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The search for Taiwanese noms

Good Taiwanese food hasn’t been easy to find in my adopted city of Melbourne. Granted, it’s not exactly something every Aucklander would know where to look for in their own city, either, but since I’m Taiwanese-born and Auckland-raised, I kind of had to make it my business to know.

Although I had favourite haunts in Auckland, I’m not convinced that anything ever compares to the traditional Taiwanese street food sold on the streets of Taiwan. I’m sure every Asian foodie says that about the street food of their home country, but let me tell you, I’ve been to all of your countries, and the street food is bloody good but I can find at least one or two places here in Melbourne that can do it as well or almost as well. Not so in my case.

And it has nothing to do with authenticity.

So what is it, then?
1) Outside of Taiwan, true Taiwanese eateries are few and far between, compared to everything else there is (Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian etc etc)
2) Following on from point 1, the lack of competition doesn’t exactly inspire going above and beyond in your cooking. More competitors means everyone has to raise their game! No competitors means your average home cook could run a restaurant.
3) Also because of point 1, most Melbourne Taiwanese eateries feel that they can’t specialise. They normally have a large menu that tries to give you a taste of many traditional Taiwanese dishes. Everything in one place sounds good, right? but…
4) This means they just can’t possibly get as skilled at making each of the dishes as those market street vendors in Taiwan that just churn out serving after serving of exactly the same thing for 8 hours a day to a never-ending queue of local patrons, who, by the way, are also bound to be pickier about quality.

The pertinent problem in Melbourne is that when almost anyone thinks about Taiwanese food, they think about this fairly awful place called Taiwan Cafe on Swanston Street. They serve a huge variety of my favourite Taiwanese street foods, all of them every traditional “authentic” dishes and snacks… and they do them all very badly.

Perfectly understandable that they’re well known and always packed, because the eatery is on one of the busiest streets in the CBD on a very prominent corner, and has great signage – but that only proves that location and marketing work. I’ve been to Taiwan Cafe about five times now, each time hoping that it would get better or that I remembered wrongly about how tasteless the food is, but each time being disappointed. I won’t ever return again.

You’d think that avoidance would solve the “problem” for me, but the real issue is that I’m a huge advocate for Taiwanese food and it’s hard to be convincing when such a crappy restaurant is the primary example that comes to mind for everyone when the cuisine is mentioned, purely because it’s well located and blah, blah, blah, and it’s even worse that they service supposedly authentic food.

Taiwan Cafe on Urbanspoon

The truth is, in inner Melbourne, there don’t seem to be any very good eateries serving traditional Taiwanese. There’s one that’s ok in the CBD – certainly a few notches above Taiwan Cafe – Taiwan Canteen on Exhibition Street. It’s not amazing by any means, but the food is decent, and doesn’t taste like cardboard; so if you’re the middle of the city and you want to try some Taiwanese food, please walk past that busy Swanston Street corner and just go up a few blocks. It’ll be worth it.

Taiwan Canteen on Urbanspoon

So, what about wider metropolitan Melbourne – where else can you go for actually good Taiwanese food? Well, I haven’t quite finished discovering that myself. We’ve talked about Peko Peko, but there is one more spot in Northcote that I have tried, loved and can recommend. Again, it’s not as strictly traditional as other (far inferior) eateries you’ll see around… but more on that later!

Disclaimer: This rant may or may not just have been an excuse to show you photos of Taiwanese street food from my visit back in 2011.

Peko Peko

The first time I walked into Peko Peko, it was about 5pm on a Saturday. In spite of the early hour, the place was packed within 30 minutes of my arrival.

I returned for the second time only a couple of weeks later, which is a testament to how much I enjoyed it the first time, because I rarely revisit restaurants due to always having a huge list of new ones to try. Showing up just before 7 on a Friday night, we hoped to just squeeze in; but no, even a table for two was going to be a 40 minute wait. We ended up ordering anyway, and getting everything to-go. It was all packaged excellently and we drove home in anticipation of the deliciousness.

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The patrons are almost a 50/50 split between Asians and non-Asians. The food is very tasty but nothing that spectacular. It’s also a Taiwanese restaurant, which I thought was kind of an obscure cuisine to most Melbournians.

With cities like Melbourne becoming more and more truly multicultural, there seems to be a lot of fixation on what it means for ethnic food to be “authentic”. I want to talk about that in a future post sometime – about how that focus on “authenticity” sometimes takes away from our judgement of what might actually be very good food. But I bring it up today because I want to point out that sometimes a restaurant can genuinely capture the heart and soul of a culinary tradition without exactly being faithful in every way to every traditional dish. It’s possible to invent entirely new dishes your grandmother couldn’t have dreamed up but still stay true to what it means for that food to be Taiwanese, or Vietnamese, or Indian, or whatever cuisine you were trying to emulate with your creation.

So why is Peko Peko so popular? It’s been able to make Taiwanese food more accessible to a wide range of customers, and it’s done it not by cooking up horrible deep-fried “white” Chinese food served from bain-maries but by offering a good variety of honest and “accessible” real-food meals in terms that everyone can understand. Its location helps, too – it’s near St Kilda Road’s big office buildings as well as a bunch of inner city apartments, which explains the suits, students and generally eclectic customer demographic.

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The restaurant is decorated with a certain quirky charm, with utterly random Taiwanese collectibles and objects scattered around the place and odd art on the walls.

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The menu is honest and fairly simple – you won’t find all the traditional Taiwanese street food here, though there is some. It’s more geared towards a modern lifestyle, a well-rounded, no-fuss, filling meal, perfect for a working lunch or takeaways… or add an entree or two to make it more of a sit-down affair. Meal options are grouped into three main types: 1) “Peko box”, sort of like a Taiwanese-style Bento with a main dish and several sides, the ideal quick but substantial lunch; 2) Noodle soup, including the famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup, but with catchy names such as “Beef About” and “Formosa Island”; 3) “Peko Plate” – various Taiwanese-style dishes, traditional and otherwise – served on rice (upgradeable to fried rice). There’s also a selection of modern and traditional entrees such as “wasabi mayo prawn” and “scallop & sausage skewer”.

What this menu lacks is things like “oysters and intestines vermicelli” and “deep fried pigs blood rice cake skewer” – both real life, traditional, popular snacks on the streets of Taiwan, but would probably put off their less adventurous non-Taiwanese office-worker patrons. What the menu has is clear descriptions in proper English – unlike many an Asian restaurant I’ve come across – nice peppy dish names instead of cryptic badly translated ones, decent “v” and “gf” markings – all this it has in common with Shandong Mama. These restaurants show a trend towards a stronger emphasis in the marketing, customer care and presentation departments, as well as showing that Gen Y’s are starting to get into the Asian restaurant business in Australia.

The service is friendly by the standards of a busy Asian establishment, and efficient by any standards; the restaurant is spacious, clean and comfortable.

Everyone seens to talk about Peko Peko’s wasabi mayo prawns, but we decided not to go for that on our first visit. Instead, we started with the Crispy n Crunchy Pork roll (above) – wrapped in fried tofu skin, satisfyingly crunch and deliciously savoury enough that the dipping sauce was unnecessary.

Also as an entree, we tried the house chicken wings, which just about gave KP a foodgasm with its fiery and flavourful coat of spices and super crunchy batter encasing moist and really tender chicken cooked just right.

Being at a Taiwanese eatery, I couldn’t not order the beef noodle soup (the aforementioned “Beef About”). This was a nice dish, but didn’t wow me – it’s miles better than other renditions of the stuff I’ve had at other Melbourne establishments, but I personally like my own version a bit better. What I did notice was that the bowl contained some lovely, fresh slices of beef which looked like a prime cuts rather than one of the gristly, connective-tissuey inexpensive cuts such as brisket or gravy beef traditionally used in this dish. I love me some soft, gelatin-y brisket, but I can see how this smooth cut might appeal more to some less adventurous meat eaters.

The second main we sampled was from the “Peko Plate” section – a saucy minced pork and mushroom dish on rice. The overall feel and flavour of this dish reminded me strongly of Taiwan because it was basically a slightly pimped version of lu rou fan, but KP wasn’t as huge as fan as I was. We upgraded the plain rice in this dish to fried rice for an additional $3.50.

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On our Friday night takeaway night, we finally sampled the wasabi mayo prawns. Certainly a very tasty snack, I didn’t see what was so mind-blowing about it. The wasabi mayo was mild and creamy, and very yummy and complemented the crunchy fried prawns well.

I wasn’t sure what “Silky egg tofu” was but it turned out to be fried tofu with a filling of steamed egg of a very beautifully smooth consistency like in a Japanese egg custard (chawanmushi) topped with crispy tempura sprinkles and served with a umami light soy sauce.

Because they make such easy takeout meals, we ordered “Pop Chicken” from the “Peko Box” section, and we were extremely happy with that decision. The star of this meal box was, of course, the Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken, called yan su ji – directly translated, salt-crispy-chicken. This dish, with its particular salt-and-pepper-and-spice seasoning, is a famous Taiwanese street snack food, and Peko Peko has done an excellent job of reproducing the mouthwatering combination of sizzling hot crispy seasoned coating and juicy chicken goodness inside. The seasonal sides and fried rice were nice enough, and rounded off the meal very squarely, but again, nothing amazing to be said there.

Under “Light Meals”, we tried the Taiwan Vermicelli – tasty and simple, and like the mince pork rice from our dine-in experience, was “very Taiwanese” tasting and placed my mind right back at “home”, even though I don’t think it was a particularly famous or traditional dish (that I know of!)

One of my very favourite desserts of any cuisine is black rice pudding. If it’s on the menu, I’m almost guaranteed to order it, and if it’s on the menu with something else I love or that piqued my interest, I’m probably going to order both. So when I saw the slightly intriguing Earl Grey pannacotta alongside the black rice pudding with green tea ice cream, I had to do just that. A bit disappointingly, the “pudding” was more of a black rice cake, and a small piece of it at that. It was, however, delicious and I unsurprisingly craved more after the tiny serving.

I wasn’t as convinced by the pannacotta. In theory, it could have been fantastic, but there was just something lacking in the flavour here, though the pannacotta was of a decent consistency.

Tucked away in the quieter part of South Melbourne, yet still quite close to the bustle, Peko Peko is a fairly short drive from my apartment. With such affordable, delicious, honest food, I’m bound to return on a semi-regular basis, especially for those dishes involving crunchy chicken… or crunchy anything!

There are plenty of options for vegetarians here, but vegans should be more careful. The menu tells me that many of the meat dishes can be made vegetarian, and some of those appear to become possibly vegan with the removal of meat, but you’d have to double check with the kitchen.

Address: 190 Wells St, South Melbourne, VIC 3205
Website: http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/71/1462432/restaurant/Melbourne/Peko-Peko-South-Melbourne

Peko Peko on Urbanspoon

Potluck Staples 2: Taiwanese beef noodle soup

There are several famous traditions of beef noodle soup in East Asia but whether it’s patriotism or familiarity or something else, I’ll always prefer the Taiwanese version. Sitting at a wobbly little wooden table, dented metal stool under me, on a street corner somewhere in Taichung, scooters whizzing past… and in front of me a steaming, aromatic bowl of beefy, spicy soup with tangy mustard greens and elastic noodles. For me, this is the ultimate comfort food, far beating a big cheesy burger or creamy pasta which is heavy on fat and light on flavour.

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

Welcome to part 2 of my Potluck Staples series. This is the second dish I made for my colleagues for a shared lunch I unwisely arranged in the middle of a busy period at work. Because it consists of hot soup and freshly cooked noodles, it’s not something that’s suitable for every kind of potluck unless you have access to a kitchen – however, I have the luxury of living about 10 minutes from my office! I also made crispy roast pork belly – check out that recipe and post here.

Much richer and more of a guilty pleasure than Vietnamese pho, the Taiwanese take on beef noodles is a dish of national pride. Though my take on their take might differ from the old recipe of many a Taiwanese ama, to me it at least tastes like the most faithful adaptation of the street food I love that I can remember ever eating outside of Taiwan. Once upon a time, I scoured the internet for decent recipes and over the years I have pieced them together, with touches of my own, to create this. I’ve never written it down before, so every time I make it, it’s a tiny bit different. Now I’d love for others to give it a go!

I make my beef broth in a slow cooker, as it allows me to leave it going for much longer and allow the flavours to really develop – the recipe will be based on this technique but can easily be adapted to cooking on the stove on very low heat.

Taiwanese stewed beef brisket noodles (Niu Rou Mian)

Things to note

Serves: 6 (or 10 snack serves)

Prep time: About 30 minutes, unconsecutive. Cooking time: 8+ hours, but mostly unattended

What you’ll need

From the Asian grocers
At least 3 tbsp chilli bean sauce (adjust according to how spicy you prefer it to be – I personally use almost a third of a jar as I love chilli)
1 cup premium soy sauce, or ¾ cup dark soy sauce
½ cup rice wine (cooking wine)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 -1.2 kg wheat noodles, preferably medium or thin. If using dried noodles, buy the kind that are white and straight, in long packs, rather than “curly” in squares like instant noodles.
Optional: Taiwanese mustard greens to serve on the side (you can also pre-prepare this yourself if you aren’t short on time – here is a good recipe). Unfortunately, this time I had time to neither buy nor prepare any :(

From the market
800 – 900g boneless beef brisket, cut into approx 4cm cube pieces, trimmed of any large bits of fat
Beef bones, rougly 1 kg (your local butcher will be happy to give you some from the back if not on display) in fist-sized pieces
2 cups beef stock or chicken stock – homemade or store bought fresh from the butcher, not tinned, cubed or powdered (this is optional, but will boost flavour depth)
1-2 cups chopped chillies (to taste) – any red chilli, chopped finely. NB: most of this will not go into the soup, but will be served on the side for the diner to add to their taste
8 garlic cloves – minced
1 medium brown/yellow/white onion – sliced into half-ring slithers
1 large or 2 small tomatoes, any kind
Ginger – amount to taste, but no more than 2 cm – very thinly sliced or chopped finely
1½ cups chopped spring onions, the green parts only
1 bunch coriander – chopped finely

Rice wine for cooking, chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Spices
4-5 star anise pods
2 tsps sichuan peppercorns (normal black peppercorns can be used if you can’t find these)
2 cinnamon sticks
6-7 cloves
3-4 bay leaves (fresh preferred but dried is ok)
4 black cardamom pods
1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
Dried tangerine peel, 3-4 pieces (from your Asian grocer)

⅓ cup brown sugar, or to taste
Salt (to taste)
Cooking oil for sauteing

Making the base broth

  1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and quickly boil the beef bones for about 4 minutes to remove any surface impurities – this is an optional step but makes for a clearer, “prettier”, stock. Pour out the water.
  2. Boil 2 – 2.5 litres of water in a kettle. Set the slow cooker to “high”. Place the bones inside the cooker and pour the boiled water over it, making sure the bones are fully submerged. (If using the stove, bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and place the bones inside)
  3. Add salt to taste
  4. After leaving on high for 20 minutes, turn slow cooker setting down to “low”, or “auto” if it has this setting. Leave for at least 5 hours, or overnight. (If using a stove, simmer on the lowest possible heat for 2-3 hours).
  5. Remove the bones and discard them. Skim some of the fat off the top, but not all – leaving some in will help lock in flavour later on in the cooking process. Strain the stock through a very fine sieve, or loosely woven muslin cloth.
  6. Clean/wash the slow cooker or pot you have used.
Beef bones and chopped chillies

Beef bones for making stock

Now the soup, with everything!

  1. Take the strained stock from the previous step and transfer it back into the slow cooker (or a large stockpot on the stove) while it’s still hot. If you’ve allowed the stock to cool down or you’re doing this step on a separate day, you will need to bring it back to the boil in a pot before adding it back to the slow cooker. If the liquid is hot but not boiling when starting out, begin the slow cooker on high setting and turn down to low after 20 minutes (and proceed with other steps while waiting).
  2. Add all the dry spices to the broth except for the bay leaves – the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, tangerine peel and five spice powder
  3. Add the soy sauce, the rice wine and the (other pre-prepared) stock
  4. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and parboil the tomato(es) until soft – 5 minutes should do it. Remove from the water and in a bow, crush it roughly with a spoon.
  5. In a pan with a small amount of cooking oil, add the sliced onions and minced garlic and saute for 1 minute…
  6. Add 1 tbsp of the chilli bean sauce (leave the rest), ½ cup (or more) of the chopped chillies, ½ of the chopped spring onions and a few slices of ginger to the pan. Saute for a further 2-3 minutes or until everything smells amazing!
  7. Transfer all the sauteed contents of the pan to the broth simmering in the slow cooker. Add the remaining chilli bean sauce, or however much you prefer.
  8. Heat up a different pan (or clean the original) on high heat with a very small amount of cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, bring the heat down to medium, and transfer the beef brisket pieces to brown the cubes on all sides. If the pan isn’t large enough, you may need to do this in batches as the beef pieces should only fill one layer of the pan! Only sear the meat, do not cook – 4-5 minutes total per batch should be ok for these small pieces. This browning process brings out extra flavour that will be reflected in the resulting soup.
  9. Add the browned beef to the soup in the slow cooker, along with any juices from the pan. Make sure the meat is fully submerged in the broth.
  10. Add the brown sugar.
  11. Add salt to taste.
  12. Add ⅓ cup of the chopped coriander, and then finally, add the bay leaves, leaving them to float on top of the soup.
  13. Slow cook the beef soup for 2 hours on “low”, then check the meat’s “doneness”. Cook for a further 20-30 minutes if necessary. (If using the stove instead, simmer on the lowest heat setting for 1 hour before checking.)

  14. Once the soup is done, remove and discard all the “solid” bits other than the beef – this means the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, tangerine peel, bay leaves, tomatoes, onion slices and ginger pieces. Then remove the beef brisket and set aside for a moment.
  15. Strain the broth through a fine sieve or muslin. Add the brisket back in!

Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

The last stretch: noodles, serve and eat!

  • Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions and drain – fairly firm and al dente is best, as they will continue to soften in the broth after being served
  • Prepare 6 (or however many) bowls. Place a portion of noodles into each bowl, and then spoon a portion of the soup and beef onto the noodles, minimising “splashage” in this order.
  • Garnish with a little pinch each of the remaining chopped coriander, spring onions, chillies and optional mustard greens. Serve extra of each on the side so the person eating can adjust to their own taste.
  • Omnom…

Hulu Cat

This is an imported/archive post.

Hulu Cat is by far my favourite bubble tea vendor in Auckland. Unlike other places which are either often average or hit-and-miss, Hulu makes good value fantastic-tasting drinks 95% of the time (the lacking 5% probably being a matter of preference).

With better tasting drinks, a little more character and a little less cheese than Momo Tea, its main competitor in the area, my main problem with Hulu Cat is that they’re always too busy! Many a time I have wandered in and every single comfy sofa and less-comfy seat was filled. But lucky me, they are just a brisk 5 minute walk away, and too many nights a week I run over, grab a favourite beverage and run back home to enjoy it in front of the telly. Props to the staff, whose simultaneous multi-bubble-tea making skills have been honed to robot-speed to cope with the volume of patrons. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for their food preparation, but that can be forgiven given that food isn’t their specialty.

Hulu Cat - Grape "Creamy Milk" with Green Apple Jelly Crystal

Hulu Cat – Grape “Creamy Milk” with Green Apple Jelly Crystal

As far as Asian eateries in New Zealand go, Hulu Cat hovers on the more creative side decor-wise. There is a cutesy kitty theme, yes, but it’s not garish or weirdly lit – just a bunch of couches and cushiony seats arranged in a social yet cosy-feeling environment. Chinese and Japanese comics, cards, board games and table games can be found lying around and are made full use of by the animated groups of young students dining in.

The drinks menu here is extensive. The only one missing from my long list of favourites is coconut milk tea. You will find cold and hot beverages, green and black teas, yoghurts and slushies and Taiwanese-style milkshakes. Take them with or without bubble tea additions, of which there is a very good selection – you can choose from the usual tapioca pearl, six types of jelly crystals (most stores only have one or two), egg pudding, taro pudding, chocolate pudding, mango pudding, “ai yu” (a lightly lemon-flavoured soft jelly), herbal jelly and even ice cream – and they have never been out of stock of any I’ve asked for to date.

Price-wise, Hulu Cat is one of the best value specialised tea-houses around. The two other bubble tea specialists within 5 minutes walk from me (Momo Tea and Feeling) both have prices starting from $6 for a plain milk tea, to about $8-$9 for a slushy with added jelly. At Hulu Cat, a plain milk tea or iced tea is just $5, slushies are $6, while drinks with toppings are an additional $1. Overall, the equivalent menu items cost $1-$2 less than the competition while their takeaway cups are actually larger than those of their competitors, providing double value in addition to (in my opinion) better quality!

I have never had a complaint about a single beverage at Hulu Cat. I’ve heard a few others say that they use a tad too much syrup in their single-serve drinks, but I guess I prefer that extra sweetness and often find bubble tea in other stores quite bland. You can ask for a half-syrup serving if you prefer a weaker taste. The only time I have ever been disappointed in a drink here is when I dared to try a flavour I suspected I wouldn’t like in the first place. As an added bonus, the drinks are rarely over-iced.

There is usually an excellent texture to the pearls, also – not mushy, not undercooked, just the right amount of gumminess and chewiness. A friend has, however, previously commented that the egg pudding was too hard (over-gelatinised?) the time she tried the Caramel Egg Pudding Milk Tea. I would say this probably varies day to day and hour to hour as the longer the pudding is refrigerated the harder it becomes, generally.

Personally, my favourite drinks range is what they call the “Creamy Milk” range – it’s a sort of light frothy milkshake with mostly tangy fruity flavours but somehow different from a Western milkshake in a way I can’t quite put a finger on. A strawberry creamy milk with grape jelly crystal is my current absolute favourite.

Hulu Cat - Green Tea strained with Roasted Rice & complimentary seasoned pumpkin seeds

Hulu Cat – Green Tea strained with Roasted Rice & complimentary seasoned pumpkin seeds

A fantastic item on the food menu here is the flavoured toasts. They prepare these super-thick slices of white bread in their mini oven while you wait, and they are smothered in a generous coating of creamy butter or flavoured spread such as coconut, chocolate and peanut butter. It smells amazing – a delicious snack at just $3. The only other food items I have tried are the kumara chips (crispy and browned on the outside, still soft and moist on the inside) and takoyaki (a long wait but a pretty good effort for a non-Japanese restaurant).

Just once have I had my order from Hulu Cat in the actual restaurant. One particularly chilly Monday night, we wandered in and ordered a pot of green tea strained with roasted rice – the aroma was just heavenly. The refillable pot is just $8, comes with complimentary nibbles (on this particular day, pumpkin seeds) and can be shared between two… although they didn’t seem all that thrilled about us doing this.
When you visit Hulu Cat, take your time and enjoy a hot tea for two on a comfy sofa – it’s an excellent opportunity for low-key conversation or just to relax with or without company. Or for a different type of experience, arrive with a big group of friends, commandeer a corner table, sample as many different drinks on the menu as you possibly can between you, add some fried snacks to the table and spice the night up with a game of Jenga! If you don’t like crowds, however, on Wednesdays to Saturdays between 8 and 10, just stick with a cold bubble tea to take away!

Address: 28 Anzac Ave, Auckland CBD, Auckland, New Zealand
Phone Number: +64 9 3771868
Website: http://hulucat.co.nz/
Opening Hours: Sun-Thu: 12.30pm-12.00am
Fri-Sat: 12.30pm-1.30am
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