Whenever we visit Taiwan, we love to bring back some of their local delights home. The usual culprits would be their 凤梨酥 pineapple cakes, 咔哩咔哩 twirly rice crackers and more recently organic fruit conserves using local fruits. But we also like to buy back some ingredients and condiments to prepare some dishes which allows us to savour those unique yet familiar flavours. Their 龙眼蜜 longan honey is more superior than those produced in Thailand while their 黑酱油 dark soya sauce is more aromatic than the varieties we get back home. Oh oh oh! And we love their seasonal fruits of course like 玉荷包 lychees and 艾文 mangoes! Quite recently, I was recommended by a friend，SF to try the Taiwanese pickled manjack berries known locally as 树子 shu zi, or more colloquially in Taiwanese dialect as 破布子 po bu zi. I love the Taiwanese 豆腐乳 fermented beancurd cubes so I thought their pickled manjack berries couldn’t taste that bad. And indeed, it was love at first bite!
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.
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…