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.

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