Taiwan

Game of puddings

 

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10 years ago I landed in Taiwan

When I first moved to Taiwan 10 years ago one of the first things I ever tried was egg pudding, courtesy of my Korean roommate. Packaged in a plastic cup, it was silky, smooth and sweet with a dark layer at the bottom (caramel? Not really sure). It was the best thing I had had so far in Taiwan (I had a very big sweet tooth when I was younger).

I was never allowed to be a picky eater, but one thing that helped me take to Taiwanese food with enthusiasm was having people around me that ate it and loved it. One of my first friends in Taiwan was a girl from Chile who had lived in China previously; she was familiar with the style of dishes, so I just followed her lead. I know of a few people who struggled in the first weeks, not knowing what to buy, what to try so they just stuck to McDonald’s or KFC. So in a way, first my Korean roommate and then my Chilean friend opened the doors to food heaven.  Now, had this same roommate not told her classmates (of which one was my Chilean friend) that I was messy (seriously? At least I didn’t leave a banana in the fridge until it was solid black, nor did I tell everybody about it), we might have become friends. As it was, it was downhill after that pudding.

Taiwan’s National Day is quite soon, which made me eager to try a Taiwanese recipe to get this blog back on track. I found a simple recipe on Taiwan Xifu’s blog, which has been a good source of information in the past. The only thing I would change about this recipe is the jelly layer. I don’t have access to Taiwanese dark sugar (黑糖), which gives it a much darker color. I used plain brown sugar, but I wasn’t really happy with the result. Not enough jelly to make a substantial layer and it was quite hard to scrape from the bottom. Maybe I’ll stick with caramel. The custard, once set, was spot on: silky, smooth, sweet enough.

 

Can you handle this?

The custard itself was easy to make, having done creme caramels before. Almost the exact same process, except the Taiwanese ones have gelatine mixed in and are set in the fridge instead of being baked in a bain marie like creme caramels are.

Throwback to my exam creme caramels

Considering how easy creme caramels are to overcook, the Taiwanese alternative is basically foolproof. Also, considering the Taiwanese egg pudding uses only milk and no cream, it’s a slightly healthier alternative for dessert (less rich anyway). I will say, though, that caramel goes better with custard than jelly. Since creme caramels are unmoulded, the caramel “juice” oozes down the sides, making it all come together. Whereas with the Taiwanese egg pudding (at least the ones I made), stay in their pot (so I can take some for work, yay!). Jelly wouldn’t ooze anyway, if unmoulded (or at least it shouldn’t).

I don’t think you ready for this jelly

For me, the clear winner is the Taiwanese egg pudding with a different topping, mostly because it’s a quick and easy fix for a dessert which doesn’t require keeping an eye on the oven. It’s definitely a dessert I can tweak, from using alternative milks to different flavours in the custard to different toppings. This pudding is my oyster.

Angels should be singing in the background
Honduras · Switzerland · Taiwan · the Netherlands · UK

A taste of five pancakes

Before moving to London, I never knew about Pancake Day. Despite growing up in a Catholic household, there never was any change in our diets before, during or after Lent. We’d go to church, maybe eat more seafood during Easter, but never try to consume all the rich foods before Lent. Also, culturally pancakes are foreign to us. We eat both American-style pancakes and crepes but pancakes themselves are not part of a typical Honduran diet.

I love pancakes: blueberry pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, thick pancakes, thin pannekoeken or crepes, you name it. So it was only natural for me to tackle pancakes on such a special day. I’ve been making pancakes with my mum’s recipe for years, though adapted to yield one portion of pancakes. To challenge myself, I tried to make different pancakes for each country I’ve lived in. It was fun to brainstorm though I spent 2 hours making said pancakes.

For reference, this is my mum’s recipe (which she got from my grandmother and who knows where she got it from…basically it’s the Motz family pancake recipe):

1 cup flour

1 cup milk

1 egg

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp butter (which I’ve always omitted, never changed the end results)

1 tbsp sugar (again, optional, especially if adding sweet toppings)

All the ingredients are mixed into a batter. Scoop batter onto pan with the teeniest amount of butter (which has been wiped around the pan with a paper towel), unless you’re doing Dutch style pancakes (pannekoeken) which do need a healthy nob of butter to cook in. A tip to keep them fluffy: don’t press down on the pancakes with a spatula while cooking.

 

Now, here are my five-country variations:

Honduras (family recipe, served just with maple syrup)

These are my mum’s pancakes, which I’ve eaten my whole life. We would usually have them with honey or, my personal favorite, Hershey’s chocolate syrup. However, I ran out of honey and I don’t have Hershey’s syrup either, so maple syrup it is. I actually like the taste of it more than honey’s.

 
Taiwan (pineapple pancakes)

So I tried the pineapple cakes before and I thought I could adapt the recipe into pancakes. I made the pineapple jam and mixed it in with the batter, to which I also added a spoonful of milk powder to evoke more of the pastry flavor. They were tricky to shape into circles, but they tasted nice (very sweet, though).

 
the Netherlands (pannekoeken with brown sugar or hagelslag)

One of the things I miss about the Netherlands and Belgium was their style of pancakes, thin as crepes but laden with goodness. I always had pannekoeken with either cassonade (brown icing sugar) or hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles); savoury pannekoeken I’ve only had here in London at My Old Dutch Pancake House (really tasty, but enormous things!). So that’s how I had my small portion of pannekoeken (I thinned out the batter with milk to get the crepe-like pancake): with brown sugar and lemon, and hagelslag.

 
Switzerland (pancake fondue)

For this one, I cheated a bit. The pancake itself isn’t anything Swiss; I just cut up my mum’s pancakes into bite-size pieces. But I did make a chocolate sauce for dipping as you would with dessert fondue. Definitely more of a snack than a meal!

 
UK (digestive pancakes)

I know ‘digestive pancakes’ sounds hilarious but when you find out that Britain’s favorite biscuit is the digestive biscuit (essentially, a cookie with oats and brown sugar) then it all makes sense. I attempted to recreate the biscuits in pancake form. I ground a couple of tablespoons of oats and added them to the batter, along with a tablespoon of brown sugar (instead of the original tablespoon of sugar). These came out alright, though I would probably add more oatmeal in future batches or just mix ground digestive biscuits into the batter. I spread some of the chocolate sauce on top, just as digestive biscuits sometimes have a layer of chocolate.

Unsurprisingly, I had a lot of pancakes. At least I’ve got breakfast sorted for the rest of the week!

Taiwan

Winter solstice, a time for 軟Q湯圓

During my years in Taiwan I somehow found myself getting involved in all sorts of random things. I joined Dao lessons, karate club, and different student meetups revolving around international friendships. I even participated in a home stay program; I ended up staying at a Taiwanese girl’s house in Taoyuan for a weekend (after I met her once…talk about awkward). While being thrown into all these situations, I got to experience a side of Taiwan that is not immediately perceived by an outsider. I learned some Buddhist stories and Daoist rituals (I even went to a summer camp for young people, involving waking up at dawn for prayers), tried amazing vegetarian food, hot pot, all kinds of street food that locals love (including stinky tofu).  I learned how to make dumplings, including tang yuan for the winter solstice.
I learned how tang yuan are made during my first “winter” (I discovered the true meaning of winter here in Europe) in Taiwan. In a small room somewhere in Fu Jen Catholic University, I joined a group of students to make traditional tang yuan to celebrate the Dong Zhi Festival (winter solstice).  We made lots of dough balls using sticky rice flour and water, which we then boiled in a sweet soup. Visually, they were very appealing: bright pink balls contrasting with the white ones. Inside they were very chewy. The ones we made were plain, but since then I’ve seen tang yuan filled with sesame, peanut or red bean paste. I had them a couple of times in Taiwan, but since that one time I never made them again.

Fast forward to last week when I realized the Winter Solstice Festival would fall just before Christmas. It would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in more Taiwanese food (the pineapple cakes were just not enough). Best of all, that would leave Christmas dinner to be claimed by Honduras with a menu that pretty much planned itself. I take the holidays very seriously.

To celebrate the winter solstice, I spent a total of four hours in the kitchen and by the end I had a ton of food to show for it: the biggest plate of prawn pancakes (月亮蝦餅) you will ever see and a mountain of popcorn chicken(鹽酥雞), washed down with a jug of Thai iced tea (just because). To finish a small serving of tang yuan in a sweet ginger broth. So actually only the tang yuan are traditionally Dong Zhi Festival food, but I had a hankering for some of my favorite discoveries from Taiwan.

For years, I had been searching for crispy prawn pancakes in restaurants, but I never found them outside Taiwan. I was so excited when I accidentally came across this video by Taiwan Cooking showing how to make them. The recipe on the video had a very large yield, so I used half the amount of prawns and guesstimated the amounts for the seasonings. They turned out quite tasty (just a teeny bit too much fish seasoning, a little bit goes a long way) and even though I halved the recipe, I still got about 8 pancakes.

Add to that the popcorn chicken and there’s a food baby on the way. Ever since I discovered Bigbe Chicken in London’s Chinatown, I’ve been wanting to do popcorn chicken myself. It is a hassle reserved for special occasions. Seeing the success I had with the pineapple cakes, I went with another video by Angel Wong’s Kitchen, this time to make popcorn chicken. I chose it because it had a simplified method compared to other videos and the results looked great. I discovered the secret to popcorn chicken lies in the final dusting of white pepper and salt (years I spent wondering what made Taiwanese fried chicken so addictive).
To end this Taiwanese food extravaganza, the tang yuan. Although Taiwan Cooking has a video on tang yuan I actually followed Rasa Malaysia’s recipe, since it had accurate measurements for a set number of portions. I wouldn’t know what to do with all the extra dough, especially since I have a boyfriend who sometimes is a bit skeptical about what I cook.

Making tang yuan is exactly as I remembered: simple dough, boiled in water and served with the steaming, sweet broth. I did follow Taiwan Cooking’s tip on soaking the tang yuan in ice water right after being cooked. They were definitely more Q (Taiwanese expression for chewy).

The best part was eating it all and Boyfriend actually liking it (even the spiced ice tea and he doesn’t like tea). Not to mention the fairy lights and unwanted Christmas tree branches Boyfriend secured to decorate the room, Love Actually playing on TV. He made his own first winter wonderland while watching Colin Firth fumble with Portuguese and Hugh Grant traipsing through Wandsworth, an area we know so well. The eating and drinking, the lights and the movie made it the perfect prelude to Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

Taiwan

Pineapple pen…I mean, cake

img_0352_lznWhen people ask me what I miss about Taiwan, I say many things: the 7-Elevens, the bubble tea shops, all the different kinds of dumplings and buns, the mantou sandwiches that a friend and I would have for lunch but were actually meant for breakfast…you get the idea. I miss the food a lot.  I should note that this is because over the years a lot of the people I met in Taiwan have left the island and not because I’m super obsessed with food.

When you get thrown into a different culture with a completely different view on cuisine (sweet beans, I’m looking at you), it’s very easy to stop yourself from trying new things. In my case, and just like my decision to go to Taiwan, I just didn’t think about it. It also helped that one of my first friends in Taiwan was from a similar cultural background (Chile) and already knew her way around the food. By trying food blindly I discovered my favorite soup of all time, 酸辣湯 (hot and sour soup) when I ordered every item on the menu (not all at once though) of this one shop back when I still couldn’t read Chinese that well.

If you Google Taiwanese food, you get tons of suggestions of stuff and places you should try, tons of videos and lists ranking the best foods, and best of all, you get something for everyone. Sweet, savory, spicy, stinky, non-stinky, hot, cold, you name it.

As far as sweet things go, pineapple cakes are very approachable. Even when I was at my most adventurous, I hardly ever tried red bean flavored stuff. Pineapple though…it was familiar (Honduras actually has its own version of pineapple cakes). Pineapple cakes are extremely popular, as gifts and as treats. There are so many famous shops, each with their own take on these pastries. Article after article claims that it is Taiwan’s most famous souvenir. I can definitely see why. Who wouldn’t appreciate a sweet yet tangy jam encased in golden, crumbly pastry? As much as I like them, though, I can’t really buy them as often as I’d like to. London’s Chinatown covers quite a bit of ground when it comes to all kinds of Asian products; Taiwanese stuff can be found if you look for it.  However, considering how inexpensive they are to make I would rather save my pounds.

The recipe I chose to try was simple and quick, from Angel Wong’s Kitchen. The video tutorial was quite useful to get the pastry right, but that should have been the least of my worries. I spent more time fashioning my own molds out of cardboard and aluminum foil than mixing AND baking the actual cakes. Next time, I’m shaping them by hand.

The filling is pineapple and sugar with a bit of lemon juice, cooked to a jam consistency, which I almost let burn trying to multitask (those molds took time). It was smoking quite a bit, but it looked and tasted just fine.

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Once done, I let the jam filling chill in the fridge while I mixed the pastry in the food processor. A bit like shortcrust pastry, but more forgiving. Must be the extra ingredients, like the egg and milk powder. Unlike shortcrust pastry though, it was quite sticky and needed some gentle kneading.

Shaping the cakes was straightforward, just rolling up small pieces of dough into balls to be flattened and then wrapped around spoonfuls of filling. Rolled up again and into my makeshift molds.

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About halfway through the baking time, the cakes needed to be flipped, revealing a nice golden bottom.

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Once fully baked, I removed them from the molds and, although the shapes were not perfect, they all had that nice golden tone.

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The cakes were tasty and crumbly, fortunately. The final consistency of the filling was a bit too stringy for my liking and the flavor was slightly different to what I remembered, but that’s probably due to using only pineapple. In Taiwan pineapple cakes are sometimes made with winter melon together with pineapple, to keep costs down. The combination makes the filling more like a jam and obviously affects the taste. 

I’m glad that now I know how to make these babies to satisfy any future cravings and remind me of Taiwan. I’ve been meaning to go back ever since I left 4 years ago. Hopefully a trip is in the cards, if only to do some field research.