Sunday, February 25, 2007
Which is by far the best thing to eat around here and in frighteningly large supply at the Taipei Night Markets.
At first, entering any foreign street food market is nothing short of synapse searing confusion - the strange, delicious smells, the bizarre piles of god-knows-what, the lines, the people, the pushing, the foul smell of rotten Chinese tofu that people LOVE around here, and of course, more noodles than you can handle.
There is a startling lack of most things that we consider to be "Chinese" in the states. What we're used to is expensive banquet and special occasion food - and frankly, it costs about as much here as it does in the states to eat half of it, and it isn't necessarily much better if you know where to eat.
BUT - the street food scene is absolutely unmatched (although we haven't been to Bangkok yet) and so here are some of the highlights:
There are several distinct types of noodles, some stewed, some fresh, some egg, some rice, some in thick soup, some in thin soup, fried, griddled, wrapped, and tossed into salads. The most widely available noodles are the Beef Soup & Noodles, and the Dan Dan noodles. These are also our favorites. The Beef Soup & Noodles is really freaking straightforward. Good beef soup, good fresh egg noodles, a little bit of mustard greens/baby bok choy, and a dash of green onion. It's usually better with a hit of table chilies.
The Dan Dan Noodles over here are out of control. This is a dish of boiled egg noodles, a pile crushed sesame seeds, and some kind of amazing ground pork w/ bean paste and something concoction that goes on everything. It's not the traditional Dan Dan Noodles which are much more nutty tasting and thick - it's just really savory, a bit sweet, meaty as hell, and leaves you craving another bowl even though you couldn't stuff another one in.
One of the most common stands is the fruit stand - guavas, pineapple, pickled baby pears, massive Asian pears, apple-pears (seriously tastes like both with a pleasing texture of juicy styrofoam), strawberries (man they're good), and cherry tomatoes stuffed with prunes. They slice it, bag it, shove a few eating toothpicks in it, bag it again, and hand it to you for about $1.50 a fruit serving. While buying the fruit yourself is obviously cheaper, it's still a bargain. There's also fruit juice/smoothie stands and roasted/unroasted (black and white) sugar cane juice. All for like under a buck.
A word of caution - I located some deliciously ripe pink guavas at the Snake Alley night market and the lady poured on some brown looking powder onto my guavas. Turns out, the locals love to have overly salted, fermented prune drenched guavas. I nearly pissed my pants from the horror of discovering this on my first crack at fresh pink guavas (which has always been my favorite flavor of imported fruit nectar). I have since learned better. So next time you're in Taiwan at a night market and want some damn guavas, make sure they don't hit it with shit salt.
They LOVE fried food (who doesn't?) and so of course there is a down right sick array of fried deliciasities. The best so far have been two things prepared the same way: bread-crumby battered assorted mushrooms and pounded chicken cutlets fried crisp and seasoned with Taiwanese pepper (which has that ubiquitous Taiwanese broad bean flavor) and some hot pepper powder. It's shockingly good. We'll leave it at that.
There's also 782 stands at every night market selling fried (and I guess boiled) stinky Chinese tofu. If you're ever here, you will be able to instantly identify it as the completely foreign, and wrong smelling odor.
There's also bubble tea stands everywhere, oyster omelets, Taiwanese burrito-like objects, corn corn corn (boiled, roasted, salted, candied, over ice, over rice, on it's own, on the cob, in your dumplings, on your face, every-freaking-place-you-go...PS we have way better corn in the States), steak & pasta griddles with fried eggs on top, and more stinky steamed and fried tofu.
In most night markets, you can turn off the main drag to enter the "sketchy-as-fuck" food zone. All your entrails, fish heads, duck heads, steamed-yesterday & been-in-the-zone-all-day shrimp and crab, guts, snakes, wiggling turtles, and of course, the ever present god-knows-what. Seeing as this isn't japan, and all the fish heads look freezer burned, we look, gag at the smell, and proceed to find things that might not eat us once inside of our stomachs.
We're eating large and pounding the pavement hard in Taipei. Next week we're planning to scooter around the island. I'm sure we'll encounter some tasty (if not at least interesting) new regional cuisine to entertain you all with.
-Ben et Nate
Sunday, February 18, 2007
We stepped off the plane, breezed through customs, and while waiting for our bus to downtown Taipei got a bottle of tea from a vending machine. It is no exaggeration to say that Taiwan is the tea capitol of the world, even the vending machine tea is phenomenal which is amazing considering the quality of products that drop with a resounding thud from the crap-dispensers in the states.
Thus far our view of Taipei has been shaded by the fact that Chines e New Year has turned this city into a veritable ghost town. Despite this fact we've been able to experience a small sampling of street vendor food and even find a couple of restaurants to eat at. One of the few open establishments was a Chinese place specializing in prawns but also featuring such culinary delights as Lamb Knees.
Lamb knees, sounds delicious, right? Right. You know something is going on when a meat dish shows up at your table with plastic straws laying on the service platter. While we gnawed at the flesh on the outside of the knees we pondered these plastic straws, soon realizing (to everyones delight) that they were provided to facilitate the removal of marrow from bone.
[Nate sez] If y'all aren't clued into this hip scene - marrow is the shit. Period. I don't really believe in aphrodisiacs - HOWEVER, I was severely turned on by the putting of really good lamb/soy/chili/garlic leek broth into the bone, mashing up the marrow with said sauce with plastic straw, and then sucking it up like a kid getting every last drop out of his soda.
To note: though the French have a special marrow fork and have historically been marrow freaks (as are all people who spend time making stock), but I really think the straw/lamb/sauce thing is one of the singly sexiest things available on the planet. I had to wash my hands thoroughly after this meal.
Oh, and the shrimp was really good too.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Following my enraged curses and streams of profanity in every single language I could muster, the same damn thing happened again! Apparently, in Seoul, where the people are very nice and helpful, and the pace of life rather easy and smooth, it is completely acceptable - no, in fact common freaking practice - for meat-headed scooter freaks to weave in and out of pedestrian traffic ON THE SIDEWALK even when there is perfectly enough room for them on the massive boulevard which they are avoiding.
Due to the fact that this has happened no less than 17 times during our short stay in Seoul, we may in fact, have to have a hearty bowl of puppy chow and raise our Soju glasses to Lassie stew, simply because of the sidewalk riding, homicidal scooter wielding maniacs. It doesn't have to make sense, I just feel that something needs to be done.
Meow... I mean woof... I mean dinner.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
We got into Busan on the 8th and spent a few days wandering around the shopping and eating districts doing exciting things like shopping and eating. Most notable dishes were a giant kalbi set (aka yaki niku, aka a bunch of meat you cook over a fire at your table), one of the best waffles ever, and pickled pigs feet salad.
Kalbi: Wandering through the streets of Busan we found ourselves outside a restaurant filled with people, from which wafted the sweet aroma of meats cooking over an open flame. Given that a packed restaurant is the international sign of a good meal, we decided to investigate. Walking around the front we noticed that there was another restaurant across the street with the exact same sign, across another street was a third restaurant. Three of the same kalbi restaurant at one intersection, all packed with people: definitely a sign of good food to come.
We sat down, looked at the menu and pointed to the cheapest set 22,000\ for what turned out to be more food than we could dream of eating: chicken, pork, marinated beef, and a platter of seafood the size of a small city.
Waffle: Street food strikes deep at our hearts and stomachs with its sweet, sweet dagger of deliciousness. One of the best waffles either of us has ever had was found in the middle of an intersection of one of the pedestrian areas. Relatively thin, this waffle was crisp and lightly browned on the outside (for that sweet caramelized flavor) but still soft on the inside. If a sweet waffle batter was not enough, a thick whip cream is spread onto one side, then citrus honey slathered on top of that. Fold the waffle in half and wrap it in a napkin, that's it.
Waffleman creams (and honeys) the waffle, then we cream (and possibly honey) our pants.
And on a slightly less delicious note - Pickled Pigs Feet Salad:
Having followed the lesson from the packed Kalbi joint, we walked up to a full restaurant that we otherwise knew nothing about hoping that a good meal would be found inside; the pictures outside looked good enough, some sort of meat salad (and we all know growing boys like us need to eat our vegetables).
Through the normal routine of pointing at the characters in the menu that matched those on the picture outside we got a wide variety of pickles and soup delivered to our table along with a massive, meat-topped salad. The server put on plastic gloves, poured on the dressing and started mixing the delicious-looking meal.
After a couple bites we found ourselves wondering, "What is this strange cut of meat?" After a couple more bites Nate sat back and said "Hmm.. I think it's pigs feet. It's got that nasty, formaldehyde, gelatinous, and satisfyingly chewy skin."
Pigs feet. Pickled pigs feet to be specific. After a few more minutes of eating I was pretty sure that whatever pickling agent was used on the pigs feet was also attempting to preserve my stomach in a similar fashion. Needless to stay I wasn't a big fan of the pickled pigs feet scene, I was nearly on the verge of painting the sidewalk a nice shade of pigs feet on the way home, but was able to contain my "enthusiasm" over such pickled porcine parks.
Besides the stomach ache that I had for the next 24 hours I managed to survive the pigs feet, but I don't think I'll be going back for more anytime soon. According to a friend of Nate's we went to the single best pigs feet restaurant in Korea, so at least I know I had the best and hated it.
That's the news from Korea - for now. We're headed for Taiwan in a few days to hopefully get our hands on some Chinese food and maybe a bowl or two of noodles. Hope everyone is having a good time in our absence and eating some good food. The beer here sucks, so drink a good one for us, just don't tell us about it or we'll be really jealous.
Friday, February 9, 2007
#3. Sushi - You all know what it is. However, some notable exceptions include whale sushi, Toro (fatty as hell tuna), raw shrimp, raw squid, raw octopus, raw anything, sometimes dolphin...but we didn't try that (yet).
Here's the deal. We all think food is so damn expensive in Tokyo. It is and it isn't. Sushi is actually wicked cheap. A lot of times you're spending the money on atmosphere, unless your spending more than Y3000. Than it's like a major increase in quality and you should expect it. On the cheap, there's this place in Shimokitazawa that our dearest friend Rona showed me where every plate is Y120. That's exactly a dollar for all ya'll counters. And that means tuna, yellow tail, snapper, tamago, salmon roe, river eel, salmon carpaccio (that rocked), octopus seven ways, squid five ways, bbq oysters, and then there are the specials. Like Anglerfish liver, the seasonal fish, and all the days leftover toro after 9pm. Even Dana flipped her lid. You'll spend maybe $12 or$13 before you can't move your so full. Speaking of Dana, she took Ben, my friend Mark, and me to her chef's favorite sushi joint in the world's largest fresh fish market: Tsukijishijo. We spent $18 on some of the best food I've ever had. It really hurts sometimes.
#4. The Convenience Store - The Seven and i Holdings (7-11). The Family Mart. The AmPm. The Quick Stop. The on every god forsaken corner and every crack in between of everything store in Tokyo where you can get any number of unbelievably delicious, and sometimes nutritious, and notably intoxicating products. Of course, I visited these places and these products so much that I forgot to take picture of everything I'm talking about. Nevertheless, it's really important stuff.
We'll start with Onigiri (rice balls with fish or pickles inside wrapped in seaweed...well kind of). Onigiri was breakfast a lot of the time. At about Y100 a piece, they're not a steal, but a rather whole, unprocessed and nutritious food available every damn place in the city. The thing is, when you put the rice and the seaweed together, it gets soggy. So the freaks over at engineering school made a convenient 3 step packaging that keeps them separate until you open the packaging. It's fucking genius...and delicious.
Drinks: There are so many delicious sodas, juices, teas, and yogurty/milky/coffeey/thingies hangin around in a large conbini (that's convenient store) that it'll make your stomach hurt from trying them all. I gained a couple pounds that I promptly lost on the beverages behalf. Ranking in at #1 is good old green tea. The problem is that there are literally 10 brands to choose from. Most of them rock. Next is Caplis Soda. Then Mitsuya Cider. Then Yakurto. Then Bulgaria Yogurt drinkable. Then the Veggie/Fruit juice - that stuff is actually higher up there. Then there are the energy drinks - like Orunamin C, and C1000, and FibeMini. Then there is the world's worst fucking coffee. I only say this because I got black coffee in a train station in Busan for W300 (31 cents) that smelled horrific and tasted great. Unlike Japanese coffee which smells awesome and tastes ghastly. Yet I still went back for more. The need for caffeine.
Ice Cream: I apparently wasn't the first to point out that some of the best ice cream available on the planet is in a convenient store freezer. Yukimi Daifuku (Watching Snow Big Sacs) are perfect vanilla ice cream coated with sweet white flour dusted thin mochi (pounded sweet rice). I bought a box of nine of these thinking I would have some for a few days. They lasted a few hours. Maaxx. Then there are Pino - which are small vanilla ice cream conical objects coated with chocolate. Sounds simple right? Because it is. And the quality of the ice cream and the chocolate, and the really low level of sugar that you'll find in here is truly the winning recipe for another one of those you dare not put in front of me lest I eat every last one of them. Why are sweets that aren't so sweet so good?
There's also terribly not great beer, wonderful shochu, sweet liqueurs from China, more great instant ramen than you can deal with, tissues, detergent, regular shit, but the food - Oh, steam buns with curry meat, or bbq pork, or pizza flavor, or seasonal Chinese shit, or sweet bean paste. Did I mention you can get respectable Japanese curry, spaghetti dishes, new and crazy sandwiches (like the strawberry cream sando or the pork cutlet sando), salads, hot and cold anything, they provide the microwaves, hot water, and any utensil/eating/drinking implement you can think of - Anytime of the day, 24/7, 365, for pocket yen. I lived in the Quick stop and 7&i by Sakura House every morning, snack time, inbetween snacktime, second mealtime, and drinky drinky time. Unless I was at Shochu Authority, which is a whole blog onto itself.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Japan: An Overview of Gastronomy. Let's say PART I for now because it's getting late and I can't write all this shit.
The short version: The food is great, the fish and produce are better than most of what can be found in America, they have things which are illegal in other countries, there are tons of Japanese people everywhere, and they like to stare at you just for being white. Although it is a completely different story in SoKo (that's South Korea for all you cats not hip to Nate's lingo.)
[The long version (it's REALLY LONG.. seriously.. if you don't have several hours at your disposal you might want to come back later)
[Nate Sez] Wrapping up Japan is somewhat impossible. For those of you crazy enough to have read my harrowing tales of screwheaded French guys throwing knives at me, meeting the 2006 World Chef of the Year, having said Frenchman lose his freaking poisson and go apeshit on the foriegn population of Tokyo - you have an idea of the madness that has ensued.
But if you must read of the tales, you can do so here:
December 28th (knives, so many knives!)
New Year (or is it vintage?)
HOWEVER, this is a food blog, and so we must get down to business.
#1: Yaki-imo - Stone Roasted Japanese Sweet Potato.
I've gone on ad-nauseum to probably many of you about this perfect food. It is my childhood. When I would get off of the school bus an old lady would always give me half a yakiimo. It's not easy to describe as there is a flavor unique to the Satsuma imo (ther potato variety) however when correctly prepared it is moist, piping hot, slightly sweet, deeply satisfying, and the skin has a really nice crisp texture and deep stone flavor. You have to eat it to believe it. Ben practically lost his pants. He also tried the best version of it that I'd found this time in Japan. They have fallen out of popularity as the younger crowd likes western food and McFuckingDonald's.
#2: Soba - Buckweat noodles in a seasoned dashi broth. Served with everything from green onions, to seaweed, tempura anything, raw egg, poached egg, and mostly you shoving it down your hungry broke throat. Served mostly hot, but also can be Zaru Soba which is served cold with a strong but thin soy/dashi for dipping
Anyone who has had Soba in Minnesota, mostly even the States, has not really had the real thing. The real deal is freaking cheap. It's where you go when you need to scrape. It's on every damn corner of Tokyo. You go there when you've been drinking all night with Aussies and you're famished. You go there when nothing else is open. It's about 3 bucks max for the standard noodles, broth, and onions. One can actually survive on Soba alone, and I did for like two weeks when I first moved into Sakura House and was hemorrhaging Yen faster than a salary man downs a bowl of insert noodles here. I only hope to make it all properly for you someday. It's not transcendental, it's just the most comforting thing when your cold, drunk, and alone. Or really just plain famished.
So there is a loooot to write about. And I'm not finished. You'll hear back from us when the next installment comes flying out my fingers at these ridiculously cheap internet BONGS (yes, 'bong' is 'room' in Korean).
-Ben et Nate
Next: Sushi and The Conbini (that's convenience store in Japanese)
Coming Soon: Ramen, Okonomiyaki/Takoyaki, Nabe/Shabushabu, High Class Japanese Dining in General, Ryu-Gin: When yuou're willing to empty your bank account for the best meal of your life, and maybe some other shit - there's a lot to eat in Japan.
Saturday, February 3, 2007
Week two continues the new interest in eating illicit foods. Amazing objects of culinary delight so good they had to be outlawed in the United States. Ok, maybe it's because they are potentially unsafe in the eyes of the government, or potentially rare or endangered.. it's hard to say.
Through a serendipitous connection and some computer tech support we found ourselves in an authentic Japanese Nabe restaurant, complete with overwhelming hospitality from the restaurant's matron. We were fortunate enough to get a set meal consisting of several courses before the main dish of one of the finest bowls of soup in Japan. To most this would be reason enough to write a long diatribe about flavor, presentation, and an amazing experience, but not in our case. For us there was another star spotted on the menu which took center stage in our minds, hearts, and stomachs...
That's right, whale. Possibly Moby Dick, or Shamu, it's hard to tell when it shows up on your table. If tuna is "chicken of the sea," then whale is most definitely "beef of the sea." This delicacy is deeper, yet more subtle in flavor than the aforementioned tuna, a dark maroon in color, and a fine texture that melts in your mouth.
A simple whale sashimi was first accompanied by a saucer of shoyu (a.k.a. Soy sauce) along with grated ginger, garlic, and green onions to be mixed in the saucer. Dip a slice of whale, put it in your mouth, and enjoy the new flavors and textures unlike any other sea creature (thanks for your comments and emails! about the obvious oversight).
The second dish was battered and fried whale with a small green salad with a quasi-ranch dressing. This almost seemed like an American presentation of whale, maybe something you'd see at the whale fisher's annual potluck picnic. Of course it was phenomenally prepared so as to not overwhelm the whale's taste and mouth-feel, the salty batter bringing out the flavor of the whale while the crunchy exterior added to the silky texture of the meat.
[Nate Sez] You want to know what I think about whale? ITS REALLY DELICIOUS.
Fuck the Whales! I'd like to make carpaccio out of all their tubby asses!
But really, it was surprisingly delicious. In fact, the politics are a little more complicated than you think - there is actually a whale meat glut because demand for consumption in Japan (and elsewhere) is quite low. So, really demand is not driving the killing of whales. Either abject stupidity and disregard for economic laws (or I guess there is a slight possibility that they are being slaughtered for legitimate research purposes...yeah right!) is driving the killing of whales.