Shidong Market, Taipei 士東市場

DSC_0613Shidong market is one of the best markets in Taipei. It’s located in the Tianmu district and there’s a dizzying array of selections. Cool facts I’ve learned:

DSC_0548Difference between Taipei zongzi and Tainan zongzi? Taipei ones are drier (left).

DSC_0608Vendors have a specific methodology to tying fish up so that they stay alive for a day.

DSC_0583This is an edible fern, called Bird’s Nest Fern. Extremely delicious, usually sauteed with olives.

DSC_0620Free-range chicken prices are about $15 a bird.

DSC_0541Taiwan has a really intense fruit & vegetable research station, where they’re genetically modifying products so that they’re bigger and sweeter. This is a wax apple and is unique to the island. (Though I’ve heard you can find them at the Temple City Farmer’s Market in the SGV)

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Shidong Market, Taipei 士東市場
No. 100, Shidong Road, Shilin District 台北市士林區士東路100號

Winter Solstice: What The Taiwanese Are Eating

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In Taiwan, the markets are brimming with tiny balls of pink and white. They are called tangyuan (湯圓), or glutinous rice balls, and it’s a must for the winter solstice. The occasion is called the Dongzhi Festival (冬至).

Because of its round shape, tangyuan symbolizes family unity. While the Dongzhi Festival is celebrated all throughout China, it’s an especially strong tradition in Taiwan.

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Ximending 西門町

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When I was in Taipei, I spent a good four hours browsing Ximending 西門町, the metropolitan shopping district of Taipei. I’ve been earnestly searching for Taiwanese hipsters (it’s for an article, I swear) and Ximen seemed like a good place to start.

I’ve been here once before, but back then I was with my best friend running around shopping for shoes and makeup. My mentality is a lot different this time around. I don’t really want anything. I’m more interested in learning and I’m beginning to realize that traveling with a perpetual sense of curiosity is the way to go.

Comparatively, I’ve traveled quite a bit for someone in their early 20s but in the past, whenever I would go somewhere, I was more focused on doing what I thought was fun. That bucket list included shopping, seeing the local sights, going to bars, checking out the museums, and eating at the best restaurants.

This time, I’m reflecting a lot about context. For example, why does KFC occupy one of the biggest buildings in Ximending? What are locals doing? Who are they?

The guys at the tattoo parlor. They’re dressed a bit differently than other kids. Most of them smoke. The girls have more intense makeup on. Are they part of a specific sub-culture?

There’s quite of bit of alternative cafes here. There’s a toilet-themed restaurant and a couple blocks down, a place called Risotto that’s essentially a dog cafe with golden retrievers running around. Do locals even come here?

Coffee seems to be greater than tea here. The shops are reminiscent of the ones in the States. They have quite a range of bean selections. Why?

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Ximending, Taipei

Getting Lost In Tainan

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I’ve been in Tainan, my family’s hometown on the Southern part of the country for the last couple of days and without a doubt, sometimes I feel like I’m in a movie, like I’m in some sort of dream. This town is still very much Taiwanese and while there are shopping centers and movie theaters and electronic stores, it’s still largely untouched by expats and heavy concentrations of tourists. Tainan is the cultural center of Taiwan. It’s the city where all the good food is. Public transportation is largely unavailable, folks still do most of their shopping at outdoor bazaars and get their lunch from street vendors who’ve been around for centuries. There’s so much life around. So many personalities. So many stories.

I’m trying to focus on the people. Food photographs are a dime a dozen on like-minded blogs and I like to think I do a little bit more than get people hungry. Each day, I’ve been spending 12 hours a day straight wandering around and taking notes.

I’m getting lost. Lost in the hands of the locals. Lost in the papers of the food. I’ve been here more than a dozen times before but this is the first time I’m really paying close attention. There’s so much to learn, so much information to compile.

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Taiwan Railway Bentos

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Yesterday I found myself running through the train tunnels, behind one of my dad’s employee, Joyce, and a man who worked at the train station leading the way.

In Chinese, there’s a concept called guangxi (关系). It means connection. It means having an in. When I told my family that I wanted to come to Taiwan to research food and culture — they took it seriously. My parents’ business is based primarily in Asia and it’s a humble operation that was built from the ground up with a lot of hard work. For me, it means I have a network all throughout Asia and kind assistants who are happy to take time out of their day to show me the nooks and crannies of the local food culture. I still have to do the interviewing and the legwork, but the research is easy. All I need to do is ask.

In a way, I almost feel like I’m cheating. And I can already picture the folks reading this, grimacing, throwing out variations of the term spoiled and privileges in the back of their minds.

But in a way, I prefer this. Yes, I’ve been shuttling back and forth from Taiwan and Los Angeles for all my life, but truly the experts are the locals. They’re the people who live here and who eat and breathe the daily culture. My job is to transmit the information.

And so since the moment I’ve landed and stated my intention, folks within that network have been extremely conscientiousness of my desire to learn as much as I possibly can.

“Oh take a photo of this!” Joyce exclaimed when we were in the Taipei train station. Joyce is a lovely woman who I’ve known since I was born. She’s been a friend of my parents since before I was born, a VP in the company, and incredibly amicable. She’s one of those people who are naturally positive, eternally youthful, and plows through life with humor.
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It was a bento shop selling pork chop over rice. Railway bento boxes have been a fixture of Taiwanese culture since the 20th century, when they made their way over from Japan. They’re a hearty balance of protein, carbs, and vegetables. In Los Angeles, you can get them at the wonderful Class 302 in Rowland Heights and Irvine. They’re traditionally served in a tin box but here, they were giving them out in paper.

“Where do they make these?” I thought out loud. The boxes were still warm to the touch and there were stacks of them, piled sky high for the taking. A single costs the equivalent of $1.50 USD.

And before I knew it, we were running down a tunnel, with Joyce shooting me giddy looks every now and then. We ended up in front of a packing workshop and within the span of a minute, after spotting us and hearing the shutter of my camera, the employees turned from indifferent to ambivalent.

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“You’re not allowed to be here,” the head supervisor said. And with that we were promptly ushered out. ….But not without a couple of solid photographs of the operation.

;)

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Taipei Main Station. No. 49, Sec. 1, Zhongxiao W. Rd.

First Restaurant in Taipei

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There’s a reason I gravitate toward writing rather than video. Pushing my boundaries though…. and visuals are all the rage these days.

I live near this nice dumpling and noodle joint near Yongchun Station. My first meal back! Here’s a short video I made on it.


Excuse me while I develop a personality.

Zhou Pan Zhi
周胖子餃子館
No. 37號, Section 5, Zhongxiao East Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan 110
+886 2 3765 5500

First 12 Hours In Taipei

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My decision to head to Taiwan was a risky one. Besides a couple of cousins and my parents — I don’t know anyone. I don’t know the layout of the land as much as I know Los Angeles. Where’s Beitou relative to Yongchun? How far is Taoyuan from Taipei?

The language and the culture is familiar, but there’s something off . I can feel it. People know. My Mandarin is accented. I don’t know the proper terms. I usually start off a conversation with: “Apologies my Chinese isn’t that great (對不起我的中文不太好)” because it gives me leeway to make grammatical mistakes without sounding like a complete idiot.

I don’t have a plan here — besides to get a couple of articles under my belt. But I do want to learn and infiltrate the local culture as much as I can. I want to collect recipes. I want to write as much as I possibly can and hopefully get paid assignments with it. This much I know.

Quite frankly the lack of structure scares me.  Stability is out the roof. I don’t have as solid of a freelance connection here as I do in Los Angeles. Taiwan has always been my vacation country. I’ve never paid quite much attention to it, from a journalistic perspective that is, until very recently. But this was my intention: Swim or drown. Sometimes you need fear to propel you to your wildest dreame.  Fear propels me into situations I would’t otherwise propel myself into.

This morning I found myself inside a health store because I saw the words 食物 in the front, which means food in Chinese.

“Hi what do you do?” I asked the lady up front.  It looked like a restaurant. But there were no menus. Just an empty counter, a couple of tables and chairs scattered in the back, and a petite Chinese lady in the room. No one else was there.

“We teach health workshops,” she said, cheerfully. She seemed pleased with my inquiry and invited me in for tea.

We chatted. I told her about my career, how I’m interested in traditional Chinese foods, how I’m here to collect recipes, and without a beat, she reached out and touched my face.

Make-up is on. My complexion isn't perfect -- but it's the best I can do. Right?

Make-up is on. My complexion isn’t perfect — but it’s the best I can do. Right?

“How much do you sleep?”

I knew this was coming. I could see her staring at the blemishes on my face. With a smile I responded: “Quite a lot thank you.” Usually this would annoy me. But she was a stranger and this is part of the culture. I’m in Taiwan now. Not America.

There’s an intense fixation on health and beauty here. And a flawed complexion is always the fault of the patient. After all, the Chinese see health in terms of balance. “Something is off balance with your body,” she said. I nodded, knowing what was coming. “Have you always had acne?” she asked.

She gave me the speech — a variation of the same one I’ve heard before from my parents and Taiwanese family friends — eat whole foods. Balance with ying and yang. Drink a lot of water. Sleep more.

She told me about how she healed her own skin by drinking a nutritional shake by Herbalife.

“Wait, just the shake?” I interrupted. That concept didn’t sound all that Chinese to me.

“Of course not! It’s boring just eating medicine. You need food too. Balance!” she said. And she whipped out a huge tub of powder with Herbalife branding.

“We sell this here! There’s a discount for you,” she said.

I looked at the ingredients which were in English: it was a lengthy list of chemicals and powders I’ve never heard of.

“Uhm. No thank you,” I said.

“All things considering, you’re very pretty,” she said.

I thanked her, oddly thrilled that she had lectured me. It meant that I had managed to strike up a connection with a local that I wasn’t related to. And I’d only just landed in Taipei the night before.

She invited me to a hot pot party on the 20th, and a food workshop led by Taiwanese nutritionist on the 10th of January. I signed up for both. Because what else do I have to do?

“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked, as I packed up my stuff. Another standard question.

“Nope.”

She was silent.

“I used to,” I quipped, not wanting to disappoint her and then immediately wondered why I felt the need to justify myself. “See you on the 20th.” I said, changing the subject and taking off my jacket — revealing a tank top underneath. It’s humid here in Taipei — even though it is December.

She grinned.

“You Americans. You’re always hot in Taiwan. Looking at you makes me feel cold,” she said, waving goodbye.

This Is My Life Philosophy

On the weekly, I talk to a lot of strangers. Most of time I’m picking their brain for a story I want to do and it’s usually pretty standard stuff like “I just want people to gather around the table and enjoy good food.” Other times I get sucked into a conversation and the dialogue becomes a person in the room. It’s a presence, an undeniable force — a reminder, if you will, that somehow I’m on the right track in my life.

Today was one of those days. I spent the afternoon at Urban Homestead in Pasadena and got chatting with the estimable founder, Jules Dervaes about how he got started, his urban farm in the heart of Pasadena, and how impressive the whole operation is. They produce $60,000 worth of sales on their 1/5 acre farm. I’ll have more about them in a formal article soon.

But towards the tail-end of our conversation, once I finished my official questions, Dervaes said: “I’ve gotten Chinese delegates coming in here wanting to learn about what we do.”

Obviously, I was hooked.

Here’s the Chinese government, from a culture that has been around for thousands of years, coming to the States to interview a homestead farmer.

Dervaes and I start to talk about the Asian obsession with Western culture. When I was in Xiamen, the most popular restaurant in town was a Pizza Hut. There was a wine list and a four course prix-fixe. We talk about the migrant worker phenomenon in China, where farmers are leaving their land and their children to work in the metropolis. They only see their kids once a year. The family structure is being torn apart, driven by a thirst for wealth, driven by a thirst for the American dream.

“Don’t copy us! You have all the answers,” Dervaes had said to the Chinese.

There’s so much irony to it. In America, we’ve just begun to catch up on the medicinal powers of food. Eat well, be well. In China, that’s a philosophy that’s been around for centuries. But the East values American food so much more these days. They’ll pay a premium for American products.

“We need to embrace diversity. Embrace culture,” Dervaes told me. Or else, we’ll just become this monolithic species. And that’s sterile. And well… sad.

I’m a big believer that the stories we tell make up who we are. And as I think back to all the pieces I’ve penned and am really proud of…I realize that I’ve been telling the same story, over and over again, but in different connotations.

The message that I’m telling, or that I want to tell, is that all we need in life is right in front of us. (I know, I’m getting really meta and abstract lately.)

I wrote my piece on growing up Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley because it bothers me that the Chinese are chasing wealth and European luxury items… though all that they need is right in front of them. I’d choose an art piece from Yunnan over a LV handbag any day. I’d rather learn about the lineage of Sichuanese cuisine than about the next Top Chef. There’s something invaluable about cultural preservation.

I got really into learning about farms and worked for a farm-to-home grocery delivery service because it was appalling to me how little I knew about my food. Oh yes. We’re all big “foodies.” But in my generation, that word only means you know where the hottest restaurant is. I know I’ve only been writing as a real food writer for three years, and that I’m only 23, but in my very very limited career — I’ve seen how fleeting trends are. Why are we proud that we’ve eaten at the most expensive and trendy places? What does that say about us as a culture?

What matters to me is the story. And part of the story of food is how it’s grown and cultivated. How precious food is! We can produce food too. You and me. That’s right in front of us. We’re just too damn lazy. (I, myself, included.)

I write about relationships because I don’t understand why it’s so easy for people to just break up and leave. Call me the crazy ex-girlfriend, but I don’t understand why romantic relationships are so easily disposable. One day you can tell someone you love them, and then another day, you decide it’s not right because he or she doesn’t fit your criteria. We’re out there, chasing for the perfect qualities, when… in reality…no one will be that perfect fit. What you want is right in front of you. It’s you. I don’t believe it’s hard to fall in love. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to be willing to stay.

I am currently pursing a very, very unconventional career as a freelance writer because corporate culture, quite honestly, scares me. I don’t get the concept of working to save up money to go on vacations. I don’t get the concept of working to build a retirement fund. We work to live. But people are really just…living to work. Life is right in front of us. I get a lot of comments, indirectly and directly, that tell me that I’m spoiled. And I’ve been getting that for my entire life from strangers and friends because I have well-to-do parents and a lovely family situation. People tell me I’m only a writer because I can be a writer. On the record, I pay my own bills, I pull my own weight. But Dervaes said something to me that really hit home: “You pick your poison. You pick your hardship. You either have to go on the freeway or chase your business. Or do it another way.”

I choose my way.

The downside is a lack of stability and life gets crazy as a result.

How do I do it? Well for one, I don’t buy a lot of stuff. I buy food (of course) and everything else is a hand-me-down or just really old. I have outfits I’ve worn since middle school. I have the same furniture in my room that I’ve had since elementary school. I wear shoes until they have holes on the bottom and until the heels break. I frankly…don’t really care all that much about consumption. I spend my money on food and experiences. My most valuable possessions can all fit in a small carry-on bag. That’s all we need. Really.

And so it’s so interesting to me — that from a micro-level (interpersonal relationships) and on a macro-level (my career goals and writing goals)…everything resolves around this life philosophy. And that is: All that we need is right in front of us. Appreciate it. Value it.

Right now, I really want to focus on the macro part of things. I want to go to China and collect stories and show the world just how freaking awesome Chinese history and culture and food is. I want Chinese people to appreciate their culture a bit more. Not because I think I know what’s best for them — but because it’s also a way for me, as a Chinese-American, to appreciate a culture I’ve always thought was inferior and stupid growing up. Hopefully I can motivate other Chinese-Americans to do the same.

There’s more to life than designer bags and cars and multi-million dollar McMansions. There’s more to life than sterile tomatoes from the grocery store and corporate jobs. There’s more to life than the newest iPhone and eating KFC. Life, I think, is sitting down with loved ones and appreciating what you have. Right in front of you.

And that is my life philosophy.