poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie


Food Assurance (Do you know what you’re really eating?)

Greetings from Taiwan!  The main reason for my visit is to see my family, but a major fringe benefit is the food. (For previous posts/photos, see here.)  So you can imagine my dismay when, upon arriving in Taipei last week, my brother-in-law asked, “Have you heard about all of the food problems?”  I responded that I hadn’t, and he told me first about several Taiwanese companies selling olive oil diluted largely with cottonseed oil.  To make the oil look green, they also added copper chlorophyllin, a controlled coloring agent.  The other major story came out last week, when Business Weekly performed an independent test of Taiwanese milk and reported that an alarming amount of drug, hormonal, and chemical residues were found in a majority of Taiwanese milk.  (However, there have also been subsequent charges of defamation/exaggeration against Business Weekly.)  I was shocked, mostly because while I’ve come to expect food quality issues from Chinese products (e.g., here and here), I’ve always had higher expectations from Taiwanese food.

Although I was surprised about the olive oil and milk, I also didn’t think too much about it since I don’t consume a lot of either while in Taipei.  However, it struck a little closer to home yesterday, as my mom told me about a bunch of other recent scares: tapioca flour (used to make all sorts of food, including boba pearls for bubble tea), contaminated flour and starch, and peanuts have all been questionably or unsafely processed.  For the first time in my life, I’m worried more about consuming safe ingredients as opposed to gastrointestinal bacteria or parasites.  It got me thinking about food assurance, a.k.a., do I really know what I’m eating?  Not only is processed food less healthy for you, but it’s becoming more mysterious (and therefore dangerous) where and how it was processed.  My brother-in-law made a good point in our conversation the other night when he said that food in Taiwan is too inexpensive, and forces/incentivizes companies to cut corners where they can.  On the other hand, the olive oil scandal was rooted in taking advantage of consumers in a different way, by selling fake products at a high price point to convince people of the quality of their products.  Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I feel like this is just a harbinger of things to come — not just in Taiwan, but globally.  As we keep expecting to pay less (or the same) for diminishing food supplies that require more energy to produce and export, the more we will see incidents like these.


Taiwanese Beer Snacks

For our last weekend in Taiwan, my big sister P suggested that we have a sisters-only (plus significant others) outing. This sounded fun enough, but what made it more exciting was the venue: a traditional Taiwanese beer snack restaurant. (Note: I don’t know if this is what they’re called, it’s just what I’m calling it for the purposes of this blog.)

In all my visits to Taiwan, I had never heard of such a place, let alone been to one. Taiwan consumes much less alcohol compared to its neighbors Japan, Korea, and China, so it surprised me that such restaurants actually exist. The idea is simple: eat lots of cheap, fried, salty foods that taste great with a beer (or two, or three). If my memory serves me right, most dishes were only NT$99 (US$3), with some special snacks costing a bit more. I forgot how much the beer was, but I did not think it was outrageous. Plus, we got to sample pineapple and mango beer!

View of the restaurant from the street.

The fish tanks out front.

Pineapple beer. We also sampled mango beer. Both were good, but a little too sweet for my taste.

Clams, greens, and some unidentifiable food (mushrooms? sausage?)

Veggies, ribs, and stir-fried greens with beef.

Fried pig intestine with basil and scallions.

Fried oysters with salt and pepper for dipping.

Fried fish with peanuts. A classic beer snack.

Fried fish filets (front) and beef with vegetables on a sizzling platter (back).

Green beans, garlic, and an unidentified meat product.

Two of my brother-in-laws with TC.

Yay sisters!

All in all, I thought the food was really good and went very well with the beer. After dinner, TC and I joined my sister P and her husband for a karaoke outing — TC’s first time ever! It was a very fun evening and one that I will remember for a long time to come.


Green Island Getaway

Hello! So sorry for the radio silence. Things have been hectic around here… so hectic that these photos of our trip to Green Island (aka Lu Dao) have been sitting in a folder, edited, and ready to be posted for over a month now. Yikes! The good news is that move is now complete, which means I should have more time to blog. I also know that I promised y’all a post about my one year anniversary of leaving academia — don’t worry, I have not forgotten! That will be forthcoming, hopefully before the end of 2012 (and sadly, at the rate I’ve been blogging, I think this is a fairly accurate assessment).

Anyway! As a reminder — back in July/August, TC and I went to visit my family in Taiwan. We spent a majority of our time in Taipei, but I thought it would be fun to go on a short 3-4 day trip, just the two of us. We decided on Green Island, mostly because it sounded lovely and because it was located off the southeast coast of Taiwan, a place I had never explored before. Also, the coral reefs off the coast were supposed to be great for snorkeling. I was psyched.

Planning this trip was relatively labor intensive, since most of the island’s homestays haven’t established English webpages or booking sites. After hours of searching for lodging, I finally found Xiang-Ding Homestay (note: the website is only in Chinese), an affordable place that looked clean and had air conditioning. I was able to book online through Agoda for $40/night. (FYI, summer months are the high season, so it probably costs less other times of the year… though the ferry service is also less frequent and less dependable.)

Early Tuesday morning, we took the ferry from Taitung to Green Island. The tail end of a monsoon was still lingering over Eastern Taiwan, and boy did we feel it during this ferry ride! The ferry is notoriously nicknamed the “Barf Barge” by travelers due to the frequently choppy seas between Taiwan and Green Island. It was only a 50 minute ride, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I took 1 Bonine (anti-motion sickness medicine) and stared at the same place on the wall for the whole ride. All around us, people were throwing up into their barf bags. I felt so bad for the ferry worker whose job it was to collect the bags at the end of the journey. Yuck! Luckily, I did not get sick and neither did TC.

Originally, we were going to spend only one night on Green Island, thinking that we’d take the first ferry there, have 1.5 days to explore the relatively small island, and take the last ferry back to Taitung. However, with the nasty weather, we decided to extend our stay by another day to maximize our island getaway. It was a great decision.

The whole island is only ~19 km/11.8 miles in circumference, which made getting around very easy. After we got off the ferry, we met up with our homestay host, whom we nicknamed “Tony.” Tony took us to a nearby scooter rental place — the island is so relaxed that you can basically walk up to any scooter and it will have a key in the ignition, ready to go. Tony had a brief exchange with the owner and shortly after, we were off! Rentals were extremely cheap – only NT$300 (US$9) per day! I was very grateful for TC’s expert scooter driving skills. I thought about driving for one second, but chickened out. One of my favorite things about Green Island was simply driving around on the main island road.  The scenery was beautiful at every turn. I wanted to make a video, but chickened out of that too. It was too hard/scary to take a video AND hang on to TC at the same time while scootering. (Yes, I’m a wimp.) Hopefully, the pictures will give you an idea of the breathtaking scenery we encountered.

As for sights — there are a good number of them, though I’m not sure any of them are “must see.” You can pretty much see all of the sights from the main road (and they are well-marked in Chinese and English), so it’s easy to drive by and decide if you want to check things out. One of the touristy things we didn’t do was to visit the outdoor salt-water hot springs. I think the main reason we didn’t go was because it was too hot to go during the day, but then it got too crowded at night.

The main highlight for me was when I went snorkeling with Tony’s brother “Ralph,” who led daily group trips for guests at the homestay. TC opted not to go because we had seen snorkelers the day before, and frankly, what they were doing (hanging on to safety rings in full-length rented wetsuits in groups of 5-10) did NOT look all that fun. However, snorkeling was one of the things I was most excited about this trip, so despite that initial impression, I decided that I wanted to go anyway. Besides, it was only going to cost NT$300 for an hour of guided snorkeling – transportation and wetsuit included. Putting on that still moist, rental wetsuit was quite unpleasant — definitely the low-light of the outing. However, the second I dipped my face under the water — we hadn’t even gone out very far — I forgot all about the gross wetsuit. There were dozens of brightly colored fish and all sorts of cool corals right under me! I’ve only been snorkeling twice previously: once in a fairly barren area of Puerto Rico and once in Hawaii, where I saw a sea turtle. This was definitely the best out of the bunch. Because I was the sole guest who wanted to snorkel that day, and since I had snorkeled before, Ralph took me to a less crowded area and let me start exploring on my own without the safety ring. It was awesome. I really would’ve been happy to just float there and stare at everything for hours. Unfortunately, Ralph insisted that I feed the fish with bread so that they would come to me and I could even touch a few. Then he insisted that I touch some of the coral… something that I was always taught NOT to do because it’s not good for the health of the coral. Luckily, I’m not such a great diver, so I feigned some attempts without really touching anything and blamed it on my lack of skill.

A couple of surprising things about Green Island:
– There are no natural sandy, swimmable beaches due to the rocky coastline and reefs right off the shore. There is one swim area near the lighthouse that is protected by a wall of rocks.
– Despite its touristy nature, there is very little English written or spoken. For example, Tony and Ralph, the two brothers in their 20’s at our homestay, did not speak English even though they’re in the hospitality business. I think we would’ve had a much harder time if I didn’t speak Mandarin and read Chinese (though probably still doable through gestures — people were nice, for the most part). The one time that the language barrier ended up being a glaring issue was during a group tour with Tony. As we stopped at various locations, he talked about the history or significance of where we were… which, with my kindergarten-level Chinese, I could barely comprehend, let alone translate for TC.

As for food, we ate well. There was a small family-owned, hole-in-the-wall eating establishment (I wouldn’t call it a restaurant) around the corner from our homestay. Pretty much everything we had there was good: fried rice, noodles with fish sauce, and soup. The beer was super cheap too! About US$1/can. One night, we went to a DIY barbecue place. It was NT$299 per person for all you can eat meat and veggies. The island is known for 2 foods: deer and sea grass. We had deer fried rice the first day, but later found out that the deer meat was not actually from the island. The native deer are not hunted for meat, as the population is not big enough to serve as a food supply. I tried sea grass in a shaved ice drink, which was pretty good, but mostly due to the other ingredients, I think. The sea grass itself is sort of slimy.

If you’re planning a trip to Green Island and have any questions, please leave a comment below or send me an email at willblog4food [at] gmail [dot] com.
I’m happy to pass on any information or tips.

Without further ado, here are the photos. Enjoy!

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