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Archive for the ‘Taiwan’ Category

Food stalls at the Shilin night market in Taipei

Night markets are a feature of many Southeast-Asian cities (well, definitely cities with large Chinese populations, anyway), and while I appreciate the beauties of a sunny daytime market in, say, France and Italy, in my opinion, night markets are the best of the market genre.

First, they’re practical.  When you’re in a hot, tropic climate, it makes sense not to go out until dark, and after being cooped up in air conditioning for much of the day, being outside again is a heady release.   Second, there’s a liveliness that only nighttime brings.  The carefree and festive atmosphere of night markets is hard to match.  In Taipei, night markets open at around 4 or 5 pm, but they really don’t get going until 8 or 9 pm, when families and friends meet up for a stroll, some shopping, and/or a bite to eat.

Shilin night market in Taipei isn’t the only night market in town, but it’s the biggest.  You could happily shop or play carnival and arcade games there for days.  I, of course, go for the food.  I was last at Shilin night market in 2002, and the major change today is that there’s an enormous covered tent now that houses the majority of food stalls in one place.  It’s certainly convenient, but it means you can expect an unbelievable human traffic jam at around mealtimes.

jian bao at Shilin night market

I already talked about the brilliant jian bao in my previous post about dining out in Taipei, generally.  These are a must-have.

zen bing (a burrito-type deal) stall

zen bing seconds before being rolled up into a burrito-like shape

Zen bing.  They’re a Chinese burrito.  You take a thin flour-based shell (almost like an eggroll skin), and you get it stuffed full of goodies like Chinese sausage (which is sweet), roast pork, fresh bean sprouts, sliced up egg omelet, scallions, crushed peanuts and a little chilli sauce.   For normal people, a zen bing constitutes a solid meal, for less than $2.  For me, ’twas but another snack.

dan bing

Scallion pancakes (tsong you bing) are great.  But throw on a layer of egg and eat it hot off a griddle, and it’s even better.  That’s a dan bing.  They’re commonly eaten as a brekkie-on-the-go in Taiwan, but in my humble opinion, they’re good at all hours of the day.  Much like breakfast foods, generally, yes?

Chinese spiced fried chicken breast at Hot Star

Hot Star is one of the more famous stalls in Shilin night market.  There are at least two stalls in the market, in fact.  For 55 NT (less than $2), you get an *enormous* wedge of what appears to be schnitzel (chicken breast pounded thin, breaded and fried).  Bite into it, though, and you’ll know this thing is all Chinese.  The spices.  A little star anise, a hint of cinnamon,  some turmeric and fennel in there, too, I think?  I must confess that I should have shared this one with someone.  I made the strategic error of eating one on my own, which left scant space for the dozens of other goodies on offer at the night market.

Chinese sausages

Chinese sausages.  The ones at Shilin night market are famous, though I suspect it’s because they’re so large.  If you’ve never had a Chinese sausage before, this is a good place to try them.  For me, it was just a Chinese sausage.  Sweet, porky, smoky.  Good stuff.

owa jen (oyster omelet)

Last but not least, owa jen.  The oyster omelet.  One of those staple snacks of Taiwan.  You can guess what’s in it based on the name.  There are a huge variety of them at Shilin night market though.  The oyster-to-egg ratio varies; the runniness of the egg varies.  I could have devoted a whole separate meal to testing out all the owa jen stands, but when you go to the night market, make sure you try at least one.

In case it’s not obvious, I didn’t make it to dessert that night.  Next time.  And before someone busts me – no, I didn’t eat stinky tofu that night.

Shilin night market.  Closest metro station:  Jian Tan (red line).  Just exit the station and you won’t miss the giant covered tent housing most of the food vendors.  Bring wet wipes and arrive hungry.  If you’re on a budget, you could happily eat at the night market every day and never get bored.

Here’s a sampling of other blog posts about Shilin night market:

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Taipei 101 (tallest building in the world until the Burj in 2010)

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to all my American readers!  I trust you all gave thanks, over-ate and over-shopped.

It’s been exactly a week since I’ve returned to London after having spent 9 days in Taiwan and 3 days in Hong Kong.  I’m still jetlagged beyond belief, which is yet another annoying sign that I’m getting old.

I spent several happy childhood summers in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, so take this next sentence with a grain of salt:  Taiwan is a *superb* place to visit if you like to eat Chinese food in all its many-regioned glory.  Thanks to 50 years of Japanese rule, as well as the ocean bounty that comes with being an island nation, the sushi’s delish, too.

There are dozens of direct one-hour flights between Hong Kong and Taipei each day, so the next time you’re planning your fab long weekend in Hong Kong, don’t overlook little ol’ Taiwan.

gua bao from Shi Jia Gua Bao at 21 Tong-Hua Street, Taipei

Small eats, xiao chi, is a major aspect of dining out that Taiwanese peeps are justifiably proud of.  In every city we visited (and on this trip, we visited Taipei in the north, Kaohsiung and Chiayi in the south, and Yingge on the outskirts of Taipei), storefront shops, street vendors, and stalls in nightmarkets sold, at all hours of the day, xiao chi.  My two favorite examples of xiao chi are gua bao (braised pork belly sandwich in a mantou, a steamed yeast-risen bun) and jien bao (pork-and-soup-filled buns that are steamed and pan fried).

In Taipei, my favorite gua bao was to be found at Shi Jia Gua Bao (special thanks to Taipei local, Wei-Ming, for this tip).  The shop is at 21 Tong-Hua Street, which you’ll find close by the Tong Hua night market.   A bite of the melt-in-your mouth braised pork belly filling, garnished with pickled mustard greens, fresh cilantro and crushed peanuts is to experience savory, sweet, crunchy and soft all at once.  At the shop, you can order a gua bao that’s mostly fat, no fat, or half-and-half.  The best part:  each costs NT 45 ($1.50 or 95 pence at current exchange rates.  Namely, $1 = 30 NT; £1 = 48 NT).  Closest metro stations:  Liuzhangli and Da’an (both on the brown line).

jian bao at ShiLin night market

My fave jian bao of this trip was a version I picked up at Shilin night market, which is such an extravaganza of delicious food, crazy carnival games and random things for sale that I’ll do it more justice in a separate post.  The jian bao had a perfectly crispy bottom, soft, fluffy bun wrapping, and juicy, meaty-porky filling.   They differ from similarly-soupy xiao long bao because the dough is fluffier/thicker – it might even be yeast-risen, actually.  Like the dough of a mantou.  In any case, I’m pretty sure I bought five jian bao for 60NT ($2/£1.20) or something ridiculously cheap like that.  Closest metro station:  Chien Tan (red line)

I could wax lyrical for ages and pages on Taiwan’s xiao chi, but instead I’ll cover more of those in my planned Shilin night market post and move on to restaurant meals.

Si Hai Yi Jia, "Four Seas One House"

We ate at a couple of fancy, relatively-pricey restaurants while in Taipei and Kaohsiung, and most of those meals were Chinese banquet style, meaning we’d sit at the table for hours and be served a dozen different courses. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the guest of honor at a Chinese banquet — everyone’s counting on you to eat everything and register appreciation.  No pressure, of course.

Among the sea of banquet meals, though, the restaurant meal that stands out was at a popular neighborhood place, Si Hai Yi Jia, whose name translates to “Four Seas One House.”  Sort of a “we are the world” kind of saying.

spare ribs at Si Hai Yi Jai

There, we ate some outstanding Beijing duck, dumplings of all varieties, the best scallion pancakes I’ve had in years, and memorably-good sweet-and-tart ribs.  On the Beijing-heavy menu were also delicious examples of local specialties like drunken chicken.  I’d highly recommend dropping by this place for tasty, good-quality food in a bustling, casual setting.  Also a plus were the servers, who weren’t shy about sharing [strong] opinions (in Chinese, though) on what you should order.

Si Hai Yi Jia, Lane 36, Ba De Road, Section 4, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 2 2873 9288; closest metro station:  Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (blue line)

Second-fave restaurant meal in Taipei was actually somewhere in the middle of Yang Ming Shan National park.  No lie, though.  It’s a pain to get here without a car.  We took the underground/MRT to Chien Tan station and then took a 30-minute bus ride to the national park visitor center, followed by yet another 30-minute long shuttle to the restaurant.  The only plus side about the journey (which would probably take an hour, total, by car) is how every form of public transportation in the Taipei metro area accepts the EasyCard – a sort of mega Oyster Card.  I know this isn’t a food-related tip, but definitely get yourself an EasyCard the minute you get to Taipei.  It’s so much handier than (a) having to figure out what the fare is; and (b) digging around for change all the time.

kitchen at a mountain top Yang Ming Shan resto

The restaurant is no great shakes to look at.  It’s basically a shack near the bus stop at the top of a mountain.  But here you’ll find some of the freshest and most interesting greens of your life.  Nothing is cooked until you order, but it comes to the table fast.

dragon's beard

We loved the fresh mushrooms, braised tofus, sweet yam-and-ginger soup and variety of greens (including a melt-in-your-mouth dish of sweet potatoe shoots).  But I will always remember the colorfully-named “dragon’s beard” greens, which were crunchy, slightly sweet and just refreshing.  It was great mountaintop eating.

Finally, quick notes on two restos in Taipei that fell short of the hype:

Shin Yeh fried oysters

Shin Yeh restaurant has several branches in Taipei, including one inside Taipei 101 (which we couldn’t get a reservation for).  The resto got a rec in this New York Times article from March 2008, and we ended up at a Shin Yeh location not far from Taipei 101, close to the Taipei City Hall metro station, inside yet another luxury goods shopping mall.

The restaurant was huge and decorated in that generic beige look that’s all the rage among luxury hotels around the world.  That said, the service was great — attentive and helpful — and the food, while enjoyable, wasn’t anything special (see e.g., Shin Yeh’s version of drunken chicken and their crab-and-sticky rice).  The restaurant’s “thing” seems to be to use good-quality ingredients to prepare typical Taiwanese dishes.  Prices are relatively high, but still affordable by US/UK standards. Shout out to Shin Yeh’s fried oysters, though, which ought to be served in bars everywhere.  Juicy, briney and battered-and-fried with a deft hand.  Probably a nice place to get oriented to local specialties if you don’t speak or read any Chinese, or if you miss the tidiness and calm of a fancier restaurant.

salmon belly (200 NT) and premium fatty tuna (250 NT) at Mitsui

Jon and I had an afternoon to ourselves in Taipei (the trip to Taiwan had been to attend a wedding, so most times, we were not alone).  So we set out to find premium sushi in a city that claims to have more Japanese restaurants than any city outside of Japan.

Cue Mitsui, which I’d read about on London Eater’s site earlier this year.  It sounded delicious, high-end, but cheap by London standards.  We ordered a lot of items a la carte, and strangely, the sashimi was underwhelming.  Maybe we went on a bad day, but my fatty tuna was still part-frozen, rather than silky-smooth, melt-in-your-mouth.  The salmon belly had a slightly better (less frozen) texture, but it was flavorless.  Grr.  Jon and I did better with the “cooked” items like grilled eel, but that’s so wrong in a sushi restaurant with a great reputation.

Service was nice, and the room is sleek and chic in all black.  But we ate much better sushi when we were in the southern port city of Kaohsiung (if you’re down there, the horribly-translated-into-English restaurant “Sea World” serves some mean sashimi). At least our meal cost only 2600 NT (£28/$43 each), including drinks.

Mitsui, No 30, Nong-an St., 1F Taipei City, Taiwan; +886 (02) 2594-3394;  closest Metro:  Minquan West Road (red line).

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Din Tai Fong (XinYi Road branch) in Taipei - merchandised? Nah.

First, you spot the crowds on the sidewalk.  Then you spot the xiao long bao cartoon character.  This is Din Tai Fung.  Last week, as part of a 9-day trip eating my way through Taiwan, I visited the original Taipei location of what can only be called a xiao long bao empire.  The place is fabled among locals, tourists and food lovers around the world, it seems.  For background on Din Tai Fung and a sense of the adoration this place inspires, read this.  (Also, loosely related, but highly entertaining, is this October 2010 NYT Magazine article touching on food-crazed people and XLB).

the kitchen at Din Tai Fong

In any case, our party of eight arrived at Din Tai Fung for a weeknight dinner, and we were mildly alarmed by the number of people already spilling out of the restaurant (Din Tai Fung takes no bookings – ugh).  Luckily, this place isn’t written up in every guidebook and travel article for nothing.  These people have a system!  The ladies in headsets hand you a number, a menu and an order form so that while you’re waiting for a table, you can tick the boxes comprising your order.  When your number’s called, you hand in your order form, and seemingly by the time you’ve reached your table (the place is surprisingly large, though maze-like), dishes have started arriving. We were in and out in less than an hour.  Don’t even think about lingering.

While waiting for our table, I peeked into the kitchen, which is towards the front of the restaurant.  The room was oddly silent except for the hissing of steamers cooking what must be hundreds of thousands of xiao long bao a day.  There must be a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among the cooks when you consider the number of delicate pleats that go into each xiao long bao.

XLB at Din Tai Fong - "regular" with just pork (190 NT) and pork with crab roe (330NT)

Onto the star attraction.  Deflated.  Seriously.  The skin is perfect, almost-translucent but strong.  The visual appearance isn’t bad (but it’s not great).  But here’s the failure:  the bottoms aren’t sagging with soup.  We ordered four baskets of different xiao long bao, and none of them were especially soupy.  I like my xiao long bao to be so full of soup that when you lever them gently into your soup spoon, you feel like a kid playing a type of carnival game (“don’t break the skin/leak the soup”).  These guys were so lacking in soup that you could pretty much throw them around like softballs without worrying about leakage.

"shu mai" at Din Tai Fong

We tried a lot of other dishes at Din Tai Fung, and unsurprisingly, most of them were comprised of the same ingredients that go into XLB.  The shu mai, for example, even looked like XLB, but were topped with prawns.  Efficiency at work.  But it’s not shu mai.  Get the chicken soup, though.  It’s amazingly rich and flavorful.

While the Din Tai Fung XLB disappointed because of their lack of soupiness, they were still tastier than anything I’ve found in London.  (Leong’s XLB used to be better when they first opened, but lately it just barely satisfies a craving).  And at 190 NT ($6 or £4) for a basket of ten “regular” pork-only xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung won’t break the bank.  I’d say make the pilgrimage the next time you’re in Taipei, but in my opinion, the better XLB experience is to be had at nearby Kao Chi, which we visited the next day mostly because we were doing some shopping in the area (the housewares department at Sogo Fuxing branch is unbeatable if you’re looking for high-quality, attractive rice bowls).

Credit to A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei, which was handily organized by MRT station so that once I knew we were headed to Sogo, I could quickly scan for nearby dining options.  (Something I should consider doing on my own blog except for the admin hassle of re-doing the archived posts).

xiao long bao at Kao Chi, 180 NT ($6 or £4) for pork-only

Kao Chi was not only calmer and more upscale looking than Din Tai Fung, but also its XLB were, happily, soupier and better seasoned (i.e., I didn’t need to rely on soy sauce and vinegar).  The skins weren’t quite as translucent as those at DTF, but they were still thin and delicate, and I’ll trade a slightly thicker skin for more seasoned soup broth any day.

So go to Din Tai Fung to say you’ve been there, but don’t forget to drop by Kao Chi for a better dining experience, both in terms of food and atmosphere.

Din Tai Fung, 194, Xin Yi Road Sec. 2 (cross street:  Yong Kang Street), 10651 Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2 2321 8928; closest MRT station:  Daan Station (brown line).

Kao Chi, 152, FùXìng South Road Sec. 1, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2-2341-9984; closest MRT station:  ZhongXiao FuXing (blue and brown lines)

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