Tag Archives: Strange Travel

The Milky Teat of Serendipity

Through Taipei streets I cycle erratically, in between guidebook gigs and en route to an interview for a writing gig for which I am vastly overqualified. The trip gives me time for some high speed meditation, my mind awash with delusions of petulant grandiosity basted lightly with thoughts of goat milk.

I got hooked on goat milk last year while researching a travel guide to Singapore, which is not a city normally associated with farm animals. Intestinal difficulties drew me to the milk. The culprits, in no particular order:

Chili crab,

Fish head curry,

Roti stuffed with hot pepper, and

Various and sundry street foods from around the region.

Singapore is a food city, and if you’ve ever visited those sweltering hawker courts with their endless aisles of jelly-fire curries you understand why deferred pain might be considered a work-related expense for the intrepid guidebook writer.

One Saturday I found myself researching the city’s rustic side, a few patches of bucolic jungle park and well-tended organic farms on the island’s outer edge. It was here that I came upon a farm that raised goats and distributed their milk citywide. On a whim, I bought and consumed a bottle, and my gastronomic troubles evaporated immediately. For the remainder of my stay I had three bottles delivered weekly.

I assumed that getting goat milk in Taiwan was possible, organic foods being all the rage in those days on my adopted island. I asked around for months, but couldn’t locate a source. I settled instead for wishful thinking.

Which brings us to the present moment.

Were you watching me from some office window on Ren Ai Road, you’d see a man of indeterminate adulthood looking around for a secure pole on which to lock his bike, his actions offering no outward indication of the convoluted flight of pique currently unfolding inside his mind.

To wit:

A vision of myself, seated atop a throne made of travel guides, all written by me.
From my imaginary throne I am holding court on matters not to be taken lightly. Beneath me, standing with heads bowed are two Asian heads of state, both waiting for me to answer a question of monumental importance.

To wit:

“Which place, Mr. Samuel, of the many upon which your candied words have graced, heads your top ten list?”

The question is delivered with equal parts gravitas and obsequiousness by Lee Kuan-yew, former prime minister of Singapore, who, though technically a private citizen only, is still referred to with the honorific title Minister Mentor.
Wise indeed is MM Lee to curry my favor with flattery, for my declaration, when issued, will make restaurants, hotels, and even theme parks seem more (or less) attractive to business travelers and backpackers alike.

The second head of state standing before me with bowed head on the long red carpet leading up to my throne (which doubles as my writing desk, if I didn’t mention this before) is Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan.

“Taiwan is your favorite place in the world, is it not, Mr. Samuel?” says Ma, with great elocution. (He is, after all, a Harvard Man.) “You have called our country your adopted homeland more than once in your writings. This has made us all very, very proud.”

This last statement is emphasized with a unique mixture of pomp and humility, causing me to arrange my hands in the pretentious pyramid favored by academics and executives alike, a stance conveying two messages:

I hold the cards


Further flattery may benefit your cause

To drive these points home, I produce a noncommittal hmmm sound.

“You have lived in Taiwan for nearly a decade,” continues the famously coiffed president of the state-that-dare-not-mention-its-statehood. “Why, we should have offered you honorary citizenship long ago!”

I quickly arch my left eyebrow and allow the corners of my mouth to turn slightly downward, conveying to all assembled that President Ma has touched a raw nerve. Sensing an opening, the Minister Mentor, renowned for his political savvy, lunges in for the rhetorical kill.

“Ah,” says the wily Lee Kuan-yew, inching closer to my throne, eyes shining knowingly.

“But in all those years, Mr. Samuel, did Taiwan ever offer you a road to citizenship? No. Why, in Singapore you lived only seven weeks, yet by the third we were already delivering fresh goat milk to your door!”

My smile returns; I radiate confidence, grace and power.

“The Minister Mentor is correct,” I say.

Ma Ying-jeou’s starchy lacquered hair droops.

I raise my right palm, and the assembled subjects of my fantasy world tremble in anticipation of my words. In my mind’s eye I envision the cheering millions, the beating of breasts, the ticker-tape parades, the bitter tears of recrimination.

“You want goat milk?”

My fantasy of power and grandiosity is rudely shattered. Before me stands a woman (or perhaps a specter dredged from my subconscious) holding a woven basket. In her right hand, a small plastic cup.


“Goat milk. You want to try?”

So simpatico is the core subject of my outlandish fantasy and what appears to be actual reality that I am gobsmacked into silence.

The woman reaches a hand into her basket and pulls out a kindergarten-sized milk carton bearing on its label a drawing of a goat.

“Goat milk is better than cow milk, containing more vitamins and less cholesterol than cow milk…”

She pours a shot of milk into the white plastic cup.

Surely some cosmic joke is in progress. The woman continues her pitch concerning the health benefits of goat milk, unaware of the amazing lattice of coincidence our chance encounter represents.

I drain the plastic cup in one long sip.

“Our goat milk is both healthy and tasty, available in five flavors: Chocolate, vanilla, peach, strawberry and original…”

The word honey is displayed ostentatiously across the buttocks of her purple sweatpants, but other than this she has the demeanor of a simple farm girl.

Could she possibly understand the fact that the person to whom she is currently making a cold call sidewalk sales pitch had been, at the exact moment of contact, sunk brainpan deep into a manic fantasy of delusional grandeur, one in which the exact product that she is offering to have delivered to my doorstep daily is a major component?

Or would she just interpret my tale — if I could even manage to translate the phrase “lattice of coincidence” into Mandarin — as proof that I am of that class known in sales-speak as a motivated customer. From the point of view of a wandering goat milk salesperson, this could be considered the only reasonable assumption.

Perhaps our meeting is more than mere chance. What if the woman had been weaving magic of her own?

As she continues her pitch, it all becomes crystal clear to me.

Business has been slow these last few months, a result of the economic slowdown, combined with the overall indifference among the citizenry of Taipei to goat-related products. These factors have come close to crushing this goat milk salesgirl’s spirit.

It was this morning’s pep talk — delivered by an overbearing hatchet man sent to increase productivity among the goat milk sales force-that had finally driven the salesgirl to mysticism.

“We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest,” the well-dressed executive had roared arrogantly at the assembled roaming sales team. “First prize is a three day trip to Macau, all expenses paid. Second prize is a set of steak knives. And third prize…” (and at this he looked directly at my unlucky salesgirl with particular malice)

“…Third prize is you’re fired!”

The humiliating scene drove my poor, farm born salesgirl to flee the goat milk headquarters the very second the meeting had ended. With tears rolling down her apple cheeks she ran to the shrine of Shen Nong-shi, Chinese god of agriculture, where she’d spent her last few dollars on incense, lucky totems and various sacred items, all of which she’d burned, along with perhaps small locks of her own hair, before the statue of the deity, chanting feverishly all the while:

“Please, Shen Nong-shi, please…this humble goat milk salesgirl begs you…oh Shen Nong-shi, hear my prayers…send a customer to me this day, so that I can return to the farm with steak knives instead of shame.”

While she chanted she visualized the perfect customer-the one that would break her losing streak, allowing her to hold her head high among her peers in the goat milk sales industry at last.

The woman has long finished her pitch and is now fiddling with her clipboard. She looks at me expectantly, and a wave of compassion so profound that I nearly burst into tears washes over me. It hits me all at once in perfect, blinding epiphany — I am the one.

“Yes! Yes!” I cry, resisting the urge to kiss the woman full on the mouth after consuming the contents of her sample basket. “I want your goat milk!”

“You’ll need to fill out this form. How many cartons do you want a week?”

“Two a day, every day! Random flavors!”

“We only deliver on weekdays.”

She fills out the sales sheet and hands me my carbon copy.

“Thank you. Delivery will begin next Monday.”

As quickly as she’d arrived in my world the salesgirl is off, leaving me ensconced snugly in a warm blanket of delusion, dreaming of the goat milk filled days to come.


The Milky Teat of Serendipity is one of 19 tales of new journalism and exotic hallucination from the book How Not to Avoid Jet Lag & other tales of travel madness

How Not to Avoid Jet LagBuy the Kindle Version (Amazon)…a mere $4.

 All other E-book formats through Smashwords)  Name your price. Seriously.

How Not to Avoid Jet Lag Nineteen stories from the increasingly deranged mind of travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.



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I Get Interesting Gigs: Goats and Gas Masks

Weird spots pique my interest as a travel writer, which is probably why I wound up in Taiwan.

A few months back, my friend Tobie Openshaw forwarded me an email he’d gotten from a German production company called Maximus Film.

“We’re planning a filming trip to Taiwan next month, and we’re hoping to visit a restaurant called “Uncle Sheep” in Chiayi that makes an earth-oven lamb dish. We would love to visit Mr. Chou in his restaurant and see how he prepares the special dish. We would need one shooting day for this story. Do you have time to help?”

I’d acted as a fixer for TV crews in Taiwan before, and was intrigued by the idea of a family restaurant with a unique method of food preparation. As Tobie didn’t have time to make the trip, I offered to help Maximus out. The gig seemed pretty straightforward. But in Taiwan, things often go from straightforward to unpredictably complicated quickly.

My first inclination of how weird things were going to get came when I called up Mr. Chou, alternately known as “Uncle Sheep” and “Uncle Goats”. He was delighted at the idea that a TV crew from Europe wanted to do a segment on his restaurant. He seemed particularly happy to be receiving visitors from Germany.

“This is great! But I need to ask them to bring me something from home.”

Figuring he wanted strudel, I said I was sure this could be arranged.

“What do you need?”

“Four new fángdú miànjù.”

Having no idea what fángdú miànjù meant, I kept the conversation going, hoping for clarification through context.

“Four fángdú miànjù…” I said. “For cooking?”

“Yes, yes. Fángdú miànjù are a vital part of my cooking process. The ones I have are worn out, and without them, I can’t cook my signature dish.”

Still in the dark, I passed the phone over to one of my colleagues.

“Mmm…uh huh. Yes. Mmmm,” she said to Mr. Chou in Mandarin, then said to me in English:

Fángdú miànjù are gas masks. Mr. Chou needs four gas masks.”

I took the phone back.

Taiwan liaison in gas mask

“Gas masks? You mean like what police and soldiers wear?”

“Exactly! I need them for my cooking process! My special dish is made inside of a walk-in oven, and you can’t go inside for even a minute without a gas mask. And the film crew will need to wear gas masks to film my process, so might as well bring four of them. The best come from Germany. Of course, I’ll buy them after the filming.”

I communicated this unusual request to the film crew, who said they were willing to bring four industrial-grade gas masks if it would secure the arrangement. After a bit of email back and forth, a date was set.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating a meal whose preparation required a gas mask, but I was certainly looking forward to writing about it.

Before continuing, readers may be a bit confused regarding the genus (“ovine” or “capra,” for those looking for a bit more book knowledge) of the signature dish, being that the restaurant’s name is “Uncle Sheep”, its website is UncleSheep.com.tw, while Mr. Chou’s Facebook handle is “Uncle Goats Chou“.

The Chinese word for sheep is羊 (pronounced Yáng), while goat is山羊(Shānyáng, literally “mountain sheep”). However, Taiwan isn’t as big on mutton as China (most Taiwanese find it a bit strong, though its consumption is considered medicinal), so in meat-form the two are sometimes confused. In any event, Uncle Sheep’s signature dish is goat hot pot. So back to the story.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

On the appointed day, I met up with the show host and her videographer in Chiayi city, and we were soon off by taxi to see Mr. Chou, AKA Uncle Goats, at  Uncle Sheep Restaurant in Chiayi’s Minxiong Township. Located in a rural area about 20 minutes out of Chiayi (a town best known as a gateway to Alishan), the restaurant itself is a series of traditional Taiwanese houses. Pulling in a few hours before the lunchtime rush, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Chou and his wife.

After a brief and culturally-required pause for tea, fresh pineapple, and name-card swapping, we got down to business. For the next three hours the crew filmed Mr. Chou as he engaged in the daily ritual of preparing easily the most labor-intensive dishes this side of the infamous turducken (a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey), whose 12+ hour prep time is a bowl of microwave popcorn compared to Mr. Chou’s 7-day slow-cooked goat hot pot.

The recipe had been passed down from his grandmother, Mr. Chou explained as he placed several pounds of goat meat, a multitude of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs and eleven bottles of rice wine into a massive earthenware pot. But it wasn’t the ingredients that led a TV crew in search of good television across the globe, it was the method itself. After putting the lid on the pot (which now weighed close to twenty pounds) Mr. Chou carried it into the courtyard for the sealing process, wrapping it first with a layer of industrial-grade aluminum foil, then slathering it with a thick coating of mud, nearly doubling its weight.

From there, video camera rolling, Mr. Chou carried the heavy mud-slathered clay pot into the outer layer of what the German TV crew would dub in their show  “die Höllenküche” – the kitchen of hell. Past this point, gas masks would be required. As we donned ours, making sure the seals were airtight, Chou explained the absolute necessity of wearing the masks inside of the smoke-filled walk-in oven.

“Even with the mask, I try to keep my time inside to just a few minutes per day,” he said. “Even that is bad for my health.”

Fully masked, we were ready to enter the hell kitchen, the heart of Chou’s operation. Though my job was to translate between crew and chef, within seconds of walking into the oven (where the air registers at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, appropriately close to 66.6 degrees Celcius) it was clear that communication was hardly possible.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

Movement itself was difficult. As the cameraman filmed from the doorway, the host and I stood to one side and watched Mr. Chou performs his daily ritual of burying the sealed earthenware pot in a hole in the oven’s dirt floor, covering it with rice husks and setting the pile on fire. He then quickly checked on the other pots, shoveling burning embers here and there before donning a thick pair of gloves to remove one of the pots furthest from the door. Moments later, we were extremely grateful to be able to follow Mr. Chou out of the walk-in oven.

With great delicacy, he placed the dried mud-encrusted pot, visibly lighter than the one he’d brought in, on the stone table.

“This one is our lunch today,” he said, hanging his gas mask back on the wall hook as we did the same. “This pot has been cooking for seven days inside my oven, where temperatures can exceed 1000 degrees Celsius!”

As the cameraman repositioned the camera, Mr. Chou brought the superheated pot into the courtyard, where he broke off the baked mud and peeled back the blackened foil before opening the pot itself.

Despite the heavy seal, the liquid had reduced to about 70%.

We followed Mr. Chou and the pot into the kitchen, where he scooped the stew into six smaller serving pots. At this point, his dining room was full, his customers having started on appetizers. The main course could now be served.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

So what does goat stew that’s been cooked for seven days taste like? Savory, delicious, and distinctly healthy, with the broth heavy with herbs and rice wine. The meat, heavy with flavor, was nearly butter-soft. Mr. Chou described it as “the best goat hot pot in the world,” and on that point, he’ll get no argument from me, or from the German TV Crew, who seemed to enjoy thoroughly a dish they’d traveled across the globe to taste.

Below is the TV segment that was shown on TV in Germany (in German) about Uncle Sheep Restaurant. For viewers who don’t speak German, don’t fret. Most of the dialogue from the segment has been largely covered in this article, and it’s worth watching both to get a glimpse inside of Mr. Chou’s kitchen and to see the look on the host’s face as she finally gets to taste his signature dish. (Keen-eyed viewers may spot your humble narrator inside of the oven – I’m the guy with the purple pants and gas mask!)

If the film and story have piqued your interest, Uncle Sheep’s Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner four days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Click here for details. As you might expect from a restaurant whose signature dish has a 7-day prep time, advanced reservations are suggested.