessarily hurting for cash or good cuisine these days–haven’t been for a while, so that people still line up for butchered frog and rice porridge is either testament to how good it is or how far people will go to save a buck.

Adding claypot frog to the list of food to tackle while in Singapore seemed like a good idea in theory as I sat in my living room, in Taiwan, munching on Doritos while hustling the internet for food tips. Look how cultured I am!, I thought, wiping bright orange tortilla dust on the couch pillows. However, when the clay pot was finally placed on the table–right under my nose–it took a solid dose of self coaching, a la trying-everything-at-least-once, before I could take the first spoonful.

Tender bits of bone-in frog meat swirl in a rich, dark soy sauce with green onions and (at least in the spicy version) dried red chilies. I peek at the many tables around us to see how others were eating their frogs. Do I toss a few pieces into the rice porridge and scoop it all out together? Do I go at it bones-in-hand like chicken wings, using the steamy porridge as filler in between bites? should I use chopsticks or a fork? Did that woman just order lemonade?

While similar in taste to dark meat chicken, the texture is closer to what you might expect from clams or mussels. That’s not a slam. I’m game for clams and mussels any day of the week. I had a difficult time, however, convincing myself–despite being solid tasting meal–that all those tiny bones nestled in the pot didn’t matter. Which is to say that I had a difficult time convincing myself the frogs I was eating weren’t the same slimy creatures I used to collect in buckets and store under my bed when I was eight years old. Cultured traveler or not, mind trumped matter on this one.

Would I order claypot frog again? Sure. Would I absolutely crave it next time I’m in Singapore? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Without a doubt. We hit Geylang Lor 9 Fresh Frog Porridge (SGP $8/$16/$22, plus $2-$4 for rice porriage) and had to grab a table at the back of a crowded alley full of diners, but there’s some dispute amongst foodie netizens over rather it’s them or the one of several other places in Geylang that churn out the best frog.

Eat This: Rice Stuffed Chicken Wings (飯飯雞翅)

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Photo By Kickerjean

Photo By Kickerjean

Sun Moon Lake did very little for me during a short visit last year. Its campground should probably be relocated, a cable car ride to the mountain above the lake wasn’t an option due to crappy weather, I’m not really enticed by butterfly gardens and frilly mountain-top theme parks are, well, creepy. Swimming is not permitted (aside from the annual 10,000 People Sun Moon Lake Traverse) so many visitors opt to take a boat tour or hit up the lakeside hiking/biking trails.

Because of almost constant rain, we were more or less relegated to either visiting the several temples peppered around the lake (yawn) or browsing around the shops and food stalls in Itashao (伊达邵) and Shueishe (水社) villages. We chose the latter, which amounted to buying a slightly perverted phallic-themed keychain and discovering this awesomeness:

Photo used with permission by Fob

Photo used with permission by Fob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take a grilled chicken wing, get rid of the bones, jam pack it with seasoned sticky rice, garnish with scallions and red onions and sell it for $NT 60 (not even two bucks).

Yes, please. And thank you.

I’ve since run into these rice stuffed wings (饭饭鸡翅) at night markets around Taiwan, but none have held up to the standard found in Itashao village. Probably because the stall in Itashao uses proper sticky rice (a favorite among Taiwan’s aboriginals) whereas other places use white rice.

There wasn’t much of a line when when we visited, but a row of photos in front of the stall suggests that whoever is involved with this version of the dish is a big deal.

Photo by Kickerjean

Photo by Kickerjean

Find the stall on the main road heading towards the pier in Itashao village, among the other food stalls and knick-knack shops.

Hong Kong Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan

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Tim Ho Wan--Taken after the lunch rush.

Tim Ho Wan–Taken after the lunch rush.

Ask an Asian cuisine foodie about dim sum and you’ll most likely see their eyes roll back in their head while they fire off a series of odd sounding food descriptions, making it seem as if dim sum is the best food on the planet that you should never try.

Google “dim sum in Hong Kong” you’re likely to find more information than you care to sift through on where to find the “best” and “most authentic” dim sum in arguably one of the best culinary countries in the world.

Enjoying a quality dim sum meal was certainly high on the to-do list when I visited Hong Kong for the first time last month, but not enough to sift through thousands of google hits and restaurant reviews to find the “best” one.

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Lunchtime host.

When the time comes to choose restaurant, I pick the closest place to our Airbnb room in Mong Kok: Tim Ho Wan. It’s earned a Michelin star and has received praise from food bloggers all over the interweb so I’m confident it won’t be a blank mission.

The restaurant is easy to find. We hop off the subway and stroll through a small street market and quiet neighborhood to get there.

It doesn’t look like much; sporting a boring green and white sign over a humble entryway with a few plastic stools. If it wasn’t for the group of 20 or so people waiting outside and the host shouting out numbers over a microphone, we might’ve walked right past it.

We give the host our name and snag an all-Chinese menu. I stare at it for a moment pretending to understand what I’m looking at before trying to sneak a peek at the people around me to see what they are ordering (a method I employ often but seldom have success with). When this fails I resort to comparing the Chinese characters on the menu to those on a few photos of a newspaper article the restaurant staff has hung in the entryway.  None of this matters because 20 minutes later we’re seated inside and given two menus printed in perfect English.

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As expected, the restaurant is packed tight and what little space is provided for walking is dominated by servers shouldering large trays of food stuff. As with the outside, the interior is nothing special–a simple black and white decor with little to no wall decorations and a glass case holding various awards. The cacophony of clanging tea kettles and plastic chopsticks might piss me off anywhere else, but here it’s shrugged off a necessary component of a popular restaurant. Also, I’m too hungry to care.

We’re seated next to a woman and her tween daughter who’s shoulder deep into her smartphone. Mom kindly instructs us to rinse our cups, chopsticks and bowls with hot tea before using them. Her daughter looks up for  moment to survey our work, then returns to Candy Crush Saga. We’re then told (through hang gestures and thumb ups) that we should order the baked pork buns.

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Rinse your dishes in tea and you’re good to go.

We tick seven different dishes on the menu (including the baked buns) knowing it would be too much but wanting to sample as much as possible.

The top favorites include steamed shrimp and pork dumplings (shu mai), steamed beef balls wrapped in bean curd and the steamed vermicelli rolls stuffed with beef (the version with BBQ pork seems to be more popular, however.

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Beef balls wrapped in bean curd.

The steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce and “Chiu Chow Style” dumplings were middle-of-the pack favorites but more than warranted a spot on our tiny table–save the slippery nature of the spare ribs which nearly caused me to shoot one into the lap of the woman sitting next to me.

I probably would have enjoyed the glutinous rice dumplings more if I wasn’t already stuffed by the time they came out, but I still had enough room to polish off some of the grilled pork inside.

The baked pork buns (char siu bao) recommendation holds up because it’s perhaps the best item on the menu; flakey and slightly sweet on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside, oozing with tender pork and a BBQ sauce that is nothing like you’d expect to find in this part of the world.

I was tempted to grab six for the road.

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Baked pork buns, vermicelli rolls stuffed with beef and a single “Chieu Chow” style dumpling.

By the time we are finished the restaurant has cleared out a little and we thank the the woman and her daughter for their recommendation. The entire bill runs us 129 Hong Kong dollars (about $17 USD).

Michelin quality food for less than twenty bucks.

Boom.

*Authors note

Tim Ho Wan has several locations. We Visited the Fuk Wing Street location on Kowloon:

G/F, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon
九龍深水埗福榮街9-11號地下
8:00-22:00

Take the Tsuen Wan (red) subway line north to Sham Sui Po. Walk straight out of exit B2 and you’ll be on Pei Ho St. Walk through the market and take a right on Fuk Wing. It’s four blocks down on the right, just before Fuk Wing meets Tai Po.

Hong Kong Yam Cha has a complete list of Tim Ho Wan Hong Kong locations

Culinary Cravings

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I’m a big fan of expat living. The challenge of navigating through daily life with little knowledge of the local language combined with the opportunity to see something new everyday is an addiction that, for me at least, is not easily kicked. It’s the reason I came to Taiwan despite having announced at the end of my last stint abroad that I would not be returning to Asia anytime soon. I’m constantly reminding myself to observe as much as I can and be aware of the small, seemingly minute details of what makes living in a foreign country so interesting: The security guard who teaches 15 second Chinese lessons as we pass through the lobby; an elderly Taiwanese exercise group that meets in a small promenade across from our building (Kay came home one evening to them practicing the Macarena); the many brightly dressed couples that congregate at the beach around sunset with a platoon of photographers to take the perfect couple/wedding photos. I take it all in and try not to take it in stride.

Of course, not everything involved with expat living is quirky and enthralling. There’s plenty of things that make it atop my “most–annoying-shit-ever” list and times when I wish for just a modicum of western comforts–most notably, western culinary comforts.

Before I took off to live in Korea several years back the most interesting parting gift I received was a jar of Skippy peanut butter. I didn’t and still don’t eat enough peanut butter to warrant adding the extra luggage weight, but it did remind me that there would be food items that are next to impossible to come by in Asia. Receiving care packages was a common topic amongst my expat friends on Facebook where they’d brag about having gotten vegemite (the brits),  proper gravy for poutine (Canadians) and beef jerky (yours truly).

Some would say that when in a different country one should enjoy the local cuisine as much as possible and while I agree, I also know that there are times when you just want a sandwich with mayo on it and a decent bag of chips, or a steak with legit barbecue sauce or some friggin granola. Damn the arguments abut skipping out on the local food. Sometimes you just want a taste of back home.

Unfortunately there are odd habits that can develop from these cravings if left unchecked…

A recent craving had me pacing up and down the aisles of a high-end grocery store comparing different crackers, cookies, and biscuits searching for the closest thing possible to graham crackers. I found more than enough digestifs and butter cookies, different flavors of wafers–even lady fingers and stroopwaffles, but not a single box of graham crackers. After 20 minutes of searching–just before frustration morphs into rage–I managed to find a bag of what looked like the closest thing to graham crackers. The shape was all wrong and they looked slightly more dense than what I’m used to, but everything else fit the bill. Like an idiot, I tried to gather the scent of the oddly shaped crackers through their plastic wrapping and got a nostril full of dust and cellophane.

I was equally troubled  when I came across a bag of my beloved Flammin’ Hot Cheetos priced at nearly three times the amount of what they go for back home. I passed on buying them that day confident that the Cheetos well would be plentiful. When I returned a week later they were gone. I search in the same spot every time I visit that store and have yet to find them. It’s become somewhat of a ritual: I search for my Cheetos fix,  go find Kay (she’s usually in the sauces aisle searching for Siriacha) and she asks “Did you find them?”

Once when browsing through the foreign foods section of Carrefour Kay let out a gasp like she was choking on something. I turned around to find her cradling a bottle of ranch dressing with a look of joy on her face normally reserved for child births and weddings. Nevermind that it was double the price of what it cost back home. We had to have it.

Recently a friend told me that she managed to find Frank’s brand hot sauce at her local supermarket. An hour later I was still seething in jealousy. Why should SHE be able to enjoy proper hot sauce when I’m stuck mixing random asian brands of chili sauce trying to find the texture and flavor of what I love back home. It took a few beers before I could get over it.

True, Taiwan offers a lot more variety in western comfort foods than other countries, but finding them can be frustrating. Mega-chain Costco holds its own when it comes to many hard to find items (one of the best places to find a decent variety of REAL cheese), but you need to buy items in bulk and some expats are put off by the membership charge.  Jason’s (where I had my graham cracker struggles) is another good option for foreign needs (squid ink pasta, imported wine, maple syrup) but you’ll pay a hefty premium for some of the items they have in stock. I found a small tub of sour cream (for taco night) going for nearly $7 USD. Increasingly there are more grocery stores around the island that are setting up “foreign food” aisles that contain popular fare from North America and Europe as well as food items from countries in Asia and (sometimes) Latin America. Again, finding these gastro-oases can sometimes be difficult, but are well worth seeking out.

It’s also important to realize when your cravings are simply out of reach. There’s nothing wrong with an addiction to organic canned sardines in olive oil, or Coleman’s mustard powder, or southern Quick Grits, but you might be better off having someone back home send  you a hearty supply rather than criss-crossing the country looking for them or constantly badgering members of expat forums for advice on how to track it down. You could also get creative. You may not be able to find tahini, but maybe you can score some sesame seeds and olive oil and throw it together yourself. Can’t find the salsa you want? Look up a simple recipe online then head to the produce market for ingredients. A fellow expat in Kaohsiung enjoys hemp smoothies and was able to track down organic berries (albeit frozen) and even wheatgrass to sort himself out.

Whatever the cravings, try not to let them completely take over your eating habits while living abroad. You might miss out on some tasty local grub.

Stinky tofu, anyone?

Taiwan’s Selfie Latte’s

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Taiwan just stepped it’s coffee game up.

Coffe company Let’s Cafe has made it possible to print your portrait onto a latte, taking foam art to a whole new level. The Company operates it’s coffee kiosks out of Taiwan’s Family Mart convenient stores and are striving to give customers something they can’t get at the more established coffe joints.

How does it work?

Order a latte, upload a selfie from your smartphone and the machine sprinkles the image into the foam using cocoa powder. Boom. You don’t even have to drink it. Just stare at yourself in all your frothy goodness. Of course the point is not just to stare and marvel. You’d be missing out on the moment if you didn’t whip out your phone and take a photo your foam portrait.

Kudos should be given to Let’s Cafe. They’ve found a clever way to capitalize on both Taiwanese photo glut and a ridiculous “selfie” phenomenon gone global (thanks, Instagram). Now, instead of having cell phone photo shoots in your bathroom in fornt of a dirty mirror, you can have them at a local convenient store in front of random customers. As you pay for your latte  you can seek the admiration of the store clerk for haven taken a picture that transferred to milk froth so well.

It’s a quirky idea and I’m sure it’ll be a big hit, but it’s not winning any awards for practicality and there are still a few questions to be answered:

How long will it take to get your latte?

The reason Let’s Cafe has launched its new latte machine is so that it can better compete with larger coffee chains like Starbucks And Taiwan’s own Donutes Cafe. But they’ll do little to knock off  the competition if it takes twice as long to get your order because of hyper stylized foam decorations–which begs another question to be asked: what exactly is an appropriate time value for detailed latte art? A nifty Starbucks barista can drizzle a maple leaf into your morning Cappucino and it only takes a few seconds. Let that same barista take an extra 5 minutes crafting your leaf and there would be a line of  pissed off customers who couldn’t give two shits about the barista’s artistic pursuits.

Of course Let’s Cafe’s foam art is derived from a digital image so you would think it shouldn’t take too long, but I would hate to be stuck waiting for my drink behind a group of Taiwanese middle school girls trying to decide on just the right photo to upload. Inevitably it would happen on your way to work or some other important engagement, but you would be in the wrong let your frustations get the best of you. If all you want is a quick latte you can go somewhere else. Those girls are there for the ultimate experience in Taiwanese coffee consumption; what Let’s Cafe is calling “ridiculously unique and fun.” Never mind that it took half an hour to get it.

Will a photo latte be more expensive than a non-photo latte?

After watching the promotional video it’s clear Let’s Cafe feels their latte photo machine is already a big hit in Taiwan, though I have yet to see one anywhere in Kaohsiung. They mention how their customized latte art became “the talk of the town” and “won over the hearts” of customers. What the video fails to reveal is how much it will cost, but I noticed something that makes me think it’ll cost a lot more that your average convenience store latte .

At one point a guy in the video get’s his customized latte and decides to share it with his lovely female companion. He carefully hands it to her with a subtle but stern glance that says: “if you fuck up and drop this, you’re buying me a new one.”

It seems odd to charge more for something that will most likely disintegrate as soon as you put a lid on the cup which, unless you plan on enjoying your drink inside Family Mart, you will have to do, but not before taking a photo of it to share with others. This of course could create a vicious cycle: take a picture of yourself, have it put on your latte, take a picture of yourself with the latte containing your portrait, then have that put on another latte….I’m probably thinking about this too much.

Are we allowed to put ANY photo on a latte?

If so, we shouldn’t overlook the fun to be had from this in the form of well executed social experiments.

Imagine, for example, how interesting it would be to put a random stranger’s photo on your latte. You’d want to catch someone unexpectedly–either right when they’re entering the store or while waiting in line to check-out:

“Excuse me, sir. Would you like to have your face on my morning latte?”

Better yet, instead of asking permission, just whip out your smart phone and snap a photo of an unsuspecting stranger (happens to me all the time) then head straight for the latte machine. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up next to that same person in the check-out line. They’ll glance down and see their mug shot sprinkled on your drink and you’ll have made a new friend. After posting the photo on Facebook the stranger would arouse the curiosity of your closest friends:

“Say Gary, who’s that person on your latte?”

You can boastfully, “Some guy I met in Family Mart. We’re meeting for drinks and sashimi later tonight.”

Better still, how fun would it be to have a dirty photo dusted atop your latte? Perhaps a set of tightened buttocks or a voluptuous pair of double D’s? Of course doing such a thing would mean putting the store attendant in a rather precarious situation: does he ring up your latte like normal and pretend not to see the pair of protruding orbs afloat in your cup? Does he refuse to sell it to you? On what grounds? Indecent espresso? Does Family Mart have a contingency plan in place if such a thing happens? They should.

Again, maybe I’ve gone too far, but mobile photo glut has the tendency to bring out the worst in people.

I have no information on when these machines will hit Family Mart stores in southern Taiwan (if they haven’t already), but if anyone in Taipei or elsewhere has tried it, I’d love to see the results. Drop a link in the comments or find me on Instagram @jaywoodson.

As for me, I tend to get my coffee from 7-11, but I won’t pass up an opportunity to try it at least once.

*Update: As fellow Taiwan blogger, Taiwanvore so nicely pointed out, Let’s Cafe will not be rolling out it’s photo latte machine in Taiwan after all. The video was shot by a marketing company hired by the makers of the machine itself. Looks like we won’t be able to plaster our faces (or body parts) on our lattes after all.

K.I.F.F. a “Delicious Success”

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These last few days have been rough.

Not only did I have a severe case of F-U-Mondays, but the recovery from my food bender last weekend has taken longer than originally anticipated.

I’ve never been a shining model of self-restraint–even less so when it comes to food, but all hell breaks loose when you subject me to a smorgasbord of culinary crack like what was found at the Kaohsiung International Food Festival.

Please take a moment to back-hand yourself if you missed it. DSC_1049

I had doubts about the chosen venue, but the Dream Mall worked well, allowing attendees to move though a corridor of food booths before being deposited in front of the main stage or along the side of it pass through and exit the festival altogether.

When we arrived Sunday afternoon I quickly went about the business of snacking on all there was to offer–successfully knocking off Taco Rico’s yellow corn soft shell tacos, roasted pork knuckle and sauerkraut from Deutsche Kuche and New Zealand hard cider from Sarkii alcohol importers. I then moved on to The Bayou’s catfish tacos, and a tasty Portugese egg tart compliments of Cafe de Macau. As promised, most of the food was priced to sell so wallet guilt was nil.

Haxstrong founder Greg Haxton

Haxstrong founder Greg Haxton

The Haxtrong charity crew was also out in full force selling raffle tickets, T-shirts, brownies, banana bread and other goodies to help further their much needed cause, and judging by the constant swarm of people around their booth I’d say their efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

Kaohsiung’s reigning burger champ The Eatery was de-throned by Foster Hewitt’s Pub and Grill for Best Burger accolades and The Bayou took the Best Pizza title, but my personal congrats go to the brave folks that entered into the Burger Eating contest.

Three 2-person teams spent thirty minutes trying to consume a 6-pound burger appropriately named “The Hulk.”

Why anyone would volunteer for such a task is beyond me as I’m sure there are health risks involved in consuming that much meat in one sitting, but I rather enjoyed being a spectator and snapping photos of a scene that looked like something out of The Walking Dead.

At the 15 minute mark the contestants were looking sluggish and I became increasingly concerned about whether or not I was in range of a potential projectile vomit barrage. The foreigner squad was well ahead of the two Taiwanese teams but I still gleefully cheered on, urging them to take one more bite to honor their respective countries.

KIFF Burger Eating Competition.

KIFF Burger Eating Competition.

When it all ended the stage looked like a lamb slaughter had just taken place and the six lethargic contestants smiled at the crowd with ketchup stained lips. The winners were given a couple gift cards, a plaque commemorating their victory and a liter of Coca-Cola.

Feeling inspired, I headed back over to the food booths to see what was left to sample.

Round two included a bratwurst from Cory’s Kitchen, more hard cider and several spoonfuls of frozen yogurt from Hello Berry. I flirted with a bite size sample of panzerotti at the Lulu John booth, but gave the full sized portion a miss in hopes of saving room for St. Louis style ribs from Blue Smoque BBQ. Sadly I had to throw in the towel. Vetti Vetti Vicci.

The food gave way to music towards the end of the night and those who weren’t too stuffed hung out and did their best to provide the bands with a dance crowd. By then my stomach was too full for me to do anything more that sway and bob my head, but I stuck around to hear K-Town’s much loved Liger Attack.

Kudos to Ryan Parsons and the participating vendors for putting together an event that everyone can boast about. I was pleased to see a healthy mixture of foreigners and local Taiwanese vying for positon in the food lines. Perhaps an added benefit to events like KIFF is that they help illustrate how diverse the foreign community is while dispelling the myth that we’re all a bunch of loud drunkards looking to get laid.

When I asked Ryan about next year’s festival he rattled off his process for figuring our how to make it even better.

One suggestion: cots and pillows for the gastro-inebriated.

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Peace.

2nd Annual Kaohsiung International Food Festival 3/23-3/24

Image courtesy of the Kaohsiung International Food Festival

I don’t usually need a reason to gorge myself on international cuisine being that I tend to sample any and everything that catches my senses, but this weekend presents a unique exception.

The 2nd annual Kaohsiung International Food Festival kicks-off this Saturday and will offer ample opportunity to stuff your face with foreign goodies from Kaohsiung’s expat chefs. Expect to see less stinky tofu and more smoked ribs and levercase.

Around 30 restaurants and food vendors from 19 different countries will be showcasing their fare throughout the weekend and several will be competing for Best Pizza and Best Burger titles. Festival goers can also flex their skills in several competitions including the Waiguoren Wok Challenge (foreigners cooking Taiwanese food for a panel of Taiwanese judges) and an air guitar competition benefiting local charity, Haxstrong.

Besides the food there will be a DJ ad several local bands on deck to help deal with “The Itis” (AKA food coma) and an MC will floating around interviewing participants and helping to move the event along smoothly.

The festival is being put on by Event Chairman and Kaohsiung veteran Ryan Parsons who was able to field a few questions about this year’s KIFF and the festival’s origins:

DT: How long have you been in Kaohsiung?

RP: On and off since 2000.  I arrived the day Chen Shui-bien got elected and the country was going crazy!  It calmed down the next day but I thought it would be that hysterical all the time. 

DT: What are a few things that you’ve seen change since you arrived?

RP: The city isn’t even close to what is was like in 2000.  The government has (since) funded city projects that have truly made Kaohsiung a city of the future.  The international community was non – existent when I arrived and now we have the largest international food festival on the island that is completely run from top to bottom by the expat community.

DT: How did the idea come about to put together a food festival in Kaohsiung?

RP: When I used to have restaurants what I loved most was sharing my culture’s food with the locals in the same way they get excited about sharing their local cuisine with us (foreigners).  As the international community increased in size so did the restaurants opening to serve them.  Its been a project of mine for 4 years and I’m blessed to have such great foreign restaurants to be able to make it a possibility. 

DT: Can we expect to see Taiwanese food vendors as well?

RP: The Taiwanese have so many unique and fantastic festivals and markets. It’s our turn to serve them and treat them to a weekend of our food, music and culture.  Thank you for making us feel at home, Taiwan!

DT: What’s included in this year’s KIFF that wasn’t a part of the festival last year?

RP: The Waiguoren Wok competition, Kaohsiung’s Best Pizza competition, Latin dancing lessons, (food) demonstration and interactive video tents, A Bourbon Street bar and stage, more food and drink and a wider array of music and activities.

DT: One thing the absolutely MUST be sampled at this year’s KIFF?

RP: With prices starting at $60 NT we’ve made it possible to sample everything, though you may have to come both days.

Ryan graciously dodged plugging any specific vendor on that last one, but I’ll personally be seeking out Deutsche Kuche’s Bavarian roasted pork knuckle, and Mama Africa’s roti.

Keep in mind that this is a green event and everyone is encouraged to bring their own plate and utensils or else borrow them from the KIFF information desk.

The festival takes place at the Kaohsiung Dream Mall (look for the dubious ferris wheel on the roof).
Sat. 3/23 12 pm-9 pm
Sun. 3/24 12 pm-7 pm

Be sure to check out the KIFF website for updates, full menu and entertainment listings and vendor & sponsor info.

Peace.

 

 

Anthony Bourdain VS Eddie Huang: Taipei

I recently watched the Taipei episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” (big thanks to Thinking About Languages for the heads up). To be honest this was the first episode I’ve seen since the show first aired in November of 2011. I’m a die-hard junkie of “No Reservations,” often times watching it to scout for future travel destinations. I didn’t enjoy everything that Bourdain and his producers chose to highlight (the dancing and guns segment in Greece was a little odd), but they did a solid job of showcasing the glamorous and gritty of different countries.

The premise of “The Layover” is different from “No Reservations” in that Bourdain only spends 48 hours in each location, mainly focusing on the must-see, must-do and must-eat.  We still have the normal bleeping-out of Bourdain’s colorful language  and a solid mixture of destination insiders to consult, but the clock is always ticking. It’s not a format I would personally ascribe to for visiting anywhere, but it works for the purposes of television.

That being said, I couldn’t resist comparing Bourdain’s view of Taipei to that of Eddie Huang, the badboy chef/hipster host of Vice Magazine’s ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ Here, the Taiwanese American raised in Orlando but based in New York, along with his crew, strive to “venture into subculture through the lens of food”  (though the food part sometimes takes a backseat to other subjects). Since the show’s release (via YouTube) last October Huang has shown us some of the lesser known angles of his destinations (he goes hunting for rabbits in Oakland), utilizing an eclectic cast of chaperones and a heavy dose of east coast slang. It’s not the type of stuff you’d find on the Travel Channel, but that’s not surprising given Vice’s reputation pushing the envelope.

Coincidentally, the last segment of “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” was released a week after ‘The Layover’ and naturally I thought the two hosts would present us with different but equally important views of the island. After watching however, I was surprised at how similar the two episodes were. Normally Chef Huang has a penchant for slamming other celebrity chefs.  

Both Huang and Bourdain do a good job of talking about the different foods they sample and Huang in particular seems to dim his east coast bravado when doing so, taking great care to explain the different flavors and textures. They both stroll throug night markets stopping periodically to showcase a specific item; Bourdain quickly gobbles down a pork belly gua bao (steamed bun sandwich) at the Keelung night market and Huang pauses to joke about penis shaped waffles at the night market in Shilin.

The two hosts also visit the 24-hour shrimp fishing restaurant, Cheun Chang as well as a place where western and Taiwanese fare is served in different types of miniature toilets. Neither of them seem to enjoy either experience which makes me think the shrimp fishing and toilet food segments were included only for their novelty.

I could see why both hosts decided to include a trip to Din Tai Fong. Bourdain and Huang rave about how good the restaurant’s soup dumplings are, and the process of how they’re made is worth showcasing. I’ve never been there personally, but I’m inclined to seek the place out next time I’m in Taipei. (If there’s a Din Tai Fong chain in Kaohsiung let me know and the first round of dumplings is on me.)

Given all the similarities between “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” and “The Layover: Taipei” there’s still enough differences to warrant taking in both. Bourdain has a drink or two during his time in Taipei, but Huang goes for the gusto and picks up some betelnut, a popular Asian stimulant that is chewed–similar to chewing tobacco. Huang (who speaks fluent Chinese) is able to mix it with locals without a translator and is thus easily able to tackle the sticky subject of Taiwanese independence, while Bourdain focuses keeps it pithy with conversations about strippers at Taiwanese funerals and an odd form of martial arts. The aims of “The Layover” involve giving a short-term visitor an idea of what to see on a visit, but “Fresh Off the Boat” attempts (with varied success) to unearth the layers of culture often unseen by tourists. Fair enough.

I haven’t been here long enough to decipher which account of Taiwan is more encapsulating, but I’d love to hear feedback from anybody who has.

Fresh Off the Boat has two episodes in Taiwan, broken up into six parts. Find part one as well as The Layover: Taipei below.

Peace.

Formosa First Impressions: Breakfast

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A solid night of sleep does wonders for the senses. When I arrived in Taiwan it was dark, raining and mostly unappealing. The next day however (after realizing that I was in fact, in Taiwan) I wake up amped at the thought of kickstarting my day in a new country.

After paying for the first couple of nights at the hostel we set out for breakfast. The kind lady at the front desk assures us that there is a great place for a traditional Chinese breakfast just around the corner and scribbles out a map on small piece of paper along with our order written in Mandarin to make sure we get the right food. After taking a look at her map I’m skeptical about our chances of  finding the place. It takes us a while (after walking in the complete opposite direction) but eventually we end up in a large 2nd-floor cafeteria lined with food stalls. In front of one stall there’s a long line of diners extending from the cash register to the stairwell at the back of the cafeteria. The whole place is packed with people eating, conversing and taking pictures of their food with smartphones and large DSLR cameras. If this isn’t the place, who the hell cares. One thing I’ve learned about seeking out good food in foreign countries is that if the locals are lining up, follow suit.

We hop in line and I begin scanning the room to see if anyone has noticed the brown gentleman with mop hair and his short female companion who have just entered their popular food haven. No one seems to care. I can’t help but compare the situation to Korea, where it was an everyday occurrence that someone would gasp or sigh or point whenever I’d walk into a local restaurant or market. I played it off as best I could, but it got old pretty quick.

As we approach the counter I notice  a room off to the side with glass walls where food is being prepared by a small platoon of women . Dough is being stretched, cut, sprinkled with sesame seeds, rolled into long buns and tossed into a circular kiln looking device where it sticks to the the outer walls and and begins to cook. My mouth starts to water. I have my Nikon on me, but I decide to simply snap a couple photos with my iphone as I didn’t want to tinker with camera settings and loose my spot in line.

Making  Shao Bing at Fu Hang Dou.

Making Shao Bing at Fu Hang Dou.

Just about everyone is ordering the same thing: A bowl of hot milk-like liquid, the aforementioned  hoagie roll split open and stuffed with what looks like an omelette and a churro, and a some type of tortilla folded together with egg and drizzled with…cheese?

Behind the counter is another platoon of women (I think I saw one male stocking to-go containers in the back) working with assembly line precision taking and preparing orders. We hand our little paper over and make a sign that we would like two of everything.
“Hot or cold,” she asks.
“Uh….hot.”
“Okay. Wait.”

Within moments we have two bowls of the same frothy milk-like substance that everyone else has, but nothing more.
“Is that it?” Kay looks at me as if I know what’s written on our small order slip. We move along to the register with our bowls and proceed to pay. “One six-ta-hee!,” says one woman.
“One fifty?”
“No, no, no. One six-ta-heee!” A second woman joins her and they it together: “One six-ta-ta-ta-heee!”  They both let out a loud chuckle while patting each other on the back. I chuckle as well and hand over $160 Taiwanese dollars.

“That can’t be all we ordered.” Kay is now convinced that, despite having no idea what the lady at the hostel wrote on our little slip , that more food is coming.

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I insist that we have all that we ordered and we find seats along a along a counter in the cafeteria. I take a few sips of the hot liquid. It’s semi sweet, and taste similar to the the Cream-of-Wheat my grandmother used to make. Seconds later the “one six-ta-hee” lady appears and hands us the rest of our order: two hoagie-like breakfast sandwiches. Kay was right. We should’ve waited.

I would later discover (thanks to my homie Google) that our breakfast consisted of  “shao bing” stuffed with a Chinese style doughnut and green omelette. The steamy white liquid turned out to be soy milk.

We gobble down our food and head out down the back stairwell. By now the line has quadrupled in length and its almost noon. I’m stuffed and hoping that Kay won’t mind coming back to the same place tomorrow.

Peace,

Jay

*Author’s Note: If you’re in Taipei and looking to enjoy the same breakfast head to:
Fu Hang Dou Jiang (阜杭豆漿) inside the Hua Shan Market building, 2nd floor.
Take the Blue line MRT to Shandao Temple Exit 5. The Hua Shan building will be on your right.
Breakfast runs from 5:30-1230. Expect to wait in line.

Fu Hang Dao

Fu Hang Dao