Friday, February 19, 2010

Taipei's street food

City walk: a tour of Taipei's street food

Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009

Taipei boasts a wide variety of scrumptious, regional Chinese cuisines and a few down-home specialties, all of which stem from the island's history.

Take one part local food tradition, which shares much with southeastern Chinese fare and favors fresh seafood, especially oysters. Add a strong dash of Japanese flavor (like wasabi), culled from 50 years of Japanese colonization that ended in 1945.

Then mix in some of China's finest cooking traditions from Chongqing to Shenyang (think Sichuan-style gong bao ji ding (宮保雞丁-- kungpao chicken -- and northern China-style beef noodle soup) brought here by the Mandarin-speaking Kuomintang elite when they fled the mainland, along with their cooks, in the late 1940s.

The result: contemporary Taiwanese food.

For a city with a reputation among some foodies for having some of the world's best Chinese food, an eating tour of Taipei is highly appropriate. But it's not for the faint of heart, or small of stomach.

In fact, were you to actually consume all the food and drink on this itinerary, you'd feel more like a nap than a walk. Consider yourself warned: Nibble at the suggested stops, don't fill up. And pick and choose dishes according to your taste, appetite and endurance.


For breakfast, start your stroll at the Taipei Fullerton, a boutique hotel on Fuxing South Road. From the hotel, turn left and cross Fuxing South Road. Soon, you'll hit a small strip of doujiang (soy milk, 荳漿) restaurants.

Head for the first one on the corner: Yonghe Doujiang Da Wang (永和 荳漿大王, Yonghe Soy Milk Emperor) at No. 102, next to a fire station. It takes its name from the suburb, Yonghe, where the original restaurant was located. Today, Yonghe-style breakfast joints are famous across the Chinese-speaking world.

The quintessential Yonghe-style breakfast is doujiang and youtiao (油條)-- soy milk and fried bread sticks. The soy milk comes cold or hot, spooned up from big vats near the entrance. If you want a more substantial breakfast, add the turnip cake with soy-based sauce (luo buo gao, 蘿蔔糕), a pancake-and-egg combo (shao bing jia dan), and crisp cakes (su bing), lightly baked, hollow thin cakes with sugar, sesame or peanut paste spread on the inside. You should be able to walk away with a full stomach for well under US$3.


From the breakfast place, turn right and continue south down Fuxing South Road. Take a right on Lane 148, Fuxing South Road (Taipei's side lanes are named after the roads they branch off).

Check out the betel-nut stand near the corner, and try some if you dare. This mild intoxicant is a favorite in Taiwan, India and some parts of Southeast Asia (but not mainland China). Working-class types here swear by the stuff, and you can tell a betel-nut fan by the telltale red stains around the mouth.

Across Taiwan, especially outside major cities, "betel nut beauties" -- 20-something females in microscopic outfits -- attempt to lure buyers to their roadside stands. But in Taipei, you're more likely to find a cranky middle-aged man or smiling granny selling the nuts. If you try it, bite or clip off the rind of the nut, then chew it like gum -- don't swallow it and be sure to spit out the juice, otherwise you're likely to get sick to your stomach. A small bag of nuts costs $1.50.

Continue walking down Lane 148 until you reach the An Dong market on your left, at No. 75 Rui An St. Here's your chance to check out a traditional Taiwanese market. Many are losing business to supermarkets, but they aren't extinct yet. Check out the butcher and the fruit stands. You'll also find shops selling "ghost money," paper that's burned for good fortune and to appease the gods or wandering spirits.

Leave the market and cut across Rui An Street to Lane 180, Rui An Street. There's an old-fashioned tea shop called Lao Ji Zi on your right, at No. 5 Lane 180. This is run by the Tseng family, who own tea fields in Taiwan and on the mainland.

Big metal canisters store their crop: oolong tea picked from Alishan, gaoshan (高山, high mountain) tea from Nantou County, and some much-prized puer tea, picked from trees in China's Yunnan province. The half-jin (500-gram) tins of tea make great gifts; a basic oolong costs $9, a tin of the gaoshan variety costs about $60. Say hello to Mrs. Tseng, who runs the shop while her husband tends to the fields in central Taiwan.


Lunch time. As you leave the tea shop, turn right and continue west on Lane 180, Rui An Street, which turns into Lane 151, Jianguo South Road.

The restaurant at No. 53 Lane 151 on your right is Mei Xiang La Mian Wu (open 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner). Order the "clerk's pulled noodles" (xiao er lao mian in Mandarin), a light Chinese-style lunch. You'll get a pile of noodles with a generous dollop of minced beef in sauce, garnished with scallions and cilantro. Mix up the noodles and sauce before eating, then slurp away. This northern Chinese dish was popularized here by mainlanders who came in the late 1940s. A big bowl will cost you $2.20; a small bowl, $1.75.

After lunch, take a long walk through Da An Park. This 26-hectare patch of green is Taipei's answer to New York City's Central Park. On weekends, it's packed with rollerblading kids, dog-crazy Taipei urbanites walking their canines and bicyclists.

You'll enter on the east side of the park across from a public library. Make your way through to the southwest corner of the park -- you can take the shaded jogging path on your left, which runs along the edge of the entire park. The exit is across from a Sizzler steak house.

From the park exit, cross Xinsheng South Road, take a left and follow the road south. You'll come to the Wistaria Tea House (No. 1, Lane 16). This famous Taipei teahouse has recently re-opened after a long renovation.

Back in the days of martial law (1949 to 1987), democracy activists gathered here over pots of oolong tea to strategize. Now, it's an obligatory stop for local tea-lovers. The shop boasts a wide variety of Taiwan- and mainland-grown teas, served in a cozy, Japanese colonial-era setting, with low tables, tatami mats and partitions, as well as a no-shoe policy in some rooms.

Try the Bai Hao or "Oriental Beauty" oolong ($9) -- grown with the help of katydid (an insect related to a grasshopper) saliva. (The tea tastes better than it sounds.) Or have a sip of some Dong Ding oolong ($8) grown in central Taiwan. Show-offs can shell out $90 for the "Dragon and Horse Tong Qing Puer," a 1920s-vintage puer tea.


Heading west -- take a right as you exit Wistaria -- you'll hit two of this area's most popular xiao chi stands, or street-food stalls. Both usually have long lines, so bring a friend, a book or a lot of patience. (If you don't want to taste these foods here, there are clean, well-lighted restaurants later on in the walk.)

First, try the turnip cake at the stand at the corner of Heping East Road and Wenzhou Street (closed Sundays). One cake costs 75 U.S. cents. Taipei foodies swear by this stuff, and are willing to wait in nerve-straining lines to get their fix.

Next, order the pan-fried dumplings in the Shida Night Market -- it's called a night market, but food is served from the early afternoon through to the wee hours of the morning. Weave your way over to Longquan Street, and look for Xu Ji Sheng Jian Bao at No. 24, a food stall famous for this kind of dumpling. You can try just one for 20 cents, but most people buy five for 90 cents.

Exit the Shida market and backtrack your way north on Longquan Street -- you'll hit Yongkang Street after a leisurely 20-minute walk. This street boasts typical Taiwanese xiao chi, but in nicer surroundings than a typical night market.

Hao Ji Mei Shi Zhuan Mai Dian, on the west side of the street (No. 1, Lane 10), serves southern Taiwanese xiao chi -- local favorites include tu tuo yu gen, a hearty soup with chewy, breaded lumps of fish, and crispy oysters with pepper (in the local Taiwanese dialect, Minnan, this dish is called oasu; in Mandarin, it's ke zi su). A small bowl of the soup costs $1.50 and a small dish of oasu runs $3.

Heading north on the same side of Yongkang Street, you'll hit the restaurant Yongkang Kou (No. 1, Lane 6). Here, if you dare, sample two of Taiwan's most famous dishes, stinky tofu or chou doufu ($1.30) for a small serving), which lives up to its name, and oysters in a broth with vermicelli-like noodles (oamisua in Taiwanese, $1.15 for a small bowl; $1.60 for a large one).

Now, cross to the other side of Yongkang Street, turn left (north), and look for Tu Hsiao Yueh (No. 9-1 Yongkang St.).

Here you can sample southern Taiwanese-style minced pork noodles (danzi mian), either dry or in soup. A small serving costs $1.50. Wash down your noodles with the island's standby brew, Taiwan Beer (台灣啤酒, "Taiwan pijiu" or "Taipi" for short); one bottle costs $2.65.


No culinary tour in Taipei would be complete without a stop at the restaurant Din Tai Fung for a taste of its Shanghai-style pork-soup dumplings (xiao long bao), served with sliced ginger and soy sauce.

Guidebooks swear by them; food snobs say they're overrated. Decide for yourself. One serving costs $5.30 and includes 10 dumplings.

To get there, continue north on Yongkang Street from the stinky-tofu joint, then hang a right on Xinyi Road. Just a few doors down is the original location of this now-famous chain restaurant (No. 194 Xinyi Rd., Section 2). Be warned, though: Hordes of tourist groups mob this place at peak mealtimes, so be prepared for a wait. Of course, you may need time to digest the other snacks you've just had.


Finish your tour with a brisk 15-minute walk west down Xinyi Road to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This monument to the dead autocrat (he ruled Taiwan from 1949 to his death in 1975), which opened in 1980 in a sprawling 25-hectare plaza, includes a grand concert hall at the other end of the square. It's best viewed at night, when it's illuminated by ground lights, and groups of middle-aged Taiwanese come to line dance to U.S. country-and-western songs on the plaza.

After a good rest and a break from eating, try Taiwan's famous pearl, or "bubble" milk tea -- a shaved ice-and-tea confection served with tapioca balls and jumbo-size straws. The place to get it is Chun Shui Tang, the central-Taiwan store that invented it in late 1980s, and there's a branch in the ground floor of the National Concert Hall on the north side of the memorial plaza (the shop closes at 8:30 p.m.). A small glass costs $2.20; a large glass that's big enough for two costs $4.40.


If you can make it in time, run by the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor store, a short walk from the Memorial Hall plaza's southwest corner (No. 3, Roosevelt Rd., Section 1; open to 7 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays).

Sample the shop's famous Taiwanese sorghum liquor -- a fiery concoction brewed on Kinmen (also known as Quemoy, a small island in the Taiwan Strait controlled by Taiwan) -- and take a gift bottle with you. There's a variety of sizes and strengths -- choose between 28-, 30-, 38- and 58-proof. You can taste a few for free before you decide, but most people opt for the high-test 58-proof variety ($15.60 for a 750-milliliter bottle).

Assuming you can still fit in a taxi, hop in one here to return to your hotel.

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