Travels In Taiwan
WAHEEDA HARRIS takes the road less travelled in Taiwan.
PEERING THROUGH THE GLASS ENCLOSURE AT Din Tai Fung, I am curious about a man who is closely examining a dumpling. He is not a quality control expert critiquing a finished product but a chef adding 18 precise folds to the delicate stuffed pastry, soon to be steamed and quickly delivered to a hungry patron like me.
Although the xiao long bao originated in Shanghai, the Taiwanese are proud of their take on the beloved soup dumpling, and its lure for visitors to Taiwan.
After my first meal in Taipei (and Taiwan) I know that I will not be missing any meals while visiting this island nation — breakfast, lunch or dinner. Each taste of the local options teaches me about the vast list of dishes that make Taiwanese cuisine so appealing to travellers with a devotion to seasonal, local ingredients.
The simplicity of steamed, sautéed and souped-up leafy greens and flower buds was my next taste revelation. From stir-fried day lily blossoms to steamed Chinese lettuce with garlic, delicately cooked Chinese water spinach or baby bok choy cooked in a hot pot broth, I was given a new view of how to enjoy my green vegetables.
This was matched by a love for mushrooms, another locavore indulgence. Silky wood ear or pale and skinny enokitake were a welcome addition at lunch or dinner, while thick king oysters grilled like a steak were spotted at the night market, their sultry aroma luring many to stop for a snack. The vast variety of fresh and dried mushrooms on display in the market made me realize how bereft my pantry is of funghi.
At breakfast it was typical to see western options, from café au lait to fried eggs, but I also indulged in fried dumplings and steamed shumai with a dollop of chilli oil, a spicy kick of pork or shrimp to start my day.
For lunch, a bowl of hot and sour soup, thick with mushrooms and noodles, was familiar but tasted lighter and fresher. Meal after meal, I realized the local cuisine was so much more encompassing than I could have imagined.
Visiting Tainan City, I was introduced to a new favourite — Danzai noodles, a hearty combination of thick rice noodles in a shrimp broth with beansprouts, onions, minced pork and shrimp. Invented by a fisherman in the off-season, the noodles are a signature dish of this city and best had at Slack Season, the restaurant that first served this noodle dish.
Another popular dish found throughout the island is spicy hot pot, which I enjoyed in a small family-run restaurant in Yulin before the Lantern Festival celebrations. Starting with a flavourful vegetarian broth, patrons are given a plate filled high with onion, green onion, spinach, carrot, corn and mushrooms to be tossed into the boiling liquid, simmered until just tender and slurped from small bowls. Popular proteins such as tofu, pork or beef can also be added. As the mouthwatering scent enveloped the table, I realized how much I enjoy dining communally — sharing the tastes of the hot pot as much as sharing stories about ourselves.
At a small village market on the shores of Sun Moon Lake, street vendors offered morsels of grilled wild boar on a stick, shots of locally distilled alcohol and freshly boiled corn among the wood carvings, Hello Kitty balloons and tea houses. But it was back in Tainan that I spotted a mesmerizing sight for a carnivore: a rotating circular grill laden with steak, chops and sausage. The cook kept an eye on the grilled meats, changing the height of the grill to prevent overcooking and attracting many salivating onlookers as it rotated.
Back in Taipei at the Raohe Night Market, below brightly coloured lanterns, the crowds gather to eat and shop. Strolling with a freshly steamed spring roll, overstuffed with crunchy lettuce, cucumber, noodles and chicken, I noted that the longest line in the market is for hu jiao bing or black pepper bun. The simple round baked bun sprinkled with sesame seeds is filled with peppery braised pork and spring onions, another treat to savour while wandering and contemplating the next taste sensation. There are so many temptations — including bags of sweet and salty snacks that seem familiar in style but could have any of a myriad of flavours.
Although there was rarely a time to find room for dessert, I had to try the Taiwanese’ favourite sweet treat — taro balls. A mix of sweet potato and taro made into starchy, sweet balls, this snack is a specialty from the historic city of Juifen. But my favourite was the peanut popiah, a wheat-based spring roll wrap filled with chopped peanuts, fresh cilantro and vanilla ice cream.
At each meal, a cup of tea seemed the right way to accompany the variety of dishes. The small cups of locally grown tea cleansing my palate in preparation for more tastes will forever remind me of dining in Taiwan.
Freelance journalist WAHEEDA HARRIS has been fortunate to explore six of the seven continents, happy to learn the culture, music, style and cuisine intrinsic to each, and insuring her hot sauce collection keeps growing.
THIS PAGE Lion’s head mask; Making peanut ice cream rolls; Street market cooking; Grilling mushrooms; Taiwanese breakfast plate.