A hungry traveller embarks on a neverending buffet of Taiwanese delights that make for an adventure good for both the tummy and the soul.
Words: Ellyse Ng Photography: Adam Lee
“Come in, come in! If it’s not delicious, you don’t have to pay!” The skin on her face was as thin as paper, but her toothy smile made her look years younger – a sign of confidence that her food was definitely not a reflection of the humble surroundings. To love Taiwan is to love its food. Standing in the basement of Shilin Night Market, amidst the pungent stench of stinky tofu and loud yells of competitive vendors, I was truly loving it.
Merging traditional cultures with authentic flavours, a trip to Taipei is literally fulfilling. Beyond Taipei 101 and bustling night markets, the city is bursting with international flavours and authentic Taiwanese food. Armed with guts of steel and an insatiable appetite, this hungry traveller set out with a determined list of food to devour, restaurants to visit and food stalls to systematically assault.
Taiwan’s night markets are legendary, but a true foodie knows that the main reason to visit Shilin Night Market is for its famous food scene. In this food centre, a plethora of culinary delights vie for your palate’s attention, with signature local offerings seductively tempting you to come taste and rejoice in this brightly lit basement.
Recalling my editor’s instructions (nay, instructed!) to sample the infamous stinky tofu, I gallantly ordered a double portion. When the plate was plonked in front of me, I bravely took a tentative bite of the harmless looking morsel. Lo and behold, the acrid smell filled my nostrils and my gag reflex kicked into high gear. For a split second, I wanted to spit the tofu out, hoping it would turn into a dangerous projectile and splatter on the cook’s face who dared put me through this ordeal. But, mind you, decorum prevailed as I was well educated in the genteel aspects of table etiquette. With an unflinching smile, I timidly pushed the remaining portion to my friend who seemed to have no qualms eating something that tasted and smelled like a wet and stinky sock. Definitely not my cup of tea, I protested. Despite my attempts at drowning the lingering aftertaste with bucketsful of flavoured bubble tea, I couldn’t get rid of the taste and my mouth smelt like… a sewer. But most importantly, I consoled myself; I had given it a shot and lived to tell.
Mercifully, the other local dishes were utterly delightful! Shilin Night Market proved to be a mecca of delectable offerings. Just about every imaginable street food is available here, from deep-fried crabs to Taiwanese sausages, and even the strange-looking Frog Eggs (青蛙下蛋) drink, which are actually dark tapioca balls with the most unpleasant name ever. Instead, Shilin is where you’ll find the local populace hanging out. One never, ever goes to bed hungry in this street in Taipei.
My guide and friend, Xiao Ling, shook me awake. It was barely 7.00am. “Quick, it’s time for breakfast”. I drowsily put on some mismatched clothing and dragged my feet out of the hotel. Sitting at a small eatery 10 minutes later, I stared at the bowl of soy milk and crisp Chinese crullers sitting nonchalantly on top. The simplicity of the meal was absurd for such a rude awakening so early in the morning. “It’s called yu tiao”, Xiao Ling exclaimed enthusiastically at the long piece of fried dough, before attacking it with gusto. Mimicking her, I dipped the tip of the yu tiao into the warm milk and took a huge bite. The explosion of soft dough and crispy shell soaking up the rich milk was a strange but nonetheless delicious experience. I turned and gave Xiao Ling a knowing look, as if to say: “Now I know why you risked your life and limb dragging sleepy me out so early in the morning.”
I later learnt that the yu tiao / soy milk combo is a common sight in many East Asian countries, but the Taiwanese have taken it up a notch with a lightly salted, crisp yu tiao that’s served with the creamiest soy milk I’ve ever tasted. I also sampled fan tuan, a plain rice roll – too plain for my taste – and dan bing rou song (rice rolls stuffed with chicken floss and egg).
Meet & Greet
Braised pork rice or, as the locals call it lu rou fan, is the pride of Taiwan. Many have travelled far to taste this humble dish that truly defines the Taiwanese’s flair for complex but delicious flavours. I crossed the ample grounds of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall towards Roosevelt Road, where Jin Feng Eatery is said to be lu rou fan ‘heaven’. Delicately flavoured slices of pork rested on a mound of white rice, the aroma of spices enticing my palate and urging me to take a bite of the meat enveloped in an a layer of wobbly fat. This is what makes the pork truly magical: The gorgeously rich and translucent layer of fat. If you’ve ever wondered what ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ feels like, this was it! I ate the bowl of rice and meat with religious reverence, for food so tasty needs to be honoured and appreciated. Patrons at the eatery who filled every possible nook and cranny shared my sentiments, all lost in this ‘spiritual’ experience.
Needless to say, the more popular a dish, the more copycats you’ll find. In Taipei, you’ll find countless eateries offering lu rou fan, each with their own claim to fame with others simply jumping on the bandwagon, hoping that discerning taste buds would buy into the deceit. Recommendations from locals is the best way to go, or simply Google for public praise, or scorn.
At night, Taipei’s chic and fashionable persona awakes from its daily slumber. As I visited the streets teeming with trendsetters who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Vogue, I soon discovered another swanky side to this enigmatic city: Taipei is café culture central! As I café-hopped around town, I realised that the café circuit is more about the experience than the menu offerings. Consisting of the usual suspects – light bites, desserts, and drinks that range from artisan coffee to imported tea – the food was hardly a gourmet paradise but upon entering each unique premise, I soon forgot the mediocre menu choices and lapped up the effort in presentation, ambience and personalized décor of each establishment. Often the decor and ambiance of these cafés deserve awards for creativity in producing a mood so desirable, you don’t mind spending a bomb on a measly cup of coffee just to enjoy the swanky vibe.
One such premise was Somebody Café (http://blog.yam.com/creative26), just minutes from the Taipei Railway Station. The two-toned interior screamed chic and the intimate setting was warm and inviting. A private booth sat nicely in one corner, with monochromatic umbrellas hung upside down adorning sections of the ceiling. Vintage paintings and arty mirrors in the same colour scheme covered the walls. My cup of Caramel Macchiato lasted three long hours here, as I drank in the decadent mod interior.
It is a sin to visit World Beef Noodle Capital and not scarf down a bowl of the dish. The heady aroma filled the streets and disrupted my plans to shop around Civic Boulevard. My initial idea of purchasing of a pair of stilettos to appease my inner shopaholic was swiftly replaced by a sumptuous bowl of piping hot beef noodles. The gravy’s consistency was just right, complementing the thick noodles perfectly, while the generous chunks of tender beef made me feel like I had gotten my money’s worth. This was comfort in a bowl.
You know a dish is a national obsession when it has its own festival. The annual Taipei International Beef Noodle Soup Festival takes place every year end, where beef noodle specialists from all over Taiwan gather to compete for the title of the best beef noodle soup-maker in the country. From clear to spicy broths, to even the most expensive bowls of beef noodle soup in the world, simply turn up for a moo-ving experience.
Good Times Beneath the 101
It was a rainy night. The alley we were walking through was dark and narrow. I admit I was a little afraid. This time, an acquaintance had taken over playing the tour guide and insisted I visit what she claimed to be “the pulse of Taipei’s underground scene”. In Xinyi district beneath the Taipei 101, was where I first met Good Cho’s (www.streetvoice.com/goodchos) and it was love at first scent. The unassuming cement structure was grey and dreary from the outside, but inside, however, was a different story altogether. Good Cho’s was my first visit to a bagel bakery.
The aroma of freshly baked goodies filled my nostrils as I walked through the art gallery foyer and organic market, arriving at a colourful café. If the smell didn’t offer a clue, the long queue at the counter certainly did. My Asian senses went overboard (long queues equal great food) and I succumbed to temptation, ordering a lip smacking pork bacon bagel, which was further accented by the joy of eating it amidst the vintage décor put together by the artistic minds behind Good Cho’s. Outside, Simple Market is a weekend outdoor market where you can buy local designs and products, or listen to music from live performers.
Heavier & Happier
There are cities and there are cities, but there is no city that eats like Taipei. Come for a visit, talk to a local, and eat like it is going out of fashion! Food is at the tip of their tongues and it is a passion that burns with such intensity, you see it in their eyes. A week here translates to a month’s worth of staring at my weighing scale back home in dismay. But no regrets, for I’ve tasted, loved and shared Taipei’s greatest gift to the world – its culinary delights.