The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Taipei’s Night Markets

When the Republic of China retreated from the mainland in 1949, they brought to Taiwan the elite culinary tastes from all over the country. Combined with delicious indigenous food, a Japanese occupation and terrific local ingredients and it should be no surprise that Taiwan has some of the world’s best food. In less than two weeks, I ate the best Shanghai dumplings, fried chicken, pulled noodles and Japanese pork I’ve ever had. Even just one of those meals would worth the plane ticket. The food is so consistent even 7-11 sushi is good.

As a Portlander, I’m very proud of my hometown’s food carts. They’re cheap, yummy and drive a lot of the culinary innovation on the West Coast. But Portland’s Cartopia has nothing on Taiwan’s night markets, the food at Taiwan’s carts are better, cheaper and open later. The markets don’t just have Taiwan’s wide-range food—some have hip clothing stores, cheesey fair games and stalls selling baubles. Walking around Shilin Night Market with a camera was terrific fun with all the different types of people enjoying the place. The only problem? It’s hard to photograph when you’re spending the entire time eating the street food.

North Korean Food for Thought

North Korea announced it would dismantle its plutonium plant, supposedly ending its nuclear weapons program for good. In response, the United States took North Korea off its list of terrorist state sponsors — and I went to dinner.

Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh is owned and operated by the North Korean government, meaning all profits are sent directly back Kim Jong-il’s government, and now that North Korea is no longer a terrorist nation, I can enjoy my kimchi guilt free.

With a restaurants in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, the totalitarian country’s foray into capitalism in Cambodia has been a runaway success. North Korea opened its first Cambodian restaurant in Siem Reap in 2003, and it was an immediate hit — especially with the growing number of South Korean tourists and businessmen.

Largely because of Norodom Sihanouk’s ties to North Korea, Cambodia has maintained diplomatic relations with North Korea, allowing the restaurants to set up shop. Sihanouk has been a regular resident of North Korea since being ousted in 1970 and has even befriended fellow movie-buff Kim Jong-il.

Estimates of the exact number of North Korean-run restaurants abroad vary but most put the number around one hundred. These restaurants play an important role in the North Korean economy, funneling tens of millions of dollars of foreign currency into Kim Jong-il’s coffers — necessary because the North Korean won is not convertible.

North Korean waitresses from Restaurant Pyongyang entertain patrons

While some North Korean-run restaurants in China blare propaganda films and plaster Kim Jong-il’s face on every possible surface, the restaurants in Cambodia are apolitical. In the Phnom Penh restaurant, customers can sit under a painting of a tiger with a disproportionately small head and watch a flat screen playing soothing films of North Korean waterfalls.

The food at Pyongyang Restaurant is expensive for Cambodia — US$6 to $22 per entrée — but it’s top notch Korean food. The ox-tail was tender, and the kimchi was both spicy and tangy. The restaurant also sells rare North Korean products like ginseng, honey and bear bile at outlandish prices. But people don’t just come for the bile.

At eight pm, the well-coiffed waitresses wearing identical pale blue, polka-dotted dresses and four inch heels take a break from serving to sing, dance and play traditional instruments. One waitress plays the electric keyboard, while the rest take turns belting out Korean songs. After doing the show day after day, the waitresses’ twirls and arm movements are perfectly in sync with each other, and the staff never stops smiling — ever.

By nine, the clientele, which had been enthusiastically drinking North Korean rice wine, started singing Korean karaoke with the waitresses. All of the servers are slim with faces pale from white make-up. All the waitresses have gone through a strict selection process in North Korea where they were chosen based on their appearance and loyalty to the government. Most of the waitresses are from well-connected North Korean families that could face retribution if their relative escaped. Despite this assurance, the waitresses are not allowed to explore Cambodia unattended.  Somehow, this results in excellent service. Really excellent service. When I left, one grinning waitress sprinted across the restaurant to make sure she was there to thank me as I left.

Most people are not allowed into North Korea, but they can go to Pyongyang Restaurant  and get a taste of the world’s most secretive nation.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Uighur Food in Hotan

Fatty lamb spiced with cumin, chili peppers, and an herb called zir brought me to Xinjiang. While there, I happily put myself on a spiced lamb and starch diet.

For hundreds of years, cooking practices and spices flowed along the Silk Road from Central Asia to China and back again. At the center of this trade was what is now Xinjiang. Not surprisingly, Uighurs developed a cuisine that reflects the region’s history as a bridge between cultures. This delicious hybrid cuisine differentiates itself from neighboring cuisines with its masterful use of spices. Cumin and saffron arrived from the west and star anise and Sichuan pepper flakes came from the east. Uighur cooks will carefully mix these spices from around the globe and put them on big, fatty pieces of lamb.

You can eat this lamb most famously with hand-pulled noodles and peppers (laghman), in a rice pilaf (polo), or on skewers. In each of these the lamb is prepared differently, and each of these is delicious. Typically the lamb skewers have one piece of meat that is just a hunk of spiced fat—somehow though, it’s tender and not chewy.

In Hotan—a city along a southern Silk Road route—I ate polo, a Uighur rice pilaf. The lamb had been steamed with the rice, making the rice oily with fat. Two softball-sized chunks of lamb were then plopped on the bed of rice. The cooks mixed in some shredded carrots, a small amount of yogurt, and spices. It’s a simple dish, but in its mix of spices one can taste the history of Silk Road.

And it’s delicious.

A Valentine’s Day White Linen Affair

Long before St. Valentine was martyred on February 14, 269 AD, the day has been an important holiday. Valentine’s Day can be traced back all the way to a Roman festival, Lupercalia, a holiday that involved being whipped to ensure ones fertility. Though, I suspect the modern Valentine’s Day can be much more painful.

Three of us—all without Valentines for the night—decided that we wanted to go on a nice date for the holiday. We dressed to the nines. The men wore ties and put on too much cologne. Paul even wore these fancy snake skin loafers and a blazer. Julie put on a nice dress and some classy make-up. At the extremely popular restaurant of our choice, we put down our own white table cloth, lit our own candle, and busted out our own rosé. Nothing would get in the way of our romantic, three person date.

And let me tell you, rosé goes well with a french fries. We had our own white linen affair at the golden arches. Even though we ate our burgers with knives and forks, our McValentines Day didn’t get the attention that we thought it might. Though an apologetic manager did take notice of us and asked us to blow out our candle. We didn’t have any local Hong Kongers take photos of us, but I’d say we made our point (whatever it was), and we certainly had a blast doing it. Our date at McDonalds poked fun at the hokeyness of the holiday, but we really just wanted to avoid being lonely on V-day, which can surely be more excruciating than any the February 14th lashings in ancient Rome.

The Durian Column

In the last few days, I’ve had pig’s neck, ox’s tail, steamed frog legs, and of course chicken feet. But far and away, my most courageous gustatory adventure was eating durian.

On the outside, a durian is a green, spikey rugby ball of a fruit. If it fell from a tree onto you, you’d probably die. I guess the Autumn chestnuts of 32nd Place no longer seem so intimidating.

Once open, the smell is overwhelming. Supposedly, Hong Kong has banned people from taking the fruit onto mass transit for fear that it would crack open, exposing riders to an aroma somewhere between a rotten papaya and a gym sock.

Even more than its appearance or odor, the most other worldly aspect of the durian is the taste. The adjective normally attached to its flavor is the unhelpful “indescribable” Of course, this was why I had to try it in the first place. I’d venture to compare durian to pungent, gooey cheese soaked in sherry. But, I enjoyed it. I’ve also heard the taste—equally accurately—described as custard that has passed through a sewer

Also, not unlike Pepsi and Pop Rocks, I’ve been told that if you eat durian within hours of drinking beer, your bowels will explode. Thankfully, it appears that this is an unfounded culinary legend.

Though to end on a note of caution, if any food secretly contained Martian seeds that resulted in an alien exploding from one’s stomach, it would certainly be the durian.

Maybe I just got lucky.

The Magical Powers of Hot Chocolate

I think everyone can agree that certain foods and beverages have magical powers. Tea—particularly proper British tea—has the power to cure the sniffles. The chicken and rice from a cart on 53rd and 6th in Manhattan has the magical ability to allow young, urban adventurers to keep walking six more hours all the way through sunrise. However, the most magical of all is hot chocolate.

The first night in the Three Sisters Wilderness, my soul had gone into hibernation. Souls tend to do that when it gets cold and windy. I was left with only my reptile brain, giving me a vague fantasy of basking on a rock in full sun. Despite my desire to crawl into the tent and continue dreaming of warmer weather, the professor insisted that we stay outside and wait for him to make hot chocolate. He would share, he promised. After shivering for a while, we could all finally stir the chocolate powder into the boiling water.

Sipping the hot chocolate elixir, the heat spread from inside my soul to the tips of my fingers. I could think human thoughts again, and I remembered all the other times that hot chocolate had magically brought me back. In elementary school, Mrs. Knab dispensed Swiss Miss after every rainy day of traffic patrol with the same enlivening effect, and I realized that throughout human history, people have realized this exact same thing that my gradeschool teacher must’ve understood. For example, Montezuma drank hot chocolate several times a day, from gold beakers which were destroyed after only one drink. Though Aztec backpackers would have been out of luck; only Aztec leaders were allowed to drink hot chocolate. They wanted to themselves the special powers it gave them. I finally understood the big deal: hot chocolate is magic.

“Now was the hot chocolate worth it?”

I smiled. It wasn’t really a question; he could see that I now understood the powers of hot chocolate too.