MADE IN TAIWAN
Delaney Mes finds this populous island nation has plenty to offer the food-focused visitor
“IN TAIWAN WE HAVE an expression that the weather in spring is like the emotion of a stepmother – up and down, up and down,” my host told me with a smile during the hour-long car ride from the airport to the city of Taipei.
It certainly did go from incredibly humid and overcast to bright sunshine and then to rain during the couple of spring weeks I spent in this fascinating country. There was plenty of contrast too when it came to landscape: forests, mountains and beautiful coastline.
Natural beauty and a diverse history made for an enriching trip, but it was the food that had me captivated – which I admit was a little unexpected. I’d heard good things about the street food, but almost everything I ate in Taiwan left me surprised and often delighted.
Taipei is home to 2.7 million of Taiwan’s 23 million people, and is a bustling city without the frenetic energy of many other large Asian metropolises. The Metro system is easy to navigate, with simple apps you can download to assist you, but the most enjoyable way to get around is by taking advantage of YouBike, the city’s bike-sharing system. Using a public transport card from the local 7Eleven or Family Mart, you can pick up a bike from one of the bike stands around the city and drop it off at your leisure.
I stayed in central Taipei, near Zhongshan Park, and about a 15-minute walk to the landmark tower Taipei 101 – it’s well worth taking the 37-second elevator ride to the 89th floor for the impressive view. There’s a breakfast market down the narrow streets behind the main road I stayed on, Guangfu South Rd, and I had some adventures in ordering while meandering through. A flaky spring onion pancake was a great start, fresh off the hot plate with a chilli oil on the side to dip into. Across from the spring onion pancake stall was an open kitchen serving steamed buns filled with finely chopped vegetables, made in front of you by an assembly line of experts. Numerous stalls pop up on street corners for the morning, as it’s how most locals take in their first meal of the day. Shao bing, a flatbread stuffed with meat or egg, is extremely popular, and the tofu and cabbage version was soft and palatable early in the morning.
I’m told not to bypass dou jiang, a cup of hot soy milk to wash it down with, but a stall holder with a domestic juicer made me a carrot juice that did
that job nicely, plus I bought a guava apple and the sweetest pineapple to snack on. During the weekend these back streets become a full market, with fruit and vegetables, meat and fish all laid out on offer. Wandering through the streets, snacking on different things and attempting conversations with stallholders was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the morning.
Getting back on the YouBike, I embarked on a mission for what I was told was some of the best gua bao in the city. Gua bao have become popular in the West in recent years: modern places across New Zealand are serving up meat (usually pork) in a steamed bun shaped a bit like a taco, but they originated in Taiwan, and the original was unlike anything I’ve had in NZ. A local had instructed me to go to Lan Jia Gua Bao, near the National Taiwan University, where the Lan family proprietors have become the gold standard of the “Taiwanese hamburger”. You can choose how much fat you want with your braised pork belly, and it’s served with pickled mustard greens, peanut powder and a little coriander. It was a soft, rich, perfectly formed street snack, and for about NZ$2, one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. I washed it down with a boba milk tea (AKA bubble tea) from the nearby stall – the thick, black tapioca balls going into this milky tea drink here were especially good.
My Saturday morning mission was to check out the specialty coffee scene, which is flourishing across Taipei. My first stop was Olivia Coffee Roaster in Da’an district. It’s a bright, airy space, with a little dog called Mia asleep in a basket at the door. All espresso is served hot or cold (a small, strong flat white on ice is a revelation), but there’s pour-over coffee and a few beers on offer too. A short bike ride away is The Folks Coffee, a beautifully designed space with great music. I sat at the bar and had a perfect flat white, before wandering through the nearby markets. facebook.com/oliviacoffeeroaster; thefolkstaipei.tumblr.com
You can’t leave Taiwan without trying their version of beef noodle soup. There are plenty of places that sell it where you can comfortably eat in solo and thanks to Google Translate, I was able to order with ease, and even get some pickled veges on the side. The soup was rich and full of flavour, with chunks of beef that fall apart, noodles with the perfect amount of chew, and plenty of heat.
For a modern take on the impressive array of seafood on offer in Taiwan, Addiction Aquatic is well worth a visit. It’s part live fish market, part gourmet supermarket, and you can wander through and grab some sashimi or perch for a glass of wine. With a fresh market, seafood bars and plenty of outdoor seating, it’s a beautifully designed and fun place for a meal. addiction.com.tw
After a brief trip down the coast to the Hualien district, where indigenous tribes grow organic vegetables and there are beautiful national parks, hot spring regions and even whale watching, I returned to Taipei and hit the night markets near Da’an. We grabbed a cheap can of Taiwan Beer at the 7Eleven and wandered through the crowds, where there was everything from designer clothes and iPhone covers to fresh fruit and numerous meats on sticks on offer. My friend told me I had to try the “stinky tofu”. I love fermented foods, but the bowl I ordered from a stall with a long queue was pretty pungent. The cabbage, garlic and hot sauce it was served with makes for an adventure. It’s one of those love-or-hate dishes.
Street food, specialty coffee – and I didn’t even get to craft beer. Taipei is an amazing place to visit if you love food and are up for a bit of an adventure. Whether heading straight for a joint you’ve read about, or just being open to stumbling across somewhere that looks good, it’s accessible without being touristy, and with a bit of research, you’ll most likely be deliciously surprised.