Written by Philippe Canning
Taipei (Taiwan) – Day 1
We depart from Honk Kong on the 8 a.m. flight. Because of air traffic related delays, we land in Taipei about 30 minutes late, around 10:30 a.m. We are landing at the Taoyuan International Airport, located about one hour from downtown Taipei. There is another airport much closer (15 minutes) from downtown, the Sonshang International airport (TSA) but it is much smaller and the flights are limited. We will be departing from that airport on our way to Shanghai. We are staying in the Xinyi sector, very close to the Taipei 101 tower.
After checking in we ask the concierge to direct us towards an area where we could find something for lunch. He suggests the Taipei 101 tower food court. Not really, we want something more authentic. He explains that most restaurants are located in shopping malls and office towers. Oh no! Not again, not a shopping center restaurant again! We heed to the concierge’s teachings and we head to the Cinema complex and look for Com In Dim on the second floor. The restaurant serves Taiwanese specialities. We sit down and order Kung Pao chicken, beef noodle soup and a few dumplings. Beef noodle soup is very popular in Taiwan, you can find it in most restaurants and there are many street stalls all over if ever you have an instant craving. The broth is brown and translucid but fragrant and flavourful. The wide noodle are firm and the braised beef chunks, tender and juicy. A few pieces of boiled bok choi complete the large bowl. Kung Pao chicken is also delicious and the dumplings more than acceptable.
We explore the immediate area surrounding our hotel and realize that everything seems to be concentrated in a succession of shopping malls, all inter-connected and spanning a distance of around one kilometer (if not more). Everything can be found in theses malls. Shopping of course, restaurants, food courts, bars, convenience stores, grocery stores and other services. On this Sunday afternoon, it seems that all of Taipei has congregated to this retail emporium. One particularly interesting section is the Japanese Breeze Atré. There were all kinds of Japanese inspired boutiques, cafes and restaurants. I never expected to find such a Japanese influence in Taiwan. Yet, Japan is very close to Taiwan and from the looks of it, there are several Japanese tourists in Taipei.
After having surveyed the area, we head back to the hotel for some drinks. We will be trying the night market in Taipei for dinner. We opt for the Tonghua Night Market, located about one kilometre from our hotel, the Grand Hyatt. Quite manageable for walking. However, the weather is stifling in Taipei and we soon start to feel the discomfort of the thick humid air. We press on and find Lingjiang street. We enter the narrow street and are immediately engulfed by the heat and the scents of all the foods that are being prepared. It is utter chaos. Each side of the street is lined by a a few “sit down” restaurants, merely a kitchen area in the front surrounded by small tables and benches or chairs. There are also various types of shops selling clothing and accessories. Amongst all of this confused mess, you find numerous vending carts and stalls spread here and there, on the pavement. Navigating through this labyrinth is perilous at best and we still have not ordered anything. What can you eat at the marvellous Night Street Market you may ask? Well just about anything, all kind of meats, vegetables, mushrooms and other fungi, offal, innards, gizzards and other animal parts, including duck webs (feet), snails, clams, fish, squid and other mollusks. Stinky tofu, ice cream, sweets, even a cart selling tiramisu can be found. Cooking methods are various, boiling, deep-frying, grilling, pan frying and steaming.
After catching our bearings, we locate our first victim: pepper sesame buns. Small buns filled with minced pork, steamed and then pan fried. What a great start. We then move on to a beef skewer grilled on an electric Japanese style grill. Meat on a stick is always comforting. We try some deep fired sweet potato, a mix of 4 varieties. I then find yakitori balls, the batter round shaped balls stuffed with octopus that come from Japan. I have to admit that they were as tasty as the ones I had sampled in Osaka, Japan. For the piece the resistance, we spot a cart that is serving squid. The very large red squid is cut in half length wise, spread flat and held in place with a stick. It is left to rest in a water filled (brine?) large bucket on the pavement. The sticks are then plunged in a waiting bath of cooking oil until done. The skewer is removed and the squid is cut in small pieces, seasoned and stuffed in a box. Without any hesitation, the best fried squid, ever, all destinations included. Sorry my Italian friends, it seems that the Chinese invented the fried squid (as they did with pasta) and that the Italians merely copied the technique. We are full and head to bed.
Taipei (Taiwan) – Day 2
We rise and grab a quick breakfast at the hotel. The choices in the immediate vicinity are limited to the food courts in the malls and they do not open until 9 or 10 a.m. I still manage to find some sweet potato congee, a rice based type of semi liquid mush (resembles oatmeal) with sweet potato cubes.
We cross the street and enter the Taipei 101. Once the tallest building in the World, the Taipei tower has 101 floors, hence the aptly chosen name. It is shaped like a stack of Chinese food take away boxes. The 89th floor observation deck is accessible by high speed elevator, 36 seconds flat to go up 89 floors, once the fastest in the world before it was beat to the claim in 2015. From the floor wide observation deck, we can take in the Taipei views in all directions. We make it back to the 1st floor and grab a cab to go visit old Taipei. We end up finding the God Temple, Taiwan’s most famous and popular Temple. On this Sunday morning, hoards of worshippers make offerings and pray, laden with prayer sheets and incense sticks.
We continue exploring the surrounding streets. Not much is happening in the area and there are very few visitors. Some shops are open for business but most are closed. It seems that all of the action is really taking place in the malls. We find a place to have lunch. Regimen Cuisine, specializing in all sorts of noodle soups. I have the half beef, half tendon noodle soup and Corinne the plain beef version. We order a side of steamed cabbage served with some kind of meat gravy. The large bowls appear on the table and we dig in. The noodles are hand made and irregular in shape. We had opted for the wider ones. The large pieces of beef are tender and moist, laden with fat and cartilage which has been slow cooked to a gelatinous complexion. The tendon pieces are also large, moist and very tender. The broth is darker and more complex than the other one before. I suspect a long simmer with lots of bones and cartilage. I am absolutely delighted by this amazing soup.
We continue and end up on the shore of the Dadong River, at the Dadong Wharf. There is a pleasant riverside park with a wide bike path that snakes in both directions. Again, not much to see. We decide for a short stroll and find the next exit (the park is surrounded by freeways and concrete structures). We finally decide that apart from street lined shops, there is really not much to see in this part of town. We grab a taxi and head back to the hotel and continue exploring the area’s malls and shopping arcades.
We get our drinks at the hotel. We did chose to upgrade and get the Grand Club room which comes with free breakfast and free cocktails and food daily. Since wine is not readily available in the more traditional restaurants, we get our fix there. They even had a very decent sparkling wine from California (Domaine Chandon).
We go back to Tonghua night market for diner. It is just as chaotic as before but surprisingly very clean, as street markets come by. There is no garbage on the pavement and we only saw one lonely rat. It gets 4 out of 5 stars on my chart. This time around we have fried pork, deep fried chicken thighs and capelin (small fish), eaten whole, head, tail, fins and all. I also try the Taiwanese style steak. A nice marbled piece of beef, cut up in small cubes and lightly grilled, simply served with salt. Very good indeed. The heat from the numerous cooking devices is getting to us so we walk back to our hotel, drenched in sweat but replete.
(Taiwan) – Day 3
I have booked some scuba diving and after our early morning workout and a light breakfast I take the cab to the local dive shop. I get outfitted with my gear and the shop’s van takes me to a place called Dragon’s hole (or Dragon’s cave) all the way East of Taipei on the seashore. We gear up directly from the van and walk into the ocean on the rocky shore. I have two nice dives. Not the best conditions I have seen but some interesting coral formations, many small tropical fish, a few lion fish, some grouper, needle fish, a moray eel, nudie branches (sea snails) and upon our exits, some sea cockroaches. Resembling the Earthbound variety, they run along the rocks, looking for some kind of sustenance. In some places, they cover the rock like a moving carpet. Quite strange.
After our dives, my young guides propose to take me on a trek to see the shore on the other side. I accept, not knowing what I was getting into. Well, the trek was more of a workout than our morning routine, with the two dives I just completed, all put together. They take me down a narrow path, covered in rocks in all shapes and sizes, none of them completely stable and lined with thick lush palm like leaves, heavily armed with sharp pointy thorns. I am wearing flip flops — not exactly the best hiking shoes. Just as we have crossed the vegetated portion and when I thought it was finally over, we start ascending a vast expanse of fractured rock, following some king of path strewn with boulders and sharply angled granite stones. Not exactly a leisurely stroll. I am rewarded by amazing views when we finally reach the edge of the rock formation, with a natural swimming pool in the ocean surmounted by a tall cliff for high dives. Quite the spectacle. After having a short rest, we head back the same way. I am surprised I avoided any serious injury. Apart from a few scratches and maybe a few bruises on my toes, I am fine. My 20-something guides found it very easy (they walk there every day) but they were impressed that this aging Canadian was able to make the trek and get back unscathed.
We finally drive back to Taipei where I settle my bill at the dive shop and grab a cab back to the hotel. We are flying early tomorrow morning so we decide to have an early dinner at Din Tai Fung. This is Taiwan’s most famous dumpling shop. It has several locations in Taiwan and abroad (even in NYC). It was awarded a coveted Michelin Star. We chose the Taipei 101 location, yes in a shopping mall again. At 5 p.m., the waiting time for dinner is already 20 minutes. By the time we will finish our meal, it will be close to 1 hour. As we wait in line with our seating number ticket, we are handed a menu with a crib sheet to order our food. We will try the Xialongbao, which is the house speciality, the soup dumpling. The little satchel shaped dough is stuffed with the desired filling, in our case we had the crab and pork and well as the black truffle and pork versions. Then a a cube of frozen broth is placed on top and the shell is closed and crimped, forming a tight seal. As the dumplings are heated with steam, the broth liquefies and fills the whole cavity. To eat it, you place it in a spoon after dipping in soy sauce mixed with rice vinegar and shredded ginger, pierce a hole in the shell to let the broth escape and engulf the whole thing in your mouth. The black truffle and pork was absolutely wonderful. I had never experienced such a complex and layered flavour in a dumpling before. Others we tried: shrimp, pork and mushroom all differently shaped. We also tried the small steamed pork bun and some steamed garlic water spinach. Service is impeccable and very attentive. The tea cup gets filled before it is emptied and the server paid extra attention to Corinne’s allergies. For the whole meal, including the special black truffle, one very large beer, taxes and services, we did not reach $80 CDN. I can imagine that dinner for 2 can be had for around $50 to $60 CDN.
our evening with drinks at the hotel before heading to bed.