Cookies and Guavas

Here are a few things that have occurred recently:

1. Baking cookies!

I got a toaster oven. In general, most household kitchens in east Asia lack full-sized ovens. As an avid baker, I’ve really been missing my access to an oven. Holiday present from my father – a toaster oven! I used it made ginger-honey cookies for Christmas. I was actually surprised by how well they turned out, considering that I haven’t baked anything in months and I simply winged everything. (I think it is also a testament to the robustness of cookies. Sugar, flour, and fat are almost always delicious.)

This is me dissolving brown sugar & ginger cubes in vegetable/olive oil.
This is me dissolving brown sugar & ginger cubes in vegetable/olive oil.

The very precise recipe was to combine the following ingredients:

  • blocks of brown sugar with ginger embedded in them (sold as ginger tea 薑母茶)
  • cake flour
  • vegetable and olive oil
  • some baking soda
  • two eggs
  • cream
  • whole milk
  • some salt
  • honey
  • cinnamon. Lots. And then even more.

Then I rolled them in more brown sugar and put them in the toaster until they looked done. To be honest, they were actually quite good – soft and chewy with some crunch at the very edge due to the brown sugar. The chunks of ginger kept things exciting.

The toaster oven did not have a recommended time for "cookies". I went by pure, honed instinct and took them out before they burned.
The toaster oven did not have a recommended time for “cookies”. I went by pure, honed instinct and took them out before they burned.

 

I’m looking forward to expanding my repertoire to chocolate chip / chocolate. Oh, maybe Mexican chocolate chip cookies as well…

Thanks, Dad!

They were actually really good! I am glad that my roommate and I invited over for young men with active metabolisms who helped us demolish them.
They were actually really good! I am glad that my roommate and I had the help of young men with active metabolisms to demolish this plate.

 

2. Yellow Guava

I discovered a new fruit. Or more precisely, a variation on an old theme. I’ve been enjoying regular white guava, and then the more expensive, more flavorful and expensive red-hearted guava. But today my roommate and I happened upon a man selling a yellow guava as well. The sign said something like 黃樹上 or “on the tree yellow”. The guavas were quite yellow by comparison, so much so that we just had to give them a try. Our summary is that it looked, had the texture of, and smelled sort of like a papaya, but tasted like a guava. Which means it was pretty excellent.

Comparison of colors to a persimmon and a regular green guava. Also, it is almost the end of persimmon season and I'm greedily eating as many as possible.
Comparison of colors to a persimmon and a regular green guava. Also, it is almost the end of persimmon season and I’m greedily eating as many as possible.

Also, if you Google image search “yellow guava” but instead use the Chinese characters “黃芭樂” you don’t get any pictures of guavas, but instead mostly exercise mats.

It looks like a papaya but tastes like a guava!
It looks like a papaya but tastes like a guava!

Some of my “abnormal” habits

Drinking hot water

For years I have carried around a hot water thermos, usually filled with tea but sometimes water. Sometimes the water is hot, sometimes it is cold. It ranks just below my phone and my wallet for my essentials when leaving the house.

In reality, these habits are fairly strange for an American. Instead, they are characteristic of my experience of daily life in mainland China, when I lived in Beijing. Even though it was summer, almost everyone carried around a thermos for hot water, and more often than not, this thermos had some tea leaves thrown in the bottom of it. I don’t think anyone would claim that these were high-quality drinks, but carrying around some hot water / tea was just how one stayed hydrated whilst going through daily life. In general, the assumption in China is that water should be drunk hot (first, all water must be boiled to decontaminate it, and second because it’s generally thought to be better for the body to drink hot or warm liquids instead of cold), so when water was served in a restaurant or other places it would also be hot. I thought this was a little strange at first, considering how hot the weather was. But after I tried letting boiled water cool and unknown substances precipitated out of it, I decided that I might as well also drink my water hot so I didn’t have to think about what was dissolved in it. I guess I’m also pretty laid-back about the temperature of my water; by comparison some of my American friends refuse to drink hot/warm water. After living in China, I would say that I drink hot water more than I used to, but I’m not exclusive about it and like a cold glass pretty often as well.

It turns out that this culture of hot-water drinking is far less prevalent on the island of Taiwan. I don’t think I’ve been served hot water in a restaurant. I very rarely see other people carrying around hot water thermos (and of course no one really does this in the States). One of my Taiwanese friends even commented on my habit of carrying around a thermos as “more Chinese than most Taiwanese people”. Strangely, though, I still see that hot water dispensing machines are prevalent like drinking fountains (obviously in every convenience store), but I think I’ve only seen another person use one once.

 

Drinking tea

I also drink tea. I like to drink loose-leaf, tasty tea. Especially when I am sitting in one place, but I also like to carry it around in my thermos. It seems that while everyone drinks tea here, it’s not beverage that people take time to think about and seek out, especially in the younger generation. Milk tea is probably the way that most young folks drink tea on a regular basis, and then maybe some generic barley tea offered along with a meal in a restaurant. Young folks are more likely into seeking out good coffee, if they have a beverage of choice.

 

Drinking delicious tea is awesome.
Drinking tea is awesome.

Being athletic

Young Taiwanese women are not athletic. This is a broad generalization, of course, but one that I think most people will agree with. Idealized images of women are thin with perfect skin, gentle curves and slender limbs. They are never muscular. Sportiness, athleticism, physical strength – these things are not “in”. In reality, I think that many young Taiwanese women do like physical activities – but I think they are kept to moderate level, and would never be broadcasted as part of their general identity. Engaging in physical activities leads to all sorts of states that are generally unseemly (sweatiness, dirtiness) so there isn’t much desire to associate with them. This generally contrasts to the American concept of a “sporty” woman as a desirable role-model/identity. Toned women dripping sweat (in cute work-out gear, of course) are common icons. When I was in college, I think most of my female friends wanted in on that image (at least sometimes). And of course, oftentimes my friends were simply into sport for the love of the activity and not afraid to show it.

Use a slimy rope to scramble up this path? Fun times - I'm in!
Use a slimy rope to scramble up this path? Fun times – I’m in!

I really enjoy pushing the physical limits of my body and have fun doing such things even though they often involve sweat, dirt and unseemliness. Compared with the average Taiwanese girl, I am very athletic – overtly willing to climb on things and bruise my knees and try to run up mountains.

I am partially inspired to write this whole post because I just completed a marathon – ok, so past the 30 km mark, I walked as much as I ran, but I still finished it – and was struck by the lack of other young women in the event. Now that I have access to the stats, I can see in numbers what I had a feeling for yesterday. There were only 48 people registered in my division (women, age 20-29). By contrast, there were nearly twice as many women registered for the bracket of 30-39, same for 40-49, and the bracket of 50-59 year olds had almost as many as 20-29. There were also 500 men in the registered for the age bracket of 20-29 years old – more than an order of magnitude in difference over the number of women. But we might as well hop to the overwhelming difference in numbers: for the whole marathon , there were 4279 men and 295 women registered. Interestingly, this discrepancy doesn’t hold for all of the events. In the half marathon– there was still an extreme difference, and it holds for all categories (totals ~3000 F registered, ~13,000M). But for the 9km, particularly in the age bracket of 20-29 the numbers are almost the same: 2105 F, 2684 M!

And while looking at the registrants for one athletic event is far from scientific, I think that it provides at least some anecdotal support to my feeling that young women generally aren’t athletic. However, for many, it may not be that they are actually entirely uninterested in sports, but instead keep to such activities “in moderation”.

(Also, if you were curious – in last year’s New York City marathon, ~30,000 men finished and ~17,000 women finished. While that is still a big gap, it’s not a gap of an order of magnitude… )

 

Mid-marathon! One of the ways that I occupied myself during those long four hours, especially about halfway through, was by counting the women I passed.
Mid-marathon! One of the ways that I occupied myself during those long four hours, especially about halfway through, was by counting the women I passed.

Eating on the street

I already mentioned this, but it’s still true. I haven’t changed my ways – haven’t gotten more patient or civilized and I continue to munch of food as I walk, even though adults eating on the street is only common at nightmarkets. One of my Taiwanese friends brought this up as an indication of a state of unhealthy rush that a person might be in that they need to eat while walking. I agree somewhat, but what’s wrong with a little multitasking sometimes? I like eating, and I like walking and sometimes I’m really hungry. Also, they’re relatively compatible activities…at least for some foods.

 

Eating fruit whole, all the time

While we’re on the topic of eating (one of my favorite topics), I have a habit of munching through whole fruits that I have yet to observe another person do while I’ve lived here. It seems that fruit here is meant to be sliced or blended. And that’s fine by me, but sometimes I am hungry, or I am walking down the street (or both!) and thus stopping to slice up my fruit is too much effort. Also, I eat fruit all the time. Sliced fruit is usually served as a post-meal dish, or as a part of entertaining guests. But in addition to after meals, I like to eat fruit before meals, between meals, and as meals. Nomnomnom.

Behind the food

I have been particularly keen on food in Taiwan. Well that’s not a particularly new mental state for me, nor is it a surprising focus to have as either a visitor or a resident of this island. But along with the usual considerations of what food to eat, what food tastes good, and how to get food, I have also spent time thinking about the food industry. How does the food get from being production to plate? Although it’s a question that I considered while living in the States, I think I have gotten much more in-depth in my contemplation of it while in Taiwan.

 

Where did this delicious spread of food come from, anyway?

At first, the “foreignness” of food here allowed me to see it in a different light. The food items themselves are different from what I take for granted while living in the States. Of course, I ate apples when I lived in Rhode Island and Massachusetts – especially the ones that I went and picked off of trees in the fall. There was no reason to question that. And when it wasn’t apple season, or for most other that food that can’t be grown in New England, I assumed that it came from other places in the US like the Midwest, California, Oregon, Florida… But it turns out that there are apples on this side of the world as well – some that look exactly the same as the ones that I’m used to. Where did these come from? I know for sure they’re not coming a small New England orchard. Are they being shipped from the larger scale US farms or grown locally somewhere near here? And what about all the things that I haven’t even seen before – like dragon fruit, Buddha’s head and all the banana varietals? Where are those coming from? And those just are plain, raw foods – what about foods that have gone through more complex processing – like a bowl of noodles. Where did the rice/wheat/whatever else come from? Where was it ground into flour and then pulled into noodles?

 

Passionfruit (百香果) – one of the many fruits that I had never seen before coming to Taiwan that seems to be unbelievably alien and also super delicious.

As I move around with my daily life, I can’t help but notice some of these fragments of the food supply chain. Vendors on the street selling produce. Tiny plots of vegetables snuck in between buildings, in parks, and by hiking trails. A noodle-making shop (factory?) that has the size and appearance of a single car garage. The table-sized noodle machine continuously fills gallon bags of noodles that are driven off on mopeds. The large, cultivated fields on the western plain between large cities. How are these things connected – and how are they connected to reality and necessity of food required to power the people of this island?

 

There, too, is another piece of the question of food that I find continually intriguing. As an island, geographic boundaries are more tangible. What food that is not grown here must quite literally cross oceans to get here. How much food is doing that? Is this enormous travel reflected in the prices? What if it isn’t? The environmentalist in me twitches as bit as consider some of the implications of the modern-day globalized food industry. What if the things that the people of this island adore eating (like rice, tofu, fruit, meat) are all coughing out tons of CO2 as they are shipped across the world to get here? But is that better or worse that local production? As an island with some unique geology, habitats and endemic species – is it in better environmental consciousness to “export” farming to other countries and then ship it here?

 

As I crawl through publicly available government reports for information about tea, I often end up side-tracked to reports about various other economic sectors in Taiwan. In a recent binge of reading, I found myself eagerly reading many of the agriculture reports published by the US government. I don’t know if my deeper questions have been resolved (like the ones in the last paragraph) but I feel at least a little closer to understanding.

 

Here are some tidbits that I found interesting:

 

Milk/Dairy

How is Taiwan filling the endless cups of its world-famous milk tea? How is it putting cheese in breads and on all those unhealthy things that you can get at food stands?

“Due to relatively high production costs, resulting in an insufficient domestic fluid milk supply, Taiwan does not produce cheese, butter, milk powder or whey in commercial quantities, relying on imports to meet the demand for these products. The biggest dairy import product is dry whole milk powder, imports of which are forecast to remain stable at about 23,000 metric tons in CY 2013….

Taiwan’s domestic production accounts for 95 percent of total fluid milk market supply.”

I also remember a portion that indicated the domestically-produced fluid milk is particularly in demand after the scare of fluid milk contamination in mainland China in 2008 and that before that event, more fluid milk was imported from the mainland.

 

Fruit

What feeds all the juice stands? Where does all the fruit for religious offerings come from? And the post-meal fruit or the fruit that people push upon guests? It turns out that the Taiwan not only consumes relatively epic amounts of fruit, but also produces it.

“…Among the world’s highest per capita consumption of fresh fruit — about 132 kg/ person …Imports as a percentage of total domestic fruit consumption — 13% by value/15% by volume.”

Also, regarding apples, they are largely imported (there was an entire report on them):

“The apple continued to be the most popular imported fruit in Taiwan with total imports of 118,662 metric tons (US$131 million) in MY 2011/12, and the Fuji remained the favorite variety, accounting for 90% of total retail sales.  The United States regained its position as the leading supplier of apples to Taiwan, posting a 42% market share.  Local production continued a long-term decline and currently meets only about one percent of domestic demand. “

 

Wheat & Corn

“Taiwan is almost wholly dependent on imports of wheat and corn. Marketing Year (MY) 2011/12 wheat imports are estimated at 1.25 million metric tons (MMT), with the U.S. expected to hold 75 percent of the total.”

“While U.S. corn had already lost its once dominant position in the Taiwan market, the price spread between U.S. and other origin corn in recent months has pushed Taiwan buyers to switch to other sources, particularly Brazil and Argentina, at an even faster rate.”

I guess that means the price of corn on waffles is likely some hectares of deforestation in the Amazon.

 

Soybeans

“Taiwan’s demand for soybeans is met almost entirely by imported supplies, with demand for soybean meal and oil also highly dependent on local supplies crushed from imported soybeans…

According to Taiwan import statistics for the first nine months of MY2011/12, Brazilian and U.S.-origin soybeans held an equal market share of about 48 percent each. This stands in stark contrast to the 75 percent market share for U.S. soybeans during the same period in MY2010/11. Taiwan crushers have shown a preference for the 2012 South American soybean crop as local industry contacts report overall higher oil and protein content compared with U.S. beans.”

Soymilk and tofu – also probably driving deforestation in South America.

 

Rice

“Taiwan is over 90% self-sufficient in rice production with a rather stable domestic rice market.”

 

Also, finally, in case you doubted my entry about convenience stores:

“In 2009, Taiwan’s four major convenience store chains operated a total of 9,184 stores around the country, a density of one store per 2,500 people, making Taiwan the densest market in the world in terms of convenience stores.”

Website Translations

This is more writing related to research that I’m working on – I think I might also be including more posts like this here. I’ll tag them appropriately so if you’re interested in other aspects of my life instead, you can skip them.

Originally, my goal going into this section of research was simply to learn about some fundamental aspects of the organic food industry in Taiwan. How much agricultural production is classified as organic? What is required in order to be classified as organic? Is organic production continuing to grow? Is the growth coming from conversion of “traditional” methods to organic or cultivation of new lands?

I have spent a lot of time in the past week on Taiwanese websites in an attempt to answer these questions. During that time, I have noticed several features – such as more animated gifs than I would find on many US government websites, and that it’s common practice to introduce very clearly the qualifications and specialties of the head of that department. More importantly, I have noticed that almost all government websites include an English translation. Initially, this excited me. English translations, even if they were a little poor, would surely make my life easier when trying to cruise through these websites for helpful information. Although I can read some Chinese characters, the going is comparatively slow and difficult compared to English (something about years of practice reading a language does that, I think…) However, the more time I spend navigating these websites, the more I think the English translations are only going to make my life more complicated.

For a small subset of these websites, the English translation is a mirror image of the Chinese version that has been haphazardly switched into English (by Google translate or some person with only a moderate grasp on the English language). To be honest, I am excited when I see pages like this because I can use the English translation as I had hoped – for faster navigation to aspects that I am interested in and for skim reading. Then I can take a look more closely at the Chinese in case the translation was truly botched.

I am far less excited when I try clicking on a little button for “English” and end up on an entirely different website. (For example, original:http://www.afa.gov.tw/organicAgriculture.asp ; English version: http://www.afa.gov.tw/ii_en.asp?a=2&pcatid=1&ycatid=1&lcatid=370) It’s not just that the colors of the banner have changed – no, everything has changed. Main navigation links have changed, organization has changed. Aside from the most basic information page, it can sometimes be impossible to find corresponding pages.

I do not want to immediately attribute the occurrence of two non-identical websites for the different language readers (and thus difference audiences) to evil intentions. But through most of my cursory glances, they seem to carry different information and different interpretations. There are many ways to present a single truth, and here I am facing down a very clear pair of dueling presentations. And thus I am intrigued by this phenomenon and find myself with some choices to make.

Should I simply read the English translation, as that would be the easiest for me? If I can’t find what I’m looking for, move on and don’t worry about it?
Should I simply get on my thinking cap, and my hover-over dictionary (thanks Zhongwen!) and read the Chinese version? This will be harder, but probably have more information and more likely to have what I’m looking for.

Or…

Should I try to read both sets of information? And if I do that, should I try to analyze the differences between them (in the interests of myself? in the interests in others who might be looking for this information? in the interests of the government that might want to know that people looking for this information are confused and frustrated?) And of course, what would I do with such an analysis, should I complete it? This is clearly the most time-consuming possibility.

I admit that I have been moderately paralyzed with this realization and have yet to commit to any of the choices as the difference in time and effort that they imply are huge.

Now that it’s raining more than ever…

It didn’t take long after my arrival in Taipei for me to realize that an umbrella is an essential part of everyday life. In the summer, they are great for helping cut down on overheating while walking in the sun. Sure – they also prevent developing an unfashionable tan, which can be touted as a cultural viewpoint difference from Americans. But more importantly, I find that whipping out an umbrella really is useful to prevent total meltdown when it is already hot and humid and then sunny on top of it all.

A cluster of umbrellas airing out in the hallway at the office in Sinica. Just one of those kinds of days.

And while summer is the time that typhoons may roll in, winter in Taipei is the rainy season. I had heard and read about this since I planned to come to Taiwan, but it wasn’t until last week that I really knew what “rainy season” entails. Since coming back to Taipei after Thanksgiving about a week and half ago, it has rained. And when it’s not raining, it’s drizzling. The rain abated a bit yesterday and my sister and I took the chance to get out and go hiking a bit. By nighttime, it was drizzling/raining again. But today, it was not only not raining, but it was sunny! Glorious sun!

An umbrella stand, which are quite common. Not as common as milk tea stands (and definitely not convenience stores) but still fairly common.

On another note, I think I got out of the habit of writing and slipped into the zone of “waiting for a better topic to come up” by which I really just mean being too lazy / too picky about what inspires me to write. I hope to get back to more regular updates. I would like to continue to try to use this blog as a way to notice and share interesting things around me, even if they are often more along the “mundane” side of life.

I realized that rainy season might require an upgrade from the super-portable umbrella I was already toting to something more dedicated. Something that says “I know it’s raining but I am going out anyway.” Something that says “I know it’s raining but I am FABULOUS anyway.” Hence, the blue and green frilly umbrellas belong to me and my sister. The plaid is a sturdier umbrella/walking stick incarnation which is popular with elderly folks.

Also, I noticed that pictures that I’ve included in the posts aren’t part of the automatic email updates. So click over to the actual blog post to check for pictures – there almost always are some. :)

It’s not raining! We climbed up the small mountains between Xinyi and Nangang (which include The Four Beasts, Elephant Mountain, Mount Thumb, JiuWu Peak, etc. An awesome set of connected trails that are very low-effort to get to.)