Vegan Queso (No Cashews!)

food, healthy

When Vegans say nutritional yeast “really does taste like cheese!” I always mutter mmhmm under my breath and roll my eyes a bit. Cheese is cheese. I may be the biggest cheese lover in the world, so I WILL know if I am eating fake cheese. So the thought of some orange flaky bits being able to replace the gooey goodness of cheese seems too good to be true, but was it too good to be true?

…………………

OK. Yes. It was too good to be true and the nutritional yeast vegan queso was simply not up to par as the traditional non-vegan queso, but I do have to say it comes in a close second and serves as a wonderful guilt-free snack. I’ll still relish on my favorite Torchy’s show-stopping queso here and there, but nutritional yeast queso is something I’m going to eat pretty regularly since it actually contains the good stuff. The good stuff, you know? The B-vitamins, folate, zinc, and all other immune-boosting nutrients that trump all the saturated fat in real cheese.


Vegan Cheese (No Cashews)

yield: approx. 2 cups

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 c. potatoes diced
  • 1 c. carrots diced
  • 1/3 c. water
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar or lemon
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (optional)
  • pinch of pepper
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder (opt.)
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder (opt.)
  • 1/4 c. nutritional yeast flakes

Instructions:

  1. Boil the potatoes and carrots together until soft and tender. I like to boil on high, turn the water off and let the remaining heat soften the vegetables to save energy!
  2. Drain the vegetables and let them cool a bit but not completely.
  3. Place the vegetables in a high-speed blender along with all other ingredients and blend until completely smooth and creamy.
  4. The texture should greatly resemble queso. It should be gooey and melty.
vegan cheese

look at that queso!

I’m not a food chemist so I don’t understand how this vegan queso gets its gooey consistency, but the resemblance with traditional queso is uncanny. Also, if you’d like to spice up your queso, by all means you may add a roasted pepper!! Now the holidays have rolled around, this is a great dip for parties so go ahead and deceive your friends!

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 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

 

 

Taiwan Day 9: Aboriginal Amusement Park and Feng Chia Night Market

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Sun Moon Lake

Today’s adventure led us to Nantou, a serene county known for its mountains and waters that are perfect for the outdoor fanatics. As our car meandered through the narrow roads, high rises gradually disappeared and all that could be seen were trees within the mist and seldom wooden homes. We arrived at the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, a monumental amusement park amid the mountains that integrates aboriginal culture and modern thrill together into one. The park accurately depicts Taiwan’s nine principal aboriginal tribes throughout, displaying meticulously hand-carved and painted totem poles, old-style wooden homes, and hand-spun textiles. The entire experience brings you back several hundreds of years to the aboriginal era, especially since the workers are dressed in cultural garments and often put on shows of dancing, singing, and rituals.

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Aboriginal ritual

Surprisingly, the amusement portion had several invigorating rides not for the faint of heart. However, if you want relaxation, I highly recommend the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway, a cable car ride that carries you aloft the mountains from the bottom to the highest point of the park. A second cable car must be boarded to visit Sun Moon Lake, one of the most beautiful destinations in Taiwan with waters blue as can be and silhouettes of perpetual mountain ranges, all engulfed in heaps of clouds. The weather at the Culture Park consisted of clear skies and constant sun, but as the cable car traveled towards Sun Moon Lake, cloud mass increased and colors deepened in hue. The temperature dropped drastically and our view became slightly clouded. The ambiance was serene and all I could hear was the slight chatter from other people, who were in awe of the view as well. We were fortunate to see the sun in process of setting, which lit up the sky creating an aura of peace, as I frantically whipped out my phone to snap a panorama of the altering scene.

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View from the cable car

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cable ride

We stayed overnight at the Sun Moon Lake Youth Activity Center which had a large balcony several stories high with a perfect view of the lake. My friends and I sat on a wooden table and watched the sun set until the sky became pitch black. When there was nothing left to see, we headed out to Feng Chia Night Market, which was an hour drive away, but we were out for a good time accompanied by good food.

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Egg cakes

Parking at the night market was such an infuriating task that we almost decided to head back home, but after 20 minutes of honking and hair-pulling, we finally found a spot. The large night market was packed like sardines as I constantly had bodies up against my skin, transferring sweat from one person to another. It was insanely unhygienic, but I was craving savory and sweet goodness on my taste buds, and I luckily was able to purchase food, despite the mobs of  hangry people. I hastily munched on my gua bao (steamed bun with pork belly, fried egg, cucumbers, cilantro, and peanut hot sauce), egg cakes, grilled kebabs, and matcha snow ice with adzuki beans, as people shoved and hollered to get in line for food. Smoke from cooking shrouded the sky and the smell of fried and grilled meats filled my nostrils as I enjoyed being among the mass of food lovers.

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Matcha snow ice with adzuki beans

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Selection of BBQ kebabs

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Pork belly bao

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 8: Spectacular Drum Village and Performance

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Coffee shop

Our day in Tainan was filled with fascinating cultural enrichment that deepened my love for Taiwan as our first stop was Ten Drum Cultural Village, an abandoned sugar refinery that had been re-purposed to become an artistic destination and performance venue. Original warehouses and machinery from the Japan-ruled period still remained, but the area was refurnished to add a modern touch, creating a gorgeous area for visitors to witness. The entire factory takes up 12 acres, so there were too many attractions for us to cover, but we first walked through a winding path with arching trees hovering above us to enter a spacious tree house resting upon thick, warped tree trunks. Inside contained around 30 drums, so I sat down on a stool when a tall, slim lady with braids waltzed in and greeted us. She informed us that we would be playing a simple drum piece today and reassured us not to panic because it was a relatively simple piece. A large sheet music was in the front and different notation stood for hit with right/left stick, or together, or hit the sides of the drum. Thus, there were four different moves to make sounds so we began steadily and roughly, until everyone got the feel of the drums, and 5 minutes later, we were all drumming in sync as the sounds filled up the tree house. The lady ecstatically congratulated and complimented us for being musically gifted as we exited the tree house and toured parts of the village, full of aged chimneys, rusted pipes and colossal vats complimented by the modern architecture, vibrant, with unique colors and structures.

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Modern architecture

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Above the coffee shop

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Modern architecture

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Glass pathways within the trees

We later entered the inside of the factory to see that they had built a magnificent performance venue with wooden seats above a glass floor on top of the sugar vats, and a spacious wooden stage with blue and green hue spotlights shining down. The entire room was dim, but we were soon about to witness a jaw-dropping performance of music to our ears. Placed on the stage were ten drums of several sizes such as small and medium bongo sized ones as well as larger ones, and in the back was a mighty massive one. Audience chatter ceased as extremely muscular men and women dressed in black marched out onto the stage and positioned themselves by their respective drums. They all had a fierce demeanor as they began their first piece which started off with slow and steady beats from the massive drum, which was controlled by the most robust man on stage. One by one, each drummer began to join in and soon they were all frantically contributing each sound to the piece as well as jumping and dancing along. The job looked meticulous and tiring as they glistened in sweat after the first piece was complete. Of all the drummers, my favorite was a tall, model-like woman with long flowing hair who played small bongos with thin sticks at the speed of lightning. Constantly, she twirled her sticks and produced several beats per second while showing the audience how much of a badass she was. The crew performed six more pieces and were cheered on with a standing ovation from the crowd members who were whistling and hollering in delight.

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Massive vats in the sugar factory

We all reluctantly headed out the sugar factory, wishing for more, but it was time for dinner as we feasted on a traditional Taiwanese meal of bamboo shoots with Kewpie mayo and dried squid shreds, sauteed Taiwanese cabbage, steamed pork patty, dried tofu and green onions, and pork soup. Dinner was splendid, but dessert was decadent, perfect for those with a sweet tooth. We were able to enter a bakery and buy whatever we desired, but with so many options along with my indecisive self, I personally couldn’t make a selection, so my friends purchased wheel cakes stuffed with custard and matcha choux pastry, which I delightfully consumed both and was unable to sleep afterwards.

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Taiwanese dinner

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Matcha creme choux pastry

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Custard wheel cake

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 7: Lihpao Land and My Bikini Tale

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Thunder mountain water ride

On a sunlit day where human skin roasted and charred, we drove to Lihpao Land, an amusement and water park in Taichung. The massive theme park is segregated into wet and dry, but with the temperature in the 100s, the dry section was eerily deserted because a hot scar from the metal machines didn’t sound too fancy. Nevertheless, we visited the dry after the wet because we’re dauntless people.

Once we had gotten into the water park, I put on a bandeau-like bikini that zipped in the front. No big deal, right? Actually it was a big deal, and a terrible mistake on my part for several reasons; one being I was horrendously out of shape but more importantly, I was in a more conservative country, in a water park, full of children in one pieces with frills, swim caps, and aqua shoes. Aqua shoes were not required, but swim caps were, so with my bikini on, I meticulously stuffed every single baby hair under the tight-fitting cap, and it was a miracle when the cap finally went over my awfully large, round head. With the top extremely wide, my head takes the shape of an upside down triangle, so while everyone else seemed to function properly with their swim caps, the latex hugged my cranium so tightly, pulling my eyes upwards, and I felt I was going to faint. As I looked into the mirror, the exceptionally unflattering figure staring back at me was cringe-worthy. With my colossal, latex-wrapped head, beer belly, and muffin top, all packed into a teeny bikini, I looked like an unfortunate, rebellious monk. I broke into laughter and took several photos to document the hot mess I was, but I confidently walked out, forgot my looks, and simply had fun. As we went on every attraction through the park, people clearly stared and judged at me for my improper outfit, and I wholeheartedly wished I could lash out at them, but I thankfully kept my composure. Although I did see a few other locals in bikinis, I believe mine looked the most inappropriate since I’m just a tad bustier.

The main attraction at the water park was the “Big Wave” which is constructed to imitate a beach, as a machine generates mountainous waves, sweeping people off their feet. As I waited for the wave to come, I realized I had been in this same exact spot in the big wave 10 years ago, so a rush of anticipation struck me to relive the moment. As hundreds of people eagerly counted down for the wave, my stomach drastically dropped, and instantly the wave worked its way from front to back. When it hit me, I was lifted a couple feet off the ground, and I felt bodies pile on top of me as my swim cap and goggles were knocked off my head. The scene appeared to be an apocalypse where zombie-like bodies were battered by vigorous waves, but once this wave died down, everyone cheered and reordered themselves for the next wave to come. The best part of the big wave is the variability of wave strength, for you may get hit with a weak wave once and then a forceful wave next. Of course we all want to be blessed by that gargantuan, powerhouse wave that causes you to lose your accessories, or even your swim top.

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The big wave

When we had been pummeled enough, we changed into T-shirts and shorts and enjoyed cheap grilled squid, savory egg pancakes, and braised pork rice from the food stands. We took a much needed break and trekked through the heat to the dry, amusement portion of the park.

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Braised pork rice with pickled cucumbers

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Egg pancake

Similar to a horror movie, the amusement park seemed deserted as employees stood by each attraction, on their phones, waiting for a single visitor to go on their ride. There was an aviation coaster, high above us, propelling in circles with just one lonely rider among thirty empty seats. There were no screams and laughter as you would typically hear in an amusement park, but just sounds of silence and the seldom running engine from one ride. We decided to go onto the aviation coaster, which we walked up to and within seconds were buckled and up in the air. The world was spinning rapidly as I gradually rose up into the air with the centripetal force acting upon my body. Scanning below, I saw the deserted scenery, but was also able to see the water park, far off into the distance, crowded with miniature ant people having the time of their lives. With so few people, we were able to knock out most of the daunting and exhilarating rides within a short amount of time. Our invigorating day had come to an end, with our skin three shades darker and our stomachs one pound lighter. As difficult as it was, we gratefully waved Lihpao Land goodbye and swore we would return soon.

 

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 6: I Made It on the News!

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Tossing the Chinese yoyo

The only time that I’ll ever be famous was the day local Miaoli reporters flocked to the elementary school with their load of technical equipment, ready to interview the principal along with its fellow volunteers, such as me. We had known the day before that the reporters would come, so we prepared a simple medley of talents for the camera. I felt composed knowing that the reporters were coming, but the moment I saw the white van roll up in the parking lot with three people hauling out massive tripods, video recorders, and a box of microphones and audio devices, my composure escaped my insides and was replaced with queasiness.

The schoolchildren upstairs had been sweeping floors and tidying up the classrooms since the first bell, when suddenly from below I heard thumping footsteps and echoes of children repeatedly hollering, ” 他們到了! 他們到了!” (They are here!) To keep all procedures organized, the principal, calm yet assertive, spoke on the intercom for all students to gather in the foyer and instantly all the schoolchildren frantically raced each other, competing who could sit down criss-crossed applesauce first. When the children had arranged themselves in columns by grade, the principal spoke with authority, “Today is the day, and we are so thankful for our volunteer teachers here. The local reporters have come and are ready to report all that has gone on in the past week at our school. We have been preparing for this for a couple of days so try your best and just have fun! All the yo-yo kids, head downstairs first and let’s attempt the “dragon”!” While the yo-yo kids set up on the grass, me and my fellow volunteer mates were approached by the reporters, who set up audio microphones on our backs and told us to write our Chinese names on a sheet of paper. Having the cameraman clip the audio box onto the back of my jeans and guide the wire to the back of my neck was tremendously awesome. I was about to be on Taiwanese News! Who would’ve imagined my first time on television would be in a foreign country?

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Elementary schoolkids

After I was set up, I waited to be interviewed. My stomach felt empty because I didn’t know what type of questions the reporter would ask and I had to respond in Chinese, which I am quite good at, but having to spontaneously respond on the first try on camera was frightening. In my head, I predicted some simple questions she could possibly ask, so I repeatedly rehearsed my responses in my head until I was called on. The double emotions of excitement and nervousness was overwhelming, but I confidently greeted the reporter and stood in an area of good lighting. She instructed me to speak loudly and about 2 inches away from the microphone and within seconds, my two minutes of fame began.

Initially, the reporter asked me elementary questions which thankfully I had rehearsed in my head, but I was at the highest extent of nervousness that I even had to ensure I wouldn’t butcher my Chinese name. Eighteen years I have lived with this name and even such pressure could’ve caused me to forget. More advanced questions were thrown at me and the camera was fast and rolling, but surprisingly, I briskly soared past them one by one, and by the end of two minutes, I had only stuttered once. I felt proud at the moment. Public speaking was never my forte and I personally know of my low self-esteem, but the girl that would appear on the Miaoli News later tonight would be someone of full confidence.

But my fame did not end there. I eagerly moved on to the patch of grass where the children were warming up their master yo-yo skills, and boy was I an amateur among the kids, but I had picked up Chinese yo-yo quickly in the past few days so I agreed to join the yo-yo squad on camera. The first trick performed was the “dragon”, which is great for cameras because it shows teamwork, unity, the Miaoli elementary school as one. It took only the second try for the yo-yo to smoothly move down the line of ten people, from one persons string to the next, and the toss back reached great heights and was successfully caught. We all happily cheered and we, as a school, truly were one in unity. Following the “dragon”, we performed toss ups, around the leg, spider web, and throw and catch. I performed around the leg, which can be perpetual for the ultimate yo-yo guru, but as a non-guru I was currently at 21 loops, when everyone, including the reporter and cameramen, gathered around and loudly chanted the counts in unison. I had reached 40 loops when I saw my yo-yo wobble in which I tried to straighten, but once I hit 43, my yo-yo tumbled off and rolled away on the grass. Everybody joyously hollered, clapped, and laughed and I put on a broad smile because 43 was a great number for a dilettante like me.

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On the Miaoli news

After the yo-yo portion was recorded, I was approached for a second interview on how I was so talented on the Chinese yo-yo, which, umm… I honestly wasn’t, but because I am an American who had just picked up the sport, it was pretty impressive. They then moved on to the Chinese top acts, which I had no place in because I actually had zero talent in Chinese top.  An hour had passed as I watched these little town children, flawlessly execute impressive top tricks, only wishing I was as skilled as they were. Performance can be exhausting, thus when the medley concluded with one last top trick, a lunch of fried oyster mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots with Kewpie mayonnaise, bitter melon with salted egg, and leafy vegetables was served for all the hungry performers. All plates were later emptied of their food, and classes resumed as usual.

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Dinner

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 5: Biking and Local Night Market

food, travel
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Takoyaki

On a relaxed morning, one of the school’s teacher drove her van up to the elementary school, handed us Taiwanese egg pancakes and soy milk for breakfast, and told us to wear tennis shoes and comfortable clothes for we were going on a bike ride. I quickly threw on a quick-dry shirt to fight off the scorching sun and sloppily tied my shoe laces. During our car ride, we obnoxiously sang Zootopia’s “Try Everything”, a catchy song that soon became annoying from overplaying on the radio. We arrived at our destination unknown, Houli Bikeway, which is an old railway that has now become roads, miles long for bikers only.

Among a selection of hundreds of bicycles, I selected one with a squishy seat that was also low enough for my rather short legs. Nobody wore helmets, so I placed my snapback on my head, giving just the feel of protection. We rode for about two hours, through an array of scenery that was all so breathtaking, and the most spectacular aspect about the bikeway was that within two hours, we saw farms, wineries, rushing river waters, industrial sites, and tunnels. It was all one pathway, but we saw much more than just one view, it was like riding through the city and countryside. For heat relief, there was an extended tunnel, dim with only a few lights installed, that was about 10 °C cooler than the outside. As I rode rapidly, a cool breeze glided through my hair and shirt to dry the sweat off my neck and armpits. The cool breeze was too good on my skin that I sped up to increase the breeze, only to crash on the bike in front of me and foolishly tumble onto the side of the tunnel. People nearby quickly hopped off their bikes to aid me, but truthfully I wanted to be left alone and get up on my own because I was too embarrassed from my unpleasant fall. Nonetheless, I thanked the unnecessary crowd of people around me and brushed off the bloody scrapes on the palms of my hands and knees. We rode back to the starting point of the trail, where the bike owners offered large bowls of chilled grass jelly soup (black gelatin in brown sugar water), which we thankfully devoured.

On the bridge

Taking a break on the bridge

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Biking in the tunnel

On the hour ride back to the school, nobody sang and instead snores were heard. For dinner, we drove 30 minutes to the Miaoli night market at around 8 PM, which was packed with only Miaoli residents because this night market is the only one in the vicinity. It is also so local and lowkey that it only runs on Saturdays, unlike all other night markets which operate every night. Due to this “rare” event, the night market was crowded with hungry locals and I instantly saw around ten students from the elementary school, accompanied by their family members. As if I were a celebrity, multiple schoolchildren charged towards me, yelling my name, and gave me hugs. Of course, I was introduced to several parents, and as I shook their hands, I peeped several strangers nearby with faces wondering who I was and why I was receiving such great attention. When all attention died down, I straightaway knew what I wanted to eat: stinky tofu, O-a zhen (a gooey oyster, egg pancake doused in red sauce), and takoyaki (octopus balls). These three dishes are the epitome of Taiwanese street food, and have been my favorite dishes ever since I was 8 years old. I purchased all three for an unbelievable price of 110 yuan (approximately $3.50), showing just how cheap Asian street food is. Spending only $3.50 felt too little, so the last thing I did was go on mini go carts, operated by the family of one of the school’s children. A tiny enclosed area was available for go-kart riders so I only got to drive in small circles, but the throwback of being a child was well worth 30 yuan. The night ended all in smiles at the night market and our wallets just slightly lighter.

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Stinky tofu and preserved cabbage

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Traditional street food

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Miaoli night market

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Preparation of oyster pancake

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Night market go kart

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 4: Trying Hakka Food

food, travel
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Fried pork with pomegranate

Food served at the elementary school was relatively the same throughout the weeks. There was usually a broth-based soup with leafy vegetables and meatball pieces, white rice, and tempura-fried vegetables. I was grateful for the school cook, a friend of the principal, who came daily at around 11 AM to prepare sufficient amounts of savory food to feed the mouths of all 50 people at the school. However, on a Saturday, I was treated to a lavish meal of traditional Hakka food. Miaoli is the only county in Taiwan that is predominantly Hakka people, a group of Han Chinese people who came from Hakka-speaking areas in South China. Since my first visit to Taiwan when I was just 9,  I heard of the Hakka culture, but I never really fathomed what it truly was, but here I am 12 years later, immersed in the culture, ready to sample the delicacies of Hakka cuisine. Hakka food tends to be salty and spicy, extremely bold in flavor because Hakka migrants toiled lengthy days under the intense sun farming, resulting in salt content loss in the body so food intake regains the salt.

We entered a semi-fancy restaurant, decorated with strawberry wallpaper about 25 minutes away from the school. The locals recommended 1.) the Hakka stir fry (Xiao Tsao), a traditional dish composed of dry tofu, preserved meats, peppers, and green onions, 2.) Dragonfruit pork, fried pieces of pork topped with dragonfruit jam, and 3.) water lily (shui lian), crisp straw-like vegetable strands sauteed with garlic and peppers. Devouring the food, yet still showing class, I went through 3 bowls of white rice, pairing with the 3 dishes. And no, 3 bowls of white rice is not an exaggeration; the dishes were extremely palatable and salty that it was necessary to pair the dishes with rice. The tanginess from the preserved meats paired so well with the relatively bland dry tofu and the sweet dragonfruit jam complimented the crispy pork skin. And lastly, the lightness of the water lily vegetables toned down the two other salty dishes.

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Sauteed water lily

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Hakka stir fry

Thirty minutes passed, and we all held our hands to our stomachs, gently rubbing our food babies. Each plate was clear of food and the looks on our faces indicated we needed a nice nap after our feast. Indeed, we all plopped on our beds and napped for a good 2 hours until a few school children banged on our doors and politely hollered at us to venture with them. We totally could use some exercise after today’s fine eats so we agreed, quickly got dressed, and headed out. We took an insanely steep and winding path up the mountains that was later alongside running waters downhill. The three energetic schoolchildren sang, ran, and gently pushed each other while I and the other teens were red in the face and lethargic as hell. Clearly, I was getting old. We reached the highest point of the pathway, where only one house resided. It was a polished, wooden house that seemed too nice to belong in the area. The house overlooked a vast part of the town and was surrounded by greens and tall trees. I assume because of the kids’ loud chatter, a 50 something year old man walked out the wooden doors and greeted us so kindly, asking where we were from, and cordially invited us to the back for some tea and snacks. Smoke arose from his grill, where charred bamboo lay, chickens ran around the backyard, feeding on bamboo scraps, and a beautiful german shepherd rest on the grass, eyeing the children frantically chasing the poor chickens. Everything about the house was so homey and down-to-earth with its all wood furniture and calligraphy on the walls. It was absolutely beautiful. The man told us that the house is actually a Bed & Breakfast but not many people come, so he and his wife (both now retired) just relax in nature and have no future plans apart from that.

 

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Polaroid

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Large wild beetle

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Chickens snack on bamboo scraps

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Chickens on the road

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Miaoli mountain views

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Miaoli mountain views

We said goodbye to the kind man and his chickens and walked the steep, winding roads to return to the elementary school. Our feet were sore and our bodies were covered in sweat so we took our showers and had movie night in our little hostel.

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 3: A Long Hike Up

travel
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Overlook of Miaoli

Up a narrow, winding, steep road, a farmer’s pick up truck propelled vigorously with me and a few other people in the back. The back of the truck, open to the outside world, with no buckle and nothing to hold on to. It was as scary as it sounds. There were multiple times when I felt my body about to fling out the back and onto the road, but I gripped on for dear life to the tiny ledge of the truck. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, the ride was one thing I would never forget and I was bummed out when it came to an end once we reached the top of a mountain in Miaoli. During the ride, the lady driving hollered to us in the back, informing us that riding in the back of the truck was illegal, so immediately we tensed up a bit. However in a nonchalant tone, she calmed us down and told us not to worry because all the farmers ride in the back, and that this area of Miaoli is so rural that police officers do not care at all. No rules. No regulations. I was really enjoying life here!

As our muscles burned from trekking up steep roads and sweat beads rolled down our skin, the beauty of Miaoli took my breath away. The view was so satisfying because there was more green than concrete, not yet dominated by human greed. No engines could be heard, no car horns, and the slight flutter of butterfly wings next to my ear was soothing. Feeling lethargic, we finally reached the top, where a beautiful Buddhist temple was located. A couple monks wandered around, minding their own business as we went into the temple, scanned the complex art and architecture, and said a few words of prayer.

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Overlook of Miaoli

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Sink on the roadside

The temple overlooked a big area of farms and houses all in between colossal mountains. Great gusts of wind swept through the trees around us, making a hollow, howling sound and hummingbirds zoomed past, visiting one flower to another. After a calm hour of appreciating nature’s gifts, we made the less-tedious hike down the steep roads, running speedily and holding our arms out parallel to mimic an airplane. We acted like innocent children, competing who could run down faster, and it was insanely dangerous but we were too caught up in the moment to even care about our safety. There were a few close calls when a car drove up as we charged head on to it, but in the end no one got hurt.

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Suspension bridge

Once we returned to the farmers truck, we plopped into the back and prepared to become jello, swaying along with the truck’s motion. On our way back, we stopped at a small food stand and 7-11 to purchase lunch items, which included a typical Chinese lunch box for around $2 and a waffle ice cream sandwich to cool ourselves down. The Chinese lunch boxes were nothing exceptional, but the simplicity of its contents was so satisfying and delicious. All it was was tasty and convenient authentic food for a low cost. Our box contained Taiwanese cabbage, preserved black beans, chicken, pickled celery, dried tofu, sausage, and a hard-boiled egg. We consumed the contents quickly and returned to the elementary school, relaxing for the rest of the day.

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Caramel ice cream waffle

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Lunchbox

-Jamie