Taiwan, Day Three

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The thing about Taiwan is that for such a small country, there is really so much to see. With only one week, it was hard to decide what day trips to take out of Taipei. My favorite was our trip to Shifen and Jiufen, famous for the lantern ceremony and for inspiring Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, respectively. To say it’s otherwordly does not do it justice.

We took a train about an hour outside of Taipei to Shifen, our first stop. Historically a mining town, today Shifen is famous for its lantern ceremonies and for its picturesque waterfall and trails. But first, we ate.

Small sausage in large sausage

Fried squid

The small sausage in large sausage (which is a meat sausage wrapped inside a sticky rice “sausage”) was a dud, but the fried squid? These addictive, salty morsels kept us going all morning. Who says you can’t have deep-fried seafood doused in tasty powder of dubious origins for breakfast?

Shifen Old Street

Keelung River

Lemon aiyu jelly

Shifen Waterfall

Shifen Waterfall

Shifen to Jiufen

After sending our lantern into the sky, Nishan and I hiked past the Keelung River and to Shifen Waterfall. Sweet and sour lemon aiyu jelly quenched our thirst in the super humid heat. (If you know me, you know how much I love jelly and other QQ-esque things in my drinks.)

We eventually made our way back to town and caught a taxi to take us to Jiufen. Our driver was quite possibly the kindest driver in Taiwan (remember what I said about Taiwan being the friendliest country on earth?). He stopped in a small town along the way to pick us up a piping hot snack for the road and refused payment for it. He shared with us that this savory snack is a specialty of his hometown, and I wish I knew what they were called. It was sort of like a fried egg-and-cabbage batter on a stick and really satisfying.

Grilled mushrooms

Jiufen Old Street

Jiufen A Mei Tea House

Jifuen A Mei Tea House


Jiufen Zheng's Traditional Fishball

Sweet taro balls

Jiufen is a sight to behold. Nestled in the mountains, it’s easy to see how Miyazaki was inspired by this place. Even hordes of tourists couldn’t dampen the beauty and serenity of Jiufen’s alleyways and cobblestone streets. We snacked on spicy grilled mushrooms and fishball noodle soup as we made our way through town, stopping at the picturesque A Mei Tea House but stopping at a smaller, less crowded teahouse to enjoy a cup of oolong. But the real highlight for me was another Jiufen specialty: sweet taro balls. Served over shaved ice, this is a cacophony of QQ. For the initiated, QQ is a phrase in Taiwan that means “toothsome,” or “chewy.” Think boba in milk tea.

As afternoon turned to evening, Nishan and I headed back to Taipei for dinner at Shin Yeh. Shin Yeh serves banquet-style Taiwanese cuisine and there are a few in the city. We headed to the Zhongshan District location.

Chilled baby abalone

Steamed crab roe on sticky rice

Ma po tofu

Scallops with black bean sauce

I was really excited for this meal but it fell short. I take partial responsibility as I may not have ordered the right dishes. The abalone wasn’t tender, the crab roe was, well, not very crabby, and the ma po tofu was ketchupy. I enjoyed the scallops with black bean sauce, though.

Still, my favorite restaurant in Taiwan continues to rhyme with Min Hai Tung.

Taiwan, Day Two

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I would be lying if I said that I didn’t go to Taiwan so I could eat at the original Din Tai Fung.

You see, I’ve eaten at the famed dim sum restaurant’s outposts in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California a handful of times, but I wanted to go to the source. I knew it was a touristy thing to do, but you know what? It was totally worth it. My meal at the original Din Tai Fung near Dongmen Station (not to be confused with the newer Din Tai Fung in Taipei 101) was one of the best meals of my life.

The original Din Tai Fung

If you’re going to be a tourist, you may as well own it, right? I still dream of these dumplings. (Hey, Din Tai Fung, do me a solid and publish a cookbook already!)

Din Tai Fung house special and spicy cucumber salad

The Din Tai Fung house special and spicy cucumber salad were both as good as I remember the San Gabriel Valley ones being, if not better.

Stir-fried cabbage and house special spicy noodles

The stir-fried cabbage was a revelation. How can something so humble and so simple taste so savory? And the noodles were doused in an addictively garlicy and peppery sauce. They were perfect.

House special spicy vegetable and meat wontons

Crab roe and meat xiaolongbao

Truffle and meat xiaolongbao

Truffle and meat xiaolongbao

But the highlight of the meal were the dumplings. So. Many. Dumplings. The house special spicy vegetable and meat wontons were paper-thin, succulent, and juicy. And the sauce? Oh my.

The crab roe and meat xiaolongbaos were perfectly briny and tasted faintly of the sea. I loved them. I could twenty of these.

And despite everything tasting so good, the real highlight of the meal were the truffle and meat xiaolongbaos. Imagine generous shavings of truffle permeating every brothy, meaty bite. These needed no dipping sauce on the side. They. Were. Perfect. It’s a shame you can’t find these stateside.

Din Tai Fung

And this, my friends, are the faces of two more-than-satisfied customers.

Dongmen Station

Taipei 101

Taipei 101

Fried chicken at Taipei 101

After a meal like that, we blissfully made our way over to the Xinyi District to check out the observatory at Taipei 101. At 382 meters above ground, the observatory is in the tallest green building in the world.

We stopped for a quick snack of fried chicken before leaving Taipei 101 and you know what? Taiwan does not play when it comes to fried chicken. Even at the mall food court.

By now it was afternoon and it was pouring rain outside (Taipei is rainy, y’all) so we hopped on a bus (Taipei’s public transportation is excellent) and headed to Wistaria Tea House.

Wistaria Tea House

Wistaria Tea House

Wistaria Tea House

Taiwan is steeped in a complex and well-established tea culture. Nowhere is this more evident than at Wistaria Tea House, a historical teahouse built in the 1920s in Da’an District. The teahouse was a meeting place for political dissidents during the 1980s and today, it’s a favored hangout for literati, artists, and academics.

We sampled an array of traditionally-prepared teas, with a focus on Taiwan’s oolong varietals.

1976 Restaurant

We spent the evening exploring Eslite, a well-loved and gigantic bookstore. There are a handful of these in the city and we checked out the Dunnan Store location, which is open 24 hours a day. That’s my kind of bookstore.

For dinner, enjoyed a Hong Kong-style meal of congee with beef and egg, gai lan, and har gow at the nearby 1976 Restaurant.

Taiwan, Day One

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Taiwan is the friendliest country in the world.

No, really. Year after year, Taiwan ranks as the friendliest place on earth for visitors. And when Nishan and I traveled to Taiwan last year, we found that to be true day in and day out. Whether we were in bustling Taipei or in sleepy Jiufen, the people of Taiwan left such an impression on us that it became our favorite part of the trip. Which is no small feat, because there’s lots to enjoy about Taiwan. Starting with the food, of course. (I mean, come on. It’s me. I travel for food.)

Tempura fried tea leaves with matcha and fish dumplings

Jill's to-eat list

Lunch with Jill

After a stellar breakfast at our hotel (yup, an outstanding hotel breakfast exists and it’s in Taiwan), we met up with my colleague and friend Jill, who lives in Taipei, for lunch at Cha for Tea. The fish dumplings were juicy but it was the tempura fried tea leaves with matcha that were a revelation. So creative, so subtle, and so unique. Jill armed us with a list of must-eats for the famed Shilin Market, where we’d be stopping by later in the day.

But first: the National Palace Museum.

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is the largest collection of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks in the world. I learned about the dramatic evacuation of these artworks from Beijing to Taiwan: In the 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek made the decision to evacuate the arts to Taiwan, which had been handed over to the ROC. When fighting worsened in 1948 between the Communist and Nationalist armies, the National Beiping Palace Museum and other five institutions made the decision to send some of the most prized items to Taiwan. Today, its sister museum holding the other half of the collection resides in Beijing.

Oromo Cafe

Beef noodle soup and stir-fried water spinach

It was pouring rain when we emerged from the museum hours later so we dipped into Oromo Cafe for a quick tea and coffee break before making our way to Shilin Night Market for a warming bowl of beef noodle soup and some stir-fried water spinach. (Water spinach, also known as morning glory, ong choy, kangkung, is one of my favorite vegetables. Shout out to my trip in Hanoi for putting me on.)

Hot Star Fried Chicken

Hot Star Fried Chicken

Carbon barbecue

But the real highlight of the evening was the infamous Hot Star Fried Chicken. (Jill, if you’re reading this, you’re right. One piece easily fed two!) I’ve tried to cook this dish at home since visiting Taiwan but it’s just not the same. I’ve been craving this giant, juicy, crispy, perfectly-seasoned piece of chicken for months now. Hot Star Fried Chicken has expanded to North America in the last couple of years, but sadly, not to the Bay Area. Have you been to the Southern California or Toronto locations? How does it compare? Let me know in the comments.

We finished out our evening by snacking on local specialties at Shilin Night Market, like carbon barbecue and green onion pancakes.

Not bad for our first day in Taipei. Not bad at all.

Garlic Thai Fried Rice

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If I told you this simple, humble plate of only five ingredients is one of the best fried rice dishes I’ve ever had, would you believe me?

I served this alongside grilled chicken but the rice stole the show. With only garlic, green onions, and fish sauce as seasonings, this dish is an umami bomb. The secret lies in duck fat instead of the standard peanut oil. You can buy jarred duck fat at some specialty grocers and it’s worth seeking out as it imparts a subtle meatiness and heft to an otherwise simple dish. It’s not traditional, but I had some in the fridge and wanted to add an extra layer of flavor to the rice. Chicken schmaltz will do just fine as well.

Garlic Thai fried rice


2 tablespoons duck fat
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups cold cooked jasmine rice
2 or 3 green onions, trimmed, slivered lengthwise, and cut into 1-inch lengths
3 teaspoons fish sauce

1. Heat a wok over high heat and add the duck fat. Add the garlic and stir-fry until slightly golden, about 20 seconds. Add the rice, breaking it up as you toss it. With a spatula, keep moving the rice around the wok, cooking for about 2 minutes. Add the green onions and fish sauce and stir-fry for another minute. Serve warm.

Egg Flower Soup with Lemongrass and Mushrooms

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This isn’t a traditional egg flower soup recipe by any means. But I love egg flower soup in any permutation and have been making this easy version for years — decades, even! Lemongrass, tomato and nori seaweed are unexpected ingredients here, but trust me, it works. Sometimes, the sum is greater than the parts.

Egg flower soup with lemongrass and mushrooms


4 cups chicken stock
2 stalks lemongrass, bottom 8 inches, lightly crushed
3 fresh shiitake mushrooms, caps thinly sliced
1 ounce enoki mushrooms, trimmed and separated
1/3 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup thinly sliced bamboo shoots
1 sheet nori, shredded
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 package soft tofu, cut into 2-inch-long x 1-inch long strips
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon sesame oil

1. Bring the chicken stock and lemongrass to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.

2. Stir in the mushrooms, peas, bamboo shoots, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Add the tofu, tomatoes, and nori, stirring gently so the tofu does not break apart. Pour in the dissolved cornstarch and cook, stirring gently, until the soup returns to a boil and is slightly thickened.

3. Slowly pour in the beaten egg, stirring slowly but constantly to create “egg flowers.” Drizzle in the sesame oil and serve.