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Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American from Brooklyn in the holiest of Buddhist temples and watch the racial harmony flow.

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Misadventures in Chinese Food

by Antonio Graceffo

Eating in Taiwan is a lot of fun, because you get to eat the way you wanted to when you were five. You pick the bowl up to about three inches from your mouth and shovel massive amounts of food in with chopsticks. You are encouraged to slurp noodles and burps are not repressed. Next, there is always a selection of foods on the table and you are expected to try each food in turn. The catch is that you use the same bowl all through the meal. So, each time you finish one dish, you just dump the next one in and continue wolfing. You also have to keep up a constant chatter. You just use your tongue to pack all of your food tightly, in the pocket of your cheek, like chewing tobacco, and speak normally. Now, I have a theory that squirrels are actually Chinese, or that the Chinese fear winter.

With chicken or fish, you just put the whole thing in your mouth, and when you hit a bone, you spit it out on the table. After a meal, the table is covered in things people didn’t want, like bones and shells. You will never find fat or gristle on the table, as these are the favorites. The Chinese don’t drink while eating. When they have eaten enough, they refill the bowl with clear broth, which they drink, to wash down their meal. Finally, you eat a piece of fruit to kill dragon-breath.

My first several months in Taiwan, I ate dinner at home every night because eating in restaurants was too stressful. I couldn’t read the menu, so I never knew what I was ordering. Sometimes, I would randomly point at some Chinese characters and say  “Give me that one.”

Once when I did this, the waiter said, “That’s a condiment, Sir.”
“Oh, well then, give me this one.”
“That one is a plate of tooth picks.”

In Taiwanese restaurants, it is customary to order a plate of toothpicks at the end of the meal. Then everyone sits around, disgustingly picking their teeth. They wipe the dirty toothpick on the table, right beside the pile of chewed up bones and peanut shells. In their minds, we are the disgusting ones. I hear them telling their friends, “Foreigners will eat a whole meal and then not use a tooth pick.”

At this point I just got angry and obstinate like a true New Yorker. “OK, so I like to eat tooth picks. Got a problem with that, Shorty? Not only do I outweigh you by 80 LBS, but I am a Kung Fu instructor. Now get in the kitchen and get me my plate of condiments and tooth picks before I have to get tough with you!”

I ordered a second helping of toothpicks just to prove my point. Actually, that was the fullest I have felt since I had been in Taiwan.

At home, I made noodles with dried beef, pork, squid, and seaweed. I wondered why I always felt bloated afterwards. But then I realized, it might been because the quantity of dried beef I used in soup, if re-constituted, would equal a whole cow. After that, I was always paranoid about my stomach exploding.

As if I didn’t have enough worries.

At my first teaching job I got a free lunch at school. I was walking into the cafeteria as my Canadian colleague, Teacher Joe was walking out, empty- handed. “It’s just too foul, eh.” he said, his head hung low. Lunch was some sort of greasy and appalling mixture of foods I would never consider eating. The main course was congealed fat, with a side dish of, what I thought, was green, bowtie pasta, but turned out to be seaweed.

I was going to throw away my lunch uneaten, again, when I ran into Teacher Greg. “Greg, do you want my congealed fat?”
“No thank you. It makes me vomit.” He said, and went on about his business.
I told Teacher Vivian that I had started learning Kung Fu.
“Why did you do that?” She asked.
“So I won’t get out of shape and fat.” I said.
“You would never get fat.” She assured me.

I thought she was paying me a compliment about being in great shape. But then she went on. “Foreigner teachers never get fat here. They all lose weight. I think it is because they hate the food.” My Chinese counterpart, Teacher Sherry, said. Invited me to have snack with the children.

The snack lady came with her cart, and gave each of the children a hard-boiled egg and a tin cup full of salty soup. I generally think of snack time as something more like milk and cookies.
“Where is your tin cup?” Teacher Sherry asked, horrified, that I had forgotten it.
“I think it’s in my office.” I said, trying to make a gracious exit. “I’ll go get it.” I ran like the devil and never went back.

Another day, they brought in a big pot full of sweet-potato and pea soup. My heart went out to the children. If I hit the big number in the lottery, I promised I would buy Oreos and chocolate milk for them.
“Antonio, why you never eat snack with children?” Teacher Sherry asked me.
I took one look at the sloppy, disgusting mess and answered. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain why I won’t eat that.”
“You no like?” She asked, confused.
“No, it’s not that.” I lied. “It’s just that in my country we only eat sweat-potato and pea soup for breakfast.”
She laughed. “Foreigner people is eat very funny.”
“Yes we is.” I agreed.

I was really thirsty after school, so I went into 7-11, and grabbed a bottle of green juice, which I assumed was lime-aid. I opened the bottle and took a big gulp of some horrible, festering liquid, which turned out to be okra juice.

Who’d’ave thunk it?

One of my students, Sandy, had her birthday, so she brought treats for the whole class. Because I am the teacher, she gave me two of them. You can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that she had given me individually wrapped, single servings of dried seaweed. I watched in horror as all the children eagerly unwrapped and then greedily consumed their seaweed, sucking it from the plastic wrapper as if it were an ice pop. Sandy asked me why I wasn’t eating mine. I told her I didn’t want to spoil my lunch, but I assured her I would eat it, gratefully, after lunch. She handed me two more packets of seaweed, which I stashed in my shirt pocket. Later on, I gave them all to my Chinese colleague, Teacher Vivian.
“You don’t like?” Asked Vivian.
“Why not?” She asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” was my reply. Apparently it wasn’t. She opened the package as happily as the children and began slurping out the contents.

The mom of one of my students used to bring me a lot of gifts. First, she gave me a package of dried plumbs, rolled in coffee and sugar. These are, easily, the most horrible confections I have ever eaten. The principal had given me some at a meeting once and I had to eat it to be polite. It tasted so horrible, I thought I would just swallow it and be done with it. But, the dried plumbs still have the pits in them, so you have to suck on them for hours. I got Teacher Joe to distract the principal while I spit the plumb back into the bag.

In addition to the pleasant plumbs, the mom gave me a bag of onion cookies. You know how excited I was to get my teeth around those!

I stopped by my landlord’s house, to pay my rent and was invited in. They treat me like one of the family and the wife immediately began making tons of food, although I kept insisting that I wasn’t hungry. She made me a real Chinese egg-roll. A real Chinese egg-roll is not deep fried. In fact, it is the only thing they eat here, other than soup, which is not deep-fried. It is like a Chinese tortilla, filled with fried eggs, peanut butter, onions, grain sugar, kale, and something that looks like dried meat, but isn’t, because they are Buddhists. It was made with love, but it was still disgusting and I absolutely couldn’t eat it. Too make matters worse, because of my size, she made my egg-roll about five times the size of a normal one. I choked down about half of it before finally giving up and slipping the over-stuffed mess into my pocket when no one was looking.

While I pretended to eat, she scrambled around the kitchen, making up a big shopping bag of food for me to take back to my house. She always did this for me. Unfortunately it was always some collection of lunar fruits and spicy fish bit candies that I couldn’t stomach. My Taiwanese friend, Kain, always looked forward to relieving me of these treats.

Camping with Taiwanese was also an adventure in the culinary arts. In the morning I was met by a breakfast of watery rice with a fried egg on top. In the center of the table there was a bag of what looked like dried beef, which everyone was sprinkling on their rice. I asked what it was, and a woman answered, “It is something that looks like dried meat.”
“I know it looks like dried meat. That was not the question. The question is, what is it?” I got no answer.
It turned out to be dried beef, seasoned with sugar. I dumped soy sauce on my food and the same woman got this repulsed look on her face.
“Your breakfast looks like,” And she made a retching noise, like “Puke!”
I thought to myself, China is not a country where one should be casting stones about what someone else’s food looks like.

Later in the day, I bought a beverage, which turned out to be a cup of orange aide and Jello cubes, served over ice. It was good, but I still couldn’t get used to drinking through the huge straws, which allowed the berries, Jello, red beans, or oats to pass from the drink to your mouth.

After dinner, they broke out the aboriginal wine. The first bottle was yellow in color, very thick, and smelled of sulfur. It tasted like vinegar, mixed with molasses, lemon peel, cream, and match-heads. But, I swear it was good. I guess with such a pleasant description, everyone will run right out and buy a bottle.

Although I sort of liked the wine, I didn’t want to drink too much of it. The sulfur smell really turned me off and I just couldn’t imagine what a hangover from this stuff would be like. I just pictured the most awful stomach cramps and foul smelling burps and farts, like drinking gasoline.

An invitation to a Chinese wedding also provided me some unique food experiences.

As soon as we arrived,  a greeter came and offered us Binglang, beetle nuts.
“Antonio, you should take some.” Suggested my co-worker, Iching.
“Thanks, no.” I said. “I had beetle nuts for breakfast.”
“You shouldn’t have eaten.” She lectured me. “You knew you were coming to a wedding.”

Glasses of tea were waiting for us at the table. I took one sip, and immediately regretted having come to Taiwan.
“This stuff tastes like it is mixed with peanut oil.” I said.
“You like peanuts?” asked Iching. “This is special tea. Very good.”
“Is this fowl tea something you drink every day, or is it something you only subject yourselves to when someone has the misfortune of marrying?” I asked
“Yes.” Said Iching, predictably. “It is very good.”
I dumped the tea out under the table and asked for 7-Up.

I asked for beer, but instead, another colleague, Teacher Rainbow, poured me a full glass of retched tasting nail-polish remover which passed for liquor.

Downing it in one gulp, I didn’t taste it, so much as feel it singe my eyebrows and permanently scared my esophagus.
“Smooth.” I gasped. “Pour me another.”
“They should just wrap that stuff in a brown paper bag, and lay by the railroad tracks and drink it.” Said Teacher Joe.

Excellent fried prawns were served with a big bowl of soy sauce and wasabi. I dipped my prawn, but couldn’t get the whole, eight-inch crustacean into the sauce. So, I ate the half that had sauce on it, and then dipped the other half.
“Joe,” I whispered, to my colleague. “Don’t tell anyone that I double dipped.”
“Don’t worry about it, dude. They’re all going to start picking their noses in a minute anyway.”

The waitress brought us a pot with a whole chicken served in broth.
“What the hell is wrong with that chicken?” I asked, referencing the weird purple color.
“This is black chicken.” I Ching told me.
“Did they inject it with dye, or is it just festering?” I asked.
It really looked frightening.
“These chickens are naturally black.” She said. “They are very expensive.”

I had eaten the squid, the whole fish, and everything else that had come to the table, but this chicken scared me.  I was actually a little revolted watching the women tear into it, as if they hadn’t already eaten ten courses.
“Antonio, why you no eat chicken?” Asked I Ching.
“I am afraid it has evil spirits in it.” I said.

The table was already cluttered with dishes, and the waitress was bringing more food.
“Antonio,” Said I Ching, annoyed. “You must take away the food.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“You know, in a doggie bag. You must take it away, so that the waitress can bring the next course.”
“Doggie bag? Now I know you are putting me on.” I said.
“No I’m not.” Said I Ching. “What do you think this is?” She said, taking the beautifully decorated box, from the top of my place setting. I had just assumed that it was my wedding favor. She really surprised me, when she opened the box, and inside there were both foil bags and plastic bags.
“You see. You are a guest. So, you must pack up all the food, and take it home.”

At that point, I had eaten and drunk so much, that I couldn’t imagine ever being hungry again. After much protesting, I declined the honor of taking food home. I Ching went to the waitress, and made some uncharacteristic appeal to have the food taken away. Later, I saw that they had put all the unclaimed food on a common table, and families were there filling up their bags unashamed. As much as this practice surprised me, it did make more sense than throwing it all away.

After that, the waitress brought a plate of fruit, and a plate of individually wrapped, red-bean ice cream hamburgers.
“When do we have espresso?” I asked.
“When we stop at Starbucks on the way home.” Said I Ching.

Chuan Ze came over and sat with us. This was allowed because he is a black belt and seems to be at the top of the hierarchy. He was eating a Taiwanese omelet-like substance. The street vendors hack it up with a meat cleaver, then put all the pieces in a plastic bag and sprinkle it with syrup or sugar. Chuan Ze was happily picking the pieces out of the bag with his chopsticks.

Teacher Joe had said on Friday, when the food at school was inedible again, “When you go to Hong Kong, the food is good. You go to Japan and the food is good. You come here, and you can’t eat it half the time. It’s just so fowl. And they love it!” His face wore a grimace of disgust. “But, I don’t know if they’ve just never seen real food or what. But they eat this stuff like they were just released from prison.”
“Funny,” I said, “When I eat it, I feel like I’m still in prison.”
“I wonder if you took these guys back to Canada or the States for a while if they would even eat this stuff when they got back.” Said Teacher Joe.
“I don’t know.” I said. “Liking or disliking food is not empirical. It’s a mater of taste. They would probably be on the phone with their families saying. And then the Canadians separated all their food on their plates, and cleanly ate each one with a knife and fork. I nearly puked.”
Joe laughed. “Maybe, but I still think It’s fowl.”

The school Christmas party was also a new adventure in food. The desert consisted of a big plate of sizzling, hot balls, with a dry, brown coating. They looked like some type of chicken nuggets. I picked one up with my chopsticks and took a bite. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever put in my mouth. It was a ball of dough, which although it had been deep-fried, was still completely raw. Inside, it was filled with molten peanut butter. The whole thing was dripping with oil. I spit it out and rinsed my mouth with beer, which I spit out on the floor. Greg was about to make the same mistake I had made, namely trying one of everything. He had his chopsticks poised, and was just about to put the poison into his mouth, when I jumped into action. At the same time, the world was reduced to slow motion. “G-R-E-G N-O-O-O-O!” I shouted, as I dove for the chopsticks, successfully knocking them out of his hand before he made contact with his mouth. When the dough ball hit his plate, it exploded spraying olive oil and peanut butter all over. Greg was white-faced and frightened, but he was OK.
“Thanks man.” He said. “I thought that was a chicken nugget.”
“Yeah, well maybe you should be more careful next time.” I admonished.
“I will.” Greg promised.
Teacher Vivian came over, and asked if we had an extra peanut butter thing. We gave her the whole plate.
“You don’t like these?” She asked.
“How could we?” I asked.
“But Americans love peanut butter.” She pointed out.
“Yes.” I agreed. “We also love olive oil. We also love cayenne pepper. But we would never eat all three together.”

Another new food I tried was a brownish egg, which had an odd, transparent appearance. I normally don’t eat eggs, and especially not hardboiled eggs. It was ugly and smelly, but Kain was eating one, so I asked for a bite.
“You like?” He asked, eagerly.
“Tastes great.” I said. “How do they make this?”
“They dip a boiled egg in horse piss, and then burry it in the earth for six months.” She said.
“Of course!” I thought. “How else would you make food?”

I wondered who had come up with that idea first. People had laughed at Bell for building a telephone. His invention was so obviously a good idea, and yet people laughed at him. I couldn’t imagine the ribbing the guy must have taken who suggested that they take perfectly good food and dip it in horse piss before burying it for six months.

Maybe they were all sitting around in a cave in prehistoric China, eating eggs, when the smart guy said, “This egg is good. But, you know what’s missing? Horse piss.”

My brother said that he might be visiting me soon, so I was thinking of where I might take him in Taiwan. When you have been living in a place too long, you are no longer shocked by things that would be strange or down right repulsive to a new comer. With this in mind, I washed away my four year perspective on Asia, and decided to take a tour of a number of Taiwanese eating establishments, trying to see them through western eyes.

On Saturday night, I decided to splurge, and go out for a fancy dinner, at a typical Taiwanese restaurant, which only had three walls and no kitchen, as the food was prepared on the street out front. Women were busily hacking up the bloody with meat cleavers, before tossing it into the cooking pot. The bones were thrown into another pot for soup. Once the cauldron boiled, the bones were fished out and discarded in a heap on the sidewalk, beside the goat entrails. And, since this was all happening in front of the restaurant, you had to step over this bloody mess to enter. Normally, you would think: goat entrails, 100 degree heat, and 99% humidity makes for a tasty aroma. Luckily, in Taiwan, the auto exhaust destroys your sense of smell. So, you hardly even noticed the decaying animal-matter. My brother loves entrails!

A huge plate of boiled goat meat over rice was three dollars. The price was extravagant because the restaurant had modern conveniences. They had a western toilet, which I used, just because it was there. They also had a refrigerator, so not all of the ingredients were expired. They had some cans of coke in the fridge, but you had to wash the blood off before you could drink them. The food tasted great, but I chalked it up as one of those things I have adjusted to, as a result of living here for so long. As partial as my brother was to entrails, I was pretty certain he probably wouldn’t have been able to eat it.

At the movies last weekend, I was four hours into “ET, The  Directors Cut,” and hunger was gnawing at me, threatening to turn me into the miscreant that I am. The concessions stands don’t usually carry popcorn. But if they do, it is always sweet and usually has some other flavouring on it, like almond or vanilla. The snacks on offer included dried squid, dried fish, crunchy crab cakes, deep fried tofu, and vegetable chips. They also had several bags of hard, sucking candy, which had fish-bits in it. I settled on beef jerky, thinking it would be salty and spicy hot. Instead, it was saturated with sugar, and seasoned with ginger. I skipped the second helping.

Note to self, don’t take brother to movies hungry.

One of my Chinese Teachers said she didn’t like the food when she was in Italy last year. “Italian food is very salty.” She said. At first I wanted to disagree. But then I thought of how Italian cuisine compared to Taiwanese food.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Italian food is salty. We never put sugar on meat, for example.”

At another Chinese restaurant, I ate the first ice cream I had had in months because it was so rare and such poor quality in Taiwan.  It is usually very old, is always stored at the wrong temperature, and has the look and taste of having been thawed, and then refrozen, leaving ice crystals on the leathery, freezer-burned surface. The flavors are a short, nightmarish array of strange tastes, most of which, don’t appeal to Westerners. The most common flavors are green and varying shades of red, all of which are bean flavored.
Amidst all of the lotus bean and green-tea ice cream, I found some very old, mint chocolate chips with an Exxon Valdese style ice-burg on top of it. Like an Eskimo, going fishing, I chipped a hole in the ice and scooped out a generous helping of the age-old ice cream. To me, it was heaven.

My best friend, Kain, in true Taiwanese fashion didn’t take ice cream. Instead, he ate this disgusting desert that the Taiwanese love. It’s like fruit-cocktail, with bits and pieces of dried and canned fruits, beans, and seeds floating in a heavy syrup served over a bowl of shaved ice.
“I don’t know how you can eat that.” I said.
“It’s good.” Said Kain, obviously relishing his tasty treat. “You want to try?”
“Why would I?” I asked.

In an attempt to broaden my horizons the other day, I put in my mouth the most foul substance in the world. Every morning, I go down to the street and eat dumplings for breakfast. I saw a street vendor selling what looked like sausage biscuits. As I am dying for any kind of bread I bought one and unknowingly carried the specter of doom back up to my apartment. One minute I was fine, happy, carefree. Then I bit into this sandwich from Satan’s kitchen and now nothing will ever be the same.

The sandwich contained fried seaweed mixed with granular sugar, bitter grass, pork gristle and bone. It was such a bad experience, that words cannot describe it. The bitter grass made my mouth shrink to half of it’s normal size, while the pork grease expanded to evenly coat every taste bud, drenching it in a bath of horrors. The sugar was fried, so it never dissolved. It was like huge grains of abrasive sand, grinding down my teeth from the inside out. My first impulse was to throw the sandwich away, but seeing that I had paid for it I forced it down anyway. Later, when I was doing Kung Fu, I worked extra hard, hoping to burn this sandwich out of my body.

I could feel it sitting in the pit of my stomach, waiting. But for what? I couldn’t guess. I just knew it would be something bad.

The problem with breakfast is that I get up at eight and start training at nine-thirty. I even tried the American approach. I walked into a shop and just yelled at the cashier “Balance bar! B-A-L-A-N-C-E B-A-R! Read my lips. Balance bar.” But it was equally as effective as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

I went back to dumplings.

Note to self: Breakfast probably not a good idea for my brother.

Most people in the States say that horsemeat taste like chicken. Since I have been in Taiwan, however, I have to disagree. I think horsemeat tastes more like dog.

Contact the author at: Antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

Writer Bio, Antonio Graceffo, BA, Dip Lic, AAMS, CMFC, CTC, RFC

Originally from New York City, Antonio spent much of his childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. He spent seven years in the United States Military, in both the Army NG and the US Merchant Marines. Antonio is fluent in German, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese. He holds diplomas from Tennessee State University, University of Mainz, Germany, Trinity College, England, Heriot Watt University, Scotland, Universidad Latina, Costa Rica, as well as advanced degrees in business and Taxation from various universities in the United States. Antonio has studied and competed in martial arts and boxing for over twenty-five years, and has studied at the Shaolin Temple, in Mainland China. He works as a full time adventurer and writer, and currently lives in Taiwan.

Antonio's writing has appeared in the following publications: Escape Artist, Travel in Taiwan, Taiwan Ho, Travelmag (UK), Good Morning Chiang Mai, Travellers Impressions, The Chiang Mai Mail, Marco Polo, The Huahin Observer, Centered on Taipei, The Pattaya Trader, Life Style Taiwan, Canoe (Canada), Views Unplugged, Kung Fu Magazine, Yellow Times, Bike China, Small Boat Forum, Holiday Times (Thailand), Writing World, All Things Global, The Write Market, The Rose and Thorn, Blueberry Press, The Elizabethton Star, Go Nomad, Close Quarters Combat, Hack Writers, Go World, Bike League of America, Martial Arts Planet, The Travel Rag, Black Belt Magazine, The Bristol Herald Courier, Radical Adventures, , The Investment Advisor, I Soldi, America Oggi, The Italian Tribune, Pagina Uno, and The Italian Voice, Tales of Asia, Buddha Fist, Canoe (CA),

Antonio's book about his studies at the Shaolin Temple, "The Monk From Brooklyn," has been accepted by GOM Publishing, and will be available in 2004.

His book, "The Desert of Death on Three Wheels" is currently under review for publication, in 2004.

His book, "Adventures in Formosa," will be published in Taiwan, in June of 2004.

Contact the author at: antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

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