Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cultural Differences: Part Two

Last week I went to a cupcake shop called “Ginjer” and I enjoyed a carrot cake cupcake complete with a little icing carrot on top. Across the street in this back alley was a number of restaurants, each one offering a different type of cuisine. There was Japanese, Korean, Italian and Cantonese food. Tucked into the tiniest crevices were Taiwanese street food stands—noodles, soup, dumplings and rice balls.

Taiwanese love food, and they like to enjoy different kinds of culinary delights. I am used to living in a place where there is limited availability of international foods. It is so exciting to be living in a place with restaurants every ten feet offering a broad selection of cuisine. There is fast food and traditional food. There is fancy dining and plastic bag carrying night market food. There is 7-11 on every corner for all of your snacking needs. There are chain style ubiquitous restaurants and cute vintage themed coffee shops and stylish modern cafes. Taiwanese are relatively adventurous when it comes to trying new food; otherwise, the abundance of international cuisine restaurants would not be in business. I have experienced plenty of places where people turn up their noses at anything unfamiliar. I find Taiwanese quite tolerant of new tastes, and willing to try anything once.

In Turkmenistan there were about five national dishes that were made of the same ingredients—meat, carrots, potatoes, rice and pumpkin. There was little left to the imagination. I taught my students how to make pizza and pumpkin pie. I taught my closest Turkmen friend how to make Thai peanut noodles and rich chocolate brownies. Some Turkmen I met loved to learn how to cook new dishes, but most sided with familiarity. In Taiwan I recently cooked spicy Mexican tacos complete with tortilla chips and salsa. Taiwanese love spicy foods, so this dish went over well.

Being new to the country, I need the same outlook as my Taiwanese counterparts—try anything once! In a country where the smell of stinky tofu wafts on countless street corners, there are many adventurous dishes to be sampled.

One of the most famous dishes in Taiwan is the aforementioned stinky tofu. I have heard many colorful descriptions of the smell of this dish. It has acquired the name stinky tofu because it is exactly that—very, very stinky. It used to be a staple for soldiers patrolling China’s borders, and as wars ended and Taiwan’s night market culture expanded so did the availability of stinky tofu on the street. It is made by marinating tofu in a brine made from fermented vegetables, shrimp or fish stock. The fermentation process of the vegetables or fish can take up to 5 months, but marinating requires only 6 hours. Taiwan has a famous stinky tofu eatery, Dai’s House of Stinky Tofu, which is famous for its vegetarian version. Once the tofu is marinated, it is cut into bite-size pieces and most commonly deep-fried. This is a dish that either intrigues you or repulses you. Taiwanese will admit that it doesn’t smell good, but they will try to convince you to sit down and take a bite. And you should try it!

I have tried stinky tofu a few times, but it does not make my favorites list. As for me, I love bubble milk tea, and specifically bubble tea from the “50 Lan” shop. I enjoy a large cup...half sugar...less ice...big go...phew! A lot of details for one cup of tea. I had to learn lots of vocabulary just to get the right cup of bubbly, chewy satisfaction. The teashop attendants pile soft, sweetened tapioca bubbles into the bottom of the cup and shake up milky tea and ice in a cocktail mixer. They pour the milk tea over the bubbles and drop in a little ice. The cup is dropped in a machine that seals a thin plastic top onto the cup. They give you a fat straw wide enough for the tapioca, and you have to poke the straw through the plastic top to enjoy that first sip of sweet tea and chewy tapioca. Bubble tea has become so popular that the fad spread all the way to America where a popular Taiwanese teashop started a branch in California. There are many bubble teashops to chose from here, but I am very loyal to “50 Lan.” The bubbles are always soaked and cooked perfectly, and they use rich milk that makes the taste of the tea really stand out. Maybe I end up over analyzing my cup of bubble tea, but when it comes down to it, the idea of mixing chewy tapioca into a traditional cup of tea is an example of the quirky and adventurous taste buds that Taiwanese have. They combine tastes and aren’t scared to incorporate different textures, which is what makes Taiwanese street food so interesting for me.

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