Lost? Just Don’t Blow Your Nose

P1210031.JPGI’m a closet shopper.  Everyone thinks Tawn is the shopper in this family but sometimes I find something that I think is really cool and I’ll buy it.  So it was while we were in Taipei and stopped by a branch of Muji, the Japanese “no brand, high quality” store that is kind of like the Gap meets IKEA but better.

What caught my eye?  These exciting Muji cotton handkerchiefs here that are printed with maps of London, New York, Tokyo and Kyoto.  Each city has both a present-day map as well as a map of the old city, usually from the mid-1800s.

Almost all my handkerchiefs come from Muji, ever since I first discovered the store in Hong Kong years ago.  Their handkerchiefs are of good quality, durable, reasonable priced, and come in a variety of colors and patterns that, while conservative, give me a little room to express myself.

Of course, the fact that I carry a handkerchief at all probably puts me into a category all my own.  There seem to be few men anymore who carry handkerchiefs.  Truly, though, how can a gentleman not carry one with him?  You never know when there will be a spill to clean up, a person in tears, a wound that needs staunching.  Plus, these map handkerchiefs would make for cool tray liners during a party.  I’m not sure they’ll go into my handkerchief drawer but may instead end up in the linen closet.

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More on Muji.  Muji describes itself as follows:

“Muji is not a brand.  Muji does not make products of individuality or fashion nor does Muji reflect the popularity of its name in its prices.  Muji creates products with a view toward global consumption in the future.  That means that we do not create products that lure customers into believing that ‘this is the best’ or ‘I must have this.’  We would like our customers to feel the rational sense of satisfaction that comes not with ‘this is the best,’ but with ‘this is enough.’  ‘Best’ becomes ‘enough.'”

In the Wikipedia entry about Muji, the consumer goods retail chain is distinguished by its design minimalism, emphasis on recycling, avoidance of waste in production and packaging, and no-logo or “no-brand” policy.  Really, it captures a lot of what I think of as the hallmarks of the Japanese design aesthetic.

 

Signs of Health

While in Taipei, I observed this sign:

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Looking at it for a few moments, I realized that comparing this sign to the common one used in the US to convey the same meaning says a lot about the eating habits of the two countries’ populations.

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US “No food or drink” sign

What’s the difference?  Look at the symbol used to represent “food” – in Taiwan it is an apple, in the US it is a hamburger.

When it comes to relative rates of obesity, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

 

Kiki’s Dinner Service

Funny how two and a half days in a city can take a week two blog about.  We’re nearing the end, though.  More telling, perhaps, is that Andy is just catching up to the first day of our trip.  Of course he has many more pictures than I do plus had been in Taipei for a week before we arrived.

The final day in Taipei followed the bleak and misty pattern that had been the tone of the weekend.  We took the subway to the north end of town, out past the suburbs, really, to the Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf and the nearby market area.  From the terminal station of the subway (Danshui) we strolled along several streets that had many of the same foods and items for sale that we had seen at the night market.

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The mist was just enough to get you wet if you weren’t using an umbrella but not enough to keep us from enjoying browsing the shops.  We had just eaten bao at Din Tai Fung so there wasn’t a lot of room left for snacking.  That didn’t keep me from looking at all the interesting things to eat.

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Two types of noodles!  And the vendor’s arm as she stirs them.

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Stuffed tofu skins.  Not sure what it is stuffed with but I’m sure someone will tell me in the comments.  Pretty sure that isn’t mozzarella cheese on top, though.

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I did buy some grilled mochi (pounded rice).  The proprietor’s daughter was running the stand and took my order, grilled the mochi, figured out which bottle had the sauce I ordered (she sniffed them), took my money and made change.  Very cute.

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We then got on a ferry to the Fisherman’s Wharf.  Looking at the map, we probably could have taken a bus or walked there just as easily.  The Fisherman’s Wharf is “D” on the map and the shopping street is “A”.  As the boat approached the mouth of the river and made the turn around the breakwater to the entrance to the wharf, we were rocked with some pretty strong waves.  Strong enough to crash across the bow and onto the lower windows, which is where we were sitting.

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The big attraction at the wharf is Lovers Bridge, shown in both the above pictures.  By this point the wind was really blowing and the mist was growing heavier.  As Sugi and I posed for a picture, her umbrella was caught by the wind and snapped like a twig.  I’m sure Andy will have a picture of that for you soon.

Tawn smartly stayed in a coffee shop, taking a nap, while the rest of us wandered about, sacrificing umbrellas to the winds.

That evening, after some gift shopping (pineapple cake!) at Sogo, we met Andy’s parents for dinner at Kiki Restaurant, a Szuchuan restaurant that’s been around for nearly twenty years.  If you ask me, Szuchuan may be the tastiest of all the Chinese cuisines.

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Tawn, Andy, Andy’s parents, Sugi and me in front of the restaurant.  I think Andy has his mom’s nose and eyes and his father’s forehead and chin.  Let’s discuss…

The restaurant had wonderful lighting for taking pictures.  If you are designing a restaurant, please spare a thought to food bloggers and install halogen lamps over the tables.

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Braised tofu.  Had my mother made tofu this way when I was growing up, I would have learned to love it much earlier.

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An elaborate version of drunken chicken.

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Bitter melon with salted duck egg.

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Morning glory stir fried with garlic and fermented tofu.

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Boiled pork with thick, sweet soy sauce.

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Dan dan noodles – served with ground pork and bok choy.

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Tripe and duck’s blood stew in a spicy chili sauce.  We got into a discussion of what tripe is.  I had always thought it was intestine but, as I’ve since learned thanks to Wikipedia, it is stomach.  There you go.

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So called “water wok” beef – a stew with bean sprouts and bamboo shoots.  The type of chili in here isn’t spicy so much as it numbs the tongue for several minutes.  Seriously, the front half of my tongue was numb after two servings.

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Last but not least, yes we did try stinky tofu.  Here it is fried up in a dish with dried chilies and spring onions.  Actually, pretty tasty.

The meal was excellent and a bit thank you to Andy’s father for treating us.  It was an excellent end to the trip as we headed to the airport shortly thereafter.  But not before some dessert!

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Stopping at a local dessert chain we encountered some Engrish.  “Garss jelly” and “Retrospective tea” were two of my favorites.  It would seem that “old-fashioned” might be a better translation.  Note that in addition to English we have Japanese.  Ah-ha!  More proof that there are lots of Japanese tourists here.

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Last but not least, here’s a photo Andy took while I was filming my tasting of salted plum stuffed cherry tomatoes dipped in candy coating at the night market.  Superb shot.

 

 

 

Din Tai Fung Dumplings

Perhaps the best of all the great food we ate in Taipei were the dumplings and bao at Din Tai Fung.  Before we headed there, we received many recommendations to try the xiao long bao, Shanghainese steamed buns, from this famous fifty-year old chain.  Since I love Shanghainese buns, I was excited to try.

If you’d like, here’s a short video (less than two minutes):

What you might notice first at the branch of Din Tai Fung located in the basement of Sogo department store are the large plate glass windows that let you and everyone else look in on the kitchen.  This has to be the ultimate sign of confidence for a restaurant for poor sanitation or hygiene, sloppy techniques and poor quality would become quickly apparent with such visibility.  Certainly, this served as a visual promise of what was to come.

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We took Andy’s parents’ recommendation seriously and ordered basically every type of dumpling they offered.  The order taker looked a bit skeptical that the four of us were going to eat so much food.  But who could possibly resist?

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The lovely food we tried.  Each dish is named in the video above.  The key item is the lower left-hand dish – this is the famous xiao long bao, the Shanghainese style pork “soup” buns.  They are called this because when forming them the cook places a small cube of gelatinized soup stock into the wrapper with the seasoned pork.  When the buns are steamed the stock liquifies.  The goal is to pick up and eat the buns without tearing the skin and, thus, spilling the soup.

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Sugi didn’t know this the first time she tried to eat them, eliciting cries of anguish from her fellow diners as they watched the soup spill onto her plate.

Funnily enough, the restaurant provides a laminated sheet with directions in both Japanese and English (lots of Japanese tourists here) about how to properly enjoy your bao.

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I’m pleased to announce that next time I fly through Taipei I will be scheduling my flights so I have a layover long enough to allow a trip into town to eat at Din Tai Fung.  Oh, but the good news!  There are some three dozen locations of the restaurant including several in Japan, Singapore, throughout east Asia and a branch in Los Angeles and Sydney.  Even if I don’t get to Taipei I should be able to enjoy these dumplings much more often.  When does the branch open here in Thailand?

 

Shilin Night Market – Taipei

The food adventures continued on Saturday night when, after a day wandering around the malls adjacent to Taipei 101, we rode the subway to the north end of Taipei to visit the Shilin Night Market.  This is the largest night market in Taipei.

Foods we enjoyed at the official food section of the market (as opposed to the endless rows of street vendors scattered throughout the rest of the market) included these dishes:

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What did we eat?  I’m afraid I didn’t take careful notes, especially while we were inside the food portion of the market.  But from the upper left, clockwise, we have fried noodles with a ground pork mixture, a fried “pancake” that seems to be mostly made from corn starch with pickled cucumbers on top, an omelet with shrimp and greens with a thick sweet sauce, and steamed rice with another ground pork mixture.

The food in the indoor portion of the market was, honestly, a bit bland and a lot oily.  Corn starch and oil were two of the main ingredients.  The food was certainly interesting but the blandness, combined with the overwhelming smell of stinky tofu (a fermented tofu the smell of which some compare to death boiled over) from adjacent stalls, drove us back outside where we continued our hunt for food from the street vendors.  Full story in the video.

Focusing my energies on video, I ended up not shooting pictures of the wide variety of interesting food available at the food court in Taipei 101’s shopping mall.  See Andy’s entry to enjoy those pictures.

 

Survey – LGBTQ use of social networks as support

Sheldon is doing research for a school paper on LGBTQ use of social networks as a support mechanism and specifically on blog use. He could use your help. If you are part of the LGBTQ community, please complete his survey, available at http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/?p=WEB229X5XCADKY.

If you know others who would be willing to complete the survey, please direct them to the same link.

Thank you.

 

Taipei 101

I’m a little slow getting these entries about Taipei posted as I have a lot of video and was hoping to do some editing for each entry.  That, however, isn’t going to happen.

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Tawn all wrapped up and ready to take on the cool weather in Taipei.

Saturday morning after breakfast we took a taxi to Taipei 101, previously the tallest building in the world and still the tallest in East Asia.  Taipei as a whole is pretty flat and spread out so there are few buildings – and none immediately nearby – that challenge Taipei 101 in any serious way.

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The morning, as you can see, was still misty with a light drizzle falling nonstop.  In fact, the top of the tower was shrouded in passing clouds from time to time, promising a less than unlimited view.  After debating whether it would be better to wait and hope for clearer weather, we finally decided to go ahead and ascend to the observation deck on the 89th floor as many tour groups were arriving.

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The design of Taipei 101 incorporates many elements of feng shui, the system of aesthetics that balances astronomy and geography to receive the results of positive qi, or energy.  For example, the structure is built to resemble bamboo, a supple and quick-growing grass.  There are lucky coins placed on the four sides of the building and the edges are adorned with metal embellishments that look like stylized clouds.  It is actually a very graceful building.

The elevators to the observation deck are supposedly the fastest in the world, reaching 1,010 meters/minute on the upwards journey and 600 meters/minute on descent.  The ride from the 5th floor ticket queue to the 89th floor observation deck takes 37 seconds and, surprisingly, your ears don’t pop too badly thanks to a system of pumps that move air into and out of the passenger cab.

The view from the deck was limited, although it was interesting to watch clouds blowing past the building below you.  Also, there was one side of the building (the downwind side) where the clouds were stacking up behind the building.  I did shoot some video, but nothing to share with you yet.

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Photo courtesy of Andy

Tawn and I with a mural of Taipei 101 and downtown Taipei on a sunnier (and more cartoonish) day.  Below, Tawn and Sugi pose in the gift shop with a “damper baby”, the mascot of Taipei 101 whose image is based on the 660-ton pendulum mass damper that sways to offset building movement caused by earthquakes or strong gusts of wind. Notice that the eyes and mouth of the damper baby spell out “101”.

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We spent most of the day in the malls surrounding Taipei 101, shopping and eating as there wasn’t a whole lot else to do on such a dreary day.  That was fun enough, though, as it is about the company more than anything else.

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Photo courtesy of Andy

Tawn poses in front of the Louis Vuitton store’s Christmas display.

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Before heading out to the night market for dinner, I managed to get this decent shot of Taipei 101 at night, taken in front of Eslite Bookstore’s flagship location. 

More about the night market (which was drier) tomorrow. 

Breakfast in Taipei

Saturday morning we met Andy and Sugi in the lobby of our hotel (Park Taipei Hotel – highly recommended) and walked to a nearby restaurant for breakfast.  The section of Fu-Xing South Road near the hotel has many restaurants well-known for their breakfasts, some of which serve 24 hours a day.  Andy took us to Yong He Dou Jiang (永和豆漿) at the corner of RuiAn and Section 2, Fu-Xing South Road.

The first sign that this would be good eats was the queue stretching out the front door and onto the sidewalk.  There were two, in fact: one for food to-go (many people in that line were carrying their tiffins or, as I believe the Singaporeans call them, their tingkats) and the other for dine-in.

The kitchen is right at the front of the shop, open-air under with a glass wall and window facing the interior dining area.  This is a busy and efficient kitchen with each person performing their tasks in a compact area; no wasted motions here.  The menu has variations of no more than a dozen items, if that, so it is more of a production line than anything else.

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Our basic breakfast was four bowls of warm, sweetened soy milk, sesame pastry with fried “donut” inside, rice rolls (hidden under the sesame pastry), steamed Shanghainese style pork dumplings called xiao long bao, and some fried turnip cakes (not pictured).

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Soy milk is not something I generally enjoy drinking but for some reason I find that when I have it in Asia, it is much more enjoyable than when I have it in the US.  It isn’t chalky and there’s no artificial vanilla flavor added to it.  It is especially nice when using it to dip the pastries.

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The pastries, referred to colloquially as “Chinese donuts”, are thin strips of unsweetened dough that are fried up.  In Thailand, these are generally shorter pieces but here in Taiwan (and most other places I’ve had them) they are a good ten inches long.  The ones we had were wrapped in a thin sesame pasty.  You dunked it in the soy milk then took a bite.

The dumplings (in the background) are one of my favorites, although this particular restaurant’s were underseasoned.  They are made with a ground pork filling that has a small cube of gelatinous broth put inside the wrapper and then are steamed.  The broth liquifies and when you bite into it, you get a generous burst of “soup” with the meat.

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The other thing we had were rice rolls (kind of like sushi) wrapped around a Chinese donut and stuffed with a dried, shredded pork and pickled veggies.  Very tasty!

This proved a tasty and filling start to our drizzly day.

First Day in Taipei

We arrived Friday morning about 11:00 at Taipei’s International Airport after a smooth, three-hour flight from Bangkok.  Andy was kind enough to arrange for a car to pick us up and we were in the city before twelve-fifteen.  Amazing considering the distance from the airport to the city.

After a bit of freshening up, we met Andy and his girlfriend Sugi in the lobby of the Park Taipei Hotel, off to our first stop, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, below.

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This impressive memorial to the first president of Taiwan is part of a larger grounds that include the National Theatre and the National Concert hall, two traditionally designed buildings.

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Inside the memorial hall we witnessed the impressive changing of the guard ceremony at the top of the hour.  There is some video footage I will edit of this.  Worth watching because – horrors! – one of the guards dropped his gun during the intricate maneuvers.

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The military guards have to stand still for an entire hour.  Unable to move, they have to rely upon a civilian guard to come over, straighten their uniform and mop their brow. 

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In the museum below the memorial hall was an exhibit of more contemporary Chinese scrolls including this cute one of an old couple perusing a photo album.

Tawn posed near one of the large doors leading into the museum level of the memorial hall.

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In the evening we went to Ximending, the shopping district  on the west side of town that is the home of hip and trendy youth culture.  Similar to Shibuya in Tokyo, it is bright lights and tons of shops catering to an endless stream of people, mostly younger.

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There’s shopping for everyone.  Sugi found a beautiful leather bracelet that she really liked so a few minutes later, Andy was shelling out some New Taiwan Dollars.

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There are some really nice graffiti in one section of Ximending.

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Lots of street vendors serving foods of every kind.  Taipei is known for its good eats and tomorrow evening we will be dining at the night market.  Stay tuned for that entry.  Here was a fresh fruit vendor who was being shooed away by the police for being in a no-vendor area.

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One thing I found a vendor selling that really surprised me: corn dogs!

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Frosting a Cake

Never one to shy away from publicizing my failures, missteps and adventures in the kitchen, I decided on Monday to film my attempt at frosting a layer cake.  Having only done this a few times before, it was … quite a production.  But as long as I can learn lessons from the experience (and eat the mistakes!) then that’s the important thing, right?

The cake turned out looking okay, if a little lopsided.

The reason for the cake was my birthday, which I share with several other people.  I celebrated in conjunction with Jason, an Australian friend who turned thirty this year.

Our little dinner party group.  From left to right:Benji, Matt, Kobfa, me, Jason, Bundit, Zenya and Tawn.

Jason and I have blown out the candles and prepare to cut the cake.  Speaking of the September Issue, you can probably tell that one of us is a bit more of the fashionista.

Oh, the sad thing is that I made a mango coulis to go with this, poured it into a squeeze bottle and placed the bottle into the refrigerator to chill, subsequently forgetting to serve it with the cake.  D’oh!