MaoKong Tea Dishes.
Feast. Tea. Tea-inspired pickled vegetables. Fried tea leaves. Fried tea rice. Sauteed vegetables. Tea-inspired sweet and sour pork.
Rock and I decided to take the MaoKong cable car to the top of the mountain, where we would have the opportunity to dine spectacularly on tea-inspired dishes and drink tea until it was gushing out of our ears. To do so, one must take a cable car up the mountain; we missed the cable car that had the transparent floor, which would have allowed us to observe the forest below. For the sake of saving time, an original flavored car had to do.
Upon deboarding, the road up was fairly straightforward. There was really only one general direction (up)…and in a windy fashion with (blind turns, fast cars, kids, and street vendors…). We trekked alongside the non-existent sidewalk, dodging said cars, food carts, and small children, until we happened upon brightly lit tea houses. Rock stopped at a familiar sign, trying to determine whether a particular restaurant was one that he had previously eaten at. He wasn’t sure, but the menu was tea-inspired. Combined with the friendly family atmosphere, a great view of the sunset, and a overly friendly waitress, we were sold.
The entire ordeal was a 7-course meal, starting with a pot of tea under a rather beautiful sunset. I recall our conversation quite well. We were comparing the quality of life as Asian-Americans to what our lives might have been if we were Asian-Asians (being Asian and growing up in an Asian country). It was hard to say. Debating plausible existences was indeed fun, but if anything, it was more inspiring and thought-provoking to discuss geographic and demographic contexts between the United States and Taiwan. In some way, I’m infinitely grateful that my parents moved to the United States, but then again, I’m extremely biased, as I have spent my entire life as an American resident.
Our conversation was interrupted by our waitress, swinging by with the second course, an appetizer that included pickled vegetables littered with tea leaves. The vegetables were cold and crunchy, rivaled by an interesting astringency from the tea leaves. There was a hint of sweetness that could have been sugar or mirin. It was a rather amazing appetizer, minus the random iceberg lettuce and inedible flower that was included on the dish.
The next two dishes were both fried dishes. Fried tea leaves on top of sweet-glazed fried sweet potato, served with sweet n’ salty plum powder, and tea-inspired fried rice. I was curious as to how they got the batter to stick on tea leaves, because tea leaves are fairly small and scrunched up. I’m guessing they might have re-hydrated them and patted them dry before coating them in a light batter and something that resembled Panko breadcrumbs. The plum powder was an interesting “dipping sauce”, as was the fried sweet potato, which at times, was more satisfying than the fried tea leaves themselves. What a killer combination. The colors were off-putting, but the flavors were deliciously paired.
Tea fried rice is was fairly simple to understand; traditional Chinese fried rice with scallions, peas, carrots, bits of egg, covered in a soy-umami sauce, a dash of spice, that “used” wok flavor, and laced with hints of tea extract and bits of crispy tea leaves.
The main course was sweet and sour pork, glazed with tea leaves. The glaze was slightly too sweet for me, but the bitterness of the tea leaves (yes, there was alot of tea on the mountain to use) eventually balanced out the sweetness of the pork. More robust flavors were found near the end.
Back to the fried tea leaves. I had two questions. How did they get the batter to stick, and what was the difference between normal breadcrumbs and Panko-bread crumbs?
There’s alot of claims on Panko breadcrumbs. Some common characteristics are below:
- Light and airy.
- Absorbs less grease than standard breadcrumbs.
- Post-fying, Panko gets more crispy than standard breadcrumbs.
Panko is different because its made with crust-less bread product. If one starts with the softest, airiest portion of bread, and crisps it up, it’s only natural that the structure of the final product is lighter. When bread is baking, yeasts produce gases that not only provide flavor but creates the “holes” that we’re so accustomed to seeing. Just like when kids rip off the crust on peanut-jelly sandwiches, the middle of bread is soft, supple, and airy. Toast it, fry it up and crumble it, and you’ll end up with a lighter density product: Panko. I can’t speak to the oil content, as I’m sure companies have standardized the process. Normal breadcrumbs, because of their density, may have more available space for oil relative to open airy structures, which confers a greasier product. Increased air may also confer thinner bread structures (microscopically), and would fry up more delicately.
Batter-wise, the normal order would be: eggwash, flour, pat excess off, eggwash, breadcrumbs, fry. This seems a bit excessive, especially for a tea leaf. The batter to tea leaf ratio can easily be destroyed. In this case, I thought of an alternative method, which is to simply use pure egg yolk in a very thin coating, to the point where it solidifies in a “gel.” One can observe the same process when yolks are broken during brunch and the excess yolk dries on the edges of one’s fork. Thus, the new process becomes: egg-yolk wash, gel, breadcrumbs, fry. Doesn’t crowd the leaf, and allows the breadcrumbs to accompany, not overpower.
Post meal, we backtracked down to the gondola, and this time around, got a posh-glass-floored cable car. Unfortunately, we only got to observe the pitch black darkness of the forest beneath us, as the sun had already set. On the way down Rock and I shared scary stories, willing the “ghosts” of the cable car to plaster their faces against the glass door. When we reached the bottom, we happily crossed off a trip to tea haven. A small slice of serenity that you just don’t find in a city.
Taiwan posts are drawing to a close. Stay tuned.