Of fake chicken drumsticks, Tonkatsu and “Forgiveness” Tea… 21


Spending a couple of weeks in hospital can be a horrible experience but my mother & I were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in a really unusual, lovely place…

My mother hadn’t told me much about the hospital other than that it was “special” and in the South Taiwan countryside – she had picked it for the reputation of its orthopaedic surgeons, especially in the procedure needed for her knees…

…turns out it’s a sort of “missionary” hospital, part of the Buddhist Tzu Chi General Hospital group – although this grand, elegant complex housing a sleek, modern facility was nothing like the image that “missionary hospital” usually conjures up for me!

It’s funded by the Tzu Chi Charitable Foundation , which was started by an amazing Taiwanese woman who renounced a comfortable life in her early 20’s to follow the path of a Buddhist monk.

She single-handedly built up the foundation, with the help of a handful of housewives donating 2 cents a day from their grocery money, to the worldwide force it is today, with members & volunteers in 47 countries, several hospitals and impressive achievements in better social & community services, medical care and education.

(There is a general tradition in Taiwan of devoting a regular slot of time to charity work, especially if you are lucky to have become financially wealthy. It’s founded on the idea of “karma”, I guess, and the strong Chinese belief in reincarnation – so that you “give back” for the luck you have had in this life, as well as ensuring that you will be reborn well in the next one. )

The hospital teahouse menu…”drink what you preach”!

I am the first to admit that I tend to be sceptical about such “touchy-feely, new-age concepts” but arriving at the hospital, you do certainly feel something different – dare I say it, a general vibe of “zen calm” and “selfless love & giving towards others”, even.

Half the staff seemed to be volunteers who greeted patients arriving at the front entrance with beaming smiles and helped them negotiate the huge maze of corridors and levels, to find their right clinics and appointments, as well as any other questions and needs they may have.

There was a general feeling of peacefulness permeating the place, despite the huge numbers of people pouring through the front doors, and all doctors & nursing staff seemed to radiate patience and goodwill – something that’s not always common in many other big hospitals I’ve visited! At the end of each day, the volunteers (which included groups of primary school children – what a great way to instill good values!) gathered in the hospital’s magnificent lobby to finish their work with a joint Buddhist chant/prayer session…

…and throughout the hospital, on any wall or available space, were printed quotes and sayings, reminding you to value the simple things in life and to joy in giving to others, without expecting anything in return.

Now, I’m a terrible cynic and tend to roll my eyes when I hear things like that…but this time, I found myself quite moved. It’s hard to be surrounded by so much goodwill and not start to believe that the world really could be a better place if only people were a bit less selfish and materialistic – and embraced the simpler pleasures in life….

a little reminder while riding the lift…!

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Tucking into a veggie hot pot in the hospital cafe…it might not have shabu-shabu beef but it was delicious, nevertheless!

There is one aspect of staying in a Buddhist hospital that has been very interesting: totally vegetarian food!

Yup, in line with Buddhist philosophies, all food in the hospital, including the public cafe, is strictly vegetarian. For someone who is used to eating some form of meat (whether red or white) at almost every meal, I was a bit taken aback at first – but again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t really miss meat that much at all. Mainly because the vegetarian food was so good!

I have to say, if you have to be vegetarian, then I think Asia is the place to do it. The Chinese (and other Asian nations) are SO much more creative with vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, beans and grains – not to mention tofu! Cooking with soybean in all its forms is like a whole new world.

And not only do you have the most interesting & tasty vegetable dishes but you even have the famous “fake meat” options too. I don’t know how they do it but they can make tofu look and taste like all sorts of things – this was the meal my mother was served on her first night in hospital, which indluded 2 “tofu chicken drumsticks”. I tasted them and let me tell you, not only did they look like chicken and feel like chicken, they even tasted like real chicken meat too! I’ll bet if nobody told you, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. It was weird.

Tucking hungrily into her first meal post-operation, my mother was in raptures: “…mm…this is the most delicious food…” “…I could easily be vegetarian, you know…” ; “… I’m going to start eating like this from now on…”, “…oh, such a wonderful healthy way of life! I am going to change when I go back home, start having my meals like this…” “…in fact, I think the Buddhist way of life is wonderful – I think I’m going to embrace it…” ” …it’s so wonderful, so selfless, so peaceful…” “…I could be a monk too, you know…”

Hmm…I don’t know if it was the pre-op starvation or the drugs still in her system but I think she would have happily started shaving her head if given the chance! Of course – as is often with my mother – all this passionate enthusiasm waned a few days later when the novelty started to wear off and by the time she was discharged from the hospital, she was clawing her way to the nearest foodcourt, demanding meat and lots of it! ;-)

Which is how we found ourselves in a tonkatsu restaurant:

Tonkatsu is another iconic Japanese dish. It’s basically a kind of pork steak cutlet, I guess, covered in lots of special, crispy Japanese breadcrumbs, known as panko. A Japanese version of a schnitzel, you could say (or if you weren’t being West-centric, you could call a schnitzel an Austrian verion of tonkatsu! ;-) )

It looks deceptively simple but a good tonkatsu is hard to make – the meat has to be tender and juicy on the inside, seamlessly melded to the light and crispy coating outside, with no oily aftertaste or greasy drippings. It was actually introduced to Japan by the Portuguese, although it has definitely been “Japanicised” over the generations. Nowadays it comes in lots of variations too, such as chicken, beef, fish and with Japanese curry sauce.

Traditionally, though, it’s served cut into sections and eaten with steamed rice, shredded raw cabbage and miso soup – and most importantly, tonkatsu sauce. This is supposed to be like “Japanese Worcestershire sauce” (although I think it tastes nothing like!) – a thick, dark sauce that tastes slightly sweet. In the restaurant we went to, you had the added fun of grinding fresh sesame seeds yourself to add to the sauce…!

If you’re wondering how come we seem to be eating so much Japanese food in Taiwan, that’s because the Japanese occupied Taiwan for about 50 years, until the end of World War II and definitely left their mark! ;-)

A lot of Japanese culture has been absorbed into the Taiwanese way of life, from homes having a “tatami room” for sleeping to that excessively polite, apologetic attitude accompanied by constant bowing, in social intereactions.

One of the things you see everywhere in Taiwan – adopted from Japanese culture – is the “fake food” models displayed in glass cases outside restaurants to show what’s on their menu…in this case, complete with busy chopsticks! ;-)

Often, you feel like you can’t walk around any streets, especially in the big cities, without finding a Japanese restaurant of some sort on every corner….the Taiwanese eat a LOT of Japanese food and are arguably as good at creating Japanese cuisine as the natives themselves.

Well, a few days and tonkatsu meals later, we were finally packing our bags and heading back to Taipei. We were actually going back much earlier than expected – much to my delight – as my mother seemed to be making very good progress and the surgeon was happy for her to continue her recuperation & rehab in our little hotel in Taipei.

I had originally expected to stay down south with my mother for most of my stay and only pop back to Taipei for 1 night before I would have to fly home to Oz…but now I suddenly had the unexpected bonus of several extra days where I could catch up with my best friend, stuff my face some more in Taipei’s wonderful restaurants and yes, even go shopping! ;-)

My mother would have to travel back down south in a few weeks for another follow-up appointment at the hospital but in the meantime, we were boarding that whisper-quiet, high-speed monster again and heading for the bright lights of Taipei!


I'd love to hear your thoughts! (Don't worry if your comment disappears - probably gone in Spam but I'll fish it out!)

21 thoughts on “Of fake chicken drumsticks, Tonkatsu and “Forgiveness” Tea…

  • Mina&Maks&Mo

    Wow, that wonderful vegetarian food … I am also not so enthusiastict about all those quotes and good vibes and charity and missionary work etc., but this one seemed to be really all about the good causes and not just draining money from believers (not to say suckers, hehe)… It looks like a hospital I would love to spend time in, being a vegetarian for so long could use some new spices and dishes in my life, and also spread some good will of my own :)

    So glad everything is going fine, and you have time to spend together even outside of hospital.

    Take care,
    Mina

  • Dorothy Schelske

    I hope you and your Mama can continue to find the peace you describe. I am a Christian, and sometimes find what I think you were describing, yet other times I am busy going through the motions as opposed to investing my whole heart.

    It is not that I am being a hypocrite or faking my beleifs, but often there is so much to do sometimes I am thinking ahead to what is next or doing three things at once as opposed to being in the moment.

    Even as I write, I have a computer podcast running of a lady talking about natural healing. There is always something to learn that can benefit us.

    I hope Mama continues to heal well, and that the two of you are blessed by your time together.

  • Melanie

    Hey Hsin-Yi –

    That hospital sounds amazing. A little too touchy-feely-happy-sappy, maybe, but what a concept to create a hospital where people feel genuinely welcomed and cared for and safe. It’s a far cry from American hospitals, let me tell ya!!

    Did you try any of the writer’s tea? ;-)

    Tonkatsu looks like a meal you and I could definitely share….. Had to wipe a little drool off the keyboard after seeing that one :-).

    When are you heading home? I saw on Honey’s blog that you’ve been delayed by typhoons and other issues… Hope it’s nothing too serious!!

    Melanie

    • Hsin-Yi

      Oh Melanie – I did ask about the “Writer’s Tea” – I got very excited when I saw it! Only to be disappointed when they explained to me that it was simply tea with milk added! What’s writerly about that?? :P Anyway, so I passed (not keen on milk in my tea…which made my years in the UK very hard, since milky tea is a British institution! ;-) ) – and I ordered some kind of fruity red tea which turned out to be very nice.

  • Lilli

    Oh my, this is just torture to look at your pictures :D I’m mostly reading new blog posts from my feed right after I wake up, with a cup of tea. I usually won’t eat anything before 12pm. I’m not a morning eater. But when ever I see your delicious pictures I’ll start to get hungry xD

    It’s really nice to know your mother is doing well. And that hospital seemed really nice. But I think I would have “sufferd” from the all vegetarian food too. I’m a definately a meat eater and what I’ve tasted so far, there’s a very few vegetables I even like. So I have my doubts of the vegetarian food to be good. I would really like someone (like Jamie Oliver or Sikke Sumari ;)) to make me something REALLY good from the vegetables, especially from those which I hate most and see if it’s even possible to make something delicious from them.

    -Lilli-

    • Hsin-Yi

      Ha! Ha! In that case, Lilli – I think I should do a post all about breakfasts…especially for you! ;-)

      I think it is a shame that there is such a bad attitude towards vegetables in the West – I had never heard of children hating veggies and “not eating greens” until I came to the West! In Asia, children eat greens – no problem. Parents don’t have to spend ages hiding them in other foods or bribing kids to eat them…I think this is because vegetables are cooked so much more nicely in Asian cuisine. They’re kept crisp and light and tasty and GREEN – instead of a lot of Western cooking, which seems to overcook them and turn them brown and soggy. Well, at least traditionally – I know things are changing now with the new cafe gourmet culture out there. But I remember the first time I was served vegetables when I moved to the UK and was horrified at how over-boiled and brown and soggy and tasteless they were…it’s no wonder people have a bad association with them!! :P

  • Nightshade

    Hmmmm, that food looks delicious!! I very regularly cook vegetarian meals myself, since I’m not a big fan of meat, but when I look at those dishes, I have to say that I still have to learn a thing or two!

    I hope the typhoons and other problems don’t delay your home trip for too long and that you’ll have a safe trip back to Paul, Honey and Muesli!

    Karolien

  • sara

    I love the fake food display! I wish more restaurants would do that. Might make you try something new.

    I’m not a religious person, but if I had to choose one, I think I’d go with Buddhism! Seems to focus on all the right stuff. What a fantastic story about the woman who started the hospital. Inspiring.

  • Anais

    We are so glad to hear that your mother is doing well!
    We loved the fake food picture! We are seeing more and more of it, especially in jewellery! http://www.foodjewellerydirect.co.uk/ I haven’t bought any yet but i know it’s only a matter of time! I revere food enough to have it hanging of my ears and throning on my fingers!!!
    well, i’m off to watch the finale of masterchef Australia ^^
    Take good care !
    Anais.

  • Melinda

    Glad to hear all is well, your mother’s progress is impressive. Hopefully you will be home soon, but from your past posts you seem to be a very good traveler. I find it difficult to fall asleep if I am not in my bed!

    My 9 year 9 month old lab just had a TPLO surgery, aka: knee repair. He had his right leg done last year and his left this year. I wish he had that quality of care. He has to stay down for another 6 weeks, so sad. boo hoo

    Stay well and best to you in your travels.

    • Hsin-Yi

      Oh Melinda – sorry to hear about your Lab’s recent surgery! I hope he makes as swift a recovery as my mother!

      As for sleeping – I actually struggle to sleep on airplanes because I can only seem to fall alseep lying on my side, not on my back. And certainly not sitting up,wedged into a hard chair, as is usually the case in an Economy seat! :-) I was just very lucky flying out to be on a relatively empty flight and so to have the seats next to me empty, so I could stretch out a bit. But I think in general, I’d prefer to be a bit sleep-deprived on flights rather than try to force myself to sleep – and then just make up for it with naps when I arrive. I always see people carrying those shoulder pillow things around their necks and wonder if they really make a difference? :P

  • 2browndawgs

    The food looks so good. I am glad your mom is doing so well.

    Once I served meatless Buffalo Wings to my family. Well I didn’t serve them exactly, I set them out and they demolished them saying they were the best wings ever. They never wondered why there were no bones. :lol:

    • Hsin-Yi

      Oh, that’s a hilarious story! :lol: I didn’t realise they do “fake meat” versions of things in the US too! I wonder if they use tofu to make them too…or one of those fancy grains, like quinoa or something…funny how nobody in your family noticed!! :D

      • 2browndawgs

        It is tofu. In fact a woman at work was telling me that she loved a certain veggie burger. I said but I thought you were supposed to avoid soy since you had breast cancer? She had no idea it was soy until she checked the ingredients.

        I like tofu…but as tofu. Not so much as fake meat…lol.

  • Diane Taylor

    Hsin-Yi – I think I love your posts about food the best! I always end up hungry – and I just finished my boring egg breakfast!!!! I’m glad your Mom is doing so well – I have a dear friend who just had both of her knees replaced … and let’s just say that her recovery is not going so well. I’m sure you must be back home by now but if not, travel safe. I’m sure Honey, Paul and Muesli have missed you terribly :)

    Take care – Diane

  • Cinnamon and her mum

    Hi Hsin-Yi – It’s great to hear that your Mum’s prognosis has been looking good :-)
    Wow, you are so knowledgeable about the background of Japanese dishes!! I knew you knew and loved a wide variety of Japanese food, but I didn’t think your knowledge about it was so wide and deep!! I wish I could go to a Japanese restaurant with you again!

  • Jed & Abby in MerryLand

    I was wondering about all of the teas, too – not just the writers, but the forgiveness and the gratitude and the contentment teas. I’m a tea drinker, not a coffee drinker, and I love a good cup of Indian tea – with milk. We have some good meat substitutes here, from soy. I use them in lieu of bacon or hamburger and they are excellent. One of your commenters referenced soy and breast cancer. There have been some contradictory studies about whether soy is contraindicated for those who have had breast cancer, but I’m a 17+ years survivor and I enjoy soy – just not all the time. But a couple of times a week doesn’t seem to be a problem.

    ML

  • Jenny

    Hi Hsin-Yi,
    oh I love tonkatsu-sauce!!! We have a Japanese restaurant in Hamburg and they offer the “tonkatsu-schnitzel”. It is really delicious! Thies eats there very often, cause he works close to that restaurant and they go there for lunch.
    I eat that meal every time, I’m there, when I visit him at lunchtime. And last time we asked the waiter, where to buy that sauce and he wrote down the name for us in roman and in japanese letters. And we found exactly that sauce at an asian shop!
    And now I eat it just with rice or sometimes with schnitzel (with some cornflakes-covering) or other meat ALL THE TIME! :-)