Pineapple Cakes and Mango Shaved Ice

Two more Taiwanese classics that I think deserve their own wee post are pineapple cakes and mango shaved (more like snow) ice. Pineapple cakes are to Taiwan as mochi is to Japan and are often the choice food gift for friends abroad. I’ve tried many “award winning” cakes, but none compare with the buttery exterior and the perfectly balanced and fragrant interior of Chia Te‘s cakes. Chia Te

Other cakes are either too dry or too sweet — I guarantee that after one bite of these cakes you won’t be able to go back to your old ones! I keep telling myself to save one for a photo but the cakes always seem to end up in my mouth before I have a chance to take a picture.

Chia Te Pineapple CakesTraditional shaved ice is made by grinding ice, then flavouring it with fruit syrups or condensed milk, with the texture being more like finely crushed ice and therefore slightly on the crunchy side.  What sets Taiwanese shaved ice apart from i.e., Japanese shaved iced (かき氷), is the fine, snow-like quality of the ice. There is also Taiwanese snow ice (雪花冰), which we didn’t have a chance to eat this time, but it also has a melt-in-your-mouth consistency and starts out more like a very light ice cream and comes out in a ribbon of velvety fine snow.

Mango Shaved IceIn my experience, Taiwanese shaved ice is actually smoother and creamier than the ice cream that is served with it. It is good all year round but of course especially refreshing on a hot and humid summer day. What are some of your favourite Taiwanese treats?

For The Love Of Renbu

I absolutely love renbu (also known as wax janbu or wax apples) — a light, sweet and crisp fruit that grows mainly in tropical regions. It is an underrated fruit that I think the world ought to know about (not that I expect the world to be searching for posts on tropical fruit) so I thought it deserved its own space.

There are fruit stalls everywhere in Taiwan and I was delighted to find heaps of renbu in Taipei, even though it’s not exactly the season for them. I bought renbu from practically every stall that I came across and even brought some on the plane for the long haul home. As a child, we often visited the countryside in summer and eat renbu straight off the trees.  Of course the ones in the city are not as fresh as the ones from my childhood but they were still tasty enough!

Renbu

There were a few bad apples, so to speak, but I managed to find some tasty renbu — the best batch being on our last day in Taipei, purchased from a lady selling fruit without a license in a no-sell zone.

Taiwan Fruit Stand

Being the clueless half-foreigner that I am, I was confused as to why, after cutting up our fruit, she suddenly ran off with her cart without even letting us pay.  I followed suit, as my father had run after her, as well, presumably because he knew that I would be sad without my renbu. But I later learned that it wasn’t so much for me, but out of compassion for the fruit lady. Desperate times call for desperate measures and he wasn’t going to let the police stand in the way of helping her make a few quid!

If you ever have a chance to travel to Taiwan, especially in summer, do give these gems a try!

10 Things You Must Eat In Taipei

Before we went on holiday, a mate asked what there was to do in Taipei. I thought, what a funny question! What else would anyone do in a big city in Asia? Eat, eat and eat! Of course there are other things to do, like go to museums, see shows, etc. but we generally travel to eat and with only 4 days in Taiwan, we had to try and cram as much as possible into our little bellies. We stuck to the local street food, which meant the portions were smaller (even smaller than Japan) and gave us more room to try a wider variety of food.

Warning: This list is heavy on the carbs but if you walk everywhere like we did, you burn it all off and don’t have to worry about ruining your figure!

1. You must start the day off with a proper Taiwanese breakfast — nice fresh cuppa soymilk (served hot or cold), light fluffy egg crepes, fried breadsticks (in Chinese, it’s literally called an oil stick, or youtiao, 油條), which are often also eaten with shaobing (燒餅), a sort of light and airy flatbread. There are so many different establishments in Taipei, my favourite being Yong He (永和豆漿).

YongHe Soymilk

More fresh tasty soymilk and egg crepes from a local shop — breakfast for one can be as low as 80TWD (well under 2 quid)!

Local Breakfast Westgate2. Another common Taiwanese breakfast is rice porridge served with various side dishes, but you can also have this for lunch or dinner. There were at least 30 different sides to choose from in the porridge house we visited.  Taiwanese porridge often is cooked with sweet potatoes or yams.  I absolutely love the stewed bamboo and seasoned kelp varieties that we can’t get in Japan.

Porridge House

3. Stinky tofu (yes, you read that correctly) or 臭豆腐 is generally served deep fried and garnished with sweet and sour pickled vegetables. The stinkier the tofu, the better it is! Generally foods tend to taste like they smell but the flavour is really just that of deep fried tofu. So the stink really is more for ‘atmosphere’.

LingXia Night Market

Stinky tofu pictured centre row on left; oysters with thin noodles pictured centre row on right; Taiwanese cherimoya upper right.

4. Oysters with thin rice noodle soup (蚵仔麵線) — a savoury soup with lots of fresh oysters.

5. Taiwanese cherimoya fruit. Not too sweet, just amazing and different from cherimoyas grown in other regions in Asia.  You just have to try them when you’re there!

6. Beef noodles (紅燒牛肉麵). Enough said! There are so many beef noodle shops in Taipei it’s hard to pick one. I would say that ramen is to Japan as beef noodles are to Taiwan — you have to just keep trying different shops until you find the best one! The one we tried is on Taoyuan Street (桃源街), called Taoyuan Jie Zheng Zong Shandong Beef Noodles (桃源街正宗山東牛肉麵), known for its hand pulled noodles. The noodles were cooked to perfection but the broth was just okay. I’ve had my share of beef noodles growing up and these were good, but there are tastier places in Taipei.  We were pinched for time so just chose what was close by.

Taoyuan Street Beef Noodles

7. Fresh clam soup with ginger. These clams were so sweet and fresh — none of that gritty slightly poopy taste you get from clams that are not at their peak freshness. It’s such a simple dish, but SO delicious!

OysterOmelet and ClamSoup8. Another Taiwanese classic: the oyster omelette (蚵仔煎)!  The oyster omelette, pictured above, is often sold in night markets and has constantly been ranked by many foreigners as the top cuisine from Taiwan.

9. Short rice noodles in clear broth (米苔目) and boiled pork cheeks. More simple but absolutely delicious dishes. This shop is in the old town area on Dihua Street (迪化街).

MiTaiMu and PorkCheek

10. More clammy goodness — these are mini clams marinated in soy sauce, garlic, fresh chilies and lime, a kind of ceviche if you will, but the clams are raw.They’re a bit salty because of the soy sauce and are probably best eaten with some porridge. One taste of this brought make so many childhood memories. It’s hard to find these babies due to well, food safety reasons, but we were lucky to happen upon them as we passed a random back alley street and I just had to have some. The hubs didn’t know they were raw when he sampled one (oops).  I had a few more before our flight home and wish I had eaten the whole lot, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be sick so had to play it safe!

mini clamsThere are obviously more than 10 things that belong on this list, such as all the wonderful local fruits and vegetables, squid pottage, sweet peanut soup, as well as pork blood and chitterling soup, but these dishes will give you a good taste of local Taiwanese cuisine. What are your favourite Taiwanese eats?

First Impressions: A Decade Later

I’ll always have a soft spot for Taiwan, having spent many summers there as a child. The sights, sounds, smells, and obviously the food are deeply ingrained in my memory.  It’s been over a decade since I last stepped foot on Taiwanese soil but I didn’t quite expect the reaction that I had when we landed after a whirlwind dash around Japan.

Love Taipei

Four days is hardly enough time to really get to know a place. By the time you’ve settled in, it’s time to leave. That said, aside from the night markets, which have changed considerably due to new health regulations (i.e. they’re cleaner), and some of my old favourites no longer being around, it was almost as if I had never been away. There is something to do at every hour of the night and day — it’s as though Taipei never sleeps. I suppose you could say that of Tokyo, as well, but the energy is different in Taipei. It’s louder, it smells more (good and bad), there are motorbikes and cars and people everywhere, it’s an attack on the senses if you’re not prepared for it. The buzz of the city can be a bit overwhelming, dizzying at times. Although I can read a bit of Chinese, every corner kind of looks the same and one can easily get lost if you’re not paying attention. We tried using 7-Eleven as land markers but quickly realised that there is at least one 7-Eleven on each corner, sometimes two on the same street!

When I was a wee girl, I happily followed my parents wherever they went without paying much attention to all the moving parts. But now the sight of another car coming down the wrong way on a one way road makes me nervous, especially when we’re sitting in a taxi opposite the car.  That said, everything always seems to turn out okay. There isn’t much shouting or honking at the bad drivers, especially the taxi drivers, who make very bold moves to snag a new customer.  I suppose if everyone were to get upset by each car that cut them off or nearly rammed into them, the entire city would be in a constant fit of rage. It’s always been like that, though, so I suppose after a while you just become accustomed to the city’s chaotic rhythm.

We did enjoy the lower cost of living (especially the food) in Taiwan compared to Japan. You can still feed a family of four a proper breakfast for under 300TWD (around a fiver). You could easily do the same for lunch and dinner. And of course, we’re talking proper street food here, most of which you can eat without the fear of getting ill. The hubs also pointed out that the shops may be nice inside, but the exterior of the buildings look like they could use a bit of TLC. Perhaps that helps keep the costs down? Or not. Who knows? I’m no economist.  But yes, not much has changed in that sense.

I suppose it isn’t fair to compare Japan with Taiwan, especially since we went from living like royals to ‘getting down’ with the locals. But the standard of service is definitely better (or different) in Japan. It’s a different culture after all. And it’s not to say that the Taiwanese don’t pride themselves in service. They do, but it’s carried out in its own unique style, especially when you compare local shops to local shops. They’re very warm and open and incredibly hospitable.  All in all, Taipei was wonderful — thrilling, nostalgic, full of tastiness (more to come on this) but sometimes very tiring and overwhelming. Although our recent trip was not quite the fortnight we would have wished to spend there, hubs was able to get a taste of the country and I certainly had my fill of my favourite local delights.