I ask the old woman what the dish is called, and when I get just a faint smile in return, I knew I should have brushed up on my Mandarin earlier.
I return to the bowl I have just ordered, surveying and toying with its contents to figure out what was inside. It had two fist-sized square dumplings, rather like fat slabs of tofu, sitting on a bed of thick brown sauce, and sprinkled with an assortment of chives and cilantro. Almost everything here came with cilantro.
I was seated elbow to elbow with other diners on a wooden bench, a table in front of us right next to the food cart where I bought my still unknown snack. It was on a side street, and right behind it was what looked like a temple, only that there wasn’t enough light to see through its entirety. It was nearly 10 PM, and I needed a respite from the evening chill. I was counting on this bowl to do that, and although I didn’t have an inkling what it was, I thought it might be worth the surprise.
I cut through the dough with my soup spoon and took my first spoonful, mindful to keep enough of everything in it to get a good taste. The sauce had a hint of sweetness, the pork inside tender but piping hot, threatening to spill over the soft, thin coating if I wasn’t careful enough. The herbs somehow finished the package with a flourish, and I loved it instantly.
I was in the thick of Taipei City’s Shilin Night Market, having my fill of Taiwan’s biggest evening hotspot for foodies, bargain hunters, and anyone who loves anything on skewers and bowls. Two rules of thumb to remember when out in the city: go out hungry, and do it at night. I broke the first one, as I weaved my way along Shilin’s shops and food carts full from dinner earlier, but there was no way I was not sampling the street food, never mind if the only thing I knew how to say in Mandarin was “thank you.” Pepper buns, candied strawberries, fresh fruit slices, seaweed-sprinkled fish balls, stinky tofu, and chicken fillets bigger than a human face, each no more than NT$50—it’s little wonder Taiwan’s night markets are so popular.
And just like this snacking culture, we tasted a delectable sampler of Taiwan for five days, telling us exactly why it was called The Beautiful Island, or Ilha Formosa, by the Portuguese sailors who first set foot on its shores. We emerged out of endless tunnels into new counties, made our way along cliffside roads, and slept on a different bed each night, taking in ancient artwork one day and ogling at rugged landscapes the next. It was a whirlwind way to see a country, yes, but the following experiences made the 600-kilometer road trip through Taipei, Yilan, and Hualien worth it—apart from the food-tripping every chance we get, of course.
Eating our way around ancient Chinese art
Having stepped out into a cold Taipei straight from our two-hour China Airlines flight from humid Manila, the glorious warmth of the National Palace Museum was a welcome respite.
Chinese art has always been fascinating because of its incredible attention to detail, no matter the size. I saw a boat carving in full regalia no more than an inch long, so small the only way to appreciate its fine detail was to look through a magnifying glass.
But as we dined at Silks Palace, a restaurant right next to the museum, later that night, I figured that the better way to experience these historical pieces is to have them on my dinner plate. The restaurant specializes in recreating popular museum pieces into food and cutlery for its patrons.
We had our Braised Tofu Soup served in a ceramic recreation of the ancient bronze Ting cauldron used in the Zhou dynasty. The cauldron, the Mao Gong Ding, has three hoofed legs and a round mouth, the original piece containing the longest known Chinese inscription in the world.
The Jadeite Cabbage, the museum’s most popular piece carved out of a flawed jadeite slab, came to us for dinner in the form of a Chinese bokchoy (Chinese cabbage) perched against a soup spoon to mimic the carving’s reclined position. The bokchoy came with prawns on its mouth, which stands for the katydid and locust on the carving. The piece is an ode to fertility, the insects standing for children and the cabbage’s white part standing for purity.
We also had the Sweet Red Bean with Osmanthus, a cube-shaped dessert with a red bean base and a gelatinous top with tiny Osmanthus pieces inside. It is part of the restaurant’s Classic Desserts in Chinese Curio Box, a recreation of the many curio boxes on exhibit. Other dessert pieces served are based on past emperors’ preference, include the Bird’s Nest Egg Tart, Donkey Rolling (made from red bean and glutinous rice), and Wan Do Huang (made from yellow soybean).
We didn’t have the restaurant’s version of the Meat-Shaped Stone, but it is worth noting nonetheless: the carving is that of a Dongpo pork made out of jasper stone, finished with a glaze that made it look like it was slathered in oil, fresh out of the pan.
Calligraphy, ocarina and outdoor opera at the NCTA
It was easy to spend an entire day at the National Center for Traditional Arts (NCTA) in Yilan county, about three hours out of the city. This 24-hectare park has several temples, exhibition halls, an observatory, theater, concert hall, ampitheater and a large plaza overlooking an inland waterway that connects to the Dong-Shan River. Its Chinese-Baroque Folk Art Boulevard houses well-kept specialty art shops, where shopkeepers are more than willing to demonstrate the art behind their products. We watched as a shopkeeper demonstrated the ancient writing form of calligraphy: she dipped her fine-tip brush into an ink bottle and began stroking, the brush tip barely touching the paper, the ink appearing at the wake of every stroke.
We also listened to yet another shopkeeper carry a tune using the ocarina, an ancient Chinese ceramic flute. In the shop were ocarinas of all sizes and shapes, from turtles to airplanes to owls. The bigger it is, the lower the pitch it produces. The biggest piece we saw was that of a submarine as big as a human head, and the smallest was no more than two inches long.
We also caught the day’s outdoor opera performance, which wound its way along the boulevard and into a stage, an enraptured audience following in the wake of lavishly clothed performers. Created as an educational destination for students to stay in touch with folk art traditions, the NCTA made art appreciation natural for everyone else, myself included.
Wishing lanterns and Chinese yoyo in the mountains
Past the gleaming rice paddies of Yilan and a quick uphill drive brought us to the recreational farming property of Shangri-La Leisure Farm. It was difficult to gauge its vastness through the sloping terrain, but easy to appreciate what it took to build it. Its owner, Chang Chinglai, or simply Farmer Chang, a lanky old man with an easy smile, was the savvy farmer who pioneered recreational farming in Taiwan. That being a new concept to me, I wanted to know more and found out that Farmer Chang had seen a deprived childhood hauling cement until he had studied enough to pass civil service examinations, back then the key to a comfortable white collar job in Taiwan. He eventually quit though, returning to his hometown Yilan to cultivate a farm and introduce tourists to the countryside, which then was largely ignored in favor of the cities. From leisurely fruit-picking activities that became a hit with the locals, the word spread about his farm and many more activities were offered, some of which we had tried.
After dinner, we gathered in an open-air area along with the farm’s other Taiwanese, Malaysian and Japanese guests. Welcomes led to dancing as well as introductions to the traditional game of Chinese yoyo, Taiwan’s answer to the top. And before we knew it, six people were already competing who can spin the yoyo the longest. Our photographer Owen ended up in second place—bringing home a souvenir yoyo from the farm—while an old Japanese lady, who managed to keep hers spinning for two whole minutes, went home with the first. We ended the evening lighting up the lanterns on which we scribbled wishes earlier that day. It was simple, clean fun in the mountains, so different from the busy cities but enjoyable all the same.
Gorgeous gorges at Taroko National Park
The cliffside roads showed us where the vast Pacific meets the towering marble mountains that make up the rugged eastern coastline of Taiwan. The Cingshui Cliffs signaled our entry to Taroko National Park, a vast network of marble formations disturbed by gushing rivers and concrete bridges. As we carefully cruised along the belly of this giant, I marveled at how a convenient transport connection in the middle of such vast, unforgiving terrain had been made. I thought it might have been a logistical nightmare, with valleys showing up every now and then. We stopped at the Swallow Grotto along the Cross-Island Highway where we marveled at the size of the gorge along which the raging waters of the Liwu River flows. These natural skyscrapers dwarfed everything around it, its raw beauty no doubt a draw to intrepid adventurers.
Letting loose at Farglory Ocean Park
Farglory Ocean Park, meanwhile, brought a different dimension to an otherwise nature-and-culture trip: nothing but a fun, carefree day before we were to bid adieu to the countryside and retrace our route to the city. We snacked on ice cream (for the first time in four days, the sun was boring down on us!) and took several cable car rides, which was a treat itself because we saw the whole park from above and the Hualien coastline nearby. Gigantic arches, pirate ships, and stupas were all over the place, and snack houses are next door to souvenir shops.
A quick skim on the park map—I noted a log flume, roller coaster, and a Ferris wheel—and I knew where I wanted to go next: the Discovery Island Aquarium, which I was surprised to find out had white-tip sharks and gigantic sting rays. For a novice diver like me, it felt a bit awkward looking at the creatures from a glass, but then again I reminded myself that the whole park was meant for kids to appreciate creatures known only to them from books. This did not stop me either from spending a good 10 minutes in front of the biggest aquarium in the facility, mesmerized at the grace by which the large pelagics swam—open water fish species I haven’t seen in the wild myself—including a hammerhead shark!
Michelin dining and Taipei 101
There’s no better way to spend one’s final night in Taiwan than dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant at the base of the world’s second tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101.
As expected, Din Tai Fung was abuzz with weekend diners, so we had to wait for 15 minutes before being seated. As we inched our way into our dinner table, we saw white-clad chefs inside a glasswalled room in the middle of the restaurant rolling and folding dim sum, no doubt that of the restaurant’s famous xiao long bao.
For a restaurant of such renown, I found Din Tai Fung a bit too crowded and noisy for my liking, but as soon as the xiao long bao was served, I understood why. Oohs and aahs erupted from our table as the glorious mixture of piping hot broth, minced pork, soft dumpling, soy sauce, ginger, and vinegar registered on our taste buds. To taste such goodness and keep quiet after was just impossible.
A waiter proudly told us that everything served at Din Tai Fung follows a strict process, from preparation to cooking, to maintain its quality. Each xiao long bao, for instance, has exactly 18 folds and weighs 21 grams, the broth and fi lling maintaining a strict proportion. This very scientific approach clearly works wonders, for I have never tasted a better xiao long bao elsewhere. And it might be difficult to top, because I probably have tasted the world’s best.
Souvenirs from late nights at Ximending District
However good an ending, the xiao long bao would be to a full day, our final night in Taipei was not over yet. We squeezed ourselves into the narrower, neon-lit streets of Ximending District, another of Taipei’s famous shopping areas. At about 11 PM, the streets were still full to the brim with, I noticed, young adults. We were staying a block away from the movie strip, five minutes from a century-old Japanese opera house, and a stone’s throw away from a maze of retail shops.
I also noticed that artists seemed to consider Ximending a great venue to display their craft. There was one who does facial caricatures on the street, and there was another doing fine airbrush work. We joined in the crowd who gathered around the latter as he worked on what looked like a sunset scene. The sky had tufts of white, orange, blue, and fuchsia, while the waters below had wisps of green and yellow. He was creating palm trees on the foreground, using no more than scraps of cardboard to come up with shapes and lines from airbrush patches. The artist, a middle-aged man, was seated on the sidestreet, finished paintings sprawled on the concrete in front of him as he worked on his current one. In front of his makeshift workstation, which rose just about a foot from the ground, was a box where buyers would simply drop their payment for his artworks. Everything came at NT$100. I knew then what I wanted to bring home to remember this trip by, since I can only cart away as much mochi and pineapple cake as I could. The airbrushed sunset now sits on my desk, a vivid reminder of a great time.
Some of Taiwan’s Best Beds
Six hundred kilometers across four locations meant we had to sleep on a different place in Taiwan each night, and though such arrangement is rarely ideal, it did allow us to discover some real gems to complement travel experiences in these parts of the country.
Amba Taipei Ximending
Wuchang Street, Taipei City
Its central location at the shopping district of Ximending is a big draw for this modern hotel. Its fun and hip interiors, organic toiletries and art-strewn corners are well-thought-out touches that would wow any traveler. The breakfast hall is decked with shelves upon shelves of books, and there are also regular art exhibits at the lobby. Guests who want convenience without sacrificing comfort and style will find this the perfect Taipei base.
Shangrila Leisure Farm
Meishan Road, Dongshan Town, Yilan
A perfect base for those wanting to visit the National Center for Traditional Arts and other Yilan attractions, Shangrila Leisure Farm boasts of a hilltop location that provides guests peace and quiet in the company of Mother Nature. Those who love a more laidback feel to their vacation will find that Shangrila’s activities are fun albeit simple. Guests can make glutinous rice balls, release sky lanterns and play a game of Chinese yoyo with other guests during nightly social activities. Although slightly rundown bathrooms need refurbishing, rooms are nevertheless comfortable. Another property, the Shangrila Boutique Hotel downtown, has an elegant whitewashed chapel sitting in the middle of a lake for weddings.
Grand Victoria Hotel
Chungshan District, Taipei City
A quick 10-minute drive from the National Palace Museum and about an hour from the Taipei-Taoyuan Airport, the Grand Victoria Hotel has Victorian aesthetics and modern day comforts. This five-star property has elegant, comfortable rooms with glass-walled baths and sweeping city views. An impressive breakfast spread and a restaurant manned by a chef who has worked for several Michelin-starred restaurants all over the world await guests. Just across is the Miramar shopping center.
Shanling, Yanlian Tsuen, Shoufeng Shiang, Hualien
Looking like a white castle perched on verdant hills, Farglory Hotel is stunning whichever way you look. It sits right next to the Pacific on one side, and offers lovely views of Hualien on the other. The lavish interiors extend to the rooms as well. Farglory Ocean Park is five minutes away, where families can enjoy a bevy of ocean-inspired attractions, including dolphin and sea lion shows.