Yam Wielding Grannies, Plastic Bugs, and Cilantro Ice Cream

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This guest post is from North Carolina author and sculptor Joel Haas, who is traveling in Taiwan and taking plenty of pictures. Today's post is the third installment of Joel's travel reports (also see parts one and two), in which he visits Yangmingshan National Park.

I describe Taiwan to American friends as a place the size of New Jersey, with the population of Canada, divided into a about a dozen ethnic groups (depends on who's counting), speaking about the same number of languages (or more).  Did I mention about 80% of the island is uninhabitable because of steep mountains and jungle?

Yangminshan National Park is more like the majority of Taiwan's terrain than the crowded cities along the western coastal plain.  The forest cloaked mountains rising above the city to the north,  was once the cool, scenic preserve of the elite.  Now, with the island's political and economic development, the park is open to the public.  City buses (the #260) run to it and, in fact, the National Park is part of the city.

But you would never know it.

The park is actually larger in land area than Taipei proper.  Like American national parks, roads and small towns dot the interior.  Camp grounds, nature study sites, trails laid out to see butterflies (best hiked in May and June) and trails to see the cherry blossoms and azaleas (best hiked now), areas of interest to geologists, and areas of interest to people just going out for the views, areas of interest for artists, and for those just looking to relax in some of the many hot springs doting the old volcanoes.

A friend attending a business meeting at the park offices in Yangmingshan took me along several hours before the meeting to a local restaurant with a fantastic view of one of the valleys and, incidentally, one of Generalissimo Chang Kai Shek's villas.

The villa is the low green building, barely visible, on the ridge.

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The proprietress, Ms Lee, was a bundle of energy and good will.  Her mother, renown as one of the best cooks in the area,  is the core of the family restaurant which Ms Lee manages. When not puzzling out the thoughts and actions of the odd wyeguhrun (foreigner), Ms Lee devotes her formidable energy and talents to nature photography, making natural dyes and paints, making terrifically engaging little sculptures of bugs from scrap plastic, and just in general being a force of nature which she so carefully observes and documents in her native mountainside village.

Ms Lee gets some coffee brewing for customers by using an alcohol lamp

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I noticed a bowl of what looked like paper hats on the table.  But that couldn't be right, I thought, not even baby heads are that small.  All was made clear to me in a moment.  It seems in many traditional restaurants, these are little disposable bowls for bones, seed pits, and  gristle.  Children or the grannies make these little folding bowls out of scrap paper.  Nothing to wash and just throw it away.  A great recycling use of old magazines and flyers.
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Our folding paper bones plate (note red sweet potato in the vase)

My friend left for her meeting and I was in the capable hands of Ms Lee.  Between her 100 words of English and my 100 words of Mandarin we did just fine.  I figured out she had said I should wait ten minutes while she finished cleaning up the restaurant and we would go wander the mountainside and village to take photos.    In the meantime, I took photos of Ms Lee's handicrafts, her garden, and of her mother preparing taro to mix with plums and brandy.  Ms Lee's progress was slowed as she would periodically dash out into her garden to name plants for me in Chinese which she uses to make her paints and dyes.  I don't remember the names of the plants, but I did learn my colors in Chinese.
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"Ahmah" (Grandmother) Lee prepares taro

Progress came to a complete halt as a couple walked in with what appeared to be a quivering mass of library paste in a brownie pan. Nothing would do now but that everybody sit down and have some mwahdjee  topped with ground peanuts and caramel (more on the peanuts and caramel later). We had to eat it right now, an elderly gentleman explained, while the mwahdjee was warm and still soft. I poked at it tentatively with my desert fork—I could see his point.  It was already gluey enough we could have pasted tiles to NASA's Space Shuttle with the stuff. Like all traditional Chinese deserts, it possessed only a hint of sweet as we would define it in the West. Sugar is not a major component of cooking here.

my serving of mwahdjee and ground peanuts

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Ms Lee kindly gave me a bug she'd made from plastic box strapping.  She's made dozens of animals and bugs from a variety of colors and textures of box strapping.

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I love the ant!

Ms Lee got her camera, grabbed a few oranges off a tree for us, and we headed down into the village. When I say we headed down, I mean we headed down.  The village is on a mountainside.  There are no up-down roads as such, only narrow stairways and paths steep as a ladder.  I was grateful for all the leg exercises my trainer at the gym had put me through.  Roads along the mountainside are recent, the older ones being more like level paths with the odd handrail or wall to keep you from tumbling down onto a neighbor's roof or field.  We had not gone far before we meet four "ahmahs" sitting in their traditional place along the mountain path into the village.  Of course we had to stop and make our manners here.  I was photographed with the eldest (she's 85.)
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Modernization means cast off office furniture to sit on and corrugated piece of tin over the wide spot they sit in on the mountain trail.
A hundred yards past the ahmahs, we came to an old traditional house dating to before the Second World War.

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An old woman trudges up the lane behind the old house. As you can see, she's not afraid of color.

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Plunging down another lane ourselves, and on past a water tank set in sturdy tree...

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which, it turned out, provided water for part of a local village market in a wide spot in the road above the fields in the valley.

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Cala flowers, sunflowers, dried squid, umbrellas, etc.  What do you want?

Despite having been served waaaaay more food than humanly possible to consume at Ms Lee's restaurant—and with the mwahdjee still making my insides sticky, there was nothing for it but to be polite and try everything offered by the local vendors.  As a guest of Ms Lee and as a foreigner (I did not see any other Westerners on my trip that day) everybody insisted I try their specialty.  Nobody would accept payment—in fact, when Ms Lee left some coins on a vendor's platter while she was away, the lady returned shortly and ran us down to physically force the money back into Ms Lee's pocket!
I started taking lots of photos so I would appear too busy to try more food.

There's always room for ice cream—especially ice cream wrapped in soy tacos and stuffed with fresh cilantro!
Bear with me.  This is one of the most delicious treats I have had here.  Follow the photos below.  We were making our way out of the market area when I spied a block of peanut brittle (it's not, but for lack of a better word...)  I started to take a photo as I saw another little lady sneaking up on my flank armed with breaded fried sweet yam slices on a stick.  Taking several photos to ward off the yam lady, only set up a hue and cry for the vendor at the peanut block to reappear and make his or her manners to the foreign guest.  I had no idea ice cream was involved.

A lady shortly appeared and pulled out what looked like a carpenter's hand planer.  She industriously set to planing off a half cup or so of grated peanut brittle, plopped out an ultra thin taco made of soy flour, and dumped the grated peanut brittle in the middle.  Next, she reached into an ice chest, plopped two scoops of home made vanilla cream onto the peanuts gratings in the middle of the taco and proceeded to chop up a handful of fresh cilantro.  I had no idea what she'd do with the cilantro until she dumped it onto the ice cream.   Then, in less time than it takes to tell about it, she wrapped the taco up tightly and presented it to me.

There was no getting out of this.
Unlike a lot of the other food offered me, you can't simply drop ice cream into a bag with a promise to have it for supper.  Ice cream is now.

Ice cream in a taco with cilantro is thinking outside the box.

With all eyes on me, I bit into it.

Thank God, it is DELICIOUS!

You can bet when I get back to Raleigh, I am going to start running some home experiments with filo dough, crushed peanuts, vanilla ice cream and cilantro.  Or try it yourself before I get back to the States and write me what you think.

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We finally got past the food vendors and into the area with National Geographic quality scenery. (see my Flickr photo sets)

Passing a waterfall fed by a mountain spring, we came upon a garden landscaped with pagodas, pines, cherry trees, azaleas, and more.  From  here, we could look out over the valley.

(I love how the setting sun brushed pink where it hit the water further up the mountainside!)

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At the garden—a young woman stands on the bridge over the mountain stream surrounded by azaleas

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from the bridge—stream and azaleas at sunset

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On the way back down the mountainside we came across the vendors closing up shop.  Before you think "Oh my God, how unsanitary!" please consider these ladies are washing their dishes in pure mountain spring water piped down from the same source as the waterfall; it is pure, and the water they use is then drained along the roadside canal you see into the village vegetable and flower gardens.
Can't say the same for your kitchen drain and dishwasher now can you?

My coach turned into a pumpkin and it was time to leave.  Ms Lee took me to a place only 50 yards above her house to have a perfect position to take photos of the sunset over Yangmingshan.

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Joel Haas is a sculptor and author from Raleigh, North Carolina. You can see his works at his website or at Neighborhood Sculpture Walk, and read stories at his blog.

See also: A Trip to Taipei's Shilin Night Market and Red Bean Filled Hockey Pucks and Mind Control.

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March 20, 2009 - 5:15am
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