Tag Archives: Taiwan

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.

Pan Roasted Chicken Breasts with Scallion, Ginger and Cilantro Sauce

I was seventeen when I first started teaching English in Taiwan. I began with the preschool-kindergarten age group. Work started at 8am and consisted of me jumping around the room singing songs like The Itsy Bitsy Spider and Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. There were the occasional wet pants, (always the kids’) and the daily tears (not always the kids’).

By noon I was ready for a large meal and a quiet corner. One of my favorite workday lunches was the local staple, duck rice. I’d bike over to this little roadside stall where 50 NT dollars (a little less than two bucks) would get you half a roasted duck chopped up and set on a mound of rice. It came with a couple little containers of gingery, scallion goodness to be slathered over the moist meat and crispy skin. I’d regularly scarf this down and gather my wits before heading back to school to do my best rendition of Little Bunny Foo Foo.

It wasn’t too long before I moved on to teaching high school and business level English. Thanks in part to make-up and the ability to skillfully dodge questions about my age. The job and pay may have improved but duck rice remained a lunch favorite.

Below is my version of the dish, with a couple tweaks. First, I add cilantro to the ginger and scallion sauce. The fresh herbal punch brings another layer of flavor and brightens the sauce. Second, I use chicken breast instead of duck. This is simply because I don’t have the time or the necessary tools (air compressor, fan, wok) to properly roast a whole duck. It’s also friendlier to those (…let’s call them Westerners) who don’t enjoy picking around the bones.

The scallion, ginger and cilantro sauce is great with just about anything—roasts, noodles and stir-fry dishes. If covered well it’ll keep in the fridge for a couple days. Although, it tastes best 15-20 minutes after you make it.

Sometimes I’ll throw this together for my husband’s lunch since it’s simple to make and reheats fairly well. Occasionally I fret that I’m setting the feminist movement back a couple decades by sending my hubby off in the morning with a packed lunch. So in an effort to quell my ridiculous guilt I even out the score by making him sing a verse from Little Bunny Foo Foo in exchange.

2 chicken breasts (skin on)
white pepper
¾ cup scallion, minced
1 Tbs. ginger, minced
¼ cup cilantro, minced
2 tsp. rice vinegar
½ tsp. soy sauce
2½ tsp. neutral oil such as vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 tsp. sesame oil
¼ tsp. salt 

  • Heat the oven to 400°
  • Generously season both sides of the chicken breasts with salt and a little white pepper. Set aside and allow the meat to temper (come relatively close to room temperature).
  • Cut the scallions down the middle, halving them lengthwise. Slice in half again so that you end up with four long strips. Finely slice the scallion, both white and green parts.
  • Finely mince the peeled ginger. If you have a microplane you can use it instead of stressing about perfect knife work.
  • Mix the scallions, ginger & the last 6 ingredients together in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
  • Heat a skillet and about 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat. Once you begin to see little wisps of white smoke add the chicken breasts, skin side down. Sear for 2 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium high. Continue to cook for another minute. Flip the breasts and sear the other side for 2 minutes.
  • Place the skillet and chicken into the oven and finish cooking through, about 8 minutes. Remove when breasts feel firm to the touch or internal temperature reads 165°.
  • Allow chicken to rest a few minutes before slicing. Serve chicken over rice and top with scallion, ginger and cilantro sauce.

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.