Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Shilin Night Market (士林夜市): Taipei, Taiwan

Date:  mardi 1 mai 2012
Location:  Shilin Ye Shi (Shilin Night Market) - the taxi driver will know!

I always make a stop through the famous Shilin Night Market whenever I visit Taipei.  No Taiwan trip would be culturally replete without it.  Upon visiting last night, my friend and I were pondering if there was any other place like Shilin in the world.  We couldn't conjure anything up. 

The night market is exactly as it sounds - a kitchy bazaar comprised of over 500+ small food stalls exhibiting traditional Taiwenese street foods and many more small shops selling all kinds of inexpensive crooks and curios from clothing items, to kitchen items, to beauty items, to electric fly swatters in the shape of tennis rackets with zapping metal strings (my personal favorite!).  Hours are daily 4pm-2am, catering to the first wave of students out of school, and then into the evening and late night for wanderers looking to laze some time away in search of a good bargain.  Always be sure to bargain! 

I guess the best way to relate the experience of walking through the night market is to describe the feeling and smells one will definitely encounter.  First of all, it's extremely humid.  Taiwan is a tropical island, and Taipei is a city on this island, surrounded by valley mountains.  Steamy hot!  Secondly, traditional Taiwanese street foods consist of many small plate items.  Oyster omelettes, oyster noodles, shaved ice with fruit, grass jelly, red bean, green bean, and condensed milk toppings. 

Most popular Taiwan street foods are the deep-fried or pan-fried items.  Imagine the oil particles wafting through the air and onto your skin mixed in with the steam of the night.  Just lovely.  Fried chicken, fried beef meat balls, fried fish balls, fried intestines, and one of my must tries - the infamous deep-fried fermented (preserved) tofu. 

You can smell the unmistakable sour, stench of the "stinky tofu" from many feet away.  It lures you via a game of "follow your nose" to the little fried fermented tofu food stall that is bustling around the large wok of boiling oil.  As rancid as this may sound (or smell), this is a traditional Taiwanese snack that must be experienced!  On the contrary it actually tastes quite good as opposed to its rank, foul odor.  The texture is a chewy, fried puff of tofu skin with a sparse bit of doughy, custard-like tofu inside, with hints of seared garlic oil.  Usually it is served with a side of pickled cabbage and drizzled with black vinegar.  You can add chili sauce on the side too as we usually do.         

Yumm!  Fermented Stinky Fried Tofu!  Locals love this dish every now and then.

View of the Stinky Tofu food stall from the side, where we sat and enjoyed our stinky little bite sized goodies.  

So, imagine yourself wading through the night market street stalls smelling of fried foods, oil in the air, feeling the natural Taiwan sticky steam on your face and skin, seeing the many random knick knacks the small shops are selling, and hearing the shop keepers sometimes advertising the sale of their goods through a megaphone, as if at an auction.  It is a bustling and thrilling experience indeed, and all of your sense will be tantalized.  This is a unique experience to Taipei and I love it!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge: SFO International

Date:  mercredi 25 avril 2012
Location:  Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge at SFO International Airport

Asian hospitality is always taken to the next level.  Probably Americans, Europeans, and Middle Easterns could stand to learn a lot from the kind of courtesy that is demanded by businessmen in certain Asian environments and even in everday living.   

This kind of courtesy rooted in steep cultural tradition emanates from centuries of history, tradition, values, and wisdom.  Chinese and Japanese cultures especially, in ancient times, held high respect to others in all aspects of life.  Hence the selflessness and random acts of kindness in everyday living.  In general, the family unit in Asian cultures is very strong, so you'll easily see the traditional respects of courtesy passed down to today's Chinese and Japanese individuals.   

My professional work has me traveling 100% of the time around the globe for better or for worse.  The better part is that I experience many cultures, foods, and places that most individuals would never even fathom.  The worser part is - sometimes I must endure cultures and environments that are less than hospitable.  Those kinds of harsher environments don't make sense to me, and blaming the fault on a "young" nation just isn't good enough of an explanation for me either - because taking Taiwan as a positive example, it is a country that is only about 60 years old too.     

Therefore, it is important for me to spend time back in Asia yearly and reconnect with my roots.  To feel the energy and vibrancy of my steep traditional culture and values juxtaposed amongst the hustle and bustle of truly fast paced modern society pushing the envelope in technology, electronics, and mobile standards.  Sorry New York City, Hong Kong is on steroids compared to you and a whole lot more efficient too.  Finally - I return to Asia yearly to eat authentic Asian cuisine which offers the most exotic and finest delicacies in the world.  I know I'm right when I judge certain tastes, because frankly, I come from a global palate. 

Long story short - Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge in SFO International Airport held me by quite a nice surprise last week.  Upon entering, I was greeted warmly, hospitably, and efficiently.  No detail was left behind, as I was given the complimentary WiFi password and then courteously welcomed to the breakfast lounge.  Complimentary breakfast was served - a minimal standard - but low and behold what really pleased me was the made-upon-ordered traditional breakfast items.  Won Ton Noodle Soup, Dan Dan Noodles, and/or Shrimp Fried Rice.  Yes, I went for a second helping of the Won Ton Noodle Soup.  Better than any place in Chinatown San Francisco, perhaps better than I'd had in numerous places in Hong Kong too.  the broth was so tasty, savory, yet clean and light in texture.  The wontons were handwrapped and delicate and juicy.  The egg noodles were just right, and the few stems of bok choy lettuces were a healthy delight.  The kitchen was small but tidy, and very clean.  Each little dish came out freshly prepared and your remote beeper would flash as soon as your individual order was read.  Of course, efficency at its best, one of what Hong Kong culture does best! 

Great job Cathay Pacific for making me feel at home with your hospitality - and by offering me such a simple dish that was so perfectly created, so deliciously appreciated by my hungry soul, that I immediately connected back with my Chinese roots.  The perfect way to embark on my San Francisco to Hong Kong 14 hour non-stop flight.