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Ethnic Eating 101: Chinese, Part 6

Despite the fact that we could go on for years about the variations and nuances of Chinese cuisine, we are going to close this week with a visit to Taiwan, because after Cantonese, the single most available regional cuisine in the Southland is Taiwanese, due in part to the great number of Taiwanese who have come to these shores.

taipei.jpg
fish_at_taipei @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
You've probably been to a Taiwanese food shop and never realized it; most of the chain Chinese supermarkets are Taiwanese-owned. 99 Ranch and Thuan Phat (which is Vietnamese for Shun Fat) are both Taiwanese markets. Restaurants are fewer in number, and pretty much all in Irvine. If you go, though, here is the down-low:

Dishes

oysteromelette.jpg
rayyu @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
蚵仔煎 (ke zai jian) is a chewy omelet made with oysters and herbs, like a cross between Thai green mussel omelet and Japanese okonomiyaki. Also using Taiwan's glut of oysters is the noodle dish ke zai mian xian (蚵仔麵線), thin rice vermicelli in soup with oysters.

Beef noodle soup (牛肉麵, niu rou mian), which we've discussed, is the single biggest selling noodle dish on the island. Made with chewy noodles, thick chunks of lean beef, and a small hit of pickled vegetables, this is a hearty meal for a cold day.

Three cups chicken (三杯雞, san bei ji) is so-called because it traditionally contains a cup of soy sauce, a cup of rice wine and a cup of sesame oil; while this isn't originally a Taiwanese dish, every single Taiwanese restaurant sells it; you might say it's been expropriated from Jiangxi province.

Snacks

The Taiwanese street food scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. Hawkers all over the island sell small portions of snacks. Sadly, we do not have any Taiwanese night markets in either Orange County or Los Angeles. Taiwanese snacks are sold from snack shops littered hither and yon, and the more popular ones can be found on the menus of other regional Chinese restaurants. If you see the characters 台湾小吃 (tai wan xiao chi, literally "Taiwanese small eats"), you know you are in a snack shop.

choudoufu.jpg
fboyd @ flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0
Stink lines are optional; it tastes good, though.
Squid and fish balls grilled on sticks are hard to find (though you can find it just outside of the Hong Kong market on Colima Rd. near Fullerton Rd. in Rowland Heights), but scallion pancakes (蔥油餅, cong you bing) are common.

Bite-size pieces of fried chicken, particularly dusted with curry powder and salt, are very common, as are thick sliced of toast with various spreads (usually called "brick toast"). You may also find rice with sweet, cured Taiwanese sausage (la chang, 臘腸).

chayedan.jpg
puzzlemepuzzle @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The single biggest night-market dish to overcome as an outsider is 臭豆腐 (chou dou fu), the legendarily pungent "stinky" tofu. This is exactly what it sounds like: an unbelievably offensive-smelling (but surprisingly good-tasting) tofu that has been allowed to ferment fully. It's eaten with an heroic amount of sauce, usually chile sauce, but occasionally hoisin sauce.

My favorite snack, however, is tea eggs (cha ye dan, 茶葉蛋). These are hard-boiled chicken eggs which have been cracked (but not peeled), re-boiled and steeped in a mixture made of black tea, various spices (five spice or star anise are especially common) and salt. The egg, when peeled, is a beautiful mottled brown and the flavor is deep, spicy and goes perfectly with a cold beer.

Bubble tea

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sifu_renka @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Originally designed as an after-school snack for children, zhen zhu nai cha (珍珠奶茶) became all the rage about ten years ago. While it is not the cupcake-like fad it used to be, there are still bubble tea shops all over the place. The "bubbles" (also called boba, which is slang for "large breasts") are sweetened tapioca put in the bottom of a cup of milk tea. You drink the tea with an extra-wide straw and try not to choke on the tapioca.

What started with tapioca balls has grown to include other Taiwanese sweets; you can get coconut in your milk tea, or grass (really herbal) jelly. If you get your drink as half tea, half coffee, you are drinking a very popular Hong Kong drink called 鸳鸯 (yuan yang, which means "lovebirds").

Shaved ice

baobing.jpg
cblee @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Taiwan has a very hot climate, and thus it's probably no surprise that the Taiwanese love cold, icy things. One of those things is called bao bing (刨冰); it's shaved ice with your choice of several toppings, from soft peanuts to cubed mango, from almond gelatin to sweetened red azuki beans. Condensed milk or syrup is normally drizzled over the pile of ice; the better versions also have small, translucent tapioca balls drizzled over the top.

Where to get it

If you're looking for small eats, try Hsin Hsin Shau May Deli (5394 Walnut, Irvine). For more dishes, try A&J (14805 Jeffrey, Irvine) or Chef Chen (5408 Walnut, Irvine), particularly for the three cups chicken. For a road trip, drive to Phoenix Food Boutique (18166 Colima, Rowland Heights) and order the mixed fruit shaved ice and iced coffee milk tea.

Location Info

99 Ranch Market

15333 Culver Drive, Irvine, CA

Category: Restaurant

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