Christmas Hot Pot

民國102年01月29日、星期二 Tuesday, 01/29/2013

In the past few weeks, I have grown quite happy and comfortable in Taipei. Every day there’s always great food to eat, good friends to talk to, and new places to see, not to mention, new things to learn. Even though we didn’t start our winter holidays in Taiwan until the middle of January, I was still able to celebrate Christmas and New Years with friends, although much differently than in the States.

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Nothing like starting the new year than with fireworks. Above are pictures of the Taipei 101 (台北101 táiběi yīlíngyī) 2013 new years fireworks show (跨年煙火 kuānián yānhuǒ).
Nothing like starting the new year than with fireworks. Above are pictures of the Taipei 101 (台北101 táiběi yīlíngyī) 2013 new years fireworks show (跨年煙火 kuānián yānhuǒ).

This time, Christmas came faster than ever. In fact, I didn’t fully realize what day it was until Christmas eve. In Taiwan, the Christmas season is not as ubiquitous as in the United States. There are the occasional nativity scenes and some American chain stores like Starbucks will switch to Christmas music; however, there is little change for the season over all. Like China, Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival (春節 chūnjié), and the weeks following together represent one of the most important festive seasons in Taiwan. Christmas, on the other hand, is only celebrated by a few, mostly young people, and is not recognized by the government as an official holiday. So, in other words, we had class as usual on Christmas day.

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Another difference is the weather... to the left is UW-Madison (Madison) and to the right is NTU (Taipei) in December.
Another difference is the weather… to the left is UW-Madison (Madison) and to the right is NTU (Taipei) in December.

On Christmas Eve when everyone in America ought to be celebrating the coming of christmas, I needed to pull an all nighter. (On a side note, “burning the midnight oil” or “pulling an all nighter” in Chinese is 熬夜 áoyè) It was not until that night that I realized that the next day was Christmas. At first, I felt sorry for myself, wishing I could have spent Christmas Eve with my family instead of being abroad preparing for an oral and written report due on Christmas day. However, at the same time I recognized the importance of all the unique learning opportunities I have been granted thus far abroad. I believe that every student considering studying abroad for an extended period of time should consider that, although one may be far from home and loose much time which could be shared with friends and family, the opportunities and experiences of studying abroad, especially when related to an area in which you have invested much time and study, are well worth while. Despite missing family and friends, I do not regret studying abroad and highly recommend it.

Late that night, a few friends invited me to go with them to eat hot pot as a sort of Christmas dinner. Even though I still hadn’t finished my reports yet that that time, going along with them was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. The invitation was slightly out of the blue and was definitely pleasant to hear.

For those whom it may concern, hot pot (火鍋 huǒguō) is a type of traditional dish of Chinese cuisine with a centuries old history. Similar to fondue but savory, hot pot starts with a pot of hot, simmering stock filled with various flavorful oils and sometimes ingredients of traditional Chinese medicine (中藥 zhōngyào) that is situated at the center of the dining table. The most well-known sort of hot pot is a kind of hot, spicy, and numbing Szechuanese hot pot called 麻辣火鍋 (málà huǒguō), although many varieties are found throughout all of east Asia. While the hot pot is simmering, various ingredients are placed directly into the pot and are cooked at the table. Typically, ingredients including various meat, seafood, mushrooms, vegetables, dumplings, and noodles.

One of the remarkable features of hot pot is the seer variety of ingredients available; as for mushrooms alone, there is at least a handful of varieties available at every hot pot place. Some common varieties are button mushrooms (小蘑菇 xiǎo mógu), shiitake (香菇 xiānggū), enoki or needle mushrooms (金針菇 jīnzhēngū) and king trumpet mushrooms (杏飽菇 xìngbǎogū). In addition to the hot pot itself, each person eating can prepare his or her own dipping sauce. There are many ingredients available including sesame seeds, crushed garlic, fresh cilantro, sliced chili peppers, sesame oil, bean paste, vinegar, savory peanut butter, and even raw egg, which is used as a sort of binding agent.

In Taiwan, often hot pot places are fancy all-you-can-eat establishments with some sort of theme. Often the selection of food and drinks depends on the price. The higher the price, often the more extras available. On Christmas eve, we went to a mid-range hot pot place, but drink selection alone was amazing. They had iced and hot tea, milk tea, cappuccinos and lattes, iced soft drinks, and the list goes on. The place we went to had a Japanese shabu shabu theme.

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Above is pictures from our Christmas Eve hot pot. To the left is a close up on the hot pots themselves and the dipping sauce I prepared, and to the right is a picture of us after an hour or so of eating...feeling pretty full but happy.
Above is pictures from our Christmas Eve hot pot. To the left is a close up on the hot pots themselves and the dipping sauce I prepared, and to the right is a picture of us after an hour or so of eating…feeling pretty full but happy.

Christmas Eve turned out to be not so bad after all. Although I missed home, I was able to find my own sort of Christmas in the company of some of my best friends and the food we shared. In the end, I did indeed finish my two reports, though not until very, very late at night. Both reports proved successful the next morning. Every day, life in Taipei has been a mixture of hard studying and good fun and eating with friends. Despite not being able to spend Christmas with my family and friends back home, going to hot pot on Christmas Eve with my friends in Taipei was definitely memorable.

One of my Taiwanese friends said that when his friends from abroad leave Taiwan, hot pot is consistently one of their most missed foods. I can definitely understand why. In many ways, Taipei truly is a foodie’s heaven. Taipei is a place where good food and convenience meet, and where places to eat outnumber grocery stores and supermarkets. As a big food person myself, I will definitely miss Taipei’s delicious treats when I return to America, and will definitely see Madison in a new light, scouring for delicious morsels as I have done here in Taipei.

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I recently hiked on a scenic path near Taipei called the "elephant mountain" scenic trail (象山步道 xiàngshān bùdǎo). These are pictures from that day.
I recently hiked on a scenic path near Taipei called the “elephant mountain” scenic trail (象山步道 xiàngshān bùdǎo). These are pictures from that day.

Of foods and restaurants I love in Taipei, one of my favorites is a little dumpling house (餃子館 jiǎozǐguǎn) in Taipei. They have hand-made dumplings that have surprised me every time with their great flavor and texture at an unbeatable price. Before I lose myself in the explanation of why I love this dumpling house so much, perhaps I should first introduce what exactly is a dumpling.

Most Americans probably have eaten Chinese dumplings before. Dumplings are bascially small cooked balls of dough filled with a variety of ingredients. Chinese dumplings, or in Chinese 餃子 jiǎozǐ, are characterized by a thin and elastic dough and their fillings usually consist of minced meat or seafood and finely sliced vegetables. One common combination is minced pork and spring onion, or scallion, but the options are endless. In America, the Chinese dumplings I have eaten are all too often too salty, more or less flavorless, and slightly soggy. However, good hand-made dumplings have a chewy yet tender skin and a fragrant, juicy filling. The textures of the filling and the skin should be separate and more or less contrastive.

At most dumpling houses, one can order steamed (蒸餃 zhēngjiǎo), boiled (水餃 shuǐjiǎo), or pan-fried dumplings (煎餃 jiānjiǎo). Steamed dumplings are usually ordered by the bamboo rack in which they are used to be steam (籠 lóng), each usually including a half a dozen to a dozen dumplings. In Taipei, there are many hole-in-the-wall restaurants found in alleys or other tight little places. My favorite dumpling house is one of these kind of places. The dumplings are fairly priced, as are many other Chinese classics on their menu including hot and sour noodles (酸辣麵 suānlà miàn) and wonton soup (餛飩湯 húndùn tāng). One dozen dumplings there costs about two US dollars. From my first visit, the staff remembered me by name. They are extremely warm and polite. Taipei has many places just like this dumpling house. This is one of the reasons I love living in Taipei.

Above is food from my favorite dumpling house, named 福大蒸餃館 (fúdà zhēngjiǎo guǎn). To the left is one bamboo rack of steamed dumplings (蒸餃 zhēngjiǎo) and a side dish of fresh, sliced chili peppers with dried sardines (辣椒小魚乾 làjiāo xiǎo yúgān). To the right is bowl of hot and sour noodles (酸辣麵 suānlà miàn).
Above is food from my favorite dumpling house, named 福大蒸餃館 (fúdà zhēngjiǎo guǎn). To the left is one bamboo rack of steamed dumplings (蒸餃 zhēngjiǎo) and a side dish of fresh, sliced chili peppers with dried sardines (辣椒小魚乾 làjiāo xiǎo yúgān). To the right is bowl of hot and sour noodles (酸辣麵 suānlà miàn).

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On a related note to dumplings, here’s a great song for those who are learning or interested in learning Chinese. The name of the song is 對不起我的中文不好 (duìbùqǐ wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo), which translates to “Sorry, My Chinese is bad.” The music video can be easily accessed on youtube. In the song, the singer wants to order 水餃 (shuǐjiǎo) “boiled dumplings” but he accidentally mispronoucing dumpling, saying 睡覺 (shuìjiào) “to sleep.” I think this song is quite funny and can be a great tool for learning Chinese.

On a final note, I went to the famous “Modern Toilet” restaurant in Taipei; the restaurant whose primary theme is everything related to toilets, the bathroom, and pooh. The restaurant’s name in Chinese is 便所主題餐廳 (biànsuǒ zhǔtí cāntīng). The food wasn’t the best I ever had, but going to such an interesting restaurant and spending time with friends was definitely worth while. Taiwan has so many fun and interesting surprises like Modern Toilet. Every day there’s something new in Taiwan.

Now I have "eating out of a toilet" off my bucket list...although it never was quite on it. Definitely a unique experience.
Now I have “eating out of a toilet” off my bucket list…although it never was quite on it. Definitely a unique experience.

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Thank you for reading my blog and please leave comments. I’d love to hear what you think. I hope to share more about my adventures in Taiwan soon.