Food glorious food! Singaporeans come to Taiwan just to eat, and having spent a week there, I understand why! And it’s not only visitors who love to eat – it’s the locals too – every day there were hundreds of Taiwanese queuing for afternoon tea in our hotel, renowned for its tea-time spread, not tea as we know it by the way; and the breakfast buffet mirrored that. Delicate, slim, bejewelled and perfectly-groomed business ladies, piled their plates high course after course. One morning this tiny woman put away 6 slices of papaya, a mound of deep fried fish, a pile of beef and green vegetables, then topped it all with some french pancakes, swathed in syrup…A kinder person than I said perhaps that was her meal for the day!
How to cram so much taste into a blog is a challenge, so here goes….
First stop was Din Tai Fung’s original Taipei restaurant which has set the benchmark for all its outposts including in Singapore. We were welcomed by a gorgeous girl, who advised on our (poor), choices, steering us to the favourites, Xiaolongbao, or pork dumplings. Despite the formica table tops and the 1950s original decor, we had a fine feast. A great welcome to Taipei.
The next-door restaurant, Kaochi, recommended by the hotel, was much less good, despite the benefit of numbers, expert local advice and fluent Mandarin, as we went with Ross’s team from Novartis. It was the only time in Taipei that we had poor service, with rather un-charming waiting staff and indifferent food – the big seafood stew/steam boat was insipid and the deep fried prawns decidedly soggy. The drunken chicken, a local specialty, was cold and rather disgusting. Oh well…
Another recommendation by the hotel was far more successful: rather exhausted by a long day out, we asked for a local seafood restaurant and were directed round the corner (next to the Welcome hotel if anyone tries to find it) to a family restaurant where we had a fragrantly flavoured steamed pomfret with a squid, and a mushroom and basil stir-fry – the squid was crispy and smoky and the mushrooms dried and pungent. We noticed, as the other customers left, they all had ‘carry-outs’ – and not left-overs. Inquiry revealed this restaurant specialised in selling bags of dried anchovies, which I found on sale later in Chiufen. Another local delicacy, obviously.
But venturing out on our own, whether to Tamshui where, although we didn’t eat (having had an indifferent self-service lunch at the Ju Ming museum), we came and saw the locals enjoying a grand day out.
The local specialities are the century eggs, seen here, and some rather disgusting looking snails, being bought by the cup.
The Taiwanese have a very sweet tooth, and here we found a stall selling a wide variety of nougat in all sorts of hues. It felt like a feast day, but I guess Sunday is always like this, crowded streets and families all enjoying themselves.
Taiwan is of course renowned for its Night Markets and street food. One rainy evening we ventured out by MRT, Taiwan’s super-efficient metro system, to visit Shihlin, the most famous night market of all. Our colleagues were surprised we were going there to EAT; they had gone simply for a post-prandial shop, but as shopping is generally low on my agenda (although I did come away with a US$5 Longchamp rip-off, which is almost perfect), it was the food we were most interested in.
Bowled over by the garish amounts of junk on display – shop upon shop of cheap clothing, shoes and bags – we finally found the food stalls. Untrue to say it was a tantalising array as we were nauseated by the most terrible smell, which we worried was of fat rancid from over-use, so were stuck (after one misadventure, a greasy deep-fried egg in batter thing that Ross ate) to BBQ squid and pork, and a safer-looking pork bun. we later found out that the smell was stinky tofu ‘tasted better than it smells’. Ha!
And of course, as in any Chinese food market there are what I call the unmentionables, which we always steer clear of. If you dont recognise it, dont eat it.
Another favourite place for local delicacies is the Chiufen ‘old’ street market; to some extent this is a tourist area, served by hundreds of buses containing visitors from the PRC,
but like the Taiwanese, they love buying the sweetmeats that are made here, especially the pineapple cake. I bought some oolong tea at a fraction of the price I saw later at the airport
Specialities here included yam, taro and sweet potato dumplings with red bean sauce (not for me as I don’t have a sweet tooth) and row upon row of raw pork buns which people buy to take home. I was hungry but could not find anything I recognised so missed lunch!
I know its unadventurous, but do remember I was a vegetarian for a long time and remain squeamish, especially in Chinese cultures where organic and animal-friendly rearing are unknown phrases. Shark fin is ubiquitous here, as are tanks full of the most enormous groupers, lobsters, crabs and even octopus.
So from the cheap to the the lavish – a banquet at Taipei 101. The second tallest building in the world – and the tallest before the Burj al Arab – we simply had to go. The only way to avoid the massive queues to get to the top is to have meal, admittedly at NT$ 1960, excluding wine, not the cheapest, but US$50 for a 9 course feast is not that bad frankly, and all in a art deco dining room, resplendent with Wedgwood and Noritake chinaware, chandeliers and an 86th floor view.
Annoyingly the menu came on an iPad which even the waitress, complete with mask – always a bit off-putting as not only could we not read the menu but we couldn’t understand a word she said – could not work, so we took the easy option and plumped for the set menu.
It may not have been exactly what I would have chosen, but it was all good and worth every penny for the ambiance.
But perhaps the highlights of our trip were dining with Ross’s colleagues – not only for the camaraderie, but also for their expertise. On the last evening to celebrate the end of the job, we were taken to Taipei’s ‘in’ place, Ding Wang Spicy Hotpot.
Here you can have a shared seafood/veg broth and a meat one, spicy, robustly flavoured with duck’s blood – and yes I did try that (rather like liver in fact); you then choose your added ingredients, ranging from tofu and bean curd, to scallops, abalone, calamari, crab and fish balls, slices of meat and so on, finishing off with some fresh veg at the end.
The principle is the same as for fondue. It was delicious, although I do prefer the more fragrant Cambodian variety – lemon grass, fresh herbs, mint and lime leaves as predominant flavours in oriental cooking.
The last breakfast was just round the corner, Ku Hang, up some stairs and typically Taiwanese. Great bowls of sweet soya bean milk (rather like baby rice, so not very nice!) and a salty bean curd porridge, with crispy soya bean (better), but best were the delicious home-made crispy rolls, some with onions, some halved with fried eggs plopped in the middle, and egg pancakes.
Normally queues snake out the door but today (we were good and early) we only had to queue for a few minutes.
A fine end to a gastronomic journey.