Since I didn’t actually get to the dragons or dumplings in the last post, I thought I would tell them here quickly, just to restore the order of the posting universe.
I write this from Taichung, the third and penultimate city in the Taiwan season. And a trend that has been building for me is that in every city I find a jade market. It’s become a bit of a joke with the cast, but it means that I have some truly lovely things, many of them for some of you people reading this now. You see, that’s the other thing about tours like this – the amazing notion of Per Diems. Per Diems are basically a living allowance given when travelling, the idea being that as the job requires you to be away from your kitchen and home, so the company provides money for food and stuff that you wouldn’t normally need to buy, because you’d have it there. The Per Diems here are $75.00 a day, Australian, and considering the hotel provides breakfast and the average meal is around $5.00, you have some extra, to say the least. Responsible people save these Per Diems, and do things like pay off mortages, but people like me think of it as extra money, and find a jade market in each city.
Anyhoo, in Tainan, the small first city, I was growing tired of all the stuff for sale, which is mostly sort of cheapy ‘made in Taiwan’ stuff (go figure), often covered with spangles and such. I was about to go back to the hotel, when I found a little stand on the street covered with beautiful carved stone pieces. The woman manning the stand was lovely, and in limited English explained what each piece was, and often where it came from, and what it meant. I picked out some pieces, one of which was a beautiful green circle, with two figures, one carved on each side, intertwined with the patterns. The woman explained that it was meant to be broken in half, and one half worn by each side of a couple. The man, she said, was the Dragon. And the woman was…. well, here she got a bit stuck. She consulted with two of her friends, who had stopped by the stand. She kept saying the word in Chinese, and they debated, until finally her friend turned to me and said ‘Man is the Dragon. Woman is the Chicken.’
The Chicken? So the man is the Dragon, strong, vital, and mysterious, and the woman, what, clucks and tastes delicious roasted? I knew that Asia wasn’t the most feminist of societies, but that seemed ridiculous. I looked closer at the piece, and at the bird that undeniably was facing the dragon. It was a bird, no doubt, but it was a bit more glamorous than a chicken. And then I had it. “Is it a Phoenix?” I asked. The three agreed loudly, yes, it was a phoenix, not a chicken.
I spoke later with Mindy, our fantastic bilingual local producer, who confirmed that the Dragon and the Phoenix are, in her words, ‘a couple’ (which I loved, as it sounded like something you would read in US Weekly – ‘Dragon and Phoenix were seen together at hip nightclub! Friends say they’re totally a couple!’). She also told me that the necklace I was wearing was technically a wedding piece, and that it was a little odd to be wearing both sides – the equivalent of wearing both halves of a ‘best friends’ necklace. I’m trying to pass it off as a representation of the idea that I’m complete unto myself or something, but I’m not quite selling it. Oh, well.
As for the dumplings, it’s only this – that same day, I discovered one of the most amazing things ever. On the street (street vendors selling all varieties of food are all over the streets wherever you go in Taiwan) there was a vendor at a round black frying grill, making something interesting. I ordered one, by pointing (I do a lot of pointing here), and the woman took a circle of dough, oiled the surface, and popped it on. It grilled to a golden brown perfection, and she flipped it over onto the other side. Then, she took an egg and cracked it, breaking the yoke, then popped the pancake onto the egg. When it was cooked, she picked it up, covered it with a hot sauce and another, sort of duck sauce, wrapped it like a crepe, and handed it to me. And when I bit into it, it was flaky and salty and flavorful and wonderfully fresh – like the best scallion pancake you’ve ever had combined with sauces in which you can taste each individual ingredient and how they work togehter. As cheesy as it sounds, it was so delicious that a tear came unbidden into the corner of my eye. I got an iced black tea, which was sweetened with honey and had just a hint of rose flavor, and I sat there in a sort of food nirvana.
Alright, I’d best go, the overture has started and the smoke machines are hissing loudly. I’ll report back soon, I promise.