Hello folks, I am officially back from my month long vacation, trust you have applied yourselves positively while I’ve been away. My yearly visit to the folks is always enlightening if perspective bending though this is the first time in eight years that I went home in time to celebrate Chinese New Year. I’m carrying alot of holiday weight right now, five kilos to be exact, heavy stuff. Astrologists are predicting a gold rush this year and have interpreted the year of the Metal Tiger to be one made of solid gold. Bling. I had originally intended this post to be the closer to my run of unofficial Chinese New Year write-ups and was suppose to coincide with Chap Go Meh – the fifteenth day of the new Lunar year – the same day which also marks the end of the Chinese New year festival… but other more pressing commitments had ensured a five day delay – building websites still doesn’t quite pay the rent. I had spent most of the time travelling between Brunei, Singapore and Taiwan, the latter was where I decided to spend my money. I have good reason to stuff myself silly and I filled my schedule with pit-stops to restaurants which served something representatively local – like a crash course into the native cuisine. It’s all well and good that we have so many restaurants which cater to all sorts of world cuisines, but it occurred to me that London has been the first destination that I have sampled certain international flavours. Something as common as say pizza for example – I can’t say I’ve actually tried a Neapolitan recipe passed down from the ages. This holiday would double as gastronomic adventure and I view it as a way to build my CV in a particular style of cuisine, so that I’ll always have something to compare my London exploits against. And so Kang’s quest to catch a glimpse into the world of Taiwanese cuisine was born. Here are his notes (So weird writing in the third person).
The scene is Taipei. The capital of the island republic, it is situated on the Northern tip of the country and its name unsurprisingly translates to ‘Northern Taiwan’. Home to 2.6 million, it is an emerging ultra modern metropolis of Blade Runner style concrete jungle and it’s skyline proudly accomodates Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world. Like all cities, there are shades of vintage buildings still lingering underneath all the shiny metal and glass. Old shop houses prop up the neon signs, lighting up the city’s night like a Christmas tree. It’s wonderfully urban, tight street corners just wide enough for cars to pass through and temperamental rainclouds which make London feel like Cyprus. In the belly of the beast lies a diverse range of restaurant, cafés and their famed night markets which play host to hundreds of independent street food vendors making it a sort of foodie’s wet dream. In fact, there is so much diversity in it’s food, a week is simply not enough time to try everything. But I tried anyway. My excursion wouldn’t be as impactful if not for my extended family taking me around the city, so I have the C and C’s to thank for all the recs.
With Londoners experiencing a spike in Sichuan food, I thought it’d be appropriate that our first stop was Chuan Ba Zhe – a Szechuan restaurant that does all-you-can-eat ‘Ma-la’ hotpots for about 8 per head.
The local flavour – Gold Medal Beer. The brew is light and carries a chrysanthemum sweetness about it – very easy drinking stuff. We started with a selection of ‘small dishes’ to share dishes and to start – something which is characteristic of a Taiwanese meal – including Kousiu (Saliva) chicken , Quaiwei (weird taste) vermicelli, Dou gan zhe (bean curd slices) and Mala tripe. As it was a Szechuan restaurant, everything was red in colour, evident of potent sliced chilli everywhere and the tranquilising effect of Szechuan pepper slowly started to grab hold of my tastebuds. Terrifying.
The main highlight of the meal was the all-you-can-eat hotpot, the freeloading aspect in that we could order as much meat or vegetables we wanted to chuck into the soup.
Now, this is properly spicy stuff. The soup was made with szechuan pepper and as I alluded to earlier, doesn’t just burn your tongue and throat, it actually conjures up a strange numbing sensation that firstly starts on the back of your tongue, and if you’re greedy, works it’s way into the back of your throat. I downed several glasses of gold medal beer to put the fire out. Eventually, I couldn’t feel my tastebuds anymore. If you head to Angelis in Kilburn or No.10 in Earls Court, you’ll be able get your hands on a Ma-la hotpot. It’s usually protocol to have a layer of oil floating on top of the soup, it’s suppose to keep the heat in and also to cook whatever you’ve dunked into the soup. I am certain that London restaurants hold back on the peppers – this place didn’t.
Our next visit would take us to the outskirts of Taipei, to the seaside township of Danshui.
We rode the MRT – Taipei’s equivalent of the tube – to Danshui and to the very end of the line. The town is a scenic getaway from the high tech city of Taipei. Here, people rolled around in vespas and flip flops and beyond the bridges, you can watch fishermen barbecueing their triumphs by the beach. Restaurants lined the coast, and as we went on a Sunday, it was as if all of Taipei had descended upon this area. We had trekked all the way here to visit the Black Shop, and to sample the locally celebrated pork chop rice.
A large bowl of their signature pork chop costs two pounds, less if our political system was in better working order. Like all umami infused food – this bowl of rice smelled hearty, rustic and fragrant. Served piping hot, the large flap of chop garnished with bean braised tofu and pickled cabbage that carried a vinegary stink. The rice was glutinous, almost sushi rice (but I daren’t claim it) and the savoury flouriness of the pork chop was unmistakable. There was a thin outer which encapsulated the piece of meat, eggs must have been used and the coating absorbed alot of moisture leading to a juiciness which softened the texture of the pork. The combination of the bean-flavoured tofu, the vinegary pickled cabbage and the soya infused egginess of the porkchop gave way to an exemplary example of umami… I finished two bowls.
The black shop was still entertaining massive queues at 3pm in the afternoon, and this was a huge restaurant spread over two floors – such was the popularity of it’s pork chop rice. While there, it was also an opportunity to give one of Taiwan’s best – if common – small dishes a try : Cold creamy tofu with sweet century egg.
When I say creamy, I mean really creamy. The texture is so consistent, it hardly broke and is akin to the density of say a pannacota. Flavoured with a sweetened soya sauce, the purity of the tofu melds well with the mushy liverness of the preserved duck eggs. The strength of this dish – in my opinion – is dependent on the quality of the tofu. The real deal, everything in London is a mere imitation.
Black Shop Pork Chop rice 黑店排骨飯
8-10, Lane 62, Sec 1, Zhongzheng Road, Danshui.
Tel : 02-28052790
MRT : Danshui
We headed out bright and early the next day so that I could run a few errands while in Taipei. Things are generally cheaper, I had my Seiko Kinetic fixed for just under £40 compared to a whopping £85 minimum if I sent it to Maidenhead. I also had bought a pair of thick black rimmed glasses – Clark Kent style – for a reasonable price…. yes, as if Gary Rhodes would suddenly recognised me attempting to ‘review’ his restaurant, says my ego.
Next stop was for breakfast at a local soya milk shop.
We went to Jiang Jia, not particular special, nor exciting but it was something distinctly local and also open 24 hours a day.
A bowl of salty soya milk made with pickled lettuce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, maldive fish and a tiny splash of soya sauce – definitely a change from the rock sugar syrup of HK style sweet tofufa. My favourite were the glutinous rice roll stuffed with pork floss and pickled radish. I thought it was interesting to have a dough explosion of sorts with a youtiaw – fried dough – stuffed with a chinese style omelette on a sesame crusted bread roll – called a ‘shao bing you tiew jia dan’ or otherwise a chinese breakfast butty perhaps.
I spent alot of time getting lost in the side streets which hid makeshift markets and the occasional street food vendor, photographing this street life proved to be one of the highlights of my visit to Taipei.
All I could see was the romance of the older parts of Taipei, so rustic, raw and human, it was here that I felt the life and the buzz of the real city.
We have now just got off Dingxi station and my other half and decided to take me to one of her old favourite noodle shops. Small, unassuming and humble. There would be nothing high brow about it, but again the attraction was apparent in it’s unpretension, just so real.
And here, I had tasted one of the best spare rib & taro soups to date. The soup was oily, but filled with meaty and stocky flavours – very homely. Like most of the soupy meats I had sampled in Taipei, the spare ribs melted like ice cream.
Finally, our last destination led us to the Golden Formosa, famous for none other than authentic Taiwanese cuisine, and I was assured that it doesnt get more authentic, or local than this.
There are several variations of the ‘White-Cut’ Chicken in the different types of Chinese cuisine, and it so happens to be a local favourite in Taiwan, which claims a variation of their own. It’s a mainstay in Cantonese cooking and is a sort of a national symbol of Singapore cuisine in which it is referred to as Hainanese Chicken
The skin is salty and oily, but the meat is juice heaven and silky smooth. There is rich chicken flavour and a clinical taste on the palate. The chicken bounces with every bite and is just a joy to eat – getting breast meat to soften up is a family secret, and the breast meat at Golden formosa was much like caressing the equivalent assets of a beautifully woman, or…
Ginger tripe with bamboo shoots.
What is aromatic to a Taiwanese person just reeked to my untrained palate. This dish stank of bamboo shoots and vinegar, the tripe added to the soured livery flavours of this dish. It was a difficult mouthful for me, not my cup of tea this one, but about as Taiwanese as it could get.
Scallop and Oyster Pancake was up next.
I think the thick gravy – slimy and very fishy – was probably made from the juices scallop and the oyster. It was like a runny pizza with a dough that absorbed too much moisture. Very potent, I could only have a slice before the fishiness became overwhelming.
Finally, deep fried spare ribs.
This one I really enjoyed – one of the most memorable dishes from my trip. Crunchy popcorn like exterior, bubbly crispiness and a peppery hit with a worschester sauce tang. I am certain that there was curry powder in the mixture and which which really gave ribs a spice of life. The meat still juicy on the inside but the distinct sour and spicy crackle on the outside.
Golden Formosa 金蓬萊
101 TianMu East Road, Taipei
So that was my trip to Taipei. The most memorable meal has got to be the Pork Chop rice – simple food, but oh so good. In addition to this, I wrote up on one of Taiwan’s greatest treasure – Beef noodle soup at three of Taipei’s most respected Beef noodle houses. Alright, well a belated happy new year of the Tiger folks, hope you enjoyed my adventures away from home. I think it’s about time I got back to writing up about London again. See you monday.