Put it on the 'bucket list'!
Taiwan has never featured on my global travel bucket list, not even after distilling the list down to exclusively Asian destinations. My own, narrow impression of the country was limited to the “Made in Taiwan” labeling that became ubiquitous on products in the USA in the 1980s. But after a long weekend in Taipei, I cannot wait to go back. Everything about Taipei was unexpected and intriguing, from the history, to the culture and, of course, the food.
Visits to the National Palace Museum, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the 2-28 Memorial Museum represent three distinctive platforms for revisiting Taiwan’s unusual history. The extensive collection at the National Palace Museum is dominated by ancient imperial artifacts that were relocated from China to Taiwan during the Civil War between Communist and National forces. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is dedicated to the leader who established the Republic of China in Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War and for 26 years afterwards. The 2-28 Memorial Museum is a dark reminder of the 40 years of martial law that the territory endured under Kai-shek and his successors.
While there is a decidedly traditional Chinese influence, there is something distinctive about Taipei that was difficult to pin down. The capital is unblemished by ‘skyscraperization’, and has a rustic, low-key feel as if it has yet to be discovered, but is intrinsically cool. The night markets are magnets for the residents in a way that evokes the Spanish ‘paseo’ or evening stroll. The city felt lively, bustling with movement, especially on the broad avenues, which were heaving with scooters – something you don’t see in Hong Kong or Singapore. The best way I can describe it, is that it felt like a Latin American outpost in Asia.
As in many cities in this part of the world, street food is a staple of the culture, and Taipei is no exception. The Taipei food scene is anchored by Night Markets and locals flock to them to stroll and ‘nosh’ their way through the evening meal. We spent a very ful-‘filling’ evening at the Raohe Night Market in the Songshan district near the Keelung River sampling some of the legendary specialties that Taipei’s street food scene is known for.
The pork pepper buns were without question the highlight. Originally a product of the Fuzhou region of China, these buns have become a symbol of national pride and are now more commonly referred to as “Taiwanese Pepper Buns”. They are typically made of a fluffy dough filled with a mixture of minced pork, scallions, soy and black pepper. We purchased ours from a vendor that is well known for pepper buns (immediately evident by the long line to purchase the buns), Fu Zhou Shi Zu.
An intriguing oddity of this Night Market (and many others) is the stinky tofu. For me, tofu is not high on my list of food groups, although I have had some good fried tofu dishes in Hong Kong. But fermented tofu is definitely an acquired taste. I was coaxed into trying it, and took the challenge, but only in the seemingly more palatable french fry version. I wish I hadn’t!
There are some great restaurants in Taipei as well. A classic Taiwanese eatery in the Zhongshan district is Umeko, which offers a selection of Chinese and Japanese specialties, including some great seafood dishes. And then there are the traditional Xiao Long Bao restaurants serving delicious soup dumplings. One of the highest rated is Hangzhou Xiao Long Bao directly behind the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, but there is likely to be a very long wait there. So Shengyuan Xiao Long Bao is a slightly more rustic, but very entertaining and delicious alternative around the corner.
Based on what I read in advance of the visit to Taipei, there are some adventurous parks to explore in the countryside. So, I hope to have the opportunity to revisit Taiwan in the future, and if I do, I would likely explore the more remote areas of the country.