Taiwan for beginners

TAIPEI, July 12 — Taiwan has much to offer, with its unique mix of traditional and contemporary – from rustic rural escapes to one of the world’s tallest buildings. And let’s not forget the food – be it street food or refined dumplings – you’d be spoiled for choice!

DAY #1

Breakfast of champions

The Taiwanese know how to start the day right with a nutritious meal of you tiao (deep-fried crullers) and piping-hot dou jiang (soy milk). Get your fix is at the famous Yong He Dou Jiang, a brisk five minutes’ walk from the Daan metro station.

Open 24/7, there’s a line at the shop whatever time of day you arrive. Grab a table and watch the you tiao masters whip pieces of dough into shape with well-floured hands. Much twisting and swirling in the air will ensue before the speedily cut pieces are dropped into hot oil. Stacks of golden crullers jostle for space with bamboo steamers of freshly steamed xiao long bao (soup dumplings).

Instead of the usual you tiao and soy milk, try a shao bing (a cruller wrapped in a flaky, sesame-studded flatbread), radish cake or a dan bing (egg crêpe filled with crispy bacon, sticky glutinous rice or meat floss).

My favourite is a bowl of savoury soy milk, topped with dried shrimps, you tiao chunks, scallions and pickled vegetables. Stir soy sauce and chilli oil into this heavenly broth and dig in.

The general’s hall and the bamboo tower

There are two major landmarks one can’t miss out on when visiting Taipei. One commemorates a former president; the other celebrates the arrival of a new century.

The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a dramatic white monument in the city centre. Sandwiched between the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall, this memorial to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is a popular meeting place for locals and often the site of pro-democracy demonstrations in the past.

Shilin Night Market – Pictures by CK Lim
Shilin Night Market – Pictures by CK Lim

Today you are more likely to spot dance students practising their moves along the corridors. Inside the hall, tourists jostle for pictures of the bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Taipei 101 skyscraper, once the world’s highest building at 509 metres (till Dubai’s Burj Khalifa opened in 2010).

The tower has 101 floors, representing the Taiwanese ambition to always do one better. There are spectacular 360o views of the city from the observation decks. Luxury brand enthusiasts can go crazy at the shopping mall located on lower floors.

Taipei 101’s repeated segments resemble a stalk of bamboo (symbolising learning and growth). Cynics, however, point out that the tower also looks like Chinese takeaway boxes stacked on top of each other. You best decide for yourself.

The cooking oil seller’s dumplings

Next, head to world-famous Din Tai Fung for lunch at its original Xinyi Road location. Though franchised in 10 countries, including Hong Kong (where its two outlets are Michelin-starred), there’s nothing like dining where it all began.

Founder Yang Bingyi started Din Tai Fung as a cooking oil retailer in 1958. When tinned cooking oil became widely available in the 1980s, Yang and his wife began making xiao long bao to survive. The soup dumplings were an instant hit and the rest is history.

There is usually a line; most good restaurants in Taipei do. Take a number and select dishes from the menu chit offered. When your number is called, take care walking up the narrow stairways; there’s only enough room for a single file. Your orders should swiftly arrive after seating. Service is prompt and polite.

Recommendations include their hot and sour soup, shrimp fried rice and mini sesame buns. Of course, you can’t dine at Din Tai Fung without a few baskets of their inimitable xiao long bao (bring more friends).

Red lanterns and rice noodles

A one-stop wonder, Ximending offers retail therapy to ward off the inevitable post-lunch drowsiness, as well as a healthy dose of the arts. Home to over 20 theatres, many local musicians hold impromptu concerts and street performances here.

The more nostalgic may visit the few remaining Red Envelope Clubs, relics of Taipei in the 1960s when cabaret singers used to receive money in red envelopes from their audience (mostly older men).

Also drop by the Red House Theatre, originally built in 1908 during Japanese occupation as a market building before being converted into a theatre after the war. You can’t miss it; its walls are covered by a sea of red lanterns.

Today the theatre houses independent artists selling their works and a small cafe where you may rest your feet while waiting for a performance to begin.

Alternatively, head to nearby Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodles and dine the way locals do – standing by the street-side. Enjoy these steaming bowls of rice vermicelli cooked in a broth made from salt-cured pig’s intestines, shredded bamboo shoots and bonito flakes.

Top off each bowl with a generous sprinkle of cilantro, spicy chilli oil, pureed garlic and vinegar. Savoury and sour, slurp it down while it’s still hot.

Stroll and sup the night away

Taiwan is a haven for street food and nowhere is this more evident than Shilin Night Market, possibly the most popular night market in Taipei. There are fluffy white baozi (steamed meat-filled buns pan-fried by the dozens) and chou dofu (stinky tofu you can smell streets away).

Taiwanese oyster omelette (or-chien) is different from its Malaysian cousin; theirs come slathered in savoury gravy. Nibble on candied crab-apples and scallion pancakes as you keep walking, observing the nightlife.

And what street food crawl in Taipei could be complete without a bite of their famous fried chicken (zha ji)? Avoid the long lines at the busy stalls and find a quieter one; you don’t want to spend the whole night in a queue. Rest assured they all taste equally good.

To quench your thirst after all that grease, try the ubiquitous pearl milk tea (zhen zhu naicha) with smaller, chewier tapioca pearls or freshly-made fruit juices – the banana and bitter gourd is a delicious.

Quench your thirst with some refreshing Aiyu jelly
Quench your thirst with some refreshing Aiyu jelly

Our vote goes to the curious aiyu jelly (aiyu bing) made from the gel of Taiwanese fig seeds. Served with honey and lemon juice, this is a refreshing way to end your first day in Taipei.

DAY #2

A golden village in the hills

During weekends Taipei residents often head to the coastal hill towns of Jinguashi and Jiufen, an hour’s bus ride away from the city. Join them for a morning stroll through Jinguashi’s verdant slopes before hitting the old shopping district of Jiufen for an unhurried afternoon tea with incomparable views of the sea.

The towns look idyllic today but they used to be centres of Taiwan’s gold mining industry till the 1950s. Their old-world charms were rediscovered thanks to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Venice Film Festival winner A City of Sadness and Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away.

Start with Jinguashi’s Gold Ecological Park, completed in 2004. The first stop is The Four Joined Japanese-Style Residences. These restored former Japanese quarters offer a snapshot of how families of mine personnel lived during WWII. From painted sliding walls to tatami mats, there’s a bit of their home country in every corner.

Drop by the Miner’s Canteen further up the hill for a biandang (Taiwanese bento) lunch. The Miner’s Lunch – a box of steamed white rice, pickled vegetables and a fried pork chop – was originally meant to provide the workers with quick sustenance.

Continue your journey by following the abandoned railway tracks towards the gold mines. Enter the Museum of Gold through the Fifth Pit, originally used as offices for the Taiwan Metal Mining Corp.

The first floor houses exhibitions of gold mining tunnels, old mining equipment and its use as a Japanese WWII prisoner camp. The true treasure of the museum, however, is on the second floor: a hefty 220kg 999 pure gold ingot, a world record.

It’d make a great souvenir to bring home – if only one could carry it!

Yong He Dou Jiang No. 102, Section 2, Fùxīng South Road, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan. Tel: +886 2 2703 5051. Open daily, 24 hours

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall No.21, Zhongshan S. Rd., Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan.

Taipei 101 No. 7, Section 5, Xìnyì Rd, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan. Tel: +886 2 8101 8960

The Red House Theatre No. 10, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City, Taiwan. http://www.redhouse.org.tw

Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodles No.8-1 Emei Street, Wanhua District, Taipei City, Taiwan.

Shilin Night Market Around Wenlin Road and Dadong Road; take the Danshui Line to Jiantan metro station.

Jinguashi & Jiufen Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan. Directions: From Taipei, take the Jiufen bus no. 1062 from Songshan station or Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station to Jiufen or Jinguashi. Alternatively, take the train north to Ruifang Station in Taipei; from Ruifang take the Keelung Transit bus from the Ruifang bus stop to Jiufen or Jinguashi.

Gold Ecological Park, Jinguashi (includes The Four Joined Japanese-Style Residences, Miner’s Canteen &the Museum of Gold) No. 8, Jinguang Road, Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan.

* Our Taiwan adventure continues tomorrow.

This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, July 11, 2013.

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