Trav­els In Tai­wan

Taste & Travel - - Contents - by WAHEEDA HAR­RIS

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.

PHOTO THIS SPREAD Soup chefs.

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.

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