Grass Jelly is a dessert which many of us enjoyed since our childhood days. The Cantonese folks call it 凉粉 “leung fun“, while it is 草粿 “cao kueh” for the Teochews and 草粄 “cao ban” for the Hakkas. Its popularity spreads throughout Taiwan, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia where it can be easily cultivated as well, to Vietnam, Thailand and of course Malaysia and Singapore. It is usually eaten as a cold drink or dessert, especially welcoming when the weather is hot and humid but in Taiwan, it is also enjoyed during the winter months, where a hot version would be available and is no less gratifying. And the way 燒仙草 Hot Grass Jelly is eaten seem to be uniquely Taiwan indeed!
米粉 Rice vermicelli or what is colloquially known as “bee hoon“, is much of a staple like rice in Taiwan. It doesn’t matter if you are a Hokkien or a Hakka, bee hoon is served in every occasion, from daily meals to family gatherings and celebrations. There are many ways of frying bee hoon, with recipes varying not just across dialectal groups but also from family to family. It also very much depends on what is available in the pantry and could be as simple or as elaborated as one can think of. 金瓜櫻花蝦炒米粉 Pumpkin and Sakura Ebi Fried Bee Hoon counts as one of the traditional Taiwanese dishes, a 手路菜 “chew loh cai” which most 台湾媳妇 “taiwan sim boo” Taiwanese housewives would know how to prepare at home, as it is imbued with a deep and profound sense of 古早味 “koh zah bee” and more importantly for many, 妈妈味.
九份 Jiu Fen (or sometimes scripted as “Jiou Fen“) is a small township perched on the hilly terrains of north-eastern Taiwan. Together with 金瓜石 Jin Gua Shi, 十分 Shi Fen, 瑞芳 Rui Fang and 金山 Jin Shan, Jiu Fen was an important gold mining area more than a century ago. But as the yield decreased over time, the mining activity dwindled and eventually came to a halt. The town quieten down and became mostly forgotten for more than a decade, until 《悲情城市》, a movie set in Jiu Fen by renowned Taiwanese director 侯孝贤 Hou Hsiao-Hsien brought to it the curious crowd from Taipei and other parts of the island state. Even then, more than 20 years has since passed and even 《悲情城市》 too has become forgotten. But the movie left behind for Jiu Fen a tourism legacy. Till today, the small town is packed with local visitors and foreign tourists every weekend. Folks flock here for the fresh mountain air, the scenie view of Keelung Fishery Port and of course, a wide selection of local delights which Jiu Fen is well known for, including草仔粿 mugwort glutinous rice cakes from 阿蘭草仔粿, 鳳梨酥 pineapple cakes from 李儀餅店 and of course the infamous 九份芋圓 Jiu Fen Taro Balls.
I have a confession to make. I have an uncanny liking for anything with glutinous rice in it. It can be just plain savory version of steamed glutinous rice topped with shallot crisps and roasted peanuts, or a slightly jazzed up version of my grandma’s wicked “zok bee png“. Otherwise, a bak chang or two comes easily as a meal replacement for me anytime of the day. I also love it in sweet desserts, be it in Kueh Sarlat or the Japanese Sakuramochi a la Kansai Regardless of the form, I just love ‘em all. Despite the high glycemic index glutinous rice purportedly has which can cause all of us to fatten up quickly, nothing really beats the sticky, chewy and a somewhat down-to-earth sensation glutinous rice provides that fills the tummy and the appetite at the same time. Perhaps I’d inherited my tastebuds from my mum, because she loved glutinous rice dishes as well. Or perhaps that is just the old soul in me, that constantly yearns for traditional flavours that many glutinous rice dishes are embodied with.
Like me, many Taiwanese are also particularly fond of dishes using glutinous rice. I’m pretty sure this is a very Asian thingy, or perhaps even a Hokkien thing. Like I’d mentioned previously, many Taiwanese signature dishes originated from Tainan, being the earliest urbanised regions in all Taiwan. 台南米糕 Tainan Glutinous Rice Bowl is one of them. One of my all-time favorites!
Taro is part and parcel of Taiwanese cuisine, as it is made into a wide range of popular dishes. There is the traditional savory snacks like 芋粿，芋粿巧，百草芋羹 and 芋丸 to the sweet 九份芋圆，芋头酥. But one of the simplest yet not-short-of-delicious way of enjoying taro is simply making it into candied taro. This is a really traditional dessert not only in Taiwan, but much of the Min-speaking diaspora. It is used largely as an accompanying condiment in both hot and cold desserts like 牛奶冰 and 烧仙草. But it is otherwise very good to be eaten on its own!
I usually do not blog about anything else here apart from my travels and my food ventures, be it those I’d tried to eat or those I’d tried to cook. However, something in the recent news made me shiver in my bones, as it concerns two countries which I’m very closely related to, i.e Singapore where I am born, bred and call home, and Japan which I’d been to couple of times and increasingly growing fond of and attached to. Singapore will be importing rice from Fukushima, Japan very soon, following a complete lift of import restrictions on Japanese food items to the small island state since the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011. It didn’t occur to me that we are going to be getting rice from Fukushima until recent news dating just two days back in our local newspapers. Should this be of any concern, especially when many Singaporeans like me, are particularly fond of Japanese cuisine?
I remember enjoying my first bowl of 四神汤 Si Shen Soup about 10 years back during my initial trips to Taiwan. It was the period before Chinese New Year and my friends brought us to 寧夏夜市 before visiting 迪化街 for the Chinese New Year bazaar. Just gotten off the plane, we hadn’t eaten dinner so my Taiwanese friends suggested going to 阿桐阿寶四神湯 located near the night market first. Being largely a “herbal soup”, it tasted rather plain and smooth, with a lingering sweetness in the mouth. Void of pungent odours and bitter aftertaste, the flavours of Si Shen Soup defies what I had expected Chinese herbal soups are traditionally like. The soup was a relief, not only against the fattiness of the bak chang and large steamed pork buns we had, it also helped to warm our constitution amidst the cold and rainy weather.