vickygoestravelling

my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations


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in which we eat lots of yummy food in Taiwan

Ross and I at Din Tai Fung

Ross and I at Din Tai Fung

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. Din Tai Fung 1Despite 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…

Looks good at Kaochi, but...

Looks good at Kaochi, but…

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.

steamed pomfret

steamed pomfret

stir-fried squid with mushrooms and basil

stir-fried squid with mushrooms and basil

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 century eggs...

the century eggs…

The local specialities are the century eggs, seen here, and some rather disgusting looking snails, being bought by the cup.

Taiwanese Molly Malone...

Taiwanese Molly Malone…

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.

Nougat ahoy!

Nougat ahoy!

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.

The safe BBQ stall, pork wrapped around broccoli and squid, all cut up and placed in a  bag with chilli sauce

The safe BBQ stall, pork wrapped around broccoli and squid, all cut up and placed in a bag with chilli sauce

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!

The safe pork bun stall - here we see her making them. Delicious!

The safe pork bun stall – here we see her making them. Delicious!

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.

This is the largest assortment of innards I have seen for a while

This is the largest assortment of innards I have seen for a while

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,

raw pork buns on sale

raw pork buns on sale

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

peanut brittle is shaved and put into crispy pancakes

peanut brittle is shaved and put into crispy pancakes

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!

Taro, yam and sweet potato dumplings

Taro, yam and sweet potato dumplings

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.

Taipei 101 grand dining room

Taipei 101 grand dining room

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.

View from Taipei 101

View from Taipei 101

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.

Grouper at 101

Grouper at 101

Scallop with seaweed noodles

Scallop with seaweed noodles

It may not have been exactly what I would have chosen, but it was all good and worth every penny for the ambiance.

Replete after 9 courses and a bottle of La Postolle sauv blanc - well-priced for the record

Replete after 9 courses and a bottle of La Postalle sauv blanc – well-priced for the record

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.

Ross and Jennifer watching the expert adding to the hot pot

Ross and Jennifer watching the expert adding to the hot pot

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.

Ding Tang hot pot

Ding Wang hot pot

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.

making the crispy bread - rather like a tandoor

making the crispy bread – rather like a tandoor

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.

Breakfast Taipei style

Breakfast Taipei style

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.

Ross with Sean (left) and Han Wei (right)

Ross with Sean (left) and Han Wei (right)


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in which we visit Taiwan (part 2) and I go solo

in Sanhsia 'old street

in Sanhsia ‘old street

Being accompanying spouse this week meant I had a lot of time on my hands. Undaunted by my previous solo forays, I booked a couple of tours to while away the time in between reading and cataloguing my mother’s letters (by the way we have reached 1957, and I am born to much excitement after 11 years of marriage).

Taiwan part2_02

turn of 19 century house, Sanhsia

I hit gold on the first outing, and had W all to myself. W, who in the temple as we were looking at our Zodiac signs – being 55, I was a pig, asked, ‘Am I 46 or 58?’ ‘Oh 46,’said I gallantly. ‘Heh heh,’ he chortles ‘ 58, dye my hair yesterday’. Such a character, and 12th generation Taiwanese.

Sitting beside him in the front seat I was privileged to learn much about Taiwan, its people and its politics. How the KMT, despite winning the last election (by a slim margin) is very disliked – the President only has 13% popularity rating – and they only got in because many businessmen with interests in China told their workers to vote KMT, whose mantra is ‘One China’. The fiercely independent original Taiwanese do not want to become a province of China – this is after all how they feel the world considers them, as they are not recognised in the UN.

Sanhsia Tsushih Temple

Sanhsia Tsushih Temple

The current trouble with the Philippines has exacerbated this sense of isolation – Aquino is treating them as an unimportant scion of the greater power, hence the Taiwanese aggression: ‘We should fight them, we have armies and weapons’, says W. After the war many – doctors and teachers especially – went to Japan rather than live under the KMT yoke.

As part of this One China campaign, the government opened up travel to Taiwan two years ago – every day 6000 Chinese come in by plane. The Taiwanese fear this is another means of the PRC trying to control their economy.

Carved temple guardian - even ball in his mouth is from one piece of stone

Carved temple guardian – even ball in his mouth is from one piece of stone

Apart from the Chinese en masse having few manners – as I had noticed already, see Taiwan part 1 – some of the tour operators have also upset the locals by not paying their bills, so it’s a cash only basis now! Another great injustice, in Taiwanese eyes, is the $30,000 per month paid to Chinese students to study here. This does seem outrageous, as Taiwanese students get nothing

Our objective was Sanhsia, home to an old Ming dynasty Taoist temple, made from elaborately carved stone and camphor wood, and one of the last remaining ‘old’ streets in Taiwan, now cleaned up and kitted out for tourists, but uncharacteristically tastefully so. W told me a lovely story about an Afro-American woman, who worked in a restaurant in the US, and who had a regular Taiwanese customer, to whom she always gave extra large servings. Eventually he asked her why she did this. ‘Oh, when I visited Taiwan and all the temples I was thrilled to find it is the only place in the world where the Gods are Black.’ ‘And it’s true’, exclaimed W ‘they are Black, but only because all the incense has made them so!’

The yellow paint is where the gold will go later

The yellow paint is where the gold will go later

Next stop a porcelain factory and showroom, where I meet the artists who decorate the vases with elaborate designs, including in gold imported from Germany, and learn about the various firings that result in the high quality ware that is on display. Inspired by the National Palace museum exhibits, I am thrilled to find some modern day celadon ware and buy a teapot and matching cups.

The master-craftsman: 30 years

The master-craftsman: 30 years

The factory charmingly has a workshop for folk to come and paint their own designs on china, and I meet an engaging 80 year-old who is sticking gold and diamante sequins on to her intricately painted peacock vase.

The 80 year-old, with her gorgeous vase

The 80 year-old, with her gorgeous vase

My tour group by the Nanya rock formations...

My tour group by the Nanya rock formations…

My second tour to the Chiufen Gold Mining Village was interesting in other ways. This time, ironically, I was part of a Chinese tour, although Danny also spoke English and gave briefings for my benefit. Five ladies, two from Singapore, three from PRC and a gay guy: but I worked out that these were more up-market visitors than the normal busloads we meet, as there were no flags or megaphones, and they also spoke a little English.

in the 'old' street at Chiufen

in the ‘old’ street at Chiufen

Our route took us to more wretched rock formations, where I was photographed by some ladies from Tamshui, who told me I was ‘beautiful’ – well, that made up for the ‘attraction’, and a couple of uninteresting stops, until we wound up to the old gold-mining village, which boasts a mile-long ‘old’ street, not unlike the Shilin Night Market we had visited the night before, complete with food stalls – contents ranging from disgusting innards to delicious-looking pastries,  and other local delicacies, purveyors of leather and clothes, and a more up-market variety of shop selling oolong tea and nicely wrapped sweetmeats.

Hundres of tourists mill around in Chiufen

Hundres of tourists mill around in Chiufen

Ladies pose in front of sweetmeat stall

Ladies pose in front of sweetmeat stall

Yet again, besieged by hundreds of visitors and many, many tour buses navigating the winding U bends in an alarming manner, horns blaring at poor unsuspecting walkers like me!

In between my tours, I went to the gym which was full of elderly gentlemen exercising, including one old boy who beat his chest in order to emit loud belches! Perhaps it was him I witnessed the next day hawking and spitting in the pool, or perhaps he was the one practicing his putting poolside!

Emperor eggs - as they are and 'gift-wrapped'!

Emperor eggs – as they are and ‘gift-wrapped’!

One thing is certain – and I asked all the chaps in our group, the Taiwanese women are among the most beautiful in the Far East. Many of them are tall and willowy, with long legs, often clad only in the shortest of skirts or hot pants. Paleness is a sign of great beauty here, so many of them have milky-white complexions and are beautifully coiffed and made-up. Sorry, no photos!

In between my adventures I deigned to go out with Ross – to the Shilin Night Market, Taipei 101 and to various eateries, all to be revealed in next blog, for foodies!

People seem to love it here – whether it’s due to the charming people or delicious food I am not sure. Interestingly I was told that, like China, where there are still one-child restrictions, some professional families in Taiwan CHOOSE not to have children as they are so career minded. Not unlike the new breed of Superwoman in Singapore, who choose to remain single. I must investigate all of this further – for another time.

School kids saying Hi! THe ubiquitous 'peace' sign

School kids saying Hi! THe ubiquitous ‘peace’ sign