Have you eaten? Why yes, I most certainly have, thank you for asking.

So I hadn’t intended for my last post to start you out on my culinary adventure in Taiwan through a random diatribe about an encounter with pineapple (a food that I’m actually allergic to), but as it turns out, that’s what I did. And there you have it. Today’s post is more along the lines of what I had intended to write in order to acquaint you with the delightful, exaltation-worthy food experience that is Taiwan.
 
In Taiwan, when you greet a friend, instead of simply saying ni hao (hello), or asking ni hao ma? (how are you?) You ask, 你吃飯了嗎? ni che le ma? Which means, “have you eaten?”  You can input the words for breakfast, lunch or dinner at the appropriate time if you like as well, for example, 你吃午餐了嗎? ni che oo chan le ma? “Have you eaten lunch?” The response is either, 還沒 hei me (not yet) or 吃了che le (which means, “I eat” indicating, yes, I have eaten).
 
This common greeting just goes to show how important eating is in Taiwanese culture. And I don’t just mean this as it is obviously important as a biological necessity; but in Taiwan, it is also a culturally significant and incredibly valued aspect of everyday life. This is something that is often neglected in North America. As a culture in North America, we are sadly renowned for stuffing our faces with highly processed products made with corn syrup, and tasteless imports that not only lack any nutritional value but also lack any environmental or social conscience.
 
Thankfully this is slowly changing on that side of the globe as more people are becoming aware of the need to eat locally and seasonally (I’m reading a great book right now by Barbara Kingsolver about this very issue: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). My main impression about Taiwan is that they’re far ahead of the curve when it comes to consuming and celebrating local foods in season.
 
This is not to say that Taiwan has been immune to the industrialized institution of a harmful food system. I think the three McDonalds in an eight block radius and the incredibly heavy use of plastic bags for everything here would indicate otherwise, but my everyday experience here in Changhua does tell me that they’re less inclined to put such environmentally and nutritionally harmful foods down their throats—I’m sure there are other cases to contradict this, but I’ll get to that another day.
 
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I was actually really sick from the flight and from the insane amount of hours required from work basically straight as I got off of the plane. Despite being so sick for over two weeks and unable to eat much, I could tell I had stumbled across a really special place. A place that (from what I can still tell) values two main things: working hard, and eating well.
 
Let me tell you, if that is the motto, I’m adapting quite well. I work like a maniac, and my appetite is back in full force. Food is available here at all hours of the day, and can be purchased on any street in innumerable forms.  On just my walk to a branch of my school, I pass so many different street vendors selling different treats. Some of these include meat and rice sausages, onion pancakes (yum), quails eggs, sponge cake, sweet cakes stuffed with taro, chocolate or cream, and fried chicken and sweet potatoes. Just up a block from there is a road devoted to many different outdoor eateries, including barbequing a whole assortment of meats, vegetables, and different types of tofu. And these are just the food stalls I encounter in a few short minutes walk. And the city is riddled with them.

Quail eggs - a typical treat I get on Wednesdays after a long day

Quail eggs – a typical treat I get on Wednesdays after a long day

Onion Pancake!

Onion Pancake!

These little stalls are nestled on streets that are also jam packed with restaurants of all different styles, from outdoor seating on plastic chairs where you watch your food cooking, to air-conditioned restaurants of all different varieties equipped with modern and traditional décor. Restaurants that serve either Japanese food or varieties of Hot Pot tend to dominate my city, but there are also all different kinds that serve pasta, dumplings, and a seemingly limitless variety of noodles and soups.
Eating at a delicious Japanese restaurant

Eating at a delicious Japanese restaurant

Hot pot :)

Hot pot 🙂

One of my favourite places is a restaurant owned by two Taiwanese brothers just up the street from me. One brother runs a Vietnamese portion of the restaurant serving Pho (a Vietnamese soup) and other delicious dishes—the beef noodle there is to die for, in addition to the fresh shrimp spring rolls. The other brother runs part of the restaurant that sells Oden, a Japanese specialty, where you pick out your meats, vegetables, eggs, and/or tofu and these are cooked in front of you in a delicious broth, to be served with homemade spicy sauce and soya paste.

 
Buying from a restaurant is often cheaper here than cooking at home alone. However, if you aren’t in the mood for one of the infinite restaurants or food stalls, you can always go to a nearby local market (there is a wonderful fruit and veggie market just near me), a grocery store, or even a local 7-Eleven (convenience store) which you will find on practically any corner in Taiwan.  Check this out for a great post about the wonders of 7-Elevens here in Taiwan.
 
If you think I’m finished explaining where to get food here, I have barely grazed the surface. I haven’t even yet mentioned the many amazing bread shops (the bread here is the most wonderful bread I’ve ever eaten in my life—more to come on that in a future post). And then there are the many tea shops that are everywhere, selling hot and cold teas of all different kinds, and fresh fruit juices that you would think are from out of this world, but are actually made from fruits grown here locally (thank the heavens for mango season, let me tell you). And then of course, the pièce de résistance: the night markets. Stepping into the vicinity of a night market, is (for me) stepping into my Mecca. A literal smorgasbord of all different kinds of food cooked freshly before your eyes. The senses are on high alert, as you walk along the winding alleys and rows of food stalls, you are bombarded with an intensity of exciting flavours, smells, sights and sounds.
Changhua Night Market

Changhua Night Market

 A lot of the influence on foods in Taiwan can be traced to cuisines in Fujian, Fuzhou, Chaozhou and Guangdong in China. And styles of cooking and tastes were also introduced from Japan during its 50 years of colonial rule in the early 1900s. I have yet to venture into the mountains to explore Taiwanese aboriginal culture and cuisines, hopefully that is yet to come in my journey here.  I do have a friend who explained to me that some people here will claim the food is very specifically only Taiwanese, and has no influence from elsewhere, as clearly political allegiance is profoundly bound to how we understand and consume our foods. But however you may look at it, one thing is very clear: there is a lot of diversity to be found on any street providing an endless supply of food experiences for a hungry traveler.
 
Taiwan has produced an excellent website that explores the diversity of Taiwanese food culture, and sums up the constantly changing and amazing food experience in Taiwan here quite eloquently: “The Taiwanese cuisine of today is the fruit of a long, continuous process of evolution and innovation.” I have a lot more to say about so many different aspects of the food here, especially the bread, the teas, the markets, and so much more, so please stay tuned!

 
 

More of Changhua Night Market:
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You’re now entering pineapple territory

Well damn. I’m allergic to pineapples. The one food my generally non-discriminating stomach can’t stomach. But my taste buds love it. What they really love is not just any ol’ pineapple; but fresh, colourful, unbelievably flavourful and juicy, locally grown pineapple. The type of pineapple that does not (cannot) exist as an import, but that comes from a nearby field, and is recently harvested. This oval-orb-with-a-spiky-hairdo-of-a-beauty, basks in tropical sunlight and awaits an almost mind blowing experience of consumption.
 
Today, I took a scooter ride into the mountains on a much-needed escape from (reemergence into?) reality. I was reminded of how just one microelement of a human diet, in this case, how one fruit, can contribute to one’s happiness. Even if you physically can’t consume it, you can still find a fulfilling appreciation from it.
 
I’ve been in a bit of a foreigner’s funk lately, magnified since a highly inconvenient typhoon decided to spoil my weekend plans rather than my work week. I’m in need of a social life. I thrive only when I have a healthy balance of me time and we time. My original instinct to move to Changhua really stemmed from reading about the giant Buddha overlooking the small city. I mean, how could any city be less than perfect if giant Buddha is watching over things?  But while I was taking care of my spiritual self, I neglected to realize that my (important) social self would be taking a backseat on this part of my journey.
Giant Buddha at Bagua Shan (Mountain),  Changhua, Taiwan.

Giant Buddha at Bagua Shan (Mountain), Changhua, Taiwan.

Don’t get me wrong. I think internal reflection is incredibly important, and with a heavy dose of yoga lately, I’ve been rocking some pretty positive vibes. I love my job, and I really love the kids I teach. I can easily say I love Taiwan and the people here. The challenge for me rests almost completely in the language. While I am surrounded by people on a daily basis, I still feel a sense of isolation because the language is so difficult to wrap my head around, and because my city (while lovely) isn’t offering much for my age demographic. Thankfully work does keep me very busy, so I normally don’t have enough time to wallow in this—other than when a typhoon decides to wait for the least perfect moment when I have weekend plans, to make its descent. Which brings me back to pineapples.
 
To stamp out my self-pitying sorrow for missing what was probably an epic party (and hippie-fest… my goodness I love hippies…), I decided to take my scooter into the mountains to shake things off. I took a detour to see Buddha and to have a snack. I indulged with a sausage within a sausage. Seriously, Taiwan has it right. Why have just one sausage, when you can have two?  I’m talking meat and rice here people. Come on now. You can ask for your meat sausage to be grilled next to a rice sausage. This rice sausage is then sliced, and stuffed with garlic (that you peeled while waiting), and is then stuffed with the meat sausage. BOOM. You have a sausage within a sausage. BOOM. It is amazing.
Sausage within a sausage (and some raw garlic)

Sausage within a sausage (and some raw garlic)

I have only just recognized the irony of eating such a thing in front of the Buddha. Clearly my many vegan and veggie friends will be raising more than a quizzical eyebrow at me, and yet I can only say that as I walked past the various vendors selling their foods and meats at Bagua Mountain, in the moment, this seemed the perfect treat to find my inner peace and to start me on my journey for the day.
 
So with my fill, I set off on my scooter with the intent that I would expand my internal map of the land/people-scape. I took a route that I’d begun a month ago, but where I’d been paused and distracted by some really delicious chicken. This time, I pushed past the chicken place (knowing full well I’d stop by on my way back), to explore what lay beyond. There is something very profound to be said for what goes on in one’s mind when in unknown territory. For me, it’s probably what makes me revel in any traveling experience. It’s the excitement in the heart, the rush of adrenaline, and the acute awareness to tiny details that might make or break the journey. It’s also the appreciation for the wonderment of life that is sadly too easily forgotten when we remain too long in a familiar place.
The infamous chicken place

The infamous chicken place

Um... Amazing.


Um… Amazing.

I swear this has to do with pineapples. As I pushed past the familiar, and drove beyond the delicious chicken place (which at one point had its own story of adventure for me not just a few months ago when I first found it), I wondered what I would find on this road in the mountains in central Taiwan. I was all too aware of my fellow passengers on this road.Primarily, these included some really admirable cyclists. My god. You could bounce 10NT coins (like a quarter) off of their chiseled thighs if it wouldn’t endanger their trajectory. And there are So. Many. Of. Them… Everytime I scooted past a very frequent cyclist, I would feel a little more guilty about using a motorized vehicle rather than my own legs. Wow, I’m lazy. Why am I not climbing this mountain with my bare hands or at least using a bicycle? And yet, seriously, who am I kidding? Scoot scoot scoot! I like to think I’m in pretty good shape lately, but there’s no way I’m making it this far on a bicycle. The hills and weaving turns would be enough to make me want to drive my bike off a far too tempting and frequent cliff.
 
Which leads me to my other fellow passengers. The hard-core-scooter-crew. These folks don their motorcycle jackets, head gear, boots, and bad bad bad ass bikes with souped up engines. I think they’re the reason the road often has herds of people lined up with massive cameras waiting to take pictures (at first I entertained the fantasy that these photographers were taking my picture, but I’m pretty sure it was the hard-core-scooter-crew they were waiting for… to be determined…). Anyway, these motorists that share the road are extremely noisy, and are incredibly intimidating. My heart jumps into my mouth when I hear their engines behind me on my little scooter, and as they zoom past my clearly under the speed limit speed, I silently curse them for scaring the beejeezis out of me. Every. Time. Though I probably can’t blame them. If I had the guts and the right bike, I’d probably haul ass around the corners and up and down the hills too. Maybe. Hmm… Maybe not. I digress. Pineapples.
Raising an army

Raising an army

The more I ventured into unknown territory, the more I became aware of the prevalence of spiky pineapple fields and roadside stalls with pineapple vendors. My goodness I love pineapple, but I have to remind myself of the fact that when I eat it, my stomach turns into a burning cauldron of froth, best left unaffected. Yet as each vendor passed, I reminisced about one of my first days in Taiwan when I had a friendly encounter with a toothless, kind, old soul. He was hauling a wagon adorned with a sun umbrella and a multitude of pineapples. I stopped him because, well, despite knowing I shouldn’t eat his product, I have a magnetism toward such friendly, foodie folk.
 
In one of my first successful encounters of using only Chinese and (just a little?) sign language, I proudly walked away with my bag of pineapple that he expertly skinned with a machete before my eyes. I think he even did it with just one hand. And the other was tied behind his back. And he was blindfolded. And he was juggling the knife and the pineapple at the same time. I swear. I think.  It was incredible, and the pineapple was delicious.  I do this every time I visit a new tropical locale. I tell myself, maybe by now I’ve developed an immunity to pineapple, or that the pineapple HERE will be okay for my stomach. Well so far I’m still wrong about my stomach’s confusion over such a delicious fruit, but I maintain it’s still worth trying out every few years.
 
As I passed field upon field and vendor upon vendor, I started to get excited. I realized, I’m stumbling across something pretty special here. These people are all about the pineapple. This is great. It’s everywhere! I don’t even care that I can’t eat it. I love it, and I love them, and I love Taiwan, and I love the world, and I can’t believe I was upset earlier today, and how could I be so selfish when a whole world of magnificent fruit exists just a couple of hours from my new home? These were my thoughts as I kept driving, entering deeper and deeper into pineapple territory.
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I started to wonder, it’s going to get dark soon and I should probably head back, but I just can’t think of turning around yet… I’m going to keep going. And suddenly the road started to get busier and busier, to the point my scooter was stopped by a crowd. So I parked next to a friendly pair having a chat, and I started to walk toward the heart of the action. Having no idea what I was headed toward, I took in the row of vendors all selling pineapples and other food and wares along the street. The crowd seemed to converge along a path to my left, and I instinctively followed it. I was about to keep walking forward, when I noticed the crowd seemed to be in a queue that would turn around a corner toward some destination unseen. So, curiously, I stayed in the line and waited. Of course I could’ve tried asking someone around me what the line was for, but a bout of shyness and a lack of wanting to express how badly my Chinese skills have developed, kept me silent, and I waited. It wasn’t long for the line to push forward, and I realized we were about to enter a place called “Sunny Hills” – What the heck is this? I wondered, and as we got closer to the front of the line I thought, Oh dear, there is an admission table or something… Should I pay money to enter when I have no idea what it is? Should I risk my pride and ask someone around me if they speak English? Should I duck out of line and head back to my scooter? Or should I just keep going forward in the line and find out whatever awkwardness awaits me?  I opted for the latter, and as it turned out, there was no admission fee, but rather the queue was for a table where generous people were handing out free pineapple cakes (YUM! I think I can eat them?). As I accepted my cake, I then proceeded to a nearby table where there was free tea waiting for me and the multitude of other visitors at this mysterious Sunny Hills.
 
I wandered around a little more, taking in an overall sense of euphoria and contentment at the joys of travel and adventure, and I followed another crowd headed further into this mysterious space. I’m so glad I did! I happened upon a sample area, where a band played some lovely music, and I walked around sampling different fruits, sorbets, and teas.
 
This seemed like the perfect moment to turn back toward the familiar. I had clearly reached the climax of the trip when I found this gem of a spot, and I know when to take my cue. It was also threatening to get dark soon, and a big cloud was lurking overhead, so I set out toward my scooter. Of course it started to rain right at this time. What sort of genius sets out on a scooter roadtrip without a raincoat? This one, right here (finger point in my direction). Mine was conveniently drying off in my bathroom from the typhoon. “Well, this will be interesting,” I thought. Only miles of pineapple fields and no chance of buying a new raincoat before I reach home. I’m going to be soaked. And yet, while I did get soaked, I also couldn’t have been more elated with the day. I took a reprieve from the rain to get my chicken from my favourite place, and made a quick stop to pick up some mango from my local fruit market—since I had limited myself to one tiny pineapple sampling, I thought I should at least indulge in some of this country’s beautiful fruit this evening.  My goodness, the fruit in this country is incredible. Near indescribable, in fact.
 
The thing is, even if you are so-called allergic to something, you can still find appreciation in the wonder and the beauty of the thing and the things that surround it. This is true in the case of pineapple. Livelihoods depend on it. Landscapes are shaped by it. Entertainment comes from gathering around its juices, it’s aromas, and it’s basic form as a joyous fruit. Though I may be technically allergic to it, I certainly won’t let that stop me from wanting to appreciate the joys it can add not just to the lives of others, but by proxy, to my life as well. While I probably won’t consume a whole pineapple in one sitting again anytime soon (as I tried after my encounter with the toothless machete wielding old man with the pineapple wagon), I certainly won’t let that stop me from appreciating the joys this fruit brings to the world, and to this tiny part of the world in particular.
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Anthropology, finding words, and my mystical writing elf: To simply begin writing is not so simple!

After publishing my ‘about’ post, I had a serious bout of anxiety. Why would I make these thoughts public? Am I serious in thinking I can continue writing thoughtful pieces that reflect the essence of not just what I experience, but of what I think that means for other people? What if no one wants to read what I have to say? Or worse, what if they don’t like what I have to say with valid points of obvious criticism?

At first I blamed my inner anthropologist. This is a field of study currently riddled with the post-post-modern complex of triple-guessing assumptions and reading/thinking against the grain. Always question the question. Period. Or should I say, question mark? Don’t get me wrong, I love anthropology. But it is a kind of toxic love. You know, like those relationships that go hand-in-hand with a chaotic inner turmoil? In one moment you think you’ve just caught a glimpse beyond the boundaries of physical existence into the highest spiritual reality. And in another moment you have the most profound sense of questioning and self-doubt you can’t possibly get out of bed. Ever again. In another moment you experience an extreme case of narcissism and over-exaggerated pride. And in yet another moment, you are so humbled by the beauty of the rest of the world and of humanity, you can’t think of any other way to spend your finite existence than to worship it.

When it comes to writing, the questioning and self-doubt tends to win. Until you’re met with a make-or-break deadline. Then you have to fight with it until you submit a final draft. And even then you still fight it. In academia, it turns out that this fight is actually quite a beautiful dance that exploits your inner turmoil and forces you to produce something never before considered, with the intention that it will benefit future academics. This is all done with the hope that it will contribute not only toward their own inner turmoil (yay), but also toward the betterment of humanity (double-yay). And so it goes on. No pressure at all. The beauty in this deranged process lays the heart of the matter: humans are complex, yo.

To do justice to an observation or an experience means to delve into the possibilities not yet explored. What of the perspectives not considered here? Just because one person says “This happens because of this,” doesn’t mean another person won’t say, “Actually, this happens because of that.” This not being that, in this case.

This is the crux of my problem in wanting to write anything down. Especially in a public forum such as a blog.

But it doesn’t stop there.

My mind often thinks in what I’ll call Writingese. Meaning, I’m regularly envisioning parts of stories to put to paper. In my mind, I assign details to a situation and rejoice in using my ability to think in a literary way with the intention that it would delight my family, friends, and an unknown ‘public’. And yet there is a lot of work that must go into writing a piece to be worthy of such delight. The most work comes from the fact that what I’m terming Writingese, is not actually writing – it’s still just thinking. There is a lot to be said for sitting down to the keyboard and putting your ideas into something cohesive with structure, grammar, selective word choice, and as it turns out, even just an overall point to what you want to say. Why bother writing anything if there is no point?

A new friend of mine just wrote a blog post that really resonated with my feelings on this matter. I could not agree more with Sam:

“I have always believed that if I have nothing to say, then I shouldn’t say anything. It is better to produce nothing than to produce bullshit writing (I mean, seriously, wouldn’t you rather clean up nothing than clean up shit?). So, that has been where I have been: running around Taipei with nothing really to say. And I’m not implying that my life is at a standstill or that I’ve had nothing to do–I have been everywhere and done everything (figuratively) in the last few months. And I’ve been super fucking stoked about it. I just haven’t been inspired to write about it. I know that I don’t really care to read anyone’s journal, nor do I care to keep one… ‘Blah, blah, blah today I went into downtown and saw an orange cat sitting on a car, and then I decided to have lunch…’ Fucking. No.”

As the point of Sam’s writing implores, how does one have a point in writing?

I recently watched a TED talk by the wonderful author, Elizabeth Gilbert. You will all know her from her infamous book: Eat, Pray, Love.

Here’s what she had to say about the difficult task of writing and being creative. 

She explains how the dynamic surrounding the expectations for (and the treatment of) artists has changed over time, thus changing the very nature of an artist’s relationship to their work (whether it’s written, painted, sculpted, etc). The Ancient Greeks and Romans attributed creativity not to human beings, but to something magical outside of the human. The Greeks called it a daemon, the Romans called it a genius. Not ‘genius’ as we interpret it today (meaning, clever), but as in magical. Gilbert gives the analogy of Dobby the House Elf, helping out behind the scenes. These geniuses shape the outcome of the work, creating a distance between the human artist and what they produce.

Gilbert describes how beneficial this thinking is for a creative person. It takes the pressure off. You can’t be overly puffed up with pride if you’re work is successful because you can’t take all the credit; and if your work fails, everybody knows it’s not totally your fault – “cause maybe your genius is lame.”

It wasn’t until the Renaissance put the individual at the center of the universe that the mystical creature was eliminated, and the genius became the person. Gilbert thinks this is a major error, putting too much responsibility on one fragile human psyche. Since this change of thinking, we’ve come to believe creativity to be inherently linked to suffering, and the “pressure has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.” Gilbert suggests we shift our thinking again, and encourage our great minds to live. Not only would this shift ease the pain a lot of artists tend to experience, but it would also just help with the overall process of producing works of art—whether deemed ‘good’ or not.

I loved the story of Ruth Stone, the American poet who would feel a poem rolling through the countryside toward her, and then with the words barreling through her she would reach out to grab them in order to write them down. While my experience of thinking in Writingese might relate on a minuscule scale to what Stone experienced, I admit to neglecting the far too frequent moments I should ‘run like hell’ to write down what thoughts barreled through me. In fact, I’d neglect them altogether telling myself I’d write it ‘later’. Later, becoming never. Some of these writing thoughts and ideas are still a shadow in my memory, but certainly lack the clarity that would come from writing things down soon after I experienced them. (By the way, this procrastination of writing as soon as possible is to commit a major anthropological fieldwork faux paux. Tisk tisk. Sigh…).

For any other writers who sometimes have an overall lack of motivation to do the work, or who suffer the sometimes-paralyzing condition of writers block, I think we should take Gilbert’s advice:

“Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just continue to show up…. If the divine cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow, and olé to you nonetheless… just for having the shear human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

In order to continue this blog and to turn it into something I hope to be proud of, I’m going to try this out. I’ll just keep showing up to write and to contribute with the hope that my writing genius, my mystical writing elf, will help me out. If what you read is enjoyable, I’ll give my elf credit. And if you don’t like it, don’t blame me, maybe she was feeling off that day. Not entirely my fault.

Olé!