Yellow Lime / Green Lemon, or a Very Citrus Spring in Taipei

This invitation to my brunch at Fooshion Food Studio in Taipei says I am a beautiful girl cook, and Italian, even though I am not Italian

 You say green lemon I say lime. Its the best example of the complications surrounding my latest work cooking 3 tasting parties for 12-20 in Taipei over the last 2 weeks of March. I asked my friend to make a batch of pickled lemons in advance of my arrival, so I could seamlessly use them in a recipe. I found a jar of pickled lime on arrival. The word of lime in Mandarin Chinese translates as green lemon. Green unripened lemons are indeed sold in the same bin as limes. Its just the way it is, and as I learned how things were going to be on my trip.

I love to eat like its my job while I travel. Cooking was my job on my latest trip. During the last 2 weeks of March 2012 I flew to Taipei, Taiwan and cooked 3 tasting parties for 20, 15, and 10 people. I do this kind of thing, and much more, in America all the time. Everything was a challenge which has humbled me to a new level. Finding, hauling, collaborating, and cooking large, complex meals in a country I can't even read the language in and barely get around in. It felt like I was making my food for the first time with different ingredients, different equipment, shopping from markets in a different language. Forget reality TV, this was Top Chef Real Life. I am happy and lucky to say everything was hard. How often does life give you a challenge this big! The large amount I learned! I am better, and people in Taiwan are still talking about all those pies I made.

There is food that works for you, and food that you work for. Its wonderful to buy plate an expensive and well cooked steak, lobster, chops, and arrange them on a plate with cavier and fruit garnishes with dab of salad. Wonderful, can't be beat. Then there is my food, that comes from lower sources, is shaped, seasoned and worked into something superior. Transcendent is really the goal. My ginger beer recipe is always a hit, but that ginger isn't going to turn itself into liquid form. It may only be a 3 step recipe but someone has to grind, combine, and later filter that ginger beer. Want a quail scotch egg? Well you're gonna have to peel all those dainty shells, and maybe grind and season your own pork, make bread crumbs. Multiply by 40. Its not that hard for me. Really I can do it in my sleep, but if I have to struggle to find quail eggs, the correct pork (oh so the pork is leaner in Taiwan, great) and baking sheets which you use to prep on are not available because there aren't really ovens around, then you are pretty much exhausted by the time you even get to boil, crack, and peel those 40 eggs. Don't forget to be jet lagged.

Michael and I toast the guests. There are toast after toasts in Taiwan.
Photo by Ray Kiang

I work for my food and everyone likes it. They like it because they themselves don't have the variety of skills to include all the laborious dishes in a meal. Its not exactly soup and salad with bread sticks. Here are the menus for tasting parties, each for 20, 15 and 10 included: Scotch Quail Eggs with Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce; Pulled Pork Sliders with House BBQ Sauce Slaw and Avocado Cream; Shredded Duck with Ginger Pickled Carrot and Duck Fat Mayo in Lettuce Wrapper; Sweet Potato Pizza with Spicy Chinese Sausage aged cheddar and roasted garlic; Dark and Stormy Jello Shots; Crab/Fish Cakes with Lemon Herb Dipping Sauce; Grilled Corn Salad with Lime Basil dressing; Grilled Pineapple; Pear Galettes and ice cream; Spinach Leek Goat Cheese Pies; Pickles, Hummus and Sweet Potato Chips; Lamb Burger in House Flatbread; Stuffed Cabbages and more.

This is a department store in Taipei, also where I worked

Look that's me on display out front of the fancy pants kitchen. I would catch shoppers stopping and watching me work. I was like a tiger in a cage. I got used to it.

So how did all that food get made you ask? Well my collaborators in cooking and Taipei residents managed to find me many resources and be unbelievably helpful. First up was the space. A remarkable fancy, fancy kitchen in the basement of Bellavita Department store near the 101 building in central Taipei. Department stores are no joke in Taipei. Fooshion Food Kitchen is a slick space with a hulking huge stove, Combi Therm pro oven, and a whole bunch of Ikea cookware managed by a legion of really cute Taiwanese girls. I got to use the space for about 8 days, host parties for 2 nights, and in return cook for brunch which they sold for $5,000 NTD.

The next, and the most important resource was gathering ingredients. Costco Taipei, how lucky was I to have a Costco in walking distance? It provided a reliable resource for butter, sour cream, bread flour, mustard, ketchup, canned tomatoes, and more pantry items that are harder to locate than you would expect. It also offers some local fare such as fresh sea cucumbers in bulk. We bought a membership and had access to a car and driver to go between food sources and kitchen. I spent some jetlaggy, tired post-karaoke afternoons in Costco, but I was there with my Taipei friends who made it all happen fast and efficiently.

These girls cook, wine, dine and host! So amazing.

The final resource I was given was the gift of helping hands. There was a lot to do, all the time prep-wise. I needed it! I was on a schedule at Fooshion, so we had to be in and out, cleaned and chilled. I'm used to being a machine all on my own with my tunes and my knife. Delegating is a task I am getting better at. I was really able to trust some of the most difficult tasks to my help by the last few days. When you are directing others, and checking in on their work, its very easy to lose track of your own work. I think (hope rather) its the final chapter to me becoming an efficient boss. The more help I can get the more I can do!

Plating with master assistant Brett

The somewhat complex balancing act of planning the meals was underway. I spent a lot of jetlag anxious nights laying awake calculating and recalculating quantities and tasks. My waking hours mumbling numbers and asking obsessive questions that can't be answered to my collaborators. By day 5 reality finally set in and I got to work, a relief. There are still more hurdles even though the kitchen is my territory. I get to impose my food and ingredients in the bottom half of Fooshion fridge, which isn't quite cold enough to keep meat fresh for more than 4 days. The vegetables for sure wilted out by the time some were needed. I can't control the temperature, it was not my kitchen. There aren't many baking dishes and no roasting pans. Its not how they cook in Taiwan. They stir fry and steam. Baking and roasting is my thing, and I'm excited to thrill them with it, but I have to get a little Macgyver to plan around it. My oven is blessing and a curse. The Combi Therm does it all, but it does not do it like a traditional American oven. Even with my 99 page Combi Therm manual I'm still making mistakes. I couldn't get the fan right and it blows off the the foil covering my food. The thermometer probe isn't working right and some food comes out over done. I also had to memorize the temperatures I'm seeking in Celsius. The biggest slam is the day I need to open half gallon size can of tomatoes to make BBQ sauce. There is no can opener in the kitchen. I mean why would these people ever eat canned food? I don't get the can open, and there isn't enough sauce. People notice my pulled pork is a little dry. What can I say to them? I accept it. It can be better. I need to bring my own can opener. Always. Be prepared, like a boyscout.

I can't control my ingredients in a way I do in NYC. I have scoured every store in NYC practically building dishes on special availability. On the opposite end I have planned meals 100% based on what is at the farmer's market. One week there's bacon, one week there is not, even if you place an order. I thought I could conquer Taipei food sources, but I still had to learn new tricks and territory. Food at grocery store chains (the ones I shopped) suck. There is canned, and pantry, frozen, and dairy but there are not great vegetables or meat. There are great vegetables at the traditional street markets. By the end of my trip I was finding beautiful tomatoes, lettuce, grapes (I dreamed of those grapes), pineapples and more of some of the highest quality I've ever tasted. The grocery store vegetables wilted fast, and weren't much to speak of. The fruits and vegetables are based on season. There are not dragon fruits out of season, and I guess it makes lemons harder to find too. Baking apples for pie are imported. Avocados and beets are not everywhere, but they are out there if you know where to look. A menu must be planned accordingly. Mine was not and I walked my feet raw looking for solutions and replacements. For reasons I have a hard time explaining, raw ducks were not readily available nor were quail eggs. These two ingredients are VERY easy to find in NYC's Chinatown. When I did find duck there were 2 varieties. One with a head on it, and one without, a so-called "Space Duck." Worn out and at my limit I had a mini freak out over the idea of dealing with duck head, brains, eyes, and beak. I opted for the smaller space duck. Space duck had very very little fat, and was not tasty at all. I'm gonna keep making duck for people but I gotta say it. I hate duck. It is always a problem for me in some way.

There is a tradition of fancy department stores with nice grocery stores in the lower level in Taipei. It was in these stores that I found grey poupon, dark rum, and other American flavors I needed to complete my meal. With foresight of some of these issues I did pack baking powder, my European baking yeast, Old Bay, allspice, dried mint from my parents, and rosemary. A few things I knew had no place in Taiwan. A food supplier filled in many gaps for items like parsley, mint, and chickpeas that just aren't popular enough for the public. In the middle of my trip I became aware that there is a new trend of organic farmers with their own markets. Next time I will be sure to have time to visit and make contact with these people.

Day by day my raw ingredients were shredded, chopped, blended, sliced sauteed, blanched, steamed, roasted, pickled, and turned into recognizable meals. We began having more fun in the kitchen, enjoying little meals of leftovers. Extra pie dough and an apple became a mini pie which led the to my week of really slamming pie making. Pickled carrot and pork drippings on toasted leftover rolls. Steamed cabbage cores with BBQ sauce, ginger and Taiwan beer shandys.

The big night
Photo by Ray Kiang

After the shopping was done and prepping was happening, the next hurdle was the actually party. How would we serve 6 dishes to 20 people in 2 hours? Were there enough dishes? When does the wine come out? My biggest anxiety was the fact that seating and kitchen were 100% connected. A long u-shaped table surrounded the stove which meant that all hungry eyes would be on me while I grilled off and sauced the finishing items. I also had to serve each of 20 dishes in a way that they could all be kept warm. More balancing had to happen, and but more help was there for me. All the parties went well. No one burned themselves, or set themselves on fire. One plate count was off, and 2 people were lacking a serving of dipping sauce, so I dutifully was able to make small batch without losing my cool in the middle of my service.

As long as I had something to do during the meal I was fine. Actually watching people eat was nerve wracking. I can tell when someone doesn't enjoy a dish, and I had to just keep moving. We provided our guests with tally sheets to rank and comment on the food items. I have had the chance to learn the negative comments written in Traditional Chinese, but not the compliments. Without being told I can see what they liked in the beautiful emptiness of a plate. Rosemary seasoned peanuts were a smash, so were lamb burgers with jajak, pear pies, and surprisingly salad. I caught people cleaning the bottom of the salad bowl. Salad (in general raw vegetables) is a new experience for Asian palettes.

 Plating crab and vegetable croquettes 
Photo by Ray Kiang

There are rules and standards in Asia. Maybe expectations is a better word. The food culture explosion of the last 15 years in America has expanded what people accept. If customers/eaters trust you they will eat everything you serve and thank you for it. I took that for granted in Taipei, and did not understand all the rules. For example cabbage stuffed with rice should not be served cold. Cold rice is not kosher with Asians. I can imagine why even though I love it. My vegetable pizza was loved, but a few people questioned its relationship to Italian pizza. Should I really be calling that a pizza? Its well known, and often discussed in my Taipei circle that Taiwan likes a "sweet taste." I use what is known in my Brooklyn circle as the Robin standard of sweetness. If a dessert pleases Robin's lack of sweet tooth, then its the right amount of not so-sweet. My mildly sweetened ginger beer and pear pies were much talked about. It was different but not rejected. Thats big success for me.

The team. So proud of us.  
Photo by Ray Kiang

So I survived. I didn't waste much food. I feed a bunch of people. I learned some new recipes spending time with Taipei cooks. I would like to spend more time with Taipei cooks. It would be wonderful after pushing American pie down their throats to have some traditional tricks in my pocket.

Photos by Ray Kiang and Naomi Donabedian.


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