One of the first things I noticed about Taiwan during the hour ride from the airport to Taipei was how wet, green, and fecund everything was. I have to confess that I really had no idea what Taiwan’s climate was like before coming, outside of the assumption that it was warmer than a South Korean winter. It turns out that, especially for the Taipei area, the answer is “wet.”
Towards the end of my stay in Taipei, I took a day trip to the old mining town of Jiufen. I met a tour guide, Peter, while looking for the bus, and tagged along with his small group. It rained the entire day, but that just served to add to the mystique of the place. The old town, perched on a hillside overlooking the sea, has been well preserved, and if you can look past the throngs of tourists, can convince you that you’ve traveled to another time, or even another world. As Peter told me, it had that affect on Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, who purportedly based a lot of the settings for his acclaimed Spirited Away on the town.
The other thing the town proved good for was eating, and I loved the cuisine of Taiwan in general. The local delicacy in Jiufen was 1000 layer rice cake- a delicate concoction that melts in your mouth even if I do have to raise my eyebrow at the concept of a thousand tissue-thin layers. Another favorite was a dessert consisting of several different types of bean and dumpling in a sugar water concoction and chilled by ice. The kidney bean in particular has a lot of legs as a dessert ingredient in Asia, and I’ve eaten it now in a wide array of pastes, fillings, and even ice cream flavors. It actually works pretty well, even if people here will raise their eyebrows at the concept of chili or burrito filling.
Now that we’re on the topic of food, I have to bring up my favorite part of the whole country, and one of my new favorite things, period: Night Markets. Just like Korea, temples are scattered all over the place in Taiwan. Besides being noticeably gaudier than their Korean counterparts, temples in Taiwan also often have something else attached- large street markets that come alive at night, selling everything from cheap clothes to an assortment of more “risque” items. Their chief attraction, though, is their food. You can find dirt cheap food to satisfy any part of your palate, and I ate at one every night.
My favorite dishes were the many varieties of pork and vegetable buns, which were greasy but oh, so delicious, and I also had an iced tamarind juice/lime gelatin more than once. Peter and his group brought me to a huge market in Shilin, where I got to eat at a steak and egg hotplate stand that’s been in the same place for more than fifty years, serving the same grub as they did to G.I.’s half a century ago.
Of course, I couldn’t resist some of the more adventurous cuisine as well. Stingray turned out to be overly chewy, fish-flavored cartilage, although the sweet garlic sauce it came with was pretty good. One place in the market served up an array of six shots made from various parts of a snake, including its venom and its blood. Some were definitely better than others, and the snake blood itself was thinner than I expected, and not half bad. Perhaps the sketchiest thing I ate was a fairground staple. You choose from a variety of fried things on platters, which are then reheated by tossing them back in the fryer for another turn. After a belly of that, I regretted not settling for snake venom again.