DREAMSCAPES Winter 2017/2018
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DISCOVER TAIWANESE DELICACIES
 
(2017 - Winter Issue)

Writer: MELANIE CHAMBERS



It takes three years to perfect Taiwan’s famous 18-fold dumplings and become a master, but once up to speed, they can pump out 20 per minute.

Eating is also precise: stabbing the soup dumpling, the hot juice mixes with ginger, vinegar and soy sauce in the large Chinese soup spoon—it resembles a mini bowl of soup. One bite and the salty pork filling explodes with the chewy dough and juices. It’s perfection. The ultimate Taiwanese comfort food.

Looking out from the 91st floor at Taipei 101, the ninth largest building in the world with the world’s fastest elevator, I contemplate the country’s contradictory approach to food: innovative and modern, yet rooted in tradition, with just a bit of the bizarre.

Behind a glass wall, men in white lab coats and face masks measure precisely 16 grams of ground pork then place it onto a two-centimetre circle of dough. Then, holding the ingredients close to their eyes, the Din Tai Fung Masters carefully begin to pinch the dough together.

NIGHT MARKETS

Locals purposely eat a light meal at 5 p.m. so they can meander through the amusement park of food in the night markets. Stall after stall sells snack food called xiaochi(small eats). One snack resembles cartoon-shaped meatballs with eyes, while another, a spiral of pastry on a stick, tastes like a donut. There are aquariums from which to pick your shrimp and plastic bags to fill with cute little sausages. With over 500 food stalls in Shilin Market, one of dozens in the city, I can’t keep up.

I start with dessert. The vendor cuts a thick pancake in two and spreads one side with a gooey mixture, then slides it into a waffle maker to seal the two sides together. The sweet bean curd oozes out on the first bite. At the next stall, I grab a bamboo basket and load it up with dumplings: pink shrimp ones and others with colourful coconut sprinkles. Little packages of joy. It’s a guess if they’re savoury or sweet until I pop them into my mouth.

However, I don’t have high hopes for the oyster omelette. On a searing hot skillet, the chef pours whipped eggs, then sprinkles in some fresh oysters and a few spoonfuls of cornstarch. Like magic, he stirs the concoction until the top becomes stiff. It tastes exactly like it sounds: gooey oyster eggs.

TAINAN

Humming along southward at 300 km/h on a high-speed train, I arrive 90 minutes later in Tainan—the former capital of Taiwan. Walking past tranquil Buddhist temples, gardens of pink and white plum blossoms and women shucking oysters into plastic buckets, it feels like Taipei before the high-rise boom.

I see a long lineup leading to a plume of steam and step into a crowded shack with low ceilings and picnic tables. Since 1923, during the Japanese occupation, the Furong Repasts vendor has made homemade noodles for a simple, but classical soup.

It’s 35 C, but the women move quickly ladling out noodles. I add a dollop of hot chilies into the fragrant sweet broth and ignore my brow sweat dropping into the bowl. Sweet chewy noodles with a kick.

TRIBAL TAIWAN

On the east coast of Taiwan, the vibe changes entirely. Mountains and ocean replace high-speed trains and high-rises. I’m cycling along a smooth undulating coastal road, where the rock cliffs are dramatic against the azure water. It’s hard to believe this country is the world’s 16thlargest trading nation.

We stop near Hualien at an oceanside restaurant where the Amis tribe, the largest indigenous group in Taiwan, is rejuvenating their traditional cuisine. Dressed in camouflage shorts and a bright orange shirt, chef Canglah Chen, who also hosts a popular cooking show, is a cool poster boy for a new era.

“I want people to know more about our tribe’s food culture, which correlates with our rituals: hunting, collecting  wild herbs, music and more.” The rotating round table fills up with dishes. An entire tilapia fish, slathered with slivers of ginger and green onions marinated in soy sauce, flakes effortlessly off the bone. It’s accompanied, plate after plate, by eggplant with ground pork, coconut rice and wild mushrooms with broccoli.

That night we venture deep into the local scene. I walk through a living room, past kids’ toys stacked on a dining-room table and electrical wires sprouting from an unplastered wall. I’m skeptical, but Wang Qunxiang is a French classically trained chef. After years of stressfully working in Taipei, today he invites guests into his home on the southeast coast of Taiwan near Taitung.

“It’s not a restaurant,” our interpreter reiterates throughout the 10-course meal. Wang Qunxiang’s Family Feast “aims to introduce people to real food, entice people to cook at home, and get back to a simple way of life.” And the food, sourced locally and cooked European-style, is also meant to taste that way.

Bitter melon (honeydew with a tang) tastes refreshing, yet savoury, with olive oil and oregano. Risotto with local mushrooms is Italian with a distinctive Chinese soy sauce. And the pumpkin soup is so fresh, it’s like eating directly from the patch.

CONCEPT DINING

Returning to Taipei, I eat one of the strangest meals I’ve ever had at a restaurant called Quan Alley. The concept is traditional Chinese Szechuan, which involves cooking the food in a bubbling spicy hot pot. The food is almost too pretty to eat. I remove a floret of broccoli from a bouquet of vegetables, and then unfurl a piece of pork shaped to look like a flower.

On my last night, as the sun sets and the night air is still hot, my mind is still abuzz with sensory overload. I wander through a night market, past steaming barbecue dishes and sizzling meat, a network of tech gadgets, panda bear phone covers, Hello Kitty pens, mugs, old computer parts made into statues of little men. But I’m searching for something simple.

Waiting in line for a pile of shaved ice topped with condensed milk and chunks of mango, I’ve found it. Mango ice. Creamy, cold and sweet. Perfection.

Travel Planner

Air Canada (aircanada.com), China Airlines (china-airlines.com) and Eva Airways (evaair.com) offer direct service to Taipei from Vancouver and Toronto. Canadians holding valid Canadian passports are able to enter Taiwan without a visa for up to 90 days. For more information on Taiwan, visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website at go2taiwan.net.

 
 
 
 
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