What makes Blow Pops the most coveted of the lollipop family? (At least, if you were elementary school-aged me in the early '90s.) The bubblegum center.* Without the gum, it's just a fat, boring lollipop. Chewing on bubblegum not encased in a hard candy shell just isn't the same. It doesn't leave you with the heady sense of accomplishment**, of victory, that only comes from licking and crunching your way through a thick layer of candy to uncover more candy.
* If you're curious, as I was, here is the patent for "Method for making candy with gum inside."
** My list of childhood accomplishments is very, very short.
How does this relate to shaved ice? Barely. But pretend I came up with a better comparison than what I'm about to tell you. (And pretend with each passing second you're not inching closer to your death. And pretend there is a box of corgi puppies outside your door waiting to let loose in your home and trample you with more cute fluffy butt action than you could ever dream of OH GOD IT'S AMAZINGGUUHHH.)
Bad shaved ice is sort of the opposite of a Blow Pop. The outermost layer is where the party is—a party of syrup-soaked, toppings-laden bites—while digging deeper into the ice mound reveals a center of...ice. Crunchy bits of unadorned ice due to meager and/or ill-distributed toppings.
This is how you do it right:
Thanks to Tai Yi Milk King (臺一牛奶大王)—a famous old-school shaved ice shop that's been serving Taipei since 1956—I now know one sign that I'm about to dig into a good bowl of shaved ice: when it looks like a toppings bar puked on it. Vigorously. In this case, the toppings bar hacked out a hefty mound of homemade glutinous rice balls, sweet red beans, and sweet mung beans dripping with thick condensed milk. Crunchy, soft-n-chewy, starchy, milky-n-gooey—this pile has it all, with hardly any naked ice ruining the party. The way nature intended.
Looking like vomit isn't a requirement, of course. Here's another bowl of shaved ice more thoughtfully heaped with ripe mango chunks, probably less ripe slices of strawberries, and condensed milk.
And because it was lunch time, we supplemented our shaved ice piles with wonton soup. Because the shaved ice shop makes wontons.
Thankfully, Joan of A Hungry Girls' Guide to Taipei, aka one of the best people you could eat with in Taipei, helped Lee Anne and me plow through these bowls of shaved ice. Joan loves Tai Yi, Nick loves Tai Yi, and you should too, lest you break the chain of love, and why would you do that?
Ok, you might do that if you are adverse to grossly excessive toppings, or don't love the ice. And I must admit, I don't love the ice, but I do love the toppings. To me, Tai Yi is sort of like the Taiwanese shaved ice version of Eddie's Sweet Shop, an old school ice cream shop in Queens and one of my most favorite ice cream shops in the world. You don't go to Eddie's for the ice cream (ice cream that's totally fine, just nothing you'd go out of your way for); you go for the no-holds-barred smothering of traditional toppings. I feel the same about Tai Yi.
After we waddled out of Tai Yi, Joan guided us around some charming backstreets:
- A taco stand.
- A bar called Belly-wash. I thought it was an Engrish-y name, but after Googling found out it's a real term.
- A pizzeria called So Free, advertising wood-fired pizza and cheese.
- An instant noodle joint.
- Waffle salad in a cup?
- A cart with noodles, fish cakes, fish calls, tofu, veggies, eggs, and other things you'd add to a bowl of noodles.
- Dr. Pasta. Where the only prescription is pasta.
- Sandwiches in a random bakery.
- Rabbit Rabbit III, purveyor of Western favorites such as "burger, brunch, omelette, egg benedict, sandwich, pasta fajita."
Oh no, it's Mister Donut, that means we have to go inside and buy doughnuts.
And the wonderfully chewy Pon de Ring was mine.
Mister Donut (well, Japan in general) understands the value of having an adorable mascot. An adorable mascot that spreads joy and happiness to people the world over, luring in devotees with its round, innocent face...then used to sell limited edition goods only obtainable by buying a lot of doughnuts. By the end of my trip, I had accrued enough Mister Donut points to buy the plush blanket. I am not ashamed. I did it...for friendship. (I gave it to Nick as a gift. I hope he still has it. If not, he should definitely lie to me and tell me he still has it.)
Ay Chung Noodles is famous for their vermicelli with pig intestine, a variation of the popular Taiwanese dish oyster vermicelli. That's all they make. You can get it large (NT$60) or small (NT$45), and season it to your liking at their toppings bar with tubs of chili, garlic, and vinegar. Seating consists of stools scattered in front of the store.
I'm ashamed to admit I barely remember anything about the dish besides that the noodles are very soft—not mushy-soft, just soft—and the soup is thick. I didn't dislike it, but I prefer noodles with some chew to them. I wish I remembered more about the broth. Various reviews I came across say it's flavored with bonito flakes and bamboo shoots, besides the intestines.
I know I'm not selling this well at all, but you should try Ay Chung if you're in Ximending. I'll have to try it again on my next visit. Maybe I'll even end up with a description that isn't totally useless.
For dessert we went to...KFC! For Portuguese egg custard tarts! Because they sell those. And they're not bad. They come in Original, Custard, and "Brown Sugar Mochi Q, and they're served warm, my favorite temperature for flaky-crusted, creamy custard-filled tarts. The crust isn't the delicately flaky crust I'm used to—the kind that instantly plops a mess of feathery flakes when you bite into it—but a sturdier puff pastry-like crust. I'm guessing there are better Portuguese egg custard tarts in Taipei, but if you're an egg custard tart fan these are worth a try.
Next up, a visit to 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven? Yup. If you're into food, visiting a convenience store should be on your to-do list, as ordinary as it may seem. FOR ORDINARY, IT IS NOT (at least, if you've only ever been to 7-Eleven in the US), because it's full of Taiwanese/Japanese/etc. goods instead of American goods. It's a fact that East Asian convenience foods are better than American convenience foods, right? Yes.
And if that isn't enough for you, 7-Eleven has harnessed the power of a cute mascot named OPEN-Chan, a rainbow-headed space dog whose birthday is on July 11 and is from a planet located an 11-day rocket journey away from Earth in the 7-o-clock direction, duh. (You need to click that link. The mascot's profile is really...something. I can't read without imagining Catbug fervently shouting it at me. Please tell me I'm not the only one.)
And you'll have plenty of chances considering Taiwan is one of the most densely 7-Elevened areas in the world.
I took quite a lot of photos before an employee waved their hands at me to stop. Here are the fruits of my labors:
* When I lived in Taipei in the mid-'90s, I shopped at Family Mart waaay more than 7-Eleven due to proximity to my apartment, but I failed to visit a Family Mart on my trip, so I can't tell you much about it. This forum thread at Forumosa.com compares the two chains.
- Fish cakes and things!
- Various log meats, a staple of 7-Eleven.
- Sweet buns and other baked goods.
- Potato chips, cookies, Japanese snacks, etc.
- Potato chips and Doritos with flavors like seaweed, garlic steak, spicy chicken, Swiss cheese, and "golden cheese."
- More chips and crackers, including sweet potato chips, taro chips, maltose sandwich cookies (I kind of wish I had tried these; never seen 'em before), and butter crackers.
- Boiled tea eggs.
- A variety of steamed bao. Looks like a bunch of meat and veggie buns plus a red bean paste bun. When I lived in Taipei one of my favorite snacks was getting a steamed bao from Family Mart before or after school.
- Frozen treats.
- More drinks!
- Custard cups and yogurt drinks.
- More yogurt drinks, and some readymade noodle bowls.
- More readymade food: dumplings, soup dumplings, pasta dishes, noodle bowls, something that might be mapo tofu.
- Various sandwiches on sliced white bread, and ONIGIRI!!!, one of the world's best convenience foods. At least, if you're as obsessed with rice as I am. Aside from steamed buns, onigiri was one of my favorite convenience stores snacks when I lived in Taipei.
For dinner, my dad brought my grandpa and me to Water Drop Teahouse (滴水書坊), a Taiwanese vegetarian chain with an outpost near my grandparents' place in Beitou. The restaurant is next to An-Kuo Temple, a local branch of Buddhist organization Fo Guang Shan. This article says the restaurant chain is run under the Fo Guang Shan system.
- Some sort of soup.
- Some sort of noodle soup.
- Seaweed and tofu.
- Another noodle soup dish.
As usual, I fail you in the "describing food" department, as my most vibrant memory of this meal was getting attacked by mosquitos. Either I wasn't very hungry or I was distracted by my increasingly itchy, swelling legs. Overall, I liked the food enough—it tasted light and simple—but I may have liked the cozy wooden hut-like setting even more.
For a more helpful review plus lots of photos, check out AJ's Veggie Adventure.
You may as well take a peek inside the temple while you're there.
After dinner, I met up with Lee Anne at Shilin Night Market, Taipei's most famous night market and one of the city's largest, if not the largest. How large? ...It's...big. (Ok, I tried to get a more specific measurement of the largeness. This article says the market is 5,710 square meters. If you're like me, that doesn't mean anything to you. So I looked up the area of an American football field: about 5,349 square meters. That makes Shilin Night Market the size of about 1.07 football fields. Unless I fail at math.) And super crowded. How do you navigate it? Just step into the sea of people and flow through the the maze of sign-lit streets lined with open-air shops and stalls selling clothes, handbags, shoes, accessories, and, most importantly food, all for cheap. Food's really what you want. So that was our plan: walk around and eat food.
For some reason, we didn't check out the food court, which for nearly a decade until the end of 2011 was housed in a semi-temporary building down the street from the main drag of the night market. I'm guessing we didn't go because we weren't that hungry; otherwise it looks like I failed at life. When I visited Taipei early this year I did check out the food court's new digs, a renovated basement space that felt like a fire hazard. But that's a post for another day. As for what happened to the temporary location, it was torn down to make way for the new Taipei Performing Arts Center, set to open in 2015.
First order of food biz: large fried chicken "steak" from Hot-Star (Hao Da Da Ji Pai, 豪大大雞排), a Taiwanese chain that also has outposts in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Shanghai, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. Their specialty, called jipai, is like a thicker, crisper, juicier, spiced version of schnitznel. But you don't need a plate or utensils; you just eat it out of a paper bag. So...it's awesome. This was my first time eating it and I was immediately hooked for life. Yes, I'm confident that I'll love this chicken until I am dead.
I couldn't find a definitive description of how Hot-Star makes their fried chicken steak/cutlet/meat plank, so here's an educated guess based on information from Taiwan Food Culture, LauHound, Never Too Sweet, and Mickey's Favorite Taiwanese Recipes. Thinly pounded chicken breast is marinated, coated in potato starch and cornstarch mixed with five spice powder and white pepper, deep fried, and sprinkled with chili powder.
It's best eaten with two hands. Because it's huge. And it'll only set you back 55NT, about $1.90. Sigh.
Hot Star has at least two locations in Shilin Night Market. Besides the stall we went to, there's one in the basement food court.
We poked around some random stationery-and-cute-things stores for a while because stationery and cute things are two of our top interests. I remember seeing a lot Angry Birds accessories and alpaca plush toys, in case you're wondering what was popular...two years ago. Perhaps not anymore. I'm guessing these Totoro products will never go out of style.
We probably spent too much time in JSF ogling stationery, often colorful and riddled with cute animals and poetic Engrish making profound statements about friendship and happiness. On one hand, I can understand how some people may not be enamored by Asian stationery. On the other hand, OH GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, HAVE YOU SEEN ALL THESE CUTE NOTEBOOKS and NOTEPADS and NOTECARDS and TINY KEYRING NOTEBOOKS and LETTERSETS and STICKERS and THE LATEST IN PEN AND PENCIL TECHNOLOGY?! HOW DOES IT NOT BLOW YOUR MIND?
...Yeah, I know I'm the weird one.
Let's get back on the food train! Chuga-chuga-chuga-chugaflump. That's the sound of the train hitting a pile of sad. I recalled Nick telling me to check out a sheng jian bao stand in the market, but I didn't write down which one. (It's this one, by the way.) The buns from this stand weren't very good. I don't remember why exactly, but I'd guess they were inadequately crisp on the bottom and juicy on the inside. Two mehs up from Lee Anne and me.
Aaand back off the food train.
You'll find lots of crane game machines in the night market filled with neatly stacked piles of whatever's cute and/or popular. During my visit earlier this year that meant craploads of Adventure Time things. Back in 2011 there was none o' that.
Japanese capsule toys remind me of when I was a kid and easily enticed by those quarter toy machines filled with sticky goo-hands, flimsy plastic jewelry, poorly molded figurines, and more of the worst quality trinkets ever peddled to children. Of course, now that I'm an adult I look at those machines and think, "Gosh [clutches chest while squinting at machines], all of these so called 'toys' are atrocious, simply atrocious. [shakes head, monocle bounces off face] What a foolish child I must've been." And as an adult with a disposable income, when I'm presented with walls of Japanese capsule toys I go, "OOOOH, OOH, OMG, IT'S A KEYCHAIN WITH A CUTE FAT KITTY ON IT, I MUST BUY THREE OF THEM!!!"
Okay, food train again. Last stop: Xin Fa Ting (SFT), a famous shaved ice shop.
SFT's shaved ice is a different style compared to Tai Yi's shaved ice: fluffy, superfine shavings that melt in your mouth (appropriately also called snow ice), as opposed to Tai Yi's coarser, crunchier ice. You can read a thorough comparison of the two (with much better descriptions than I can come up with) at From Pearls to Stinky Tofu. I can't say one is better than the other; both are great in different ways and worth trying if you visit Taipei, but my ideal ice texture would be somewhere between the superfine and the sightly crunchy, like in Hawaiian shave ice.
Lastly, continuing the theme of unique "No Smoking" signs from my first post, here are two different signs in SFT featuring a merciless fork that'll break your cigarette in half...and a cute lil' bird-thing wearing blue pants and a tiny blue cap who will put out your cigarette with a tiny red hose awwww.
Tai Yi Milk King
No. 82號, Section 3, Xīnshēng South Road, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106 (map)
+886 2 2363 4341
Ay Chung Noodles
No. 8之1號, Éméi St, Wanhua District, Taipei City, Taiwan 108 (map)
+886 2 2388 8808
Water Drop Teahouse
No. 10, Lane 101, Fùxīngsān Rd, Beitou District,Taipei City, Taiwan 112 (map)
02-2891-4019; closed Mondays
Xin Fa Ting (辛發亭冰品店)
No. 1號, Ānpíng St, Shilin District Taipei City, Taiwan 111 (map)
+886 2 2882 0206