You know when you’d tried a certain dish at a new joint, and after that tell yourself that the “gastrorgasmic” experience you’d gone through had just breached the boundaries of what you’d think was the best rendition that could possibly exist out there for that particular dish, hitting all the right spots, making you nod your head periodically, albeit uncontrollably as you close your eyes in attempt to shut off the other senses so as to concentrate on extracting every ounce of gastronomic pleasure from each bite, smiling to yourself without even knowing you are smiling, only to be overwhelmed by that oddly tingling sense of sadness that creeps in as you partake that last mouthful or slurp, savouring every bit of lingering morsel in the mouth, or waft of aroma in the air, bittersweet as you can’t help but let out a sigh of contentment and gratitude for the experience, interspersed with hopeful yearning for the next episode. Sounding both phenomenal and incredible at the same time while wondering how could that be even mortally possible. Well you could be if you live a life to eat. We’d experienced that before, on several occasions in fact, most notably with Mutekiya Ramen when we first visited a couple of years back and also my first personal encounter with Sugino’s mousse creations, and most recently, 金子半之助天丼 Kaneko Hannosuke Tendon.
To experience truly Taiwanese food and pop culture, one must surely pay a visit to their local night markets. Some even say that going to Taiwan without a firsthand experience of their local night markets is like not having been to Taiwan at all. I definitely agree with that. To many Taiwanese, night markets are where they take care of their daily needs. This is especially so for the those who work from dawn till dusk, and have to settle their meals mostly outside. This is analogous to our hawker centres and more currently “food courts” here in Singapore, but it is not just the tummies that are taken care of here, as Taiwanese can buy practically everything they need at home here from stationery to toiletries. As such, there are night markets everywhere in Taipei, but we only visit a selectively few and 南機場夜市 Nanjichang Night Market is one of them.
I began noticing master boulanger 吳寶春 Wu Pao Chun when he first appeared in one of my favorite Taiwanese forum talk shows 新闻哇哇挖 upon returning to Taiwan, after winning the prestigious Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie aka Bakery World Cup in Paris five years ago. Since then, he has been hailed as a 台湾之光 “Glory of Taiwan” alongside acclaimed director, Lee Ang, an honour accredited by the local Taiwanese press to their fellow countrymen who had achieved worldwide recognition and acclaim of sorts. This does not come easily for anyone from Taiwan, a country which has yet to be formally acknowledged by UN, and whose existence is constantly under pressure and threat across the straits from Mainland China. Since returning to Taiwan, Wu set up his first artisan bread bakery in Kaohsiung before opening another in Taipei the next year. Our previous trips to Taiwan had always been filled with pastries and cakes more than anything else, so for our most recent trip, we finally decided to make our way to Wu’s bakery located at Eslite Spectrum Song Yan Store.
Grass Jelly is a dessert which many of us enjoyed since our childhood days. The Cantonese folks call it 凉粉 “leung fun“, while it is 草粿 “cao kueh” for the Teochews and 草粄 “cao ban” for the Hakkas. Its popularity spreads throughout Taiwan, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia where it can be easily cultivated as well, to Vietnam, Thailand and of course Malaysia and Singapore. It is usually eaten as a cold drink or dessert, especially welcoming when the weather is hot and humid but in Taiwan, it is also enjoyed during the winter months, where a hot version would be available and is no less gratifying. And the way 燒仙草 Hot Grass Jelly is eaten seem to be uniquely Taiwan indeed!
米粉 Rice vermicelli or what is colloquially known as “bee hoon“, is much of a staple like rice in Taiwan. It doesn’t matter if you are a Hokkien or a Hakka, bee hoon is served in every occasion, from daily meals to family gatherings and celebrations. There are many ways of frying bee hoon, with recipes varying not just across dialectal groups but also from family to family. It also very much depends on what is available in the pantry and could be as simple or as elaborated as one can think of. 金瓜櫻花蝦炒米粉 Pumpkin and Sakura Ebi Fried Bee Hoon counts as one of the traditional Taiwanese dishes, a 手路菜 “chew loh cai” which most 台湾媳妇 “taiwan sim boo” Taiwanese housewives would know how to prepare at home, as it is imbued with a deep and profound sense of 古早味 “koh zah bee” and more importantly for many, 妈妈味.
I remember enjoying my first bowl of 四神汤 Si Shen Soup about 10 years back during my initial trips to Taiwan. It was the period before Chinese New Year and my friends brought us to 寧夏夜市 before visiting 迪化街 for the Chinese New Year bazaar. Just gotten off the plane, we hadn’t eaten dinner so my Taiwanese friends suggested going to 阿桐阿寶四神湯 located near the night market first. Being largely a “herbal soup”, it tasted rather plain and smooth, with a lingering sweetness in the mouth. Void of pungent odours and bitter aftertaste, the flavours of Si Shen Soup defies what I had expected Chinese herbal soups are traditionally like. The soup was a relief, not only against the fattiness of the bak chang and large steamed pork buns we had, it also helped to warm our constitution amidst the cold and rainy weather.
Taiwan is famous for many of their local snack-like delights called “小吃” which literally means “small eats“. As the name implies, many of these snacks come in small portions which aren’t enough to fill the stomach at one go. Nor is it meant to, as that is the exact intention, i.e. to allow one to sample as many of these different local “small eats” as possible. Tainan, as I’d written previously, is the origin of many local “small eats”, largely brought over by the migration wave from China during the mid Qing Dynasty. Many of these have very humble beginnings as street food stall vendors which we call “hawkers” in this part of the world. Some of these hawkers did not even have a permanent stall, but instead, carried their food, cooking ware, and everything else wherever they go , in two large bamboo baskets delicately balanced by a thick bamboo pole called 擔仔 Dan Zai or “tah-ah” over the shoulders. This was most characteristic to those who sold glutinous rice dumplings colloquially known as “bak chang” (肉粽), often heard before they are seen walking down the alleys of residential areas peddling their bak chang late in the evening. Wafts of aroma from these freshly steamed glutinous rice dumplings wrapped into a pyramidal shape by bamboo leaves permeated the cool air of the night as one hears the familiar calls “烧肉粽!” or “shio bak chang!” in Taiwanese Hokkien. This often set one’s tummy a rumbling, dashing down to buy a bak chang or two from the hawker before his calls fade away as he vanishes around the corner.
Like bak chang, many other street food vendors too make use of these baskets with bamboo poles to peddle their ware. Another signature “small eat” from Tainan comes in the form of small bowls of fresh noodles in piping hot soup, embellished with an assortment of condiments. The noodles were also initially peddled around the streets of Tainan with makeshift stoves and baskets carrying crockery straddled across a 擔仔 bamboo pole, and that is how its name 擔仔麵 Dan Zai Noodles came about…
Talk about street food in Taiwan and one cannot dispense discussing “Oh-Ah Mee Sua” 蚵仔麵線 Taiwanese Oyster Mee Sua. With humble beginnings as a “poor man’s snack”, Oh Ah Mee Sua soon became an internationally renowned dish which one would flock to eat when they visit Taiwan. That is certainly the case for me. Over time, two versions evolved, one which uses fresh oysters 蚵仔, and another with braised large pig intestines 滷大腸, both equally popular with their own loyal followers. I love ’em both as they offer very different experience in flavours and textures. So if you like Oyster and Large Intestines Mee Sua like me, do give the recipe a try!
Long before the designation of Taipei 台北 as the capital city of Taiwan 台湾 by the Qing court in early 18th century, the southern city of Tainan 台南 was long regarded as the centre of administration, politics, as well as financial and economic development in this island state. Tainan was established as the base of Dutch Formosa when the Dutch East Indies company came in the early 1600s and used it as a trading post, which they’d named Fort Zeelandia at Anping 安平. This earned Tainan the name “hoo siah” 府城 in the local Min dialectal tongue, a place where the local folks in southern Taiwan, especially those in the neighbouring counties like Chiayi 嘉義, Pingtung 屏東, Kaohsiung 高雄 and Nantou 南投 looked upon as a site of social and cultural flourish back in the old days.
As the city prospered and grew, more and more people from surrounding rural regions moved into Tainan in search for a better livelihood and opportunities. As such, many aspects of Tainan also became more varied and diversified demographically, socially and culturally. Through the innovation of the locals, many Taiwanese snacks 台式小吃 and signature dishes in Taiwanese cuisine 台菜 we know today have their roots in Tainan. These include 擔仔麵 Dah-a Mee Soup Noodles with Braised Meat Sauce, 台式滷麵 Lor Mee Noodles in Thick Braising Sauce, 鳝魚意麵 Sen-Hee Yee Mee Braised Eel Noodles, 碗粿 Wah Kueh Tainan Steamed Rice Cake in a Bowl, 蚵仔麵線 Oh-aa Mee Sua Oyster Meesua, 蚵仔煎 Oh-aa Tsen Fried Oyster Omelette and of course, 棺材板 Gwa Tsah Pang Coffin Toast Bread.
Every country has a few signature dishes which can be deemed as their “national dish” . It is a natural correlation one would form between the culinary culture of a country and the dishes they are most closely associated with. It is like when one thinks of the UK, one immediately relates to Fish ‘n Chips but for tropical Singapore, one would salivate at the thought of Chili Crab or Hainanese Chicken Rice. When it comes to Malaysia, it has to be Nasi Lemak while Adobo Manok would represent the Philippines without doubt. Look to the east in Thailand and Som Tum, Tom Yum or Phad Thai comes instantly to mind while up in Japan, it has to be Ramen and Sushi as it is Samgyetang or Kimchi for Korea. The parallelism one draws is usually as apparent and agreeable as a variable y would map onto the function f(x).
For Taiwan, there are quite a few contenders for the title of a “national dish”. Some say it is 牛肉麵 beef noodles. It is so popular they even have a “festival” 臺北牛肉麵節 for it. Others would lobby for 珍珠奶茶 bubble tea, as it was the black tapioca pearls which brought Taiwan international fame, be it for the good or the bad. But to many, 滷肉飯 Lor Bak Png （Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl）, otherwise known as Lu Rou Fan in Mandarin is a dish which resonates deep within their hearts. It is a dish which everyone would have eaten before, be it at the night markets, eateries or at home. For many, it is the easiest way one would settle a meal outside. For some, the appeal 滷肉飯 runs beyond the tastebuds, tugging their heart-strings, awakening fond memories from their own grandmother’s or mother’s cooking, adding a tinge of nostalgia, on top of the wonderful flavours and aroma exuded by this simple but yummy dish.
Taiwan has more than 20 distinct tribal groups, more than half of which are still awaiting to be acknowledged. Many of them have uniquely spoken languages, cultural and religious practices and of course, cuisine. But one dish which seems to perpetuate quite a number of aboriginal groups is 炒山蘇 Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry. I vividly remember having it for the first time around 10 years back during our initial trips to Taiwan. It was a cold evening in February. The rain most certainly didn’t help. Not a good time to visit night markets, so our Taiwanese friend drove us up to Yang Ming Shan 阳明山 in the outskirts of Taipei. We stopped by at what seemed to be just a small and shabby-looking eatery forged out of makeshift material and planks. I could still hear the pitter-patter in my head as the raindrops fell on the galvanised zinc rooftop. We had several interesting dishes for dinner that day, what the locals would call a 野菜宴. The highlight for the day was a chicken soup cooked with various Chinese herbs, wild vegetables and of course a free-range chicken. The soup which was served in a blackened terracotta pot was still in a rolling boil, perfect for the weather. Then there was a wild boar meat stir fry with very simple ingredients. It was immensely peppery and gingery at the same time, presumably to musk any gamey flavours from the animal, which the boss-cum-chef purportedly claimed to have just been caught by a trap the night before. But what interest me the most, was in fact a dish of curled up leaves, glistening in oil and sauce against the florescent lamps. That was the first time I had bird’s nest fern stir fry. A memorable experience, a dish I would definitely order whenever it is available on the menu, and one which I am very keen to replicate at home for myself. I’m glad I did.
I love visiting night markets in Taiwan for a variety of reasons. There is always so much to see, smell, eat and buy! A large part of Taiwan’s food culture is characterised by its night markets.They are so vibrant and constantly bustling with activity! For many, a visit to a night market in Taipei is often the last event on one’s tourist itinerary. And in the country’s capital city, there are indeed many to choose from. From the very popular ones which tourists flock to like Shi Lin Night Market 士林夜市 and Rao He Street Night Market 饶河街夜市, to the more 在地人 “known-only-by-locals” ones like Yan San Night Market 延三夜市 and Nan Ji Chang Night Market 南机场夜市, there are easily close to a dozen joints to choose from. Many of these night markets have their own “specialities” which draw crowds from near and far every night. Some go for deep fried chicken cutlets 炸鸡排, while others are there to feast on oyster mee sua 蚵仔麵線 or crispy steamed buns 生煎包. One of the foods I am always game to try whenever I see it at a night market is 刈包 Gua Bao. Also scripted as 割包, it is often called a “Taiwanese hamburger” 台式漢堡 by tourists. And there are many good versions around as well! There are those who maintained the tradition of making 刈包 by serving thick slabs of braised pork belly sandwiched by a piping hot and fluffy steamed bun, like 源芳刈包 at Hua Xi Street Night Market 华西街夜市 and 石家刈包 at Tonghua Street Night Market 通化街夜市, while others like 蓝家刈包 at Shida Night Market 师大夜市shred the meat into bitesize morsels for the convenience of diners. I prefer the former as it seems more hearty and visually appealing to have a whole piece of meat encased within. Whichever the case, the 刈包 offered at these joints promises a delightful palate experience. But the truth is, 刈包 is so easy to make at home and a sure favorite amongst many be it the young and old, especially during family gatherings and events.
Welcome to Taiwan! Our 10th instalment of Asian Food Fest brings us to this beautiful country which was once called “Formosa” by the Portuguese, the first “foreigners” to set their eyes on it about 500 years ago to mean “Beautiful Island”, and beautiful is truly an understatement. Rarely would one would be able to find another place on Earth where one could be enjoying the warm sea breeze by the coastal regions and within less than an hour, scale altitudes of more than 2500m above sea-level to confront the majestic mountain ranges. Having the Tropic of Cancer cutting right through the island nation, one can be chewing sugarcane in Tainan or Pingtung in the morning and in less than half a day’s drive, be admiring the majestic cypress and cherry blossoms on Alishan or even playing with snow on Yushan. It is through this complex and often strategic juxtaposition of geographical factors that brings about the rich natural and social history Taiwan has, as well as its anthropology and culture. So join us in this month-long adventure to discover the interesting aspects of her food culture, the nuances which make her distinctively different from her proximal neighbours, to become what we now know as being uniquely Taiwan!
Pineapple tarts 凤梨酥 are very popular in this part of the world where I live. From the Indonesian “Nastar” to the Peranakan “Kueh Tair“, pineapple tarts practically dominate the confectionery scene in Singapore and Malaysia especially during the Chinese New Year festive season. I make pineapple tarts as well, to entertain guests during their visits as well as gifts for friends and relatives. So pineapple tarts have in a way become symbolically analogous to Chinese New Year and part and parcel of our lives. Further up north in a country where I call my second home, Taiwan is another place which is very famous for their 凤梨酥. And when it comes to reputable 凤梨酥, one name has emerged rapidly over the last couple of years which these small finger-size confections are synonymously linked with, and that is 微熱山丘鳳梨酥 SunnyHills Pineapple Cakes.
Strangely of all our trips to Taiwan all these years, we’d never been to 鼎泰豐 Ding Tai Fung（DTF）. This is very odd I know, given how iconic DTF is in Taiwan’s culinary scene, being featured in perpetually every single guidebook we’d read in the past. Somehow, we’d never really felt compelled to visit, often brushing it off as a tourist gimmick and most rightfully so. This is often the first place we would pass by whenever we visit 永康街 Yong Kang Street in 大安区 Da’An district. The front door is always packed with tourists from Japan, Korea and of course Mainland China, sent here by the busloads. It often got so bad that the crowd started to spill over to the shop windows of the bookstore next door. We were often put off by this sight and would briskly walk away, shaking our heads and rolling our eyes.
But we’d tried DTF back home in Singapore many times and I must say that we thoroughly enjoyed the food there. While the loud and chattery crowd outside the main shop in Taipei irked us to no ends, we often wondered if the food there is better than what we are getting in Singapore. DTF originated from Taiwan after all. Finally, curiosity got the better of us and we made our first proper visit to DTF after all these years.
Our last trip to Wulai was some years back and it was a very brief one, to admire the sakuras. Alas we were a little too late then and the season was just over. We’d spent a considerably amount of time in 雲仙樂園, a local amusement park with a gondola that leads into the mountains and didn’t get much of a chance to see much of the old and rustic side of this beautiful small town 40 minutes south of Taipei City. So here we are, back again after all these years to find out more about this quaint little place which we passed through, but never got to know…
We have our own list of “must go” places and eateries which we try to make it a point to visit whenever we are in Taipei. And Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki is definitely high on that list. Well, Aoki has dessert boutiques in Tokyo too but there are far too many other patisseries in this Asian Capital of French pastry making as well which we have been want to visit (yes, yet another very long list!), to a point of being literally spoilt for choices. So we were “forced” to limit ourselves to Aoki san’s joints largely in Taipei and keep the visits to his Tokyo outlets down to once or twice (such a shame I know!), until the Japanese list of patisseries has been properly exhausted. But I doubt we’ll see that happening any time soon!
The Taiwanese know their Japanese food really well. Yes you heard me right. Apart from Tokyo or Osaka, most if not all of my best Japanese meals were in Taipei. The Taiwanese are such “nipponophiles” (if there is ever such a word) that they have achieved a certain of specialisation, be it the traditional art of mochi, sushi or oden making, to replicating the concept of Japanese bakeries and boulangeries in their entirety.
But the Taiwanese are far from being mere copycats. The island nation being subjected to Japanese colonial rule for the longest time outside Japan itself, allowed an almost complete inheritance of not merely the superficial but in-depth transposition of cultural practices. Needless to say, this bore an ingrained effect on their culinary and dietary profile as well. During our last trip to Taipei, we’d visited 肥前屋 Unadon Speciality Shop. It is a small restaurant, complete with wooden sliding doors for that authentic rustic feel, most known for their unadon, also known as unagi don, which is short for “unagi kabayaki donburi”. The best unadons we’d seen were probably in Kyoto. But the rendition served up in this little deli in the heart of Taipei is pretty wicked as well, but only for a fraction of the price.
永康街 Yong Kang Street in Taipei’s 大安區Da’An District is not merely known to many as a single road but rather, a collective network of interweaving small lanes packed with interesting restaurants and cafes to visit. Its famous for many things, most notably as the birthplace of 鼎泰豐Ding Tai Fung, known for the 小籠包 xiao long bao steamed dumplings. DTF’s flagship store still helms the entrance of Yong Kong Street, often seen packed not just the restaurant within but also along the corridors, with tourists from Mainland China brought here by the tour bus loads. But we are not here to eat xiao long bao. I’m sure there’s a better place and better occasion for them. Instead, we are to visit “Pâtisserie La Douceur 品悦糖 – 法式甜品专卖” one of the pâtisseries we’d come across quite frequently over our research for the last trip. Since we would be visiting them again in 2 weeks’ time, I thought I’d better roll out the write up for last year’s visit first!
Last day in Taiwan, day to do some last minute shopping, especially for foodie goodies…
Beginning of Day 6, our last day in Taipei. We checked out of the hotel and walked to a shop in between the hotel and Ximending for some 伴手礼 aka 手信. bought 世运凤梨酥 which is award winning. On the way from the shop to ximending, we came across 北门, located at the junction of 台北车站 and 西门町.
It was another grey and rainy day in Taipei. Visiting 龍山寺 seems to have become a ritual whenever we are in Taipei. Not so much as to pray, but more to take in the atmosphere. The afternoon itinerary is for Danshui but poor weather seems to forebode futileness. So a change of plans to go to the Jade and Flower Weekend Markets located under the flyover of JianGuo and Ren’ai Roads. Evening is another gastronomic experience at Gyukaku.
Going 龍山寺has almost become ritualistic for our trips to Taipei, and stopping by 小南鄭記 for some Tainan delights, 碗粿 and 虱目鱼焿 has also become much of a routine.
After breakfast at the hotel cafe, we took the HSR from Kaohsiung back to Taipei. Choosing the appropriate timing is very important as certain trains make very few stops along the way from Kaohsiung back to Taipei, namely at Taichung and Banchiao. This shortens the travelling time considerably. Also, since the train does not call upon every stop, there are few passengers boarding and alighting making the journey less disruptive!
Breakfast at kindness hotel in kaohsiung before checking out. The menu is roughly the same for both days but still, the spread is quite decent given the price we paid!
We checked out of City Inn Hotel early next morning and took the High Speed Rail (HSR) 高铁 to 左营 Zuoying Station. It took barely 2 hours from Taipei to Kaohsiung!
Upon reaching Zuoying Station, we changed to the MRT and stopped at Kaohsiung Main Station, which is located near the train station. Kindness Hotel is just a stone’s throw away from the MRT exit. The room is relatively small but very clean. What more can we ask for a steal like NT1299 per night!