Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Weekend at Lalashan


A few weeks ago I was invited, on the spur of the moment, to Lalashan - a gorgeous mountain "recreation area" known for its snow peaches (large peaches with a honey-like taste) and persimmons. My student, Michael, was telling me about his planned trip and I mentioned I'd never been - I wasn't fishing for an invite - seriously! - and so he invited me along with his wife and their friends, many of whom I know from a few group outings I've gone on with them.

I had never had the chance to go to Lalashan because to get there, you really need to drive. There's a bus as far as Shangbaling, a tiny town perched on a ridge over Baling, several hundred meters below on the North Cross Island Highway, but you can't get very far out of Shangbaling unless you have a car. I don't, nor do I wish to drive (I would be willing to drive the North Cross Island Highway in a rental car, but I would not be willing to drive in Taipei city, and I'm not sure how I'd feel driving outside Taoyuan, so my options are quite limited). Lalashan for me until Michael invited me along.

I was supposed to study for Delta that weekend, but it was a rare chance to go somewhere it's hard to reach without your own transport, so I went. Brendan unfortunately could not join us as he had to work on Saturday (I didn't).


We stopped in Daxi for lunch - Daxi is famous for its well-preserved Japanese-era shophouses and dried tofu. One fun thing to do on the usually crowded old street is to try all the free samples.


Then we headed up into the mountains. Sitting in the back, I didn't have the guts to tell Michael that his fast, take-those-curves-by-the-horns driving was making me supremely nauseated.

We finally stopped in Baling for a cup of coffee and to meet Michael's friend, Wuya (Crow), and I stumbled out of the car. I am pretty sure I was puce-colored. At least I was chartreuse. This dog owns the road that passes through Baling.


It's HIS road!

Crow had cycled as far as Baling, and had pre-arranged with Michael to get a ride the rest of the way, to Shangbaling and then down the ridge to the homestay near the river at the base of the mountain. The homestay was owned by Michael and Fuzhen (his wife)'s friend's parents (the friend is named Teresa - I only know her parents as Chiu Ma and Chiu Ba).

The homestay has two lovely, friendly German shepherds and two cats who are so shy that I never did get to meet them. Our mutual friend Gary, who is shy around most people, had a special connection with the dogs.


We went because it was persimmon season, and the Chiu family was going to take us to their persimmon orchard across the river to pick as many as we'd like the next day. That's why I've had so many persimmons to experiment with in what I've now dubbed Jenna's Test Kitchen (other discoveries: cherry tomato salad with figs, capers, pomegranate seeds and roasted garlic with greens, dressed with fresh herbs, a touch of salt, olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar...and couscous cooked in chicken stock with butter and savory apple pie spice - apple pie spices with sweet paprika, black pepper and salt added).


Three great things about the trip:

1.) It was all Taiwanese and me, so I had a nice long weekend to speak nothing but Chinese in a fully authentic atmosphere. It was great practice!

2.) It was nice and cold, which meant fresh cool air more appropriate to the seasons where I'm from, and that I had a good excuse to make everyone my signature hot wine.

3.) Taiwanese-style socializing meant lots of free time to goof off - I could chat, or play with the dogs, or read for a bit, or futz on Facebook...there was no need to be "on" all the time.


Michael bought some chicken feet in Daxi. I said NO THANKS but the dogs were quite interested.


Teresa and her parents, the owners of the homestay, and Teresa's husband:


Gary and Michael play some online game - which meant lots of free time for me to just relax:


In the evening we played mahjongg (I'm a terrible player and they're serious, so I watched):


The most important ingredients in hot wine, and Fuzhen is quite enjoying herself after a glass:


Hot wine:

- 4:1 ratio of dark, spicy red and Fire Water cinnamon schnapps
- Shots of Goldschlager or an alternative to taste (I usually go with 3-4 shots per bottle of wine)
- For one bottle of wine: 4 cinnamon sticks, 6-8 cloves, 1-2 nutmegs well cracked, 1 star anise, 5-6 cardamoms cracked open. You can use powdered spices but I do not advise it

Heat together until wine is hot with tiny bubbles forming at the sides and steam but NOT boiling, strain out spices with a spoon strainer, serve with cinnamon sticks (your best bet for light drinkers is to put it, with the spices, into an insulated coffee/tea/hot water carafe, and let them drink it slowly out of small cups, don't bother serving with the cinnamon sticks).


The group included a pair of newlyweds, who got the best room at the homestay. For everyone who thinks Taiwanese people are prudish, I submit that that is simply not true. The next morning the newlyweds did not emerge - the husband came out to tell us that his wife "doesn't feel well" so they would skip the persimmon picking. Someone who was not there asked about them and the answer was "oh...they're busy...ha!". Crow was in the room below them and was asked, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, how he slept. When the husband finally emerged but his wife was still resting, Chiu Ba asked about her. "She's not feeling well." "Ah!" he replied. "You're too strong!"

Yeah, no, I don't think Taiwanese people are prudes at all, or at least you cannot generalize this. Despite what a lot of expats believe.

Persimmon picking was fun - not challenging, but fun.


We also stopped at a grove of trees whose leaves taste and smell of cinnamon (they may be cinnamon trees, but I'm not sure). You can use them as cinnamon substitutes in cooking, so we all picked a few to try. You can also chew them as a natural breath freshener.

Just below Shangbaling and visible from lower on the ridge is an aboriginal community with a very unique church:


Seen against the entire mountainside it looks like an ark on a cresting wave. Quite creative there.

Our persimmons:


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why are you trying to cut me? I'LL CUT YOU and I DON'T mean in line!

Most of you know that I have few long-running complaints about Taipei, but that pedestrians and some cyclists and scooter riders and their awful street etiquette is one of them. In fact, this is the only complaint I've heard across all expat groups, the only universal, the only thing that every single foreigner (and many, if not most Taiwanese) in Taiwan can agree on. It's the common ground where there would otherwise be none.

I do not accept that it is a cultural trait to walk and cycle around in a little cloud of selfishness like HERP-A-DERP-A-DIDDLY-DOO-WHAT-DO-YOU-MEAN-THERE-ARE-OTHER-PEOPLE-HERE-LA-LA-LA (imagine me making sing-songy "derp-a-doo" songs like the Swedish Chef here as I imitate these people).

My other long-running complaints are:

1.) The weather (not much we can do about that yeah)
2.) Sexism (because NO, it's not a necessary evil in a traditional culture. You can keep a culture intact and not be sexist, YES YOU CAN DON'T MAKE EXCUSES)

I do not accept it as a cultural trait because plenty of people don't act like that - most people, really, you just don't notice them unless you think to, and because plenty of locals complain about the same problem. Also because I feel like if it were a cultural trait, everyone in Taiwan would have wandered off a cliff or into an ocean or oncoming traffic or something, tapping on their smartphone like doo-dee-la-la-da-doo.

So today, I come across four distinct acts of this which affected people other than myself, arranged artfully in order of response. It was so beautiful, like the universe putting on an interpretive urban dance just for me, that I was inspired to write about it.

First, as I'm waiting to get on the MRT at a crowded time, people ahead of me push on before those on the train can get off. An annoying, but common occurrence. People even get irritated at me because I refuse to also do this. So a woman ahead pushes on, and someone trying to get off is thwarted in her attempt to get off the train in a dignified manner at the stop at which she wishes to disembark. Does she say anything? No. Does she even make eye contact with the push-on lady? Nope. Just patiently, resignedly, waits until she can slink off the train, slithering past people who've just gotten on, including the push-on lady, who doesn't move for her. Does she give push-on lady a gentle shove to get off (I would!)? Nope, she just nearly snaps her spine as she tries to disentangle herself from this hurtling tin can of humanity.

My rating?


Second, I'm walking toward the escalators at SOGO (but not near them), and two young women are also approaching at a ridiculously slow speed, nattering about whatever it is that's worth nattering about. Probably the same things I nattered about when I was 19. As they get to the top of the escalator, they stop there and natter for easily another ten seconds, blocking everyone in their path before stepping on, and then stand next to each other as they continue to talk, making it impossible for anyone else to walk down on the left as many wish to do. I'm too far away to be affected by this or to just say what I'm thinking - what the hell is wrong with you?! I get on behind them. Another guy is approaching from about the same distance I am, but he's in a hurry. He tries to walk down and is stopped by the two girls, who don't notice that someone clearly wants to walk down the escalator. He catches my eye and rolls his. I was impressed by the depth and breadth of his eyeroll - and that's saying a lot: I'm a New Yorker.

But still. My rating?

Bzzzzzzzzzzt. Better. But not close enough.

Third, I'm about to get back on the MRT, and as I approach the platform and head toward the line I want, one guy comes in from the side and gets behind the other guy who's already there. Okay, that's fine. But then as the train approaches, he tries to slip around the guy who is clearly in front of him and clearly was there first. Guy in front knows what's going on and simply won't move. Other guy tries again to slink around, but first guy shoulder-blocks him. It's really obvious from his body language that he's sending a big "SCREW YOU LINE CUTTER!" to the guy behind him, who has to wait his turn like a humiliated gerbil before getting on the train. He never, however, once turns around to confront the guy or openly acknowledge his presence.

My rating?

Pass. Pretty good, but even better would be turning around and saying "why are you trying to cut me?" (the "nice New Yorker" in me might say that) or better yet, "seriously why the fuck are you trying to cut me? I'LL CUT YOU and I DON'T mean in line!" (the "not-nice New Yorker" might think that, but she probably wouldn't say it).

As my sister has pointed out, there are MRT employees right there whose entire job is to hold their hands up and blow a whistle to enforce a rule we all already know - why don't they stop this? Why not make a rule that you have to wait for people to get off before you get on, and enforce it? I bet folks'd follow that rule.

Finally, I'm heading home, and there's a woman some distance in front of me. She stops outside some store - I think the 7-11, even if it wasn't a 7-11 that's probably a pretty good guess - right in the path of moving pedestrian traffic. She doesn't step to the side or otherwise indicate that she will be immediately getting out of the way, oh no, she whips out her smartphone and begins doing some whatever-the-hell right in the middle of the sidewalk where people are walking. She's blocking pedestrians from both directions, not just the one she and I were going in.

So a guy was coming in the other direction at just that moment, and with only a second to spare, walked basically right into her. I am pretty sure he saw her there, but didn't have time to adjust his course...or maybe, deep down, he wanted to make a point to someone who thinks it's OK to stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk to tip-tap on their phone. I don't think so, though: sure looked to me like it was 100% Phone Tapper's fault.

So rather than say nothing or mumble out an apology (sometimes they apologize for walking into these people. For what? It's not your fault, it's theirs!), he spits out the Taiwanese equivalent of "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU FUCKING DOING?? DON'T JUST STAND ON THE SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!"

My rating:


OK, maybe a little harsh, it would not be necessary to be this brazenly angry in other cities, where people just randomly standing in the middle of sidewalks is rare and likely the result of genuine human error (we all do dumb things sometimes) and therefore deserving of a little tolerance for human frailty.

But this happens all the time in Taipei. It's constant. I'd say "it's not rude to do that here" but that's not true, because it's rude to do that everywhere, because it's just rude. It's the universal human constant of rude. It happens too much for it to just be one idiot or one preoccupied, tired or not-thinking person. And what you need when you've got an entire flotilla of sidewalk-morons, not just one preoccupied person, is a little anger.

So I say good work, Angry Guy. Good work. I approve. Maybe if stopping in the middle of a crowded sidewalk would not get people slinking around you or apologizing for their walking in the path of your standing, but rather people telling you to stop being such a doink,

You are welcome to move to New York.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sauteed Persimmon and Smoked Duck Baguette: A seasonal treat

1240032_10152018931531202_1613492407_n I went to Lalashan recently - that'll be another post once I have more free time - with some friends right smack in the middle of persimmon season. I don't think I'd ever seen a persimmon in the USA (or I did, but I didn't stop to figure out what it was), but between mid-autumn and mid-winter in Taiwan they're everywhere. It's a great chance not only to eat them straight - yum! - but to mix them with yoghurt, bake them into breads (think banana bread but with persimmons), cookies and muffins, put them in fruit salads, but also to cook with them!

What I really wanted to try was a roast duck with persimmon glaze, but having never roasted a duck before, and not giving myself lead time to find a duck to roast - plus I'm not a fan of buying meat still on the bone and cooking it myself - the deboning part is never something I do gracefully - I ended up with a packet of smoked duck slices from City Super instead. 

What I made, however, was absolutely delicious, and a unique way to enjoy persimmon season in Taiwan if you're not into eating them raw, or just don't like them that way. It also just feels seasonally autumnal, in a way that's actually more authentic than pumpkin-based foods (which I also love).

It tastes best if made with just-ripe persimmons. Red and soft enough to have that intense spicy-sweet flavor, but still hard enough to slice up more like a peach than a tomato. A very deep nearly-red orange'll do ya.

You don't have to have this with duck, the two just happen to go very well together.

Makes 2-4 sandwiches

1 good baguette (try Lalos on Anhe Road between Xinyi and Ren'ai)
1 ripe persimmon (see above)
1 pack of boneless smoked duck slices - City Super at SOGO Fuxing Rd. has this, 150-200NT
Soft goat cheese - NT200 worth will do
A good lettuce - no iceberg, nothing too bitter, the sweetish one with green leaves and ruffled red edges does nicely
1/2 lemon (you only need the juice from 1/4 of it though)
Half a thumb sized piece of young ginger, pressed - MUST be young ginger and should be nearly pureed, you can do this in a garlic press
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika (NOT spicy)
a pinch of cinnamon powder
a pinch of clove powder, or 2 whole cloves
a pinch of nutmeg powder, or 1/2 a crushed whole nutmeg
(optional) a teaspoon of fresh rosemary leaves, chopped and crushed slightly
Oil - any good saute oil, butter may be OK (haven't tried this)
optional: a teaspoon of crisp white wine
A heavy-bottomed pan

Oil your pan with just enough oil to coat evenly and to coat the spices, heat on low
Add crushed ginger and while roasting, prepare other spices
Add other spices, saute on low (DO NOT allow to burn) as you slice your persimmon into "sandwich tomato" style slices
Use spatula to move spices evenly around pan, juice your half lemon
Add 1/2 of the juice to the pan (using more is optional), add rosemary, make sure it's all really evenly distributed around the pan. If you have wine, add it now.
Lay the persimmon slices in this oil-spice-rosemary mix and turn heat to medium-low
Gently saute, occasionally turning, until persimmon slices get a bit transparent around the edges and turn darker in the center, and are well-coated with the mixture
Layer duck slices on top - your goal is not to cook these, but to warm them and mingle the duck and persimmon flavors - continue to saute for about a minute
Turn the duck slices once and saute for another minute, liquid should be more or less cooked off by now
Turn off

Slice your baguette and prepare pieces for your sandwich. Smear top and bottom with soft goat cheese. On the bottom, layer the duck and persimmon (I do duck on the bottom - it doesn't really matter) and then add lettuce on top.


YUM! Amirite?

I made a really nice cherry tomato salad with this - a carton of halved cherry tomatoes, several cloves of well-roasted garlic (some shallot would have been good too), basic Italian seasoning (parsley, basil, oregano) with fresh thyme and rosemary, the rest of the lemon juice, some thyme-infused aged rice vinegar, some rosemary infused good olive oil, a pinch of salt and a handful of capers. You could also add cubed hard cheese, roasted shallot, walnuts, whatever to this.