Sunday, January 31, 2016

Noodle nostalgia

The Scavenger kitchen went to work this weekend in a furious attempt to recreate some of the flavors of Taiwan.  Noodles with braised pork, crispy shallots, collards, egg, cilantro and chili oil. 

Taipei cooking lesson part 2, the struggle with Xiaolongbao

When it came time to start folding the skins of the Xiaolongbao, Mrs. Chen encouraged us to go easy on ourselves.  Last week, she said, one of my clients cried because he was having such trouble making them.  

Xiaolongbao are a type of steamed dumpling from eastern China, specifically from around the south bank of the lower Yangtze in the Shanghai area.  They are sometimes referred to as soup dumplings for the gush of hot liquid that accompanies their filling- a feat accomplished by the inclusion of collagen in the mixture, which is solid when cold and liquifies in the steamer basket.  Some iterations of the dumpling are soupier than others, and we've had Xiaolongbao in Taiwan and Vancouver that were completely "dry."  Some are made with partially leavened dough wrappers which obviously contributes to a fluffier final product.  Din Tai Fung, the most famous purveyor of Xiaolongbao, uses unleavened skins for dumplings that have a thin and delicate texture.  

Here's a photo of Xiaolongbao from Din Tai Fung:

The gold standard.

Such is the current rage over these dumplings that they're the most commonly requested subjects at Mrs Chen's cooking school.  She has been to Din Tai Fung a number of times to get a sense of the operation- the white-coated and masked dumpling technicians plainly visible through plate glass windows as they furiously roll, stuff and fold.

Mrs. Chen had already made the filling ahead of time since the process involves cooking pig skin in water, blending the skin and broth until smooth and then chilling it in the fridge for three hours until it solidifies into an aspic.  The gelatin gets mixed with ground pork, soy sauce, rice wine, salt, pepper and spring onion and ginger water and then goes into the fridge for 40 more minutes to solidify again.  

Rolling out the skins, which end up as 9 cm diameter discs that are thinner on the edges than in the middle, is fairly straightforward. The challenge comes when working with these thin shells in combination with the gelatinous filling which becomes wetter as it warms.  I can't imagine trying this in a warm, humid kitchen.  The folding process is not easy to pick up, either.  Basically you gather a small fold along the edge of the wrapper, pinch it to the edge to its left, and stretch the sealed fold toward you and over the filling while gently tamping the filling inside with your thumb.  You repeat this, always pinching from right to left until you've gone all the way around the wrapper.  The folks at Din Tai Fung perform a set number of folds per piece, but we were lucky to keep the constantly moistening dough from tearing into shreds.  

No one cried, but we all got a good laugh once we opened the baskets.

Here are our flaccid offerings.  We came away from the evening with a new respect for the art of Xiaolongbao and a determination to up our game.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Evening crepe, Hualien

Welcome to the port of Hualien.  One of two days with sun in three weeks. We walked 8 miles looking for the long, pebbly beach at Qixingtan and a couple more miles scrounging for a bar in the evening.  We sat and had a beer at an empty outdoor karaoke place and listened to Rihanna, then found a real bar. A sign above the sink in the men's room said "Please irrigate after throw up."  

After a couple Jim Beams, we stepped out and had a lovely evening crepe with an egg and scallion rolled in.  A boon to the soul.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Steamed bun lesson

While in Taipei, we were lucky to spend a long afternoon and evening with Ivy Chen who has been teaching cooking to expats and tourists for 17 years.  We met Mrs. Chen at Shidong Market in the Shilin district in the north part of the city.  Shidong is an enviable indoor market with vendors selling luscious seafood, poultry, pork, Chinese sausage, noodles, tofu, seaweed, pickles and produce.  There's a full-on noodle factory at which you can take your pick from 10 different styles made that day.  The tofu shop has 15 kinds of tofu with varying textures and densities, some dark, dry and marinated, some smooth and creamy, some crispy-fried or skin-thin and rolled into a bundle.  There are vegetable sellers who sell produce that is rare in Taiwan like Brussels sprouts and arugula.  The varieties of cabbage, mustards, edible ferns, herbs and other green leafies is overwhelming.  It's the kind of market I'd give my left leg to have nearby and Mrs. Chen lives two blocks away.  She goes every morning and buys fresh ingredients for herself and her students.  She'd never even think of buying meat after 10 am.  It's not fresh enough for her. 

She's a firecracker.  She told us that she drove her mother nuts with cooking questions when she was a kid and that she is constantly riding her sister because she has no sense of when particular fruits and vegetables are in season.  She's always giving Mrs. Chen gifts of woody breadfruits and mealy apples.

We asked Mrs Chen to show us how to make steamed buns, the ubiquitous fast snack sold from hot cabinets around the island and in China.  One would be hard pressed to learn how to make them from a book.  While it's hard to do them really well (with succulent fillings and uniform dough that is pleasing to the tooth and the eye), the principle is pretty basic. You make a yeasted dough with white flour, water, oil and a pinch of sugar and let it rise in a warm place.  You make a filling of your choice.  In our case, we used ground pork, scallion and ginger water, rice wine, salt, black pepper, sesame oil and chopped scallion. Scallion and ginger water is a simple and brilliant flavoring. You just take green onions and ginger and throw them in a blender with water to make a thin, bright green sauce.  You punch down your dough and divide it into balls.  Then roll each ball out so that it is thinner at the edges than in the center.  Spoon on your filling and then comes the tough part: pinching, stretching and folding the dough around the filling.   It should be pretty easy to tell from the photo below which of the three buns was made by Mrs. Chen.  

We need some serious practice.  

Stack your baskets on a pot filled with water, crank up the fire and the kitchen fills with steam scented with the hot bamboo and the cooking buns.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Easing into the saddle again

There's not a teeming drinking culture in Taiwan.  That's probably a healthy thing.  Sure, you can go to 7-11 and pick up a couple of tallboys of Taiwan Gold, but there were times we wanted a slug of something a bit more stiff.  We found some good bars on the island, but it took dedicated footwork.

Here we are back in old Montany.  The food's not worth a damn, but one thing Montana does well is bars.  Maybe it's a response to austere spaces, wind, long winter nights, sparsely populated streets, black carpets of piney forest.  Having some difficulty recalibrating after our island voyage, we walked over to the local last night to drown our sorrows.  Ordered a PBR to try and approximate a Taiwan Beer.  Not even close.  But our corner pub was a cheerful beacon in the night.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Yuli grease bomb

The greasiest thing we ate in Taiwan came in a very cute package.

This deep fried pocket of glory came from a street vendor in Yuli.

One bite into this sucker and I was covered in scallion oil.

The contents?  Lots of scallions, glass noodles, dried tofu, probably some fermented mustards.  Tons of grease. And even though it caused me to reek like a grill cook at White Castle, it was damn good.  Boy are we ever missing Taiwan.  Time to fire up the wok.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sticky Rice

This was a delicious parcel we ate while riding bikes around the rice fields of Yuli.

Sticky rice with peanut, crab, shiitake, egg and pork all steamed within a couple of bamboo leaves which lend a delicate fragrance to the ingredients.  A power bar par exellence.

Late night food carts

The Taiwanese are down with the food cart.  They are everywhere. One of the more common types of carts in Taiwan is the mix and match style cart like this one.  Basically you choose your own ingredients from the display. Chicken wings, chicken hearts, Vienna sausages, pork skin, pork slices, yam, carrot, tofu, yuba, pork intestine, boiled egg, greens, couple types of dried noodles.  Some of these carts have a vast array of ingredients laid out.  You place whatever you want with tongs in a plastic basket and the cart owner cooks everything for its appointed time in a vat of boiling broth.  Then you season it how you like with chili, vinegar, soy, salt and pepper. You can get it dry or as a soup with some of the broth added.  We were overjoyed to pass this cart on the way home from the bar one night and brought tubs of noodles back to eat while watching one of the many dopey action films on TV.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Lin Dong Sen Beef Noodles: Taipei

When you first pull up to this joint, you think there's no way all of the hungry customers lined up will be seated in the present decade.  There's a stove next to the sidewalk with a vat full of boiling broth and bobbing bits. Two tiny rooms with short counters where people sit elbow to elbow slurping from bowls.  But the queue moves with surprising speed and you wonder where they are putting all of these people.

When we reached the front of the line we were told to follow the folks in front of us halfway up the block to a slightly larger room behind a steamy sliding glass door.  We were seated at a table with another couple and handed menus. The woman at the front of the house notified the crew managing the line outside via walkie-talkie each time a table was vacated.  We ordered a small appetizer of the recommended house tofu and bowls of the signature soup.  

The soup itself was amazing.  It consists of large gauge, chewy wheat noodles and meltingly tender slices of beef shank in a rich, dark beef broth flavored with five spice.  A pinch of scallions is scattered on top. The shank is so tender, the webwork of sinew shot through the slices has taken on an unctuous, almost creamy texture.  Each table is outfitted with a jar of thick, sweet chili paste in case you want to zap up your bowl, but the flavor of the broth is already so deep as to render condiments superfluous.  I almost cleared a large bowl of the stuff and, in so doing, put the hurt on myself.  It was the most burstingly full I ever was in Taiwan.

Oops, too hungry to take a photo at the outset.

Though considered by some to be a national dish of Taiwan, our Taipei cooking teacher (more on her later) told us that beef noodle soup is not a traditional Taiwanese dish.  It's hard to say what is and what is not traditional in a hodgepodge culture like Taiwan, but I suppose she meant that the soup style was brought to the island by mainland Chinese during the Chinese Civil War.  Regardless, the island's inhabitants have made it their own and it is a thing of beauty.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

La Carta de Oaxaca, Ballard

I've been itching for years to eat at this lively spot on Ballard Ave.  I've come close to doing so four or five times, but, for some reason, something always comes up.  Too long a wait, someone in the party wants Thai instead, etc.

We're happily stranded in Seattle.  The passes are chocked with snow and avalanche danger is extreme.  So we finally made it out in the pouring rain, crossing board bridges over sidewalk puddles big as Lake Union.  It was worth the wait in every respect.  There was even a table ready for our party of five.  Like magic.  

Lamb birria.  Tender braised loin in birria sauce served with perfect, chewy house tortillas.

Tamales with mole negro wrapped in banana leaves.  Eight flipping bucks.  

Entomatadas.  Beef and fried tortillas stuffed with Oaxaqueno cheese.

The price to quality ratio in this place is not often encountered in these parts.  They have an extensive mezcal program, to boot, and serve generous pours in crystal boats with tiny crosses stamped on the bottoms.  So you can't help but know you're drinking something holy.

Breakfast roll

This was a nice, scallion-filled sesame bun we ate squatting at a low table on a street in Hualien.  Just one more out of the hundreds of savory breakfast options in Taiwan.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Yuli Chou Doufu

This little stinky tofu spot in Yuli had people lining up to get their fix when they opened each afternoon.  Stinky tofu is a Taiwanese delicacy wherein tofu is fermented slightly and takes on a stinky cheese-like savoriness.  The version in Yuli is somewhat less far gone than the sharp Chou Doufu in Taipei, which fills the night markets with its heady reek.

The stuff is fantastic, served with cabbage and pickled ginger and basil in a sweet sauce.  The cubes of funk are crispy fried on the outside and meltingly soft within.  One of the great foods of Taiwan.  Don't let the smell deter you.

Day 12: Dumpling parade

During our last few hours in Taipei, we raced around gobbling as many dumplings as we could.  We're at the airport standing on the verge of dumpling dearth back home.

Fried crispy on the bottoms.

Scallion filled.

Cabbage filled.  You slather on as much fermented chile as you wish.

These little guys were filled with pork and fried crisp and chewy on the bottoms.

Masterful works of engineering from our second visit to Din Tai Fung.  These are filled with shrimp and loofah squash.  They told us to eat them without adding soy sauce and vinegar.  Good move.  It's pricey, but these folks have mastered the art of xiao long bao.  Such delicate dough and moist fillings that sing with flavor.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Texas 'Cue in New Orleans

Sadly we're down to our last hours in Taiwan.  We're jamming in as many dumplings as possible before jumping on the red eye to Seattle.  Feeling very reluctant to leave this place and the beautiful cuisine. 

At the same time, the Gambit's review of this barbecue joint starts to make me drool for some vittles crafted closer to home:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Day 11: Breakfast in Hualien

Steamed xiao long bao for breakfast.  Totally different version than Din Tai Fung.  These were made of yeasted dough rather than cold water dough and there was no liquid inside.  Yumsville nonetheless.

More stemed dumplings.  They had a tendency to stick to the bottom of the steamer and lose their meat payload before you could dip them in soy sauce and vinegar.

These folks were just getting going when we showed up.  Mountains of dough wrappers and mounds of pork stuffing.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Day 10: Yuli breakfasts

The stellar folks at the guesthouse where we have been staying have produced some astounding breakfast spreads the last couple of mornings.  It doesn't get any better than this.  Everything fresh and at the peak of ripeness.  The nicest people anywhere.

Clockwise from bottom center: pork jerky, pears, sticky rice steamed in bamboo leaves, Chinese cabbage with orange sauce, cake, steamed buns, omelette with preserved cabbage, porkfloss for steamed buns.  Center: pungent and diminutive Chinese celery with tofu, salted egg and thousand year egg.

Clockwise from center right: pork jerky, stir fried ferns, tofu with tiny sardines in oyster sauce, marinated tofu and braised pork jowl, preserved ginger and plums, wood ear fungus with chile, garlic, ginger and cilantro, walnut fruit cake,  marinated tofu with chile and star anise pods, scallion omelette.  Center:  papaya, grapes and yellow tomatoes.  We ate everything with bowls of congee, soy milk and hot coffee.

I mean, these folks went over the top.

I now have a sense of my next pork jowl project.  Such meals give one a whole new perspective on the notion of entertaining guests.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Day 9: Yuli Noodles

We hopped on a slow train bound for the beautiful east coast and landed inYuli in the Huatung Valley.  There's a more laid back pace here and the valley bottom is webbed with trails that wind between rice fields.  We had the pleasure of gobbling down some of the local fare.

Dry noodles with tender pork slices, scallions, bean sprouts and crispy fried shallots.

This plate of tidbits was for the table to share and we cleared it in a matter of minutes.  Seaweed, dried, marinated tofu, pork loin and melt in your mouth pork skin.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Taipei Day 8: last breakfast in the city

A little reluctant to head south for the country, we ate our final Taipei breakfast in the local park while watching a group of women perform their morning calisthenics.  Hot soy milk is a common and delicious morning treat.  Just about every vendor sells it and there are shops throughout the city that specialize in making it.  The more famous ones have gigantic queues  stretching down the block.

This one had an almost peanuty flavor.

Mmmm.  A bacon, egg and American cheese breakfast sammy on crustless Wonder bread. Bacon is different here and seems often to come from a leaner cut of the pig than the belly.  But it is nonetheless delicious and smoky.  

Taipei Day 7: Pasta

It was cold in Taipei yesterday- all of 17 degrees c.  Which is starting to feel frigid now at I've been here a week.  After a night of random debauchery with some Germans, Brits and Taiwanese we met at a Bavarian beer and schnitzel house, we were in need of something comforting to breathe life into our cold, booze-addled bodies.  There's a pasta joint right outside our apartment that always smells incredible so we lumbered in and filled our bellies with steaming bowls of garlic blasted spaghetti noodles.  Amazing. 

Alfredo with sweet, briny little clams and mushrooms.  Garlic heaven.

Sweet tomato sauce with bacon.  

Spicy scallion rolls.  Sometimes nothing says "mommy" like good old American-Italian-Taiwanese fare.  The Olive Garden's got nothing on these guys.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Taipei Day 6: pancake-o-rama

The flatbread scene here is off the hook.  This place near the Dongmen MRT station was doing a good stroke of business yesterday.  They have a regular menu, but most everyone was after these pancakes fried with a beaten egg.  You can also get ham, cheese and basil added.

We ordered ours with lots of whole basil leaves.

Chewy and soft and inordinately good.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Taipei Day 5: Lunch

For the most part, the food in Taiwan is beautifully simple.  Stir fried vegetables, rice with braised ground pork, noodles with with scallions and scattered greens, light, clear pork-broth soups with noodles and dumplings.  Case in point, yesterday's lunch:

Thin rice noodles, bean sprouts, greens, a bit of ground pork and pork dumplings.  The food is not spicy.  Flavoring is left up to the diner.  There's rice vinegar, soy sauce and fermented chili on every table.

And there's heaps of Chinese dumplings to be had for a pittance.  They are almost always good. It is ridiculously easy to eat here.  The challenge is parsing out the menus.  We accidentally ordered three bowls of soup for two yesterday.  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Taipei Day 4: Angkor Wat Snacks, Fifi

Now this was some soup:

Lime leaves, pork, tomato and pineapple.  A rich, sweet broth sort of like pho mixed with Thai curry.

Ground pork rice with basil, chili, peanut.  Pickled cabbage, spinach, bamboo shoots and egg.  One of the cooks at Angkor Wat Snacks sat with an enormous satchel of basil, tearing leaves off stems.  Lunch for $5.50.

Tonight's meal at Fifi, an upscale Sichuan restaurant with a disco ball, techno beats and chic clientele drinking goblets of red wide, was the most expensive so the trip so far.  It was good, but we were encouraged to stick with cheaper places that are just as good.  

These braised pork ribs were worth every penny though:

Classic mapo tofu.

Dry green beans with chili and pork.

Leeks, black beans and ground pork.