Monday, December 15, 2014

10 Oven-less Christmas Holiday Treats

Christmas as an expat, specifically an expat in Taiwan is tricky. There will be holiday parties, but without ovens there won't be as many holiday treats. Sure, cookies can be bought at the bakery, but its not the same as filling your kitchen and home with that perfect cookie smell. This does not mean you can't spread the holiday joy. I've put together a list of ten sweet Christmas treats that the average do-it-yourselfer can make under most circumstances, minus the oven. 

1) Buckeyes 
Peanut butter and chocolate is a timeless classic, that nails it every time.  Don't call them peanut butter truffles. They are just buckeyes, the seasonal candy hailing from my home state of Ohio. You can add stuff to them, but they just wouldn't be Buckeyes anymore. Get the recipe here. 

image by Lindsey Johnson
2) Poached Pears 
Roasted pears are my number one favorite healthy, but still holiday dessert. For the oven-less, poached pears are just as tasty. They are wonderful on their own and with a touch of whipped cream or ice cream. To really impress the stockings off your friends serve them along side gingerbread or spiced cake. This David Lebovitz recipe looks like a new classic waiting to happen. I might also try this Chai pear recipe just for the chai cream. Any warm wintery spices go well with pears really, like this ginger honey poached pear recipe. Have half a bottle of wine laying around? Save it for poaching some red wine pears.

image by Haruka Sakaguchi
3) Mulled Wine and Punches
Nothing take the nip out of the air better than a mug of warm, mulled wine or punch. Its the holidays, and most of us are ready to party. With a bounty of pomegranates during the winter months go for this Pomegranate Mulled Wine, or stick to the classic, Basic Mulled Wine recipe. Apples aren't just for fall either, everyone will agree when you make this Tree-Trimming Cider Punch. Champagne punch, another easy but elegant one, makes the best of holiday citrus flavors.  Bourbon Punch should also have the power to transform any dull holiday get-together into a party.

image from
4) Bars
Bars, we're talking toffee, brittle, bark, nuts, fruit, brickle. All that. If you don't have an oven and are looking for a snacky dessert to send the holiday love with, there are soooo many bar recipes to choose from. Toffee and Peppermint Bark, may not be everyone's favorite, but they are cult favorites that only come around this time of year. My Sugar-Coated, Chili-Rubbed Peanut Bacon Brittle never last very long at any party. I'm thinking this IPA Beer Brittle would probably disappear off tables too. One of these years I'm going to make this Saltine Brickle, its everything great about salty and sweet flavors. If you were to swap in Cheezits, you would end up with a Butterfinger candy bar-like treat. These No-Bake Coconut Date Bars are classic a Christmas standard, and these layered Pistachio Bars are too!

image by Yudith
5) Truffles
Christmas in Taiwan means one thing, Ferrero Rocher Truffles. Not sure why, but they own the Christmas dessert market. So as an oven-less community, why not welcome their addition? If you are a decorating guru, cake truffles might be for you. Ginger Bread Truffles or Christmas Pudding Cake Truffles both look adorable, and will be easy to make with some store-bought cake you roll up into balls. Booze + dessert is always a hit. If you agree go for these Bourbon Balls. For a simple, decadent take, a chocolatey Mocha Truffle will please everyone.

image by Kylie Held Mitchell
6) No-bake cookies
Yes Virginia, you can make cookies without an oven. This oven-less no-bake category is also the gluten-free, raw, and vegan category. This Jam Thumbprint Cookie recipe is all 3 of those things, not to mention delicious looking. Gotta have Gingerbread Cookies too. These raw Fig Cookies look tasty and kid friendly. If you aren't into the raw-thing but you still want to make beautiful holiday cookies consider coating some cookies in chocolate and other Christmas pretties.

image from Cute as a Fox
7) Rice Krispie Treats
You guys, I did not know about the world of Krispies until just now. You can create entire universes from Krispie Treats. For instance you could make a snowman, or a candycane, or Christmas Tree, or your own perfect holiday wonderland. I prefer krispie treats that are either a) Chocolate or b) covered in candy and other junk food. Whatever you like this fast treat can be made without an oven, another holiday win for the oven-less.
image from Bakers Royale
8) Trifles
No offense to the Krispie Treats, but trifles are another easy way to do something pretty fast, and in advance that really stops the show. There are infinite combinations of pudding/cream, cake/cookies, fruit, candy, etc. etc out there. For the holidays a Peppermint Trifle might be all you need.  A Blueberry-Orange Trifle may also have that holiday appeal, but with a lighter fruit flavor. If there isn't eggnog-something it just isn't the holidays, try out this Eggnog Trifle recipe.  Or maybe a Pear and Caramel Trifle for those with a sweet tooth. Who are we really kidding here? You don't need a recipe for trifle, put stuff in layers, in a pile, chill and serve.

image from Popsugar
9) Eggnog 
Eggnog is one of those holiday foods that only comes around once a year. Another cultish "love it, or hate it" standard. Even if you hate it, you might throw some back, if it has rum or whiskey in it. You have two options for making eggnog: 1) Classic Eggnog made from raw eggs or 2) Eggnog that's been tempered. Oh, and a third option, Vegan Eggnog. The greatest thing about making eggnog, if you live in a country without such traditions, is once you make it you can use it as an ingredient in hundreds of other dishes. Wouldn't you just love some eggnog french toast, or eggnog ice cream with that poached pear? What about eggnog creme brulee, eggnog cheese cake, all washed down with eggnog-tini?

image from 12 Tomatoes
10) No-bake Cake 
Finally, if you want to be the person who really shows everyone up, then make a cake! Tiramisu can be made oven-less, as can Cheesecake. This Nutella Icebox Cake looks dreamy. A chocolate berry flavored Retro Cake would make a flavor and style statement at your gathering.

So Oven-less friends, are you inspired? Will you be doing any holiday non-baking?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Learning Mandarin Chinese: 7 Things you Need to Know

Learn what it really means
image from Transparent Language 
So, you've decided to learn Mandarin Chinese. From a Western perspective, this is not a walk in the park. You are up against endless challenges from learning to read non-phonetic characters, to mastering the tone system, to a huge number of cultural differences that separate the English language from Mandarin. Spoiler alert: learning Mandarin takes time, concentration, and hard work, EVERY DAY. That is to say you aren't one of those language freaks who travels to a place and just becomes fluent listening to people speak on the train.

I've personally been studying Mandarin for almost 3 years now, with 1 intensive year spent in Mandarin language school in Taiwan. The rest of that time I've been embarrassing myself praticing with other native speaking friends, co-workers, and 7-11 employees in Taiwan. I also spent a brief few months studying with a Beijing teacher in NYC. I'm considered the low-end of intermediate. Only sweat and tears has gotten me this far. Here is what I have learned about learning Mandarin.

1) Learn the Basics
I've witnessed plenty of wide-eyed foreigners shrivel and crack in the first month of Mandarin language school. Learning Mandarin is overwhelming. Every time you learn one word you need to learn 5 aspects: 1) pronunciation 2) tone 3) the Chinese written form 4) the written Pinyin and/or Zhuyin Bopomofo form and finally 5) the word meaning(s), which may or may not have an equivalent in English. Let's not even put pressure on usage, and your ability to recognize the spoken word.

Spending a month or 3 memorizing the pinyin system (most common) or Zhuyin Bopomofo (commonly used in Taiwan), and pronunciation will take the edge off. Even better is to start familiarizing yourself with Chinese character writing stroke order.

I personally studied the entry level textbook 4 times over a year and a half before words even sunk-in, I'm a little slow.

MLC in Taipei Taiwan

2) Go to School
Signing up for a class is the first step to a life of fluent Mandarin. The main benefit is pressure. Pressure to show up every day/week and keep with it. The next benefit is, of course, practicing the 4 language skills, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. No matter how great a self-starter you are, you need someone to tell you over, and over, and over what mistakes you are making to learn.

Because there is so much to learn with every word, you may find teaching styles vary from person-person, country-country. I have never, ever had a teacher teach me to write. It was always a given a vocabulary list. I would go home and practice, a be tested later. I have also had very few teachers teach me ANYTHING. It is extremely common for teachers to use rote memorization form of teaching. For example, a quarter at language skill may go like this: you read a section in your textbook at home, in class your teacher reads that section out loud, asks you to repeat, and answers questions, repeat, repeat as time allows, test.

I most often spent time online googling grammar patterns and pronunciation tables to really get these things in my brain. Although I have been lucky to have a few great teachers who were able to teach me the principals of Mandarin with clever games, and great explanations.

image by Valery Kenski

3) Back up with Conversation Practice
No matter how great your teacher is, or how relevant your Mandarin text book is, you need to practice the everyday skill of speaking and listening. It is important to find a conversation partner who will help you do this. A tutor, language exchange partner, or a language-savvy friend are good to have and worth investing in.

A regular friend will not do. You need someone who understands your language level, and how to correct you. Up until completing 9-12 months of Mandarin language school, I could not begin to understand daily conversations with native speakers. I was lost. You need to find a person who can help you practice what you know, and guide you.

The other benefit of a conversation partners learning more regional phrases, slang, expressions, and, generally, the most commonly spoken words. Surprise, surprise the most common words may not be the ones in your text book, will be more formal than daily language. Learning formal and casual language skills, at the same time, helps you recognize when to use each one.

image by Liz Henry
4) Flex your Memory
Chinese is efficient. Mandarin words have more meanings, and more specific meanings, than English words. The grammar is simple, too. Your biggest learning hurdle is going to be reading. Your best tool will be to memorize. First, you can learn to memorize the most common 100 Chinese radicals. Many Chinese characters are pictograms, based on stories and even short aphorisms.

Memorizing the basic radicals will tell you the general meaning of a word, e.g. Chinese characters with the 口 kou radical (literally depicts a mouth) usually relate to people. characters with the 言 yan radical (literally depicts a tongue moving out of a mouth, see the kou radical in that one?) relate to language terms.

This is just one little technique I'm just dropping here as an example. You will need to memorize a ton, everyday, for months, until it just becomes second nature. Even then you are probably will still be checking a dictionary.

Ultimately, I find the answer is flash cards. I live by them. Many people like Pleco software and phone apps, but I'm obsessed with my Trainchinese dictionary and cards.

image by James Turner
5) Write
I know what you are thinking. Why learn to write? It is a pain, and its very secondary in a digital world. First of all, Chinese characters are beautiful, and taking the time to slow down and write them is very meditative. You will feel personally closer to the language if you learn to write. You will also have a much easier time reading and remembering character meanings. It is a time consuming process, with less and less modern practical use, but it helps! Its baller, so just do it.

6) Don't Give Up
To really get Mandarin in your brain you need patience. Great patience. You also need the humility to fail over and over, and sound really horrible speaking with the wrong accent, and often be told so. There are plenty of weeks when work wants to take over every minute of my day, but you have to learn to fit that Mandarin in. If you learn that balancing skill, you probably can achieve anything. On the brighter side, as a Western person, I find Taiwanese people/most native speakers VERY VERY supportive. I never stop being grateful to all the daily people who take time from their day to correct my poor tones.

image by textbookace
7) Review Everything, Always
It is commonly said that it takes 2 years to speak Mandarin fluently. I'm going to guess that its 2 years if you are living in an immersed environment, longer if not. All along the way in learning to speak Mandarin and read Chinese characters you are going to have to review. It isn't enough to read a chapter and move on, you need to regularly look back at chapters and notes. You will forget, and or your brain will distort meanings of words. It sets my mind at ease to know that even native Mandarin speakers forget some characters. There are 80,000 charcters, even if 3,500 are in modern use.

So 加油(jia1you2) , which is an encouraging way to say get to it, go, and you can do it in Mandarin.

Here are some learning resources to get you on your way:
MDBG English/Chinese dictionary
Yellow Bridge character dicitionary
Pinyin pronunciation table
Chinese Grammar
Chinese Character Stroke Order 
Chinese Flashcard app for Android phones

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Read Nutritional Labels in Chinese

One of the biggest road blocks in my adventure to figure out what I've been eating here in Taiwan is nutrition labels. The labels offer similar nutritional information as the USA but not identically, and not in the same order, in Traditional Chinese, and serving sizes are metric. There are a few conversations on the age-old Formosa boards that offer some non-helpful tips, and some tips that are totally wrong. No, 7-11 does not list nutritional information in English, *sigh. I also ran across this very detailed but also confusing pamphlet from Hong Kong.

The nutrition labels usually offer the following facts, and typically in this order:

熱量 (Re4 Liang4) Energy (units = 大卡 / da1 ka3 / Kcal) 
蛋白質 (Dan4 Bai2 Zhi4) Protein (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
脂肪 (Zhi1 Fang2) Total Fat (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
  飽和脂肪 (Bao3 He2 Zhi1 Fang2) Saturated Fat (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
  反式脂肪 (Fan3 Shi4 Zhi1 Fang2) Trans Fat (still legal?) (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
碳水化合物 (Tan4 Shui3 Hua4 He2 Wu4) Carbohydrates (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
鈉 (Na4) Sodium (unit =  毫克/ hao2ke4 / milligram)
糖 (Tang2) Sugar Not always listed (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)

A less than complete list compared to the USA standard. I am not sure why sugar is broken out of the carbohydrate category. I guess you could figure out which fats are unsaturated by subtracting the two listed fats (saturated and trans) from total fat. Noticeably the vitamins and minerals are usually absent. I find foods marketing themselves as nutritious list that out. 

Above you can see the nutrition label for lemon tea, a very common drink in Taiwan. It does not list sugar as a nutritional item, which is a little dodgy in my opinion. Instead it lists total carbohydrates. Knowing that 1 gram of sugar contributes 4 calories we can guess that most of the calories are coming from sugars. Most sweet teas do not contain fiber! 

What is very different if you are coming from the states in serving size. Most often in Taiwan a serving is 100 milliliters (毫升/ hao2sheng1 /.42 cups) or 100 grams (公克 / gong1ke4 /3.5 oz) whether you should actually be consuming that quantity in a sitting or not. For example you would probably not be interested in eating 100 grams of the gooey thick bitter black sesame paste I am using as example here. Alternatively, you would be likely to chug a whole over sized tea carton on a hot day, and may be shocked to realize you drank 6.5 servings. You will probably need to do some additional math as to how much a "you-sized" serving or portion will be. 

Serving size and servings per container are usually not listed above the nutritional facts. Often they are found next door along with ingredients, country of origin, and other details I can't read. Above you can see that the container has 250 公克 (grams) of sesame paste. If you aren't confident in recognizing your Traditional Chinese characters go ahead and assume the biggest number is the total grams or milliliter. A container's total weight or volume is also not always listed on the front of the package. Looking to this area pretty much tells you everything  else you need to know. 

A final scenario exists, on occasion food nutrition IS offered in a suggested portion. Here is a can of good ole Quaker oats. It lists 37.5 grams of oats as a portion which would make about 1 cup cooked. You can read up top in Chinese: 每一份量 (mei3 yi2 fen4 liang / every serving) and 本包裝含 (ben3 bao1 zhuang1 han2 / servings per container). 

Anyone other special knowledge out there on Taiwanese food labeling? Please share any comments or criticisms.