Taiwan

AsiaDestinationsFoodTaiwan

Beyond the culinary

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The crowds and the smells always indicate that something food-related is near. Well, it’s certainly true of the legendary night markets in Taipei – there’re 14 of them at least, some lesser known to the tourists which locals frequent – that are noisy, bustling affairs of smoke, dirt and well, some delicious finds.

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We managed only 3 here and if the plan was to eat our way through the streets lined with stores and persistent sellers, there’s really only so much I could stomach when it comes to fried chicken, bubble tea and starchy oyster omelette, let alone consecutive days of this stuff. More traditional dishes do tend to be under represented at such places though – not that it’s a bad thing – though I could hardly say that a Taiwanese night market showcases the best of Taiwanese dishes.

But food here in general, has a lot to offer and can be sublime, especially if one understands the smaller shops with Chinese-only signboard, menu and order sheet. Otherwise, it’s back to pointing at a picture (if there’s one), then raising your fingers for quantity and hoping you’ve been understood.

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Beyond food (and it’s difficult to get past that), I struggled to see under the veneer of commercialism and the glitzy, glamorous buildings that have sprung up in the city centre. The older generation seems to anchor the place still; much of the architecture in the older parts of Taipei date from the Chiang Kai-Shek era that used to house his followers who thought they’d found a temporary home in Taiwan but never left in the end.

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There is much yet to be discovered: the eastern but near-inaccessible coast, the far south or even the natural mountainous landscape that beguiles so many people. Instead, there were spaces that I peeked into: the pulsating, hip young district of Ximen, a hike up Elephant Mountain in the heart of Taipei, taking a Youbike rental up and down the Keelung River, going to the hilly, Maokong village to hike and sample tea.

But I’m strangely happy with taking it slowly for once.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodItineraryTaiwan

Taipei Eats: A food tour

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It’s difficult to know where to begin with the mind-boggling food of Taiwan but one thing I knew when I planned this trip was that it would be near impossible to get around to the places the locals like without having an English-speaking local to bring us around.

Going with Taipei Eats for a few hours of walking and eating traditional Taiwanese dishes was a god-send, as was the lovely guide Jean who took us through the maze of streets and wet markets – and straight into the heart of Taipei where shops could be holes in the wall with untranslated menus. The philosophy of Taipei Eats, as Jean explained, has been to choose places where everything is handmade (with an artisan vibe at times) with a specialisation in a particular dish.

f11. Hulin wet market (Yongchun Station)

Fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in their rawest (and hopefully freshest) form. A few paces down, there’s thousand-layer scallion cake, a thick slab of bread with green onions and sesame baked in a tandoor-like oven.

2. Songshan Gua Bao

No. 179
Songshan Rd
Xinyi District

Variations of this particular bun – filled with pork belly, preserved mustard greens then topped with coriander and peanut powder – can be found in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and China. Jean insists that this is one of the most popular stops in the tour and it’s not hard to see why.

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An optional stop was to a betel nut stand, where blue-collar workers flock to for a quick stop to get their hit of stimulant when their energy starts flagging. It stains the lips and teeth crimson while providing a rush and a numbing effect – something I’d passed over.

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3. Raw stinky tofu

No.2, Alley 3
Lane 120, Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

Sweet wintermelon tea rarely does anything to counter the raw sewage smell of the fermented tofu, which comes in 3 levels of fermentation (10, 12 and 13). Fermented way longer than what is sold in the night market, it’s the only shop in Taiwan to offer raw, fermented tofu (of the stinkiest level) and for that, it’s famous in its own right. It’s also a shot of probiotics, so keep that in mind that it’s probably good for the stomach though not for the taste buds.

4. Cold Sesame Noodles

No.105
Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

We each got served small portions of wheat noodles drenched in sesame sauce and fresh cucumber with a miso-based soup of meatballs, tofu and egg. After the lingering taste of stinky tofu, this was a culinary reprieve.

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 5. Kao-Chi

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

I particularly loved this stop because of the artistic atmosphere of Songshan Cultural and Creative space, where this branch of Kao-Chi is located. Perhaps as much as I loved the Xiaolongbao (dumplings made with pork and gelatine which melts when steamed).

6. Wu Pao Chun Bakery

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

Ubiquitous in Taiwan, pineapple cakes have a shortcrust-like pastry with sweet pineapple filling, though the fillings differ from bakery to bakery. With only 2 stores in Taiwan (1 in Taipei and another in Kaohsiung), Wo Pao Chun’s famed master Boulanger’s makes pineapple cakes that people queue for. We came out with boxes of them, then lugged them around for the rest of the tour.

7. Bei Men Fung Li Bing

No.9 Alley 33
Lane 216 Section 4
Zhongxiao E Rd

The owners who set up this shaved ice shop hail from Yilan, where the sherbet (or the shaved ice dessert) is just made out of water, sugar and extracts. Done traditionally, there’s even a notice in the shop that states they’d never do a franchise just to keep the quality.

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AsiaDestinationsItineraryPlanningTaiwan

When mining mattered

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I’ve hesitated for years about Taiwan, in part due to the language which has been prohibitive for me, despite how much friends of mine have said—and extolled—about this place. This time around, I have 3 travel companions with me and planning for all of them has been a bloody pain and travelling with them, an even bigger one.

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But Taipei at least, has impressed me from the very start and reminds me (and this is a complete generalisation here) of what China might have been like had Maoist communism   not taken root in the population. I found the people polite and incredibly service-oriented, almost like the Japanese in fact and at first glance, I’d wondered if I actually stepped back into Okinawa when I caught sight of the natural and urban landscape. Despite the language barrier, many tried to speak English and for that, I am beyond grateful and totally aware that I’m behaving akin to a privileged toff in the English-speaking world. The lack of time however—being on a day tour is a timely reminder why I don’t do these things normally in a bigger group—meant that most of it was spent slowing down considerably, and missing out on things that could have been explored.

A day tour with My Taiwan Tour conveniently provided us with an English-speaking guide and a drive northeast towards the old mining towns of Jiufen and Pingxi which have long been converted into tourist attractions. But on a surprise public holiday declared by the newly-elected Taiwan president, we found ourselves on a jam-packed road with half of Taipei determined to make the most use of the day off as well. And that was the start of a long and trying day where I spent most of the time waiting or sitting in a moving bus on a journey that took way longer than expected.

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Jiufen (meaning ‘9 portions’) was originally named that way because there were only 9 families living there back in the day and ordering and hauling daily necessities simply became a matter of asking for 9 portions of all of those. From the carpark down below, it was uphill the whole way on narrow and rather steep stairs made treacherous by the sheer volume of tourists playing this route in a bid to look at the number of shops that dot these alleyways.

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In Pingxi, sky lanterns are released by tourists painting their wishes or names on the thin paper who then get their photos taken as the lantern floats upwards. I spent the time hoping that no one’s roof caught fire.

I returned to Taipei, sweaty and absolutely knackered, then wondered if I could have done this on my own terms.

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