Mon., Sept. 12th: Family, zoo, more family.
Went to visit B’s aunt and uncle. They live right upstairs from his dad. None of them spoke English, so B and I mostly watched tv while his dad chatted with the family in Taiwanese -mostly about how B’s dad should buy a bigger tv. Slightly awkward, but all-in-all, relatively painless.
Afterward, went in search of a Western-style restaurant called Grandma Nitti’s. It was the only Western-style restaurant that we planned to eat at – it is somewhat well-known in the University district, and B thought I would appreciate the artsy ambience and excellent menu.
Couldn’t find it. Grumbling about our luck with finding restaurants, we fumbled our way through a menu at a more traditional Taiwanese place. Accidentally ordered two different kinds of pickled seaweed before we figured out how to order the potsticker dumplings that we really wanted. The beef noodle soup was excellent, and I got to try Grass Jelly Juice! This semi-sweet drink is fairly common in Asia, though you probably won’t hear much about it in the U.S. It looks like watered-down coffee, and it tastes like a distant cousin of root beer – light and slightly sweet and refreshing.
After lunch, we were off to the zoo! I have mixed feelings about zoos in general, but I wanted to see some Taiwanese wildlife.
Paid for the zoo by swiping my EasyCard! Love my EasyCard! 🙂 It’s like the NYC metrocard, but sturdier, like a credit card, and you just tap it against the toll-gate, instead of swiping. There are quite a few tourist attractions that will accept payment from it.
Only had an hour or two, so we stuck mostly to the Formosan (Taiwanese) section, figuring that those animals are less likely to appear in a Western zoo. Saw a praying mantis capture a butterfly, a monkey start a fight, and a panda take a dump. Very exciting. Have video footage, see below.
After the zoo we headed to dinner with B’s English-speaking cousin and her family. They were AWESOME! Very fun, laid-back family. They took us out for shabu-shabu, Taiwanese style.
This was my first exposure to shabu-shabu. It is based in Japanese cuisine, and is sort of like make-your-own-soup (or make-your-own-hot-pot). The restaurant we went to had individual-sized pots recessed into the table, each with its own burner dial underneath. The waitress pours in broth (in the most traditional style, I guess you just get plain water, but Taiwanese style starts with broth), and hands you a plate piled high with cabbage, mushrooms, fish cakes, fish balls, sweet potato, pumpkin, bok choy, and other flavor-starters. You turn your burner dial to its hottest setting, and when the broth boils, you start dumping in all your yummy bits and pieces.
Meanwhile, you order meat and/or seafood to add to the soup. The meat (I had lamb) comes in thin-sliced medallions which cook almost immediately in the boiling broth. The idea is to dip it in your broth, either with your chop sticks or with the wire ladle they give you, hold it under for a few seconds until it’s cooked, and then pull it out, dab it in a dipping sauce (ours was garlic-and-chives in something soy-based), and eat it immediately. You also eventually pull out the flavor bits as they cook and eat whichever ones you like. Every once in a while, the waitress stops by to see if anyone needs more broth added (it keeps boiling away), and at the end of the meal, you add noodles and finish off the whole pot (if you’re not already too full!).
For dessert, we went traditional – Grass Jelly! The gelatin form has almost exactly the same taste as the juice, it just slides around in your mouth differently. B said that a lot of Westerners have mixed feelings about the gelatin texture (it is very slightly like eating Jell-O eels), and the appearance (I was distantly reminded of that moment in Galaxy Quest when a Thermian asks Dr. Lazarus how he’s enjoying his “Kep-mok blood ticks”), but I found it to be quite delicious.
After dinner, we strolled around the block to meet B’s grandma, who was the sweetest, cutest thing! She gave me a huge hug and smile, and a red envelope! (If you’re Asian, you know what that means 😉 We had a fun trilingual conversation, with grandma speaking Taiwanese, B and I speaking English, cousin translating back and forth, and a brief and entertaining discussion of the little Mandarin that I’ve learned.
On the way home, because this was the official day of observance for the Autumn Moon Festival, there were many people barbequing on mini-grills on the sidewalks. There was also a lot of commentary about how this is a new and fake tradition – people, especially B’s acquaintances, seem to have strong opinions about the altering of the holiday, which was previously celebrated simply by going outside, looking at the moon, and eating “moon cakes.”
I did try a moon cake – sweet, dense, and amazingly delicious, like everything else.