We are unabashed foodies who hail from Taiwan and the United States, and love traveling around the world to look for unique cuisine and great stories surrounding food culture. Yes, we are those Asians who whip out our smartphones at every restaurant. No, we are not ashamed at peddling food porn for the enjoyment, or annoyance, of family and friends.
For dinner, we drove 30 minutes east of Taipei to the port city of Keelung, where the night market specializes in many seafood delicacies. As food porn addicts, all of our senses were satisfied by the sights, smells and tastes of the bustling scene. It was a struggle to pace ourselves.
We also paid homage to the greatest Chinese-language singer of all time, 鄧麗君 (Teresa Teng).
Here's a sample of her music that we listened to on the drive home.
Famished after our morning activities, we found a really basic looking fresh seafood restaurant along the highway on the coast. The food was surprisingly awesome.
Beef noodle soup is a staple of Taiwanese cuisine. The dish was actually invented by former KMT soldiers who missed the taste of beef and nooodles from the mainland. We decided to go to 金春發 (Jinchunfa) about a 10-minute walk from the Fuxinggang MRT station. They serve a clear broth with various cuts of meat, including my favorite: mixed organs (liver, tripe, intestines)
A Costco opened recently within a 5 minute walk of my family's house. If you have never been to a Taiwan Costco, you should. Their layout is the same as in the US, but you'll be drooling at the local food that they stock. For example, I found a mouthwatering braised pork in the ready-made food section. How can you not die for this?
This was a light food day...just kidding. This was the big day that motivated our entire trip. We had to do a Taiwan wedding banquet for the 80 or so friends and family who could not travel to our July wedding in Washington State. Unfortunately, Kuan and I were busy greeting and drinking with our guests, and neither of us took pictures of any of the dishes in our 10-course tasting menu. Sorry. Here some photos of us in our wedding dress.
Hot pot, every Chinese's favorite do-it-yourself meal. Across China, there are many ways they do this, from coal fired funnel-shaped pots to split gas-lit pots. Spices also defer depending on what region of China you're in. In Taiwan, my go-to place is Tripod King (鼎王麻辣鍋) near the Nanjing Sanmin MRT station on Guangfu North Rd. They do a quality spicy pot with very large plates of meat. But my favorite is their all-you-can-eat supply of regular tofu and duck blood "tofu."
Kuan is a fan of putting in crispy 油条 and frozen tofu into the spicy soup, because they just soak up all that spicy oil and spill it back into your mouth.
Lamb is absolutely the greatest animal you can ever boil in a hot pot. With the right combination of sesame sauce, soy sauce, dash of vinegar, and plenty of garlic chives and cilantro, you dip that lamb right in, close your eyes, and savor the moment of each bite.
Tainan / Taichung
Woke up in the morning for a lengthy, 4.5 hour drive to Tainan, supposedly the food capital of Taiwan. It did not disappoint! Situated right along the coast, Tainan is the oldest city on the island and cherished for its historical sites and fresh seafood. After parking our car in the historical Anping District, we got right to it.
You absolutely cannot leave Tainan without eating at its most famous restaurant, Du Hsiao Yueh (度小月). They invented the Taiwanese Danzai Noodle, which is a small bowl of noodles with an aged pork broth, topped with fatty braised pork belly, finely crushed garlic, and shrimp. Out-of-this-world goodness in one bowl. Kuan once ate 6 bowls after a sailing competition. This restaurant has been making danzai noodles since 1895.
We also tried several other dishes.
Milkfish is a Taiwanese specialty, and this soup has a large piece of fatty milkfish belly that melts in your mouth, with a side of fishballs. I've started to get the hang of Taiwanese soup preparation, which is usually quite basic with some ginger and scallions. But what this simple preparation does is really let the flavor of the fish shine in the soup, and it was definitely a rich, hearty breakfast.
I can never resist a good braised pork belly with pig fat over rice, also known as 滷肉饭.
After the temple, we checked out Chikkan Tower, which was built during the Kingdom of Tungning (1661-1683), when some Ming Dynasty holdouts escaped to Taiwan and established a renegate government (sounds familiar). The park surrounding the tower had a well-stocked koi pond.
We then had a sit down lunch at A-Hsia (阿霞飯店), which does Taiwanese banquet-style seafood dishes particularly well.
After another satisfying meal (I was never hungry on this trip), we drove two hours north to Taichung, and checked out 霧峰林家. This compound is owned by the Lin family, historically one of the wealthiest four families in Taiwan. The Lins gained their wealth through trade, as well as high office within the Qing Government, which I'm sure meant a lot of pork on the side. However, the family's compound was located in a rural area of Taiwan back then. So instead of traveling to the city for entertainment, they built a huge theater and had musical and theatrical acts come to them.
We ended the night at Fengjia Night Market in Taichung. There were a few night market staples that I had to get before I left Taiwan. This was my last chance!
It's particularly enjoyable to be able to eat whatever you want on the street, and not worry about puking your guts out afterwards. You can safely eat street food in Taiwan, but I would not recommend overdoing this in other developing Asian countries.
For the final morning that mom was in town, we took her to Sisinan military dependents village in Xinyi District. These villages were built in the 1940s and 50s to house some 2 million Chinese Kuomintang soldiers and their families who escaped to Taiwan after they lost the civil war to the Communists. Sisinan's buildings have been preserved as a museum of sorts. There's also a city-run daycare on site, as well as a restaurant. Taiwan has done a remarkable job in giving old ruins new life.
The characteristics of a delicious pork cutlet include the tenderness of the pork, as well as the crunchiness of the breading. At Katsumasa (靜岡勝政日式豬排), which is located on the top floor of the Tianmu Sogo, their breading was crunchy, yet crumbly, which made the breading fall apart pleasantly in your mouth. Dip the cutlet in some sweet vinegar sauce, and it is absolutely delightful.
Locating in the Siping Street Shopping District, these guys make the best pig's feet in Taipei, hands down. They've probably used the same pot as their braising base, and haven't washed it for at least three decades, retaining the flavor from all the meat that has been cooked inside. Their trotters are perfectly tender and gelatinous, with a sprinkle of scallions to top them off. They also do a really good braised egg and tofu, and you can order these with your takeout meal.
Most people come to 富霸王 for takeout, but the line was so long, we decided to eat-in instead.
One of the brands of Wowprime, a Taiwanese restaurant operator, 原燒 offers Korean-style BBQ set meals for about $23 per person. For that price, you get soup, salad, a platter of meat to grill, various dipping sauces, fried rice, and dessert. Their cuts of meat are really top notch. This is their beef platter.
Some of the other highlights of the night.
Woke up not sure what the air quality would be like. China...in winter. Dirty coal fire power plants and vehicle emissions, plus who knows what those factories are spewing out without filtering anything. And if the weather is still and clear, the smog tends to just blanket the landscape.
This is the new 小笼包 place my family prefers and it did not disappoint. Your eyes are not deceiving you. The wicker steamer is not small. These buns are FRIGGIN' HUUGE! There's about a soup-spoon and half worth of broth inside each bun. Now that I've had Xiaolongbao all over the world, Nanjing's buns are unique in that (a) they are filled with nothing but pork (none of that crab mustard crap) (b) and they have a subtle sweetness in flavor, with a sweet broth. And because they are so big, they are FRIGGIN' HOT. 和顺园 is located at the south side of town by Wuding Gate.
My uncle ordered 10 steamers of buns. That's 40 soup buns. The five of us managed to polish off 32, and took the rest home.
We spent the rest of the day exploring Nanjing's Purple Mountain Scenic Area. A bit of history. Nanjing was the capital of China for over six dynasties, most recently during the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, as well as during the Republic of China period between 1927-1937, and from 1945-1949. A lot of the preserved historical sights are located in the Purple Mountains, which are east of the main city. The first place we checked out was the mausoleum of the founding father of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
Ignoring the fact that it was super crowded, it's actually quite a beautiful place. Architecture during the late 1920s and 30s used modern building techniques, but reflected a traditional Chinese style. And the mausoleum buildings had beautiful blue-glazed tile roofs. Nanjing folks are still quite fond of the Republican era, and have kept plenty of Kuomintang (KMT) symbolism on many of these sites. Within Sun's mausoleum, there is a giant KMT party emblem painted on the ceiling. It was great to take my wife, a Taiwan (Republic of China) citizen, to see the relics of her history.
Next, we checked out an amphitheater that was also built during the Republican period. Another classic melding of East and West.
Then we walked about 1 mile to Linggu Temple. The 600-year-old buddhist temple has been here since the Ming Dynasty.
The coolest part of the Linggu Temple is a Ming Dynasty "beamless" pavilion, which is built of bricks and is completely beamless, using archways to hold the roof together. Its size is totally breathtaking.
We then climbed the nine-story pagoda, which was built to honor Republican martyrs who died for their country during the KMT's Northern Expedition to unify the country.
The pagoda is not for those who are scared of heights.
Finally, we headed to the third historical sight in the scenic area, which is the Tomb of the First Ming Emperor: Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu is considered a Chinese hero for expelling the Mongols and starting the last great dynasty ruled by China's majority ethnic group, the Hans. His grandson later moved the capital to Beijing, but you can see the Forbidden City's style of architecture at this tomb, which was built earlier than the palace in Beijing.
There is a path of stone sculptures that leads from the city to the tomb, which is typical of royal tombs during the Ming Dynasty. The path includes sculptures of ministers, warriors and animals meant to honor and serve the emperor in the afterlife. Walking this path is like taking a stroll down Chinese history, and we found some of the carvings to be especially cute, especially the ones of elephants.
Here are some more of these 600 year old sculptures.
For dinner, we checked out Nanjing's version of a night market at Lion's Bridge (狮子桥). I used to walk down this road everyday to visit my paternal grandparents, who still live nearby.
To my surprise, Kuan had never had a proper 糖葫芦 in her life, so we broke her in.
For breakfast, mom took us to a traditional streetside diner where we ordered two classics. One is a childhood favorite of mine: osmanthus-flavored jiuniang with glutinous rice balls. Jiuniang is a fermented sweet rice that has the flavor of sake. The other is osmanthus-flavored sweetened baby taro. They came piping hot, which was perfect for a cold day.
Afterwards, I took Kuan to check out more history. We went to the Republic of China's Presidential Palace, which is more like a forbidden-city-like compound. It was used off and on by the ROC government from 1911 to 1949. Buildings within the palace have a very East-meets-West colonial flavor.
We took some before and after photos.
There was also a beautiful garden within the palace compound, which was leftover from the days when Nanjing was the rebel capital during the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century.
The Taiwanese would find this amusing. Here is the original Executive Branch of Government's head office (行政院), which is an existing part of their goverment today. It's funny since China under the Communists no longer have an Executive Branch, but Nanjing has kept the old Executive building labeled here for historical posterity.
In the afternoon, I took Kuan to perhaps what became her favorite sight in Nanjing. The city still has about 60% of its original Ming Dynasty city walls. These were built in the 1300s at the beginning of the dynasty, when Nanjing was the national capital. The walls stretched 35km around the city, and took 21 years to build. About 21km of it remain, but what's left is still magnificent. You can almost imagine an entire army standing on top of these walls to defend it.
Chinese are always looking for food, and so vendors historically congregated near where they can find the most customers: temples. Confucious Temple area is like the old downtown of Nanjing, and through the centuries, many local dishes were invented and sold here. Pictured here is Dongpo Pork (东坡肉), which is a delicacy across the Yangtze River Delta region.
After dinner, we took an evening stroll towards the wall. On the way, we passed by an interesting neighborhood called 老门东. This area was interesting. These are new houses and storefronts, but built to look like old houses from the Ming Dynasty. The streets and decorations were beautiful and serene, but the homes were new, and very empty. I couldn't help but feel like I was walking in a ghost town.
We decide to visit Nanjing's greatest city gate, 中华门, at night. Zhonghuamen is a fortress, and a cunning one at that.
The walls are built for entrapping the enemy. Ming troops would open the outer gate, and let the enemy think the city was surrendering. Once the enemy army came in, they would slam a trap door down behind them, trapping the enemy in the courtyard. Then, hidden Ming troops would pour out of tunnels built into the wall, from above the courtyard and below, to ensnare and kill the trapped enemy soldiers. Quite ingenious.
On this day, we lightened up on the tourism, but found some very interesting cultural tidbits. We went to visit my aunt, we lives on the outskirts of town. She lives in a giant apartment development located in the countryside, with most of the residents in the area having been farmers until recently, when they were paid a ton of money for their land. To take stock of this new environment, we decided to visit a farmer's market. Oh boy!
Not to my surprise, my aunt decided to cook us a feast. It was mostly veggies, which, if you ever traveled for a long period, would understand how awesome this is. We missed eating vegetables, since you get mostly meat dishes in restaurants. But she did slip in a surprise.
Also known and Nanjing Impressions, this restaurant is reknown for bringing famous Nanjing street eats across China, with outlets in many cities. You can get everything, from salted duck, to the dish pictured here: lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice and covered with melted sugar. They need open one in the US.
In all, we spent about $8 per person.
One of Kuan's favorites was Meiling porridge, which is apparently, what Madam Chiang ate every morning to stay youthful and beautiful. It was an interesting concoction of tapioca, soy milk, glutinous rice and Chinese yam.
Started out just like any other day, with a big breakfast. In the basement of the Jinling Hotel, they sell 金陵大包子, which literally translate to Jinling big bun. It's just a big steamed bun with pork filling. But it sure is filling.
My mom left to go back to the US this morning, but Kuan and I still had four more days in China. I took this chance to go see my paternal grandparents on the northern side of town. On the way, we passed by a residential development that had a French theme.
Stayed at the grandparents for about 3 hours and had lunch. My uncle was also visiting from the US and staying with them.
After lunch, Kuan and I decided to go see the Yangtze River from Yuejiang Tower, which is built on top of a hill that used to serve as fortress to defend Nanjing's northern flank. Nanjing is right beside the Yangtze; one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. But because the smog was so bad today, we couldn't see a thing.
So we brought our visibility expectations down to earth, and stuck with more man-made attractions. I took Kuan to see where my grandma used to live in Gulou, a neighborhood in central Nanjing. I used to remember eating wontons outside of her building every morning. We also checked out the Nanjing University campus, my mom's alma mater.
Gulou used to be the northern end of the populated city. It had some elevation, so the Ming Emperor placed a drum tower (gulou) and clock tower there. Sounds emanating from these two buildings could reach the entire city, helping people take notice of warnings or keep time.
For dinner, we tried a first: Yunnan stone pot fish. When we sat down, there was this weird granite bowl built into the table. Then something amazing happened. The waitress brought out a whole, raw fish, and some vegetables, stuck it in the pot, added some soup stock, and covered it with a straw hat. Then, the contraption under the table blew hot steam into the stone pot for about 3 minutes. After it ended, the waitress took off the hat, and voila, the fish and veggies were cooked.
Kuan lived in Hong Kong for a year, and I love Hong Kong roast meats. We found an outlet of Tsui Wah, a HK eatery that has an extensive menu. There must be at least 100 items on it. My favorite roast meat is - you probably guessed - pork, especially with crispy skin on the outside. It's full of salty and crunchy goodness.
Kuan had been craving for Hong Kong's stir-fried noodles, and she finally found it. Strangely, not in HK, but in Shanghai.
The rain lightened up slightly, so we decided to walk around 田子坊. The narrow alleys and small stores were super cute, and luckily, the rain drove away the crowds.
We then hopped on the subway and headed to Xintiandi (新天地). This is the beating heart of retail Shanghai, with lots of malls. But the area we were interested in was a new development that tried to mimick old Shanghai colonial-era architecture. This neighborhood is built around the assembly hall that was used to hold the Chinese Communist Party's First Congress in 1921. The irony was not lost on me, because surrounding this temple of the proletariat is a huge capitalism-inspired outdoor mall, complete with western-style restaurants, pubs, and name-brand shops.
The Nanxiang Steamed Buns Restaurant serves probably the most famous xiaolongbao in Shanghai. After eating this, we realized that each city truly has its own distinct flavor. The Nanxiang soup dumplings had a really meaty flavor. The soup tastes like a mixture of fat and broth, as if it's been braised with fatty meat with no additional seasoning for quite some time. The meat itself wasn't tasty - kind of tight and tough. The highlight was still the soup inside the dumpling, which gave this feeling that pork fat was going straight to your head.
Sichuan cuisine is enjoying its spotlight in China and around the world for its rich flavors, and it is damn spicy. We ate at this very nice restaurant on the top flour of a high-end mall, ordering some classics. Pictured here is spicy boiled beef, and it was both spicy and numbing, as Sichuan cuisine should be.
Goodbye Shanghai. Hello Hangzhou. We took another bullet train for the quick 1 hour trip to one of the most beautiful cities in China. Hangzhou was the capital of the southern Song Dynasty. It's main attraction is West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around the lake are tons of historical sites, old stone pathways, and a long manmade causeway that must have been an engineering marvel when it was built 900 years ago. We arrived, unfortunately, to a second day of on-and-off drizzle. But for West Lake, this only increased its scenic value, because the fog created a dream-like landscape that has inspired many Chinese ink-paintings.
During the trek around the lake, we walked across the Su Causeway, which is over 900 years old.
On the causeway, we ran into a group of corporate team-building participants who were doing a scavenger hunt. Apparently, one item they had to grab was a photo of random tourists doing a marketing exercise.
The rain and fog really brought out the dreamy landscape.
We were headed to a famous temple next, but first, we had to find lunch. Walking around a square with several restaurants, I chose Little Yang's Fried Buns (小杨生煎包). My relative must've opened it.
After lunch, we went to the revered Lord Yue Temple. Lord Yue was a Song Dynasty general who led China's defenses against the invading Jurchens from the north. The southern Song had already lost most of northern China to the Jurchens, but Lord Yue commanded a spirited defense of the motherland and even conquered some of the territory back.
The story of Lord Yue turns bad from there. He was framed by an ambitious official Qin Hui, who wanted to appease the Jurchens and end the war. He convinced the emperor to put his best general, Lord Yue, to death. Lord Yue's reputation was rehabilitated two decades later by a different emperor, and Qin Hui is now widely considered a traitor. Today, Lord Yue's story is synonymous with devotion and patriotism for country.
It's a really beautiful city. We walked through an old commercial street back to our hotel, and on the way, we saw the City God Pavilion all lit up at night.
Third day straight of rain. But we made the best of it. Didn't want to walk too far from the hotel for breakfast, so we ducked into a McDonalds. Yeah yeah...start judging. But we found localized menu items, including this great century egg congee with Chinese fried dough.
I finally suggested that rainy days are good museum days. Kuan took my advice and decided to go to the National Silk Museum. It was free. We had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be amazing! Apparently, Hangzhou was one of three cities in China that supplied imperial silk, worn only by the emperor himself. They had a few Qing Dynasty imperial robes on display, as well as a huge section of ancient silk weaves. It was very educational to see how the entire process goes from silkworm to fabric.
Probably the most prolific Hangzhou-cuisine restaurant that has opened outlets throughout this city and across China, Nongtangli serves up some local favorites with old photos of Hangzhou on the walls and antique furniture throughout the restaurant. We ordered soy sauce crab stir-fried with rice cakes.
There's always a danger of ordering too much when food is so good, and it certainly was the case today.
Final meal in Taipei, and Kuan's dad and mom made sure we would not go hungry on the plane. We did the Chinese family meal classic: hot pot. Bought a bunch of sliced beef from Costco (Taiwan Costco has hot pot sliced beef!), some egg and fish dumplings, and veggies. I have to say, it was perfect. After eating out for two straight weeks, eating a home-cooked, sorry...self cooked meal was the best way to end this trip, and ensure a settled stomach for an 11 hour flight.