Thursday, January 31, 2008

My Favorite Thing

One of my favorite experiences in Taiwan, which thankfully, I was able to repeat many times, was eating dinner in people's homes. At the beginning of my mission, it was one of the more terrifying experiences. You never knew what kind of food was going to be served, and although I now like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous, open-minded eater, at the young age of 21, things like seafood still scared me. You can only imagine how terrifying it was to contemplate eating chicken feet or rice soaked in pigs blood.

In America, we have an open-minded attitude towards people's dietary tastes and restrictions. Which just means, if someone doesn't like something, we're not going to make them eat it. Not so in other cultures. In Taiwan, we weren't allowed likes and dislikes. Partly, that was a result of the fact that as missionaries, we wanted to be open-minded to Chinese culture and not offend people by rejecting elements of their culture they felt strongly about (food, of course, being at the top of that list). However, our inability to foster our dislikes while in Taiwan was also a result of the fact that Chinese people don't let you have dislikes when you are dining in their homes.

You learn quickly to guard your rice bowl, always keeping it turned slightly towards your body so that your hosts never know how much food you have in it. This also makes it hard for your hosts to dump food in your bowl when they think you haven't eaten enough or you need to try more of any one particular dish. You can't say no, so you do what you can to maintain as much control of your food intake as possible. You eat slow, every once in awhile refilling your bowl a bit with dishes you like, thereby allowing your hosts to see that you really do love the food... but trying at the same time to ensure that they never pick up on the fact that you haven't touched the stinky tofu or the chicken feet.

Thankfully, the experience of eating with Taiwanese people in their homes introduced me to food that I previously would not have touched, but which I now love - squid, mussels, any kind of fish. It also helped me to understand Chinese culture in a way that would have been difficult without those moments shared in people's homes, eating food they had prepared for myself and my fellow missionaries. Regardless of what might be served during these times, my saving grace was knowing that there was one dish in particular that was likely to make an appearance. This dish could, for me at least, redeem the experience regardless of what else might be served. That dish was stir-fried cabbage with garlic.

This dish, in my opinion, is the epitome of Taiwanese home cooking. I've tried to order it in restaurants here in the States and it is never the same. Never the same kind of cabbage and never the same flavor I remember from Taiwan. In Taiwan it is one of the simplest dishes to make. As the name implies, it's nothing more than stir-fried cabbage drenched in oil-soaked garlic. Part of the reason I choose it as the first recipe for this site is because for me it embodies what I love about authentic Chinese cooking. The recipe is about as uncomplicated as you can get. It uses the simplest ingredients and yet delivers great flavor. It's also one I haven't ever really tried to master. However, after a few tries, I think I've gotten pretty close.

Stir-fried Cabbage with Garlic
This recipe is dedicated to Amri... I hope it is one you can easily reproduce in the wilds of Peru.

Couple of notes before starting:
  • You can use the technique outlined below with any kind of cabbage. I used green cabbage because that's what I ate in Taiwan. However, Regan makes it to great acclaim with bok choy, so feel free to experiment with any cabbage you come across.
  • If you want added depth of flavor you can add oyster sauce (also Regan's method). To do that, after you add the cabbage let it steam for a minute or two. Then mix maybe 1-2 T of oyster sauce with a little bit of water, add it to the pan, and let it steam for a few minutes more.
  • Lastly, almost all Chinese cooking is look and feel rather than recipe based. The below is what I worked from but feel free to tweak it.
1 smallish head of green cabbage
5 cloves of garlic, finely minced (I put the garlic through my garlic press and then minced it some more)
3-4 T. vegetable oil
Salt and Pepper

Cut the head of cabbage in half and remove the core. Chop the outer, mostly flat, layers of leaves into 1" squares. Don't use the inner leaves of cabbage that are thick and sort of mutated looking. They will take too long to cook so save them for something else (like Chinese dumplings).

Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. I used a regular saute pan and it worked fine, so don't worry if you don't have a wok. Truth be told, I don't have a wok myself. Once the oil is hot, but not too hot, add the garlic. Cook the garlic until soft and fragrant, about 2 minutes. The key here is that you want the garlic nice and soft, but not crunchy hard. So be sure to use medium heat. Anything hotter seems to cook the garlic too fast for me.

Add the cabbage and sprinkle generously with salt (the salt will draw water out of the cabbage to help it steam) and a little bit of pepper. Mix thoroughly so the cabbage is nicely coated with the garlic-oil. Turn the heat up just a tad, cover and let cook about 2 minutes. Give the pan a couple good shakes, or if using oyster sauce, add it now. Let cook for another 2-3 minutes. Its likely done by now, but if not, let it cook a little longer.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

First Love

I still remember my first morning in Taiwan.  Not a truly clear picture, mostly a jumbled mess of emotions and images.  But its clearer than a lot of other memories I've hung onto.  I had arrived, with my fellow missionaries, around midnight or so the day before.  Whatever time it was, it seemed very late, but that impression may have just been a result of the fact that it was dark outside and I was fairly jet-lagged.  As a result I was too tired and disoriented to pay much attention to minor details like the time of day.  My arrival in Taiwan didn't feel particularly auspicious.  It was dark.  It was raining.  We couldn't see much out the windows of the van during the drive from Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport to Taichung.  We got to the home of the mission president and there was banana bread and milk in the kitchen waiting for us, and then it was off to bed.

We woke up the next morning and some of the Elders from the office took our whole group about a half block down the street for breakfast.  And I fell in love.  Literally.  Before we even reached the street vendor that sold us our breakfast, I was in love.  It was as though I had just found the home I'd been looking for my whole life.

Because I don't have very clear memories of that day, I can't explain why it is that Taiwan caught me so completely from that very first day.  It might have been all the scooters parked haphazardly on the sidewalks, or the strange mix of upscale stores and random street-side food vendors.  I'm pretty sure it was not the humidity or the smells, neither of which I ever really grew to love.  But something about the place grabbed my heart and it's never really let go.  

As I've thought through my idea for this blog over the past few months, I've asked myself, "Why?" a number of times.  Why do this thing?  What meaning can it possibly bring to my life or to the lives of others?  At their root, I think maybe the reasons I have for wanting to do this go back to the feelings I had that first day in Taichung.  It's been almost 10 years since I woke up on the other side of the world feeling like I had come home.  Over those 10 years I've grown mostly away from Taiwan - mentally, physically, and emotionally.  But I've never found myself at home again.  So I'm 31.  And I'm single.  And I still haven't found a career that calls to both my heart and my mind.  I'm still searching for so many things.  And yet I can't help but wonder if everything I've been looking for isn't maybe waiting for me, back on the other side of the world, back where I always felt at home.

If life was uncomplicated and I had no obligations making me feel somewhat tied down, I might have already packed my bags and booked a ticket.  But life is complicated.  And I do have obligations, as well as family and friends and many other good things in my life besides memories of a far-distant land.  So this blog is basically my effort to reconnect with some of the things I love and miss about Taiwan, while also allowing me to explore more fully something I come to feel more and more passionate about - food!  I hope you too will find something to enjoy here, something that might in some small way, enrich your life the way my experiences in Taiwan enriched mine.