A condition of my Chinese visa is that I have to leave the country every 30 days. No complaints here – I’ll take any excuse to travel. Last week I took my final mandatory side trip and spent a few awesome days exploring Taipei, Taiwan. Taipei is clean and modern, surrounded by mountains that are covered with lush, tropical forests. Of course, for me the best part was the eating. Here are some of the highlights from my trip:
Street Food at the Night Markets
Night markets in Taipei are numerous and proved to be a fun (and really inexpensive) way to enjoy dinner every night. Though some are technically indoors now, they’re essentially street markets with rows of stalls that come to life at night. After eating, you can browse the other vendors for clothing and knickknacks.
At Ningxia Market, I had an enormous spring roll that was more like a Taiwanese burrito, made to order and filled with bean sprouts, tofu, sliced pork, ground peanuts, cilantro, and more. Along with a cup of fresh coconut juice, it made the perfect handheld meal as I ran for shelter from a sudden thunderstorm.
Shilin Market is one of the biggest night markets. A collection of more permanent food stalls are installed in the basement of a building, but you can still find a number of carts lined up outside. Since I was able to find a seat in the basement, I ordered a bowl of Taiwan’s famous beef noodle soup. Even in the blistering heat the rich, beefy broth really hit the spot.
I also mustered up the courage to order the “stinky tofu.” As its name so aptly suggests, this fermented tofu is one of the most foul-smelling foods I’ve ever encountered. The first time I smelled it I assumed it was some sort of offal. The nauseating aroma is familiar to streets in China and Hong Kong as well. For the sake of experience, I decided I can’t leave Asia without trying it. The verdict? It’s not so bad. It does taste like it smells, but only mildly so and with no lingering aftertaste. All the same, I won’t be rushing back for more.
Taiwanese Tea at Mao Kong
One of the touristy attractions that I couldn’t resist was the gondola ride up to the suburb of Mao Kong. A few varieties of tea unique to the region are grown here, but it’s mostly just a nice place for tourists to hike around and buy expensive tea. Once at the top of the mountain, you can walk along the trails to various museums and tea houses promoting the local brews.
For lunch, I stopped at a restaurant called Big Tea Pot overlooking the verdant mountainside below. Fortunately, this was one of those rare occasions when the food was worthy of the beautiful view. Tea makes its way into many of the dishes here. I enjoyed it in tea fried rice and chilled tea-smoked chicken, along with some local cabbage to round out the meal, and tried to not to notice the looks I got for ordering so much food for just myself. Compared to the night markets the dishes here aren’t exactly cheap, but a pot of tea and a tea popsicle are included with your meal.
The fried rice had actual ground tea leaves mixed in, which added a nice earthiness. At home I do a similar dish with ground nori, and I can’t wait to try this with tea leaves. As for the smoked chicken, the tea (and smoke) flavor was pretty subtle. The cold chicken slices were a pleasant treat on a hot day, especially when dipped in the ground pepper on the side and followed up with a few strands of fresh ginger. I took my tea popsicle on the road, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was simply unsweetened frozen tea on a stick. Sweet tea isn’t my uh, cup of tea.