Posts tagged Taiwan
Everything You Need To Know About Southeast Asian Street Food, Night Markets, and Hawker Centers

Ivan here.

Jennie and I dedicated the whole month of October 2018 to exploring street food culture in Singapore and Malaysia. We wanted to find out whether we can truly “know” a place and its people by simply walking around and eating our way through it.

Spoiler alert: it’s possible.

 
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Jennie and Ivan’s Singapore & Malaysia Street Food Itinerary


Here was our itinerary: October 1 - 31, 2018


Malaysian food is complex, diverse and criminally underrepresented in North America. It’s the perfect blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences. In practice, this means shrimp paste and sambal meets soy sauce and lemongrass, rice steamed with coconut milk dates Indian roti and curry.

 
 
Jennie’s note:  Ivan literally had nasi lemak every opportunity he got. He was obsessed in Singapore and Malaysia.

Jennie’s note: Ivan literally had nasi lemak every opportunity he got. He was obsessed in Singapore and Malaysia.

 

And as someone not prone to hyperbole:

Malaysian nasi lemak might be the most perfect breakfast dish ever invented.


Street Food 101:

How to Find Good Street Food in Southeast Asia


Maybe it’s an inborn talent of the Taiwanese, but for someone who’s not overly fussy about what he eats, I do have a knack for finding good street food. You can chalk this up to the power of deduction.

Because once you’ve eliminated the tourist traps and places that will definitely give you food poisoning, whatever remains, however rundown-looking, must be freaking delicious.

In this post, I’ve compiled a list of 9 general guidelines (not rules) you should stick to when you have a mental list of foods you want to try, but don’t know which vendors to pick. Where online sources are either non-existent or unreliable, and the only thing you can depend on are your senses and instinct.


9 Non-Obvious Tips for Finding Good Street Food in Asia and Southeast Asia


1. Always arrive late to the meal

Street food is an iterative process that gets better as the night goes on. Like a car engine sitting in a winter driveway, vendors need time to warm up. The first couple of batches are just to get themselves in rhythm. Which is why in Taiwan, no self-respecting local arrives at a night market before 7 PM (usually closer to 8).

2. Do a complete walk-through before choosing a stall

Pay attention to what’s going on both behind and in front of the stall: how old are the cooks (i.e. how long have they been doing this)? How fresh are the ingredients? What’s the average age of the customers? Are vendors getting high off their own supply? What are they feeding their own kids? In Penang, Malaysia, in a food court full of exotic seafood and spicy curry broths, I saw a vendor’s kid ignore his smartphone and inhale a plate of chicken wings and plain white rice from a neighboring stall. So that’s what I had for dinner that night. That kid was onto something.

3. Understand queue dynamics: what kind of line is forming?

Conventional wisdom says to go where people (preferably locals) are lining up. Whichever stall has the longest line, must be serving the best food, right?

Not always. Long lines=good food is the kind of lemming-like thinking that leads to the rich getting richer, until one day, global inequality brings about the collapse of our institutions. Somewhere, at the end of a long, random queue, lurks the future Starbucks of street food.

Here’s a real-life example: Jennie and I were in Tokyo for the first week of December. Passing by Shinjuku on a Saturday afternoon, we saw locals lining up around the block for, get this, Taiwanese bubble tea.

Turns out the Kaohsiung-based franchise Gong Cha recently opened their first stores in Japan. As a Taiwanese, is Gong Cha the best bubble tea ever? Not even close. But it’s definitely the most expensive and trendy. Another example: tourists queuing in front of Ichiran Ramen (ubiquitous across Japan; basically the Mcdonalds of ramen) as if its famous tonkotsu broth offered the elixir to everlasting life.

Editor’s Note: To be fair, Ichiran Ramen is decent (in spite of hype) and the dining concept is pretty unique. But the Fukuoka chain has been around in its current form since the early 90s. When Jennie and I were last in Japan ten years ago, nobody cared about Ichiran. The only thing that’s really changed is the size of the company’s marketing budget.


4. Pay attention to old people

This tip works especially well at lunchtime and in the mid-afternoons. Prime old people hangout times.  When you’re faced with the prospect of choosing between hundreds of food stalls selling the same items, you can’t go wrong gravitating towards groups of old men (“uncles”) or women (“aunties”) clustered around that one stall drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  

The same logic applies for the people behind the counter. You’re looking for older vendors with a no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Avoid bored-looking teenagers and twenty-somethings behind the wok. That’s just slave labor dressed up as filial piety.

5. The more gimmicks the food has, the more disappointing it will be

Gimmicks: your food wouldn’t need them if it was anything to write home about. Delicious food, by definition, should speak for itself. It doesn’t get improved with sparklers, or if it’s shrunk down into kawaii (Japanese for cute) mini-sizes, or if it’s cut into the shape of Hello Kitty. Pretty much any optimization for Instagram is guaranteed to make zero difference to the actual quality of the food - but a noticeable difference to the price.   

6.  A steaming pot of broth right out front is usually a good sign

Any food that’s cooked in front of you and not carried in from the back is generally a good sign. But something old that’s already boiling in a cauldron out front is even better. Lao tang tou, or “old soup broth,” where fresh ingredients are added daily but the soup is never changed for decades, is history you can actually taste.  

7. If a vendor has more than 1-2 specialty dishes on the menu, they don’t understand what the word specialty means

Fat menus lead to thin wallets and disappointing meals. This holds especially true for street food and small vendors, where you know they don’t employ a staff of two dozen specialists in the kitchen. Having more than two specialty dishes means you’re trying to be everything to everyone. Nine times out of ten, you’ve already failed.

8. Avoid the aggressive or over-friendly salesman

A salesman is only as good as the product he or she sells. But the better the product, the more it should sell itself. Especially when it comes to food, where you (typically) don’t need an instruction manual. Therefore, the very presence of an overly friendly salesman is a sign that the food should be avoided.

9. Be careful when choosing “well-rated” and decorated establishment

Say I’m the owner of a hawker center stall in Singapore. I’ve been working at my craft for half a century, sweating away in the equatorial heat. One day, a critic from an unnamed French tire company rides in on his horse to review my life’s work. Based on...what? Do I go into their factories to grade the quality of their tires? Do I look like I’m baking baguettes here?

Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Michelin Man is an untrustworthy fraud. If anything, he looks like someone who would know all the good places to eat. What I am saying is that in the world of night markets and food stalls, “prestige” is often not based on the most up-to-date information. Quality and standards in the food world are fickle and subject to change. Margins are low, competition is fierce, and customers are always seeking newer thrills (further reading: how much does it cost to run a hawker stall in Singapore?).

International fame also tends to skew your incentives.  When most of your clientele becomes one-time customers (i.e. tourists), instead of people from the block you have to pass by on the street every day, would anyone notice if you raised the prices and cut some corners?

And if someone did notice, would it be your problem?



April 2018 Money Diary: A Different Kind of Life

Ivan here.

Twenty two months ago, Jennie and I published our first money diary. Back then, we had some hopes and dreams about what our life and marriage could be, a few ambitious goals, plus zero dollars saved in our round the world travel fund.

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Since that publication:

  • Our cost of living has remained unchanged: We spent $2,787 in July 2016 versus $2,815 in the past month.  

  • Our average monthly spend has decreased: we averaged $3,140 per month in 2016 & 2017 versus $2,800 in 2018.

  • Our donations to charity have increased: From $0 in 2016 to $1,250 in 2018 (to date).

  • We’ve hit our $40,000 savings goal for our round the world trip:  $0 in 2016 to $40,286 in 2018.

 
April 2018 - The Origami Life Money Diaries
 

The shift from spending $3,000 a month to $2,800 isn’t about cutting costs or making ourselves miserable. We’ve actually learned to be more efficient with where we spend our dollars, by prioritizing our spending in areas that add value to our life. For example, over the past two years, we’ve significantly cut back on Eating Out and Miscellaneous spending, and moved those savings toward Travel and Charitable Donations.  

This goes back to how we value money: it’s not about what you spend, but how you get the maximum return for every dollar you do spend by:

  1. Eliminating waste and mindless spending habits

  2. Setting clear priorities on the things that matter to you

Having met our savings goals, Jennie and I now have some loose ends to tie up - but we’re on track to transition to the next chapter of our lives by September.


I told you what I was going to do.
— Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

Travel On Your Terms versus On a Corporate Expense Account


A week after I returned to Los Angeles after two months in rural Taiwan, I tagged along with Jennie on a work trip to San Francisco. As one half of Origami Partners LLC, I had a few prospective clients up in the Bay Area, and wanted to take advantage of the free accommodations to set up some meetings downtown.

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Walking around San Francisco after two months of solitude in rural Taiwan was jarring to say the least.

I don’t have strong feelings about the Bay Area. From certain angles, I guess it’s a beautiful city. On the other hand, it’s also a microcosm for the massive income inequality and skyrocketing rents we see around the world.

San Francisco is by far the most expensive city in the United States. And it’s the kind of city that makes you pay for it in other ways besides money. Personally, I think New York City fits this description as well.

To explain what I mean, I want to share what it’s like to travel on a corporate expense account. The best way to begin is by comparing the cost of two very different lifestyles...


Comparing the Cost of One Month in Rural Taiwan vs.

One Week in San Francisco with an Expense Account


 

Cost of One Month in Rural Taiwan

(self funded)
Cost of One Week in San Francisco

(with expense account subsidy)
Roundtrip Train Tickets (from Taipei):
$50

Airbnb Rental:
$238

Electricity:
$15

Bicycle Rental:
$15

Food: $8 x 30 days:
$240

Total out-of-pocket spend:
$555
Flight/airline tickets to SFO (from LAX):
$205

Hotel (fully expensed):
$1,604

Uber Rides (partially expensed):
$259

Food (partially expensed):
$558

Total spend:
$2,626

Total out-of-pocket spend:
$780

Obviously, it shouldn’t be news to anyone that living in San Francisco is more expensive than living out in the Taiwanese countryside. But just how much more expensive, is something that we don’t always appreciate until we see the numbers:

It’s more expensive to live in SF rent free for one week, traveling on your employer’s dime, than it is to spend an entire month living in rural Taiwan.

This would be an okay tradeoff if traveling on an expense account was all it was cracked up to be.

But it isn’t. Maybe it feels amazing at first, but slowly, hedonic adaptation kicks in. Which is to say that when you start getting used to driving Ferraris, anything less than a Mercedes will make you feel like a peasant. And if someone gave you that Ferrari for free, it wouldn’t mean anything to you at all.

Traveling for free on someone else’s dime makes things less rewarding - not more.


My Takeaway from Two Different Ways of Life:

Life in the city versus life in the countryside


If we truly want to treat money as a “vote” for what people and society value, it’s hard not to look at that $2,626 number spent in just one week in SF and realize how absurd it is.

$2,626 says nothing about anyone. It’s just a number that gets moved around faster so people can drink slightly more expensive wine and eat at slightly more expensive restaurants. It could easily have been $5,000 or $10,000. It makes no difference because human beings were barely conscious in the decision making process at all.

$2,626 is just stimulation for the economy - so the poor can get by and the rich can get used to (and grow bored of) slightly better versions of what they already have. 

*

By writing this post, I’m not advocating that everyone retire to the countryside and start living off the land. I would be a completely useless farmer.

The larger point I'm making is that these are two lifestyles on opposite ends of a wide spectrum. And having experienced two starkly different realities back to back, I now have a better idea of which direction I’d like to move towards.

 

Our Taipei Trip in Pictures

In late October 2016, Ivan and I traveled from Los Angeles to Taipei for our wedding ceremony.


Wedding receptions, street food, and shrimp fishing all in one day...

The two of us, waiting awkwardly as the reception room filled up.

The two of us, waiting awkwardly as the reception room filled up.

We had our wedding reception at Taipei 101's Ding Xian 101 (頂鮮101) seafood restaurant.

Ivan's family actually arranged the entire reception. We had fancy seafood as well as other delicious Taiwanese influenced dishes. I'd say the biggest highlight of our wedding (reception) day was that we finally had a chance to relax and unwind. And it was my family's first time in Taiwan; my siblings first time abroad. Everything was new for them and I wanted to share all the great things that I'd come to love about the city. So, let me warn you -- there's a lot of food. 

Since I wanted to share my love of Taipei, I thought -- what better way to enjoy a new country than by eating more Taiwanese food? So, we headed over to Shilin Night Market

And what was I most excited about?! The Hot Star Large Fried Chicken. It was hot, crunchy, fatty, and oozing with hot oil. The hype around this snack is definitely worthwhile to check out. 

Another fun thing that we did in Taipei after my wedding reception was shrimp fishing. We stayed up a little late, had a few beers, and caught a few shrimp. Sadly, the owner felt so bad for how little we caught that they gave us some free shrimp on the house. 


Another beautiful day in Taipei...

We took the subway with my family to one of our favorite areas in Taipei's Zhongzheng District

Ivan grew up in the area around the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂). Every time we've been back to Taiwan, we come and visit this area. I love it because I get a peek into Ivan's memories and past. We could easily spend hours wandering around this area...

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A visit to this area also means that we have to visit our favorite soup dumpling place, Hangzhou Xiaolong Tang Bao (杭州小籠湯包)

We actually enjoy this place a lot more than Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) because it's still a family run restaurant and tastes great. 

Hang Zhou Xiao Long Tang Bao 杭州小籠湯包
Opening hours: 11:30am - 9:30pm (Opens daily)
Nearest MRT: Chiang Kai Shek MRT Station (Exit number 5 and walk about 5 mins)

If you're stopping by, I highly recommend checking out the cold side dishes, the crab roe xiao long bao, and the seasonal dishes. When we came out they had sweet pumpkin buns.
 

Jiufen (九份)

On our last day with my family, we took an hour long (and rickety) bus ride up a mountain to check out Jiufen (九份)

The views were spectacular but it was really crowded in the narrow alleyways, which were filled with delicious Taiwanese snack and memorabilia vendors.

If you want to see what foods you should eat in the area, I'd recommend checking out this guide from Food Republic. My favorite snack was the grilled snails!

Our last days in Taipei...

Our last days in Taiwan were spent together, wandering the streets for my favorite foods, hanging out with Ivan's family, and running last minute errands before we had to leave Taiwan again. 

Beef noodle soup from a local shop near Taipei Main Station.

Beef noodle soup from a local shop near Taipei Main Station.

We both got new bracelets from the Taipei Weekend Jade Market 台北市建國假日玉市.

Each time I come back to Taiwan, it becomes a little bit more difficult each time to leave it. At the airport before our departure, we had Mos Burger before we went through security. We sat around, thinking about our time in Taipei and we felt exhausted...and a little sad to say goodbye again.

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If you're thinking of visiting Taipei, check out some of our latest posts below.