I spent Chinese New Year in Taichung with my mom, eating excessively and doing lots of window shopping. We visited the Park Lane shopping mall, which is smaller but more interesting than the gigantic Sogo across the street. The 3rd floor has a traditional market with some commonly found but well-made Taiwanese foods. You pay a little more compared to a shop on the street, but the environment is nicer, the food hygiene is better, and there’s a lot of variety all in one place.
We walked past an intriguing storefront on the 2nd floor with KitchenAids in the window and a menu full of desserts. But you don’t buy desserts here—you make them yourself! We’d stumbled upon Dough DIY Bakery. With no plans the following day, my aunt signed us up for an afternoon baking session.
When you arrive, you choose which dessert you want to make and pay. A shop assistant will show you to your place and give you a tablet loaded with text and video directions. I had chosen to make a matcha chocolate tart, because I had never made a tart before and it’s something I would never make at home.
I spent the next 10 minutes reading the instructions (Chinese only; no English available) and watching the video. Then I was off, gathering up equipment and ingredients from the common areas.
To me, hygiene seems like a bit of a concern, because 1) people are responsible for washing the equipment they use, which goes back into the common area, 2) all the ingredients are self-serve, and 3) there were tons of kids running around, not all of them well-supervised (really annoying, honestly). Fellow cleanfreaks, be aware.
On the flipside, it’s really freeing to bake in a kitchen that you don’t have to clean (except for some dish washing). You don’t have to worry about buying a bunch of ingredients or any baking equipment.
The instructions were pretty straightforward and there are tons of shop assistants running around to answer questions, so I think even really novice bakers would not have a problem completing their dessert. It ended up taking me about 2.5 hours to from start to finish (it took that long because I made a mistake at one point and had to fix it) but time flies when you’re having fun. I was super proud of the end result and I would definitely go back to make a different dessert.
Dough DIY (動手玩)
No. 1049 Jianxing Rd., West District
I like to keep a batch of cooked sweetened mung beans (綠豆; lǔdòu) in my fridge at the ready. It’s cheap, filling, quick and easy to cook, and nutritious with protein and fiber. It also requires no prep when you’re ready to eat it; just scoop it into a bowl cold. It’s my crutch for when I’m too lazy/too hungry to cook yet too virtuous to go buy something, so I’m usually eating it for breakfast, as a between-meal snack, or dessert.
When I want to make it a dessert, I favor a preparation that’s pretty close to an Indonesian dish called bubur kacang hijau, or “burjo” for short. At its most basic, burjo is mung beans boiled with coconut milk and palm sugar. It’s common to add other ingredients including ginger, pandan leaf, and black glutinous rice.
Personally, I prefer it served cold. And I like it on the dry side, meaning without a lot of water and without boiling the beans to oblivion. You can try this preparation, but it might be a stretch to really call it burjo. It’s just a sweet mung bean dessert. You will need:
Mung beans, dry
Sugar or honey
Ginger, peeled and sliced or grated
Rinse the mung beans to remove any dirt. Soak them in water for 2-4 hours. Before cooking, drain and discard the soak water.
Put the beans in a pot. Add enough water to cover them, plus about 1 inch (3 cm) more. Bring it to a boil.
While it is boiling, skim off any scum that gathers at the top. Add sugar or honey to taste (I like it barely sweet). Add the ginger to taste (two or three thick slices will do). Stir occasionally.
Boil until the beans start to get soft, and some start to split and lose their skins. Remove from heat and let the pot sit for about 30 minutes.
Store it in the refrigerator.
When ready to serve, add coconut milk to taste.
– You don’t need measurements because it’s all to taste and it’s very forgiving. Go wild.
– Soaking the mung beans beforehand is optional. I recommend it because it speeds cooking time, and it removes some of the color from the beans, which makes the end result less muddy-looking.
– Pretty much any kind of sugar—white, brown, black, rock, etc.—will work.
In my house growing up, milk was not something we drank. It was strictly a medium or complement for other food: cereal, cookies, chocolate syrup, cornbread. Milk-as-beverage was too much, like eating a stick of butter or a clove of garlic—things that are unappetizing on their own but become magnificent when combined with other ingredients.
So, even now I recoil at the thought of drinking a glass of milk straight, but I swoon over milky foodstuffs. Hokkaido milk bread, dulce de leche, Vietnamese iced coffee, tres leches cake, etc. What makes these foods milky? They contain milk, obviously, but what is the essence of milkiness?
Whole cow’s milk is about 87 percent water and 13 percent solids (3.7 percent fat, and 9 percent non-fat solids including proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals). The fat and other solids work together to create the smooth, round richness and flavor we know as milkiness. Concentrating the solids relative to the water intensifies milkiness and leaves us with milk products (think evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, powdered milk) that have diverse culinary applications.
In other words, getting rid of the liquid in milk lets us add milkiness anywhere! And this was relevant to one of my old ice cream quests: making milk-flavored ice cream.
You might be thinking, But isn’t all dairy-based ice cream milk-flavored, by virtue of it being mostly milk? Well, yeah, but as noted above, milk is mostly water. Ice cream is mostly milk. Therefore, ice cream is mostly water (and air).
Of the milk solids—the fat and the non-fat solids—in an ice cream, the fat portion contributes to a creamy smooth texture. The non-fat milk solids contribute a little to texture too, but they’re more of a flavor component. A weak one, because the sugar and eggs, not to mention the ice cream flavoring, overpower them. So if you’re looking for an ice cream that truly tastes like milk, you’re going to have to boost the the non-fat solids.
The skim milk powder is Ample Hills’ differentiating ingredient. The average ice cream recipe that turns up in a Google search does not include it, and even trusted sources like Serious Eats and Alton Brown don’t mention it. But there’s a way to amplify milkiness even more: by toasting the milk powder. This is the technique (from Ideas in Food) I used when I made toasted milk ice cream with pineapple cakes and sesame candy. A microwave, a fork, and a lot of patience is all you need.
I’m not in a position to do a lot of kitchen experimenting anymore, but one day I hope to return to it and to the applications of milk solids specifically.
I spotted Retro Saka in a tourist brochure picked up from New Chitose Airport, and knew immediately I had to visit. Billed as a “vintage museum,” it seemed like just the kind of unique local attraction I favor over regular ol’ art and history museums. The brochure didn’t list the address or operating hours, and googling it didn’t provide a lot more information. Apparently it’s been open since 1994, but it’s still quite under the radar. It has no website, although it does seem to have a Facebook page (liked by 125 people, as of this writing), and it’s ranked #129 of 350 attractions on TripAdvisor (none of the reviews are in English).
But, my fellow Americans and other English-speaking people, you should visit this place if you go to Sapporo. For one thing, it’s free! And photos are allowed, and there are a lot of things you’ll want to get photos of.
Some background, according to the Facebook page and one of the two English articles on this place: the museum is the personal collection of Kazutaka Saka, director of the Saka Biscuit company (Saka Eiyo Shokuhin K.K.). The company was founded in 1950, and it’s crackers are well known in Hokkaido. As far as I can tell, Mr. Saka is still alive and adding to the museum. Most of the items are everyday objects from the 1940s through the 1970s.
I walked from Maruyama Park (about 30 minutes) but you can take the Tozai line to Nijuyonken Station and walk about 10 minutes. There is no English signage, and the building has little to indicate it’s an attraction, so memorize what the outside looks like before you go or you might walk right past it.
Looking from the outside, you can tell that calling it a “museum” is a bit generous. Step inside, and it feels more like a cramped old shop. Or a perverted grandfather’s house. That’s because the first “exhibit” you’ll see is this:
There was no one else, either visitor or staff, inside. This was around noontime on a Friday. I guess they really trust people to not touch or steal anything. Most of the items are simply set out, not behind any barriers (again, it was like being in a shop or home).
There are no plaques or explanatory texts anywhere, and the displays are basically a random assortment of collections. In one room, most of the items seemed to be from the 1950s–a collection of those perfume bottles with the squeezy balloon thing, trays of cigarette packs, shelves of cameras, a corner with half a dozen geisha wigs, etc. In one hallway, cases of creepy dolls. A shelf of gas masks. Mannequin limbs. And all throughout, vintage erotica.
It took maybe 30 minutes to get a look at everything. To exit, you can go out the way you came, or you can walk into an adjacent room where Saka products are sold. There are a few shelves with different kinds of crackers, and it’s all incredibly normal and disjointing, considering the preceding weirdness. I bought a bag of their most famous product, the Sapporo Beer Crackers (around ¥100, or $1), and ate them as I walked to the train station.
Retro Space Saka
3-22, 3-7 Nijyuyonken
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
But when it’s out of sight it’s out of mind, because Taiwan has its own cult of cold desserts, and I’m a convert if not a true believer.
I was at a friend’s house last week when she served us with small bowls of shaved ice on top of a few taro balls, mung beans, peanuts, red beans, sweet potatoes, and aiyu jelly. We spooned black sugar syrup over it and then filled the bowl half-way with milk.
This is the sort of dish that since I was a little kid I’ve seen my mom eat. It’s also the sort that made me turn up my nose. I remember my mom using our popsicle mold to make red bean or peanut soup popsicles, and I remember never being even a little bit tempted to try one.
To my American tastes, everything about many traditional Taiwanese desserts was all mixed up and weird. Taro, sweet potatoes, beans? These foods should be salty and hot, not sweet and certainly never cold. Desserts should be rich and toothsome, not aqueous and slick. Peanuts should be salty if not honey-roasted/embedded within a candy bar; they should be crunchy unless boiled (in which case they definitely need to be salty). The only Q food is Jell-O, and that should only be eaten if you are in a hospital or a public school cafeteria. Actually, even then you probably shouldn’t eat it.
Assimilating is fun! It’s also a proven coping strategy when you’re a foreigner who has had strong opinions about dessert. This dish I had at my friend’s house—I’ve since hunted down a vendor near my house so I can eat it all the time.
It’s called cuabing (剉冰). Apparently “cuabing” is a Taiwanese word; in Mandarin it’s called baobing (刨冰; bàobīng). Both literally translate as “shave ice.” It consists of unflavored shaved ice similar to the texture of a snowcone. It’s sweetened with black sugar syrup and is topped with at least a few ingredients such as:
Red beans (紅豆; hóngdòu)
Mung beans (綠豆; lǜdòu)
Grass jelly (仙草; xiāncǎo)
Aiyu jelly (愛玉; àiyù)
Konnyaku jelly (蒟蒻; jǔruò)
Tapioca pearls (珍珠; zhēnzhū)
Tofu pudding (豆花; dòuhuā)
Taro balls (芋圓; yùyuán)
Sweet potatoes (地瓜; dìguā)
Peanuts (花生; huāshēng)
Lotus seeds (蓮子; liánzi)
Fruit (水果; shuǐguǒ)
Milk (牛奶; niúnǎi)
Stands serving cuabing and other traditional cold snacks are very common near street markets.
Cuabing is a traditional preparation of shaved ice that contrasts with xuehuabing (雪花冰; xuěhuābīng), which often also gets called “shaved ice” when named in English.
Xuehuabing’s shaved ice is a water-milk mixture, resulting in a smooth ice cream–like texture and a milky flavor. It’s usually topped with sweetened condensed milk, fruit (Taiwan is especially known for its mango shaved ice), and ingredients like tapioca pearls, tofu pudding, and ice cream/sorbet. Xuehuabing is the more modern, sexy style of shaved ice that’s popular with younger people and people outside Taiwan. It’s infinitely more Instagrammable and way sweeter, so I feel certain it’s only a matter of time before it becomes mega trendy in the U.S. (outside of California, I mean). Is Ice Monster franchising yet? A summer pop-up in New York City would be an absolute coup.
I’m crazy about xuehuabing, but I love cuabing too for all the ways it’s not like xuehuabing. I love that it’s stubbornly unphotogenic and drably colored. That it’s a dessert topped with ingredients that wouldn’t be out of place in a healthy dinner. That it’s dirt cheap and often found in a tiny open-air shop with zero amenities. Unpretentious and refreshing, it’s the perfect cap to my weekly fruit/vegetable shopping trips to the market.
I ran across the Hug Cafe while doing one of my very favorite things: walking around the streets aimlessly. It’s a hobby that’s served me well in Taipei because there are a million small alleys that branch off the larger roads. They tend to be residential but it’s not at all uncommon to find a lode of food/market vendors or a cute cafe. Hug Cafe is tucked away on a short lane right off the very busy Yongzhen Street (永真路), near Baersanpaozhan Park (八二三紀念公園). It’s hard to see the cafe itself from Yongzhen Street except for the small but bright white sign.
The facade of the cafe is glass and there’s a small front porch area with a bench. It makes me a little sad that the place is in an alley that doesn’t allow much sunlight to shine in. Instead, the front porch is mostly for customers to take a smoke break. And a place for the resident cat (not pictured) to chill.
Inside you can seat yourself if a table is open. There are a good number of two-tops, a short bar, and a couch area that seats about four people. I tend to go on weekday afternoons (~2 p.m.) and late evenings (~7 p.m.), and early evenings (~4 p.m.) on the weekend. There have always been open tables during those times, but the one time I went around noon on a weekend, the place was packed with a long waiting list. Brunch time should be avoided if you’re wanting to study or work. Any other time there’s the right amount of other people to enjoy “being alone together.”
Hug Cafe is my favorite place in Yonghe District to study and work. There’s free wi-fi, plug outlets, and as far as I can tell, no time limit on tables (obviously you should be courteous and not camp out for hours if there are people waiting to be seated). It’s not too loud or too quiet. I even like the music playing on the speakers most of the time—English/Chinese/Japanese pop punk and indie rock. There’s a Radiohead poster in the bathroom and a little bookshelf with what looks like Chinese-language indie band CDs for sale, so I’m guessing the owner has cool taste 👌. They must be into toys too, because tons of them are hanging out on the counter.
The service has always been polite and the right amount of attentive. I love that they offer a basket to set your things in. I’ve been to several cafes in Taiwan that do this and I think American cafes/restaurants should take note. It’s a small thing that makes a big statement about your hospitality and a huge improvement in customer comfort and convenience. In the dead of winter earlier this year, Gothamist rightfully railed against “winterspreading,” but New York businesses need to do better a job than a hook or two on the wall. I understand that space is tight, but I’m not asking for a damn coat/bag check. A wicker basket under the table or chair will do!
The Hug Cafe menu features coffee and espresso drinks, tea, milks, juice, and some small dishes. The coffee is good; the espresso drinks are decent. In the U.S., I would think the barista doesn’t know their craft if they gave me a cappuccino with as much foam as the drink pictured below has, but I’m starting to think that Taiwanese people simply prefer a lot of milk foam on their espresso drinks. This foam was the smooth, melting, micro-bubble foam that is the hallmark of a quality cappuccino, not the nasty stiff unmixable foam of lousy Starbucks cappuccinos. There was just a lot of it.
The milk tea is house-made, and I continue to prefer the stronger flavor of powder-mix milk tea like that of CoCo. It’s the same way I felt about house-made chai in the U.S.—I appreciate the effort, but the pre-packaged mix/concentrate will always have a stronger flavor. The Japanese matcha milk, though, I really enjoyed. I hadn’t expected it to have milk foam art, so when the server set it in front of me I about died of delight. This drink made me smile like an idiot.
I haven’t tried any of the light meals yet. Waffles, sandwiches, and some rather random hot dishes (Mexican chicken, New Orleans wings—what?) can be had for 140-250NT. I’m kind of skeptical about the hot dishes, but I’ve seen the waffles and they look and smell really good.
Hug Cafe is exactly the type of coffee shop I hope to stumble upon when I’m wandering around a neighborhood. Now I’m there almost every week. I definitely recommend it as a place to study/work, read, or hang out over cute milk foam art.
It only took me exactly one month to finally go to a night market, and like many delightful evenings, it started off with a quest for shoes. Night markets attract lots of other stores outside of their designated streets, so I happened to be in the area to pick up some everyday kicks that Taipei’s rain will inevitably destroy. I would have looked for beaters within the actual market except none of those Asian mystery brand shoes will fit my gigantic American feet. I’m 100% serious. Sizes top out at one size below what I wear, so I’m stuck with Nikes, Vans, and other American brands as long as I call Taiwan home. Things could be worse.
Nearby was the Le Hua Night Market, which as far as I can tell is the only night market in Yonghe District. How lucky that it’s only a 10 minute walk from my apartment!
It was raining a little and only 6 p.m., so it wasn’t too crowded—exactly how I prefer it so there are fewer people staring when I take 15 minutes to type menus into an app on my phone and then order in broken Chinese. The language barrier makes any kind of self-serve situation really appealing because I don’t have to talk to anyone. But I think I was also drawn to this candy store because of the visual appeal of a big pile of candy:
Lots of fruit jellies and milk candies. I picked maybe 20 different varieties weighing around a quarter pound. It cost 55 NT (~$1.50).
I had jiǎozi (餃子; dumplings) for dinner because they’re easy to order. There are lots of stands that have foodstuffs on display, and I guess you’re supposed to choose what you want cooked. But I can’t tell what a lot of the foods are and how they’re prepared, so I’m going to hold off on trying any of those until I’m accompanied by a native.
The shaved ice stand, though, méiwèntí (沒問題; no problem). There are two shaved ice stands in Le Hua, so I will try the other one another time.
I ordered a mango shaved ice and tried to say “no milk,” but the lady topped it with sweetened condensed milk anyway. Like bubble tea, I think it was something that I actually liked all along.
It also had a mango syrup (very good) and a comically weak smattering of sprinkles. Of course this is not half as rich, creamy, sweet as the American ice cream I know and love and am no longer seeing (see the this post’s footnote). But I shouldn’t compare because they’re wholly different things. i.e., shaved ice is not ersatz ice cream. Taiwan’s take on cold+sweet+creamy dessert is light in texture and sweetness, which matches fruit flavors and flavors like green tea and red bean. These are flavors that don’t need to be delivered via tongue-coating fat.
Food is the main draw, but you can also find clothing, shoes, jewelry, home goods, and toys at the night market. While I can’t fit the shoes, I can fit the clothes. But most of it isn’t really my style. Let’s just say that from my American perspective, most of the women’s clothing strikes me as ultra girly and excessively kěài (可爱; cute). OR, it features hilarious Engrish:
I couldn’t stop laughing while I was browsing the racks. Is this how Chinese people feel when non-Chinese people use Chinese characters for tattoos and other decorations? Engrish isn’t new to me but it never fails to amuse.
Today marks exactly one month in Taipei. I can’t believe it’s gone by so fast. Between school and work, I hardly have time to explore the city, but I’m hoping at least my weekends will free up soon.
My big and small observations for the past 30 days:
One should never, ever, drink the tap water. My first week here, I got very sick from doing so. Filter it and boil it thoroughly before drinking.
It rains in Taipei a LOT. I estimate it has rained 85% of my 30 days here. Days and days go by without seeing the sun or keeping my shoes dry. It’s a real drag and I’m hoping April forward is drier. Carry an umbrella always and invest in waterproof shoes.
Studying Chinese at NTU is as effective as you want it to be. I want to be fully fluent in reading/writing/speaking by the end of 2016, and I think it will take a lot more studying and practice outside of class/homework to get there.
There are not nearly as many Americans in the NTU Chinese language program as I thought there would be. It’s incredibly diverse. My four classmates are Japanese, Kyrgyz, French (New Caledonian), and Thai. In the class I switched out of, my five classmates were Japanese (2), Korean, Slovakian, and American.
New York City’s on-demand economy spoiled me. Push Button, Receive What You Want doesn’t really exist in Taiwan. Time to re-learn brick-and-mortar shopping.
International cuisine should be viewed with much suspicion. I’ve not tried any American, Italian, Indian, Mexican, etc. food here, and that’s because everything about it screams ersatz. “American-style breakfast” usually means hamburgers, McDonald’s-style hashbrowns (the fried ovoid-patty kind), and other extremely salty, greasy, heavy foods. Google image search “taiwan+american style breakfast” to see what I mean:
Pleco is a(n inter)national treasure and I can’t believe it’s free. I would gladly pay big bucks for this app. It’s indispensable for learning Chinese.
In the U.S., I thought I didn’t like bubble tea. I was wrong all along and I actually love it. Enjoyment of tofu and bean curd still elude me.
I began dismantling my life in earnest about two weeks ago. In another two weeks, I will begin reassembling it 7,000+ miles away.
I’m leaving New York City for Taipei. It’s been a slow-motion exit, where the inkling to leave flitted across my mind nearly two years ago in 2014. I can recall seeing a vision of my future that was not taking place in the city. It’s scary to see such a thing, because you can’t know how that vision will be realized. You only know that it means your current situation and any settled-ness and comfort that you have presently will somehow dissolve.
I felt that the least I could do was investigate how I might live in other places, so I traveled to San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles. Portland was the frontrunner, but I still didn’t have any idea how to get there. It’s extraordinarily hard to escape the inertia of your life, even when you have the desire for change. Fear of uncertainty and fear of hardship can keep you humming along the same track for a long, long time.
So sometimes it’s a real blessing when your hand is forced and the uncertainty and hardship come directly to you. In July 2015, I was laid off from my job. When an executive at the company broke the news to me, I immediately, reflexively began crying. Then I walked out of there and felt a surreal freedom to finally pursue a number of goals that were never going to be met as long as I worked at that company.
One of those goals was to visit Taiwan, which I did for one month over September and October. It had been a decade since my last visit, and it was the first time that I went by myself. The language barrier and the cultural differences were challenging, but rising to those challenges invigorated me. I was learning constantly, even if it was just sitting on the bus trying to read the stops or trying to order a cup of coffee.
When I returned to New York, I found that absence had not made my heart grow fonder. The growing sense that I was no longer suited for the city escalated into an urgent impulse to go somewhere, anywhere else. I looked at apartments and job listings on the West Coast and even toyed with the idea of moving back to Alabama (I was that desperate). I also applied to the Chinese learning program at National Taiwan University.
When I got the acceptance letter, I thought “OK, this is an actual possibility” but still balked at what it would take to get there. What kind of paperwork do I have to do? Will my job allow me to go? How am I going to find a place to live? What am I going to do with my apartment in New York? Will I lose the friendships and community I so love and rely on? Is this a huge irreversible mistake that is going to ruin me financially, professionally, and personally? I waffled on making a decision until after New Year’s Day, at which point I had less than 2 months to prepare for leaving New York/the country, if that was indeed my decision.
Or, I should say it felt like my decision was being made for me as everything slowly fell into place. I basically hopped onto a Gantt chart that started January 1 and leads up to February 22, registration day for the program and the latest day I absolutely have to be in Taipei in order to enroll. Housing, job, plane ticket, visa, moving arrangements, all of it fell into place. There were definitely moments where I was given over to despair and panic–“I’m ruining my life! I regret this decision!”–but really, there was divine providence in the speed and smoothness with which each task was accomplished.
I couldn’t have asked for a more calm and orderly way to dismantle life in New York. Let’s see how the rebuilding process goes in Taipei.
P.S. This blog is no longer about ice cream. I broke up with ice cream around November 2015. We still hang out sometimes.