Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Food-tripping in Taipei

One of the best things about my recent trip to Taiwan was the discovery of rich, interesting and varied food offerings. I had a wonderful time sampling everything from dumplings at Taiwan's only Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant to flower dishes at an ecological farm in central Taiwan; to the numerous food stalls in every neighborhood, selling the most amazing snacks and dishes.

"When the Kuomintang government left China in 1949 to set up their government in Taiwan, over 2 million people came with them from all over China," our guide Angela explained. "And this is one of the reasons why there is so much variety in the local food. Because our local food is actually a combination of dishes and cooking styles from all over China -- the same as the mix of the people on the island."

This explanation certainly made sense. All the Chinese food I had in my short stay on the island was excellent and undeniably Chinese, but I could not put my finger on a particular style in the way that one can describe Szechuan food as spicy and Cantonese food as being simple and fresh. Taiwanese food -- at least to me -- has a little bit of everything and of every style.

Taiwan's best dumplings

In Taipei, I just had to have dinner at the famous Din Tai Fung dumpling shop. There are so many branches now all over the city and also all over Asia, but of course a visit to the original shop was mandatory in Taipei. Din Tai Fung, by the way, was awarded one Michelin star this year.

From the outside, Din Tai Fung looks like any other typical dumpling shop. The cash register, kitchen and operations are all on the ground floor, and you must pass through all the beehive of activity and climb a narrow staircase to get to the dining area on the second floor. I arrived at 9 PM so thank goodness the lines were gone (although we still had to wait about 10 minutes anyway). I was told that sometimes you've got to stand in line for about an hour if you come at 6 PM.

Well, at 9 PM I was so hungry that anything would have tasted good. But indeed, the dumplings were delicious. I wouldn't call them the best I've ever tasted (this would have to be a historical dumpling restaurant in Shanghai), but they are certainly excellent, especially for this price.

Wonderful stewed pork at Top Chef

On my second night in Taipei, I was taken to Top Chef, another restaurant favored by locals in one of the suburbs. It was a large and fairly typical-looking restaurant used for banquets and celebrations but the food was excellent -- apparently the chef is some famous cook who has won lots of awards. I had a really juicy and oily stewed pork dish here that I knew would make my cholesterol shoot up -- but I just couldn't stop eating it! It was perfect with steaming white rice. Scroll down to get the name and contact details of this restaurant for your next Taipei visit.

I also had a great time exploring the street food culture. Taiwan is an amazing place for foodies who don't mind roughing it up, as the variety of food served in stalls all over the city is just mind-blowing.

Taipei's amazing variety of street food

Just outside Xinmen Station, for example, which is the favorite hangout of local young people (it's often called the Harajuku of Taipei, for those of you who've been to Tokyo), there's a jumble of stores selling fashion goods for teens and an equal number of casual shops and portable stalls selling food to eat and food to take home. Most things looked just delicious.

I walked past one food store and decided to go in, after seeing a very long line of locals of all ages patiently waiting. "This must be some fantastic bean cake shop," I thought, congratulating myself on a new find -- perhaps Taipei's best bean cake? -- and already thinking about merienda and also possibly bringing some home for pasalubong. Well, I was very surprised that they were lining up for cooked chicken feet, chicken neck and innards.

The store had rows and rows of displays and people were choosing the parts they wanted and carrying them home in oiled paper bags.

Here are other recent food items from my trip:

Lunch at a restaurant on the way to Sun Moon Lake:
Taiwanese cooking makes use of lots of fresh vegetables

Lunch at the Tai-Yi Eco-Leisure Farm:
On one day, we had flowers for lunch.

Vendors at a temple parking lot at Sun Moon Lake:
Yes, this chicken was roasted with these plastic toys hanging around it. But don't they look delicious?

This man made his own dried beef jerky
and it was absolutely delicious!

Taiwan is also famous for its delicious sausages.

You need to try Taiwan's famous tea eggs!

One lunch appetizer was a plate of passionfruit.
I could've eaten everything.

Din Tai Fung
Taipei Tel. (02) 2321-8928

Top Chef
Taipei Tel. (02) 2532-7755




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