Growing up in Taiwan, one of my all-time favorite things to do is going to the night market with my dad. We put on our sandals and shorts, and head out some time between dinner and bed time. My mother is not in favor of the night market, because “everything is unsanitary” there. In my little mind, dad = fun, mom = sanitation. (That is not totally true. That was just my impression when I was little. Don’t worry, Mom, I think you are fun too.)
The night market is a truly magical place. Before you even see the market, you smell the fried stinky tofu and see the smoke of roasted corn. Despite the dinner you had a few hours ago, you start salivating. Then as you walk closer to the entrance of the market, you see bright lights and colorful merchandise displayed all the way down a busy corridor. As you walk through the corridor, you also find stands where you can play a marble game. Or you can scoop small tiny fish with a flimsy net to take home.
The night market is a combination of sight, sound, smell, and taste. It makes use of all your senses and you want to stay there all night, drinking everything in.
My dad and I spend the most time in the food section of the market. The food stands sell anything from steamed pig blood rice cakes dipped in crushed peanuts and cilantro, to noodles in rich broth paired with thinly sliced shark meat drizzled with a tangy sauce. Sometimes we get fried oysters cooked in a corn starch sauce and eggs until everything turns into one flat pancake. In the summer, we get shaved ice with various toppings like sweet beans or jello drizzled with condensed milk. My favorite is deep fried stinky tofu served with Taiwanese style preserved cabbage. Oh it smells so bad but tastes so good.
Sometimes we wander around the night market and come upon things we have not seen before. My dad is never shy about asking the vendor what they are selling. His interest in food runs deep in his blood. He would strike up conversations with vendors about the food, and more often than not we end up trying whatever he asked about.
I also remember my dad peddling my aunt’s bicycle when we visit my mom’s family in Ping Dong, with me sitting on the cargo rack in the back and legs dangling on either side of the back wheel. We would ride through small roads with farmland all around us. He would always stop and ask what the farmers are harvesting, and whether we could buy whatever they are pulling out of the ground. One time we came across some farmers harvesting soy beans, and they ended up giving my dad a big bundle of the plant for free. I held onto the bundle while sitting on the cargo rack, and it made my arms and legs itch for hours afterwards.
My mom always says that every time my dad and I go out, we always come home with food (or books, but that’s a story for another day). It’s true.
All this early childhood “programming” stayed with me. I’m curious about food, and I’m willing to try anything. To me, it’s what makes life interesting. Without variety and new things, I think my taste buds would shrivel up and die. And luckily for me, Cliff has a similar philosophy about food. Our TV at home stays on the Food Network all year round, and we get excited about our collection of spices.
Friday last week was Cliff’s first full day in Maun. We got up early this morning for a stroll from Jump Street to the tarred road, and caught a taxi to Old Mall. The Old Mall has hundreds of small stands and lean-to’s that are made up of some basic posts and corrugated tin roofs. Each stand has a folding table to display the goods, and a plastic chair for the vendor to sit on. Merchandise sometimes hang from screws in the tin roof, or spills over to buckets in front of the folding table.
We got to Old Mall before 9 am, and only half the vendors have their stands set up that early. We walked around Old Mall checking out the stands at a leisurely pace. This is the official start of our vacation together.
I spotted a little stand with pots and pans lined up on a table, and reckoned it was food. My dad has trained me to look for food in a crowded place like a hawk. Cliff and I walked over to ask what the lady sold. She showed us a variety of teas and coffees, but I kept my eyes on her lidded pots and pans. Ha, jackpot! She sold my two favorite things in Botswana—seswwa and fat cake!
Seswwa is beef boiled in water and salt for a long period of time, mashed with a fork or spoon, with oil and fried onions added to it. I never knew that over cooked beef can taste this good.
Fat cake is flour, salt, sugar, oil formed into a ball of dough, deep fried in oil. It’s like a cross between a homemade donut and Chinese donut. It’s often eaten as a snack with tea. The ladies at WAR introduced me to fat cake, and I end up eating one everyday with my tea as breakfast.
We got a little Styrofoam plate of seswwa and a fat cake, and stood in front of the stand eating it with our hands. Most people eat with their hands here (unless they are in a restaurant or a more formal setting). It is quite liberating, I must say. Cliff has listened to me talk about seswwa and fat cake for a few weeks now, so he was quite excited to try them.
We had our fill and walked around some more. We went to run some errands like sending postcards and uploading pictures at an internet café. Then we check out some of fresh fruit and vegetable stands in the Old Mall. We left Old Mall loaded with some incredibly fresh produce. Tonight’s dinner will be rape leaves with onions and tomatoes, seswwa, and yellow patty pan pasta.
Cooking with a gas stove when Jump Street had no power for 3 days: