Power Shopping at the Hengchun Morning Market

15 01 2011

 If you really want to experience for yourself the essence of a small town in Taiwan, you need to get up early and make a trip to a morning market. At 8:30am, Mei-hui and I are already running a little late, but there is still much to be seen.

One of the most well-known ready-to-eat goods sold at the market in Hengchun is a steamed “salty cake” made of turnips and glutinous rice called (in Taiwanese) giam gui (鹹粿). It’s not really a cake, per se, but more of a staple food which is eaten straight from a plastic bag, and covered in a fragrant salty sauce made of soy sauce, garlic and chili peppers. Look for either “grandma” (阿婆, ah-po) or Mama Wu (吳媽媽, Wu Mama), who both sell chunks of it straight from large metal canisters at road-side stands near one corner of the main intersection of the market on Chungshan Street. (吳媽媽鹹粿: ph. 08-889-6829)

Nearby you can also try the oft-mentioned sweet red glutinous rice desserts which in Taiwanese are called ang yiiyah (紅圓). They taste a little bit like chewy mochi, and many businesses will use them as an offering on the 16th day of each month on the lunar calendar. Since our trip has coincided with that busy day, we head to their kitchen which is a short scooter-ride away. We watch as they form the glutinous rice into balls with pointed tops – those ones are filled with crushed peanut, red bean or black sesame and topped with a lucky red coloring. They also make a flat variation which is pressed into a mold shaped like a turtle (which is a symbol of long life). The cakes get their fragrant flavor from the shellflower leaves upon which they sit. Those are the same leaves that are used to wrap some versions of the savory pyramid-shaped rice dumplings eaten at the Dragon Boat Festival.

In the distance we can hear the rumble of artillery fire coming from the military base on Hengchun Peninsula. It’s become a familiar sound after staying in the area for several days. Mei-hui brings me to a blacksmith’s shop to show me where they reuse old shells to create something unexpected.

The blacksmith pulls open a cabinet and fumbles around a bit before pulling out a large shell which has been fashioned into what looks like a small cup. It comes with a three-pronged fork, and the elderly will use the two together to crush up betel nuts because many of them lack the strong teeth that are needed to chew them.

In one corner of the shop, I spot a massive American artillery shell that’s more than half my height. The shop owner explains that the shell has since been diffused (I breathe a sigh of relief). But it still weighs several hundred pounds, and required two people to move it from where it landed.

Down the street we sample betel nuts at a road-side stall where a woman wraps them in leaves covered with lime. I sample one (using my own teeth), and with a light, slightly bitter buzz, I’m ready for some power shopping at the morning market.

We crouch next to some old ladies who have their seasonal produce spread out in front of them to one side of an alley. There are sweet potatoes, taros, peanuts, turnips, gourds, chili peppers and dried greens among other things. Mei-hui explains how to cook some of the different goods that are for sale.

In front of the post office, we seek out a woman named Jia-ming who is selling some of the most delicious bazang (pyramid-shaped glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in leaves) that I have ever tasted. Don’t be fooled by the fact that she is selling them from a Styrofoam box attached to the back of her scooter – these are the real deal. She gets up every day at the crack of dawn to assemble the ingredients – each of which is prepared separately. In addition to the rice, there are mushrooms, stewed pork, salty egg yolks, dried turnip, and mini shrimps. It takes her a total of eight hours to make the final product, which means she has to prepare some parts the night before. You can find her almost every day between 9:30am and noon, and again in the afternoon from 3:30pm to 6pm. You’ll want to order in advance if you are hoping to buy one during the Dragon Boat Festival; while she usually sells about 60-100 a day, during that three-day festival, she sells more than 2,000!

One of our last stops is a newly opened shop on Chungshan Street. The proprietor is an old man affectionately known as “grandpa” (阿伯, ah-bei in Taiwanese). He is one of the original sellers of a local specialty known as lu dou suan (綠豆饌), which is a thick, sweet mung bean and longan soup sold hot in winter and over crushed ice in summer. He began selling his specialty from a road-side stall more than 40 years ago, but recently moved to his new digs at 111 Chungshan Street (08-889-8918). The soup is made from steaming the shelled mung beans and then adding them to a thick, sweet soup made of brown sugar, longans, sweet potato flour and water.

Moonbeam Café’s manager Alan Liu made me a delicious desserty-drink by mixing some of this sweet soup with one cup of espresso. If you ask nicely, you can probably get someone at the café to make you one too, but you may need to bring your own bowl of the soup if they don’t have any on hand.

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