Taiwan has a lot of great food. But both Italian and Mexican food are not on the list of things they do well.
Traditionally, the Chinese like noodles served in a much more broth-like sauce – even their Italian versions of cuisine are noticeably loose. Think when you go to a bad Italian joint in the USA where they don’t strain their pasta long enough before they serve it, so the sauce is all watery. That’s every Italian restaurant in Taiwan.
That’s not to say you can’t go to the store and buy yourself some Ragu – it costs you five bucks ($150NT) a jar and it takes like it was made in factory (because, well, it was), but it is an alternative to going out and spending ten bucks ($300NT) on a plate of pasta that looks like it’s drowning. I can’t get behind that, and not just because I fear my dead great grandmother popping out from behind the Foreign Foods Aisle and whacking me with a wooden spoon for even considering buying sauce out of a jar.
You can get a small can of plain tomato sauce for around two bucks ($60NT), here; it’s about twice as much as it would be at Walmart in the States. It’s not a total ripoff, unless you are a Costco member. If you are a Costco member, then you are in serious luck. You can buy a seven-pound can of tomato sauce for three-fifty ($110NT) or go for tomato paste for two dollars more ($150NT). For those who don’t get the difference, paste is thicker, which means you can add as much water as you have paste and make yourself more sauce for less money. I’m all about economy-sizing!
Do not, under any circumstances, buy the large can of pre-made pizza sauce. You might as well just buy Ragu and then mix it with your feet. The next aisle over from the sauce, you’ll find the classic McCormick Big Ol’ Container of Italian Seasoning. Unless you want to reinvent the wheel, buy that; if you want to buy basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and about six other spices to complete the ensemble, then you can. Fresh basil is really cheap in Taiwan, so if you’re wanting a pesto sauce, this part isn’t for you. You go click “Follow” up in the right-hand side of my blog and I’ll get to how I do pesto sauce at another time. In the meantime, do what I say.
Beyond the can o’ paste and container o’ seasoning, it’s like the Beatles once said: “All you need is garlic.” Do not buy dried garlic. You can buy it minced in little baggies pretty cheap, but I like to chop my own garlic. I like having uneven pieces in there – I enjoy eating and having bites where I get a wave of garlic in that bite. I probably overuse garlic, but, I’m Italian, so I don’t even know what that means, to be honest.
I do a can o’ paste plus a little more than a can o’ water, along with a quarter cup of seasoning and ten chopped cloves of garlic. I also add half a bottle of red wine, but you don’t have to – if you do, get the cheapest swill you can find at Carrefour for three bucks ($100NT) a bottle. I also add a tablespoon of baking soda, after it’s heated, to neutralize the pH so it’s not so sour; again: you don’t have to. This is my guide to making your own sauce – not my guide to making my sauce. This is the benefit of not buying Ragu – if you want a sweeter sauce, add sugar. If you want a spicier sauce, add cayenne (which I often do). More seasoning…or less…whatever. Salt? OK. You want to sauté some ground pork and throw it in? Rock and roll. Got something else in mind? What do I care: go nuts! I like to keep mine vegetarian, because it’s more versatile, but it’s your world – I’m just here to boss you around.
The theory is simple: heat it up on a low heat, which will take at least an hour. Give it a stir every ten minutes or so, but you don’t have to baby it – it’s going to evaporate and it’s going to stick to the sides at the top of the pot. Once you feel the flavor has infused well enough (after anywhere from 20-30 minutes of simmering), kill the heat and let it sit for another couple of hours until it’s cool enough to handle without burning yourself. Tomato sauce retains heat really well, so it will still be warm hours later. Once it’s cool enough, get a spoon and carefully scrape the coagulated sauce off the sides of the pot, without dropping any nasty bits into the sauce, and throw it away. This will just make it easier when you have to pour it out, at the end.
Be prepared to have your whole apartment complex smell like a dago’s kitchen (it’s good you made a lot of sauce, because you’ll be giving it away). If you follow my method, you will end up with around four or five liters of marinara sauce. Now what do you do? You literally have enough pasta sauce to feed around fifty people. Unless you’re planning a block party, you’re gonna’ need some options.
I like to utilize 600ml water bottles for storage. I find that they are just about the right size for cooking a pound of pasta, easily a meal for 4-6 people, depending on how heavy of eaters you are. You can use anything, though. I like to change it up – have small jars for single servings and huge 1500ml bottles for freezing large amounts. It freezes really well, but keep in mind you don’t want it completely full, if you’re freezing it. The same principle that made your beer can expand works here, too – the difference is that aluminum will contain beer and the plastic lid on your sauce is going to turn your freezer into a bloodbath. Just something to keep in mind. If you use 600ml containers, you should have eight bottles of sauce, each enough for a small dinner party.
Your total cost, per batch, is less than ten bucks ($300NT). That amounts to around fifteen cents ($5NT) per plate, and pasta is cheap all over. You can cook gourmet without having to work too hard at it, and it still comes off as impressive when people eat it or are gifted it (as, we all know, good sauce is hard to find in Taiwan). Get inventive with it and have fun – you might botch the first few batches, but the final result is absolutely worth it.
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