Discovering Taiwan’s Best Eats
Anyone passing through Taiwan should take a trip on Taiwan High-Speed Rail (THSR), which cost a grand total of $18 billion when it was completed in 2007. An incredible system connecting the west coast of the island (going up to 186 miles per hour!), THSR bonds state-of-the-art stations to amenity-filled train cars. At less than an hour from Taipei on the THSR, Taichung makes for a great day trip. In contrast to Taipei, Taichung is a laid-back, artsy city that is home to the National Museum of Natural Science, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, and a bunch of can’t-miss food-nerd experiences.
Start your day making suncakes (tai yang bing), a popular Taiwanese pastry that originated in Taichung more than 100 years ago. Shaped like the sun, filled with various flavorings (coffee, sugar, pineapple, coconut), suncakes have a thin soft crust and were originally created to accompany Taiwanese tea. The Sunbooth location in Taichung offers DIY classes in a small room at the top of the swirling shop where flour, sugar, and pork fat come together to create the light and sweet desserts.
Next, a visit to Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House, where foam black tea and pearl cream tea were introduced in the '80s, is in order. Called “boba milk tea,” the drink is made from black tea, milk, and tapioca balls that resemble pearls. It’s a love it or hate it relationship with pearl tea. While I thought it had the feel of a bath product more than food product, I seemed to be in the minority. To pair with the tea, the menu is rounded out with typical Taiwanese appetizers like braised tofu and marinated soybeans.
Save your eating energies for the Taichung Feng Jia/Wen Hua Night Market. Established in 1963, famous tapas-style Taiwanese dishes and snack foods are sold here from hundreds of food carts and vendors in a chaotic celebration of tradition and neon lighting. You can also find anything from false eyelashes and motorcycle helmets to cheap clothing, sunglasses, and Made-in-Taiwan-style tchotchkes in high volume. Must eats in this night market? Papaya milk, grilled squid, pigs blood rice cake (yes, really), deep-fried chicken breast, and a double layer roll with sausage and rice.
You can hop back on the THRS to Taipei, or if you’re looking for digs for the night, book into the ultra-modern Hotel One, the fifth highest building in Taiwan.
Taipei is a city awash in history, and the country’s centennial sheds renewed light on the island’s thorny past. For a modified lesson, visit the world-renowned National Palace Museum Taipei, which has a permanent collection of more than 677,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks. One of the largest in the world, the collection spans 8,000 years of Chinese history through the late Qing Dynasty, and includes pieces collected by China's emperors. After you pour over the artifacts, head over to Liberty Square and check out Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This beautiful white shrine is surrounded by a park and a museum depicting Chiang Kai-shek’s life, and though Chiang’s final resting place has yet to be determined, two sets of white stairs, each with 89 steps to represent Chiang's age at the time of his death, lead to the main entrance.
It’s easy to forget that Taipei is surrounded by lush green hills when you’re standing at a stoplight with hundreds of mopeds waiting to gun the gas. Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant Taipei, about an
hour’s drive from the city center and hidden in the quiet mountains of Taipei, is worth the trip. Deriving inspiration from Taiwan’s Japanese occupation, Shi-Yang is a Zen-like space comprised of several rooms with bamboo matting, and floor-to-ceiling windows that ogle the landscape. One menu, a nine-course meal infused with Japanese and Taiwanese elements, is served kaseki-style, beginning with a simple mango and passion fruit juice and finishing with an intricate lotus stew. After your meal, if you feel like a snooze, you can retire for tea in the on-site meditation room.
If you have the stamina before you leave Taiwan, the Shilin Night Market Taipei, built in 1899, is worth a stop. As anyone who has traveled through Asia knows, each night market is different, and deserves exploration. In Taipei’s Shilin, even though many stalls for furniture, clothes, pet supplies, and other items can be found, the main section of the market is the food court, which holds 539 stands and features hundreds of local delicacies. Must eats? Stinky Tofu, a dish made of large squares of fermented tofu fried in oil and garnished with pickled cabbage, and “Ba Wan,” chewy snacks filled with a variety of savory ingredients like stir-fried pork, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
(All photos courtesy of Marie Elena Martinez)