MADE IN TAI­WAN

De­laney Mes finds this pop­u­lous is­land na­tion has plenty to of­fer the food-fo­cused visi­tor

Cuisine - - CONTENTS -

“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.

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