I was quite prepared to eat Chinese dimsum for five days in Taiwan. In fact, I was looking forward to it. Dimsum for five days would have been a heavenly gastronomic feast for me.
It was a surprise to discover that there was more to traditional Chinese food in Taiwan. Perhaps, it has a lot to do with the fact that Taiwan was a former Dutch and Japanese colony.
And, perhaps, it has something to do, too, with the fact that even before the Dutch colonization and the waves of Chinese migration from the mainland, the island was inhabited by aborigines of Malay-Polynesian descent who were more closely related to the early inhabitants of the Philippines.
In Taipei, Chinese food abound not only in restaurants but in small shops and even in street corners. There are a lot of establishments that sell ready-to-go dimsum and dumplings. There is one place though that is world-famous.
Din Tai Fung
Established 50 years ago, Din Tai Fung was named by the New York Times as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants in 1993. The queues are long at all hours of the day. But despite the dizzying pace at which customers come and go, the place is clean — and that includes the restrooms.
The bestseller at Din Tai Fung is the steamed pork dumplings. Not your ordinary siomai or siopao, but something in between. The wrapper is similar to siomai but the dumplings are fully sealed like the siopao. The filling is a meatball with broth. You take a small bite, sip the soup inside, then eat the entire thing. Another amazing item is the fish dumpling with chunks of bream and some lettuce, celery and yam bean.
Shih lin Night Market
At the Shih lin night market (Warning: Don’t go on a Friday evening!), the heady smell of fried pork intestines, simmering broth and a variety of stir fries was overwhelming. I don’t know if it was my untrained eyes and nose but it seemed to me that many food stalls offered similar dishes. If you’re not into the usual omelets (foo yong) and deep fried dumplings, you’ll find a few teppanyaki stalls. There are several varieties of barbecue as well—from paper-thin pork rolls stuffed with vegetables to chicken tails.
But the longest queue was in front of a chicken fillet stall near the night market entrance. Breaded, highly seasoned and deep-fried, a single order is good for at least two people. Residents eat them right off the paper bags but you can get a table, order rice and soup and enjoy your chicken with them. The chicken meat was moist and tender, but the breading tasted too much of monosodium glutamate to me. The Taiwanese are crazy about it though.
If you find yourself drowning in a sea of meats and seafood, you can opt out and go straight to dessert like I did. I recommend the Taiwanese shaved ice topped with syrup and fruits. One serving is equal to one meal.
The food is even better outside Taipei. On the northeastern coast are rows and rows of seafood restaurants. The setup is not that foreign if you’re a regular at Chinese restaurants in the Philippines. The front of the restaurants are lined with glass aquaria with live fish, crabs and lobsters. Although I can’t say much about the shrimp dish and lobster salad (I am allergic to them), I can rave in all honesty about the sushi and the sashimi. There was one item that especially interested me—fried spring rolls filled with purple yam (ube) and the wrapping appeared to be noodles . Amazing, to say the least!
Sun Moon Lake
In central Taiwan, in the Sun Moon Lake area, is an aboriginal village. There is a restaurant there that is both a visual and a gastronomic feast. The dining tables are set in a romantically lit garden and most of the dishes included one or more fruits among the ingredients. The meal started with the traditional hotpot but the most memorable dishes were the black mushrooms with fresh mangoes and the spicy pork with pineapples.
Somewhere between the Sun Moon Lake and the town of Puli in central Taiwan, we stopped at a temple to take some photos. I was too lazy to change my camera’s lens so I couldn’t take a photo of the entire temple. But, the lens attached to the camera was just perfect for food photography.
Across the street from the temple were food stalls and souvenir shops. Chinese tea eggs galore—goose eggs, duck eggs, chicken eggs… If there is one food item that one can find just about anywhere in Taiwan, it would be the Chinese tea eggs. The eggs are boiled in water, drained, then the shells are cracked. Soy sauce, salt, cinnamon bark, star anise and tea leaves are added to the water before the eggs are boiled in the sauce for two hours. The dark liquid seeps into the cracks in the shells and the egg whites acquire a marbled look.
Just as popular as the tea eggs are the whole roasted chicken smoked with tea leaves. A companion bought a chicken and had it chopped so that everyone in the bus could have a bite. The vendor even added small plastic bags that could be used as “gloves” so that the hands won’t get greasy. The chicken was very, very tasty—I remarked out loud that it must have been marinated for days—but not very tender.
In central Taiwan in the town of Puli, food stalls in the Puli Winery sell a variety of wine-laden delicacies. With the free samples in almost every stall, you can get by without spending anything if you’re just after the experience. Don’t leave though without trying the Puli version of the Japanese mochi. They seemed to call out from the chiller telling me to try them all. But I could only manage one and it was just delicious.
I left the winery with a box of pastries similar to our cream puffs although the crust is much flakier and the custard filling lighter. I also brought home two jars of flavored pumpkinseeds. Unlike the local squash seeds which need to be pried after cracking the outer skin, the pumpkin seeds are more similar to our Nagaraya cracker nuts except that the coating is lighter (friendlier to the teeth) and the flavors are rather exotic. Try the bamboo charcoal variety for starters then sample the rest. If they weren’t too darned overpriced at Taiwan $150 each, I would have brought them home in all flavors.
Still in Puli, we had lunch at a restaurant called King Dom where the specialty was passion fruit. The appetizer was a platter of drunken chicken, stuffed passion fruit and a variety of bamboo shoots. There were dishes of braised pork, spicy mushrooms and president’s fish with preserved plums. Dessert was sweet glutinous rice stuffed with preserved passion fruit, a delicacy unique to the restaurant and famous throughout the area.
A few tips on food tripping in Taiwan
1) Please—PLEASE—don’t down the food with a can of Coke. You’ll ruin the experience. Try the local tea or go for bottled water.
2) Chopsticks are the standard. Some restaurants have spoons and forks but these are exceptions rather than the rule. I can get by with wooden chopsticks but the plastic ones I simply find impossible to manage. In one restaurant, I had to eat with a serving spoon and fork.
3) President’s fish, reputedly the favorite of the late Chang Kai Shek and, hence, the name, is served in a variety of ways in most restaurants. It always comes highly recommended but if you’re not very adept with the use of chopsticks, watch out for the bones. The darn fish has got more bones than bangus.
4) Even if the food looks totally unfamiliar, don’t balk. The nice thing about visiting a foreign country is to try new things, after all, and that includes the local cuisine. And Taiwanese cuisine is just great.