- Rise and shine!...euh. This is the view from the balcony at my grandparent's place. It's considerably nicer looking when the sky doesn't look like it needs a hug.
I've always been a late sleeper, the kind who, without the shackles of an alarm clock, would naturally wake up sometime after noon. Few have attempted to wake me up early; it's like trying to wake up a heavily breathing sack of potatoes.
Except my dad. Many of my Saturday mornings as a kid started with my dad knocking my bedroom door, then—before I had a chance to answer—opening my door and announcing that it was 8 a.m. or some other too-early-for-Saturday hour, and thus time to get up. I'd respond with a moan of non-compliant acknowledgement or, more likely, pretend I was still deep in sleep, and continue on my potato sack ways.*
*If you're a child of the '90s in the US, you may be thinking, "But if you slept in late, that means you missed watching Saturday morning cartoons!" Truly the biggest downside to sleeping in. Many Saturday mornings started with my pajama-clad self blundering down the stairs, making a beeline to the TV in the family room, only to catch the last ten minutes of Beakman's World (one of my favorite shows), signalling the end of the kid-friendly Saturday morning line-up. I'd continue watching because as a child of the '90s it was my duty to lap up as much TV as possible (also, my family didn't have cable TV and this was pre-internet boom and I had nothing else to do because SUBURBAN LIVIN').
This is not how things went down during my vacation in Taiwan. Because I was staying with my dad, that meant waking up by 9 a.m. every morning, and because I'm an "adult," that meant not ignoring his wake-up calls and shoving my head back into my pillow.
And I'm glad my dad made me wake up early. Otherwise I wouldn't have gotten to try the breakfast shop near his house.
I've never been much of a breakfast eater because I like sleeping more than I like eating. But if I had lived near a Taiwanese breakfast shop growing up, maybe I would've felt compelled to wake up for breakfast. Because...
- It's like the Chinese equivalent of a basket of baguettes in France. Sort of.
DEEP FRIED CRULLERS (youtiao)! And...
FRESH SOY MILK (dou jiang) AND RICE MILK! And...
FLAKY, SESAME SEED-CRUSTED FLATBREAD (shao bing)! AND BUNS! AND TURNIP CAKES!
And because I have to put this somewhere, here's the "no smoking" sign that was hanging up in the breakfast shop. I'm guessing there's some cultural reason behind the guy wearing an animal suit. Or not.
It's customary to stuff youtiao in shao bing, basically making a fried bread sandwich, but I prefer to eat youtiao un-sandwiched when I dip it in a cup of hot, sweet soy milk or rice milk. Youtiao makes a great edible sponge for the milk. Its thin, golden crust stays crisp, while its chewy, light innards riddled with irregularly-sized holes (sort of like a good baguette) soak up the liquid. Even without any milk, youtiao should taste "juicy" from being so saturated with oil.
Taipei is full of breakfast shops ("probably every five blocks," says my dad) like the one near my dad's place. This particular shop is open from 8 p.m. until 11 a.m. the next morning, which sounds like odd opening hours to my American ears, but it isn't weird for a breakfast shop in Taipei. My dad said some shops open around 5:30 a.m until noon, while others are open 24 hours a day.
Out of Taipei's gajillion breakfast shops, there are a handful of famous ones. ...None of which I've been to yet. If you have any recs, do chime in. Here are a few I came across: Yong He Dou Jiang Da Wang, Fu Hang Dou Jiang, and Shihai Dorjian Da Wang.
After breakfast, I took the metro down to Tianmu to meet up with Lee Anne, who was staying with her grandparents. If you're from NYC, pretty much every other metro system in the world feels like a step up from NYC's metro. And I don't mean to knock NYC—I can't imagine the amount of work that goes into maintaining a metro system that's over over one hundred years old, has the most stations in the world, and is (mostly) open 24/7.
So it's probably not fair for me to compare Taipei's metro, only 17 years old, to the great grandfather of public transportation that is NYC's metro. But I can't help it because it is so beautiful. Imagine clean, spacious stations with wide platforms; bathrooms in (all?) stations; free wifi in stations; clear announcements in the trains (not that NYC totally lacks this, but sometimes the conductor sounds like he/she is mumbling into a pillow); clear signage; escalators galore; and probably other stuff.
What you can't do on Taipei's metro: stick your hands in the door. (I'm guessing it won't chop your fingers off, but perhaps the doors aren't as forgiving as they are in NYC.)
- Use these on the metro and you'll be breaking the rules. Leave them behind and OH GOD, THEY ARE WEEPING, LOOK AT THEIR SAD LITTLE FACES. Either way, feel the guilt.
Nor can you eat, drink, smoke, or chew gum. No wonder the stations are so clean.
For lunch, Lee Anne brought me to her grandparents' apartment. Unlike my grandparents, Lee Anne's are lively, self-sufficient, and beaming with friendliness. It was easy to see why Lee Anne loves them so much. (It helps that she can actually talk to them, but even if I could talk to my grandparents I don't think I'd be that close to them. It's just the nature of our personalities.) As loving grandparents are wont to do, they presented us with a lunch spread fit for a party of eight including rice cakes, cucumber salad, whole shrimp, steamed fish, tofu, and sliced papaya and Asian pear. We ate while the requisite Chinese historical drama played on the TV.
After lunch, Lee Anne showed me around the neighborhood. First stop: Mister Donut, Japan's largest doughnut chain with the world's cutest animal/doughnut hybrid mascots (although perhaps not the cutest animal doughnuts). I love their chewy Pon de Ring doughnut, which I first tried in Seoul. But I also had to get their cream-filled, bear head-shaped doughnut, introduced to me by Nick. You should read his post; it's far more colorful than anything I can come up with. I don't recall the doughnut leaving much of an impression one, besides being cute. But is that not enough? I suppose it is.
Next up was a visit to Takashimaya, one of my favorite department stores from my childhood, now looking a bit worn 13 years after my last visit. I was happy to see that the giant aquarium wrapping the basement level bank of elevators was still there, but it seemed less gleaming. Literally, it looked oddly dark, like someone forgot to turn the lights on. The true reflection of my disappointment: I didn't even bother taking a photo of it. [gasp] (Here's a photo I found on Flickr. ...Maybe the aquarium wasn't oddly dark. Whatever I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S REAL ANYMORE.)
I was also disappointed but not surprised to see that the top floor remained arcade-less. In the early '90s, any department store in Taipei worth their salt (to a kid, at least) had a creditable arcade. My favorite was Takashimaya's SEGA World. I can picture my ten-year-old self staring out the glass-paneled elevator, each passing floor adding a notch to my excitement meter, knowing I was seconds away from throwing myself into a continuous stream of colorful, flashing lights and piercing bleeps and bloops. It didn't matter than I wasn't a gamer; I just wanted to bathe in the
blood of my enemies energy and cacophany of arcades. ...And, I must sheepishly admit, I relished the opportunity to win shitty prizes by playing coin-pusher games. But it all came to an end during the mid-'90s when mayor Chen Shui-bian closed most (or all) arcades due to illegal gambling. In one fell swoop, every department store became equally boring. I have no idea how many arcades there are in Taipei today. This blog says there were 11 arcades in Taipei in 2007.
Something at Takashimaya that was new to me: a Muji with food. Lots of food. Muji stores in NYC don't have food; if they did, I'd go them more often. Here's a bit of the selection:
- Cookies, rice crackers, pea snacks, hard candies, mints, dried noodles.
- Candied nuts, dried squid, Fairtrade coffee, soymilk pudding, what I'm guessing are mini marshmallows because I don't know what else they'd be.
- Honey yuzu drink, lychee nata de coco and konnyaku, tea, cafe au lait, milk tea, ginger ale, tea soda mango.
- Red curry, yellow curry, butter chicken curry, keema curry.
- Plum candy and...salt tomato candy?
Poke around Muji's website for more foodstuffs.
After Takashimaya, Lee Anne and I stopped into a supermarket so I could scope out the junk food (one of my favorite activities when visiting a foreign country). Hot wings-flavored Doritos and barbecue shrimp-flavored Doritos shaped like lightning bolts? Yeah, gimme.
Oyster omelette-flavored potato chips featuring an anthropomorphic potato mascot dressed in white gloves, lime green shoes, a bowler hat, and a US flag bowtie attached to a collar and a dickey*. I wish I could've seen the brainstorming session behind this mascot. "This potato must be jolly and American and mostly naked but not TOO naked, I mean, give him some dignity, ok?"
*I just looked up what a dickey was for this post. Thank you, Potato Man; you taught me a new word.
I jokingly called this "science ramen" judging from the package. Mom told me the name actually says "scientific noodle."
Lonely God. ...Lonely God? (No one is swearing upon the altar of the Smurf; that's just a movie tie-in, thankfully.) I asked my mom WTF was up with this snack (not my exact words). Here's her response:
Hard to translate. More like " travel-loving fairy," or "exotic flavor fairy," not Lonely God, although I can see why they name it that way, the first character is pronounced "lung." The literal translation is Wave-Flavor-Fairy (or minor deity).
WAVE FLAVOR FAIRY, GUYS. That's better than anything I could've imagined. The snack is wavy, so it it isn't totally nonsensical, I guess. I bought a bag; it was actually quite good. You can read more about it in this review at Taquitos.net.
Don't know what snack this was, but behold the ENGRISH:
What hell is this crazy taste?
Alas, I didn't know, because I didn't buy it. I am a disgrace.
While I'm on the topic of Engrish (which will come up many times over the course of these posts), here's a clothing store we passed after leaving the supermarket. DOD: Den of Dream. You get one dream, so make it count. NO PRESSURE.
Roaming around Lee Anne's old stomping grounds meant being treated to stuff I'd never find on my own, like her favorite place to get scallion pancakes (cong you bing), those floopy-with-bits-of-crispy, light, multilayered, scallion-filled flatbread rounds. The shop is called 忠誠山東葱油餅 (此燈亮有餅) (according to Google) , or "Chung-Chen Shandong Scallion Pancake (pancake available when this light is on)" (according to my mom). Look at how legit this is:
- Makin' pancakes, makin'
- The slicing.
Five immense circular griddles for MAXIMUM SCALLION PANCAKE OUTPUT. ALL SCALLION PANCAKES ALL THE TIME.
Actually, that's not why they have so many stoves. Taipei-based Flickr user Yusheng explains:
They have a unique way of making it, seen here. Instead of cooking the pancake on a single stove top, they cook it in four steps on four different stove tops. Though I didn't ask, I imagine each one is progressively cooler in temperature. The first one is hottest to give the pancake that nice sear and slight crispiness. Then the pancake is transferred to the second stove, then the third and so on until it is cooked through. At the last stove the chef would use tongs to slightly fluff up the pancake. Then it is finally done.
Yusheng also said this shop makes the best scallion pancakes he's ever had (at least, in 2006 when the photo was taken). I trust his judgement, in addition to Lee Anne's.
The shop is open 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., although the sign mentions they may sell out before closing time. This sign also says pancakes are available when the sign (light) is on. Here's the full scallion pancake menu: "thick slice" (NT$45), whole pie (NT$80), half pie (NT$45), and quarter pie (NT$23).
- That's a happy Lee Anne. She might also in pain because freshly fried scallion pancakes are fuggin hot, but the benefits of eating a delicious scallion pancake outweigh the downside of scorched mouth skin.
No scallion pancake back home can compare to this one. Not that the ones I've had in NYC tasted bad—well, aside from the ones that were totally bad, gummy and bland with barely any crisp—they just seem to be a different style. Most of the scallion pancakes I've had in NYC come in small, mostly crisp, stiff wedges, like in this scallion pancake recipe from Kenji. The one I had in Taipei came in the form of soft, pliant wedges of mildly fluffy and doughy layers with crisp spots on the outside and plenty of scallion flavor.
Aaand now that I've done a bit more Googling, I can direct you to this more knowledgeable and descriptive Travel and Leisure article about scallion pancakes (and it mentions this very scallion pancake shop).
So...you have to try this scallion pancake shop. Yes.
Lee Anne brought me to Sogo before we parted ways. I browsed eat floor, mostly disinterested, until I reached [cue clouds parting, sunlight beaming, birds singing] Hands Tailung on the 7th floor. Hands Tailung is the Taiwanese offshoot of Japanese chain Tokyu Hands, a store that the prospect of visiting instills me with jittery excitement and fear of throwing all my money at it. (That applies to visiting Japan in general. I've visited Japan when I was a kid, but it was on my parents' dime. Or a jillion dimes.) Tokyu Hands sells craft supplies, science kits, stationery, electronics accessories, home goods, beauty products, kitchen and bath goods, and a blajillion other Japanese things whose powers combined would surely paralyze the part of my brain that understands fiscal responsibility. Really, poke around Tokyu Hand's online store and you'll see what I mean. I didn't just spend an embarrassingly long time on this site or anything. Um. (Right now I'm looking at the section for plastic wrap and foil. I am into this. ...Why am I into this.)
Tailung Hands seems to be a baby express version of Tokyu Hands. I've read that Tokyu Hands takes up multiple floors of department stores or exists as stand-along shops; the Sogo location of Tailung Hands takes up part of one floor and as far as I can remember doesn't have craft supplies. (This Taipei-based blog says the Breeze Center location is the only one that sells craft supplies. The post is from 2007, though, so I'm not sure if that still applies.)
These are all the photos I got in the store before I was chastised for taking photos. Look at me, breaking the rules, living life on the edge. [leans back in chair, slowly lowers sunglasses onto face]
I can confidently tell you that this Hands Tailung is well stocked with decorative hot dog/wiener-shaping tools because I bought every decorative hot dog/wiener-shaping tool I could find (like this and this), thinking it could make for a fun Serious Eats post. But that post never happened, although I do recall one afternoon when our interns used to the tools to produce a pile of mutilated hot dogs. (The tools are more for cocktail wieners than hot dogs, methinks.) Come to think of it, I don't know what happened to all those tools...
- Food and stuff. But not from Food and Stuff.
For dinner, my dad brought my grandparents and me to Jiin-Fong Pavilion, a fairly nice Chinese restaurant on the first floor of Xinbeitou station. My dad told me they serve a variety of Chinese and Taiwanese dishes and specialize in wedding catering due to the convenient location in a metro station, I can't tell you much about what we ate besides what you see in the photos. It was a light meal: salad, some kind of asparagus and mushroom dish, some greens, some kind of shrimp and herbs dish.
It's a good thing it was a light meal because after my dad brought my grandparents back home, we went out to eat more food. Yup, that's the way I like it.
My dad brought me to A-Zong Oyster Omelette in the old section of Beitou to get a taste of oyster omelette (or oyster pancake), a popular dish in Taiwan that's often found in night markets. (He says A-Zong's is better than what you find in Shilin night market.) The name is pretty self explanatory—an omelette filled with oysters—but unlike a Western omelette, when frying an oyster omelette the eggs gets mixed with a potato starch slurry, resulting in a texture (and flavor) that's less eggy, more chewy and gelatinous. In addition to oysters, chopped leafy greens are also strewn atop the bubbling omelette batter.
The final touch is smothering the omelette pile with a thick ketchup-based sauce. It doesn't taste like ketchup—it's pretty mild from what I remember—but, um, I don't remember much about the sauce besides that it's a bit sweet and a bit savory. Read this Serious Eats post from Cathy Erway for a much better description of oyster omelettes (plus a recipe!).
Although oyster omelette isn't among my favorite Taiwanese dishes—I'm not crazy about oysters—it's on my list of "things you must eat when in Taiwan."
Sharing space with the oyster omelette stall was this vendor selling red wine meatballs or red vinasse/hong zao meatballs (紅糟肉圓), a type of ba-wan that hails from the coastal mountain town of Jiufen, located about an hour north of Taipei. (For you Miyazaki fans, Jiufen inspired the setting of Spirited Away. I definitely need to visit someday.) It's more of a dumpling than a meatball. Or it's more of a gelatinous sac than a dumpling.
I couldn't find much information about red wine meatballs in English, so my description, aided by my mom's translation of some info she found in Chinese, might be a bit iffy. (If you have corrections, please let me know!) The filling is made of chopped roast pork and bamboo shoots cooked with (or marinated in?) red vinasse—fermented glutinous rice and red yeast—along with medicinal Chinese herbs. The thick, semi-translucent skin is made with glutinous rice flour, taro starch, and cornstarch, resulting in a chewy, springy, somewhat sticky texture. The whole thing comes doused in a reddish-brown sauce (I'm not sure what's in it) and topped with chopped cilantro. I don't remember much about what it tasted like besides that it wasn't bad, ignoring that it looks like the embryonic stage of a human-growing pod from The Matrix (more so when they're unsauced and in formation). Those who aren't used to the chewy texture of the skin might find it off-putting—I sure didn't like it when I was a kid. File under "I wouldn't dream about it, but I'd eat it again."
I took a photo of this chopsticks wrapper holder, so you're just going to have to look at it.
We roamed around the neighboring night market for a while.
And ended at this egg custard tart shop with a very effective, redonkulously huge billboard.
And that's day one of my trip! Only six more days to go.
Breakfast shop near my Dad's place
No. 296, Dàtóng St, Beitou District, Taipei City, Taiwan 112 (map)
No. 55, Section 2, Zhōngchéng Rd, 台灣, Taipei City, Taiwan 11148 (map)
Chung-Chen Shandong Scallion Pancake
No. 3號, Kèqiáng Rd, Shilin District Taipei City, Taiwan 111 (map); +886 2 8866 1626
No. 77, Section 6, Zhōngshān North Rd, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111 map
First floor of Xinbei-Tou Metro Station
No. 700, Dàyè Rd, Beitou District, Taipei City, Taiwan 112 (map)
A-Zong Oyster Omelette
No. 24, Huánggǎng Rd, Beitou District, Taipei City, Taiwan 112 (map)