TAIPEI, July 13 — DAY #2 (Continued)
Teahouses in the clouds
Next, sample local delicacies from the many shops nestled along Jishan and Shuchi Streets. One specialty is ba-wan, a chewy ball of translucent dough stuffed with pork, bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms, served with a sweet and savoury sauce.
Another must-try snack is yuyuan (taro balls); locals claim Grandma Lai’s is the best. These colourful taro balls are served in a hot or cold sweet soup filled with red adzuki beans and green mung beans.
The temple market
Twenty minutes away from Jiufen by bus is the harbour city of Keelung, famed for its Miaokow Night Market. Residents flock to the revered Dian-ji Temple in the market (hence Miaokow, which means “Temple Mouth”) to pray.
Grab a table at one of the many numbered stalls and choose from the day’s catch. Locals recommend long-legged crabs (wrapped in tin foil with butter, garlic and lots of onions), barbecued snails and razor clams grilled over charcoal.
One street snack not found elsewhere is din bian tsou (potside sticker soup) from Stall 25-1. Handmade rice noodles are plastered on the sides of a heated wok and steamed before being scraped into a clear broth made with bamboo shoots, tiger lily buds, dried shrimp and vegetables. It’s absolutely belly-warming on a cold night.
Another Miaokow specialty is Stall 58’s Nutritious Sandwich (yingyang sanmingzhi). The joke is that the deep-fried bun filled with ham, stewed duck eggs, cucumber and tomato slices is hardly healthy. Drenching the entire calorie-intense concoction with salad dressing seems a bit much but somehow works. (There’s always hitting the gym once you’re home.)
Basketball star Jimmy Lin can’t resist zhu xie gao (literally translated as pig’s blood cake), so why not try it too? Observe the stall-owner plunging what resembles black popsicles into a large container of crushed peanuts.
The “popsicles” are actually a sticky mix of pig’s blood and glutinous rice, and the every bite is a revelation. (Whether the revelation is good or bad, you decide.)
A very volcanic vacation
Wake up early. You will be rewarded with spectacular views of over 20 extinct volcanoes, numerous hiking trails, azaleas and cherry blossoms (in springtime).
From Jiantan metro station, it’s only about half an hour via Bus Red 5 to the 11,456-hectare Yangmingshan National Park.
Head to Xiaoyukeng where volcanically-created fumaroles crack open the earth’s crust. The very ground you are walking on may spew forth gases from hidden vents. Try spotting bright yellow sulphur crystals.
After hiking all morning, have a good soak in one of Yangmingshan’s therapeutic hot springs. The steaming spring waters are supposed to cure various ailments including arthritis, skin problems and stress.
This could be thanks to the water’s high sulphur and mineral content, or simply from the bliss of sinking into the heady warmth and forgetting all your cares.
Catch of the day
Take the bus from Yangmingshan back to Jiantan, then get the metro to Tamsui and exit at the Fisherman’s Wharf. Here you may have a late lunch in Tamsui town before exploring the boardwalk and markets.
The town is near where Tamsui River (one of two rivers framing Taipei; the other is Keelung) empties into the Formosa Strait. No surprise fresh and processed seafood are staples here.
Try Ah Gei, a deep-fried tofu pouch stuffed with glass noodles (dong fen) and fish-paste (surimi), doused with a rather alarmingly-pink hot sauce. (Trivia: Ah Gei is the abbreviated form of abura-age, Japanese for tempura tofu.)
Another Tamsui specialty is tie dan (iron eggs). These are eggs stewed in spices before being air-dried until half their original size. Nearly black in colour and very chewy, it’s an acquired taste.
From the Fisherman’s Wharf hop on a ferry cruise of Taiwan’s scenic northeast coast. Look out for the Lover’s Bridge, which mimics a sailing ship’s mast and rigging. Stroll and enjoy the breeze.
Consider having an authentic Hakka dinner at Liu Dui Hakka Fine Noodles Kitchen. Liu Dui refers to Hakka clans in the Taiwanese counties of Kaohsiung and Pingdong.
Historically, Hakka food was high in calories to sustain this diligent people through long hours of physical labour. Preserved ingredients ensured nothing is wasted. Thrift and a strong work ethic went hand-in-hand.
Enjoy your meal tapas-style as portions are generous enough for sharing. Start with “pasta”: salted egg loofah noodles, traditional flour-noodle soup and Hakka-style dry fine noodles are all signature dishes.
For greens, fried eggplant with basil leaves and stir-fried bird’s nest fern (a vegetable we haven’t seen elsewhere) are excellent. The pickle and salted pork rice may look humdrum but every grain is a savoury delight.
The pièce de résistance is their koushui ji, translated humorously as “saliva chicken”. The chicken is first parboiled before an ice-bath plunge rapidly cools the meat, keeping it tender. Garnished with peanuts and diced chili, this chilled dish is simple fare for honest folks.
Devil-dark coffee & angel-light soufflés
Caldo Café is hidden in a small back-alley; the Indian restaurant opposite confirms you’ve got the right place.
Enter and order your soufflé first as it takes a good 20 minutes to prepare. Their original soufflé carries a light hint of vanilla whereas their green tea soufflé has the deep aroma of good quality matcha.
Both come with a choice of syrups (sweet osmanthus, sea salt caramel, or Cointreau) and sorbets (grapefruit or mango). Honestly the soufflés are delightful on their own.
Caldo offers espresso but go for their hand-drip coffee instead; there’s something about a slowly-brewed coffee that calms nerves at the end of a full day. Choose from a variety of single origin beans – their Ethiopia Yirgacheffe is especially fruity, lovely for winding down with.
Books before midnight (and after)
Perhaps you aren’t quite ready to call it a night yet. Why not head to a book store? Make that one that never closes.
Eslite Bookstore is the largest retail bookstore chain in Taiwan. Its first outlet at Dunhua is open 24 hours, with a legion of night-time readers and fans. Besides Chinese-language publications, this branch prides itself on a wide selection of English, Japanese and art books.
The main book store on the second floor has an intimate library atmosphere with seemingly endless bookshelves. Even after midnight, there are avid bookworms turning pages still, each lost in their own world of words.
This is the best time to buy books since it’s the end of your trip – you should know how much luggage space you have left!
Jinguashi & Jiufen Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan. Directions: From Taipei, take the Jiufen bus no. 1062 from Songshan station or Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station to Jiufen or Jinguashi. Alternatively, take the train north to Ruifang Station in Taipei; from Ruifang take the Keelung Transit bus from the Ruifang bus stop to Jiufen or Jinguashi.
Grandma Lai’s Yuyuan (taro balls dessert), Jiufen 143 Jishan St, Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Jiufen Tea House, Jiufen 142, Jishan St., Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Miaokow Night Market, Keelung Rensan Road, Renai District, Keelung City, Taiwan.
Yangmingshan National Park Yangmingshan, Jhuzihhu Road 1-20, Taipei City, Taiwan. Open daily 7:00am – 5:30pm; entrance free. Take the 108 bus (NT$60 or RM6.37) for a tour of the park (unlimited rides within operating hours).
Ah Gei No. 4, Lane 11, Zhongzheng Road, Danshui District, New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Grandma’s Tiedan (iron eggs) 135 Zhongzheng Road, Danshui District, New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Liu Dui Hakka Fine Noodles Kitchen No. 42, Lèyè St, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan. Open daily 11:30am – 2:00pm; 5:30pm – 8:45pm. Tel: +886-2-2736-9063.
Caldo Café Fuxing South Road, Section 1, No. 2, Alley 5, Lane 107, Taipei City, Taiwan. Open Mon-Fri 12:00pm – 11:00pm; Sat & Sun 11:00am – 11:00pm. Tel: +886-2-273-18023. http://www.facebook.com/caldocafe
Eslite Books Dunhua Store 2F, No.245 Dunhua South Road, Section 1, Taipei City, Taiwan. Open 24 hours daily. Tel: +88-2-2775-5977. http://www.eslite.com/
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, July 12, 2013.