Visiting the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Taiwan

As soon as Jacob and I fixed the date of our trip to Taiwan, we started researching the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Our time in Taiwan landed just after Chinese New Year, coinciding our trip exactly with the Lantern Festival, which takes place around the 15th day of the month following Chinese New Year.

At the time, we didn’t realize that there was a difference between the Lantern Festival and the Sky Lantern Festival.  Turns out there is a big one. The Lantern Festival takes place all over Taiwan (and mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. – but for obvious reasons, I will focus just on Taiwan for the moment).

The lantern festival in Taipei consisted mainly of a festival area with a walking tour of massive ornate silk “lantern" sculptures. I say “lanterns”, because they do not look like what an American would define as a lantern – many of them are over 10 meters high and look more like an illuminated float from a parade. Nevertheless, they are stunning works of art.

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Lantern Festival Taipei-1.jpg

A Sky Lantern Festival it turns out; is closer to what I had visualized when I heard “lantern festival”: thousands of glowing paper lanterns released into the night in one breath-taking moment. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is Taiwan’s most famous sky lantern festival, with hundreds-of-thousands of lanterns being released and tens-of-thousands of visitors. If Jacob and I were going to be in Taipei during that festival, there was no way we were going to miss it.

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As with much of our Taiwan research however, we were surprised by how little English information there was to be found. Jacob is a consummate researcher, and hardly ever visits a new place without digging up all the insider tips and local information available on the internet. Most of our favorite restaurants and destinations are a direct result of his research. For the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival however, we had very few clues.

Taiwan’s tourism website offered general information on the festival itself, but how to get there was another question: Pingxi is outside of central Taipei. Between TripAdvisor comments and the festival website, we managed to piece together the information we needed.

This next part is for those of you who may have stumbled on this blog trying to figure out how to get to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival yourself.

Take the Brown metro line to the Taipei Zoo stop. Taipei Zoo is the last stop on the brown line, and is also where you can catch the Maokong Gondola.

Taipei Zoo Stop

As soon as you exit the metro, you should see signs clearly marking the way to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival stop. Follow the signs (or the crowd of people), and get in line for the bus.

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There are two lines: one for a seat, and one for standing. The line for standing-only goes much faster. (We chose the standing option – it wasn’t bad at all.) You can either scan your metro card to pay, or give them cash as you get on the bus.

The bus ride to Pingxi takes about 45 minutes. The buses will drop you off in a parking lot at the base of the town.

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Prior to the festival we started to get a bit nervous. Between our friend’s words of caution and the stats we had read online, we were pretty sure this would be the largest crowd we had ever experienced: somewhere around 80,000 visitors were expected. We decided to arrive early to the festival grounds to grab a good viewpoint.

We got to Pingxi about 4 hours before the first scheduled lantern launch. The town is beautiful – built into a hillside above a river, in lush jungle-like countryside.

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A train track runs directly through the main part of town, with surprisingly little space between the track and the shops. The train only comes through the town a few times a day (and slowly at that), at which point everyone clears off the tracks and huddles under the shop awnings. When no trains are passing through, the tracks are packed with throngs of people, many of which are setting off sky lanterns of their own.

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Pingxi Lantern Festival.jpg

Pingxi has become famous for her sky lanterns. Though the annual festival draws the most people, visitors trek to the town year-round to buy a lantern, paint their wishes and hopes on it, and set it off into the sky. Jacob and I walked around the town for a short while, watching people release their lanterns into the sky, before making our way over to the festival grounds.

I had expected the festival grounds to be a massive open field – something that could accommodate these projected 80,000 people. Signs and security guards pointed the way down a road away from the town.

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We entered through a festival gate and walked 15 minutes down the road, lined with food and lantern vendors, before the path angled up and dropped us in a parking lot. The parking lot held a stage on one end and a large corded off square of empty space in the middle. Hundreds of photographers were already set up around the square, their tripods forming a wall of spindly black legs and camera lenses.

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Honestly, we were surprised. The parking lot could hold maybe 2,000-3,000 people – certainly not 80,000. As it was, there weren’t even that many people there. Three hours before the festival was due to begin, the parking lot was only about 1/3 of the way full. We found a good spot and settled down to wait.

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As it started to get dark people began to crowd in around us, though it never became uncomfortably packed. The ceremonies began, with a woman hosting the festival and entertainers performing on the stage. There was a lot of talking as groups of 100-200 people were ushered into the square in front of the stage, readied with their lanterns, and then all instructed to light and release them at once.

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It was, truly, an awe-inspiring sight.

Was it what I had imagined? No. I had imagined thousands of lanterns going up in the sky in continuous waves, everyone allowed to participate as long as they had a lantern. Perhaps, in some places, that is the reality.

Here, the lanterns were released 100-200 at a time, accompanied by a television host interviewing people and giving little “Sponsored by” commercials. Then someone would sing, dance, or talk on stage for 20 minutes while the next wave of lanterns was being prepared.

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Was it worth it? Yes, because sky lanterns are gorgeous, and every release would take your breath away. Is it the be-all, end-all sky lantern experience? Probably not. (I haven’t been to Thailand yet.)

We stayed through 5 or 6 waves of lantern releases, before deciding that it would be wise to beat the crowds back to Taipei. We grabbed our stuff and pushed our way through the crowd to the edge of the parking lot, where the road sloped down and curved left back towards Pingxi.

At the edge of the parking lot, our jaws literally dropped. There was the other 77,000 people that couldn’t fit into the parking lot. It was a veritable sea of people; unlike anything I had ever seen before. And to get back to the bus, we had to somehow get past all of them.

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The police had roped off a narrow middle corridor through the sea of humanity, and we joined the steady stream of people who were pushing themselves against the tide. It was packed like nothing I had experienced before. We didn’t even need to walk – the sheer force of the people surrounding us pushed us forward, while you felt the pressure of some random person’s body on every side. I had been “packed like a sardine” before, but typically only when everyone was standing still: packed into a concert, or (worse), with your nose in someone’s armpit on the metro. Being packed that degree while moving, however, was another experience entirely.

Thankfully we had the advantage of height. Jacob and I are a head taller than the average Taiwanese, so we could at least see above the crowd. As we shuffled our way along with the tide, I felt a rustling by my waist and saw three tiny old women, hands clasped, heads bowed, muscling their way forward with practiced intensity.

It was a long 10 minutes of wondering how you would avoid getting trampled if someone started a stampede before the crowd broke and we were finally free. The lanterns may have been the breath-taking highlight of the evening, but it was the crowd that ensured we would never forget our time at the Pingxi Sky Lantern festival.

Back to you travelers who are reading this blog for more information on getting to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival:

Leaving Pingxi is just as clearly marked and well organized as getting there. You will see the queue for the buses extending far along the road you walked up to get to the festival grounds.

Once again, there are two lines: one for seats, the other for standing. I would recommend buying some street food and then hopping in line – the standing one goes quite fast.

The buses will drop you back off at the Taipei Zoo stop so you can head on home by metro.

 

 

 

 

My Top 5 Non-Street-Food Eating Experiences in Taiwan

Hello world! So, it looks like something happened. Blog posts that were meant to publish in March never did, and in the ensuing cyclone-of-crazy that is late spring and summer, it never got fixed. So better late than never, here are the last parts of the Taiwan saga.


I’ve talked (in length) about the street food of Taiwan. But the truth is, street food is only half of Taiwan’s culinary picture, and some of the most memorable food-experiences we had there took place in restaurants…and warehouses. Here’s my top 5:

5. Running Sushi

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Running sushi can be found all over the world, I know that. It was, however, a first for me – and I found it to be exhilarating. There were a several reasons for that. First, it was our first full day in Taiwan, and I was so excited by everything I saw that I was bouncing off the walls like a kid hyped on sugar. Second, it had to be some of the freshest sushi I had ever tasted. Third, every plate was so cheap – we ate gorgeous slices of salmon belly, mounds of fresh sea urchin, freshly barbequed eel, and more to our heart’s content. In the end, we barely spent $11 USD.

More than anything else however, I found the concept of running sushi to be fascinating. Not only is it a cost-efficient way for a restaurant to serve customers, but it also turns eating into a psychological game. If you pass up that plate coming down the line this time, will there be another? There is no guarantee that someone else won’t take the plate you want before it gets to you. What if you choose one thing, and then see something else you want more just two minutes after?

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Most restaurants hand you a menu, effectively asking you to make a decision once, and then stick to your choice. Running sushi forces you into constant decision making, offering an endless variety of options that will “expire” (ie: run past you) if you don’t decide quickly. It’s intensely manipulative, and unlike any dining experience I’ve had before.

4. Beef Noodle Soup

Beef Noodle soup is so beloved; it is often called Taiwan’s national dish. Jacob did some research to see where we could find the best Beef Noodle soup, and came up with an informal restaurant called Yong-Kang Beef Noodle. We showed up to the restaurant one day for lunch and immediately knew we had made a good choice. The line for the restaurant snaked outside the door and past several other shop fronts. While we walked down to our place in line, taxi’s rolled up to the curb and dropped off passengers with suitcases…who then got in line behind us. Apparently Yong-Kang Beef Noodle was so good, it was worth making it your last or first stop in Taipei.

Yong Kang Beef Noodle Taipei 1

The restaurant was nothing fancy – fluorescent, cafeteria style, and crammed with people sitting at communal tables. Once inside, we placed our order at the window and found a spot at a table to wait. Behind us, a view into the kitchen showed a pot of soup broth big enough to drown in.

Yong Kang Beef Noodle 1
Yong Kang Beef Noodle 2

Our soup arrived within 5 minutes – large bowls of noodles and melt-in-your-mouth tender beef in a fatty, anise-spiced chili broth. The garnish of choice was a pot of pickled mustard greens sitting on the table – a dash of bitterness and vinegar to cut through the richness of the meat and broth. It took us barely 10 minutes to polish off our food. Once again our “Taiwan mantra” was affirmed: If people are waiting in line to eat it, it’s good.

3. Addiction Aquatic Development

Jacob and I live in a landlocked country. Though there are many, many things I love and appreciate about Austria, it’s landlocked status is not one of them. I could easily forego meat for a fish and shellfish only diet. The mere mention of fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster, or – my favorite – CRAB, is enough to turn me into a real-life “heart-eyes-emoji”. So of course, the prospect of visiting an island where seafood is a staple of the cuisine is profoundly exciting for me. Especially when said islands have places like Addiction Aquatic Development.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei

Addiction Aquatic is part fish market and part grocery store, housing a variety of seafood based food stalls and restaurants. As soon as Addiction Aquatic popped up in our research, it went straight to the top of the list. It was a must-visit for seafood lovers like us.

We saved Addiction Aquatic for our last day in Taiwan, making the trek to the massive fish warehouse with suitcases and backpacks in tow. It did not disappoint.

We spent a long time slowly perusing the fish market, staring wide-eyed at incredible varieties of shell fish and unimaginably large crabs. SO MUCH CRAB! Crab paradise. I was one happy Chelsea.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 1
Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 3

After checking out all of the food and restaurant options, we found ourselves returning over and to the grocery area, looking at glistening trays of brightly colored sashimi and boiled crab ready to be cracked into. We grabbed one of each, a beer, and a large stack of napkins and settled down with our luggage at a table outside. It was far from fancy, but high-quality enough to have been served in the world’s best restaurants.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 4

2. Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung is a world famous Dim Sum restaurant originating from Taipei. The restaurant now has branches all over the world, some of which have been awarded Michelin stars for their food. This was one experience we knew we needed to fit into our itinerary. Our hosts, Dave and Wendy, joined us for our meal at Din Tai Fung, which was really good for two reasons. One, Dave and Wendy are wonderful people and we love their company; and two, Dim Sum is a world in itself that Jacob and I would have been totally lost in.

There are a couple locations for Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and we wound up at the branch at the base of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan. Even though the restaurant is massive, with space to accommodate thousands of diners, there was, of course, a wait to get in. We put our names on the list and grabbed a menu so we could strategize our meal.

Din Tai Fung Taipei 101

Dim Sum is traditionally considered a brunch meal, though places like Din Tai Fung have made it an all day affair. Food is served in smaller portions and meant to be shared family-style. Whereas many other cuisines (ie: Thai food) focuses on balancing all of the taste elements (salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, etc.) in a single plate, Dim sum focuses on balancing the table. One dish may be spicy, another is sour, another is sweet, another is cold, etc. Together, you create a balanced palate – one reason why a proper Dim sum requires a lot of different dishes.  

We feasted. We had seaweed salad, marinated wood ear mushrooms, cold rice noodles with soy beans, spicy cucumbers and more – and that was just the salads. Our cups were filled with round after round of green tea while steamer baskets full of beautiful fresh steamed gyoza, shaomai, and bao began to arrive.

Din Tai Fung Taipei 101 1

Din Tai Fung is particularly famous for their Xiao Long Bao, or “soup dumplings”. These special little dumplings of joy are filled with meat and a richly flavored broth, and require a special process to eat them. First, you pick up the Bao and support its heavy soup-filled bottom with a spoon. Then you bite a little hole into the Bao and slurp out the broth. Once you have slurped the broth, you can pop the whole thing in your mouth (and close your eyes and melt inside because it tastes so good).

We had quite a few of Xiao Long Bao, but the one that Jacob still talks about was the truffle bao. Yep, you heard me right. Bits of truffle and minced pork in a buttery, truffley soup broth…only five came in the steamer basket, so one lucky person got to have two of them. I still remind Jacob of how gracious I am that I let him have it. ;)

1. Shrimp Fishing

Top on my list of Taiwanese food experiences is one that actually involved so little food, we went out to dinner afterwards.

Shrimp fishing is a popular pastime in Taiwan, though you would have to ask the young, hip Taiwanese crowd to find out if it is actually considered “cool”. Regardless of cool-factor, Jacob and I were very keen to give shrimp fishing a try. Thankfully Dave and Wendy had some friends who had shrimp-fished before, so we called them up and headed over to the local shrimp-fishing spot in the early evening.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan

Shrimp fishing takes place in large warehouses filled with pools of varying types of shrimp, crawfish, and lobster. It’s not a fancy affair – it’s a fluorescent-lit, slightly smelly warehouse of fish. Patrons rent or bring their own special shrimp fishing poles and tackle, pull up a plastic chair to the pool of their choice, and settle down for some leisurely hours of fishing.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 1

We bought a two-hour pass, which basically meant we were entitled to eat as much as we could catch in that period of time. Armed with bamboo poles, nets, and slabs of raw liver for bait, we selected our pool and settled down. Shrimp fishing, as it turned out, takes some skill and technique. You wait patiently until your pole’s bob, floating on the top of the water, starts to be pulled down. Once it has been pulled far enough into the water, you flick your pole up, pray the shrimp is still hanging on, and bring the shrimp in to your net as quickly and smoothly as possible. This happened to me exactly once. I got so excited to have caught one that the line swung back over the pool and the shrimp dropped back off into the depths.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 2
Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 2

I have to say, as a group we weren’t the most successful shrimp fishers. Seasoned old men, who were so confident in their skills that they knew sitting at the more expensive pools was worthwhile, pulled in lobster after lobster with ease. There was a reason we had stuck with the run-of-the-mill shrimp pool. In the end, between the 6 of us, we had caught 9 shrimp.

Off to one side of the warehouse was the cooking area. With the help of our friend who knew what he was doing, we skewered our shrimp on metal kebabs, covered them in rock salt, and placed them in a large electric toaster oven until cooked. Plastic trays, napkins, and our prized shrimp in hand, we sat down at a plastic table and feasted on our 9 shrimp.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 3
Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 4

It was delicious – I had never known that shrimp could taste so sweet. Cooking them so simply only heightened the freshness of the meat. I could see myself taking to shrimp fishing in Taiwan, joining the old men on a regular basis to fish while reading a book or chatting with friends. Perhaps one day, I’d even graduate up to the lobster pool.

...Then we went out for Teppanyaki, because 9 shrimp isn't much to feed 6 people. 

Drinking Tea in Taiwan

My first cup of tea in Taiwan was at a massage parlor.

It was our first weekend in Taiwan, and we had gone on a long bike ride with our friends Dave, Wendy, and Kyla that morning. By the time we returned in the mid-afternoon, we were so worn out (me + non-padded bike seats = not friends) that a massage was just about the only thing tempting enough to get us off the couch.

Dave and Wendy escorted us down to a bustling massage parlor in the neighborhood, and booked themselves in for foot massages while Jacob and I were shown to adjacent beds for back and shoulder massages. We had been warned in advance that a Taiwanese massage was not meant to be relaxing. These masseuses are experts in pressure points, have a preternatural ability to find knots you didn’t know you had, and make liberal use of their elbows. I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable experience, but the euphoric sense of well-being afterwards is worth it. I practiced Lamaze breathing throughout the massage, proud of myself for being able to manage the pain without complaining.

I was doing fine until the petite masseuse (who had been digging into my back with her elbow for the past ten minutes) moved on to new pressure points – on my butt. Now I don’t know if you have ever experienced someone poking at these pressure points on your butt (more like the side of your upper-leg, below the hips bone), but oh man. It hurts. At this point my resolve broke down and I channeled my pain by alternately laughing and going, “Ow. Ow. Ow. OW. OW. Ow.” All the masseuses working at the row of beds started giggling. I don’t make for a dignified massage patient.

Once released from pressure-point torture, the masseuse sympathetically brought me a paper cup of tea. It was a revelation. Made from roasted then boiled barley, the tea was nutty, cereal-y, complex, and refreshing all at once. And this, come to find out, was just one of the run-of-the-mill teas available in Taiwan, inexpensive and widely consumed. It was addiction at first sip.

A few days later we were on the tea-hunt in the mountains above Taipei, heading to an area called Maokong, well known for its tea fields and tea houses. Getting to Maokong was a picturesque trip in itself. After a subway ride to the Taipei Zoo, we boarded a gondola that took us high up into the mountains, passing lush jungle, temples, and tea fields on the way up. It was remarkable to be in such a quiet and peaceful place so close to Taipei.

Maokong is clearly set up for tourism, and offered us more to do than we had time for in one afternoon. We immediately trekked out to the Tea Promotion Center to visit a free museum on how tea is made, and drink a complimentary cup of red oolong tea. The museum was small and quiet, it’s main attraction (aside from the free tea) being its gorgeous surroundings and proximity to several hiking trailheads. After perusing the museum and drinking our tea, we started down one of the trails, passing through tea fields, bamboo groves, and meandering streams. The tea fields were a surprise to us.

I couldn’t say exactly what we were expecting, but it certainly wasn’t a field of very average looking bushes with thick, hardy leaves. Who was it who went around boiling leaves until they discovered that some leaves produced exquisite drinks? Who took it even further and decided to start drying, sorting, and rolling the leaves? Having had a small glimpse into the tea production process, our next goal was to experience a bit of tea culture.

I will confess that I know hardly anything about tea. I know that it has as rich and nuanced a culture surrounding it as wine, coffee, and chocolate. It is something you can develop a palate for, is steeped (hah, look! A pun!) in tradition and ritual, and can cost you tens of thousands of dollars if you are a connoisseur. I know that there are some types of teas I like more than others, but that is where my knowledge ends. If I wasn’t going to get a full master class on tea in Taiwan, at least I could experience some of the centuries-old tradition that can still found in Taiwan’s tea houses.

All of our research led us to Jiufen, one of northern Taiwan’s most famous destinations for tea houses. Jiufen is an old gold-mining town built onto the side of a steep hill overlooking Taiwan’s east coast. The town’s famous old street is a narrow lantern-lined passageway that winds it’s way uphill, weaving between rickety old wooden shops, tea houses, and occasionally opening up into beautiful panoramas of the coastline below.

Jiufen’s most iconic building is the Amei Tea House, which has become even more famous as the real-life inspiration for Miyazaki’s 2001 anime masterpiece, Spirited Away.  

When we arrived in Jiufen, after about an hour on the bus, it was overcast and bitterly cold from the wind kicking up along the coast. We dove immediately into the crowded old street, and started looking for food. There was a place we had read about, near the top of the town, that was famous for its taro ball soup.

As excited as Jacob was for the taro ball soup, I was skeptical. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth as it is, and a sweet soup didn’t sound very exciting to me. We got one bowl to split, tried a spoonful, and I immediately changed my mind. The soup was hot, fruity, and sweet, filled with chewy balls of sweet potato and taro mochi. On a cold day, it was the best thing I could have asked for. We ate our soup ridiculously fast, as I informed Jacob that we needed to come back for another bowl before we left Jiufen that day.  

Warmed up from our soup, we started exploring a bit more enthusiastically, checking out tea houses as we went along. We had a bit of a dilemma. As much as we wanted to try a tea house, Jacob and I balked at the idea of going anywhere too touristy. At the same time however, we were completely lost anywhere that didn’t have pictures on the menu. It was a catch-22.

Eventually we stumbled upon the famous Amei Tea House, queued up to take a picture, and noticed a tiny and sketchy looking stone passageway immediately next door.

We shimmied sideways through the narrow entrance, and ducked our heads through a cobwebbed low stone passage that looks like it had been untouched since Jiufen’s mining days.

Coming out the other end of the passage, we found ourselves in a quiet courtyard, standing in front of a massive old wooden tea house. This, we decided, was it.

We went inside the tea house, occupied only by the owners and a set of old women drinking tea. We were led to a table on a covered verandah, whose ancient windows shook and rattled whenever a gust of window hit the tea house. The hostess came to our table and lit a fire in a massive cauldron on the floor next to the table, then set a kettle of hot water on the fire.

She disappeared for a moment, and returned with a tray of clay dishes and wooden utensils. She set the tray on the table, and began to show us how to prepare the tea.

She started by scooping oolong tea into a tiny pot, placing the pot into a larger bowl, and then filling the pot until overflowing with water. Next, she placed tiny cups, hardly larger than a thimble, into the bowl, and poured the tea out over the cups. Using a pair of wooden tongs, she rinsed the dishes in the tea, then discarded the liquid. After she had placed the warm cups on a cloth outside the bowl, she poured more water into the tea pot, let it sit for about 30 seconds, then poured it a pitcher fitted with a strainer. From the pitcher the tea was poured into the thimble-cups. Next, a small bowl (our actual tea cups) was inverted over the cups, then flipped. Lifting the cup so the tea poured into the bowl, she held the cup up for us to smell, then presented us with our bowls of tea. We watched the entire process in awe.

This, she indicated to us, is what we were to do (more or less) to prepare the tea. Tossing the first water poured over new tea leaves was to wash off any impurities, after which the tea could be re-steeped roughly 6 times before it should be replaced with new tea. The oolong tea, even to our uneducated palates, was exquisite. It was light and floral, with a soft, almost creamy quality. The first cups were always the best, before the tea began to take on the slight bitter edge that I am familiar with from (likely sub-par) green tea.  

We spent the remainder of our afternoon in the tea house, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and drinking cup after tiny cup of tea. This, we decided, was a better tea experience than we could have even hoped for – a beautiful tea ceremony in an old, decidedly non-touristy tea house, and a few leisurely hours watching the storm clouds roll over while the lanterns lit up on the streets below.

The Street Food of Taipei

It’s always a challenge to talk about a trip after the fact. Friends ask us how our time in Taiwan was, and we instantly respond, “It was great…”, and then stop. Anything you say next would be a ridiculous oversimplification of your experience, but what other choice do you have?

My answer: “The food was amazing.”

And really, truly, it is.

Taiwan is famous for her bustling night markets, which open daily around 5:00 PM and run into the early morning hours. Many of the markets have shops and stalls selling clothes, trinkets, and cheap house supplies; but the real draw of a night market is the food. It is not a place where you go to do your grocery shopping – you go to eat.

True to form, we had researched the markets extensively prior to our trip, and had begun compiling a list of things we wanted to try before we even arrived. One evening in Vienna, we ate dinner while watching a 30-minute Youtube video of a person silently walking through a night market, zooming in on the food being prepared at every stand. We were glued to the screen for all 30 minutes.

This type of research actually wound up being excellent night market preparation. The markets are a maze of activity with seemingly endless food options – it is simply impossible to try everything. Furthermore, some markets are famous for certain offerings that you will not find anywhere else. Knowing all of this in advance helped us to prioritize our eating (very important), know what to look for, and better still, know what it was that we were eating.  

Once in Taiwan, we didn’t waste any time. The evening of our first day we ventured out to the massive Shilin Night Market with two friends, Dave and Kyla. Our first purchase was the most notorious of Taiwanese street foods: stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu is a common, albeit extremely divisive, find in Taiwan. It is made of tofu that has been allowed to ferment in brine and seasonings until it takes on an extremely pungent, funky smell. I would liken the smell to strong blue cheese that has been rubbed into really dirty, over-used gym socks, then left in a closed bag for two weeks.

You can find stinky tofu served in various levels of stink, but the version most often found at the night markets is on the less extreme side: the tofu is deep fried, covered with a sweet chili sauce, and served with sweet and sour cabbage.

Jacob and I bought one serving ($1.50 USD), and jumped in. As with most stinky foods, the flavor was much milder than the smell. The fried texture and sweet chili sauce helped to make the tofu more palatable, but the funk really pushed through in the aftertaste, lingering in your mouth until you ate something else.

Most of the stalls in the night markets are permanent fixtures, with small storefronts or open kitchens for cooking their food. Scattered throughout the aisles however, you can see the flow of people break around little carts manned by vendors selling trinkets, cooked quail eggs, baked sweet potatoes, and more. The small carts, according to Dave, are typically illegal vendors, who do not have the permission needed to set up a permanent shop.  “Just wait until the police come,” Dave said.

Less than five minutes later were standing in a broad aisle, with three or so of these “illegal vendors” in sight. Suddenly the one closest to us perks up her head, looks around quickly, then snaps shut her cart and disappears down a side alley – all in 10 seconds. The other vendors had disappeared just as quickly. A minute later a police man walked slowly down the aisle. Thirty seconds after they had passed, the vendors were back in place. None of us could figure out how the vendors had been alerted that the police were coming – “maybe they have an app for that.” ;)

After finding a place to dispose of the remains of our stinky tofu (we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish it all), we rounded a corner to find a line of 15-20 people extending out from a tent where a flurry of activity was taking place. We were too far away to see what the tent was offering, but the line was enough to convince us. If this many people found this particular stand worth waiting for, in an apparent sea of options, who were we to say they were wrong? 

As we got closer to the tent we found out that we were queueing for steamed and pan-fried pork buns, sold for a shockingly cheap 37 cents USD a piece. We each bought a bun, hot off the griddle, and bit into a soft and lightly crisped dough, topped with sesame seeds, and filled with deeply flavored pork dripping in its own gravy. It was one of those moments where everything goes quiet as you are filled with reverence and awe – like looking at the Sistine Chapel. Just imagine how much more amazing the Sistine Chapel would be with pork buns.

This experience drove home a lesson that would be our mantra for the remainder of our time in Taiwan: if you see people queueing for food, get in line. 

The Taiwanese have absolutely no qualms about waiting in line if the reward is deemed worthwhile. It is, in fact, such a documented phenomenon, that some stalls will hire people to form a queue just to entice other shoppers. Certain foods, restaurants, and stalls are so incredibly popular (made so by the food bloggers that have the Taipei market cornered), that queuing for the food, then posting a selfie with your prize, has become a status symbol.

Our “get in line” philosophy worked every time, without fail.

Another time we decided to just “get in line”, we wound up with the most addictive scallion pancakes you could possibly hope for. Jacob and I were roaming the streets of a trendy art district in Taipei, when we came across a line of people stretching past several storefronts. A quick investigation found that the line terminated here:

Five minutes later we had our own pancake ($1.00 USD) in hand, hot off the grill. The dough was savory and salty; doughy, crunchy, and chewy all at the same time. It was one of those foods where the very act of sinking your teeth into it feels very satisfying.  

As food is available virtually everywhere in Taipei, most of our daily adventures included either stumbling across something amazing to eat, or tracking down one of the food items on our list.

One of the things that topped our list was Gua Bao, one of Jacob’s and my favorite foods. Gua Bao is essentially a steamed bun, split open, and stuffed with sweet braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. It is a gorgeous, perfectly balanced combination of everything you could want in one bite: sweet, smoky, sour, meaty, with a soft bun, tender pork, crunchy peanuts, and a fresh hit of cilantro.

Unfortunately, it is not an easy dish to find in Europe. Now that Jacob and I were in the land of Gua Bao however, nothing was going to stop us. Until – we couldn’t find it. We didn’t see it in the night markets, and all of our wanderings around random food stalls down back alleys wasn’t turning up any Gua Bao. Eventually we described the dish to our hosts, asking if they had seen it before. Thankfully, Wendy believed she knew of a stand in their neighborhood that made it. Our eyes widened at the news. Gua Bao was close - closer than we even expected. Twenty minutes later we were following Wendy down a labyrinth of streets, dodging scooters, with a single goal in mind.

And then – there she was. A young woman worked the stand singlehandedly, selecting perfectly fatted pieces of pork belly from their braising liquid and stuffing them into little handfuls of heaven. She must have seen the anticipation in my eyes, like a dog straining at a leash, because she held out the first Gua Bao and said, “Take a picture!”. Yes, ma’am.

A couple of days later we were back at the stand, and she recognized us. “One Gua Bao?” she asked. “Three please!”. ($1.39 USD each)

On one of our last evenings in Taiwan, a small group of us made our way to the well-known Rahoe Night Market. This particular night market offered another one-of-a-kind street food that was high on our list: black pepper buns. Judging from the layout of Shilin Market, the buns might be a challenge to find, but it would be worth the effort.

It turns out that we had found the buns almost before we entered the market. Forty people waited in a line stretched out past the market entrance, corded off into a snaking queuing order like airport security.

As opposed to the typical Taiwanese bun, which are made of a soft dough and steamed until fluffy, these buns are baked. We watched as a small crew of cooks worked furiously to stuff the dough with an unbelievable amount of black pepper pork and green onions, then close up the bun and stick it to the side of a large drum-like oven. Once the bun fell of the side of the oven, it was cooked and ready to go.

They were so hot when we got them that we all burnt our mouths on the buns. “Worth it”, we said, as we tried to keep eating and cool off our mouths at the same time. ($1.50 USD each)

We spent just under two weeks in Taiwan, so as you can imagine, I could keep going for a long time. Rather than telling you about each thing, here is a visual synopsis of our street food. (And that isn’t even including anything we ate in restaurants – I saved those amazing experiences for another blog post.)

Adventures in Taiwan: "Why Taiwan?"

For the past several months, every time Jacob and I told someone that we were going on vacation to Taiwan, the first question out of their mouths was, “why Taiwan?”.

It’s an unusual question, if you think about it. How often do you ask why someone is going on vacation to an exotic foreign country? It is the sort of question you typically ask only if you are not sure what the draw to that country is. Our friends and acquaintances were not alone in asking this. All of our research indicated that Taiwan is the undiscovered gem of Asia – a gorgeous, inexpensive, accessible, and friendly country, that, within Asia, is acknowledged as the food destination.  

Our immediate answer to the question was: “We have friends in Taipei. Also, the food.” And while this was 100% true (in fact, our times with our friends and making new friends proved to be the highlight of our stay), Taiwan has a lot to offer beyond that.

Here’s what you need to know about Taiwan. Taipei, the capital city of this small island nation, sits in the north of the island. The climate is tropical, so even in the middle of winter the weather remains pleasant (especially for the likes of Jacob and I, leaving the snow to arrive to 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Taiwan is the subject of a long history of dispute between the Chinese and the Japanese, while also absorbing strong cultural influences from the Dutch, the Spanish (as a result of maritime trading hubs throughout the island), and in more recent history, the United States. The result is a true “melting pot” of culture. The cuisine is one of the places where this “melting pot” is most visible, and a big reason why the food is so remarkable.

It also means that, for travelers like Jacob and I, who have very little experience in the Eastern Hemisphere, Taiwan provides less of a culture shock than other countries might. In fact, that was one of the first observations Jacob and I made when we landed in Taipei.

As tired as we were from 22+ hours of traveling, we knew exactly where we needed to go in the airport and what we needed to do. We bought a two-week SIM card with unlimited data for $15 USD before we even collected our baggage. Making the purchase at the kiosk was straightforward and uncomplicated. Purchasing our bus tickets to the city was equally simple, and the area to queue for the bus was well-marked. Before long, we had met with our friends and were taking the subway home, without once feeling like we had fallen out of our depth.

The next day the cultural differences started to become more apparent (or perhaps we were simply more observant), but Taiwan always struck a delightful balance of being totally new and “other”; stretching us past our previous experiences without ever becoming too much to handle.

We stayed with our friends (Dave and Wendy Hudson, long-time family friends and all-around wonderful people) in their home in the district of Tamsui.

Tamsui sits along the north coast of Taiwan, and the mouth of a river that runs south through the city. While Tamsui is somewhat outside of the city center (“city center” is not really a fair description though – Taipei is a bit like New York city, split into districts that each have their own hubs of actions), it provided a vibrant and action-packed home-base for our stay.  

Our first morning we ventured out into our neighborhood just to begin absorbing the sights and sounds. The streets are relatively narrow, flanked by four or five-story apartment buildings, with store fronts lining the streets. Scooters zip by haphazardly, making crossing the street a chaotic dance that requires a lot of feigned confidence but somehow always worked out. The smell of food is everywhere, wafting out of restaurants (that make up just about every third storefront) and food stalls that pop up like mushrooms on most streets.   

Wendy guided us to the start of the covered wet market (selling produce, fish, and meat, etc.) and set us loose to roam. The sensory immersion was incredible. We pushed through narrow aisles, avoiding people on scooters, ducking around shoppers and displays of fresh vegetables, trays of fish, hanging meat, stacks of prepared food, and fielding the constant call and chatter of the vendors hawking their goods.

We turned round a corner from the market and found ourselves in an unexpected pocket of quiet. We had entered a temple courtyard sitting in deep shadow, and the noise level dropped from near-chaos to near-silence. The suddenness of the change was staggering. We took a moment to breath in the silence, smell the burning incense, and plunged back into the market.

At the end of the covered market we popped out into a busy shopping street and smelled something really good. The smell of freshly baked sweet bread floated our way, and we saw a line of 7-8 people queued in front of a stall that was just pulling a massive tray of super fluffy cake or bread out of the oven. Naturally, we were curious and got in line. As we debated what it was and whether we should be purchasing it, the young woman in front of us turned around and gave us a thumbs up, and said “very good”. We smiled and thanked her, and every-so-often she would turn around again and repeat, “very, very good”.

She was right. We purchased a slab for ourselves (they only sold it in one size: huge), and sat down on the steps of 7-Eleven (which are everywhere in Taipei) to eat it. It was something between a cake and an egg bread, ridiculously fluffy, lightly sweet, custardy, and layered with melted cheese for a slightly salty bite. We ate about 1/8th of it between us, thinking that our first food purchase was boding well for the rest of our time in Taiwan.

Later on, Wendy found an article on the cake we had purchased (called Original Cake), which had apparently originated in the Tamsui district and had become a sensation. The article talks about how the company had just opened a new store in Malaysia, where people were queuing for hours at a time just to get a piece.

In the afternoon Jacob and I walked along the bustling waterfront with Bubble Tea in hand (Taiwan is the birth place of Bubble Tea! Did you know?), and met a very smiley old man walking a dog that had been styled to look like a goat. Because…why not?

And there my friends, I will pause this story with a “To be continued”. But please don’t worry - there is a lot more to come: more photos, more stories, and definitely more food.

Ice Skating on the Danube River

Amid the humdrum weeks after Christmas, when winter starts to really soak into your bones and make you long for Spring, something special has been happening in Vienna. 

This January has been the coldest in Austria in 11 years; the thermostat sticking stubbornly around 15 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end. This also means that, for the first time in 11 years, the Danube River has frozen over. 

I first noticed it one day at work, after a foggy night had frozen onto the trees of the park next to my office, covering every branch and twig in ice that glittered in the sun. 

As I looked out the window towards the river, I saw a little black stick figure walking in the middle of the Danube. I did a second-take. Is that a person?!

Now those of you from ghastly-cold places like Michigan and Siberia are probably rolling your eyes. I am sure this is hardly exciting for you.  Well for me, and most others from moderate-weather places, it's mind blowing. Sure, I have experienced blizzards and ice-storms before, but those are typically weather flukes that strike, paralyze the world for a couple days, then melt back into respectable moderation. The type of sustained cold required to freeze over a massive river is a new experience for me. 

And I'm not the only one who thinks it's cool. CNN even produced a short segment on the freezing of the Danube, with my office building visible in the background.

Today Jacob and I decided to dust off my languishing ice skates and spend some time on the river. I had never walked out on a frozen river (or lake) before, much less had so grand an ice skating rink available to me. 

I was a bit nervous to see large patches of running water as we got off the bridge, until I realized that the heat generated by the trains was probably keeping the ice from forming in that particular area. As long as we stayed away from the bridge (and near the other people who were safely on top of the ice - not under it), we would be fine. 

One of the coolest parts of being on the river was seeing the variations in how the ice had formed. In some areas the ice was a matte gray, giving way to steaks of deeper blue. In other areas it was clear that the ice had melted and broken away, then re-froze.  

The most stunning sight was how the ice had formed, broken, and re-formed around permanent fixtures in the water, like this pedestrian draw-bridge. 

Also, have you missed our faces? Well, here you go. You'll be seeing a lot more of them as we start posting pictures and stories from our upcoming trip to Taiwan!

Recipe: Rum Manhattan

I am not going to say too much, I am just going to leave this right here: 

I am calling it a Rum Manhattan. It may have another name somewhere in the world, but as this classy Mad Men-esque drink came directly from the brilliant mind of Jacob, I don't know what that name is. The drink is reminiscent of a good Whiskey Manhattan though (one of my all time favorite drinks), so Rum Manhattan it is.

It goes something like this: one part spiced rum, one part sweet vermouth. Off to a good start, aren't we?

Then we add in some Grand Marnier for a decadent orange edge, balance it out with some lemon, and add two types of bitters for depth and complexity. 

Are you sold yet? Thought so, here's the recipe:

Exploring the Gard Region of Southern France

My family comes from the Gard region of Languedoc Roussillon, a stunningly beautiful, but comparatively little known area of Southern France. While many visitors to France head over to the more famous Provence and Cote D’Azur regions (just bordering Languedoc Roussillon), they miss out on a stunning area of France filled with medieval villages, vineyards, dramatic mountains, rivers, ravines, castles, and gorgeous coastline.

I could write for hours on all of the things to do or see in the region, but for now I will focus specifically on the Gard, the eastern-most province of Languedoc Roussillon. The Gard is characterized by a landscape of rolling hills and rivers that build into the grand Massif-Central Cevennes mountain range. The area is predominantly agricultural, meaning that between the quaint villages, your drives around the Gard will be filled with gorgeous panoramas of vineyards, sunflower fields, and iconic tree lined avenues. 

The agricultural nature of the Gard also means that the area still preserves many strong food and food-making traditions. You can turn down nearly any gravel road and find yourself at an independent winery or a farm selling house-made goat cheese, pâté, honey, and more.

 To the south, the Gard does offer a small spit of coastline, but frankly, it is not as nice as many of the beaches that can be found to the east and the west. If you want to go for a swim in the Gard area, do as the locals do and head to a river. Mountain rivers score the landscape, often cutting through deep ravines and spanned by gorgeous Medieval bridges and aqueducts. Grab your swim gear and water shoes and you are sure to find a well-beaten foot path leading down to the water’s edge.

To the north, the Gard is hedged with dramatic mountain ranges, sweeping panoramas, and enough lovely mountain villages to get lost in for months at a time. There is so much to see and explore in the Cevennes mountains that you may just find yourself packing a picnic and driving up the first mountain road you find. Regardless of which one you take, you are bound to find yourself somewhere beautiful.  

The pace of life is slow in the Gard, and can best be enjoyed by allowing yourself the time to relax, enjoy long, leisurely meals, and take sunset walks. There is certainly enough to do in the Gard that you could pack your visit full of activities, but to get the most out of the local culture, I would recommend purposefully slowing down – even if that means doing less.

That being said however, let’s get to the list of things you won’t want to miss in the Gard.

Recipe: Plum Clafoutis

Meet my new favorite dessert, the Plum Clafoutis.

Last Autumn, Jacob and I "discovered" Tarte Tatin, an upside-down French apple tart. Yum. It is delicious, impressive, and baked in caramel, which means making it is a pain in the butt...I mean, labor of love. 

The technique includes making a butter caramel in a heavy skillet, then cooking the apples in the soft caramel sauce, and covering everything with puff pastry before transferring the whole deal to the oven. After baking comes the ever-treacherous flip, which has flung molten caramel across my kitchen more than once. 

In comparison, you have the Plum Clafoutis, our current summer obsession. A Plum Clafoutis uses a similar technique as the Tarte Tatin, while thankfully leaving out the dangerous bits (I have spent a lot less time scrubbing burnt sugar off my stove this time around).

The plums are cooked briefly in butter and sugar, forming a thick syrup around the plums and giving the fruit a caramelized bite. The fruit and syrup is then transferred to a pie tin, topped with an eggy, pancake-like batter, then popped into the oven to finish baking. While baking, the cake puffs up (similar to a Dutch Baby), and the plums rise to the surface to show off. 

Topped with powdered sugar before serving, a Clafoutis makes a unique and elegant dessert, while also pairing beautifully with coffee for brunch or an afternoon tea. 

Best of all, the a Clafoutis is a highly customizable cake, and can be made with just about any summer stone fruit you have on hand. Cherries? No problem. Peaches? Nectarines? Go for it. While the small sweet-sour Zwetschgen plums are plentiful in Vienna though, I will be making a lot of Clafoutis. 

Finding the Heart of France

After years of visiting my family home in Southern France, this has become my favorite sight:

A closed gate. This gate means the afternoon is winding down and you are home to stay. This gate means that the day's excursions are done - everyone has returned to the nest and nothing else is needed. 

This is my second favorite sight: 

From the edge of the terrace you can look over the pool, the mountains as they change color in the setting sun, and the barbecue - usually tended by a small group of people, all with their glasses of wine. 

This is what you see when you turn around: 

People bustling in and out of the kitchen, listening to music, setting the table, and putting the final touches on dinner.

Food has always been my way of connecting with France. This may not come as a surprise to you - I mean, it is me after all. You already know that I really love food. And then, of course it is France, the land of baguettes, cheese (more than 365 different types!), and wine.

It goes deeper than that however. Everywhere you look, you can see people folding the rituals of food, food making, and eating into their lives. 

You can see it in how an elderly neighbor and long-time family friend stops by to present us with a bottle of his homemade Cartagen, a sweet regional liquor made from freshly pressed grapes.

Or how his wife still keeps my Grandmother's old books on identifying mushrooms, and knows all the right places to forage.

You can see it in the bee keeper, a friend from church, who takes his bee hives "up to pasture" to the aromatic hilltops of the Ardeche so his bees produce a richer honey.

Or how the little old man at the weekly market in Uzes sets up a small card table displaying two plastic boxes filled with goat cheese. He only has two kinds: Less dry and more dry, and it is the most complex and flavorful goat cheese you could ever hope to try. 

One of our favorite days came as a tip from my cousin - a talented wine maker with a thriving business. He told us of a wine festival taking place in nearby Anduze, a picturesque town situated along a river on the edge of the mountains. The festival would feature over 25 local, independent wine-makers - my cousin being one of them. 

The next day Jacob and I drove over to Anduze, and walked into the festival. The park was pleasantly busy - not crowded, but bustling with people tasting wine, having picnics, children riding mini horses, and buskers playing old-fashioned French vaudeville music. 

We paid the 4 Euro entry fee that granted us a wine glass and booklet for taking notes, and the tasting began. The vintners were set up in a semi-circle, each with 2-3 wines on display. All you had to do was approach a winemaker, let them know which wine you would like to try (we chose to stick with the reds - there were a lot of wines to try and we weren't planning on getting wasted), make small talk and take notes as desired, then thank them and move on. If you decided to purchase a bottle that would be handled at another tent separate from the tasting area. 

As someone who loves samples, but always feels guilty taking one without buying anything...I'm not alone in this, am I? Anyways, having an entire wine festival dedicated to pressure-free sampling made me giddy with joy (the wine helped too). Why don't more festivals do it this way? You could have easily spent the entire day there, drinking over 60 wines, for a grand total of 4 Euros - and you get to keep the glass.

In all these things I saw a common thread: a love for a life that finds pleasure in community, beauty in the simple things, and refuses to be hurried or pressured along. You could see it in the fact that the festival's entry fee was €4, as opposed to $50.00 as it could have easily been elsewhere. I realized it with a jolt when trying to run errands and finding all of the department stores closed for lunch between noon and 2 pm.  

It is difficult, as a visitor, to enter into the same slow stream that characterizes the south of France. It takes time for your heart to start beating slower, for your mind to stop racing, to let yourself relax into the beauty of simply being

So Jacob and I (and the rest of my family as well - we were in good company), hit the brakes and forced ourselves to wind down the fastest way we knew how: through cooking.

This year in France was a special one. It had been 12 years since this much of my family had been together in France at once. It was also the first time that we all really cooked together. My brother taught me recipes he created for the restaurant he is opening in Sydney. I taught him how to make green beans taste better than he thought possible. We brainstormed dishes to challenge each other and show off our skills, then had 6 sets of willing hands ready to act as sous-chefs.  

Over a week and a half we made lemon-stuffed trout, lavender-smoked artichokes, fried chicken and collard-style green beans, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, ricotta and olive stuffed peppers, American-style ribs and truffle macaroni and cheese, and much more. Not every experiment was a blazing success, but everything tasted amazing.

This is the beating heart of what I love about France. "My France" is slow mornings, lazy hot days, afternoon naps, and long, long evenings spent around the dinner table. My France is food shopping, wine tasting, bursts of activity before dinner, and star-gazing late into the night. 

I have always found the romance of France to be an elusive one to capture. In some places, you can find a city's pulse by simply strolling its streets and feeling its vibrancy. But walking France's markets and cobblestoned villages only left me skimming the surface of what I've always known to be a deeper pool. Finding that connection this year (in food, what else?) filled me with enough ideas and thoughts to fill a book - and so, I am starting to write one. It may take years to finish, but it will be full of stories of the people, the food, and the stories that cut straight to the heart of southern France.

But while you wait, I will give you some recipes. Stay tuned. :) 

 

 

Sardinia and Dreams of Food

My earliest food memories are not of eating but of cooking. My mother made nearly everything she cooked from scratch, spoiling us kids with French delicacies while we complained about having to eat mushroom and red wine infused Boeuf Bourguignon “again”. She also had to deal (quite frequently) with my brothers and I staring into a half empty fridge, whining “there is nothing to eat!”. “Yes there is,” she would always reply, “you just have to make it”.

So I did – and haven’t stopped.

Sitting on the breathtaking beaches of Sardinia kick-started some deep personal reflection. I find that whenever I am on holiday, with time to slow down, breathe, and dream about the future, I end up wandering back over to the same subject: food and cooking.

I realized how much my mother’s approach to cooking shaped my own perspective on food (thank you, Mom!). She taught me how to cook by instinct, to know by taste which layers of flavor are missing and which ingredients a finished dish contains. She coached me, through years of cooking failures and successes, to understand what techniques produce what results. She taught me the value that comes from cooking your own food: how it gives you freedom, control, and teaches you balance.

While in Sardinia, Jacob and I had two exceptional meals, both of which left a lasting impression for something other than the food.

The first was on a day-long boat trip we took to visit some of the coves that were only accessible via boat. We chose to book with a company that used smaller boats and limited their passengers to around 30. The trip offered lunch and aperitifs along with several stops at gorgeous pristine white coves with crystalline water. In the morning the atmosphere on the boat was slightly strained. All of the guests were jockeying for a prime spot to enjoy the trip, perhaps secretly wishing (as I was), that they could have had the boat to themselves.

People relaxed slowly as the morning wore on, but at lunch there was a transformation. Guests were seated at bench tables that accommodated six. A crisp white wine stood waiting on each table alongside a basket of bread. Stilted introductions were made, and the same old small talk questions as always were exchanged: “where do you come from? How do you like Sardinia?”. The first course was served: a typical Sardinian dish made with small Fregola pasta, a thin wine and tomato based sauce, and lots of seafood. Amidst the mounds of Fregola were crab legs, langoustine in their shell, calamari, and mussels. Things started to get messy, cracking into crab legs and peeling shrimp. Wine was poured. The dish had the ephemeral sweet taste of the sea. People began to relax, and talk. Real questions, and real answers. The room became louder with chatter and laughter.

The second course was served: whole shrimp, head still attached, sautéed in butter, herbs, and a local liquor, served in a large dish to share. More wine was poured. By this time the whole table was laughing, slurping at shrimp shells and accepting heaping second helpings. Our table re-filled our dish three times. I had never tasted such sweet shrimp.

Next came dessert – lemon sorbet served with coffee and tea. Finally, the captain came around with two bottles of ice cold liquor in hand, both homemade. One was a Sardinian style grappa that burned as it went down, the other, a thick and sweet liquor made of the myrtle berries that grow thick on the island.

By the time lunch was over everyone on the boat was friends, smiling benevolently at each other and sharing their previously coveted space. It struck me how effectively food can bring people together. It can break down walls, and build trust. A shared meal is a powerful thing.


Our second exceptional meal in Sardinia was at an unusual seafood restaurant tucked down at the end of a dirt road. Seafood in Sardinia is not especially cheap, but Jacob and I knew we wanted to have one glorious meal where we indulged in all the fresh seafood we could not find in Vienna. My research turned up a restaurant that was reviewed as having exceptionally fresh seafood for the price. We made our reservations and gave ourselves extra time to drive out to the coast and find the restaurant. Our directions took us through the industrial port, down a quiet dirt road along the water that ended in a fishing co-op. We parked and looked around, but there was no sign of the restaurant. The fishing co-op was surrounded by water on both sides – the sea to one side and a bay on the other. Walking over to a bridge, we saw a flaking and sun-faded wooden sign for the restaurant. It pointed across the bridge, and down a further dirt road. Crossing the bridge, we stopped to look at ropes full of cultivating mussels, and large tanks whose water roiled the movement of fish. This was clearly where our dinner would come from.

We walked down the empty dirt road for about ten minutes before we came to a small building on the edge of the bay, isolated and surrounded by pines. The restaurant did not open until 7:30, so we waited as other guests arrived on foot for their reservations. We were seated and brought a pitcher of house wine.  No menus were provided – we had simply told them how many courses we wanted when making the reservation. Now, they would bring us what they had prepared for the evening.

First came a cold salad of perfectly tender squid, octopus, cuttlefish and potatoes. The salad was dressed in only the barest of lemon and olive oil, letting the delicate flavor of the seafood shine through.

Our second course was a massive bowl of fresh mussels steamed in white wine and butter. The sauce was light and pleasantly briny, once again allowing the sweet mussels to be the star of the dish.

Our third course was another seafood Fregola, like the one eaten on the boat, studded with large pieces of lobster, crab, squid, and clams.

Next a plate arrived with two full grilled sea bream, adorned only with a slice of lemon. As I informed Jacob with every course, I had never had such fresh or perfectly cooked fish. It was a revelation of how incredible a white fish could be.

Finally, the meal ended with hefty slices of sweet watermelon, as Jacob and I discussed how glad we were that we had only taken the smallest of the two fixed price menus - €25 each for 5 courses and a bottle of wine.

Being so close to the source of our food that evening reminded me of how my own fascinations were reflected in the cooking choices I made when I was young. As a child I would go through phases of food obsession. I had a deviled egg phase: For several weeks, I made deviled eggs whenever I had the chance. I also had a garlic bread stage. That ended the day my mother leaned over to me in church, sniffed once, and stated “you smell like garlic”. Another phase revolved around melted cheddar cheese – particularly how the oil would separate out and fry the remaining curd, leaving a lacy and crisp cheese cracker behind.

4 years ago, Jacob and I spent a month in Sweden and found ourselves immersed in a world that I have since come to deeply appreciate. At the time it was a shock. We were newly married, fresh off the plane from San Diego, embarking on a disorienting 6-month trip around Europe. That trip was life changing in many ways (it brought us to Vienna!), but that month in Sweden continues to impact me. Our host family folded us into their slow, peaceful pace of life, teaching us how to bake bread, harvest vegetables, and forage for edible herbs, berries, and mushrooms from the forest. We only scratched the surface of all there was to learn. I will never forget the day I first found summer chanterelle mushrooms on my own, and came home with pockets full of golden treasure.

Since then, my fascination with the fundamental crafts of cooking has grown exponentially. I want to learn everything. I want to understand where my food comes from. I want to spend a year on a vineyard tending vines and making wine. I want to learn how to butcher meat and clean a fish. I want to make sourdough bread with my own yeast starter, and learn to forage and identify edible plants by their leaves and smell. These fascinations are, in my mind, a grown up, rounded-out expression of the same interest that drove my “deviled egg phase”, and I am sure, will continue to shape the future I dream of.  

Ball Season in Vienna

Once again I find myself needing to recap months at a time on this blog, only to ask myself: But what did I even do in the last months? As it turns out (and I didn't realize until now), the answer is: A LOT. 

So let's dive in, starting with the earliest first: 

The IAEA Ball

Vienna is one of the few places I know of that still has a strong culture of balls. The official start date of Ball Season takes place sometime in November, and reaches it's peak in January and February. According to the Vienna city website, over 450 balls take place each year. Frankly, that is astounding to me. How, when the rest of the world casually swapped balls for gala fundraisers (on one side of the economic spectrum) and house parties (on the other side of the economic spectrum), did Vienna manage to hold on?

The balls tend to be split by networks or profession. For example, you have one ball for lawyers, another for bakers, another for Coffee House Owners (no kidding), one for the IAEA section of the United Nations, one for people who like hiphop, etc. The balls vary in size and formality, but if you look around, you are bound to find one that you are interested in. 

Rumor is that there are tours groups (typically from Asia) that offer ball seasons to young women who want to feel like a European princess for a winter. The ladies are put up in hotels with chaperones, given dancing lessons, taken shopping for gowns, and provided with well groomed young men to be their prince for the evening - and every evening, of every ball they attend. Google has yet to confirm this for me.  

We attended the IAEA Ball, one of the largest in Vienna, with a small group of good friends. Finding a ball gown was easy enough for me, though a tuxedo for Jacob was another story. The dress codes are strict - men must wear a tuxedo and bowtie, or will be barred entry. Bowties are sold at the door at appropriately exorbitant prices for anyone left in a pinch. Another option (as it is a United Nations organization hosting the ball) is to wear your "national dress". We considered seeing if Jacob could get away in a pair of Levi's as "American national dress", but thankfully a friend came through with a borrowed tuxedo that was exactly Jacob's size.

Prior to the ball start we met for coffee and cake at Landtmann's, a classic Viennese cafe close to the Hofburg Palace, where the event was held. I may be sentimental about my family's history in Vienna (I have pictures of my Grandparents dancing at the famous Vienna Opera Ball in the 1970's), but sitting in that cafe made me feel like I was connected to ball-goers spanning across hundreds of years, all meeting in this particular cafe for a glass of Sekt before going to dance the night away.

And the truth is, in many ways, it seemed like the balls hadn't changed a bit since then - except that, back then, everyone would have known how to dance. And no one would have been taking cell-phone selfies. Our group had met the week previously to practice our two steps, rhumbas, and viennese waltzes, but unfortunately one evening of instruction was not enough for Jacob and I to counteract a lifetime of ignorance. (Although we tried, and had lots of fun)

The ball itself was made up of several halls, each offering different types of music. In the main hall an orchestra played the classic Viennese waltzes and ballrooms dances, while adjunct rooms offered Jazz, Latin, an IAEA talent show (which I avoided), a Beatles cover band, and a "silent disco". The silent disco (relatively new to the ball repertoire I am sure), consisted of people putting on headphones and self consciously dancing to the music no one else can hear. If someone understands the appeal, feel free to explain it to me. 

Jacob and I stuck mostly to the Beatles cover-band and main hall, though our dancing skills were far from impressive. Thankfully, however, with so many cultures and walks-of-life represented, there was by no means an expectation that everyone would be an expert at the dizzying Viennese waltz. A galant and practiced dancer from our group did ask me to dance once or twice, which provided me with the distinct sensation of, "Oh. So that is how this dance is supposed to go". That is, I imagine, the advantage of wearing a long and flowing skirt to a ball - no one can see that your feet are just trying to keep up.

Aside from the dancing, which many people were very serious about, the main pastime of the ball was people-watching. The parade of gowns and national dress was truly spectacular; an activity that could have easily occupied you for the entire evening. 

Our group had reserved a table away from the main area of the ball so that we had a quiet place to retreat to whenever we wanted to rest our feet and escape the crowds for a few minutes. I was surprised when I picked up the menu of food that could be ordered to your table. The menu was short and did not contain the types of foods I would have imagined at a ball. Where was the beef tartare and caviar? Why was there goulash and sausage with bread on the menu? 

Come to find out, sausage with bread (with champagne of course) IS traditional ball food. This is, in fact, the true Viennese way to eat at a ball - and I love it. There was something so refreshing about pairing the opulence of a ball with the same no-nonsense food you would order from a Wurstelstand on the street. 

Scattered throughout the evening were ceremonies, such as the entrance of the debutantes, all dressed in white, to dance a Viennese waltz. At midnight everyone is taught to dance a quadrille by the Master of Ceremonies. Our group had stationed ourselves in the main hall well before midnight for this particular dance - only to find that a 70's cover band with afro wigs was performing past their time slot. At 20 past midnight we left the main hall during "It's Raining Men", and the quadrille began 15 minutes later. 

Jacob and I lasted until roughly 1:30 am before we decided to call it a night. By our party standards, 1:30 definitely qualified as dancing the night away. 

By the way, you can read more about the balls here - it is really fascinating: Vienna Ball Season. (And more here if you are really interested.)