The Search for Coffee

By cjohnson | February 26, 2006 12:16 am

Saturday night, and I’m doing a bit of blogging after clearing weeds in the garden. Shouldn’t I be getting ready to go out on the town and live it up a bit? Perhaps. I’ll see how I feel in an hour or so. Let me tell you a bit more about my Taiwan wanderings. I’m cheating a bit by borrowing (heavily edited and abridged!) extracts from one of the other blogs I keep…this one being a real diary that lives on my laptop, which I started while on Walkabout as a means of clearing my head (the point of the trip): essentially talking to myself (I recommend it).

At some point in my stay in Hsinchu on my Walkabout, I began to look for places that served good coffee, where I could sit and do a bit of thinking and some work, (sometimes both!). Both coffee and atmosphere are two important fuels for this type of work, at least for me. (This was before moving to Taipei and finding the various excellent tea and coffee places near National Taiwan University that I began to haunt regularly. I think I mentioned those in earlier posts about the trip. See e.g. here and several others.) Apparently coffee bars took hold rather recently in Taiwan and have become quite popular (often in combination with tea bars, but even as a thing unto themselves), although this was not so evident in the part of Hsinchu I was in.

coffee capers It turned out that I spied this potentially nice coffee place right next (a few doors down from) to my hotel in Hsinchu, and one lunchtime I thought it would be nice to go and sit there and have some coffee. It was not clear whether the place really did sit-down coffee though, maybe only serving over the counter bulk coffee (no tables really set up… possible counter seat or two, but not really sure), and so I thought I would go in and do a bit of a mime to get across my question (as I’d grown accustomed to doing). So in I went, and the proprietor was chatting with someone over the counter. I thought I’d wait, but they broke off and I started to try to say something when the customer (a knock-you-over-the-head-with-a-bat-pretty young woman) spoke to me in English and so I asked her the question. So she asked the proprietor (a charming older lady with no English) and it was established that I could have a cup of coffee there for $100 NT and could sit. I tried to talk to the customer a bit more by asking her if she had a recommended coffee she liked, etc, but then we ran out of things to say before she had to run off, and that was it. She left. (I kicked myself for the rest of the day for not asking her if she wanted to join me for coffee, and wondered at the fact that I’d missed an opportunity to reach out and make a new friend. Getting slow in my old age, I guess.)

coffee capersThe proprietor took an awfully long time to make the cup of coffee, and I stood there on my own in the store, thinking that it would be really ironic if all of this resulted in a really lousy cup of coffee….

Eventually she brought it. It was excellent. It was in a rather special cup which she seemed rather proud of, and we had to fiddle a bit to set me up a table properly. (taking a large bag of beans off the only one that was close to flat on the floor and so usable). For the rest of the time I was there it was clearly a big deal that I was sitting and drinking coffee, for every time one of her regulars came in to get some beans, there was a long conversation, and coffee capers then they would both turn and look at me for a moment, and then carry on talking. (Also, she came over and glanced over my shoulder at what I was writing, not knowing that I could see her doing this -I’ve eyes in back of my head, in case you are wondering-…..I was playing with a conjecture at the time and drawing lots of pictures and scribbling equations…wonder what she thought that all was?).

As you can see from the pictures, the place was very charming, as coffee places go. It turned out that this was typical of the dedicated coffee places (I went to others later, and in other cities). They’re just chock-a-block full of bags and bins of coffee, coffee paraphernalia, bizarre-looking coffee-extracting equipment (including lots of fancy round glass flasks straight from a science lab in a 1950s SF movie). It is an aspect of the atmosphere that I had not anticipated, and was rather welcome, since I’m quite a fan of ….paraphernalia.

Well here’s the more unexpected part of the story. I was coming back to the hotel several nights later via one of the places I would go for beef noodles…. and I was mulling over the above events, since I was approaching the coffee place and it had popped up in my mind. I got to wondering who the English-speaking woman was, how come she knew English so well, whether it meant she was connected to the university, and whether or not I should have asked the coffee quetion or not, even in principle. Anyway, I moved over in the narrow pathway allowed by all the parked scooters on the sidewalk since I could hear running footsteps coming up behind me and I wanted to let the pedestrian pass. But they did not pass. There was a tap on my back and a voice spoke in English, saying excuse me. I turned and it was her! She asked if we’d met at the coffee shop and I said yes (of course). Turned out that she was hoping we’d meet again so that she could find out if the coffee was ok and whether I knew about the other coffee place further down the road past the bridge. (I did in fact know about it and had been planning to try it later…) She’d wanted to tell me that in fact that other place was way better, with better coffee and actual sitting space, and even a food menu…. but she did not know how to at the time, given the circumstances.

Anyway, we exchanged cards and (later by email) she suggested that it would be good to meet and chat some more and try out this coffee place. (So much for me over-thinking things, ironically!) She turned out to be an engineer at one of the companies in the local technology park adjacent to the University (National Tsing Hua), designing chip layouts for Bluetooth devices. Very smart, and obviously keen to chat to a foreigner to practice her English.

When we did meet up there later (much later…. two weeks later and a lot of touring (some you’ve heard about) -Tainan, Taipei, etc – in between), the other place turned out to be really great. She was right. Here’s a nice shot of what you see as you come into the place at night…. I love the lighting:

coffee capers

So I never ended up going back to the first coffee place. I felt a bit guilty, because I rather liked the proprieter lady there, but not too guilty, since I created all that trouble for her by asking to take a real cup of coffee and sit in the place….. I might have gone back, though, were it not for the fact that I went wandering off to other parts of the country, and then when I returned to Hsinchu never found the time before leaving to return to LA.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, there is Starbucks there (and a huge number of clones of it’s look too)….everywhere, it seemed. I was avoiding it. There was one very near my hotel in Hsinchu, and later, near my hotel in Taipei. I was avoiding it, not because I have anything against Starbucks per se (people rant about it a lot, but I don’t, because I’m grateful to them for a number of things they’ve done here in the West, including the revolution that they kindled in Britain….if you knew just how hard it was to find cup of coffee to take away in a non-disintegrating cup, and how awful it tasted, even in a big city like London, not so long ago…) but because I wanted to avoid as many Western things as possible while I was there (at least during the bulk of the trip….see later) and also because I wanted to support the local “artisanal” and “mom-and-pop” coffee places. It turned out that one Sunday I violated my personal ban on Starbucks in Taiwan. Everything else was shut that day, and I got a phone call from a smart and beautiful Engineer to meet for coffee. What was I to do? Say that I could not meet, on principle?!

Hmmm. I seem to have written way way more new stuff than I intended, and a good chunk of my Saturday night has gone. Time to get moving, I think….

-cvj

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink, Personal, Travel
  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Dear Clifford,
    Before I moved to Europe, I was hooked on a particular brand of Peet’s coffee called Major Dickason’s. I couldn’t do without it, in fact, so for my first few months, I bought Peet’s coffee long-distance from Heidelberg and paid the exorbitant shipping costs to support my coffee habit. However, since my stipend didn’t allow such extravagance, I needed to find another solution. I tried to find good coffee in my town, but the German persons’ perception of a rich, dark roast was usually a bitter-tasting coffee. In panic, I wondered if a coffee habit was a good thing, so on a whim one day I entered a tea shop in my village run by an Indian man named Shambhu.

    When I entered his shop, I felt that I was at the center of the world. He had teas from everywhere, in large tins that one could open and take a whiff of the aroma. I tried a few, and in no time I became hooked on a “chai” (which is also the russian word for tea). So then, Shambhu’s chai tea was my happy substitute for Peet’s Major Dickason’s.

    Well that happy story ran into some blips, as I moved to Italy, where tea is not a large part of the culture, and tea shops are rare. Coffee (in particular, espresso), is excellent in Italy, but now I have a strong preference to chai tea! So once again, I needed to find some substitutions to my habit. My partial solution is to drink at the local coffee establishment (‘al bar’) a capuccino or espresso when I am at work or out, and to drink tea when I’m home.

    Since I have not succeeded to find my chai tea, I’ve begun to experiment with chai tea recipes (the web has many), mixing different parts of the cinamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, allspice, etc. There are as many varieties of chai as there are tea makers, and as a chai connoiseur, I have my favorites. While I try out the varieties, I also stock up on the tea every time I visit Heidelberg (once or twice a year).

    The moral of my story is that one must adapt to some extent to the local culture while trying to preserve one’s blissful elements…..

  • Moshe

    In my first trip to Korea I spent few weeks without finding coffee (in subsequent trips I found coffee bars in Seoul, but still not in other places). There are ways to find instant coffee, and also a local innovation- instant coffee from a vending machine. It comes in an aluminum can which gets microwaved and comes out of the machine blazing hot…somehow I don’t see that becoming the next big thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amara:- I think you may have misunderstood the post. It was not about avoiding the local culture….. I spent most of my time drinking jasmine green tea and zhenzhu nai cha (pearl milk tea) both of which I absolutely *love*… and the latter -with the black tapioca pearls in the bottom- is all the rage there! (Yesterday I found where to buy black tapioca pearls in Chinatown to make it myself.. hurrah!). I just thought it would be nice to try the new coffee culture there too, and see what it was like….. and in fact it is great! It is well and truly part of the local culture there, which is part of the point of the post…..since I don’t think most people know tht this happened……and the atmosphere in the coffee and tea places can be really fantastic!

    So it is not a story about avoiding the local culture at all; rather it is (somewhat) about how one can find unexpected aspects of it which are similar to those of one’s own.

    By the way, I use nothing else but Major Dickason’s Peet’s coffee here at home….. I’m a big fan of it too! I do think it is ironic, your excellent story about trying to find chai in Italy, having gone off coffee….Thanks.

    Moshe:- Yes, I remember that in Korea too. I wonder if things have changed? There, I seek out ginger tea with pine nuts in it.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    I didn’t misunderstand.. I never avoid the local culture and I don’t think you avoid it either. It was only a story about coffee…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Yes, I see. You can mail order Major Dickason’s by the way… and probably chai! It is rather nice to receive special packages of rare goods in the post. Give it a try!

    -cvj

  • janet

    Clifford, do you know about chowhound.com? Because you’re a chowhound if ever there was one. I don’t know anything about the LA message board, but the SF message board is great (I rarely post there, but my sister is one of the regulars).

    When I was little my mom bought her coffee at the original Peet’s in Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto, so I have a sentimental attachment to Peet’s even though it’s now a chain, and even though I am not much of a coffee drinker. Also, Peet’s is the only cafe chain that I know of that carries good loose leaf tea and trains its employees to brew it properly.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Clifford, do you know about chowhound.com? Because you’re a chowhound if ever there was one. I don’t know anything about the LA message board, but the SF message board is great (I rarely post there, but my sister is one of the regulars).

    Have they changed the interface? I remember looking at it a while ago, but being turned off by what has to be the worst interface ever designed. Egullet.org has a much better interface, but the CA board isn’t tremendously active.

  • http://scf.usc.edu/~asraghav Aditya Raghavan

    The origin of ‘chai':

    It’s no coincidence that tea is called chai (or derivatives of it) in various languages around the world. nearly 5000 years ago, tea was first developed in china… in india it’s called chai, and so is it in russia (as amara says). in eastern india (close to the chinese border), it’s called ‘cha’.. while in chinese, it’s ‘cha’ or ‘te’!! in fact, in most parts of the world it’s either cha, chai or tea! And yet, today, it’s grown all over the world.. .actually 246 nations produce chai. Isn’t it strange that there aren’t any local names for this plant?

    Now, question: Have you ever wondered why so many cultures, around the world, have some form of ‘bread’ or the other even before trade routes existed between these countries (i.e., even before they could exchange ideas?).

    -aditya

  • janet

    Hmmm. Bread appears in many forms, but it is essentially a way of preparing staple grain in a form that’s easily storable and portable. The other basic method for cooking grain is to make a gruel or porridge, and to eat that you need a vessel to hold it and some kind of implement to eat it with (eg a bowl and spoon). Bread you can stick in a pocket or pouch to eat in the middle of the day; you can not only eat it with your hands, you can use it to hold other foods and convey them to your mouth without getting your hands all messy. Very useful. Still, porridge is probably even more universal, probably because it’s such a basic cooking method.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    janet… Thanks for the information about chowhoud.com. Yes, it seems that I might be accurately described in this way. I shall have to have a read of it.

    aditya: Another universal across various cultures is solidifying blood in various ways. Black pudding, blood pudding, haggis, etc….. Presumably an idea originating from not wanting to waste any part of the animal you just killed…. and jolly tasty too!

    Cheers,

    -cvj

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