Jade Purses

The Taiwanese loooove their fruit.

With fertile soil, healthy competition, and local knowledge of what’s best month to month (even week to week!) it’s no wonder why Taiwan’s farmers keep coming out with different varieties of fruit. In America, we are starting to see this on a small scale, at select farmers markets you can find families of apricots and apples that you’ve never heard of before. But in Taiwan, big farms and little farms alike breed sweeter and juicier fruit year after year, each new hybrid beating out its predecessor from the years before. I can’t imagine what a Taiwanese seed bank looks like by now.

Lychees don’t escape the frantic cross breeding of fruits, and in fact I even tasted a mango that was infused with Lychee flavor- by means of breeding. The ones pictured above were seen on a table at the Ningxia Night Market. Among the rows of chinese sausages, oyster omelettes, scallion patties and skewered meats, the bright bunches of lychees stood out, calling my name. This breed is called the Jade Purse lychee- for their resemblance to the ancient, well, jade purses. With a smaller pit and more succulent flesh, it’s a favorite of many Taiwanese and has outlasted its fellow lychees as a longstanding favorite. After tasting these (but not too many- not good for you chi!) I can most definitely understand why. A MUST-try if you find yourself on the tiny fruitful island of Taiwan.

The Chinese Hamburger

When we were growing up, my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant was called dong lai suen, and I remember it specifically because I could get my favorite dish: The Chinese Hamburger.

Of course this isn’t what it was called on the menu, nor was it what how my parents ordered it from the waiters, nor did it even resemble an actual American hamburger all that much. What it was, was a juicy disc of ground and juicy (so juicy!) pork wrapped in a thin chewy dumpling-like wrapper. The whole thing was pan fried so the outside was oily and the bottom and top crispy and slightly charred. The whole thing was the size of, well, it was the size of a hamburger. In any case, whatever it was or was not, it most definitely was delicious.

I’ve recently encountered yet another Chinese Hamburger. Well, hamburger-ish. This is a different version of the Chinese hamburger I remember from my youth, so it’s technically a hamburger twice-removed. But it’s got the same characteristics: flavorful meat wrapped in a sesame-seed speckled doughy outer layer, eaten with your hands from a wax paper pouch on the street as meat juices drip down your fingers. Dare you say it’s not a burger(ish)?!

This particular “burger” is made super fresh to order- the line for this street market vendor stretches the longest at the Raohe Night Market in Taipei. Sliced strips of a peppered beef filling (heavily peppered, to my great delight) is scooped with a long pair of metal chopsticks and placed in a small disc of rolled-out dough, not unlike a dumpling only three times as big and meaty. This meat and dough is taken in the palm and gets dipped- meat first- in a vat of chopped scallions, where they generously stick like flies on honey as the dough is quickly wrapped back over the meat and scallions to form a bun. What look like big fluffy smooth white cream puffs are tossed aside to be baked.

The baking process is just as unique as the Chinese Hamburger itself. The buns are literally stuck to the inside of a large, cylindrical brick oven wall that is heated by charcoals. I could make another comparison to wood-fired pizza ovens, but I think I’ve done enough International food comparisons for today.

After waiting for what seems like an eternity, a pouch containing a steaming hot bun is finally handed over. They operative word here is: Hot. Hot out of a hot coal oven. So hot, that even after ten minutes I was not able to bite through my beloved “burger”. After fifteen minutes though, I couldn’t wait any longer. Juicy, chewy, tender, peppery, hot, salty, steamy. Sirens blared in my head. This version of the Hamburger hasn’t replaced my love of In-n-Out, Shake Shack, or the Chinese Hamburger from my youth. No sir, it’s only been added to the esteemed (and growing) list.

胡椒餅, 饒河夜市創始攤

饒河總店 台北市饒河街249號

Black Pepper Buns, at the Raohe Street Night Market

Raohe Market Shop, 249 Raohe Street, Taipei

Fried Chicken, Thai Street Style

All right Brooklyn, I’ve been reading about your fried chicken frenzy going into 2011, but I’ve got someone I’d like to wager up for a challenge, Bobby Flay Throwdown style.  While in Phuket one evening, the DiploMan and I came across a cluster of food vendors, akin to a U.S. farmers’ market set up without the farmers (kettlecorn, pretzels, and apple cider, only).  On our way to find dinner anyway, we decided to grab a couple of beers at the 7/11 down the street and plunk down on the curb of the small parking strip, taking turns going back and forth for our “small plates” dinner.  What ensued was one of my best meals of the trip.

Certainly the highlight of this hodgepodge meal was the fried chicken.  “Meena’s Fried Chicken”, as advertised on the side of the rickshaw cart, employed four people, all with specific duties.  There was the fryer, who scooped out chicken cuts from a nearby cooler by the armful to dredge in batter and fry in two large woks, filled with green onion and chili.  There was the hacker, who, once the chicken was out of its hot oil bath, took a cleaver to the steaming hot cuts of chicken and with a few solid swoops, hacked each fried hunk of fried goodness into perfect little finger-licking pieces.  This hacker would also, between batches of chicken, pack up little bags of sweet-sour-spicy dipping sauce and tie them with a rubber band, all in one fluid motion.  There was the packer, who would take the cuts of chicken that you threw at her (indicating that Yes, these are the ones that I want) and pack them in a clear plastic doggy bag lined with paper, along with the sweet-sour-spicy dipping sauce, calculating the amount due as she went.  Then of course there was Meena herself, overseeing the process and counting money.

The chicken came out of the fryer in batches according to cuts.  First, whole chickens were laid out which, assuming that was the way they did fried chicken, we bought right away.  40baht- just about $1.30!  Though the batter sang to us like little crispy juicy salty angels, we were slightly disappointed that the meat was bare and that we had to chew around little chicken livers and hearts.  And of course the head, which as in China we’re still not quite sure what to do with, we topped apile of discarded bones in front of us so that it looked like some psycho’s chicken graveyard.  However as soon as Meena’s crew was done with the whole chickens, a batch of legs and thighs came out (snatched up too quickly, before I knew I had to pounce on the chickens I wanted), followed by wings and finally, breast cutlets.  We tried these all; the wings my favorite (cutlets, B’s favorite), all while sitting on a curb, lips moist with a coating of oil, wishing that all my Brooklyn buddies could get a taste of these.

staring down on my bag of chicken goodness