Sunday, 25 November 2012

Taking Tea in Kaohsiung

When I was growing up I somehow missed that transitional period when you go from drinking orange cordial to drinking tea or coffee, and I became instead a kind of glass-of-water-when-thirsty person. This fact has never had much of an impact on my life except for the rare occasion I've felt that sharing a social drink, even a non-alcoholic one, would have made an meeting more convivial. But you cannot come to Taiwan and not drink tea.

When I last wrote about dining in Taipei I mentioned that we'd eaten at a tea-themed restaurant in Maokong. Well I could have extrapolated from that, for Taiwan is a tea-themed country. On first arriving over a year ago, I was still unused to the taste of tea, and I would search carefully through the drinks section in 7-11s to find something that didn't have tea in it. I'd think I was buying a bottle of lemon drink, only to find I'd bought lemon tea. My son would try to buy chocolate milk, and find he'd bought chocolate milk tea.

An extremely popular drink which originated in Taiwan is bubble tea. It is a sweet, milky tea with large balls of tapioca. You need an especially wide straw to suck up the black, chewy balls. Friends tell me it's delicious, but I'm ashamed to say haven't gathered the courage to try it yet.

The main tea types are black, green and oolong. Interestingly, what the West calls black tea is actually called red tea in Mandarin. They're named according to the degree of fermentation. My very basic understanding is that black tea is fully fermented, green tea is unfermented and oolong tea is about 20% fermented. Taiwan is most famous for oolong tea. After reading a lot about green tea I started drinking it for its health benefits and I was slowly becoming accustomed to the taste.

So, what does all of this have to do with our trip to Kaohsiung? The answer is that my good friend who lives there is a qualified tea artist and I was extremely privileged to have an introduction to tea from an expert. Here she is with her equipment, ready to serve me delicious beverages.

We started with oolong tea, which was a first for me. Of course, any tea brewed by an expert was bound to be good, but I was surprised by how delicious it was, so sweet and smooth that there was absolutely no need for milk or sugar.

Next we had Pu-erh tea. Pu-erh tea is very special. It would be presumptuous of me in my ignorance to go into detail about this tea, but I do know that it originated in Yunnan province in China, and that is where most of it is still produced today. It is fermented after drying, and a good quality tea continues to age and develop deeper and more complex flavours over the passage of time much in the same way that a fine wine does.

It's sold loose or in cakes or bricks:

Here's some 5 year old Pu-erh tea, which was a delight to drink:
I was finally treated to some 44 year old Pu-erh tea, which was so wonderful I forgot to take a photo of it, but here's an image of an aged Pu-erh tea borrowed from Wikipedia:
You can see that the tea is darker. My friends explained how you can tell the authenticity of the tea by the green tinge around the edge of it. The flavour was richer and earthier than the younger tea. Both of them were absolutely delicious and I think that, like my friends, I may develop an addiction.

As well as the taste of tea growing on me, I was fascinated to discover that not all tea is grown on little bushes. This is a 1200 year old tea tree.
But tea is not only a drink, it's an ancient culture. It has a  vast history, influence and significance throughout the world which will no doubt continue down the ages. Why? I believe one reason is that the act of sitting down with friends and sharing this subtle, rich beverage encourages us to talk to each other, tell our stories, enrich our friendships, learn from and support one another. In short, to develop those aspects of ourselves that make us human.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Kaohsiung Lotus Lake

Kaohsiung is what Taipei would probably be like if you took away the mountains, dried out the climate and slowed down the pace of life. It even has its own very tall building, the Tuntex Sky Tower, which is 85 floors high. We could only manage two days there, and this wasn't enough to do justice to this warm-hearted, laid back city, but I'll do my best to give a flavour of it. This post covers just the first few hours of our visit.

Luckily I have two good friends living in Kaohsiung. They were attentive hosts and showed us around on our first day. First, we had to attend to the essentials of life, and if you know Taiwanese people you'll know that I'm talking about food. Fresh off the high speed rail train, our first stop was a delicious lunch consisting of dumplings, beef noodles, spring onion pancake, millet porridge and some side dishes.

Unusually, I managed to stop eating long enough to take a photo:

With full stomachs we went on to the famous, wide, manmade Lotus Lake, which is within the city. It's highly scenic, and we spent a good couple of hours here. The lotus after which the lake is named were still flower,  there were many temples to visit, wild birds and turtles to view, fish to feed, an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of all bad luck and pray for better health.

My friends, who kindly showed us round.

Enter the Dragon

One way to rid yourself of bad luck was to go in through this dragon's mouth, walk through the long tunnel of its body and exit its, er, nether regions.

The second bad-luck-cleansing-process involved entering a dragon's mouth and coming out through a tiger's, which felt a little more sanitary.

If you look closely you may be able to spot the person who thought it would be good fun to run up and down the steps of both pagodas.

Another spiritual experience occurred in this Taoist temple to the god of medicine.

Such a gorgeously decorated interior

My son decided he was going to pray to the god of medicine. Here, he's completing the first step, which consists of throwing two crescent-shaped blocks to the floor. The god tells you whether he'll answer your question according to how the blocks fall. Next you have to shuffle some sticks and choose one. The number on the stick sends you to a specific drawer. In each draw the recipe to achieve your goal is written.

My son asked for better memory and more speed in sports, which were granted. The third prayer (which he refused to divulge!) went unanswered.

Hitchhiker or stowaway?

Turtles had their own pond at the lake, and seemed very content there in the green waters.

Herons had their pick of the fish teeming in the lake waters.

I could have stayed and photographed lotus flowers all day, but there was a lot more to our trip than this. More in my next post.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Dining in Taipei

Kitchens in most Taipei apartments are tiny, and apartments with a kitchen where more than two people can move at the same time are advertised as having a 'Western' kitchen, or, in other words, a kitchen for people who eat at home.

One reason for this is the fact that most adults, men and women, work and so have little time for cooking. This is true even for families with children. Another reason is that it's very easy, and often very cheap, to eat out. There are enough restaurants in Taipei to visit a different one each day of the week for a year, at the very least. Probably a lot more than that. Not only are there many, many restaurants, there are also numerous street food vendors, and, with the inevitable odd exception, their fare is tasty and safe.

Our own cooking and eating habits have changed considerably over the last year. I have, basically, become the laziest cook in the world. Each day my husband asks what plans I have for dinner. Each day I have no respectable answer. I feel the influence of all those other Taipei-dwelling wives too strongly. I can't overcome the inertia. I have embraced the group-thinking wholeheartedly and now my brain only admits the possibility of eating out. It rephrases my husband's question into 'where shall we eat?'.

I have many answers to this question. Will it be a special treat, such as the Tequila Sunrise where we ate last night, with their delicious crushed ice margaritas? Or the California Pizza Kitchen near Taipei 101, where the salads are fantastic? Or perhaps we'll just pop over the river to the Ponderosa near Taipei zoo, so we can choose from the large buffet on offer?

Now that winter's on its way, we'll probably be eating more hotpots, which are a kind of make-it-up-as-you-go-along chunky shop with a base of your own choosing. There's one we go to in Da'an, just a few stops down the MRT from us, which has an entirely lemon-themed menu. Also in Da'an, we sometimes visit a lovely authentic Thai restaurant. Or a burger joint a little further down the line.

These examples I'm giving are just the tip of the iceberg. There are also of course numerous traditional Taiwanese restaurants too, where more local dishes such as three cup chicken or green pepper beef are on offer. Also, each area has its own specialities. The Maokong area, famous for growing tea, has tea-themed restaurants. When I visited the area with number 2 son in the summer, we had tea noodles

and tea, erm, something else

Proper Taiwanese restaurants are a little trickier for us as they often don't have an English menu so I have to limit our ordering to what I can roughly understand.

We have had one or two disasters due to being overly-confident in this area. The most recent one was when I ordered a dish where I recognised the characters for 'fish' and 'slice'. What I thought we would get was.....well, to be honest I probably didn't think that far ahead. What we got was very thick slices of sashimi, which is one of the few things that I really can't stomach.

But, generally, the experience of dining in Taipei is fantastic and only bound to get better as I'm able to read more Chinese. Mmmmm, I really hope my son's Chinese textbook has a story all about dining out in Taipei.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Taiwanese Taekwondo

Taekwondo originates from Korea, but is very popular in Taiwan. It's one of the few sports in which Taiwan competes at Olympic level, as demonstrated at this year's Olympics in London, when Tseng Li-cheng won a bronze in the women's under 57kg event.

Learning a martial art was one of my son's few enthusiasms about coming to live in Taiwan, so I thought it would be best to enrol him at a centre soon after we settled in. The closest centre to our original apartment in Wanlong was luckily run by a patient and kind man who also spoke some English.

One of the best ways to learn another language is to use it in a meaningful way, and my son soon learned to count in Chinese and understand many of the commands, and while there isn't much time for idle chatter during training sessions, the children accepted him as one of their own and made him feel welcome.

Since then, Taekwondo has been a steady constant in our lives. Despite moving away from the area, I take my son back there for sessions twice a week Although he complains sometimes and says as soon as he reaches black belt he's leaving (thankfully that's quite some time away) he's actually very emotionally invested in it.

Last Saturday there was a grading session and I turned up to witness the award ceremony. When it was time for my son's level to receive their new belts, he wasn't called. He was distraught. I could see his head fall into his hands, and the teachers were patting him on his shoulders, in consolation I thought.

But it turned out that he'd been the best performer in his category. He was called with the other winners to receive his special belt.

Two interesting experiences have coincided with Taekwondo, once when we got caught in a thunderstorm, and once when I made the fatal mistake of picking up a lost mobile phone. I'm still waiting for the third to make the set, but I don't leave the house with only my keys anymore.