On the food trail in Taiwan
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On the food trail in Taiwan

When you visit this tiny island in the South China Sea, be sure to go on an empty stomach

brunch Updated: Oct 27, 2017 14:10 IST
Rupali Dean
Rupali Dean
Hindustan Times
Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, is a scrumptious city to live in (Rupali Dean)

You could visit Taiwan, a tiny island country in the South China Sea, for its almost implausible sights. Not to mention its interesting accommodations, plush tea arenas and craggy coastlines with swaggering turquoise waters. However, in this small nation bursting with diversity, it’s best to arrive on an empty stomach, because, as far as I’m concerned, Taiwan is all about the food.

Oh oysters, walk with us

Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, is a scrumptious city to live in. Seriously. Its major sport is arguing over which night market has the best oyster omelette. Though I’m just a visitor, my vote would go to the one in Shilin, where the omelette is a bit chewy thanks to the addition of tapioca starch, and decadent thanks to being soaked in a dense sweet chilli sauce.

To go with my omelette, I bite into a Taiwanese sausage – not your regular forcemeat, but cured, a bit dry and slightly sweet. Then I stroll about the market, sipping bubble tea, a milky, sweet drink laden with gummy tapioca pearls, the size of marbles. Among the stalls selling grilled squid, pan fried buns, and fried fish cakes, I find one dishing out beef noodle soup, almost a staple in this country. A perfect bowl consists of a flavourful broth which could be spicy red or light and fragrant, fork-tender meat and chewy noodles. I choose the light broth and am so blown away that I can’t even find adjectives to describe the sensation.

One of the best oyster omelettes is available in Shilin (Rupali Dean)

We are still discussing the delights of the night market when the bus stops at Leader Village Taroko, our hotel for the night. It is a small tribal village with separate aboriginal-style cabins with a Tang Dynasty touch.

Sample delicious dim sums at the night market (Rupali Dean)

When China became a socialist country in 1949, many people escaped to adjacent Taiwan, then a trivial island with native inhabitants of Trukus on the eastern side. I am fortunate to experience their way of life and cuisine first hand. On offer at our dinner place, using locally sourced ingredients, is comfort food Taiwanese style. I gorge on the wild barbecue boar meat with chillies and garlic, a wooden shoot of sticky bamboo rice, chicken soup, fried pork and native sweet potatoes, radishes and morning glory – I have no adjectives to describe this meal.

Of tofu and day lillies

Pick from a variety of vegetables for a DIY soybean milk hot pot meal at a soybean farm (Rupali Dean)

The next morning, about to set off on tour, I gulp down my tea and abandon my first-rate roasted aboriginal Shoubing, a flatbread with sesame seeds. The weather is breezy, perfect for the visit to the tofu (bean curd) makers. Freshly made tofu is unbelievably creamy, delicately sweet, and substantially versatile, and I can’t wait to see how it’s made.

Nanfangao is a key mackerel fishing port, with an annual mackerel festival that draws thousands every year

We first go to the soybean farm to watch the process of turning beans into milk and then into tofu – similar to how we make cottage cheese back home. Next up is a DIY soybean milk hot pot for lunch, for which I load up items from a tray next to a bubbling cauldron, let my meat, seafood and generous selection of vegetables from Enoki mushrooms to radish boil, then take the lot out and eat. Yum.

Next up is a bus trip east of Zhutian Village, to Fuli Township, in Hualien County, where day lily flowers grow. I bite into a day lily candy as we drive past hills of impossible beauty, thinking that I need new words to describe the beauty around me. Day lily flowers at Sixty Stone Mountain are a great tourist attraction: the location is gorgeous, and has quaint eateries. We settle down at one with some day lily and pumpkin fritters, and tea.

Quaint eateries in Sixty Stone Mountain offer nibbles like day lily fritters (Rupali Dean)

Fishing for food

You can’t be on an island and not catch the seafood, so dressed in pyjamas and a tee, I set out with local fishermen one morning to catch my own lunch. Freshly caught fish with nanao (natural farm rice) cooked on the boat, with congee and roasted peanuts, some pork tongue, and sashimi with a soy chilli dip, makes an excellent meal. The fish is mackerel – Nanfangao, where we are, is a key mackerel fishing port, with an annual mackerel festival that draws thousands every year.

Enjoy a meal of fresh mackerel on a boat at Nanfangao, the key mackerel fishing port (Rupali Dean)

With spectacular food on my plate for a week, I imagine I cannot think of any one particular dish to sum up my trip to Taiwan – but oh yes, I can! The famous soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung! Steamed dumplings filled with pork or shrimp dipped in vinegar soy sauce; I will carry this taste with me forever. The broth is in gelatin form and when the dumplings are steamed, it becomes juicy and hot, pouring flavour into your mouth when you bite. Poke a hole in the soup dumpling, drain the broth into your spoon, sip the broth, and then eat the dumpling. I demolished as much as I could before I had to run back to the waiting taxi for the airport.

Savour a bowl of soup dumplings filled with pork or shrimp dipped in vinegar soy sauce at Din Tai Fung, Taipei (Rupali Dean)
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    From HT Brunch, September 24, 2017

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    First Published: Sep 24, 2017 00:26 IST