A stroll through the night market

Night market culture in Taiwan is anything unlike I’ve ever seen. What are quiet strips of concrete and blacktop during the day turn into some of the busiest parts of town at night. Typically night markets start setting up around 3pm-4pm and will be open until the wee hours of the night. You can find the post-bar scene here, but often it is the bar scene.

Asking any teen what their favorite activity is, rarely will you find an answer as common as “walking around the night market”. With food and shopping being two of the Taiwanese’s greatest past times, it’s not hard to understand why.

Street food is a new concept that is all the rage in the States. Here in Taiwan, it’s been around for ages, and it certainly hasn’t lost any luster:

Egg Rolls: Same Same, but Different.

Same same, but different. This is an expression that everyone knows in Thailand, and one that is heard around Asia in general. It’s something that is silkscreened on many a t-shirt seen on the streets and the subways.  It also perfectly epitomizes how I feel about the egg roll.

In the Chinese language, the appetizer that Americans know as the fried egg roll is actually called a “spring roll”, stuffed with a light vegetarian filling comprised of vermicelli, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, Chinese celery, and green onions, then lightly fried and served piping hot. Rarely does the roll take the form of those large, fried, cold, meaty and chewy chimichanga-like foodstuffs I remember from my junior high school cafeteria.

I’m Chinese-American, and I can’t recall any instances when my family sat down and ate egg rolls as part of our meal (apart from my unfortunate and unplanned run-ins with the school lunch lady), regardless of whether we were dining out or sitting around our own dining room table. I wonder, since when did egg rolls, along with the likes of one completely fabricated dish named General Tso’s chicken, represent Chinese cuisine, both in the minds and tastes of America? Having seen the delineation of various regional foods and flavors possible in the Chinese cuisine, I bow my head in disgrace for the unfortunate miscommunication that happened somewhere across the Pacific.

Wait a minute though, I suppose we did have egg rolls growing up- or at least, a dish that when translated is literally “egg”+“roll”.

Mom would make these on special occasions, usually for dinner parties, but every once in a Blue Moon on those few occasions when there was nothing going on over the weekends- no soccer games/piano recitals/basketball practice/OM meetings/birthday parties/speed reading classes/sculpture/oboe lessons/tutoring sessions/drawing classes scheduled (Tiger Mom ain’t got nothin’ on my mother).

Her egg roll was just that, a thin crepe-like layer of egg griddled into a pancake, then rolled up with a fragrantly seasoned ground pork stuffing inside. Cut thinly into bite sized pieces, on our table the egg roll would be arranged among a heap of simmered napa cabbage and vermicelli noodles.

egg roll_process

Pork is the meat of choice in China – although nowadays the country’s interest in beef (not to mention dairy) is quickly gaining ground. Year-round availability of scallions, fresh mushrooms, and ginger gives the cuisine- and this dish in particular- its signature flavors. The chopsticks as lone utensil gives reason for the deliberate slicing into bite-sized pieces, and the laborious prep countered by a quick sauté/steam in a wok is exemplary throughout all Chinese dishes.

This is an egg roll that is much more representative of Chinese cookery than any egg roll you’ve encountered in the past. It is a distant cousin to its American counterpart- but really, the relation is so distant they’re practically not related. They just somehow happen to share the same name.

For the original posting of the article and a full recipe, head over to Honest Cooking, where I am one of their newest contributors!

Waste not

It’s between lunch and dinner, so I’m going to step away from food- just for a sec. So, let’s focus on the other end of food production: that being waste.

One of the few books I’m in the middle of reading right now is Anna Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet, which sites source after source of how the global food system is even ahead of fossil fuels as a contributor to global warming, particularly with East Asia becoming more and more Westernized in their living and eating habits.

It’s not just about trying to eat locally, either, though that’s a big part of it. It’s the other end of your meals that you don’t think of- literally, the other end: Waste. The disposal, treatment, and reusage (or, lack of reusage?) is detrimental to the planet not only due to improper storage and space needed for waste processing, but also for the tons of gases that waste products are emitted into the air each year.

Garbage collection is a topic that is much larger than I’d like to tackle in this one post. Recycling is another, and composting food waste, well that’s a few more posts, too.

So how do I come to think of an issue like this when I’m visiting another city? Well, walking back from dinner the other night, there was a cluster of of people standing on the street corner, all staring in one direction. Naturally, I thought they were waiting for a bus. But my Uncle, who pointed them out to me in the first place, asked me to take notice of the bags in each person’s hand- and revealed to me that they were actually waiting for the Garbage Man.

The Garbage Man comes everyday of the week (save Wednesdays) at a scheduled time, which will depend on what street corner is closest to your home. On our corner, we hear the prompt 8:40pm whistle that sounds more like a cell phone alert (really, this truck plays für elise) than any garbage truck I’m familiar with. Residents of Taiwan come out  of their tiny apartment buildings like a scatter of cockroaches- all heading towards the rear of the truck with their sorted garbage- plastics, paper, garbage, and most exciting of all- food waste.

Yup, compost. The city has set up a legit compost collection service in addition to regular garbage and recyclables. Where the regular garbage (and recycling) are thrown into the back of trucks, the compost is emptied out into storage tubs, ones that look very similar to the plastic cylindrical garbage cans we have back at home.  What is thrown away as actual garbage- sans compostables and recyclables, is only a fraction of the waste a home produces.

I couldn’t help think back to the book that is sitting on my nightstand back home. And though I don’t know much about the disposal process other than what was seen on the street that day, I’d say it’s a pretty good step in the right direction. Now, if we could do something about all those KFC’s in Asia…

White vs. Red

When presented with so much good fruit, what do you do? Eat it, of course. And lots of it.

Right now it’s watermelon season in Taiwan. But strangely, I’ve had guavas, grapes, apples, water apples, pickled plums, and pineapples- everything but watermelon.

The other night my uncle and I were choosing between two types of pineapple at one of the fruit stands at the market- it was between white or red (白or 红 were our choices), meaning a white pale fleshed pineapple vs. a golden, yellow-fleshed pineapple, the latter of what I believe to be the more common variety in the states. Growing up, I never thought there to be more than one kind of pineapple- there were only the ones that sat, propped up on top one another, in the fruit section at Safeway. Just like I thought Haas avocados were the only species of avocado on the planet, that there was only one variety of that parrot-colored Mango, and until Asian pears blew my mind, only two types of pears (Bosc and Angelou, though I certainly didn’t know the names at the time).

We opted for the white pineapples, simply for the fact that neither of us had tried it before. With a quick hack off the top, and several fluid motions with a hatchet-like cleaver, our once-spiny pineapple was now a naked, pale, coconut flesh-colored pineapple, wrapped in a baggie and tied to take home. I felt like I had won the state fair ring toss and I was taking my prize home with me.

And ooooh what a prize! The white-fleshed pineapple didn’t stray too far from being a pineapple, but it was far less fibrous than its yellow counterpart, and more tender and juicy. Though, I find this the case when comparing a lot of fruits in Asia vs. fruits from back at home. I guess the only solution is to go back for a yellow pineapple!


If someone said to me in English, “I’m going to eat Cold”, I would wait for them to finish their sentence. Here in Taiwan, when someone tells me they’re going to eat some Cold (冰), in Chinese of course, I’d have my wallet in hand and shoes on my feet before they could finish their sentence.

As with any tropical island climate, the country of Taiwan is plagued with brutally hot and humid summer months. To adapt, the people of Taiwan have built large air conditioned malls where they spend most daylight hours, sell handkerchiefs and sun-brellas like they never went out of style, and of course, consume plenty of refreshing snacks and beverages.

In the States, when the temperature rises, we go outside for a barbecue, roast some corn on the cob, or maybe go chase down the ice cream truck. In Taiwan, no one in their right mind wishes to light anything on fire, let alone run after a truck, even if the thing being chased does happen to be cold and comes on a cone.

And why would they want ice cream, when they have something better? The Taiwanese have dozens of shops and stalls devoted to selling “bing”(冰), or simply translated, “cold”. “Bing” is a complete dish more than any one ingredient, much like lasagna and S’mores are a total combination of components rather than just pasta or just marshmallow. “Bing”, is simply a big bowl of delicious, subtly sweet and cooling ingredients combined in an icy, watered down sugar syrup. Choices of ingredients range from vendor to vendor, and often you may see the likes of boiled peanuts, tofu hua, grass jelly, miniature tapioca balls, red beans and green beans, and almost without fail the local Taiwanese specialty- ai yu. (Ai yu is a clear light yellow rather flavorless jelly, not very different from the consistency of Jell-O, made from the seeds from a member of the fig family native to Taiwan. Today, ai yu jelly is also sold in a can- but what isn’t?)

What you would think is a completely random smattering of ingredients actually becomes a refreshing dish, more snack than dessert, that can be enjoyed at any time of day

Mercy to the activities of my family this weekend, I had no complaints when I was given both a handkerchief and sun-brella, then chauffered downtown to East Taipei to spend the rest of the afternoon in a huge air conditioned mall. Although lunch was just had, we headed straight for Little South Gate in the food court, where my Uncle reminisced of the days he used to get a bing from another branch of their stores every day it was hot out.

Every day that it was hot out? He must have had a lot of “bing”. Lucky guy.

Little South Gate, 小南门

(various locations throughout Taipei)

Xinyi Eslite, B2
No. 11, Song Gao Road, B2
MRT: Taipei City Hall