Do you have a mental image of Taiwan? Perhaps, like me, you have always imagined that it was all one unattractively bloated Asian city. That it was very much like China. That it was kind of lame.
My mental image of the Taiwan was so wrong. Soooo wrong. That first day as we looked out of the spectacular view our apartment afforded it was obvious that that was not just a city of high rises. It is easy to be taken aback by just how green it is. I looked across at the rolling hills that the city has tucked itself into and realized that it was time to change my mental image.
Taipei is scrupulously clean. Not through the brute force of insane amounts of manpower (yet always slightly behind) like Beijing but in that casual way developed nations are. The way that the people have been brought up to throw away their trash and clean up after themselves. We don’t think of it often but cleanliness is one of the great privileges of wealth.
We were able to get out of the city to go to the Takaro Gorge. It is a nature preserve. There were hoards of mainland Chinese tourists. Once you have been before you won’t mix then up again. The counselor at my school is from the south of Taiwan. I always thought that her hysteria at the rougher side of China (I roomed with her at China studies) was a bit over the top until I saw Taiwan and realized that her culture shock was probably as great as mine- Maybe greater. People can see me coming down the street and they know that I am going to be clueless and need help. She speaks the language and can blend in so she doesn’t get the understanding that I do.
In some ways, Taiwan is the China that could have been. The people are amazing. Some of the kindest city dwellers that I have ever met. It makes you appreciate how deep the scars of the cultural revolution still go. Forty years after it ended the personality of the nation is still reeling.
We took an hour long gondola ride to the top of the highest hill in Taipei. The day was overcast but we could see Taipei 101 overlooking the city. It is the second highest building in the world. It was surpassed by a building in Dubai but the elevator is still the world’s fastest. Unfortunately, we were able to see very little when we went up as it was quite hazy. The most interesting part was the huge ball that somehow reduces the buildings sway especially during earthquakes. Apparently, many buildings have them but they aren’t[ usually open to the public. I watched the video but all I know is that the ball swings. How that reduces sway I do not know.
The highlight of the trip was surprisingly food. I was vaguely aware that Taiwan has a reputation for food excellence. What I did not know was that finding amazing food would be so easy.
While in Hailan at a shop that literally only sells dumpling soup. No starters, no drinks. The soup and nothing else. When I try to describe the dumplings, they don’t sound special. A clear broth with green onions and savory pork dumplings. The pork is seasoned but not spicy. Add soy and malted vinegar as you like.
The second course that day was another bare bone establishment. You know, the places that have no walls, plastic lawn chairs, shared tables, no plates. And more dumplings. Because you can never have enough. #personalphilosophy Steamed dumplings and fried dumplings and, in addition, boucha, which is a filled steamed bun. Normally, I am not a fan but these were delicious. Pork heaven all accented with a garlic soy sauce that just might be witchcraft.
And now we were hooked. More food Taiwan! Moar! Our solution was a cooking class, a food tour, and a trip to the night market. There are worse ways to experience another culture than through your stomach. Food is universal.
I like cooking classing. I a decent cook and I think that when you are learning new ways to prepare and think about the food you also start understanding an intrinsic part of a culture. We did a bunch of online research and ended up at Ivy’s Kitchen. A good choice as it was the best cooking class that I have ever taken.
The class started with a market tour. It was an indoor market and the cleanest that I have ever seen. And the quality of produce and meat? I want to shop there every day. It was a thing of beauty. We made three different dishes. Three Cup Chicken, Green Onion Pancakes, and Beef Noodles. The pancakes were surprisingly the most work. The dough was a bit temperamental and we had to let it rise twice and roll it out twice to accomplish a flakey layered effect. So delicious. But I live in China so I will probably just get them off the street rather than make them myself. Because lazy.
The Three Cup Chicken was good and I will probably make it for dinner one night. I am not going to use a chopped up chicken leg. I am a bit too western for that so boneless skinless for me. I am not Chinese enough to be obsessed with all things food texture so chopped up meat and bone isn’t my thing.
The star of the class had to be the Beef Noodles. So simple. Ivy has a pot of broth that the new broth to each time and then reserved each time. You cannot imagine the depth and complexity of that broth. Poetry. The noodles were great, the meat melted in my mouth but the broth was what I wrote home (literally, I put it in the postcards) about.
Walking food tours are some of my favorite things to do, ever. I get to wander around a city while someone feeds you delicious food educates you about their food and culture. Yes, please. The first things that we had were guava with salt and spice. Have you had guava? I have never had the fruit before but only the juice. It has a slightly firmer apple texture but you can eat the middle part with the seeds. I would eat it again. We went on to BBQ pork buns with pickled mustard greens. They call it Taiwanese burger. Pickled greens sound gross but actually added a lot to the sandwich. Probably the most dramatic thing that we tried was stinky tofu. Stinky is by no means an exaggeration. We walked by it a couple of times in the night market and we actually thought that it was some kind of intestine soup. Uncleaned intestine. The smell was that bad. Stinky tofu is normal tofu that is fermented in “vegetable matter”. It is scary. We tried it raw and deep fried. The actual taste is a bit cheesy. Strong cheese. With an aftertaste. For days. It was fine once but I didn’t develop a taste for it, that’s for sure. But I am leaving with a taste for Taiwan. I will definitely be returning.