Tag Archives: street food

Sibling #5 Craves Childhood Crack: Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic and Thai Basil

Michelle, or Shel as everyone calls her, is a stunner. She’s the only one that got our Canadian father’s fair skin and hazel eyes. Unlike some of us Shel actually attended public school in Taiwan, which meant that her superior Chinese qualified her to be the tone correctional officer in our house. It might not seem like such a big deal to use the second tone instead of the third, but when incorrect usage can change a sentence from “I caught a cold” (wo-3rd gan-3rd mao-4th) to “I fucked a cat” (wo-3rd gan-4th mao-1st) you begin to see the benefits of having someone to double-check that you are raising, dipping and dropping your voice in all the right places.

In Taiwan a favorite activity for all of us siblings after a long day of school, work and what-have-you was to head down to the local night market for some entertainment. We spent hours trying to catch tiny turtles or goldfish with a quickly disintegrating “net” of tissue paper, popping colorful water balloons with darts— and of course enjoying the tasty street food. Sweet potato fries, dusted in a secret blend of spices were ridiculously addictive and Shel’s (if not everyone’s) favorite. The “secret blend” was likely a mix of 40% spices and 60% MSG, but whatever the ingredients were it was 100% epicurean crack.

These particular night market fry-stalls were set up with a dizzying array of par-cooked items neatly arranged in front. And a large oil-filled wok sizzling behind, waiting. We would grab a little plastic basket from where it was stacked on the side and begin to peruse the options— squid, chicken, fish cakes, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables— anxiously snapping our metal serving tongs together while we made up our minds. Some nights we’d buy a mix bag, adding a little calamari (cut into strips rather than rings), chicken, or maybe green beans. But we never skipped the sweet potatoes.

Replicating this dish is a challenge in part because I can’t be 100% sure what was in the secret spice blend, but mainly because I don’t want to use MSG. However, with high quality spices (buy them as fresh as you can; I get mine from The Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown), sweet potatoes, garlic and Thai basil this snack is pretty spectacular—even without the controversial flavor enhancer.

3 sweet potatoes (I use the Japanese or Korean variety)
Vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic
10 Thai basil leaves
1 tsp. fried shallots * see Cook’s Note
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt

  • Cut the sweet potatoes into ½ inch thick fries.
  • The trick to really great fries—crisp with a fluffy center—is to blanch them in 300°– 325° oil till just cooked through but not golden. If you’re using a deep pan rather than an actual fryer, stir occasionally to prevent the sugary fries from sinking to the bottom and browning.
  • Remove with a spider (or your preferred straining device) onto paper towels. Thoroughly drain and set aside until you’re ready for the final step.
  • For the seasoning, place 1 tsp. of fried shallots into a spice blender. Pulse to a fine powder. In a small bowl mix together the shallot (don’t stress getting every last bit out of the tiny blender), garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper & salt.
  • Bring the oil back up, this time to 350°– 375°. Add the par-cooked fries taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Stir gently to ensure even cooking. 30 seconds before the fries are completely ready crush the garlic cloves, leaving the skins on, and toss them into the oil. Just before removing the garlic and fries throw in the basil. (Step back, this will cause the oil to splatter violently)
  • Drain everything on paper towels. Remove the papery skins and mince the garlic. Dust generously with the spice blend, adding extra salt if needed. Toss and enjoy immediately.

Cooks Note: Fried shallots are common in Chinese cooking and are readily available at your local Asian grocery store. If you have and/or prefer to use shallot powder instead that would work too.

Examining the Mixed Up Minds and Palates of Third Culture Kids

In her book According to My Passport, I’m Coming Home author Kay Branaman Eakin describes a Third Culture Kid as, “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”

Educators and psychologist who study Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have found that, among other things (really I’m only sharing the good stuff), they have a lower divorce rate, communicate well, and tend to be more welcoming and understanding of other cultures. TCKs are more likely to earn a college degree in their 20s, and many go on to earn advanced degrees. However, after graduation it is unlikely that they will enter the same career field of their parents (which tends to be missionary, military, or government).

My siblings and I are all TCKs. We have a Canadian father and a Filipina mother. Two of us were born in the Philippines, one in Macau, five in Japan and two in Taiwan. I’m the only one who speaks Japanese, but two of my brothers can understand a bit. Four of us girls can flip to Chinese if we ever want to gossip about you in front of you. But our youngest sister is the only one who can say anything in Tagalog that isn’t a cuss word.  Only the oldest two (my older brother and I) have ever lived in the Philippines. Interestingly, we are also the only two who have never lived in Canada.

The 3rd culture we’ve created is a mix of Japanese and Chinese culture, with a sprinkling of Canadian-ness here and there. In other words we remove our shoes when we enter the house but there aren’t tiny slippers designated solely for the bathroom (I am not exaggerating here, Japanese really do have a set of slippers used just inside the bathroom). We can’t spend two nights together without pulling out the karaoke machine and belting out cheesy 90s ballads, our song choice reflecting the slightly dated Americanized pop culture we were surrounded by while growing up in Asia. In the late 80s-early 90s the most popular English songs sung in Japanese karaoke bars were the hits of the 70s sibling duo The Carpenters. So the song choices could be worse. Although perhaps I’d prefer my 11-year-old sister know the lyrics to Touch Me When We’re Dancing rather than enthusiastically sing along to the salacious I’ll Make Love to You by Boyz II Men.

As for sports there’s really no debate—here Canadian-ness shifts from a mere sprinkling to a heavy dousing—hockey is king. When hockey season is at its peak my family living room is filled with shouts, squeals, nerves, tears, jubilation and disappointment on par with the backstage of a Baby Beauty Pageant. While my brothers dabble with other sports, true worship takes place at the altars of Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr and Markus Naslund.

Perhaps one day I will pay a shrink thousands of dollars to dig around in my TCK head. No doubt he/she will tell me how my childhood is to blame for my taste in music, my incessant need to de-clutter my apartment and why I struggle to select cheese at Western grocery stores—seriously why does there have to be 150 different types? But that is not now, and definitely not here.

Here, I will focus my linguistically and culturally confused brain on doing a little experiment involving TCKs and food. Specifically, if nostalgia plays a key role in a person’s perception of what constitutes as “comfort food” then did growing up in various countries influence each of my siblings’ tastes differently?

When I feel ill, all I can think about is a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Sibling #4 craves Chinese congee. While sibling #3 told me that his idea of comfort food is buttered toast dipped in milk. (I shudder to think how many loaves he’s consumed trying to ease the pain of his beloved Canucks losing the Stanley Cup Final last week.)

I have asked each of my siblings what they crave when they are sad, sick, or just looking for something that reminds them of “home”. Over the coming weeks, I will share their answers on this blog, as well as a recipe for each dish. I fully expect to be cooking up a lot of Taiwanese street food, but I’m also ready for a possible poutine or tuna casserole from the more Canadian among us.

As for the toast and milk request from my younger brother—maybe I’ll write a post on how to milk a cow… ‘cause that’s a hell of a lot more interesting then a piece on how to turn on a toaster.

Pork buns, Fried & Steamed: Xiao Rou Bao

A favorite night market snack, xiao rou bao have a filling that is similar to gyoza or jiaozi, your common Chinese and Japanese dumplings, but instead of a thin wrapper these are encased and cooked inside an airy dough. Street vendors steam them in large pans and finish them by crisping up the bottoms. Buns filled with just vegetables, typically cabbage, called tsai (vegetable) bao (bun) are easy to find and equally delicious.

The literal translation of xiao rou bao is small meat bun. In Taiwan it’s pretty much a given that the filling will be pork. I’ve beautified the English name here because I didn’t think a recipe suggesting mystery meat would be particularly enticing to my Western readers.

Fingers crossed one day a mad scientist will invent a time travel machine, but until then I’ve found that the best way to relive cherished memories is through flavors. This is my attempt to transport myself to a bustling night market in Taiwan.

Whether you’re making this dish after a recent trip to Taiwan or creating a new food memory these soft bundles of goodness are sure to extract squeals of delight from you and the lucky friends you share them with. The recipe below makes 10 buns.

2 tsp. sugar
¼ ounce (1 packet) dry yeast
½ cup warm water
1 cup flour
½ tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp. oil

Pork Filling:
1 cup cabbage, minced
2 large shiitake caps, finely diced
1 scallion, finely sliced
½ inch piece of ginger, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
½ pound, (well marbled), ground pork
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1 tsp. rice wine/Chinese cooking wine
1 tsp. sesame oil
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper

  • Dissolve sugar and yeast in ½ cup warm water. While the yeast is proofing (sitting and activating) mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Pour the wet mixture into the dry one, add oil and mix until smooth. Knead very lightly and briefly in bowl. Cover and let dough rise for 40 minutes.

  • While dough is rising mix all the pork filling ingredients together in a bowl.

  • Once the dough has finished rising turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead lightly and divide into 10 equal sized balls. If you’re gadget crazy and have a scale they should be approximately .80 oz. each. If you don’t, simply make each one a little larger than a ping pong ball. Press into small thin rounds. Fill each with a tablespoon of the pork filling. Seal by pinching dough together at the top.

  • Heat a skillet and one tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add pork buns. Brown the bottom of the buns for 15-20 seconds. Add 1½ cups water, cover. Steam buns until all the water evaporates, about 10-15 minutes. Once water has evaporated and the buns have double in size remove the lid. Finish by browning the tops of the pork buns.
  • Serve with soy sauce and chili oil or sriracha

I Dream of Scooters and Street Food.

(I’ve been wanting to write a piece on Taiwan since my memorable trip last March but work and responsibilities took precedence… until now! If you grew up in Taiwan I hope this makes you homesick, in the best sort of way. And if you’ve never been to the island maybe this will entice you to give it a place on your “must visit” list.)

I bend down to inspect a vacant spot on the concrete steps in front of a brightly lit store with a blue and green neon sign that reads “Family Mart”. Seeing no excessive fluid or grime, I lay claim to the prime real estate and turn my attention to my recently acquired loot.

A small plastic bag holds three xiao rou bao, soft white buns stuffed and steamed with juicy pork and smothered in a spicy chili sauce. A paper sleeve cradles a chicken filet the size of a Dan Brown novel. The succulent meat has been pounded out, bathed in salty brine, breaded and fried until shatteringly crisp. A generous dusting of a secret spice blend blankets the golden exterior. Hints of garlic, chili and white pepper waft towards me. Slices of bell fruit, the love child of a watermelon and spool of cotton candy, stare up at me through the thin plastic container holding them. Their dark pink skin and white interior glisten under the neon lights.

Many years ago I lived a couple of train stops away from this epicurean heaven known as the Shilin Night Market. This is my first trip back since I left the island of Taiwan ten years ago. I savor the moment and take in the action around me.

A few feet to my right, a young couple hurries out of the way as a sputtering scooter hops the curb onto the sidewalk. The driver squeezes into a tight space between two other scooters and flips down the kickstand. His bike is the latest to be added to the expanding row, parked alongside each other like a precarious game of dominoes (surprisingly, and perhaps a little disappointingly, a scooter domino tumble rarely occurs).

Vendor stalls are packed into what, during the day, is an open space in front of a movie theater and continue as far as the eye can see along the main road, their lights disappearing down the adjoining alleyways. The chatter from dueling megaphones can be heard over the traffic. Two fast talking vendors are advertising competing sales on ladies undergarments. A mannequin bust wearing a garish blue top with black bows anchoring the straps swings from a pole suspended over one of the display cases. Ladies, young and old, are crowded around both stalls handing over pink bills in exchange for thickly padded bras.

Think of an item you want to buy, I guarantee that someone sells it at this massive nightly street market. Jewelry, toys, watches, movie posters, cell phones, clothes, shoes, they’re all here. An entire section of the maze is devoted to the latest Taiwanese craze, puppies small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and kittens still attached to their mother’s teat.

The real draw of the Shilin Night Market is not its questionable pet purveyance, but its food. The market is the equivalent of an opium den for adventurous eaters and its vendors, iniquitous pleasure pushers. You can get lost for hours in the intoxicating aromas and flavors.

Colorful mounds of tropical fruit wait to be washed and sliced for hungry customers. Dozens of stalls sell variations of the popular drink jen ju nai cha, sweetened black tea with milk and tapioca balls. Vats of hot oil fry small baskets of fish balls, sweet potatoes, and seafood tossed with fragrant garlic and sweet basil.

Little restaurants along the streets serve hotpot and teppanyaki. Unlike the showy, sub-par, and overpriced Benihana version, the spread here reflects the atmosphere—fresh, vibrant and blissfully unrefined. In adjacent shops giant slabs of frozen milk lay on metal wheels fitted with blades. The white sheets, falling like powdery snow, are piled high on plates and covered with multiple toppings. My favorite? Strawberry puree on one side, passion fruit on the other.

The streets of Shilin would delight even the most daring gourmand. Grilled chicken anus, little rubbery brown triangles stacked four to a skewer, tantalize passersby. Fiery red chilies stand out in a sea of black, inch long, stewed sea snails. Braised chicken feet appear to be crawling out of their display trays. The extremities are a gelatinous treat for those who don’t mind rolling tiny toe bones around on their tongue. Venture toward the outskirts of the maze, and you may pick up the faint odor of open sewer. The rank fumes trigger an unnatural curiosity and you begin to sniff uncontrollably, your mind dancing back and forth between several possibilities, each less appealing than the last. Open sewer? Decomposing flesh? Some kind of gory combination? Then you spot the offending stall where all looks innocent enough, chunks of tofu bubbling in a sea of oil. This is the Taiwanese treat chou dofu, stinky tofu. Bean curd fermented in a ripe vegetable and shrimp brine. No doubt it’s popular for good reason, but I can’t vouch for that. In all the years I lived there I was never able to get within two feet of the repugnant treat.

Adventurous eater or not, on any given night the streets of Shilin prepare some of the best food you’ll taste in your life. After being away for ten years I had expected time and modernity to alter this night market, but there she stood like a stunning woman who never ages. Every scent, stall, and twisting alleyway from my memory was there. A pudgy old man, who 10 years ago made the best xiao rou bao in the market, was still carefully tending to the contents of his steaming cast-iron pans. Memories long forgotten flooded back when I bit into those savory little buns. Suddenly, I was a mischievous teenager again, full of ridiculous ideas and dreams sitting on a grubby step in the vibrant city of Taipei.

The Perfect Day

I wouldn’t describe myself as high maintenance… but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m easy either. I enjoy the finer things in life. I feel comfortable in high heels, pencil skirts and a crisp white blouse. I LOVE a man in a suit. Date night that includes a show at the Kennedy Center and dinner where the portions take up 2 inches on a 12 inch diameter plate make me smile.

But I recently spent the perfect day braless and barefoot with a man who wore a linen shirt and pants with (gasp) zip off legs, eating food out of boxes in plastic bags and LOVED every minute of it. But it didn’t hurt that we were in Koh Samui, Thailand.

The day started with a breakfast of mangosteens, longon (dragon eyes), and rambutans (if you don’t know what any of these are, look’em up. Then go to a country that grows them and eat them.  You’re welcome). After breakfast we hopped on our rented scooter (250 baht/7 dollars per day, rented from the hotel) to tour the island.

Thankfully this was our second day with the scooter because I have to admit the first time we took one of them out for a ride I was as nervous and tense as a virgin bride. Odd, because anyone who knew me 10 years ago in Taiwan will laugh at the ridiculousness of me being scared on a scooter. In Taiwan we tore around on those things like they were a second set of legs.

Oncoming traffic – no problem we’ll dodge each other. Two point turns at major intersections – only if there’s a cop watching you. Otherwise take that right turn with the rest of the cars. After partying all night at DNA or Music Church (when I say partying I don’t mean polishing off a light bottle of chardonnay), we’d hop on our scooters and meander home while the sun rose and the morning joggers and tai chi practitioners stared at the crazy foreigners (sorry mom and dad, I swear I’m responsible now)… Ah life is good when you’re young, invincible and traffic laws are mere suggestions.

So with that history you would think that getting back on a scooter would be no issue at all. Nope. Leaning into that first turn my stomach was in my throat and every muscle tense (jeez living in the good ol’ US of A has turned me into such a pussy).

But that was yesterday. This time I was feeling excited. We jumped on the scooter and drove along Koh Samui’s main road checking out the buffalo in the fields, heaps of coconuts, dodging the napping stray dogs on the side of the road and other motorists, which sometimes consisted of 3 or 4 people crammed on to one scooter. A favorite scooter past time for young men, some looked as young as 10 or 12, is driving while placing their foot on the back license plate of a friends scooter allowing them to tear around caravan style through the streets.  Fun fact: KohSamui has the highest traffic accident rate per capita in all of Thailand (very glad I read this on the flight going OUT).

The entire trip took us about 2 hours and through a grand total of six traffic lights. For travelers interested in doing Koh Samui on the cheap, you should consider staying on the west or north ends of the island. It is definitely less touristy and a hell-of-a-lot cheaper. I saw signs advertising rooms for 250 baht. Internet access was 12 baht a minute in Chaweng, 1 baht (30 cents) a minute in Ban Mae Nam (up north).

For lunch we stopped at Krok Mai, a roadside local spot with a charcoal grill up front where salt-crusted red snappers sat lazily roasting over smoke.

You know a place is going to be good when the only people you see are locals and they’re all staring at you like they’ve never seen a foreigner walk into their favorite lunch spot before.

We ordered roasted catfish with red chili dipping sauce, grilled pork, papaya salad, chicken with basil and chili, and fried chicken wings. They stuff the cavity of the catfish with lemongrass, ginger and turmeric then roast the fish whole over charcoal. It comes with a dipping sauce of red chilies, lime and herbs. Bright and flavorful, with a hint of smokiness. Slices of grilled pork were dipped in a sauce of green chilies, cilantro, shallots, fish sauce and lime. Fantastic finger food.

Chicken with basil and chili was simple but packed a surprising punch. We tried the same dish at a couple other spots but no one came close to the same bold flavor of Krok Mai’s version. The ground chicken was beautifully caramelized (not the case elsewhere) and the basil tossed in at the very last minute so there wasn’t even a hint of bitterness.

Chicken in Koh Samui was a pleasant surprise. Typically I find chicken on small islands unusually gamey. There’s little fat and it never seems like the chicken had enough to eat before being eaten. Not the case in Koh Samui. Fried chicken had that perfect crunch that you get when you manage to get the fat layer to crisp up along with the skin.

Back to the villa for a dip in the pool and a little down time… then on to the night market in Lamai. For those who have never been to a night market, get thee to a country that has them! Vendors throw up little stalls and sell all kinds of nick-nacks, clothes, shoes, etc (women’s underwear is a shockingly popular night market commodity in Taiwan). But the best part about night markets is always the food: chicken satay, pad thai, noodle soups, curries, pastries, grilled meats and fish.

We ate grilled corn, thai omelets, fried chicken, pad thai, and mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. Total cost including two beers and a bottle of water, 250 baht (about $9). We took our loot and headed for a spot on the beach. Thai pop music was playing over large speakers on the back of a pick-up truck next to a pop-up beach bar. All around us families, couples, and friends enjoyed similar treats.

The cooking process of the Thai omelet reminded me of dan bing in Taiwan, a savory fried flat bread with scallions topped with a fried egg and drizzled with chili sauce. The street vendor in Lamai scrambled eggs with a little seasoning sauce, also called Maggi sauce (Thailand’s version of soy sauce, similar in color and also soy based) and rice flour that had been mixed with a little water.  That mixture then went into a cast iron pan with 2 inches of hot oil. The flour and the egg mixture puffs up and becomes crispy around the edges.

Next come the chopped oysters and shrimp. The omelet is then flipped. Crisp bean sprouts are added just before the whole thing is folded up and put into a Styrofoam container. A little bag of thick chili sauce gets thrown in with every order so that the diner can apply the sweet, spicy sauce to their liking.

Mango with sticky rice and coconut milk was the biggest and best surprise of the night. My favorite food experiences are when you eat something that you’ve had a million times before, but somehow it manages to surprise and delight. Because this common Thai dessert is so simple if each ingredient isn’t perfect the result is ordinary at best. But when it’s served with sweet tree ripened mangoes, fresh coconut milk and perfectly executed sticky rice, with just a tad a salt to round out the sweetness of both the mango and coconut, you realize why every Thai restaurant in the US has it on their menu. They’re all hoping to recreate that childhood memory of eating this sweet and refreshing dessert while digging their toes in the sand, chasing friends and siblings around while their parents sit nearby sipping Chang beers and listening to the waves break over the beach.

We ended the night with a neck and shoulder massage in Chaweng. Sitting in big comfy chairs while a tiny but strong Thai woman worked out all the knots and aches. 200 baht ($7) will get you an hour of this bliss. Shoulders, neck, and scalp get the majority of the attention but they end it by drawing the tension out through the hands and feet. I think about the pain my whole body is in after a week of 10-11 hour shifts at the restaurant and immediately I begin to devise a plan to smuggle one of these tiny miracle workers into my carry-on. I am convinced that a nightly massage is not a nicety but a necessity.

Back to the villa where we lay on the bed and stared out on the ocean and the lights of the shrimp boats that dot the horizon. My hair is sticky and curly from the humidity and I smell of salt and sunscreen but I don’t care. There’s absolutely nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.

Life at this moment is absolutely perfect.