Ni Hao, Taiwan: Part One

Ni hao = “hello” in Mandarin Chinese, Taiwan’s most common dialect

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I’ve been back from Taiwan for a couple of weeks now, and I realize I actually miss it. A lot.

While I was there, it was hot and muggy and leafy and full of mopeds and splashy ads for mopeds. The more elaborate the food, the more strange or bland it seemed to taste. Colors were stunningly over-saturated or shimmering in a humid haze. Smells went from divine to bizarre in the turn of a corner.

I was happy to dwell in any oasis of dimly-lit calm.

But now that I’m back in my everyday life, I find myself daydreaming of street food from night markets and lush hillsides with huge golden Buddhas on top of mysterious far-off buildings. I want to perch on rocky, distant coasts and peer into gorges and soak up to my chin in natural hot springs. I want to go and see more Taiwan.

But for now, here’s a sense of what I saw, did and ate…this time around.

In late summer, Taiwan is achingly hot, even at 7am. I’d head out for an early morning walk to beat the swelter, only to find myself basting like a Thanksgiving turkey within 10 minutes. When I go back someday, I’ll plan a trip for March or April, when it’s reportedly cooler, milder, even downright breezy.

On this trip, though, I took respite in the shade whenever possible. My favorite shade was found by the pond near Taipei’s dramatic Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial: in addition to a slightly lower temperature, it offers turtles, fish, blue herons and old folks doing tai chi.

 

 

Aside from my ability to withstand humidity, Taiwanese food was the biggest surprise. Taiwan is famous for its ornate, artistic presentations of complex dishes with both cultural and/or spiritual significance, but more often than not, this culinary form of theater didn’t float my boat. Something would arrive to the table and visually knock my socks off, only to inspire me, upon tasting it, to scan around for a shaker of salt or a bowl of chopped herbs. Conversely, I found that almost without exception, more humble, simple preparations tended to be more flavorful, missing only the flash and dazzle.

 

 

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup fit the simplicity bill for me, but there were still unforeseen variables. It’s one of the nation’s most singular dishes, and on my first day in Taiwan I had it for lunch at Taipei’s highly-lauded Lao Zhang Beef Restaurant. (Mostly) delicious and spicy, my own straightforward bowl had both the famous simmered beef and…tendon. As in “the fibrous connective tissue that binds muscle to bone,” this was a last-minute addition inspired by my own foolhardy sense of adventure. And while the collagen in tendon is supposed to be great for your skin, in the future I’ll gladly do without its endlessly chewy texture — and shudder factor.

 

 

Night markets are held all over the country, which I found brilliant. I didn’t want to be outside for long during the sweltering days (heck, no one in the country does) and I loved exploring all the options for cheap and delicious food. Yes, I saw things that were fairly off-putting. (Blood cake, I’m talking to you.) But I was also thrilled to stroll alongside the sparkly-clean, brightly-lit food stalls in city after city, discovering truly delightful snacks on skewers, in bowls, resting on beds of shaved ice, or even wrapped up in banana leaves.

My favorite night market treats were fresh watermelon/guava juice and a skewer of sticky-sweet red bean mochi.

 

 

Every day, I discovered a new-to-me fruit. My favorites were the the bumpy sugar apple and white guava, both absolutely delicious when dipped in salty-sweet plum powder.

And the vegetables — are you kidding me? Gorgeous. I actually swooned over a cabbage. Swooned, I tell you. Some of my favorite dishes of the trip were found in the vicinity of Sun Moon Lake in central Nantou County, home to the mountain-dwelling Thao, one of Taiwan’s nine aboriginal tribes. In particular, I liked stir-fried shan-su, or bird’s nest fern; in Taiwan, this is a wild-growing mountain plant, while here in L.A., it’s a happy houseplant in my kitchen.

 

 

One of the most fascinating meals of my journey was in central Nantou County, in the well-touristed town of Puli. Almost no one at the Puli King Down Restaurant speaks English, so thankfully for me and my tragic Mandarin, I was accompanied by a couple of Taiwanese women willing to translate everything that was happening in this enormously popular, brightly-lit, sparely-decorated banquet space.

All the ingredients used here were produced in and around the Puli area, including this (initially) lovely, bright green lotus soup. At first, I thought the white things floating in the soup were strips of onion. Then it tasted kind of…fishy. I pulled out a piece, found a strange little cuttlefish looking back at me…aaaaannnd that was the end of that.

 

 

Taiwan is doing very well, financially speaking. For proof, walk around your house or office and take a look at where most of the things in it were made. (Go ahead. I’ll wait here.) Amidst all of this economic prosperity, older, shorter versions of each of Taiwan’s largest cities are fast being subsumed by construction projects. While at the Formosa Vintage Museum in Taipei, itself a shrine to the country’s past, I pulled up a window-side chair for a while and watched that past continue to fade.

 

 

You want mopeds? They got mopeds in Taiwan. Lotsa mopeds. In each city I visited (Taipei, Taichung and Tainan), the occasion of a traffic light turning green would release what looked like a swarm of metal hornets, often with more than one person aboard. Sometimes, there would be an entire family snuggled together, all wearing helmets.

 

 

In Taiwan, women tend to be concerned about their complexions. And when I say concerned, what I mean is obsessive. In every city, in every even halfway-major town, I saw women shading themselves from the punishing sun with lightweight, girly umbrellas. In every night market, there’d be a ton of people selling them — but none more fantastic than this guy.

 

 

And the face mask thing? Creepy. I get that some folks don’t want to ingest fumes and are eager to keep their faces shaded from the sun and what have you, but still — creepy.

 

 

Taipei 101 is the next-to-largest building in the world (next to, that is, the Burg Khalifa in Dubai) and I was hell-bent to check it out. However, I urge you — with the strength of a thousand suns — to skip the observation deck unless it’s first thing in the morning.

Starting just after lunch, I spent two hours of my life crawling up to/down from the 90-gajillionth floor with lined-up herds of other human beings, all of which made me sad. Sure, it was exciting to see Taipei stretch away endlessly in every freaking direction, but the thrill didn’t last long enough to make the hassle feel worthwhile.

The good news? The outside of the building looks very cool from all over downtown Taipei.

 

 

A one-time film and animation major, I love me some cartoon characters. Fortunately for me, almost everything in Taiwan is advertised with a cartoon character. In a country where something like half the world’s animation artists live and work, I was in line-drawn heaven. (Never did find a shrimp hat for myself, though.)

 

 

I became enamored of anything be-Buddha’d in Taiwan — which is good news for me, as The Enlightened One is depicted in a myriad number of ways throughout the country. Sometimes he’d be delicately carved from rose coral, perched on a slab of stone, other times he’d be tucked into a box, all shine and smiles. I never knew how or where I might find him.

 

 

Oh, and the templesah-mazing. There are temples all over Taiwan: ask any random Taiwanese person what they think of that temple over there, dripping with gold and color and lions and dragons, and they’re bound to roll their eyes and say, “Oh yeah, look at that…another temple.” (Chances are, they’ll also take an extra minute to head in, purchase a stick or two of incense and say a prayer over the smoke for their loved ones.)

I personally couldn’t get enough of Taiwanese temples and their enormous, gleaming creatures and intricately painted ceramic tiles.

 

 

I also loved the small, quiet, respectful act of
removing my shoes before entering a home or teahouse.

And clearly, I wasn’t the only one who appreciated this simple gesture.

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My trip to Taiwan was sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau,
but all observations and opinions are my own.

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Continued in
Ni Hao, Taiwan: Part Two

Things To Do
Taipei

Comments

  1. Melanie — I think this might be your best post ever.

    You really connected me to your Taiwan experiences. I really felt like I was traveling along side you.

    How do you think the humidity compares to the southern US states?

  2. The temples ARE amazing! Love a culture that has so many of something so old and ornate like this that they just roll their eyes when you ask about one.

  3. The food, the mugginess and the mopeds, you’ve just described many of the things I love about Asia 🙂 I am looking at making Taiwan a stopover next year on the way to the US – can’t wait to check it out.

  4. Sheila, thank you! In summertime, I think that Taiwan and the American South have the exact same kind of humidity; imagine walking through chicken broth and that about says it.

    Rebecca, the Taiwanese attitude towards the glut of temples reminded me of Parisian locals strolling past Notre Dame as if it wasn’t even there. I was suitably amazed while they were just surrounded by the scenery of daily life.

    James, definitely do stop in Taiwan — and then come to LA to play!

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