The Taiwanese capital is a terrific place to spend time but do beware of the friendly Taiwanese and their endless bottles of whisky
WE STROLL through the bustle of Taipei’s night market, which now that darkness has fallen, is a gustatory paradise filled with casual eateries and stalls. Waiters and hawkers beckon passers-by urging them to try such Taiwanese delicacies as stinky tofu, grilled sweet yam, barbecued squid, soy sauce eggs and plenty more, mainly unidentifiable, dishes. So caught up are we by the tempting treats on offer that the sight of a row of bodies being rhythmically slapped by men wielding glinting kitchen cleavers comes as a shock.
Food vendors entice hungry travellers with food ranging from stinky tofu to cake with pork blood.
“Wait a minute,” I say as my eyes shift from the butcher’s knives to a flag covered in Chinese writing.
“It’s a knife massage,” says Som, a lovely Thai lady and the brains behind the “Taiwanguru.com” travel blog, who is serving as our guide in Taipei. “Do you want to try? You can have a shoulder massage or a full-body treat.”
As we approach, the therapists brandish their blades like the sword masters in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
“Should I call my girlfriend? She should have warned me about the butchers of Taipei,” I tell Som. I have nothing against knives but they are not coming anywhere near my body. Imagine if I signed up for a full-bodied massage and as I turned over the therapist slapped a cleaver on my butt. No way!
Jang, my girlfriend, visited Taipei and much more of the island during her several assignments. For me, it’s a first trip. In more than 15 years as a travel journalist, I have visited Chinese communities around the world – Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong and Melbourne in Australia and Canada. Taiwan is an unexpected treat, coming just before my departure from The Nation.
“The Taiwanese are quite different from other Chinese around the world,” notes Som, who is married to one. “They think like Americans and are free-spirited. On the other hand, they are also shy and, like the Japanese, have a penchant for cute. They are quite internationalised in many ways.”
And, like the hobbits, the Taiwanese enjoy eating. They eat at least four times a day. Many restaurants in Taipei stay open around the clock to satisfy the Taiwanese taste buds.
One afternoon, we head to Din Tai Fung restaurant – the original store on Xinyi Road. Founded in 1958 by Chinese who fled the civil war to Taiwan, the restaurant excels in steamed dumplings – xia long bao in the Chinese language. The queue outside is extremely long but for the dumpling-obsessed, Din Tai Fung is worth the wait. In 1993 The New York Times named it one of the top 10 restaurants in the world and Din Tai Fung has since become Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador with branches in Japan, Australia, the United States and Thailand.
We start with pork and chicken dumplings and continue with chicken noodle soup, wonton in chilli oil, pork chop and fried rice. When the soup dumplings (its signature) arrive, we’re warned about the “hot stuff” inside.
Soup dumplings are an age-old mystery of Chinese cuisine. The dumpling has three separate components – the dough, the filling and the soup. The dough is the dough and the filling is made of minced pork. But how does the soup get inside the dough pocket? The answer is deceptively simple: the chef puts a broth cube in the pocket, which liquefies after steaming. The trick is to get the soup so gelatinous that it’s solid at room temperature and for that, I leave the mastery to Din Tai Fung’s chefs. How ever they manage it, it’s hen hao – darn good!
Taipei has far more to share than baskets of dumplings and stinky tofu. The city is also noted for fresh seafood, and here the Japanese influence on Taiwan food culture is evident.
Fresh sashimi is served at Taipei Fish Market – a large supermarketcumseafood restaurant.
We visit the Taipei Fish Market one evening and are surprised to find that the actual old fish market has been converted into a posh seafood market-cum-restaurant. On one side there is large supermarket selling fresh crabs, fish, wine and ready-to-eat packages of steamed crab, steamed vegetables, sushi and rolls of rice. Those in a rush, I notice, buy some sushi, sashimi, vegetables and a glass of wine and eat and drink while walking around the stalls and at one of the large tables in the store.
We opt for a sit-down dinner at the seafood restaurant on the other side. We order a huge set of raw seafood topped with salmon, tuna and oysters and enjoy them with such condiments as fresh wasabi root. To honour the Japanese contribution to Taiwanese food culture, we wash the meal down with Asahi.
When we are not eating, we feast our eyes by visiting Taipei’s landmarks. Taipei 101 is an automatic choice since the city’s highest tower is with walking distance from our hotel – the Grand Hyatt Taipei. In fact, Taipei is very convenient when it comes to sightseeing thanks to its efficient metro line network.
Visitors look at religious objects in National Palace Museum.
“Long Shan Temple, National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Shilin Night Market and most tourist attractions around Taipei can be reached by the metro,” says Som.
“If you jump into the metro on the weekend, you will see local people in hiking outfits taking the subway to the walking trails. You have the city at one end of the metro line, and the countryside at the other.”
One morning we make it to National Palace Museum. A must for visitors to Taiwan, it is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Chinese art evacuated from China’s Forbidden Palace. The four levels exhibit treasures in painting, calligraphy, statuary, bronzes, and lacquerware, as well as ceramics, jade and religious objects. The most famous piece is the jade cabbage in Room 304, where the line is longer than at Din Tai Fung. Like the painting of Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris, each visitor has a minute to gaze at the famous jade before being moved along by an official.
Wasabi root links Taiwanese food culture to Japanese cuisine.
“Normally, photography is prohibited inside the exhibition halls. The regulation has recently been lifted so you’ve come at the right time,” Som says.
On the last night, we decide to explore Taipei’s night scene and quickly discover that the Taiwanese are hard drinkers. After rounds of toasts at the hotel’s bar, three young Taiwanese men (an hotelier, a pilot and a cosmetic maker) invite the three of us to a karaoke bar. In just a few rounds of toasts, an entire bottle of whiskey disappears. And just before midnight, the cosmetic maker passes out. I cannot claim that Team Thailand is the winner. Indeed, I don’t remember anything after that until Paul, a member of the hotel staff, wakes me up at 9am the following morning. I am late for the meeting, and everyone is waiting.
“I understand,” Paul laughs. When I was younger, I used to ‘lock’ myself in the karaoke bar for three days and three nights.