My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Visiting Tong Hua Night Market in Taipei

Last week I was in Taipei on business. One of my rules of business travel is, whenever possible, to explore the city and eat at least one meal out and about, so I come away with at least some sense of the city. Thankfully, Taipei is a familiar city and I was fortunate to have two friends join me for a trip to the Tong Hua Street Market in Da’an District.

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The objective of this visit was to locate a popular restaurant that serves gua bao, the steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and other goodies that I’ve previously tried making¬†and have enjoyed at Little Bao in Hong Kong.

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Thankfully, one of the local HR team members did some research for me and found a helpful article on the Lauhound food blog. The target restaurant was Shi Jia Gua Bao, a local chain famous for their gua bao.

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The menu is limited: basically there are steamed gua bao with a few different types of fillings, a baked bagel-like bun with a more limited selection of fillings, and the Taiwanese version of xiao long bao, a steamed pork bun.

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The shop manager was friendly and more than happy for me to take pictures. Vats of steaming buns and all the ingredients sat at the ready, ensuring us of a freshly-made, high-quality meal.

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The basic gua bao features both slices of fatty belly and slices of leaner meat. The size of the bao is larger than I have seen at some places: about the size of a McDonald’s hamburger. While a little messy to eat, the flavor was rich and satisfying.

Prices range from 50-65 New Taiwan Dollars, or less than US$2. Quite a bargain for the quantity and quality of food.

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The baked version, somewhat akin to a bagel, was not as enjoyable. While filled with the same tasty ingredients, the baked bun was dry and brittle, leaving me thirsty. Better to stick with the steamed version.

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Another interesting item was the xiao long bao. The Shanghainese version with which I am familiar (think of the ones at Din Tai Fung restaurant) feature as paper-thin noodle skin and the filling includes not only pork but a cube of flavorful gelatinized stock that melts when the bun is steamed, producing hot soup that will gush all over if you do not eat it carefully.

In contrast, the traditional Taiwanese version is made with a thicker bread dough so there is no stock inside, as it would only be absorbed by the bread. This was much less satisfying, although the pork filling was tasty enough.

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Wandering through the rest of the market, we encountered a stinky tofu vendor. The tofu was stinky, not the vendor! Made by fermenting the tofu in a brine that can contain all manner of ingredients, the smell of stink tofu is as strong as that of blue cheese. It sparks similar responses, with some people loving it and others repulsed by it. Also similar to blue cheese, the flavor and the smell are different.

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Here, the tofu is served lightly deep fried with a healthy dose of chili oil and pickled cabbage as a garnish. It was a very satisfying dish to try, although the bottom pieces, thoroughly soaked in the chili oil, were blindingly spicy.

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My friends Nathan and Andrew (aka loserstepaside here in WordPress) join me at the Tong Hua night market. The stinky tofu was Andrew’s idea.

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At the far end of the market was a vendor selling sheng jian bao, a pan-fried bun that I fell in love with in Shanghai, where I ate several times at Yang’s Buns.

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The skins are moderately thick, not as much as the gua bao but not so thin as gyoza. However, like gyoza they are fried on a cast iron pan that is filled with a generous amount of water, covered, and allowed to steam. The cover is removed after about five minutes and the remained of the liquid boils off.

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The sheng jian bao are served in a box of ten or a bag of five, sprinkled with sesame seeds and, in some places, chopped green onions.

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The insides are still steaming hot and the pork, ginger, and green onion filling is juicy and salty. These are a mess to eat but worth it, as the combination of crunchy bottom, pillowy soft wides, and warm, juice filling is too much to resist.

All in all, the Tong Hua market will give you many great things to see, do, and eat!

Also known as the Linjiang Street Night Market, located near Xinyi Anhe MRT station.

Trying My Hand at Making Bao Burgers

After a long while, I finally had the opportunity to try making my own Chinese-style bao burgers. The verdict? Pretty tasty and easier than I expected!

One of my favorite restaurants in the word is Little Bao in Hong Kong. (Read my review of it.) They are one in a crowd of restaurants doing more modern twists on the Chinese (specifically, Taiwanese) gua bao, steamed flour buns folded in half around pork belly, braised chicken, or other fillings.

P1280602A spicy fried chicken with garlic black bean mayo and scallion coleslaw bao from Little Bao in Hong Kong.

The conceit at Little Bao is that instead of a folded bun, they make their bao more like hamburger buns. This makes it possible to include more tasty fillings, offering a better balance of bread to filling. It was that hamburger-like quality that I wanted to achieve.

Day One

I worked with my friend Chow (aka the Bangkok Glutton), my frequent co-conspirator in the kitchen. The basic recipe for the bao is simple: flour, water, yeast, a bit of baking powder and a bit of salt. Some versions have some milk added for softness – I didn’t try that this time. You let the dough rise a few times, punching it down between rises but trying to avoid over-working it, because bao are meant to be soft, not chewy.

IMG_4867The first day, we made bao the traditional way, rolling them out into an oblong shape and them folding them in half over a piece of wax paper. This allows them to be opened and stuffed more easily. They are then steamed for about 8-10 minutes and can either be served warm or kept covered and reheated if necessary.

As for the red decoration, I found that trick in one online recipe. You use red food coloring and the tip of a chopstick to decorate the buns just before steaming. Looks pretty professional! Our kitchen assistants became more creative and so we ended up with all sorts of designs on our bao.

IMG_4872For the first day’s bao, we used some braised pork belly, homemade radish pickles, some braised cabbage, and some Italian parsley. It turned out okay, but the bao were a bit flat, brittle at the fold, and the fillings were underwhelming in flavor. All in all, though, a good first attempt.

Day Two

The second day we let the dough rise more and also shaped it into balls, making it more like a hamburger bun. This worked better although I think we over-worked the dough a bit, as it was tough.

IMG_4928The pictures don’t do justice, but the fillings were a great deal better this time around. We tried a different recipe for the pork belly, which had much more flavor than the original recipe.

IMG_4933We also did a duck breast, which I paired with the seasonings I had used the day before for the pork belly. This, too, was very nice.

IMG_4939The star of the show was a more traditional Taiwanese version with chicken thigh meat braised in Chinese rice wine and soy sauce served with chopped peanuts. This was so tasty, I could have eaten a half-dozen and I will have to try it again soon.

IMG_4937As an added bonus, since I was also teaching two friends’ children to cook, we made a homemade chicken noodle soup with both the broth and the noodles from scratch. I think the noodles came out a bit too “spaetzle-like” but they were tasty and the broth was the first time I’ve made a chicken broth that really wowed me.

Stay tuned for more from the kitchen.

 

Dining in Taipei: Kiki Restaurant

This last trip to Taipei marked my third time dining at Kiki Restaurant. Despite being owned by a celebrity (usually a black mark) and having multiple branches (often tough to maintain quality), Kiki Restaurant serves very good Szechuan-inspired food in a pleasant setting with attentive service. Each of my visits has been to the branch on Fuxing South Road in the Zhongshan District.

Crispy deep-fried egg tofu. Egg tofu is literally a type of tofu that has eggs incorporated before the soy milk is coagulated. When fried, the inside has a creamy, custard-like texture that is very pleasant to eat. This dish was not oily at all and was a very enjoyable start to the meal.

The second dish was a marinated chicken dish. While the chicken is cooked, the dish is served cold. This is a bit of an acquired taste for some people as the chicken skin has a texture that might be described as “rubbery but not chewy”. The flavor is excellent – Taiwanese chickens are the most flavorful I have eaten anywhere. The seasoning was chili oil, peanuts, and green onions.

The third dish was stir fried minced pork with Chinese chives and fermented black beans. This was a fantastic dish, lots of umami thanks to the black beans. Visually, it is eye-catching, too!

Our fourth dish was Szechuan style spicy noodles with minced pork, also known as “dan dan noodles”. Made with Szechuan peppercorns as well as chilies, this dish gently numbs the tongue while also setting it on fire. The key to this dish is to achieve the right balance. Too many of the peppercorns and your tongue ends up useless.

What might be one of the most popular Szechuan dishes worldwide, four season beans with minced pork and Chinese spices. Cooked in a blazing hot wok, the beans are seared quickly, locking in their flavor and freshness.

We also consumed several orders of the “home-style” Chinese bread roll, a very simple wheat flour roll served either steamed or deep fried with a side of sweetened condensed milk. Sugi and Tawn both liked the deep fried version. I found it a little oily and preferred the steamed version.

As always, we benefitted greatly from Andy (yang1815) handling the ordering. Andy’s good taste and enthusiasm for food is infectious and makes traveling with him a blast.

 

Pastry in Taipei – Boîte de Bijou

While in Taipei for Andy and Sugi’s wedding banquet, I visited a cute little patisserie called Boîte de Bijou (“Jewel Box”). Both visits were to their second location on AnHe Road in the Da’An district, just across the street from Far Eastern Plaza mall. The first visit was fantastic. The second visit was a disaster.

This location is not very large but has a stylish, modern decoration that mostly showcases the beautiful pastries they create. You can select many of your own items and fancier, more delicate items (cakes, for example), can be selected at the counter.

Indoor seating is limited to one communal table and a half-dozen seats at the counter at the coffee bar. With beautiful marble-lined walls and a great view of the barrista, who is preparing most of the dishes on the menu, the counter is a good place to be.

The pastries are fantastic. Beautiful, well-executed, and nicely presented. This blueberry tart featured beautiful ripe berries and inside the tart was a hidden pocket of jam.

This pistachio cake was beautiful to look at and had a delicate foamy texture with a cookie crumb base and a raspberry filling. 

A surprise find was kouign amann, a Brittany-style pastry that has been gaining popularity worldwide. It is made similar to croissant dough except that sugar is sprinkled on each layer as it is folded and rolled out, making for a sweeter, more caramelized treat. The kouign amann here was a little tough and not as special as the other desserts.

Andy, Sugi, and I had a very pleasant afternoon break while Tawn was back at the hotel, taking a nap. Sadly, when I returned with Tawn a few days later, eager to share this cute little find with him, we ended up with a bad taste in our mouth.

Most of the seating at Boîte de Bijou is in an outdoor patio. When we arrived the second time, all the tables were occupied except one. Tawn sat down and I went inside to order pastries. As those were being prepared, I went to the coffee bar to order some drinks. The (manager? supervisor? random employee?) asked me where I was sitting and when I said we were sitting outside, she said that there was no room outside. I assured her we already had a table and even walked outside with her to show that Tawn was already sitting at the table.

In the next sixty seconds, my pleasant feelings about this patisserie melted away like spun sugar in a warm mouth. 

“Oh, that table is reserved,” she said. When we asked why there was no sign or any other indication that the table was reserved, she simply repeated that the table was reserved. When I asked where we should sit instead, she replied that they were full. “But I’ve already ordered our food,” I explained. “We’re busy today,” was her response.

I understand that there was probably a bit of a language barrier. We didn’t speak Mandarin and English is probably not her first language. But for so classy a shop, there was absolutely no class to their service. No apology, no attempt to accommodate us, nothing. The ideal solution would have been something like, “I’m so sorry we forgot to put a sign on that table. Since you’ve ordered your food already, could we prepare it to go and I’d be happy to give you your drinks for free to make up for your inconvenience.” 

Instead, she seemed uninterested in helping us, so we decided to leave. No food, no payment, just walked out the door, abandoning our pastries.

So if you make it to Taipei, there’s a really cute patisserie down a small lane. But before you go, be aware that their customer service lags behind their baking skills.

 

Yang Wedding Banquet in Taipei

We were fortunate to be part of Andy (yang1815) and Sugi’s wedding banquet in Taipei last weekend. Here are some pictures from the banquet (especially the food!), which was hosted at the very nice Regent Taipei Hotel.

Andy and Sugi pose with their nephews in the greeting room just outside the banquet hall. We had met the middle of the three nephews at the wedding in Maui last year and enjoyed meeting the other two on this trip. 

There was a large ice sculpture of two cupids about to kiss, melting quickly underneath the lightbulbs. It wasn’t until the way out that someone pointed out to me that the “male” cupid was anatomically correct and, I suppose, less well endowed after two hours than he was at the start of the banquet.

Andy’s father speaks to the guests while Sugi’s father, Sugi, and Andy sit at the table and await the first course. Chinese banquets are elaborate affairs. Usually about a dozen courses and great care is taken to choose the best (read: “expensive”) ingredients as a matter of showing a good “face” to the guests. The Yangs certainly were outstanding hosts as this was one of the finest banquets I’ve attended and every course was impressive. Here they are in the order they arrived.  

The first plate (everything at this banquets was plated for us, not served off common platters) was an appetizer salad of smoked goose breast. The orange ingredient is a kind of solid “cake” of fish eggs, if I understand correctly, the saltiness of which paired nicely with the tender, smoky goose.

The next course was a small bowl of slightly sweet mochi (sticky rice) dumplings with longan fruit. This was an interesting dish that is similar to desserts I have eaten in Thailand. It seemed strange that something dessert-like would be served as a second course, but the dish was tasty. 

Third course was abalone. This is one of those big-ticket ingredients that impresses guests and this particular succeeded in doing so. The abalone was tender and flavorful, a really good example of why the price tag is so high. 

The fourth course was braised scallops. In general, scallops are one of my favorite ingredients and these particular scallops were cooked really nicely. 

The next course was shark’s fin soup. Yes, this is an unpopular ingredient these days as most shark fins are harvested in a horrific manner. While I don’t know the source of these particular fins, I can say that this was the best shark fin soup I’ve had. Normally, the fins are cut into very thin strips and the broth is murky with cornstarch. This was a clear-broth soup and the fins were in large pieces. A good example of why this dish is considered a must-have on Chinese banquet menus. 

The sixth course was steamed sea bream with scallions. Chinese know how to cook fish and this captured the reason why: steaming keeps the fish moist, captures all the sweetness of fresh seafood, and avoids overcooking.

The seventh course was braised pork tendons with okra and chestnuts. The gelatinous texture of pork tendons doesn’t appeal to everyone, I’m sure, but it is hard to beat the flavor! 

The eighth course was something I’ve never seen before, a pork chop that has been cooked confit style and crusted with what I swear were Doritos and corn flakes. The meat was tender and very tasty. Definitely unusual. 

The ninth course was a chicken soup made with “black bone” chicken. This type of chicken has black skin but tastes like any other chicken. One truth, though, is that chickens in Asia (in general, and Taiwan in particular) are so much tastier than the chickens in the United States. The broth had the type of flavor that you always imagine chicken soup should have, but rarely does. 

The tenth course was a small bundle of glutinous rice with Chinese sausage, mushrooms, and lotus seeds, steamed in taro leaf. This is a dim sum staple and provided a little starch to help fill you up, just incase the previous nine courses had left you hungry! 

 

The eleventh course (the first dessert course) was actually two types of pastries, the left one filled with sweetened daikon radish and the right one filled with barbecued pork. These are familiar to anyone who goes to dim sum.

We concluded with a platter of fresh fruit, something sweet but refreshing to conclude the banquet. By this point, nobody had the appetite to do more than just nibble!

Congratulations to Andy and Sugi and thanks to the Yangs for their very generous hospitality! 

 

Taipei Wrap Up

Despite traveling from one end of Taiwan to the other on the High Speed Rail, I was back in Taipei by ten minutes after noon.  I rushed to one of the subway lines and a few minutes later, met my friend Jay for lunch at a large hotel.

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Jay and I worked together during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival many years ago.  He has since moved back to Taiwan and is running a company that produces and distributes various media with an emphasis on television channels.  After lunch, he invited me to attend a press conference that was being held to promote a competition held by the Syfy channel.

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Lin Yu-hsien, Director of the 2011 Taiwanese hit film Jump Ashin, appeared at the press event with two young ladies who, if I understand correctly, work with the tourism board and produce all sorts of internet media.  Their “thing” is that they plank all over the place in Taiwan.  Why anyone would choose to lie face down on a hotel conference room’s carpeting is beyond me.  How they relate to the Syfy channel contest is beyond me, too.  Made for an interesting experience, though.

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Afterwards, Jay and I embarked on a somewhat whirlwind series of events.  First stop, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum where we breezed through several exhibits including one featuring works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.  Maybe we weren’t in much of an art mood, but neither Jay nor I were particularly impressed by the artist’s works.  The one above, “Forever Bicycles,” is perhaps the best-known work in the exhibit.  It is visually interesting but I’m not sure that it really says all that much. 

We also stopped for coffee at the downtown Taipei airport and hung out on the observation deck, which has good views of flights coming and going for “near international” destinations like Tokyo and Shanghai. 

I headed back out to Taoyuan Airport, the main international airport, using the high speed train and bus connection.  As our schedules worked out well, I was able to meet Xangan Jack (made2order), who had just returned to Taipei a week earlier and was helping a chef friend at the Novotel airport hotel conduct a cooking class.  No pictures, unfortunately, but enjoyed talking food and cooking with him and the chef friend, an Indian man who has worked in Taipei several years.

Back at the airport, I zoomed through security and immigration and headed to the lounge, where my carry-on bag was waiting for me in the locker.  Enough time to shower again, change clothes, and catch my breath before boarding the flight to Bangkok.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, I used miles to upgrade to business class on this final segment of my trip.  I did this primarily to make sure I had access to the airline lounge, lest I end up stuck at the airport for my entire 15-hour layover.  The other benefit, of course, was that my final three-hour flight was an extremely comfortable one!

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Menus were distributed before takeoff along with glasses of Champagne.   EVA has started distributing menus for the economy class on long-haul flights, too, which seems a little silly but at least you end up feeling like your choice of meals is a bit nicer than just “chicken or beef”.

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Business class cabin on the A330.  The load on this flight, which continues from Bangkok to Vienna, was light, maybe 40% in business class and not much more in economy.  The man sitting across the aisle from me was also taking lots of pictures so I guess someone else has blogged about this flight, too.

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Appetizer of a chicken pate served in crust with salmon roe and salad.

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Choice of various breads including garlic toast.  The one of the right is a rustic whole grain bread.

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My selection for dinner, poached noodles with braised beef shank and tendon served in superior sauce.  Very tasty, although a little bit of tendon goes a long way for me.

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On-board espresso machine produces lattes and other drinks to order with a rock sugar stir stick.

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Dessert was a modest fruit plate.

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Business class passengers were given an immigration priority lane pass, which was really pointless for a 2:30 am arrival as that is after the last wave of arriving flights and there are no lines at the immigration counters.  That said, I breezed through and was the first to arrive at the baggage claim.  I then had to wait fifteen minutes for the bags to start arriving.  Thankfully, mine were among the first few bags to come off the belt!

Catching a taxi home, I was in bed by 4:00 am, exhausted from my more than fifty hour journey from Kansas City.