I still haven’t had the heart to unfollow Ample Hills and Davey’s on Instagram even though I simultaneously cry and drool whenever I see Ooey Gooey Butter Cake…
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.
Hug Cafe (喝個咖啡吧)
No. 2, Lane 282, Yongzhen Rd.
Zhonghe District, New Taipei City, 235
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.