Grocery Sampling in Austria

travel

As our plane flew through a dusky violet sky and touched down at the Vienna Airport , I quickly sauntered to the baggage carousel to retrieve my luggage so that I could check-in to the hotel, grab dinner, and rest in preparation for nightlife festivities. Besides having booked a room at the Moxy Hotel which was within walking distance of the airport, all activities for the night were going to be improv’d. Within minutes of exiting the airport, I arrived at the Moxy Hotel Vienna which is extremely affordable for the quality. The eccentric, quirky, yet aesthetic hotel provides a surfeit of amenities such as printing, web surfing, hot drinks, board games, a gym, and much more. Keep in mind that Europe, unlike America, charges for almost everything, including public restrooms, napkins, and extra McDonalds sauce so the amenities provided in the hotel are quite rare. Thus, I recommend taking advantage of what is provided and enjoy your time at the relaxing hotel. I paid 95 Euros that night for 2 people, and it included breakfast. I got a good deal through Expedia, so a little bit of planning and the use of booking websites can save tourists plenty of money. Of course, if money is not an issue, then lucky you :). Below are some pics of the Moxy lobby that I absolutely adored. All through the late night, chill music played as friends and families drank, laughed, played card games, or worked on their laptops. The environment was very cordial.

 

 

 

Little was near the airport, mostly rental car stations, banks, and a few high rises. But off into the distance, a bright red and yellow sign caught my attention among  a sea of not so colorful signs. Something about it’s appearance just lead me to the conclusion that it was a grocery store and when I arrived, I took my time and went on a 25 Euro shopping spree to purchase some delectables. I certainly splurged and bought far more than necessary, but some interesting items caught my eyes and the inner food in me was eager to try some European goods. I did a taste test on the products and graded them:

  1. Head cheese– a nondairy cheese (not actually cheese) that combines meat pieces from the head of land animals and stuffs it into a gel that is then brined in a vinegar solution. The slab of head cheese was really cheap, approx. 2 Euros for the pack, and it looked a somewhat delicious pile of meat trimmings so I was very excited to give it a try. I cut a hearty portion onto a slice of pretzel bread and took a large bite… Bleghh, YIKES. I mean, it wasn’t terrible really… but the vinegar/mint/spice-like flavor was so offputting I really wanted to toss the whole pack away. I love vinegar, but something about this was horrid. I suppose that’s why head cheese was peasant food back in the days…

Appearance: 2/10        Flavor: 2.5/10

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2. Muscatel Grapes: These grapes were crazy expensive. At 7 Euros per pound, they better have curing properties. The small orbs were tinted light green and pink, and they smelled very sweet so I was pretty stoked to try these. And after all, how bad could grapes taste?

These grapes were hands down the best grapes I have ever tasted! They don’t sell these in the states so I’ve never heard them before but I later realized that Muscat wine is made from these, but the wine doesn’t taste that great… The grapes tasted like lychee Hi-Chew candies. So Sweet, I could’ve sworn I was eating candy!

Appearance: 9/10          Taste: 10/10

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3. Paprika chips: Never heard of such a flavor before, but I was eager to give it a try. In general, paprika doesn’t have much flavor so I was wondering if the chips would be bland, but they really just tasted like barbeque chips. Nothing special and no surprises so I was a tad disappointed.

Appearance: 7/10             Taste: 7.5/10

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4. German Apple cider: I was certainly expecting a drink similar to apple juice, but I instead got a very alcoholic drink that tasted nothing like apples. I was basically drinking warm beer and as a “hater” of alcohol, I spat it out and gave the rest away to my brother. bleghhh I was fooled…

Appearance: 8/10         Taste: 3/10 (because I don’t like alcohol)

5. Currywurst: Who knew such a fusion food existed? I love curry and sausages are a German staple so I knew this was something I needed to taste. The wurst was pretty long and cost 3 Euros.

WOWWW!! I’m not a huge fan of sausages but this wurst was juicy, yet not too fatty, and the curry-ketchup sauce was so good. I wish I had gotten more sauce but the flavor was so potent that it was enough. Really a big fan of currywurst and I must emulate this sauce recipe at home.

Appearance: 7/10          Taste: 9.5/10

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This concluded my taste test. I also ate pretzel bun sandwiches and tuna salads, but nothing special there so I did not feel it was necessary to grade them!

For the rest of the night, I spent 4 euros and bought a round trip train ticket to the Vienna City Centre. Night life was bustling as people sat at outdoor cafes under sun umbrellas as live music played out loud. I guided myself through the winding cobblestone roads for the city was constructed like a maze with marble and stone buildings in all directions. Even late at night, hordes of people were visiting St. Stephens Cathedral and buying gelato cones and wursts from food stands.

Short Film: A Winter Wonderland in Germany & Switzerland

travel

As I traveled through Germany and crossed into the most expensive country in the world (Switzerland), my already-prodigious adoration for mother earth grew even more. From sky-high snow caps to clear sheets of ice ideal for ice skating, the two countries had set the backdrop for cloud 9. Winter’s light and shimmering dust falling from a cloudy sky are things you dream of, and seeing the scene as reality was heart-warming. Thank you Germany and Switzerland for warming my heart in such an unforgiving cold.

Watch my highlights from my 10 day trip that wrapped up 2017 and rang in 2018. ❤

 

Featured Locations:

  • Mt. Titlis
  • Engelberg, Switzerland
  • Rothenburg, Germany
  • Titisee Neudstadt
  • Heidelberg, Germany
  • Luzern, Switzerland
  • Zurich, Switzlerland
  • Riviere-Nipissis, France
  • Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

Have any questions about travelling in Germany and Switzerland? Leave comments below OR posts recalling my travels along with tips will be coming soong 🙂

Europe Day 1: Welcome to Frankfurt on Christmas Eve

food, travel

This post is long overdue, so flashback to 4 months ago and the date is December 24th, 2017; location: Frankfurt, Germany.

Eight hours had passed and only four prolonged hours remained until the crammed and chilly plane touched down on the runway of Frankfurt International airport. The sky turned from blue to orange, with a tinge of pink and yellow as the golden orb made its debut from within the clouds, scattering blinding light in all directions.

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Morning light

My head instantly swerved away from the window as I dodged the rays of piercing white light, an indicator that the breakfast cart was about to make its presence. What was for breakfast, I wondered while keeping my expectations quite low because United Airlines is quite sub-par when it comes to food. Indeed, a sad breakfast of a buttered croissant, strawberry yogurt, and juice on a tray was served and I instantly lost my appetite. I’m not generally a picky eater but the breakfast was heavy; full of carbs, fat, and plain sugar. Nonetheless, I managed to eat the croissant and drink some juice as I propped open my journal to scribble down my musings to pass time.

When the plane finally touched down at 11 PM, I was ecstatic to set foot in a new country and explore the architecture, culture, lifestyle, and most importantly, the food:) The day was bleak, windy, and 35 F without snow. The absence of snow lead to an assumption that it wasn’t very cold, but the windchill factor was crazy and I ran back into the airport to put on additional layers of clothing.

As I stood huddled in clothing in the near-empty and old airport, waves of fear ran through my body. It was Christmas Eve so everybody was huddled at home, my surroundings looked deserted, and I had absolutely no clue how to get around the city. And with a quick peak from outside, many homeless people lay on the streets, some yelling at others while newspaper clippings and plastic wrappers flew in the air from large gusts of winds. The desolate scene was quite intimidating, but the beauty of the infrastructure ensured me everything would be just fine. I purchased a Deutsche bahn (local train) day pass for only 6 Euros and hopped on and off at random stops to explore the city. All stores were closed and few people roamed the streets, but spectacular church steeples, the Main river, and Baroque and Renaissance architecture kept me intrigued.

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A deflated bike in Frankfurt

I didn’t view globally famous destinations such as the Brandenburg gate or Neuschwanstein Castle, but the simplicity of strolling for free without hordes of tourists is one of the best ways to fathom a country. After many photos and thousands of steps were taken, I realized it was well past 3 PM and I had not eaten since the sad croissant from the flight. Ideally, a grocery store would be in sight so that I could purchase a sandwich or a meal, but nothing was open, so I hungrily hopped back onto the tram and rode to the “Frankfurt City Centre” as I supposed this stop was probably the main hub.

The City Centre was quite packed, and I was grateful to see a good amount of people, happily enjoying Christmas Eve with their families. Furthermore, some restaurants were open so that truly made me happy. The time was 3:20 PM when I decided I would have an early dinner so that I wouldn’t be hungry anymore. The very first restaurant I saw was Zum Standesamtchen, a cozy and warm restaurant, with a spiral staircase and all wooden furniture. The interior was quaint with very little space, but very welcoming. I was seated at a corner table underneath the spiral staircase, and it was after this dining experience that reminded me of the difference of dining cultures in Europe vs. America. One, water is never free. Two, tax is already included in the price. Three, sometimes tip is included in the price so I honestly never knew when to tip, but the waiter here semi-rudely made certain that I tipped him…

liver dumpling

Liver dumplings

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Wiener Schnitzel

Despite the semi-rude waiter who probably made me tip excessively, I had a good time here. I must say, Germany is not known for its food and that was certainly evident. We were served 3 entrees and everything was meat and potatoes and not a single trace of a vegetable besides the miniature side salad that accompanied the Schnitzel. Salty, meaty, and carby, my heart was warm and my stomach was full after consuming their Schnitzel with green sauce (a local special), roast pork leg, and liver dumplings. I don’t think I have eaten so many potatoes in one day, but in a hungry moment, that was all I could eat besides meat. After ordering a bottle of water for 8 Euros and changing my mind before it even came, the waiter told me that he had already put it into the system and that he couldn’t change it. This was perhaps the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, I ordered a drink, changed my mind after a minute, and was told that I’d have to pay for it anyways… Well it was Christmas Eve and I was in no mood to be in a grudge and so I paid for the meal, paid for the water, and paid for 25% tip. 25% seems rather excessive, but the waiter said I must tip 25% and he watched me calculate and write the tip on the receipt. I don’t know why he was scrutinizing me like that, but like I said, I was in no mood to be in a grudge. With a warm and happy heart, I walked several thousand more steps until the sun had set, with which I rode the tram back home. Tonight’s home was Moxy Hotel, one of my favorite hotel chains in Europe. I had previously stayed at the Moxy in Vienna and was extremely happy to return to the hip, colorful, and lively hotel. I then went to sleep early in preparation for tomorrow’s greater adventure.

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The Moxy Hotel lobby

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Moxy Hotel Frankfurt

 

10 Days in Germany & Switzerland

travel

I spent 10 days in Germany and Switzerland, and experienced the European celebration of a New Year. We were surrounded by people in the cold streets, full of laughter and alcohol, and fun fact: people came up to my brother and I and asked to take pictures with us as if we were celebrities… lol. Maybe cause we were the only foreigners in the area. I was eager to leave 2017 behind because it was one of the roughest years of my life. With all that had occurred, being in the winter wonderland somehow gave me hope that 2018 could be much better. On the other hand, Mother nature never fails to impress and I witnessed the beauty of earth with my own eyes instead of pictures in a Nat Geo magazine. Well, with all that said, Happy New Year.

 

Blog posts of my travels in Europe coming soon….

 

Keep an eye out!

Taiwan Day 14: Taiwan-Inspired Recipe: Hujiao Bing (Pork Pepper Bun)

food, travel

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All throughout Taiwan, in obscure or conspicuous corners, some form of “bing” (bun) can be found, of either yeast-based, lard-based, or baking powder-based. The variations are infinite, where sweet or savory fillings include red bean, taro, lotus paste, daikon, pork, green onion, mochi, custard, and you’ll seldom find sweet and savory combos where sweet mochi compliments Chinese meat shreds impeccably.

I recall visiting Wen Zhou Jie Radish Pancake in Taipei, where sizable, deep-fried buns stuffed with daikon or green onion cost only 20 NT (0.66), and each bite comprised a burst of briny, earthy, flavor, with a crisp outer shell and fluffy interior, providing an oily “chapstick” covering for ones’ lips. This is a gem found only in Asia, and I wanted to emulate this style of pastry at home, so I haven’t devised an daikon recipe up to par, but I made an exceptional Pork Pepper Bun that I am thrilled to share.

These buns originated from the Fuzhou region in China, but due to its sweeping popularity in Taiwan, it is often dubbed as “Taiwanese Pepper Bun.” The bun includes a fat-free, yeast dough, filled with a meat filling, flavored with copious amounts of white pepper and as much green onions as the dough can hold. The more green onions, the better. Although a lot of white pepper goes into the meat, the bun does not taste extremely peppery, but rather has a nice subtle kick of spice. Hujiao bings also are decorated with an abundance of sesame seeds, thus a hujiao bing is not a hujiao bing without white pepper, green onions, and sesame seeds.


HuJiao Bing

yield: 16 buns

Ingredients:

For dough:

  • 3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 c. 105-110 ºC water
  • 4 tbsp. 100 ºC water for yeast

For meat filling:

  • 1 1/2 c. ground pork (80% lean or a fattier meat works well)
  • 3 tsp. white pepper
  • 3 tbsp. michiu (Chinese rice wine)
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 2 1/2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 3/4 tsp. 5 spice powder
  • 1/2 tsp. minced ginger
  • 3 1/2 c. chopped green onion

For decoration:

  • 1 egg for eggwash
  • 3 tbsp. white or black sesame seeds

Directions:

  1. Combine the 3 tbsp. water with yeast and sugar, and set aside for 10 minutes so the yeast activates.
  2. In a large bowl, pour the yeast mixture into the flour and knead with hand until a ball of dough is incorporated. On a floured surface, knead the dough for about 5 min. until it’s completely smooth and cover with a towel and place in a warm area, 85ºC-90ºC for 1 hour to let it rise. The dough will not double in size but it should rise a bit.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine all the meat filling ingredients except the green onion. With a fork, mix and mash the meat mixture for about 5 min. so that the protein in the meat breaks down a bit. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow it to marinade.
  4. Transfer the risen dough to a floured surface and knead for about 2 min. Cut the dough into 16 equal pieces and place the dough pieces into the large bowl with a towel over it to prevent them from drying out.
  5. Preheat the oven to 400 ºC.
  6. Working one at a time, roll the dough ball until the dough is 1/4 cm. thick. Scoop about 1 1/2 tbsp. meat mixture in and top with 2 tbsp. or more green onion. Pinch the opposite sides of the dough together and pinch the sides in the middle, working in a clockwise motion until the dough is completely sealed. Make sure it is completely sealed so the juices don’t come out while baking.
  7. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper or a silicon mat.
  8. When all the balls are formed, beat an egg and use a pastry brush to brush on the egg wash.
  9. Top with A LOT of sesame seeds.
  10. Place in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.

It is best to enjoy these buns while they have come right out of the oven, but it is also good to know that you should eat these with caution for the meat juices can scald your tongue!

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All the ingredients

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Portion the dough

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Roll out the dough

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Add the meat

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Add the green onions

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Seal the edges

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Egg wash

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Add the sesame seeds

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Good stuff

Enjoy!

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 13: My Luck to Visit Bayan Village (Now Closed to Outsiders)

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Crisp reflection at Bayan Village

A delicate layer of stratus clouds shrouded the skies above and reflected its image on the stagnant waters beneath, as subtle smoke piped continuously from the few homes in the quiet and unassuming village. Bayan village, indisputably beautiful, was an unknown gem in the Yangmingshan territory, distinct for its terraced fields running alongside mountains and its unique natural hot springs and waterfalls that provide so-called healing elements to the human skin. When word got out of the area, the village’s popularity grew and unpleasant hordes of tourists poured in daily, overwhelming the 20 inhabitants who were once accustomed to merely the sounds of nature.  We are all too familiar with the consequences of tourism, and indeed the inhabitants agreed to prohibit visitors to their village for issues reached unacceptable levels, including destruction of crops and use of the paths as restrooms. Despite my streak of misfortune in life, I fortunately experienced Bayan village 3 months before its unforeseen closure, and when I returned to the states, I spoke non-stop of Bayan, promising my brother that I would take him soon, only to hear it had closed….


My Experience: 

Access to the village was highly challenging for it is located in a conspicuous area in Yangmingshan, with few signs indicating its location and limited parking spaces nearby. Billy parked his sedan in a desolate spot and we were prepared to cross the street when an old man with a white undershirt and blue massage sandals approached us, requesting money in exchange for the parking spot. Turned out if the villagers were to be disturbed, they might as well make a little profit. We gave the man 30 NT and walked past a couple homes with washboards in a creek, food laid out drying in the sun, and vegetables growing profusely in garden patches. There was a miniature path of stone, hand-laid out over running waters and another local man simply sitting on a boulder, collecting an entrance fee in a bowl for the terraced fields/ sky reflection view. Imposing mountains fringed our surrounding and a murky body of water situated amid was an optimum canvas for the sky’s reflection. The sight was a thing of wonder, and luckily I had come on an unpopular day and time where masses of tourists were nowhere to be found, so all was far too serene.

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Smoke from a chimney

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View

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Large boulders in the water

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Intense reflection

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Not a model at all

Nearby the exit, an elderly woman sat underneath a rickety straw roof, showing off her vegetables and fruit, freshly picked this morning and grown traditionally by hand. Billy told me that her food was phenomenal and home-y, so we strolled over and bought two steamed corn and tea eggs, both scalding hot as I juggled them between my hands. Piping hot juice splattered all over as I bit into the sweet, succulent corn, and I rapidly continued to eat because the pain was worth each decadent bite. As we nibbled on the flavorsome tea egg to prevent mouth burns, we walked along steep, zig-zagged paths, enclosed by towering bamboo stalks and shrubs on either sides that forbid any breeze. The demanding trek to the hot springs required great stamina and at the half-way point, I wondered if I’d ever make it as I slowly but surely progressed down winding and deteriorating stone steps. But then my eyes glistened at the sight of flat land ahead of us (a huge relief from the prior tedious path) that was accompanied by a behemoth fumarole, filling the atmosphere with pastel yellow, sulfuric clouds. Based on intuition, it seemed we were approaching our destination soon, and indeed there was only an additional half mile descending down a serpentine path until the hot springs.

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Within the mountains

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Smoke from underground

Very highly likely there was an easier access to the hot springs, but Billy and I entered from a threatening path as we nimbly hopped from jagged stone to stone down hill, avoiding the steaming, cloudy water beneath us. Masses of steam engorged our bodies, obscuring our view ahead, and we weren’t sure if we could withstand the fumes, but a miracle occurred when we reached the bottom and regained our sights.

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Our dangerous path to enter the springs

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Clear water from the waterfalls

I witnessed a fictitious image with varieties of different sized natural springs and melanin-rich individuals bathing in the streaming water, soaking in the sun’s and water’s nutrients. The pale blue, almost grey, hot spring water was too hot for comfort, but it came in contact with crystal clear water from a waterfall nearby to form the optimal temperature for humans to enjoy a dip. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a swimsuit so I was semi- crestfallen, but I got to dip most of my legs into the pools and relish the setting, the people, and the sounds. And since Bayan village is no longer open, all that occurred on this day remains in my memories and in my photos. And I know I’ll read back on this blog whenever I need to recall the allure of this place.

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Cooling down next to a waterfall

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Cloudy hot spring waters

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Venturing

 

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 12: Beitou Thermal Valley and the Best Braised Pork Rice Ever

food, travel
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“Hell’s Valley”

On this day, I was handed over to my other cousin, Billy, for a weekends’ worth of excitement. The motive of me being “handed over” was so that I could reunite with every single Taiwanese cousin while they took me on memorable road trips to their favorite destinations that embodies what they love about their country.

Billy drove from Bali (in Taiwan, not Indonesia) to pick me up from Kevin’s urban apartment, and when his aging, maroon Honda pulled up I enthusiastically greeted him and dumped my luggage in the trunk. Unlike Kevin, he didn’t ask me where I wanted to go- he knew immediately where to take me, and soon we were on our way to Beitou Hot Springs. The Beitou area consists of natural hot springs that continually emits steam, and some are open to people while others reach temperatures of 100 °C and are off-limits. We first visited the Hot Springs Museum which was an original bathhouse built long ago by the Japanese in European style so the inside had Victorian columns and baths but tatami rooms as well. Because the Japanese are extremely orderly and clean, we had to remove our shoes in the museum and put on slippers to keep the interior spotless.

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Hot Springs Museum

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A tatami in the museum

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We then headed out towards the Geothermal Valley, also dubbed “Hell’s Valley”, a bright emerald-colored body of water that is 90 °C, so very little life sustains in the water. The weather was already hot enough, but once near the edge of the Valley, the sweltering heat reached my skin and I began to sweat all over, especially on my neck where my long hair dangled freely. I felt audacious standing so near, knowing that a slight mishap could result in my death, but the uncanny Valley was quite mystical as subtle clouds of opaque steam arose and idled marginally above the still, emerald water. We wandered past other hot springs in the human-tolerable range, but all were rather empty because who would be in their right mind to step in a hot springs in tropical, Taiwanese, Summer weather?

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An eerie Geothermal Valley

It was around noon when Billy told me of a fantastic “restaurant” that specializes in  braised pork rice (lu rou fan) and I was so down because braised pork rice is the perfect combination of carbs, fat, and salt, and I never turn down a braised pork rice offer. There was one minor issue with which he wasn’t exactly sure where and what the place was called, so we scoured around the Beitou area, driving through random roads as he tried to recall of the place in his head. We then arrived at a random, dingy and dilapidated building with a variety of food stands, clothing stores, and medicine shops on the inside. The interior had little electricity (and certainly no A/C), and was mostly lit up by windows on the walls and ceilings for sunlight to enter. Peculiarly, the place was congested with people mostly eating lunch or buying fresh fruits, meats, or seafood from the tiny vendors scattered across each floor. On a side note, the scene was chaotic, unsanitary, and dismal, but a scene like this is very typical of Taiwan so it didn’t bother me for I was accustomed to it. Billy and I sauntered around each floor, past multiple butchers, scanning from corner to corner to find The “restaurant”, but his frustrated complexion indicated that it was nowhere nearby. Eventually, he gave up and we sat down at another braised pork rice restaurant which he described as “not as good”. He wandered off to see what people were eating, when he ran back exuberantly and yelled “I found it!!” I stood up so abruptly that I experienced a minor whiplash, but proceeded on to follow Billy, who was now very much ahead of me.

The restaurant (a food stand really), called 矮仔財滷肉飯  was in a relatively depressing corner, however the food stand was not depressing at all. The chefs frantically sauteed and washed dishes as a line of forty something people waiting to order watched and an additional forty something people sat eating. I headed to the back of the line, which spiraled down a staircase where the food stand unfortunately was no longer in sight. Thirty five minutes had passed until we got to the front of the line, where Billy ordered several dishes but sadly had to switch a few orders since many of their dishes were sold out. But no worries because whatever we ordered turned out to be SOME OF THE BEST FOOD I HAVE EVER PUT IN MY MOUTH. I seriously don’t even know how to explain how scrumptious the food was, like does a 1000/10 tell you how tasty the food was? or the term “better than sex?” (whatttt) Yes, it was THAT amazing.

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Braised pork rice

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Very traditional Taiwanese meal

We ordered two bowls of braised pork rice which on top of the meat, the chef had additionally included ample amounts of gelatinous skin and fat, and I think that was the wow factor of the dish. I’ve had hundreds of braised pork rice bowls in my life and I’ve never tasted a memorable one until this one. We also got 2.) a tofu chunk braised in the pork juices, so if the tofu is tasting like the braised pork, it’s got to be great, 3.) kongxincai (water spinach), sauteed and drenched in the pork marinade with meat chunks (Oh my lord so good), 4.) pork and winter melon soup (perhaps the best soup I’ve ever had. It was meaty but not oily at all- how do you do that?), and 5.) fatty pork slices with red sauce. The rice, tofu, and water spinach dishes all had the braised pork sauce, but they all had their own distinct flavors, which stumps me. And the soup, oh my, do not even get me started on the soup; it tasted nothing like the braised pork sauce, it had a special flavor that I cannot fathom either. As a food fanatic, I believe that a restaurant’s food is good when you can’t decipher what the ingredients are because you can’t imitate it at home. Thus, you’ll keep coming back to the restaurant to eat it. I now know that in the future anytime I visit Taiwan, I will ask to come back here to eat. I encourage you all to put this restaurant “矮仔財滷肉飯” on your bucket list!!

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 11: The Traditions of Paper-Making

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Fo Guang Shan Monastery

Before my eyes was a massive spectacle of temple after temple in a Versailles-esque setting, but you can imagine how the architecture of all differs between East and West. There weren’t intricate gardens and it wasn’t nearly as widespread as Versailles, but both gave off Christopher Nolan vibes with labyrinthine plots. This was Fo Guang Shan, the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, a sacred place where monks silently strolled past visitors and minded their own business. The grand view of the monastery is looking forward to see repeated temples on both sides and a 36 meter tall golden Protection Buddha statue at the end, staring right back at you. With the right hand palm up and the open left hand rest on its knee, the towering Buddha sends a clear message of “No fear” to all guests because he wants to offer protection from delusion, fear, and anger.

Afterwards, we spent the remainder of the morning driving halfway up the country to visit the GuangXing Pulp Factory,  a quaint factory displaying the traditions of paper-making. All paper products at the factory were made by hand and we got to see the employees go through the procedures of ancient paper making which included soaking the tree pulp, drying it, weaving and pasting the mush together, and spreading and ironing out the mush on a heated metal surface. The sweltering summer air made us sweat, but the sultry atmosphere caused by steam and engines made our skin drench furthermore. I want to praise the employees because tediously forming each delicate sheet required patience and strength.

Then, we all fortunately got to experience making our own paper fans from the delicate, hand-made sheets, which turned out to be quite hellish. If you messed up one simple step, your fan was ruined altogether, and naturally as the hapless being I am, my fan turned out to be a catastrophe, but I brought it home anyways and showed it off. The process required putting your sheet on a cast iron mold, spraying some water (apparently I sprayed a bit too much), and gently patting down with a brush (apparently I didn’t pat gently enough). You then softly apply some paint and then carefully remove the sheet to transfer to a plastic fan. At this point, my sheet already looked defective, but I glued it onto the plastic fold, sealed the edges, and sobbed at my dreadful incompetence. Check out below to see the design on my sheet! I didn’t include a photo of the fan because it was a soggy, wrinkled mess. So that pretty much concludes what I did today, and it also reminds me that I should start being more competent at life.

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A rooster mold

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 10: An Entire Road Trip Packed in One Day ft. Spirited Away’s Movie Inspiration Location

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Crowded nightlife at Jiufen

Hopefully “Spirited Away” caught your attention, or if you are unaware of its existence, it is possibly the best animated film in history directed by world renown, Hayao Miyazaki. Indeed we visited its movie inspiration location, but prior to visiting the location, we visited two other magnificent places, which is why by 11 PM of today, my feet had blisters, my legs were shaking, and my clothes reeked of sweat. My cousins and I packed an entire road trip into 14 hours and crazy would be an understatement of our adventure. Without further ado, here is the tale of Taiwan Day 10.

At around 9 AM, my older cousin, Kevin, picked me up from Taipei city and I was so delighted because I had not seen him in six years. He looked pretty much the same, but I know I looked taller, older, and more mature than my 12 year old self. I hopped into shotgun and we conversed nonstop during our drive to Taipei train station to pick up my two other older cousins, Kiwi and Villea, (These are their real names, but uncommon English names are prevalent in Taiwan), who I have not seen in 7 years, and they pretty much looked the same as well.

“Where would you like to go?” Kevin asked me.

Yikes, I’m the foreigner, and I didn’t know much of the area, but based on Google Search “Taipei attractions” I saw a beautiful location called Yangmingshan National Park so I asked to go there. And indeed he swerved his miniature car towards North and drove 45 minutes up sinuous roads until we saw a parking lot and awkwardly maneuvered to squeeze into a tight spot. We hiked down to Qingtiangang, a grassland within the mountains with cotton ball-esque clouds hovering not too far above your head and Japanese shorthorn grazing tranquilly. The shorthorns wandered around freely and thankfully all the visitors respected them, as nobody hollered and ran towards them, took selfie stick photos, or tried to pet them. Several people laid on the grass, wrote in their journals, read a book, or enjoyed a picnic while others had large cameras, snapping photos of the stunning scenery. My cousins and I simply walked along the trails and eventually sat down to converse and listen to the running waters nearby in the midst of fog and comfortable 70 degree weather.

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Two Japanese shorthorn resting

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Qingtiangang

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Typical jump photo

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Japanese shorthorn grazing

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Got a photo with it!

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Xiaoyoukeng

Afterwards, we hiked two miles to Xiaoyoukeng, a fumarole that spews sulphur gas from underground, filling the atmosphere with a rotten egg smell. Large clouds of gas constantly piped up from underground and the surrounding rock was stained yellow as we could feel the increased temperature nearby on our skin. Thus after a morning of spectacular views, we headed East towards Yehliu Geopark, on behalf of my request. The Queen’s Head formation at Yehliu was always shown in Taiwan brochures and travel videos, so I decided it was about time that I go. I expected a large desolate land with unique rock formations in the middle of nowhere, but to my disappointment, the area was highly developed with apartment buildings, stores, and a gaudy aquarium with dolphin shows. The plethora of billboards with vibrant colors just didn’t suit the monotonous yet enchanting colors of the Geopark. Then within the geopark, bold red, painted lines with the words “Do Not Cross” were drawn all along the borders of rocks, wrecking the nature of the rocks. And even with the garish bold line, people kept jumping across the lines to take pictures and touch the unique rock formations as park rangers indignantly hollered at them to back off. It was such a pathetic site, and it vexes me that humans have such little respect for nature.

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The famous, Queen’s Head

Despite what I said above, if you ignore what the humans had done and focus on the rock formations, you begin to wonder how the earth does wondrous things such as forming such spectacular oddities. The rock formations remain a mystery to this day and the park seemed a little eerie because it really looked as if aliens had come millions of years ago to mold the rock figures.

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The mushroom rocks

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The coast

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More mushroom rocks

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The Candle rocks

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The Candle rocks

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The pedestrian bridge

After walking through multiple shapes of rocks, my cousin suggested we end our day at Jiufen, an old street in the Northern mountainous area of Taipei, aka the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s vision in Spirited Away. I felt a yearning to experience this old street, and when we arrived at its exceptionally narrow entrance, I was ready to enter a mesmerizing world. It was 6 PM and the sky remained bright, but once I forced myself into the horde of people, my surrounding suddenly became dim, chit-chat filled my ears, and a conglomeration of food scents reached my nose. It was a Saturday night so there was absolutely no leeway on the paths as everybody slowly, but gradually took baby steps to move the traffic. There were countless number of vendors selling handmade jewelry, purses, egg rolls, musical instruments, passion fruit jam, glutinous balls, literally anything you can name! I took my time, looking at all the fascinating little shops, and then reentered the sluggish crowd to continue moving along the paths. As we dawdled along the path, I heard Chinese spoken infrequently and instead it seemed as if only Japanese was being spoken. Suddenly, three bulky camera crew men, an elder man, and a tall, slim, and well-dressed lady unexpectedly walked through us all as many people behind me began to take photos of the woman. She was speaking Japanese, and it looked like she was doing a travel TV show, but I had no clue who she was, perhaps someone famous? And to this day, I keep wondering if I had bumped into a Japanese celebrity.

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Crowded pathways

The night gradually approached as the sky dimmed drastically when we decided to dine at Zhang Ji Traditional Fish Balls, a simple restaurant specializing in handmade fish ball and noodle soup. There was an awfully long line of people waiting to be seated indicating that the food served was probably exceptional, and indeed when we were finally seated, the food was exceptional! Despite being stuffed from dinner, there were two more things that were a “must try” at Jiufen, so we exited the restaurant and headed up to find Lai Ah Puo Yu Yuan shop that serves sweet potato, green tea, and taro glutinous rice balls in a brown sugar ice mixture or brown sugar hot soup, topped with adzuki and green beans for 40 NT a bowl (approx. $1.30). Customers have the option between brown sugar ice or soup, but because the Summer days were hot, we ordered 3 bowls, all with ice. Because I grew up accustomed to eating glutinous products, the bowl of soup tasted phenomenal and not weird to me at all, but if foreigners visit Jiufen, I highly recommend trying this odd-sounding dessert because it is truly something you’ve never tasted before.

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Taro, sweet potato, and green tea glutinous balls

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Zhang Ji Traditional Fish Balls

If you have made it this far, I want to thank you!! I am almost done, but not quite yet…

The time was 8:30 PM and the sun was close to setting so everybody in the vicinity enthusiastically waited for the entire Jiufen area to light up its red lanterns and bring the “Spirited Away” essence to life. As each red lantern gradually lit up, all that could be heard were peoples “oohs and ahhs” and the moment was truly indescribable as people rushed out of restaurants to see the views, crowds stopped moving to take pictures, and everyone was appreciating the night life with Taiwan’s mountains and oceans in the background. I find it so difficult to describe the atmosphere at that moment, but it seemed like there was a charm placed on Jiufen; it looked like we were all characters in a utopia.

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Jiufen at night

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Overview of nightlife at Jiufen, PC: reddit

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View from Jiufen

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The sun sets

Finally, it was time to leave the utopia for we were all exasperated and were ready to dive onto a fluffy bed and pillow to relax. Because of the mobs of people, we estimated it would take about 30 minutes to exit the old street so we headed towards the original path we had taken and wandered through the crowds to exit. On our way back, we quickly stopped at the Ah Lan Hakka Glutinous Rice Cake vendor to purchase some glutinous rice cakes stuffed with sweet red bean or savory dried preserved vegetables at 10 NT per cake.

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Ah Lan Hakka Glutinous Cake

Miraculously, we located our car at 10 PM, piled in, and passed out during the hour drive back to Taipei Main City, except for Kevin, who unfortunately was the designated driver. I remember very little of what else occurred that night, but all I know was that it was a glorious day and Taiwan never ceases to amaze me. I probably wouldn’t recommend touching down on 3 locations in one day, but if you are crazy like we are, go for it 🙂

-Jamie