Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Winter simmer (Dynasty)

Taiwan's winters are strange. They always feel much colder than they really are. Perhaps it's the contrast between the eight degrees Celsius common in January and the 37 degrees often suffered in July. It may also be because many Taiwanese buildings are unheated, frigid-in-winter (but sweltering in summer) concrete boxes. Taipei's unrelenting damp certainly has something to do with it.

Whatever the cause, one consequence is obvious: A switch in eating habits. The colder months see a wholehearted embrace of warming soups, a voracious appetite for beef noodles (each October, the Taiwanese capital hosts a beef noodles-themed contest and festival), and a revival of the hot-pot cult.

As in other prosperous parts of the world, Taiwan's restaurateurs and housewives are no longer limited by geography and climate. If something's out of season, or simply doesn't grow locally, there are imports shipped or jetted in from Australia, Thailand and other countries. But in the not-too-distant past, food-supply issues shaped Taiwan's winter cuisine. Unlike Korea, where a fondness for pickles has been ascribed to winters so hard few vegetables could grow after September, the Taiwanese have always enjoyed fresh greens year-round.

Kai-lan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli or kale) grows best in the hottest months, as does kong-xin-cai (water convolvulus). However, spinach, celery, salad lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and certain types of pak choi are considered winter foods, because they've traditionally been grown in paddy fields after the year's second rice harvest.

If you've spent any time in Taiwan, you've likely eaten another of the island's winter vegetables: Garland chrysanthemum, a.k.a. crown daisy or chop-suey green. The stems are thrown into stir-fries and soups. The leaves are added to the oyster omelets served up by roadside vendors. Both parts appear in steamboat stews, more usually called hot pots.

Like a Swiss fondue without the cheese, a typical hot pot features a piping hot cauldron atop a gas burner. Fresh and processed seafood, cubes of tofu, ducks' eggs, mushrooms, thin slices of meat, asparagus, baby corn, turnip, cabbage and other vegetables are simmered in a broth. The precise consistency of the soup varies from restaurant to restaurant; some famous establishments take great care to keep their broth recipes secret.

For many Taiwanese, hot pots are comfort food, so the familiar is favored over the unfamiliar. That said, new varieties of hot pot hit the market every year. In addition to the perennially popular vegetarian and super spicy versions, there are now yoghurt hot pots, soymilk hot pots, and hot pots with Thai or Korean ingredients. In the mountains you might be able to order a hot pot based on the traditional foods of Taiwan's aboriginal minority: Meat from boars and the Reeves's Muntjac (a small deer-like creature noted for its dog-like bark), plus foraged vegetables which resemble nettles.

At some hot-pot establishments trays of food are brought to your table. At others, it's a matter of helping yourself from a buffet table. Either way, it's up to you what and how much you cook in your hot pot, and how long you boil it for.

This is why hot pots win over some Westerners who aren't otherwise fans of Taiwanese cuisine. If you think that much of what's served on the island is overcooked, you'll enjoy being able to eat vegetables that are still crunchy. If you dislike the sauces and condiments many locals slather on their food, go for a standard (neither spicy nor packed with medicinal herbs) broth, and savor the natural flavors of the greens.

Hot pots are best enjoyed by groups of five or six people. (Some restaurants do serve mini-pots for solo diners). They're a social institution - a bit too social for some people's liking. If you get invited to a hot pot, but you're uncomfortable with the idea of your acquaintances dipping their chopsticks in the soup seconds after they've put them in their mouths, ask everyone present to dedicate certain utensils to handling what's going in to and coming out of the pot, and to use their own chopsticks only for eating. If that doesn't work, just remind yourself that the broth is hot enough to kill all but the hardiest bacteria.

Most hot-pot restaurants are all-you-can-eat, and it's easy to go overboard. Finger-length sections of you-tiao (savory donut sticks more usually eaten for breakfast) boiled in a spicy hot pot are especially delicious, but are packed with calories and cholesterol.

Nevertheless, asserts Hu Shao-han, a 29-year-old office worker, "Hot pot can be a very healthy meal." Hu claims to have eaten at least one hot pot a week, regardless of the weather, since returning to Taiwan from Canada almost four years ago - and she remains a svelte 47 kilograms.

"Don't overcook the vegetables," she says. "Don't dip everything in the sauce, which contains a lot of salt. Try to enjoy the true taste of the different things." Hu also advises hot-potters to skip any rice or noodles on offer.

Meat, vegetables, no carbohydrates, and a few pieces of fruit for dessert: It sounds a lot like the Atkins diet, but Taiwanese winter cooking is informed by far older healthy-eating theories.

In Chinese (and thus Taiwanese) folk medicine, foods and preparation methods are either yin ('cooling') or yang ('warming'). Balancing the two is thought to be critical to maintaining one's health. A person suffering from a fever, for instance, should consume yin items such as bananas, grapes, oranges and soy products.

Beef, chicken, goose, rabbit, turkey, ginseng and garlic, plus almost all fried foods, are considered yang, and so are best consumed on cold days.

Casseroles made with rice wine are another winter staple. Teetotalers shouldn't assume they won't be able to enjoy these dishes - the alcohol content isn't especially high, and the flavor of the wine won't overwhelm your taste buds. Chicken cooked with rice wine is very popular. Even though duck is classed as yin, duck casserole is another cold-season favorite: Lots of onions and ginger are mixed in a chicken stock with garlic and star anise, plus small amounts of sugar and groundnut oil. The duck meat should be in large chunks and still on the bone.

Duck casserole is often eaten in the month that follows the Beginning-of-Winter Festival. Li-dong, as the festival is called in Mandarin, usually falls on November 7. The period after it is called bu-dong, meaning 'supplement nutrition ahead of winter.'

Taiwan's winters are mild, but in North China - the cradle of Chinese civilization and the region where the custom began - conditions are much tougher. In the days of yore, people there certainly did need some extra nourishment to survive the bitter cold. Many restaurants, including some inside major hotels, advertise bu-dong menus throughout November and December. You may see listed Mutton Hot Pot, Black Jujube Stewed With Mutton (mutton and lamb, like beef, are considered yang), Twice-Boiled Chicken With Wild Yam And Medlar (a herb used in both ancient China and medieval Europe to treat kidney stones), and Pork Rib Herbal Soup.

If none of these dishes appeal, snack on longans, almonds, walnuts, cherries or dates; all are yang comestibles. Between now and the spring, should someone criticize you for having an indulgent breakfast of chocolate and coffee, just point out that both are yang. It can't be too long before someone in Taiwan starts selling coffee-and-chocolate hot pots, can it now?

This article appeared in the November issue of Dynasty, China Airlines' inflight magazine.

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