A tasty time in TAI­WAN

Let's Travel - - FRONT PAGE - By Shane Boocock

More than a few times on my re­cent trip to Tai­wan the sub­ject of Māori and in­dige­nous mi­gra­tions across the Pa­cific arose in con­ver­sa­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent DNA study, the an­ces­tors of New Zealand’s Māori peo­ple orig­i­nally came from Tai­wan. Ev­i­dence from ar­chae­ol­ogy, lin­guis­tics and phys­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy in­di­cates that the first New Zealand set­tlers came from east Poly­ne­sia and be­came the Māori. Lan­guage evo­lu­tion stud­ies and mi­to­chon­drial DNA ev­i­dence sug­gest that most Pa­cific Is­land pop­u­la­tions orig­i­nated from Tai­wanese abo­rig­ines around 5,200 years ago; peo­ple who had ear­lier mi­grated from the Chi­nese main­land down through South­east Asia and In­done­sia.

The traf­fic was light, but it was a Satur­day morn­ing and that would change markedly from Mon­day to Fri­day. I had only just ar­rived in Taipei af­ter an eight-hour flight from Brisbane and it was al­ready hu­mid and hot at 7:30 am. Af­ter drop­ping my bags, thanks to an early check-in at the Howard Plaza Ho­tel, Jerry, my guide, had ar­ranged a full sched­ule of places to visit as well as restau­rant meals to de­vour.

I was to soon learn that food in Tai­wan is lit­er­ally on ev­ery­body’s lips and that they right­fully con­sider their cui­sine to be some of the finest in the world with an in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ing. How­ever, my first taste of Tai­wanese food was break­fast and it was not what I’d ex­pected; yet it is a favourite with many Tai­wanese. It con­sisted of a glass of cold soymilk, a salty tofu soup, a fried pan­cake with egg in a wrap with bits of ham coated in soy sauce, and an egg sand­wich in a crispy bun. The restau­rant was overly hot with no air-con­di­tion­ing and only a large fan in one cor­ner dis­pers­ing the heat of the ovens and gas burn­ers. The prob­a­bil­ity is that life for small restau­rant own­ers in Tai­wan can­not be easy, as our Tai­wanese break­fast for two cost un­der NZ $10.00.

Jerry had stud­ied his English in Hamil­ton and had stayed six years to gain his BA in film and pho­tog­ra­phy from Waikato Univer­sity, so his English was as good as you might ex­pect. I was in­ter­ested to know if he still fol­lowed the All Blacks? “When I re­turned to Tai­wan in 2009, there was no news about rugby in this coun­try,” he said, “base­ball is the num­ber one game here fol­lowed closely by bas­ket­ball, so rugby is never go­ing to be con­sid­ered a sport here.”

Shortly af­ter our dis­course on Tai­wanese sports, Jerry and I ar­rived in the Manka dis­trict of Taipei, where the Lung­shan Tem­ple is lo­cated. It was just af­ter 10:00 am and the tem­ple court­yards were al­ready teem­ing with wor­shipers say­ing prayers and bow­ing to dif­fer­ent gold en­crusted stat­ues – all the while hold­ing in­cense sticks – the smoke and smell of which were al­most over­whelm­ing. The tem­ple was founded in 1738 and ded­i­cated to the Bud­dhist God­dess of Mercy (Kuan-in in Chi­nese, or Aval­okites­vara in San­skrit). How­ever, the tem­ple of to­day is no longer the orig­i­nal build­ing as it was re­built in 1919 af­ter a ma­jor earth­quake, and com­pleted in 1924.

Lung­shan Tem­ple has how­ever kept its foun­da­tions in the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion but in the course of its de­vel­op­ment many deities of Tao­ism have also been in­tro­duced. The present tem­ple con­sists of three halls: the first hall, the main hall and the rear hall. The first hall is used as the en­trance and the space for the peo­ple to wor­ship. The main hall is in the cen­tre of the whole com­plex with a statue of Kuan-in, as the main god of the tem­ple. Con­sid­ered a mas­ter­piece of tra­di­tional Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture and one of the best-es­tab­lished Bud­dhist tem­ples in Taipei, the Lung­shan Tem­ple of Manka has be­come a cen­tre of peo­ple’s re­li­gious life and a her­itage of lo­cal cul­ture.

It was now time for lunch, and it seemed like ev­ery­body on the streets of Taipei was think­ing sim­i­lar thoughts. Jerry took me to a fa­mous Dan Zai noo­dle restau­rant, DuHsiao Yueh, (trans­lated as a ‘slack sea­son’) which is a fish­er­man’s term for very rough seas when they could not put their boats out, hence, a ‘slack sea­son’. We waited for a ta­ble to be­come avail­able by the en­trance, where a cook seated in the front win­dow at a very low counter pre­pared and plated all the noo­dle dishes.

The main in­gre­di­ent of one of the dishes served at DuHsiao Yueh, is a bowl of Dan Zai noo­dles which are cov­ered in a pork broth con­cocted from pork ribs and pig bone which is cooked on a knee-high stove. At the same low bench the cook blanches the noo­dles and condi­ments that are along­side a large pot of braised minced meat – a very fa­mil­iar sight in all Dan Zai noo­dle restau­rants. Our tray duly ar­rived with the noo­dles in the broth, with a mince pork cov­er­ing and a sin­gle shrimp on top. They also served shrimp cab­bage, caviar and mul­let rolls, deep-fried shrimp rolls, a milky fish soup, small egg tofu squares and de­li­cious deep-fried oys­ters.

Af­ter lunch we made our way to Taipei’s Huashan 1914 Cre­ative Park. In 1997 a Tai­wanese the­atre com­pany dis­cov­ered what was then a derelict and aban­doned old wine fac­tory and dis­tillery that was orig­i­nally built in 1914. Over the years it even­tu­ally grew into a cul­tural hub with an art cen­tre as lo­cal artists and the cre­ative com­mu­nity used it as a workspace.

When we ar­rived, whole fam­i­lies wan­dered its in­dus­trial lanes as a few pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers used the set­ting to cap­ture wed­ding pho­to­graphs of brides and grooms in strik­ing poses out­side the col­lec­tion of con­crete and red brick build­ings. In­side, the in­dus­trial build­ings now pro­vide a space for ro­tat­ing ex­hibits and events as well as hous­ing 13 restau­rants and cafes. It is also a venue for live con­certs, mu­sic and the­atre shows in­clud­ing host­ing in­de­pen­dent films and var­i­ous lo­cal film fes­ti­vals.

The rest of our af­ter­noon was spent in Taipei’s Na­tional Palace Mu­seum. Cov­er­ing a to­tal area of about 198 acres, it is lo­cated in the out­skirts of Taipei City. Con­struc­tion started in 1962 and it was in­au­gu­rated on Novem­ber 12, 1965. The im­pres­sive ar­chi­tec­ture is mod­elled on the For­bid­den City in Beijing and in­cor­po­rates el­e­ments of tra­di­tional Chi­nese royal de­sign in feu­dal so­ci­ety. The build­ing’s first, sec­ond and third floors are used for ex­hi­bi­tions, while the fourth floor is a lounge where visi­tors can rest, as on any week­end many thou­sands of visi­tors wan­der the gal­leries in tour groups.

The Na­tional Palace Mu­seum houses the largest col­lec­tion of price­less Chi­nese ar­ti­facts and art­work in the world, in­clud­ing an­cient bronze cast­ings, cal­lig­ra­phy, scroll paint­ings, porce­lain, jade and rare books, many of which were pos­ses­sions of the for­mer im­pe­rial fam­ily. The full col­lec­tion, which con­sists of some 650,000 pieces, spans many dy­nas­ties. Each ex­hibit, how­ever, dis­plays only about 1,700 pieces at a time. At this rate, as­sum­ing each ex­hibit lasts three months, it will take 100 years to cy­cle through the en­tire col­lec­tion!

At 5:00 pm Jerry and our driver left the heart of down­town to drive 90 min­utes to a very ru­ral, yet tra­di­tional Tai­wanese restau­rant amid a baize of rice fields on the out­skirts of Yi­lan on the east coast of Tai­wan. By the time we had ar­rived it was dark. The For­mosa Pearl Restau­rant had huge oak doors and looked like a Chi­nese ba­ro­nial manor house. In places an­tique fur­ni­ture and sculp­tures adorned the long ob­long room where I could hear the sound of light cas­cad­ing wa­ter. We were then seated at a broad communal oak ta­ble set be­low chan­de­liers and sep­a­rated by al­most trans­par­ent sway­ing screens.

Over the next two hours the For­mosa Pearl staff served a seven-course tast­ing menu – the only choice avail­able. The first dish was red caviar in a cir­cle of mashed potato, mush­rooms and cau­li­flower. It was fol­lowed by sashimi of gi­ant prawns and tuna.

The third dish was a filet of baked perch with baby toma­toes. Then came a hot­pot of mush­room, veg­eta­bles and Ja­panese udon topped with a big red crab. Next was a plate of beef ribs in a mush­room sauce, fol­lowed by a steaming chicken soup (of­ten served last). By now I was more than full and sat­is­fied, yet there was still a fi­nal dish of half a pear in sug­ared wa­ter with dates.

Not to be out­done, the next day I vis­ited Tower 101 as the sun was set­ting over Taipei’s seven mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. The city’s sky­line is dom­i­nated by the 508m high Tower 101, so it was no sur­prise to find the tower’s ob­ser­va­tion floor is the num­ber one tourism at­trac­tion in Taipei. Their claim to fame is the ob­ser­va­tory’s pair of el­e­va­tors, which hold Guin­ness World Records for the fastest pas­sen­ger el­e­va­tor that car­ries guests from the ground to the 89th floor with a speed of 1,010 m per minute.

How­ever, it was now time for din­ner and the fa­mous in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised restau­rant Din Tai Fung, fa­mous for steamed buns or dumplings that orig­i­nated in Tai­wan, was lo­cated at the base of the tower. From the menu we or­dered pork soup, prawns, shrimp, egg fried rice and shred­ded pork, and as I had be­come ac­cus­tomed, an­other two hours later the last dish of spicy and sour soup was pre­sented. It was time to head to the air­port – I had eaten my fill once again – this was the last of my ‘Tasty Tales’ from Tai­wan, an­other unique meal I’ll never forget.

Yueh Restau­rant

Ja­panese Udon Hot­pot

For­mosa Pearl Sashimi

Din Tai Fung Restau­rant

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