Monday, May 7, 2012

Yanji Almond Pudding (顏記杏仁露)

Yanji Almond Pudding (顏記杏仁露, yanji xingrenlu
Dihua Street Fabric Market, western side

It was another scorcher today in Taipei.  I'm got back from a wonderful weekend spent camping with friends on a quiet little surfers’ beach by Toucheng.  We did a lot of grilling under the light of the year’s brightest full moon and snorkeled during the day.  I’ve got a strange sunburn on the back of my calves, neck, and ears - the only parts of me that were exposed to the sun while I floated around looking at tropical fish.

Back in Taipei today, I had a craving for a traditional summer food: almond pudding (杏仁露, xingren lu).  In my neighborhood, there's an old, established, but unassuming place that makes an excellent bowl of the stuff.   I’ve been going for years but never knew the name of the shop.  Today, I told them I was writing a blog and asked, “What’s the name of your place?”  The owner first said, “just tell them that we’re the place that’s in the fabric market at Dihua Street!”  After a few more exchanges and some self-effacing smiles, she told me that their name is 顏記 yanji.  As she rightly points out, this name won’t really help you find their shop.  Instead, go to the fabric market on Dihua street.  They are located on the western side.
For those not familiar with Dihua street, it was one of the first important commercial districts in Taipei.  It is located a stone’s throw away from the Dadaocheng wharf, an important shipping port in the nineteenth century.  Goods flowing in from overseas would enter Taiwan through Danshui and travel down the river to Taipei.  They’d be unloaded and sold directly on Dihua street.

This street really flourished in the last years of the Japanese occupation period.  There have been a few books written about the architecture in this district, but I think that such strict analysis is only interesting to devoted architectural historians.  Suffice to say that some buildings reflect Japanese trends, while others look more towards Europe.  One of my favorite buildings is the post office.  It isn’t the fanciest, but I love that it’s been quietly operating in this location since the early twentieth century.  Look at those drains!

Another interesting landmark in this area is the Taipei Xiahai Chenghuangmiao (台北霞海城隍廟, Taipei Morning Glow Ocean Taoist City God Temple).  

It’s a fairly ordinary temple, except that it has free “blessed tea”.  According to the sign, it is “especially good for females.  The tea will make you more attractive and help you to get married soon.”  I’d describe the flavor (date-based and sweet), but I think that folks line up for its promised effects, not its taste!  The sign tells you to only take one paper cup and to recycle it after you're done.  Those gunning for super-extra attractiveness or subtly trying to give a hint to their boyfriend are welcome to refill their cup.

Anyway, back to the pudding.  Stacks of bowls sit in a refrigerated cabinet.  When you order one, freshly ground ice is added and it is garnished with a brown sugar syrup.  If you like, you can also ask for green beans, red beans, or peanuts.  I find that these toppings detract from the delicious lightness of the pudding itself.  In fact, it's more like a creamy, almond-flavored Jello.  It's not too sweet and very QQ.*  Almond is thought to be cooling, so a quick treat from this little stall is the perfect stop on a hot summer's afternoon.

*I just realized that the Taiwanese slang, "QQ" doesn't show up on google.  QQ describes a consistency of food that bounces off the teeth.  It's that pleasant feeling you get when biting into a gummi bear.  Or succulent lobster tail.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Beautiful Things I Can't Afford: Duan Inkstone

This is a beautiful piece of stone. It’s for sale, too. According to the owner of the Zhonghe Writing Studio, he’s able to offer it for a the low price of 58900 NT (about $2000 US) only because he bought it in the early 1950’s.

Wait, what? Why is this small piece of stone (about 10” x 6” x 3”) worth so much?

To begin with, this is not just any stone. It's an inkstone (硯臺, yantai) - one of the four traditional treasures of the Chinese scholar’s studio. The other three are the writing brush, paper, and ink cakes. In the days before readymade ink, a scholar would need to grind ink himself. Cakes of ink made from pine soot and animal glue would be pressed against the inkstone with a few drops of water. Using only the slightest pressure, a scholar would trace the form of a circle on the stone’s surface. Grinding ink takes time, but it’s not hard work; many calligraphers and painters use this time as a kind of meditation to think about what they will write or paint.

As for the stone itself, it needs to have an appropriate texture. If it is too smooth, the ink won’t grind down - too rough and the ink will quickly cake and dry. The best inkstones have a surface that’s runze (潤澤), a word that translates to something like sleek. But used to describe an inkstone, runze describes a specific kind of feeling. It’s something like the experience of touching fine calf’s skin - the feeling that something is softly resisting the motion of your finger across its surface. A good inkstone feels soft, supple, and cold.  It’s the same texture of stone that I imagine Pygmalion would have chosen for his statue of Venus.

If you touch a high quality inkstone, moisture and oil from your finger will linger briefly on its surface. Take a deep breath and exhale on its surface, and drops of water will stick to the surface. Some shop owners swear that stone of sufficient quality will allow you to leave your ink overnight without drying.

The Chinese, devoted proponents of lists and ranking, have established four “famous” kinds of stone that can rise to this level. Each is linked to a specific locality where it is found and, less explicitly, to a point in history when it was first made popular. The stone offered at the Zhonghe Writing Studio is a Duan 端 stone, a kind of volcanic tuff from Guangdong province. Duan stone is known for its greenish cast as well its propensity to have eye-like inclusions. This kind of stone was first made popular by the Qianlong emperor in the eighteenth century. Because of its fairly recent rise to popularity, quarries in Guangdong were able to supply high-quality pieces through the middle of the twentieth century despite an ever-rising demand. According to the boss at Zhonghe, however, production of the best pieces has slowed down over the past thirty years. He tells me that the price of uncut stone has tripled. Moreover, new pieces of the highest quality with a thickness like this example are no longer available at any price.

And, of course, a stone is usually finished. Scholars’ objects are often carefully created images of their master, and inkstones can come in any number of shapes. Some are carved into birds, beasts, dragons, or lizhi mushrooms. Others, are left almost entirely natural with the edges of the “wild” rock left intact. This inkstone strikes a balance between these two extremes. It has been carved into a plain rectangle with slightly rounded edges. Its front surface has been left almost entirely bare. The only exception is a pine tree in light relief. 

Pine trees are one of the three friends of winter in Chinese tradition (with plum and bamboo). It symbolizes understated moral uprightness and stalwart determination amidst the worst of conditions. On the reverse of the stone is a high mountain cliff with tufts of grass. 

Note how the shape of the designs, especially the pine tree on the front, follow the natural imperfections in the stone. The goal is not to cover these fissures and inconsistencies. Instead, the design calls our attention to their inherent beauty, inviting us to look closer.

But this stone was meant to be used, not just admired; let’s consider a bit more carefully the function of an inkstone in the Chinese study. John Hay has eloquently written about the relationship of ink and paper to a Chinese artist’s soul. In his analysis, blank paper is a kind of empty space. Using ink, an artist invests a piece of his soul into this emptiness, filling it with his energy and will.* A completed work of calligraphy or painting, then, is always a self portrait no matter what the subject matter.

What Hay neglects is the fact that sticking one’s soul to a piece of paper is tricky work. All traces of an artist’s hand on the paper’s surface are indexical - they are direct evidence of his effort. However, not every attempt results in a piece that successfully represents his soul. Some attempts fail, either through a loss of concentration or a deficiency in execution. The former class of failure is more serious, as an insipid but correctly written character shows an incomplete connection with the work - a less than complete investiture of self. It will always detract from a work more than an inspired mistake.

Take, for example, my calligraphy practice yesterday:

I was copying the Thousand-Character essay from a model book by the Ming literatus Zhu Yunming (pictured left). I’m not a sage of calligraphy yet (ha!), but sometimes my writing is able to develop a rhythm. After writing the character 水 (second column from the right, second character), I accidentally started to write an incorrect character. I indicated this by making a small circle and writing the correct character, 玉, next to it. Although this is a mistake, it doesn’t significantly distract from the work as a whole.

Compare this to my treatment of the character 號 in the next line (first character, rightmost column).** Something about the swirling circles in Zhu’s original shook my concentration. The result looks stilted and awkward, but it’s technically correct. Ordinarily, I would burn this work without showing anyone; because of my lapses in concentration, I don’t think that it represents me. Ink may be the stuff of my soul, but there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to lodge it into a piece of blank paper every time.

I think of paper as a target, like archery. Ink is my arrow, my brush a bow. My inkstone is a bowstring. It fixes ink to brush, like nocking an arrow on a strong gut string.

And while ink cakes and paper are used up and brushes wear down and are discarded, an ink stone will never break or wear out. Even when bought new, a good inkstone will slowly break in over time as its user forms a personal connection to the stone. In this way, they are something like a Martin guitar. I have heard it said that Martin guitars take twenty to thirty years for their sound to “open up”. Supposedly, guitars age differently depending on the playing habits of their owners. Strumming, fingerpicking, or even frequent soloing can be heard in the resonance of the instrument and richness of certain overtones. Years of devoted use will yield an instrument that reflects its owner and is more responsive to his needs.

For an inkstone, long years of careful use will produce a subtle circular indentation where years of grinding has worn down the surface. This pattern of wear makes a stone easier to use, as ink will collect and pool in the center. In addition to its practical value, signs of honest use add significant value to a piece for collectors.

Traditionally, inkstones were passed down in scholarly families. Using a stone that bore the marks of generations of honest use was a form of social performance. Scholars were the elites in traditional China; displaying and using your ancestral ink stone was solid proof that you were an established member of that class.

Scholarly performance often happened at home. When elites entertained visitors, they would often incorporate a calligraphic or painting performance into an evening’s activities. But scholarly performance not limited to the home. When sitting for government-run exams in the Ming and Qing dynasties, candidates would carefully package their inkstones with their other scholarly tools and take them to the examination site.*** Even now, a beautiful inkstone still makes a powerful statement about its owner and his connection to a traditional culture of Chinese literacy. For this reason, inkstones are still important heirlooms in scholarly and artistic families.

All this to say that an inkstone can become a friend and helpmeet for its user, a responsive tool for art and personal expression, and a powerful token of social status. The rarity of their materials, combined with their potential for personal and social importance drives the price of top quality pieces ever upward. And yet, when you hold a work of art like this in your hand, the price seems entirely sensible. I already own a small Duan inkstone, so my covetousness of this stone feels like subtle treachery against an old friend. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I don’t have $2000 to spend!

* Hay writes that his understanding of this process is drawn from Bachellard’s conception of poetic space. See John Hay: “The Human Body as a Microcosmic source of Macrocosmic Values in Calligraphy,” in Kassulia, Ames and Dissanayake, eds., Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice, Albany State University of NY Press (1993)

** Yes, of course I know that Chinese calligraphy is usually written from right to left. There are exceptions. My writing is one of them.

*** I’m always reminded of the anti-government revolt described by Jonathan Spence in In Search of Modern China, where rioting exam-takers threw their precious ink stones at the corrupt examiners. That’s a protest that was both meaningful and potentially deadly.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kunming Islamic Restaurant (昆明園)

Kunming Islamic Restaurant
No. 26, Lane 81
Fuxing North Road, Taipei
(02) 2751-6776

Map Here

One reason that I've started this blog is that it's an excuse to revisit some of my favorite places in Taipei, some of which I haven't been to in years.  The Kunming Islamic Restaurant is a little far from my house (although conveniently located by the Nanjing Dong Lu station on the brown line).  I got together a small group of friends and we went for dinner last night.

First, let me say that it's best to make reservations in advance.  The restaurant gets really packed on some nights and you can't get a table.  It's an interesting crowd.  There are groups of Taiwanese and western expats, of course, but I've also seen groups of Filipino Muslim women in headscarves, Indian and Pakistani men with their families, and small groups of Burmese folks chatting animatedly with the owner, Yacoob.  I think that part of the reason for the restaurant's popularity is the fact that it is Halal (清真), a rarity in Taipei.

Yacoob (standing, left) is a wonderfully friendly and hospitable man, and is comfortable speaking Chinese or English.  He is ethnically Chinese, but was born in Burma.  His father, he tells me, was fighting for the KMT against the Communists in the 1940's.  When the leaders of the KMT fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan, many of the ordinary soldiers were left behind.  Fearing for their lives, they fled across the border to Thailand and Burma.  Yacoob's family moved to Burma, but he decided to come to Taiwan to study in 1980.  Since that time, he has gained Taiwanese citizenship.  Still, he considers his ancestral home to be Kunming - hence the restaurant's name.

This unique story has shaped the cuisine offered at his restaurant.  Together with his wife, Fatimah, their cuisine is a kind of fusion between Chinese, Chinese muslim, and Burmese cuisine.  It's clear that a lot of love and effort goes into each dish.  Just look at this sweetly written preface to the menu:

The menu is fairly large, but you'll be well served by ordering a selection of curries, bread, and salads.  Yacoob is happy to help guide you through the menu.  On his recommendation, the four of us started with a Burmese Tea Salad and samosas.  The samosas were delicately fried and came with a light yoghurt and mint dip.  I usually don't like fried foods, but I ate two.

But OH! that tea salad.  It has a cabbage base with tomatoes, peanuts, cow peas, sesame, and cilantro.  Beyond that I can't say.  It's delicious.  One friend that is, perhaps, a bit prone to hyperbole stated that it was the best thing ever created by man.  It is highly recommended.

One of our friends came late, so our food came in waves.  The second wave was a selection of curries and delicious, fresh chapati.  I was partial to the spicy lamb, which was rich and just spicy enough to impart a degree of heat to the palate.  The dal, although slightly more liquid than I'm accustomed to, had an excellent flavor.  The okra was also a pleasant surprise, as this vegetable tends to get no love in East Asia.  It's characteristic gooeyness gave the curry the consistency of a melted mozzarella cheese.  Sure it sounds weird, but I liked it very much.
We also ordered the eggplant and ground beef to appease the quasi-vegetarian in the group, but this was just was OK.  The lightly fried eggplants were cooked very well, but the flavors weren't strong enough for my taste.

(dal left foreground, spicy lamb background, eggplant offscreen foreground right)

After this delicious assortment of curries, our Aussie friend decided that he was still hungry and got some hummus, which was excellent and disappeared before I remembered to take a photo.

It cost just under 2000 NT for the four of us, including drinks.  That's a great deal for such a wonderful meal prepared with such care.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Xinbeitou Public Hot Springs (新北投千禧湯露天溫泉)

Xinbeitou Public Hot Springs 
(Millennium Spring) 

This is one of my favorite places in Taipei and has been for a long time.  I used to have five hour seminars at National Taiwan University twice a week.  The strain of preparing for and participating in a graduate seminar was compounded by the fact that everything was in Chinese.  I was always exhausted and usually pretty grumpy.  
I discovered early on that if I brought a bathing suit and towel, I could leave the Gongguan station and get to Xinbeitou in under an hour.  After a quick soak, I'd be ready for a nice dinner and, perhaps, a beer.
Xinbeitou is easily accessible via MRT.  On the red line, switch at the Beitou station to the Xinbeitou shuttle.  It's a quick ride that puts you at the heart of a little thermal valley.  Directly across the street from the MRT station is a 7-11.  You'll want to buy yourself a large bottle of water, as it's slightly more expensive in the public spring.
Across the street from the 7-11 is a public park.  If you've never been, it's worth a quick look.  There are jumping water fountains, plenty of game tables with animated retirees playing Chinese chess, and quaint bridges over a quietly burbling stream.  Sometimes there are people bathing their feet in this water, as it is warm.  I've never done this, as it seems that the majority of the stream's heat comes from water drained from the surrounding hot spring resorts.
Continuing up the road, you'll see the beautiful, ecologically friendly Beitou public library.  Further on is the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, a monument to what it was like to take the waters during the period of Japanese occupation.  I was told by a Japanese historian that Taiwan was a destination that Kamikaze pilots and sub operators were sent to relax before their deployment in the Pacific theatre.  The same gentleman also told me that letters from many of these kamikaze pilots reveal that they never believed that their sacrifice would win the war.  Instead, they thought that their deaths would set an example of strength and national character for future generations.  Sometimes, walking up this hill, I think of these young pilots soaking quietly while contemplating their commitment to die for an ideal.
Your destination is up another 100 meters on the right on the right tine of a fork in the road.  Just beyond it is the old house of Yu Youren 于右任, the famous calligrapher and revolutionary.  This building is now used as a kind of cultural center, with frequent calligraphy and arts performances.  They don't have a website, but exhibitions are posted on this page
The hot spring itself is open for two hour sessions with 30 minutes between each session for cleaning.  Here’s the schedule:
5:30 -7:30 AM
8:00 -10:00 AM
10:30 AM - 1:00 PM
1:30 - 4:00 PM
4:30 - 7:00 PM
7:30 - 10:00 PM
Lines form before each session, but don’t worry - there’s plenty of room inside.  Admission is 40 NT for adults and 20 NT for students at a Taiwanese school with valid identification.  The woman working the counter is strict about checking student IDs, and will even check the back of your card to make sure that it is valid.  Often, a seemingly stern but ultimately softhearted cat named 貌主人 mao zhuren (Boss Cat)* will sit next to her.
Photographs are not permitted in the springs, so I’ll describe the general layout.  Upon entering, bathrooms are located to your left.  The springs themselves are arrayed to your right.  There are two cold “springs” that are emptied during the cleaning times and then refilled with tap water before each new session.
The hot springs themselves are arrayed into three basic levels.  Hot, sulfurous water from Yangmingshan is mixed with tap water and enters the hottest spring, which is located under a pavilion at the top of the hill.  This spring is about 45 degrees celsius (that’s really, really hot!), but that temperature slightly fluctuates day to day.  There’s a new system of pipes that might ensure a new degree of consistency, but I’m not holding my breath.
From there, the water flows into a second, slightly cooler spring before spilling down into a large second tier.  Below this large pool is a final spring.  At the bottom of the hill are coin-operated lockers (20 NT), but most people just stash their things on top of the lockers.  Men’s changing rooms are on the right, women’s are on the left.
A Word About Hot Springs:
For the uninitiated, this public hot spring has an inordinate amount of silly rules.  However, the point of these rules is to guarantee a degree of cleanliness.  If they weren’t in place, sharing a hot spring would be akin to sharing a bath with dirty strangers.  Yuck.
Here are the major rules.
  1. Shower or wash your entire body before entering the hot springs.  If you’re OK with cold water, the showers will be fine.  If you dislike cold showers, they’re installing coin-operated hot water machines into each shower.  I was told that they’ll be ready in a few weeks.  Otherwise, you can use hot spring water to clean yourself.  Squat outside the bottommost pool and use a bucket to scoop water and splash your entire body.
  2. Wash your feet each time before entering the springs.  Just grab a bucket from the edge of the pool and give each foot a quick splash.
  3. Don’t just soak your legs.  I don’t know exactly why this is a thing, but it is.  They’ll yell at you.
  4. Don’t let your hair fall into the pool.  Women and hippies should tie their hair up with rubber bands, which are helpfully provided on a post by the open air showers.
  5. No alcohol.  This is a rule that you shouldn’t want to break.  Drinking and soaking will make you dizzy and nauseous.
  6. Don’t scratch your skin in the springs.  The skin cells that you liberate will float on the surface of the pool and make everyone curl their lip in disgust.
The best way to do the springs is to warm up in the middle tier.  Don’t go into the bottom pool.  It’s filled with runoff and skin.  Plus, all the little kids like to hang out there.  You know what I’m getting at.
Once you’ve warmed up, you should try to have a soak in the hotter springs.  Don’t walk in from the stairs; that’s for suckers.  Instead, approach from the side.  In one smooth motion, immerse your entire body and stop moving.  As the water stops moving, your body’s heat will create a thin layer of cooler water around you.  Try to stay still for three minutes.  Pray that nobody walks by and disturbs the water.  That will hurt.
Between soaks, you can cool off in the cold springs or relax like a local.  I’ve seen people drink water from the hottest tap (not recommended), wash their hair, shave their beards, brush their teeth, and do all kinds of questionable exercises.  Whatever you do, drink lots of water.  Speaking of which, everyone’s got a theory as to the healing power of the hot spring waters.  Here’s mine:
The water is sulfuric and therefore slightly acidic.  It’s a mild exfoliant for your skin, which is nice.  But, it’s bad for your hair and will hurt your eyes.
Soaking and relaxing by the hottest spring is really quite wonderful, especially on a warm summer night.  There’s a large patch of night-blooming jasmine 夜來香 on the hill.  Sometimes at night, I can catch a verse or two of opera from the public park over the sound of crickets.  Watching a full moon rise through curling steam is almost enough to banish unpleasant thoughts of the past and future, leaving only a pleasant (and slightly sulfurous) present. 

* Technically zhuren means owner or host, but "boss" makes for a better translation in this context.