An extremely wordy post about date flakes.

Wow. Three weeks flies by pretty quickly. I’m dropping back in again, with the hopes that you haven’t totally lost faith in me and my increasingly-sporadic rambles.

But the exciting thing is, in my absence from blogging, I’ve developed so much (SO MUCH!) that I want to share on this blog, ranging everywhere from pack out anticipation, to new work projects, to recent trips across the states, to upcoming trip ideas, to new ideas in general. Excuse this little bit of word vomit, I took one of these this morning. So now, where does one start?

shields date flakes

I know, let’s start at the beginning. Sometimes the beginning means at the header of a page, sometimes it means at a marked starting line, but today, my beginning is starting with breakfast – as many of your mornings do too, I gather. (Caution: If you’re not into wordiness right now, I’d suggest you skip to the bottom, because admittedly, this is a very long entry with a lot of fluff in the middle).

Every morning I wake up hungry- this is a staid fact in my life- which means I have some assemblance of a breakfast every morning. It’s usually more simple than anything fancy, meaning that I generally avoid turning on the stove to make breakfast. I make my slice of toast, or juice, or bowl of oatmeal, and then eat it, in front of my computer, simultaneously checking emails and letting my mind wander to things such as the breakfast routines of other people. You see, it’s a bit of a yearning of mine to have the same breakfast every morning, like many of you claim to do. Fresh yogurt and homemade granola with beautiful fruits every morning is the preferred staple, but I’d get down with a slice of hearty-grained toast with peanut butter too, and seriously even just half a grapefruit every morning. As long as it’s every morning. Though I so desperately want for one of these routines, and have tried so hard in the past for weeks at a time to turn myself into an everyday-same-breakfast-er, I’m never committal enough, nor sure enough, nor decisive enough, nor have planned ahead enough, to have one single item for breakfast every day. It really is one of my desired goals though, and there – I just shared with the world one of my embarrassingly superflous, and highly unnecessary goals in my life.

date flakes- in the bag

Recently part of my breakfast has been a green juice, which has been made semi-routine-ish thanks to the addition of our shiny new *expensive* blender. And interspersed here and there, particularly if it’s cold and dreary out, I’ll heat up a big bowl of oats. If you too like to encounter a bowl of steaming hot oatmeal in front of your face in the AM, I am highly suggesting the addition of date flakes, or date crystals. The name date flakes sounds a bit gross, and look just slightly less so, but I promise you they add a world of flavor and complexity to an otherwise simple bowl of hot oats.

And here, is where the point of this blog post actually starts (I warned you earlier of wordiness, so you can’t fault me for that now).

I first tasted date flakes in Palm Springs, where date flakes have been a raging fad since the 60’s. By now, it can be stated they have outrun their status as a fad and are turning more into a local staple, something for tourists to seek out should they find themselves in the California desert. In Palm Springs, where a date industry has created a name for itself, date flakes are mostly used in hybrid milkshakes, or rather, frozen-yogurt health shakes created from the hippie-bohemian types that tend to frequent Palm Springs.

After consuming one of the aforementioned date shakes, I told myself I would go home and make a date shake every day to satisfy my sweet tooth. However the act of purchasing and drinking a date shake in Palm Springs and making a date shake in your blender at home, somehow, somewhere, presents a large gap of disconuity, where your date shake at home tastes nothing like the one you had in Palm Springs. This phenomena happens often with hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as with milkshakes in general, and sometimes Chinese Food and other types of ethnic foods.

Which leaves you with a lot of date flakes you anticipated on making shakes for in your pantry, to be used now for what….?

date flakes - in the hand

The answer is oatmeal. I previously would always add brown sugar in my oatmeal, but this has since changed. Date flakes are hard and crunchy out of the bag, but when heated in oatmeal become melted and soft and become one with the oats (yes, I just said “become one with oats“). They add a heightened complexity of sweetness that plan old sugar or honey does not, and since they’re natural, they’re infinitely healthier than processed sugar.

I’m excited to try to sprinkle these date flakes into a banana or zucchini bread WHEN I GET AN OVEN AGAIN, but in the meantime, these little candied pieces of dates are absolute heaven in my semi-routine breakfast bowls of oatmeal. Shield’s Date Garden is one of the more famous companies who sell date flakes out of the Palm Springs area (and who also offer online ordering), but any other brand you might find would probably be fine. I’ve yet to ever see these at any Whole Foods or health store on the East Coast, so I’d recommend ordering online. Also, sorry for that photo of my extremely dry hands. Winter here in DC is killer.

Oatmeal with date flakes

  • 1/2 cup old fashioned oats
  • 3/4 cup – 1 cup water
  • 2 tsp date flakes
  • accompaniments: blueberries, peaches, and/or walnuts, cashew nut milk or soy millk.
  1. Rinse oats once under cold water and drain. Add up to 1 cup water. Heat in microwave for 1 minute, then add date flakes. Heat for another 1 minute, watching carefully as the oats will have a tendency to overflow (if it does, take the bowl out and stir, then continue heating).
  2. Add accompaniments as desired. If you’re feeling crazy, add a pinch of salt to your oatmeal!

Shields Date Flakes - closeup

I’m also excited because date flakes and oatmeal with soy milk fits into my plan to go Gluten Free for a few weeks. I’m telling you, I’ve got a lot to say since I’ve missed blogging for a few weeks. But there’s more research and planning that needs to be done for that, so for now we’ll leave it as yet another silly and superfluous goal I’m setting in my life.

The Second Line

Mr Buckjumper

Anyone who knows anything can tell you, in a few short descriptive words, what Mardi Gras is all about. Party. Beads. Hurricanes. Floats. A really big frickin’ parade.

Partial nudity and madness are also words that may or may not be used, but that depends on what kind of person you are.

Mardi Gras is most certainly the biggest parade in New Orleans, but definitely not the only one – not even close. One of the things I learned on my trip was how New Orleans is so steeped in a regional cultural all unto itself – more so than any other state, region, or city in the U.S.. New Orleans residents are so unique and passionately soaked in local culture, as seen through their music, historical references, numerous landmarks, food, religious influences, and most evidently so – in parades.

Little Miss Buckjumper

Now let’s talk parade as culture. I mean, if parades are part daily life around these parts, can you blame residents for not being so completely passionate about their city??!

The Second Line is an event, a parade, that frequently take place in neighborhoods around town. Usually on Sundays, mostly during Mardi Gras season but also scheduled throughout the year in relative degrees of popularity, different groups of different demographics parade through streets celebrating life and music in various coordinated outfits and costumes. There’s a second line that celebrates Star Wars and its parade marauders are dressed up as Star Wars characters, I’m told. But that’s something of a completely different cultural history that I’m not going to delve into.

The term ‘Second Line’ comes from a tradition of funeral processions, which is rumored to have descended from West African heritage and tradition. Following the casket would be a brass band, and following the band would be those celebrating the life of the deceased. Today, there are still actual second line funeral processions that take place – particularly when notable figures in town pass away. On the flip side, second line processions have also become popular at weddings in New Orleans.

LBJ Parade

Every year in November, my friends’ favorite second line troupe holds their biggest fete.  The Lady Buckjumpers are a prominent social group in town, and we were able to catch up at the end point of the parade to witness some of the magic. Groups of young girlfriends in coordinated outfits (bright colorful spandex and faux leather vests seemed to be a popular choice among the urban youth of New Orleans) paraded in the line, after band members pumping out brass music while wearing bright orange and purple zoot suits and top hats. Younger kids danced around (the troupe has a younger division called the junior buckjumpers), and masses of friends and families walked past yelling and hollering and one another.

second line

We were, in our skinny jeans and designer t-shirts, slightly out of place. But the thing was, in the parade atmosphere, where everyone is celebrating and walking to the music, no one ever feels totally excluded.

Shrimp Rolls

In a city with such a diverse history of immigration, trade, and consequently the mingling of various cultures, Tainan surprisingly retains a strong regional sense. Think of the pride that SF’ers talk about the Bay Area, or the way New Yorkers boast about the Big Apple, or how Chicagoans are so proud of the wind and unnatural living condition that they call Winter. That’s the sort of boasting that occurs in Tainan, perhaps most apparent in its pride for its local dishes.

Shrimp rolls are at the top of the local dishes to try while staying in Tainan. Shrimp, combined with other ingredients, make up a filling that is wrapped in pig belly membrane (stomach? casing? This part got lost in translation somewhere), then battered and deep fried. What you would think to be fishy and offal-y and heavy and oily is very surprisingly light, crispy, savory and flavorful and totally not funky at all. If you can stomach a spring roll, you’ll be able to handle this.

My uncle proudly boasts that he only frequents places that are not tourist traps, and much prefers hold-in the walls in alleyways and shady corridors than anything off a main strip or in a guide book. How he finds these places- well, that is beyond me. But I certainly don’t complain.

The shrimp rolls at the one eatery we visited were sold as quickly as they were made- while we were there, I observed an endless stream of motorscooters pulling up to the counter empty-handed, and leaving with clusters of plastic takeout bags dangling from their scooters. As in-house diners, thanks to the endless turnover of orders, the shrimp rolls were presented to the table scalding hot, freshly fried and perfectly crispy. And what’s fried food without condiments? Each order also came with a side of sesame oil and chinese mustard. Chinese mustard, in case you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting it, is a bright yellow paste that tastes of a combination of wasabi and dijon mustard flavors. Definitely one of my favorite condiments in Chinese cuisine (sweet and sour sauce is NOT a condiment, in my book).

Looking around me, there were many tables of singles and two-tops. Everyone was eating the shrimp rolls and a bowl of house fried rice, some with a bowl of fish ball soup. There are many things I love about going to new places, but nothing beats experiencing new and exciting foods of a new region- then seeing the people of the city eating the same thing I am.


Marrow Soup, and other Offal Bits

Bone Marrow was never exotic to me. When I was younger, I would watch as my parents sucked the marrow out of pork bones after they were cooked in soup for hours. I followed suit, and pretty soon a meal of pork soup was a cacophony of sucking and slurping. Today, salted, roasted marrow bones with a parsley salad and crunchy toast is one of my favorite menu items- if it’s on the menu, I’m sure to order it. (Landmarc at the Time Warner Center has my favorite, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try Fergus Henderson’s at some point in my life)

As you know by now, Tainan has no shortage of good eats (if you don’t know, read the last few blog entries). Some restaurants in the West are famous for their nose-to-tail dining (I’m looking at you, Incanto, Cochon, St. John’s), but this idea has been around for centuries in Asia.

One eatery in Tainan highlights this concept extremely well. On display is a bevy of pigs parts- stomach, livers, intestines, hearts, brains, kidneys- sauteed and in clear soups, there is so much offal that I wonder where the actual meat of the pig goes.

Laoban, or “Boss”, and his wife have set up so the cooking happens in the front, and the seating behind. With a steady stream of customers requesting their parts and how they want them prepared, it’s amazing that Laoban never gets any two parties’ dishes confused. In fact, while we were there, continuous streams of four or five parties would be sitting at a time, waiting for their meals, and each order came out just as quickly and accurately as the one before it.

Since it was getting late in the evening, we ordered a couple of snacks- though I suppose in the States you would rarely call this a “snack”- pig livers tossed in sesame oil and a heap of sliced ginger, as well as a bone marrow soup.

I didn’t care for the pig livers all that much, but I could have drank a whole bowl of the soup all to myself. At first, the soup looked like a cloudy, fatty broth-and just for a moment I thought we had someone’s leftover broth given to us. Not exactly the most appealing nor photogenic of the dishes I encountered that evening. Running a spoon through, strands of white worm-shaped globs were picked up, and once again I was briefly mortified, until I was told this was bone marrow. I had never before seen marrow stripped so naked, out of the bone that I thought was necessary to contain it.

The marrow soup tasted delicious- each bit of marrow like a pat of butter or cream that would not melt in the warm and porky soup. It brought me right back to my childhood dinner table, just, without the slurping sounds.

If you’re feeling adventurous, and if you like offal- you’ve got to check out this stand in Tainan.

Aming Pig Restaurant 阿明豬心冬粉


72 Bao An Road

Tainan, Taiwan

Open 6pm-2am

Tainan Eats: Eel Noodle Soup, a new experience

Looking over the itinerary for my trip around Taiwan, there were many things I was excited to try- and none as both eagerly and hesitantly as I was the eel noodle soup.

Piles of noodles. Piles of eels. Buckets of soy sauce, oil, cornstarch, vinegars, peppers, empty bowls laid on the “pass”. Walking up to the stand, one really can’t help but hover for a moment to inspect the the mise en place placed on display. Golden yellow noodles stacked next to a heap of red and black strips of raw eel- a beautiful contrast of textures and colors, and though I’m not sure if they do it on purpose, it’s a great visual precursor to the dinner that you’re about to consume.

In Taiwan, wild adult eels are difficult to catch, and this fact, combined with a surge in farming and domestication techniques over the past couple of decades, have resulted in a very prominent farm-raised eel industry. Eels are actually caught from the wild as babies, with fisherman setting up huge tent-like nets along the coast, catching hundreds of baby eels no more than several cm in length. From then on, the eels are farm-raised in fresh water until they are ready to be sold as food. I’ve heard it’s very rare, today, to find fresh salt-water wild caught eel.

Two brothers man this eel stand, and as they have been serving up the same eel soup for decades, it feels as if fishing and farming and the eel industry with its sustainable food battles make no difference to them. Which, of course they are directly influenced- but as you observe the two men create a dish of simple fried eel noodles, you wonder if they really care. As long as they can serve their eel, in short sleeve t-shirts and flip flops (which they are known to wear, no matter how cold or how hot the weather turns), the issue of farm raised eels seems a world away.

Two brothers: Brother #1 as chef, Brother #2 as host/expo/manager/cashier. As with most other stands in Tainan, to order food one must walk directly to the chef and and quickly verbalize your order- lest you commit the ultimate taboo, taking too much time and holding up both the chef and the line of people that has now gathered behind you. Brother #1, never saying more than a few words to acknowledge your order, takes just a nanosecond to queue up your order behind the others, puts down his head and gets to work. Brother #2, though he has been directing customers, collecting money, and wiping tables, has somehow also heard your order,  and starts shifting and gathering bowls on the pass.

First, noodles get a soak and a sautee with onions into the large, single wok on the burner. Once they receive their appropriate cooking time on the stove, they get transferred to a rusty metal pot, the lid covered, and left there to steam until the dish is ready to be served.

The eels are next. Chef takes the eel filets, which are only partially butchered, and gives them a last minute clean-up and slice up before adding them into his wok with additional spices and sauces. The eel meat is an unbelievably bright-red color, and as he guts and cuts up the eel filets it looks as if he is working with freshly roasted beets.

Once the eel hits the pan, however, the flaccid meat begins to gradually curl up, become noticeably more rigid, and turn a darker color more akin to the original appearance of the live eel. Into the pan gets added some salt, a generous amount of pepper, and depending on whether you order the eel soup or the stir fried eel, various amounts of sauces and oils are also added. There are no measurements, and I would also guess no exact recipe, so every bowl of noodles has the potential to taste different- more peppery, more vinegary, lighter or soupier, than the next.

Finally, when the eel sauce is done, it is poured over the noodles which have just a few seconds ago been portioned out by Brother #2. They work in silence and in complete unison, each in tune with the other, knowing exactly what to do next and when to wait for the other.

The bowls of noodles are served up- and taking a small nibble of eel meat, I ponder whether this flavor and texture in my mouth is what I had actually anticipated. Mind you, the eels in China and Taiwan resemble nothing of the sweet teriyaki-glazed, flaky and tender filets that we often see on top of rice at Japanese restaurants (although, most of those are in fact farm raised in Taiwan). These eels, particularly when raw, resemble more snake than any fish, making it for a more difficult seafood for us foreigners to swallow. I am still having a hard time pinpointing the taste and texture of this animal- the meat was soft, but there was a bit to it at the same time, almost as if I was eating the soft cartilage of beef or a very tender piece of squid. Taste-wise, I found the stir-fried eel to be more palatable than its soupy counterpart, but both had a fairly mild flavor that wasn’t totally overpowering. It was actually much better than I would have imagined, although I couldn’t quite get the imagery of writhing eels out of my head.

Though the generous amounts of eel in each bowl was slightly picked over by yours truly as well as the six year-old that was next to me, the noodles were slurped up by everyone. Wonderfully dense and chewy and long and the perfect width- it was by far the best noodles I’ve had in a long time. And the soup- a thick, sweet and sour soup flecked with chili peppers. It wrapped itself around the long noodles, the soup so thickened with cornstarch that a spoon was almost unnecessary. Almost, because when you finish the noodles, you must have a way to finish the stuff left on the bottom of the bowl.

National Road Fried Eel 民族路炒鱔魚


MingZu Lu and Hai An Lu intersection

Tainan, Taiwan