Category Travel

Night Market: The Flavors of a Friendship, Sugar and Nine Spice

I first met Beth on a train platform in Taipei. I was eighteen and she had just turned seventeen and we each knew we were meeting “the other American” in the large group of exchange students from around the world who would be spending the next year there, living in the homes of strangers we were to call our parents. We’d each just recently arrived, and I was nervous that she wouldn’t like me and nervous I’d be recognized for the imposter that I was in equal measure.

An imposter is what I felt like: I coasted through school with ease, and the parts that weren’t easy, I relied on my social ties with my smarter or more studious peers to pull me through. Frequently lamented in progress reports and report cards was my inability to apply myself; a fair criticism. Between the stress of my home life,  my after school and weekend job, and my desperate need to be liked by my peers, I took relief where I could get relief, at school, by doing the bare minimum that would get me the grade that would avoid repercussions at home. I did thoroughly apply myself to one area: telling authority figures what they wanted to hear, and I used that skill to carry me almost seven thousand miles away, to this train platform, with assurances that I was eager to learn the language, embrace the culture, and be an ambassador of sorts for the United States. I wanted to do those things well but what I really wanted was what the Rotary leaders had promised over and over again: the best year of my life. I wanted it and I was interested in any country that was willing to take me in and let me have it. At that time, we were required to buy an open-ended airline ticket, a ticket where your arrival date is set but your departure could be any date within a year of purchase, the better to be wielded by the program managers as a “behave or we’ll send you home” cudgel.

The nature of the ticket weighed heavily in my mind when I first met Beth. I was intimidated by her: she seemed much too cool and smart to possibly want to be my friend, and likely able to see right through my bullshit, and she could end the best year of my life before it could properly begin. But instead we went shopping and took sticker pictures together and ate food and became friends. Later, Beth confessed to me that she didn’t know if she’d like me at first because I was too pretty. I laughed–she had my number, all right. 

Our year was the last year the Taiwanese Rotary had all the exchange students together in a group: we had bonded together too much, they said, to the exclusion of making local friends. Of course we formed strong ties with one another; we were all teenagers going through a similar experience that was vastly dissimilar to our home lives. We were all schooled in Mandarin together, spending hours learning our bo-po-mo-fos and yi-er-san-sis, concluding our month of all day lessons by putting on a play. There were more exchange students than high schools, so even after we were split apart from the larger group, we still had familiar faces around which was crucial because the regular high school students were too busy striving toward college to have time for anyone still struggling with their Chinese ABCs. While all the exchange students had this experience in common to bond over and our individual friendships were based on personality, we also fractured along country lines, making Beth and I unquestionable allies and lifelong friends. We were American and that meant something, even though in the age of George W. we did occasionally pretend to hail from elsewhere so people wouldn’t ask us questions about our stupid president (2019: “Hold my beer.”). From elsewhere, together. That year was hard and all the exchange students clung together to survive it as we were used as pawns in subtle social games we didn’t understand while we navigated young adulthood and homesickness and culture shock and quasi-independence, and all of its assorted BIG feelings. Of course we bonded.  

So it wasn’t the best year of my life (how sad it would be to assume I could have none better in store ahead?) but I did make some of the best friends of my life, first and foremost Beth. We were obnoxious foreign tourist teenagers together, we hung around cafes for longer than was socially acceptable together, we shopped together, visited night markets and museums and slept on wooden beds and attended festivals and ate entrails stuffed with offal together. We got tattoos and $3 ear piercings together. We broke all the rules together, Beth lamenting that her host father was a police officer and she was constantly afraid of being caught with alcohol on her breath. We spent hours haunting restaurants that served free diet coke refills, assembling a yearbook which we mass photocopied in 7-11. We obsessed and laughed about things that German student Max deemed “a little bit stupid”. 

It was hard to go from a year of intense togetherness to being separated by thousands of miles, me in California and Beth in Pennsylvania, and though we kept in touch online, it was not the same. The best time I had in my tumultuous semester at Drexel was when Beth came to visit. I was overjoyed when over ten years later, her work brought her to Seattle and we could be in-person friends again. We spent a lot of time together, visiting museums, going to shows, taking tours, walking and talking for hours. 

Beth was more than cool: she was funny, and vivacious, and kind. At my bridal shower, Beth gave me a turquoise bud vase and told me that she’d been at a conference where the artist was selling them but the attendees assumed they were free and walked off with all of them, and that she felt so badly for the artist that she bought a vase whenever she saw them. That’s the kind of person Beth was, in her life, in her advocacy for causes she believed in, in her work as a nurse: thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic. She was a better friend to me than I have been to anyone, and she was that way with everyone. 

Last year, Beth died following a battle with kidney disease. Attending the memorial service felt useless, mingling with people she knew whom I’d never met in a part of the country where we shared no history. What comfort could these strangers take from me or I from them? I briefly entertained the idea of a return to Taiwan, with or without any of our mutual far-flung companions, but when I used Google maps to try and find the building in which my second host family lived and a point of reference to my favorite beef noodle soup shop, I couldn’t recognize anything. It’s been twenty years in a major metropolitan area: of course it’s different. I didn’t know what I hoped I would find there, the thing that would give me closure, that would help me accept her death.

So instead I went with mutual friends to a night market, to honor her memory by sharing the flavors of our past and a little bit of the unsavory carnival element inherent to the night market. The ones I visited in my youth were certainly seedier. They were places that sold bootleg CDs and DVDs, shots of snake blood, counterfeit designer goods, junky jewelry, a variety of marital aids and they just happened to also have food. This one caters more to foodies and families and also sells some other uncompelling crap: junky jewelry, special effects contact lenses*, thin onesies, stickers and some as-someone-has-seen-on-TV.  Things for which the night market is just a short stop on their inevitable journey to a landfill. The vibe was right. 

I felt it was important to take a group photo together, as taking photos together was one of our primary hobbies in Taiwan. It’d be even better if there were a few purikura booths** but handing my camera to a complete stranger is fine, too. 

I first experienced stinky tofu (臭豆腐) shortly after my arrival to Taipei; my host family took me to enjoy this “special taste” within days, as if they were afraid someone else would feed it to me first and they’d miss their chance at seeing my reaction. It was a simpler time, there wasn’t as much on TV, and watching your exchange daughter gag on the creamy garbage smell of cho-doufu was an entertaining diversion. Cho-doufu is tofu that’s been fermented in brine made from other fermented things in an unholy multiplication of stank alchemy. This tofu, puissant with odorifiousness, is then deep fried to put a crispy skin on its wobbling innards. In the second neighborhood I lived in, an enterprising vendor would make his rounds, pushing  his fry cart down the street, the wafting scent curling into people’s homes as he called out “cho! doufu” over and over again. He could have saved his voice: the smell is unmistakable. Twenty years later at a night market halfway around the world, the smell and its remembered associated taste could still make me shudder and my stomach flip-flop.

Cheese tonkatsu poutine: pork patty stuffed with cheese, breaded, and deep fried, served on a bed of french fries and green onions. A fan of anything stuffed with cheese, I was hyped to try this. Pro tip: find somewhere to sit, dump out that searing lake of cheese onto the fries and then stuff those cheesy fries back into the empty meat shell. You’re welcome.

On hot, sticky days together in Da’an Forest Park, we’d occasionally visit a shaved ice vendor who would load up a mountain of fluffy shaved ice with rivers of condensed milk and piles of chopped fruit, red beans, and tofu pudding. My favorite was ripe, fragrant mango. This drink from icy bar with its bubbles and jellies was refreshing and evoked a similar experience.

What are the six extra Ds beyond the mundanity of the mere three that people usually experience? Best guess: danger, dinosaurs, divestment from money…disappointment? That’s still two entire Ds unaccounted for. I’m going to venture that the disappointment is deep and all of these dimensions combined with a bunch of deep fried whatever could conceivably cause dry heaves. Disgorgement: that’s the word I’m looking for.

 

There’s so much food at the night market that everyone found something appealing, whether that was a chicken cutlet the size of a car tire or fish shaped pancake stuffed with custard. I got to share dragon beard candy with almost everyone, a pillow of fluffy strands of sugar around a core of chopped sweet peanut, black sesame, and coconut, dusted with more sugar that puffs around your mouth like smoke when eaten, the strands clinging to your face in a beard of sugar. Laborious to make with a freshness window of less than ten minutes, it’s very sweet and the texture is a bit like biting into a cotton ball. A nostalgic cotton ball. 

We found a table and wrapped our evening with gelato, flavors like tangy White Rabbit (Chinese milk candy), punchy yuzu, and nutty, roasty black sesame eddying into the bottom of our cups. In sharing this experience with our friends, Beth felt more present in my life than she has since her death. It didn’t lessen the ache but reminded me why I ache, why I loved her and love her still. Beth lives in the past now. I know where to find her.

 

 

 

 

*The very last place I’m going to put something sketchy is directly on my eyeball, thank you very much.

**I don’t know how they haven’t taken off in the USA yet but they’re like snapchat filters and stickers rolled into one and they can only have gotten better in the last twenty years.

Burning Beast 2019

“Welcome to the world’s best feast in a field!” Held annually at Smoke Farm in Arlington, Washington, and organized by chef Tamara Murphy, Burning Beast celebrates all things carnivore, inviting chefs to compete with one another for the title of Ultimate Beastmaster glory and a plaque with a skull on it. Each chef is assigned a protein, but it’s up to them how to prepare it to stand out from their peers and win the accolades of the 500 hungry attendees. 

This was the first year I was able to get my hands on tickets (they typically sell out in minutes and though I purchased my tickets in a harried frenzy, this year they appeared to still be available on the date of the event itself), and I was eager to experience the beefy bacchanal for myself. The chefs generally arrive the previous day, camping at the site and preparing for the event. Ticketholders are invited in at 3pm, with the dinner bell ringing at 5pm or thereabouts. As ticketholders arrive, they’re handed a menu for the evening and a station at which to start.

The lineup:

  • Chicken, Jack Timmons of Jack’s BBQ
  • Beef, Michelle Pegues of Carnivore
  • Rabbit, Jesse Smith of Smith & Coleburn
  • Octopus, Tana Mielke of Votano Hellenic Tavern
  • Goat, Tamara Murphy of Terra Plata
  • Filipino Pinakbet, Melissa Miranda of Musang
  • Turkey Tails, Dylan Giordan of Piatti
  • Catfish, Dana Neely of Girls Gone BBQ
  • Beef Tongue, Mike Easton of Il Nido
  • Pig, Adam Hoffman of Adam’s Northwest Bistro & Brewery
  • Duck, Robert Killam of Bread and Circuses
  • Grilled Corn & Eggplant, Mutsuko Soma of Kamonegi
  • Ram & Ewe, John Sundstrom & Rosie Cisneros of Lark
  • Salmon, Sadie White of Staple & Fancy
  • Lamb, Tristan Chalker & Mollie Turner of Salish Lodge

 

We arrived around 3pm and spent some time wandering the grounds: walking to the river, checking out the creative ways chefs were preparing their dishes: roasted on a spit, buried underground, strapped to a rack above a cinder block pit with a vintage chrome car grill mounted to the front. Above it all loomed The Beast, a giant plywood coyote that would be set ablaze at the end of the day’s festivities. 

Our chairs were parked near some Burning Beast veterans (whom we’d both worked with indirectly at some point in the past: games are a 135B industry with a teeny-tiny social circle) who’d helpfully explained to us how it was all going to go down. All too soon, the bell rang. I was to start at the salmon, and Jason with the lamb. I had seen the salmon cooking on posts, the accompanying bread grilling on a grate over hot logs and I was definitely ready to put it in my mouth. The sole dish that I knew I would not be queuing up for was the octopus, as I personally feel it’s unethical to eat them (too smart, no bargain with humanity), but that left me with a whopping 14 other dishes to try. 

The lines were huge but moved snappily, and once you’ve visited your starter station, you’re free to select a line at will, with many people choosing to eat the dish they got from the previous chef while waiting in the next line. I personally found the food to be a mixed bag. The salmon was sadly unremarkable, nigh-flavorless and wetly lumped on a piece of bread so hard and cracker-like it was difficult to bite through. While cleansing my palate with the lamb dish, I then entered the line for the rabbit tinga tostada, but when I got to the front of the line and saw that the dish was cilantro city, with a cilantro tortilla and a cilantro queso fresco, I passed owing to my passionate distaste for the herb that tastes like chewing on soapy tinfoil and declared it was duck season instead.

The duck wings were deboned and stuffed with a mixture of chicken and pork along with what appeared to be glass noodles and served with a side of pickled veggies and were excellent, one of the standouts of the day. 

“Who wants a rib?” I eagerly volunteered, accepting what I thought would be a pretty special morsel that turned out to be…not, when the meat on the bone was slippery and chewy, but not chewable. 

The catfish was perfect, flaky and crisp and somehow fried on a barbeque grill, because Dana Neely is a chef, and I suspect, a wizard. The catfish got my vote for Best of the Beast: it was just that magical.

I also tried the turkey tails, which is a part of the turkey that I had never eaten nor heard of before. It turns out to be a gland that attaches the turkey tail to the body and is filled with oil that the bird uses to preen itself: fatty, delicious, and the USA mainly exports theirs to the Pacific Islands. Dylan Giordan cooked his turkey tails on cast iron skillets above the fire until they were crisp and golden and delightful.

While watching the chefs cook, I did occasionally wonder how the amount of food they were cooking was intended to feed 500 people, but assumed the chefs knew better how to dial in the correct amount so that everyone would get to try everything. This assumption was incorrect and items that ran out early included the tuscan beef, the pinakbet, and the corn, that last which, unlike having to slice off 1/500th of a side of meat, seems countable. I was only able to try seven dishes before I tapped out, and maybe chefs take stomach capacity into their calculations, too,  but running out of food early makes ticketholders have to play a game of weighing what they think will be most popular so they don’t have an option taken from them and/or encourages them to pound down their food as fast as possible. It feels both in-line and out of line for the event: it’s first and foremost a feast, primal, meat and flame, but so many chefs cook with a nose-to-tail mentality and with sustainability in mind that eating as much as you can as fast as you can feels like it runs counter to that ethos.

Still: stomachs were filled, votes were cast, the circle was cleared, and the beast set afire, howling smoke and then jets of fire at the sky, finally collapsing into a flaming pile as people danced and digested and the sun set. 

I’ll give you $10 for the lightbulb hut.

Mmm, Beast Butter. 

Salmon

Ram & Ewe

Goat

Tuscan beef

Chicken by Jack Timmons. Last year he took the trophy with his brisket and told me that if you win, next year you get assigned chicken. His chicken was bathed in mole for tacos, with a small snowy mountain of cheese.

Catfish 

Turkey tails


Paris: Cafes, Consumerism, Cultural Icons

Holiday display at À la Mère de Famille

We started the day in the Marais, having coffee at Le Bouledogue. It was our final day in France and I had some shopping to do. First of all, I had some gifts to bring home, to thank people for watching over my home and my horse. I elected to buy them chocolate assortments from À la Mère de Famille, a chocolatier in business in Paris since 1761, a full fifteen years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. 

Afterward, we did some personal shopping, what little our backpack space would allow. At La Plume du Marais, a stationary and gift shop, I bought a beautiful Christian Lacroix notebook that I’ve subsequently treated as too good for the likes of me to use, and at Le BHV Marais,  Jason bought a scarf with accents of metallic thread and scattered sequins. 
 
A snack at Izakaya Ramen stoked Jason’s fire for Japanese food and made him want to go get some sushi. I absolutely did not want to get sushi, and so we split up for a while so we could pursue individual interests. I thought I might like to do some more shopping, see if there was any France-only makeup in Sephora or maybe buy a bra that isn’t preceded by the word “sports” but even in one of the best cities in the world for shopping, I did not have a lot of patience for it, traveling down the escalator into the perfume-clouded shop and immediately back up.
 

Tour Saint-Jacques, the only remaining portion of a 16th century church that was destroyed during the French Revolution. Nicolas Flamel, scribe and rumored alchemist who reputedly discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and thereby immortality, is buried under the floor. He died at age 78; immortality apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

On many corners in Paris were works by French artist Invader; his small tile video game mosaics are now on streetcorners around the world.

John Hamon posters are also all over the streetcorners: some color, some black and white, some defaced.

Subtle pit check.

There’s a condition that only tourists develop in Paris: Paris Syndrome. Paris has been idealized in popular media, particularly in Japan, and so when some tourists who have taken that idealized depiction deeply to heart arrive and find Paris is not a pristine, glimmering background for stick thin models who spend their days alternately shopping at high end designer stores, lounging glamorously at cafes, and on couture photoshoots but a city with all its attendant issues populated by all kinds of people, their shock and disappointment is so deep that it affects their physical health.  People experience heart palpitations, dizziness. They sweat and hallucinate.
 
These same symptoms, when experienced in Florence, are said to be caused by exposure to objects of great beauty.
 
It seems possible that any well-traveled city would have a small subset of visitors who experience these symptoms, and it’s up to the tourism board to capitalize on their particular syndrome. Seattle Syndrome could be caused by proximity to wild orca whales. San Diego Syndrome, caused by the ubiquity of the deliciousness of any restaurant that ends in “bertos”.
 
Poor Stockholm.
 
While I didn’t experience Paris Syndrome, this trip did wreak havoc on my body. I generally don’t deal well with drastic time change, at least at first. There’ll be a couple days at the start of a trip where my stomach is feeling tender, and nausea will color my first few meals. This trip was on a whole new level. From Winter Wonderland onwards, my guts were in disarray. I was so sick in the sole occupancy restroom in what is basically the middle of the dining room at Imagine that I hoped that I would just die in there so I wouldn’t accidentally make eye contact with anyone after emerging from its paper thin walls. After the terrible pizza in Montmarte, I got worse, shuddering in a restroom an average of once an hour.  At night, there was very little time for sleeping with all of the sweating and cramping I was doing. The reason I first selected the toilet row on the train to Chantilly was because I was afraid I’d need to use it, and this was after having to pay to use the restroom in Gare du Nord. In Paris, I watched a man pull down his pants and defecate in front of a statue, and near Les Halles, I was afraid I’d have no choice but to do the same thing because three quarters of the public toilets were broken. That’s basically all I did while Jason was off enjoying sushi–desperately look for a toilet. I was thirsty and tired and wrung out and fed up. And then we arrived at the Louvre.
 
The Louvre: originally a fortress, then a palace of the Kings of France, it’s the art museum that even non-museum enthusiasts know about. I knew it would take at least a full day to see properly, and though we did not have that kind of time to dedicate, we found ourselves with a free afternoon and decided a few hours would be better than nothing at all. 
 
There are signs all around the Louvre warning tourists not to purchase anything from street vendors around the site, particularly tickets, as official tickets are only sold inside the museum itself. So of course when we were approached by someone asking if we needed tickets, Jason responded in the affirmative and that is when I grabbed him by the elbow and marched him away. I’m glad his sushi wasn’t followed by a timeshare presentation or we would definitely own a week a year in a horrible condo that never has a free week available. 
 

Inside the museum, the noise was deafening, on a Wednesday, in the off season. I cannot even fathom the volume during peak season, honestly, and I used to sell guitar amplifiers for a living. My enthusiasm was draining rapidly, but instead of listening to my gut and getting out, I bought the tickets and went in deeper.  I didn’t find the going any easier inside: it was just so loud and so hot and and after watching someone attempt to climb onto a plinth to take a selfie with a statue rendered me temporarily blind with anger, I waited in the twenty person line for the restroom and discovered that I also got my period. Not just got it, it was like it was exploding out of me. And I can’t remember precisely anymore whether they didn’t have any kind of dispenser or whether it was broken or whether it ate my money because frustration has swallowed the details but I know that by the time I left that bathroom I was just done. I was so done, I couldn’t be in the museum anymore. I was so done, I started yelling at Jason on the street when he suggested that I look on the bright side.  I was so dehydrated from all of the various fluids that were shooting out of my holes that I was practically mummifying in front of him, and he thought I could find a bright side? No. NO. I AM MELLZAH, ENDER OF WORLDS!

 
And then we went into a pet store and some puppies licked my fingers and the apocalypse was temporarily averted.