Sunday, March 19, 2017

Birthday cakes in Taiwan--Rachel's post

I was excited to visit Laura and Ian in Taiwan. I’ve only been outside of the country once before, and this was my first official passport stamp (because Australia uses e-visas).

The flight out was actually pretty enjoyable. If you’re ever on a long-haul flight in economy class, I highly recommend having having planned ahead and selected a special meal when you booked your ticket. Everyone with a special meal gets served first and if you select the vegetarian option, at least on United, it’s curry for dinner, curry in a pita for a midnight snack, followed up by a nice hot breakfast curry. It’s hard to make curry unappetizing. 

As Laura had promised, once the plane landed I made it through security, customs, and the baggage claim without any local language skills. Ian had graciously traveled to meet me at the airport, so he handled getting us onto the right bus and train. By the time we got back to Laura and Ian’s place, the travel time amounted to 20 hours from my door to theirs. 

(Fun comparison: Walking would have taken approximately 78 days, non-stop, assuming you can walk on water)

We did so much during the visit (Jade market! Fine arts! Animatronic dinosaurs in the museum! Arcade games! Night markets! Fruit tea!), but my favorite thing was just being able to spend that chunk of time with Laura and Ian. 

Here are a few stories from the trip.

The Cat Café or The importance of a convincing smile

Laura has developed a special way of compensating for not knowing the local language. Whenever someone starts speaking to her, and she can neither understand nor reply in a way that they might understand, she smiles, says “It’s OK! It’s OK!” and agrees to whatever it is they’re saying/offering/asking. She is very convincing. And it works! They give her whatever the default thing is, or guess at what she wanted and give her that. Most of the time that’s what she wanted, or at least not far off. 

On the first full day I was in Taiwan, Laura had to work, so Ian and I decided to visit the cat café near the apartment. We were greeted by a smiling waitress who was wearing a cat ears headband. Sadly, I’d left my cat ears at home, so I couldn’t match her. 

She showed us downstairs to a room with one very nonplussed scotch fold cat and handed us the menus. There are two main things that make the cat café a cat café: First, there are cats. Secondly, the establishment serves lattes with foam sculpted into the shape of cats. You can order lattes with one, two, or three cats.

We tried to order cat lattes, but there was a problem…which we couldn’t quite grasp. The waitress explained the situation, and we tried to explain back, but since we were each using different languages, it didn’t work. After a few repetitions, creative pointing and hand signals, we got the idea that the latte foam artist wasn’t at work yet. The waitress was offering to bring us one latte now, and cat lattes in a couple of hours. We decided we’d be fine with just the normal lattes. 

It was time to try out Laura’s technique.

“It’s…OK. It’s OK?” I said

She looked at me skeptically.

“Its…OK?” I tried again. 

No dice. 

(I later asked Laura why the magic phrase had failed me, and she told me that clearly I didn’t believe in it hard enough. You have to be obviously and unreservedly enthusiastic about accepting the unknown offer, and I was not.)

Ian pulled out his phone and typed “We are okay with the plain lattes” into Google Translate and showed the waitress the translated text. She burst out laughing, pointed at the word that “plain” had been translated into, and giggled again. We tried reverse translating the Chinese back into English, but we got the word “plain” again. I really want to know what that word was translated into. I suspect it amounted to something like “We approve of the ugly lattes.”

At any rate, the waitress called someone on the phone to translate for us, and we were eventually able to order and drink our ugly lattes while the cats hid from us, like cats do. After that experience, I tried to sincerely mean it when I said “it’s OK,” but I just don’t have the knack. 

The Food: Tea houses and less successful dining experiences 

Udon noodles are always delicious, but they are even more delicious in Taiwan. 

My favorite meal from this trip was probably the vegetarian udon noodles and mango coconut milk bubble tea at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse. The Chun Shui Tang teahouse is one of two tea house (franchises?) that claim to have invented and/or popularized bubble tea, and whether they’re responsible for the creation of the drink or not, they make delicious bubble tea. We went back there a second time, and I ordered exactly the same meal. 

Laura and Ian also took me to the Wu Wei Tsao Tang teahouse. It’s a beautiful wooden structure, with tea rooms arranged around a pond that is full of gigantic koi fish. As they've surely explained here before, the tea cups in Taiwan are tiny little glasses, and you brew and drink many, many more rounds of tea than I could handle. We actually felt the need to tuck the bag of leftover unbrewed tea into my bag so it looked like we’d drunk more than we had.

We had two entertainingly uncomfortable restaurant experiences:

One night we decided to stay close to the apartment for dinner, since it was pouring outside. So we made our way to the nearby vegetarian restaurant, Veggie Wonderland. Turns out, it’s an Italian restaurant! (We should have run at that point, but we did not.)

The food wasn’t that bad, but it was weird. Imagine a vegetable lasagna, but instead of spinach and tomatoes, the vegetables in the lasagna are cabbage, bok choy, and green onions. That’s pretty much what I got. It didn’t taste too bad, but we did put the leftovers in the bin earmarked for hog food, near the dumpster outside of the apartment.

The second less-than-successful experience we had was our time at the hotpot restaurant in the mall. 
I’d been to a hot pot restaurant once before, years ago. It’s only slightly more complicated than fondu. There’s a burner in front of you, and you get a pot of broth or water. You order things to cook in the water (meats, vegetables, noodles, etc) and they bring you those items. Often, they’ll provide recommended cooking times for the raw food.

During my time in Taichung, we mostly went to restaurants that had English translations on their menus. Unfortunately, not every restaurant that has an English-friendly menu is English-speaking friendly. We had some difficulty figuring out how to order. Even though it looked like you could simply order pre-defined packages (sets) of food, there were actually some options that you needed to choose between. Much pointing and confident “it’s OK!” saw us through.

Laura and I both ordered the vegetarian hot pot option. I was surprised by the size of the enormous bowl of cabbage, tofu, mushrooms and unidentified mock meats that the waitress brought us. Was some of it intended to transform the water into more flavorful broth? Were we supposed to casually eat half a head of cabbage as part of the meal? We tried sneaking peeks at other diners to see what they cooked, but we didn’t get a lot of clues. (Meanwhile, Ian is merrily and easily cooking and enjoying his various delicately sliced meats.)  

Eventually we cooked and ate enough to consider dinner completed.  

The search for cake

For the last couple of years, Laura has visited California for our birthday. This year, I was returning the favor. But whether you’re on the West Coast or in the Far East, a birthday’s not a birthday without cake. You’re more likely to find steamed buns and bright fluffy white milk bread than a chocolate cake in Taiwan. So Laura and I went on a quest to find all the types of cakes we could. 

We found:

Lemon cakes—Sponge cake with crisp lemon frosting. I loved it.

Pineapple cake—Traditional Taiwanese cake. It’s almost like a shortbread biscuit with a slice of dried pineapple tucked within.

Green tea cake—Laura had this on her ice cream from Miyahara Ophthalmology Department (a very fancy ice cream shop, despite the name). Meh.

Cheesecake—This was the fluffiest cheesecake I’ve ever had. Very nice!

Some fruits I would not recommend

Cherimoya—A cherimoya looks like an armadillo would if an armadillo was a fruit. It has a kind of scaly green exterior. The skin is poisonous, and the seeds (which are spaced throughout the flesh) are also poisonous. But if you persevere and avoid the skin and seeds, you can eat the firm, damp white flesh. It takes a little like a cross between coconut and feet.

Eggfruit—The eggfruit, or canistel, is cheerful yellow fruit and is shaped somewhat like a mango. The fruit gets its name from the texture of the flesh, which has the mouthfeel of an overcooked hard boiled egg. The flavor is...unremarkable. 

Fruits you should try 

Starfruit—The starfruit in Taiwan was as big and juicy as those Mike and I had while on our honeymoon in Hawaii. You can even just eat it like an apple, if you don't feel like cutting it into pretty star-shaped slices.

Purple Dragonfruit—This looks just like a normal dragonfruit from the outside, but cutting it reveals an exiting deep fuchsia flesh. Sure, it tastes pretty much like normal dragonfruit, but the color! So bright! This fruit is also useful if you need to stain clothing, furniture, countertops, or cutting boards.

Note: Eating this fruit produces the same after-effects as beets. 

Something else you should try 

Visiting Laura and Ian when they travel! This was such a fun and fascinating place to spend time together, and they're excellent hosts.

(Editor's note: Rachel makes an excellent guest too, and we enjoyed having her.  She was also a great sport for agreeing to author this guest post—Thanks, Rachel!)

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