This Trip Is About Food And Maybe a Few Tourist Sights

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.

During the winter of 2016-17, we went back to our roots in Taiwan and China to rediscover the origins of our palate, and the delicious hometown favorites that ignited our passion for food. Oh, and we also got married...again.

Taipei

Day 1

杭州小籠包

Din Tai Fung is world-renowned, but my family prefers to eat at 杭州小籠包(Hangzhou Xiaolongbao), a hole-in-the-wall dumpling house near Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. You definitely get more for your money here, and the quality is just as good.

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.

Everything looked delicious

Here is a sample of what we ate.

Pan fried wild boar with green onions and garlic
Oyster, cabbage, egg and rice flour pancake
Japanese-style squid balls topped with mayo, wasabi and bonito flakes

Day 2

Drove about an hour north of Taipei to check out a sculpture garden in Jinshan. All of the works at the Juming Museum are from Taiwanese sculptor 朱銘 (Ju Ming), who is famous for his lifelike yet squarish sculptures made of bronze, steel and wood.

Reviewing the troops
Playing around in the sculpture garden

We also paid homage to the greatest Chinese-language singer of all time, 鄧麗君 (Teresa Teng).

She died too young

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.

Stir-fried clams with green onions and light soy sauce (left), steamed black rockfish with ginger (right)

I am always amazed by how hard food stall owners work. They always seem to have a production line going, and the entire family runs the business together. We bought chive pockets from this mother-son team in Guandu.

Chive pockets food truck

金春發牛肉店

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?

Pre-cooked dongpo pork, simply reheat for a bite of heaven

Day 3

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.

Trust me, the food was delicious. So much so that we had to go home, change, and go on a short hike to work it off. So behind my wife's house is Taipei National University of the Arts, which sits on a top of a hill. From the campus, you get an amazing view of the city.

Taipei skyline, stretching from its two tallest buildings: Taipei 101 (left) to Shin Kong Life Tower (right)

鼎王麻辣鍋

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.

They look hungry

Tainan / Taichung

Day 4

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.

Crab congee (top left), fried oyster mound (top right), fried seafood pie (bottom left), and shrimp roll (bottom right)

We saw a few sights too.

Fort Zeelandia (安平古堡). Built by the Dutch in 1624. The wall is the only original portion remaining. Doesn't survive very well in Taiwan's heavy rains.
Treehouse (安平树屋), an old warehouse that has been completely taken over by an aggressive banyan tree. Man these things grow like crazy!

度小月

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.

Poached vegetable fern (top left), roasted milkfish roe with garlic chives and raw radish slices (top right), soy-braised pig's feet (bottom left) and fried tender tofu (bottom right)
A chef still makes danzai noodles at a tiny station on the restaurant's first floor (left), which is reminiscent of what the restaurant looked like more than 100 years ago; just a simple danzai carried by Emile posing as the chef (right)

Finally, dessert!

Ended our night by eating a trio of flan (布丁) desserts from Elate (依蕾特), a bakery in Tainan.

Day 5

There was free breakfast at the hotel we stayed at, but when you are in Tainan, eating the hotel breakfast is a complete waste of stomach space. Instead, we hit a fish soup roadside shop that is so famous, it has no name, nor does it need one.

Just remember the address, 313 Kaiyuan Rd., North District, Tainan.

開元路無名虱目魚

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.

Full stomachs all around. Thank you milkfish.

We then worked it off by taking a leisurely stroll around Tainan's Confucious Temple.

Lions on the Confucious Temple's railings (left). Curved rooftop reflect Southern China's Fujianese style (right).
This wish that someone left at the temple was particularly enjoyable to read.

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.

Sweet and sour eel stir fried with onions (left) and steamed mud crab with sticky rice (right).

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.

Private theater within the Lin Family Residence Compound

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!

One of Fengjia Night Market's many entrances (top left). First time I have ever seen German-style pork knuckle slow roasting at a night market (top right). What Taiwanese call "big sausage wrapped around little sausage" is just an Asian version of a hot dog, with the bun made of rice (bottom).

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.

Stinky tofu (left), pork blood rice cake (center), and Japanese-style oden (right).

Taipei

Day 6

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.

Alleyway in Sisinan village (top). Near the heart of Taipei's new commercial area, the old village has a new backdrop in the form of Taipei 101 (bottom left). Each family got a door and a window, with two floors (bottom right).
Taiwanese do a good job making the old new again, with a cute little cafe in the village that contains antique furniture.

After the brief tour of the village, we the headed to lunch with Kuan's extended family, who treated us to a set meal of Japanese cuisine.

Shintori Cusine Japonaise

Located on Jiangguo North Road, Shintori serves up a set meal with an assortment of Japanese-inspired dishes made with locally available ingredients. The lunch set had 7 courses, including this delicious sashimi plate.

Shintori lays out the 7-course menu before the meal begins.
A few of the dishes included steamed tilefish (top left), king crab steamed rice (top center), crab claw and lotus root tempura (top right), shrimp, scallop and pear salad (bottom left), and miso duck with mushrooms and chickpeas (bottom right).
Family photo at the end of the meal.

In the evening, Kuan and I went to separate activities. I took a trip down memory lane by walking by my old studio apartment, which was upstairs from a tea dealer in Zhongshan District's Siping St.

I lived on the second floor right above the tea dealer with the green sign (left). I used to go to S&D, a bubble tea cafe across the street, whenever I needed a sugar rush to finish writing a news story (right).

Day 7

With mom and Lee gone, the next day was a light food day. We just had a lot of fried stuff. Near Kuan's house is a Taiwanese-style teppanyaki restaurant called 鍋板燒. I ended up eating a cheese-topped spicy fried chicken plate. It came with a soup, an egg, and a hash brown for about $5.50. The amount of food they give you in Taiwan for your money is incredible.

Gooey cheese topped fried chicken. KFC should do this.

For dinner, we decided on tonkatsu.

靜岡勝政日式豬排

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.

Day 8

This day was about visiting old favorites. Our lunchtime stop is a Taipei institution.

富霸王豬腳

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.

Several workers form a production line to serve takeout boxes of pig's feet, rice, braised eggs, tofu and steamed bamboo shoots (top). What's different now is that they've instituted a waiting system with call numbers, but the numbers were at least 40 deep at 11:30am (bottom left). Pig's feet with all the fixings, include braised egg and tofu, greens and fatty bits on rice (bottom right).

Grabbed some fresh strawberry, and papaya, milkshakes after lunch from a tiny stall next to 富霸王.

Happy customer with strawberry milkshake.

For dinner, we headed to Kuan's favorite: a chain of Korean-style BBQ places called 原燒.

原燒

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.

Seafood platter (top left), salmon fried rice (top right), a cooked piece of beef belly with salt and dipping sauces (bottom left), and matsusaka pork (bottom right).

Nanjing

Day 9

On the second leg of our trip, I took Kuan to Nanjing, my hometown in China, to visit the extended family and to have her try some of my favorite foods from home. My general impression is that food on the mainland has bolder flavors, whether it's spicier, saltier, or more savory than in Taiwan. Nevertheless, I love it. After a few hours of traveling, we arrived at our hotel room, which my uncle booked for us.

The Jinling Hotel, the oldest foreign-operated hotel in Nanjing, overlooks Xinjiekou, Nanjing's downtown.

After settling in, I told my mom I was hungry. So she took us to 明瓦廊, an alley near where she grew up. We found an 安庆馄饨 shop, and ordered a bowl of wontons. After a bite, I was immediately transported to my childhood, and my favorite wonton cart that came by the courtyard of my grandma's apartment building every morning - an intense episode of memory by taste.

The best wontons are 安庆馄饨. Nothing except broth, pork, and the flavor of pork fat, with a scallion garnish. To die for.

After polishing off a bowl, we went with my uncle to buy some duck for dinner. Nanjing is famed for its 盐水鸭, duck braised in salt, spices, ginger, scallions, and star anise, under very low heat. It is then air-dried.

I realized on this trip how crazy my hometown is for duck, because thousands of duck hang around every day.

Time to bring that duck to my aunt's place. She cooked up a storm.

家里煮的最好吃

My aunt went all out and cooked us a feast, with tons of local vegetables including lotus root, bamboo shoots, and even a soup with homemade egg dumplings. There were also two kinds of duck and a roast chichen. Probably the best homecooked Chinese meal I've had in at least three years.

Family photo for New Year's eve, and the first time my mom and I came back to Nanjing together since 2004.

After watching some TV and eating some fruit with the family, we went back to the hotel. Great nighttime view of Xinjiekou from our window, but it was so bright that we had to shut the window with a solid sliding wall in order to block out the neon lights.

Downtown Nanjing at night from the Jinling Hotel (left). Cuddled up to a good book before bed (right).

Day 10

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.

Smoggy start (left), but we are intent on heading out for food and sights, so masks on (right).

My uncle picked us up to go to the "new" favorite xiaolongbao place in town. Apparently, the place I used to like, 四川酒家 let success get to their head, and their soup buns have been skimping on the pork and getting smaller. My uncle guaranteed this new place will not disappoint.

和顺园面馆

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.

Mom is collecting soup in her spoon (left). The 小笼包 does not fit my spoon (right).

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.

Front gate (top left). Kuan standing between the front gate and the tombstone pavilion (top right). Us taking a selfie in front of the mausoleum building (bottom left). Zoomed out shot of the mausoleum (bottom right).

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.

You can almost imagine an outdoor opera performance from the 1930s.

Then we walked about 1 mile to Linggu Temple. The 600-year-old buddhist temple has been here since the Ming Dynasty.

White sun, symbol of the KMT, can be found at the temple's entrance (top left). Kuan and I taking a break on a 600 year-old giant turtle (bottom left). Us taking a photo in front of the pagoda and incense case, apparently the place where my mom has taken family photos for more than 50 years (right).

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.

There are two hallways like this one that are completely beamless, and the height complete dwarfs those walking underneath (left). Kuan and mom standing near an entryway to the beamless pavilion (right).

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.

If you're wondering whether I edit my photos, of course I did (left). If I hadn't, it would look like this from the top of the pagoda due to smog (right).

The pagoda is not for those who are scared of heights.

For lunch, we had a bowl of vegetarian noodles from the monastery adjacent to the temple. This was probably the healthiest meal I had all trip.

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.

Kuan standing in front of the gate to the tomb mound (top). Ornate gates adorn many of the entryways within the tomb's buildings (bottom left). Family taking a break from walking over 25,000 steps in one day (bottom right).

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.

Stone sculpture path outside the Ming Emperor's Tomb.

Here are some more of these 600 year old sculptures.

A warrior (top left), minister (top right), elephant (bottom left), and the mythical qilin (bottom right).

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.

Entrance to Lion's Bridge Night Market (top left), fried stinky tofu with chili paste (top right), and Nanjing's famous duck blood and glass noodle soup (bottom right).

To my surprise, Kuan had never had a proper 糖葫芦 in her life, so we broke her in.

Eating 糖葫芦, which is basically hawthorn, a sour Chinese fruit, that is coated with caremelized sugar and put on a stick. Delicious!

Day 11

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.

Jiuniang with glutinous rice balls (brown) and sweetened baby taro (red)

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.

Gate to the Presidential Palace (left), and some of the early-modern Chinese architecture that had Western influences (right)

We took some before and after photos.

Here, Kuan is standing in the exact same spot that Chiang Kai-Shek took a picture with his Cabinet.
Kuan is standing in front of Sun Yat-sen's executive office building (left). Sun's statue now graces the entrance (right).

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.

Beauty in the garden

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.

Executive Branch head office building (top), which housed the former Foreign Ministry on the first floor (bottom left). An old photo of Chinese foreign affairs officers working in this office (bottom right)

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.

We climbed the wall at Jiefang Gate.
Say hello to my little friend.
Each brick had an inscription of where it was made. The emperor had the entire country make bricks for his wall, and if one brick failed, he would know what county, and which official, was responsible for it.
Wall stretching east to Jiuhuashan (top left), wall stretching north to Xuanwu Gate (top right), turrets of Xuanwu Gate (bottom left), Xuanwu Gate (bottom right).
Photos from the wall.
Bad smog makes for great sunsets.

After walking about 6 miles for the whole day, Kuan and I were famished. My mom took us to Confucius Temple (夫子庙), Nanjing's gastronomic mecca.

Nanjing's Confucious Temple scenic area, with Qinhuai River in the foreground.

It's become a bit touristy in the last decade, but there are a many food emporiums surrounding the temple area that have a wide selection of tradition Nanjing street eats.

Food emporium in the Confucious Temple area.

夫子庙

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.

Huilugan (回卤干) which is a fried tofu in savory broth (top left), salty silken tofu (top right) and a northern Chinese favorite: cumin spiced lamb on a stick (bottom)

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.

Laomendong (老门东) neighborhood in Nanjing, new homes built to look like old ones.

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 fortress has four layers of defences

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.

Defenders would open on of the city gates to intentionally let the enemy in (top left). Enemy troops would pour into a courtyard between two walls, but then a trap door would shut (top right). Ming troops would then pour out of these hidden tunnels and overhwelm the trapped enemy soliders (bottom left and right).
Hungry ghost.
One last look at 中华门 and the city wall stretching west.

Day 12

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!

True rural farmers market fashion, as every seller finds his/her own piece of ground
Meat market. No refrigeration, but since it's winter...
Nanjing's love of duck on full display
Now it gets really interesting. There's a dog hanging there
Freshly slaughtered goat, still bleeding. As I took this photo, I could hear a live goat screaming in the stall

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.

She whipped out some freshly steamed crab (top right)

Her area is developing rapidly, and soon, there will be a light rail line that connects her development to the nearest subway station. However, one farmer refused to sell his house to the government that is building the road and rail line. So the construction workers dug the outline of the road around that house, and ripped up the farmer's yard. Now, it's a stalemate.

The guy in the house with the blue shed refused to sell, and is now only 1 block away from having a road paved through his house

After lunch, my aunt took us to explore some of the lesser known sights in the Purple Mountain area. We went on a short hiking trail. The first destination was an old post office from the Kuomintang era.

Old post office

Next, we checked out the military encampment where soldiers stayed to protect the Ming Emperor's Tomb. They restored some of it, and placed a few hitching posts around the site. At its heyday, 5,000 soldiers were stationed here around the clock to guard the tomb.

Ming Tomb Military Camp

We also saw an ancient compass, which has a little dude standing on top and pointing in the northward direction.

Ancient compass

For dinner, we went to one of my favorite restaurants, Nanjing Impressions. It's a chain that serves up some Nanjing classics at very affordable prices. They also decorate the place to make it look like a imperial Chinese eatery complete with a somewhat pudgy host that greets you loudly as you enter the restaurant. I actually quite enjoy the theatrical dining environment.

南京大牌档

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.

Some of the other stuff we tried included Lion's Head, which tasted like a pork fat meatball (top left), xiaolongbao with duck filling (top right), fried turnip pieces (bottom left), and lamb steamed dumplings (bottom right)

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.

Meiling Porridge. Is it working?

Day 13

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.

Jinling big pork buns in the basement of the hotel.

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.

They built their own Arc de Triomphe

Stayed at the grandparents for about 3 hours and had lunch. My uncle was also visiting from the US and staying with them.

Eating lunch with my grandparents (on the right). Duck was, again, on the menu.

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.

Yuejiang tower straddles a fortress-like hill in northern Nanjing (left). Where the land ends is the river, but you could hardly see it amidst all that smog (right).
However, we did find an old imperial cannon on top of the hill.

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.

My grandpa lived on the third floor to the right side of the stairwell when I was a kid (left). Kuan standing in front of Nanjing University's administrative building (right).

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.

Drum tower (left) and clock tower (right).

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.

Here's the stone pot fish cooking process.

Pretty awesome, right?

Shanghai

Day 14

Finally, no parents or family for three days. Kuan and I decided to take a mini-vacation on our own. A quick 1.5 hours on the high-speed train, and we arrived in Shanghai. It was a drizzly day, so there wasn't anything we could see. However, the two of us always see the bright side of the situation, and went about trying to find good food. We first went to 田子坊, a commercial area in which old Shanghai shophouses have been converted into cute stores selling all kinds of souvenirs and knick knacks. But the rain picked up, so scouring the streets for breakfast, we found a place that reminded us of our past.

翠华

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.

Hong Kong-style chow mein.

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.

Walking the streets of 田子坊.

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.

Alleys around Xintiandi mimick colonial Shanghai (top left). The location where the Communist Party held its first congress (top right). Surrounding the First Congress site is a huge mall, so it looks like capitalism won (bottom).

Finally, we headed to Yu Yuan (豫园), a Ming-era commercial district in Shanghai. It was very touristy, with tons of shops selling the same cheap souvenirs and snacks. We came here to try our third xiaolongbao stop on this trip, making an attempt to compare Taipei with Nanjing and Shanghai's soup dumplings.

Yu Yuan

南翔馒头店

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.

Decided to go back to the hotel and relax for two hours to escape the rain. But we still had to go out at night. Kuan has a ton of friends from Taiwan who are now working in Shanghai. Due to China having a larger market, millions of Taiwanese have moved to China for better opportunities, and Taiwan is suffering from significant brain drain. The bright side is, Kuan can find friends in all parts of China, especially around Shanghai and Shenzhen. We ended up meeting her friends at the fancy Henglong Shopping Center between Jingan Temple and Nanjing West Roat subway stations, and enjoyed some Sichuan cuisine.

品川

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.

Duck smoked with tea leaves (top), chili-pepper infused fish (left), stir-fried crab (right).
These are Kuan's friends from when she studied abroad in Toronto in 2008

Hangzhou

Day 15

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.

We started on the east side of the lake at a place called 柳浪闻莺, which roughly translates to "Birds Singing in the Willows." You get the idea (top). We walked around the entire lake, around 10 km, and took three different perspectives of Leifeng Pagoda (bottom).
Feeling very classically Chinese around this scenery.

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.

They grabbed us for this tacky display.

The rain and fog really brought out the dreamy landscape.

Yudai Qinghong Ancient Bridge
Sitting on the bridge, thoughts wandering...

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.

Fried buns.

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.

Lord Yue Temple

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.

Lord Yue's grave, along with his son, who was also put to death (left). Qin Hui is represented by a statue kneeling in penitence. A sign above says, "Please don't spit at these statues." Apparently, that was a thing (right).
More views of West Lake's Su Causway with boat (left), and Hangzhou skyline (right).
Ending our walk around the lake, we saw some bad-ass party boats.

奎元馆

Kuan did some excellent research and found a few unique restaurants serving Hangzhou cuisine. The first was Kuiyuanguan, where we ordered Longjing Shrimp. The chef uses Longjing tea leaves, which is grown all around West Lake, to stir-fry the shrimp. Light and savory.

Some of the other dishes included...

Eel and Shrimp Noodles
Dongpo Pork. I just can't stop ordering this from every menu I see it in.

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.

Hangzhou City God Pavilion.

Day 16

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.

Century egg congee with 油条. Can we please import this menu to America?

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.

Imperial silk robes from Qing Dynasty (left). Silk weaves (right).

For our last meal in Hangzhou, we ate at another local favorite.

弄堂里

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.

Braised duck (top left), crispy sweat sesame bread (top right), caramelized rice cakes stuffed with ground peanuts (bottom left), and sweet and spicy tofu curds (right).

Taipei

Day 17

A short flight later, we were back in Taipei. Here's to clean air, open internet and democracy!

Kuan had a few more favorites on her list before we came back home. There was a stinky tofu stall that we kept on missing during the first week of our trip. Apparently, the owner was on vacation. This time, the owner finally opened up shop, and Kuan fulfilled a craving she's had for months.

Taiwanese-style stinky tofu, with spicy sauce and pickled cabbage.

She also had some oyster rice noodles, but had to fight over one bowl.

Sibling rivalry.

We also spent some last hours with Kuan's parents at home. Kuan showed me her piano in the attic, and gave me a private recital.

Maestro in action.

Craving number 2 for Kuan, 虾松.

Landmark Club

Kuan's parents have a membership to a fitness and eating club in Tianmu. It serves her favorite dish in the world 虾松: stir-fried shrimp with cucumbers, carrots and pine nuts. She goes nuts over this dish.

You eat it with lettuce wrap.

Day 18

Final day of vacation. Shedding tears for all this food we'll miss. Gotta finish strong.

Breakfast was a fried chicken patty sandwich with fried egg, onions and cucumbers. Breakfast of champions.

For lunch, we decided to go for eel rice. There were a few great eel rice places near 四平街, the neighborhood in Taipei I used to live in.

鱼心

The Taiwanese love Japanese food, and eel rice is one of their favorites. Kuan and I both love it, and we went to an old favorite that we had many lunch dates in. 鱼心 serves a great eel rice box with miso soup for $16; an awesome deal! We also ordered some other comfort food dishes.

Udon noodles (top), pork and seafood soup served in a teapot (bottom left), and tea-braised salmon rice (right).

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.

Hot pot at home is just the best.
Family meal!

Mom, being ever-so-considerate, sent us on the plane with a bag of Kuan's favorite winter fruit: guava. Fruit is not allowed by US Customs, so we had to eat all 3 guavas before our flight landed. She went on the plane as a happy daughter with a healthy snack.

Snack on the plane, and all smiles.

After two weeks in China, it's finally time to go back to the US. This was the eating tour of our lives, and we relived the magic that is food from our homeland. I came home, got on my weight scale, and realized that I now need to lose the 6 lbs I gained during this trip. I'm sure all that pork fat did not help! Time to sign up for a gym membership.

The End.

Created By
Lin Yang
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