I biked more during my one week vacation in Taipei than I have in the last three years of living in New York City. It's not a tough record to break—I haven't used my bike here in, um, at least three years. During the summer of 2009 when I lived in a first floor apartment I'd ride my bike out to Prospect Park at night with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, largely because I was disgustingly drippy with summer sweats and hurtling myself through the air was the best way to cool off. But about three years ago I moved into a second floor apartment. Second floor. You expect me to carry my heavy folding bike down and up one whole flight of stairs? Nah, I'll just marinate in a puddle of my own sweat.
I'm just as lazy in Taipei, but Taipei offers a few incentive to getting me off my butt that New York City doesn't: picturesque mountains and rivers in tandem. Mother Nature dealt Taipei a good deck. If you ride along the Keelung River Bikeway in the northwest outskirts of the city, as my dad and I did this morning, you'll be treated to well maintained bike paths with lovely scenery far from the din of the city.
- Bike path, continued.
- The tower in the distance is the Beitou Incinerator.
- A random farm along the path.
- According to my dad, this bright blue house is a cage for racing doves. "Training doves for competition is a serious hobby for some people in Taiwan."
- For those with hardier bikes than mine, there's a sort of bike obstacle course featuring dirt paths with little humps, various terrains, and more. Made me think of a pre-school version of Excitebike.
- Dirt hump. Fallen orange cone. Overcast sky. Oxygen.
- Doom-y looking overpass.
- Refreshments achieved.
- No outside food allowed. ...Especially if you're wearing a bright yellow shirt.
Another major reason why this path is better than any in New York City: it features a charming hut-like cafe with outdoor tables where you can treat yo self with iced milk tea, among other things. I'd bike more if I could reward myself with a sweet liquid prize.*
*During freshman year of college the main reason I dragged myself to the gym, located an excruciating 12-minute walk from my dorm, was because it was the only place on campus with a juice bar. "30 minutes on this elliptical and I can reward myself with celery and apple squeezings!" Sometimes I fondly look back at those healthful days, days when I didn't see cancer and/or death by asthma as an inevitability, but then I remember I didn't have many friends nor did I eat waffles, which isn't much of a life.
"But isn't the bike ride itself the prize?" you may ask. Yeah...but...I like sugar liquids a lot.
For lunch, we picked up my grandma and grandpa and drove to my grandpa's relatives apartment for an eight-dish, home-cooked meal. It was the nicest apartment I'd ever been in in Taipei—possibly anywhere, actually—with a sprawling view of the city center framed by a panoramic window. Their bathroom had one of those "invisible" doors that seamlessly blended in with a elegantly curvaceous, striated wood-paneled wall. I wouldn't have expected to be related to people with such an classy mystery bathroom. Like, who has to die for me to get a bathroom like that? Because I'm probably not going to earn it based on merit. To starkly contrast, my bathroom door has a poop sign on it. (The website yells it best: "IT'S LIKE A STOP SIGN BUT IT SAYS 'POOP'!)
Pig's feet, eggplant, bamboo, fish roe, meatball soup, and more. I'm assuming it was all quite good. I can't say I remember much; I was probably more focused on how awkward I felt around a host of friendly relatives I wasn't familiar with and mostly couldn't understand. Thus is the problem when you're a Chinese person who doesn't know Chinese: every meal with relatives makes me feel like a self-conscious baby. But I still had a good time.
I met up with Lee Anne at Sogo, or at least I'm assuming I did or else I wouldn't have ended up in their food court where I took photos of chunked loaf and a fake plastic slice of mille crepe.
Our activity for the afternoon was roaming around Tianmu. Lee Anne is intimately familiar with the area, it being where her grandparents live and where she spent much of her time growing up. I'm far less familiar, even though I went to school in Tianmu for two years during 6th and 7th grade at Taipei America School.
I remember with surprising clarity the first time I heard of Tianmu. It's not much of a story, but I'm going to tell it anyway. It was during the first week or two of school when I was eating lunch in the cafeteria with two other new students.
Girl 1: "I live in Tianmu, do you?"
Girl 2: "Yup!"
Me: "Where's Tianmu?"
Girl 1: [chuckles] "Where we are now, hahahaha, you are dumb!!"
Those were not her exact words, but I could feel her tween-fueled derision. Is it pathetic that I still remember that exchange from over 17 years ago? Yes.
Anyway, as someone who doesn't like to make snap judgements about people, I totally had bad vibes about Girl 1 soon after I first met her, the bad vibe being, "She's not very nice and she already doesn't like me and well TWO CAN PLAY THAT GAME except she surely doesn't care what I think about her." Luckily, the universe was on my side and Girl 1 soon transferred to the European School, leaving me to become close friends with Girl 2 over the next two years.
...Two years that would become some of the best years of my life, probably more memorable than all the school I attended for the nine years that followed.
That sounds kind of sad. Well. Let me explain.
I was a moderately unpopular kid during elementary school in New Jersey. That's got to be the most boring kind of unpopular. It's nothing to cry a river over—I had a small group of close friends and most of my classmates were nice to me, aside from two dickish kids who occasionally bullied me. I didn't feel like I fit in, which didn't bother me too much; I just accepted it as the way things were. It's hard to long for better when you don't know things can be better. (Unlike my post-TAS years back in New Jersey when I was acutely aware that things could be better and it made me quite depressed, but that's not a story for this post or any post, probably.) I could've had a far worse experience for clinging to the bottom fifth of the social ladder.
Then TAS was all like, "Robyn, things can be so much better, for real. Let me show you. First, take this overflowing bucket of friends. You'll fit in nicely with your above-average intelligence; in a school mostly populated by high-achieving, well-off Chinese kids, that makes you pretty average. Oh yeah, you're surrounded by Chinese kids—welcome to not being a minority. Also, the school cafeteria has chicken nuggets, french fries, and slushies. You're gonna like it here."
I liked it. I liked it a lot. Even gym class had its fun moments. Gym class. (I mean, I still loathed gym, just less so than I did in New Jersey, where the highlight of the class was not being the last kid picked for a team.)
Why was it so much easier to make friends in TAS than in New Jersey? I'm guessing for many reasons not applicable to New Jersey. Living in a foreign country during the awkward tween years is a good unifier, and being the new kid in a city where expatriates regularly come and go means you automatically have a community of other new kids to bond with. The international student body was an important part—I think it made for a friendlier, more welcoming environment. It definitely made for a more diverse and interesting environment.
Equally important were the teachers. I loved my teachers. Ms. Lindgren, my 6th grade science teacher who ensured we'd never forget the symbol for potassium thanks to the innovative method of doing jumping jacks in front of the class while shouting, "Potassium, K!" Mr. Puckett (RIP), my 7th grade math teacher with a sweet Southern lilt who made pre-algebra fun. (And I just found out now through Googling that he was also an accomplished artist. Wish I had known that back in middle school.) Mrs. Mock, my 6th grade English/Social Studies teacher who had a knack for being able to speak with seemingly any non-American accent. And Mr. Tossey and Ms. Wu and Mr. Halabi and more and more.
And I don't mean to knock the public school teachers I've had in New Jersey; most of them were great and passionate about teaching, but their work sometimes suffered at the hands of a smattering of disrespectful students. It's just much more enjoyable to learn when you're surrounded by students who care about their school and don't disrupt the class.
I do realize comparing TAS against public school in New Jersey isn't that fair. TAS is an expensive private school, and you get what you pay for. For those attending middle or upper school this year, that'll cost about $25,000, assuming I added up the tuition, transportation, food, and other fees correctly. I don't know how much it cost back in 1996 when I first started there, but I'd guess it was equally expensive for the time. Thank you, and sorry, Mom and Dad. At least it's not as bad as private schools in New York City?
During my last day at TAS, I tried to give as many goodbye hugs as possible. I was possessed by some kind of confident affection I've never really felt since then, and I don't think it could be reproduced. It was tied to the time and place, plus the knowledge that I'd never see most of my classmates again.
Anyhoo, back to Tianmu roaming.
Shortly after passing TAS, Lee Anne, the biggest bubble tea aficionado I know, popped by local chain Come Buy, one of many bubble tea chains you'll find in Taipei. I was mostly amused by the name. It's not asinine enough to fit in the world of Idiocracy, yet that's what it brought to my mind. (I'm one of those people who fits in the category of "Enjoyed Idiocracy," in case that uncovers the depths of my being.)
If I recall correctly—and I very well may not be, thus is the problem with digging up two-and-a-half-year-old memories—Lee Anne didn't like their bubble tea that much.
Oh my stars, RANDOM OBANYAKI STAND?!?! [Cue dancing pony emerging from a burst of rainbow glitter.] Obanyaki, or imagawayaki, is a Japanese snack made with a pancake-like batter griddled in deep, puck-shaped molds around some kind of filling—traditionally sweet red bean paste, with custard being the next most common filling. I grew up eating obanyaki from Yaohan (now Mitsuwa) in Edgewater, New Jersey. No visit was complete until we had picked up a carton of six freshly made obanyaki, half of which would immediately be eaten during the car ride home (gotta eat it while it's still hot and crisp), the rest to be toasted later at home. I'm guessing the nostalgic factor is the main reason I'm so enamored by obanyaki, but they're also, like, tasty, because how could a warm pancake puck heavy with sweet goo not taste good?
This black sesame-studded version was all right. Not bad, not particularly memorable. Nick's rec is probably better. Those obanyaki look like they're stuffed up the wazoo.
Here's a massive poop. It's the kind of graffiti that really speaks to me.
Many sidewalks in Taipei look like so. I thought I'd have more to say than that. ...Nope.
Back to food! For a late afternoon snack, Lee Anne brought me to one of her favorite places, Song Jiang Pie and Porridge (宋江餡餅粥). And now it's one of my favorite places.
Methinks this represents the "pie" part of their name—a pie made by squishing down a thin-skinned bun/oversized dumpling into a fat puck and frying it on both sides to a light golden crisp. (Puck food, the unofficial shape of the afternoon.) According to my mom (aka, my personal translator), the menu lists a beef-filled pan-fried pie and a pan-fried pie of indeterminate filling. We got the beefy version, which was filled not just with beef and scallions but also a gush of meat juice. Damn tasty.
We couldn't pass up fried pork dumplings. Probably good, although not as memorable as the beef pie.
From their selection of small cold dishes, we tried their kao fu—squidgy, spongy chunks of wheat gluten.
The top right corner of their menu proclaimed, "UNEQUALED BEAUTY / UNBELIEVABLE SIGHTS." I wish I possessed such confidence. I've been outdone by a menu.
I don't remember exactly where this is, but it was a nice pedestrian path. Somewhere! At night!
- Din Tai Fung.
- Happy Soup Dumpling Man is ready for you to BITE A HOLE INTO HIS HEAD AND SUCK OUT HIS HEAD JUICE. Circle of life.
A few hours after our snack, we met up at Ding Tai Fung with two of my friends from TAS, Pearl and Cleo.
Din Tai Fung is surely Taipei's most famous restaurant chain (well, restaurant period), with locations scattered around East and Southeast Asia, along with Australia and the US. This intercontinental expansion is propelled by the power of their xiao long bao, translating to something like "small basket buns," aka steamed soup dumplings, or as I like to call them, soupy dumps. (I prefer to call all dumplings dumps. Because dumps sound like poops. Poops are funny. Remember my bathroom sign?)
As someone who isn't picky about soup dumplings, my general impression was, "Not life-changing, but good." Read Kenji's review for 10000 percent more detail. Even though his review is of a location in Tokyo, my experience was similar. He says the dumplings tasted "almost too clean"—indeed, they didn't have oomph. Not that they need oomph. They just tasted less oomphy than others I've had, a taste that I've come to expect.
If you're visiting Taipei you'd probably be too curious to not give these a try. And try 'em, you should. It's just hard for anything with mega-piles of hype to live up to that hype. (Cronuts are a prime example of this effect.)
Like Kenji said in his review, the shumai were more enjoyable. I don't prefer shumai over soup dumplings in general, but I guess I do when the shumai are exceptionally better than the norm and receive zero buckets of hype.
I wouldn't have thought to order the pork chop fried rice if not for Nick's recommendation. And a good recommendation it was. It sounds like a simple throwaway item, but if you're into fried rice, get it.
- Food for four.
- Cleo and Lee Anne.
- Garlicky greens.
- Noodles with spicy sesame and peanut sauce.
- Wontons in chili oil
I don't remember much about the other dishes we ordered, but there they are [points at screen].
Din Tai Fung's prices are higher than average in Taipei but still cheap. A 2013 menu spotted at Adventures Abroad in Taipei lists 10 pieces of pork soup dumplings for NT $200, about $6.60. For that, you get to eat in a clean, brightly lit restaurant with efficient service and the charm of an IKEA cafeteria. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm quite a fan of IKEA's cafeteria.
Lastly, MORE PHOTOS WITH HAPPY SOUP DUMPLING MAN!!!
- Huuuug! I bet a lot of people have hugged this. ...Yup. ...So much touching.
- Cleo, Pearl, and me, making the photo a whole lot less normal.
- Me 'n Lee Anne, really getting handsy with this dude.
For dessert, we walked a few blocks down to Eastern Ice Store, an old school shaved/crushed ice shop that's been around for over 20 years, according to taipeitravel.net. The shop is split into two rooms: order in one, eat and sit in the other. (Or if the room is full, sit on a stool on the sidewalk.)
Crushed ice menu, translated by Momma Lee:
- Pick 1-4 toppings = NT $60 [about $2]
- Tapioca balls + 3 toppings = NT $60
- Soft tofu + 3 toppings = NT $60
- Iced tapioca combo [...Mom wasn't sure about this one] = NT $60
Behold the wall of toppings, densely packed with metal bins of starch balls, bean mash, sweet sauces, and jelly chunks, among other things. (There's the name of your new shaved ice shop: Balls, Mash, Sauces, and Chunks.) I copied the toppings list from Eastern Ice Store's website and squeezed it through the Google Translate wringer. Here are the results:
A bit of Googling tells me "pink circle" is a not very helpful translation for tapioca balls.
...Yeah, I don't remember what we ordered. Looks like barley, something fungusy, and tapioca bathing in syrup. It was mostly sweet toppings soup with not much ice, which was fine with me because I liked the toppings more than the crunchy ice bits.
But if you want more ice, no problem! Just help yourself to the ice from this big bucket. You can also add more syrup from the neighboring pot.
I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to eat at Eastern Ice Store, but it's a unique dessert spot worth visiting if you're in the area.
Taipei 2011, Day 3: Taipei 101 Food Court and Dim Sum Dinner
Taipei 2011, Day 2: Shaved Ice Two Ways, 7-Eleven, Shilin Night Market, Etc.
Taipei 2011, Day 1: Fried Crullers, Bear Head Doughnuts, Scallion Pancakes, Etc.
Belated Intro to Taipei, or "What's That Smell?"
Song Jiang Pie and Porridge (宋江餡餅粥)
111, Taiwan, 台北市士林區天母北路2號 (map)
+886 2 2874 7885
Din Tai Fung
Multiple locations listed at dintaifung.com.tw, but if you're curious, I went to this one:
No. 218, Section 4, Zhōngxiào East Rd, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106 (map)
+886 2 2721 7890