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Fun and food in Central Taiwan

Coffin bread, iron eggs, wheel cakes, a house almost taken over by a tree - crazy finds, as we continue our trip in Taiwan.

But first....

'Sssh!'. I'd actually said it out loud - oops! - and no one in the cable-car capsule was more surprised than I was, at having instantly reduced our group to shocked library-quiet silence.

The thing was, we were crossing a mountain range, bobbing like pretty beads on a string in our jauntily coloured cable cars, and then suddenly, there it was. Sun Moon Lake, laid out below us like an unexpected treasure. It was awesome, and it seemed that I, at least, needed absolute quiet to absorb the magic. I just hadn't meant to say so!

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More of the lake soon, but first let's take a high-speed train trip from Taipei, in the far north, to Tainan.

To reach the central part of Taiwan, this is the quickest and easiest way. Many Asian countries have very advanced - and fast - trains, and this one from Taipei to Tainan travelled at speeds up to 300kph.

Because of its size and relative newness on the world scene, it is easy to think of Taiwan as a developing country, but it is anything but. Instead it has been named as one of the four Asian Tigers (the others are Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong) which were selected because of their excellent current status and growth in the past 50 years or so.

Taiwanese technology is top-notch and the road system too, especially around the major cities, is second to none. Swooping freeways, bridges, multi-level overpasses not only make for efficient traffic flow, but they have a certain sculptural beauty as well. And it's very rarely I find myself saying that!

You could almost think of this country as Tai-land! So many of its place names begin with 'Tai'. The country itself is Taiwan, the capital Taipei, and the first city we were to visit on this central leg of our recent trip, was Tainan. Just to complicate things, before this part is over, we will briefly take a break in Taichung.

Tainan, the city, is a wonderful exuberant mix of history, culture - and food. Lots of food, as we were happily to discover. Temples, such as this one (above), are open to anyone, to be treated with respect of course, but they are family (and also tourist) friendly. Feel free to wander through, take photographs, pray, bring a donation, light an incense stick. If there is a priest or attendant in sight, they will be happy to explain things to you.

There is the downright unusual too. This is the Anping tree house, named because - as you can see - the aerial roots of a huge banyan tree, thought to be around 300 years old, has slowly taken over the original structure which was formerly a warehouse belonging to the British trading company, Tait & Co.

Tait & Co's 1864 Merchant House has been restored and now offers a step into the past of an important British trading post. Inside the old house are vital reminders of Anping's history, as well as exhibits and memorabilia of the era. It was here that the traders dealt mainly in tea, camphor and opium, while also handling banking and insurance. 

Next door is a fascinating calligrapher's house where we tried out our skills with a paintbrush.


 

LIKED THIS video? DON'T MISS another one towards the end of this page....

One thing you should know about Taiwan is that August, the month we visited and the end of the niorthern hemisphere summer, is not for those who feel the heat. Which is a mild way of saying that in the central area, which balances on the Tropic of Cancer, temperatures and humidity can get very high, and the combination is exhausting. You can't tell how hot it is from this picture, but my main memory is of taking refuge in the nearby Visitor's Centre, with its cafe and gift shop - and (yes, thank you) arctic-level air conditioning!

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Time for an ice cream then?

I have never tried black tea ice cream, but it was well worth it. With the refreshing flavour of iced tea, and of course superbly cold, it was a great reviver. It needed to be as this picture was taken just seconds after the cone was handed to me, and you can see how fast my treat was collapsing.

That was at the courtyard cafe at the base of the Anping Old Fort. The history of Anping dates back to the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company occupied a high point on the coast, Tayouan and built Fort Zeelandia there.

There is plenty to see here too, and you can hire a guide or simply explore for yourself, imagining the area three hundred-plus years ago. The key point is the Historic Memorial Hall. When Japan began to rule Taiwan in 1895, the fort was deserted and in ruins. Only the south wall of the outer fort (a portion of which remains adjacent to the museum) and the north wall of the inner fort remained. So all the brick walls now visible  date from 1896. The tall tower (above) is actually a modern surveillance tower built in 1975, but it is right beside the Memorial Hall.

After a visit, it is also worth strolling Anping Old Streetshopping for souvenirs and trying some of the wide variety of foods on offer, such as my favourite, toffee tomatoes, or purple taro ice cream. Or this: a stunning and seemingly impossible raindrop cake.

The area has a lot of charm, so much so that in 2012, Anping was named one of the Top 10 Small Tourist Towns by the Taiwan Tourism.

Faith is an important part of Taiwanese life. These wooden 'notes' at one temple are actually prayers. Many years ago the journey from China to what was then called Formosa (meaning beautiful island) across the South China Sea was often perilous, so loved ones would write prayers for their safety and hang them at temples.

These days they are more likely to be from highschool students praying for good exam results.

When Chiang Kai-shek evacuated his Nationalistic government to Taiwan in 1949, around two million people left mainland China with him, bringing many priceless historical artifacts for safekeeping. 

Many who migrated were  soldiers, members of the ruling class, as well as intellectuals and business elite, professional people, artists and artisans, so their leadership and skills were valuable in protecting the culture and rebuilding a new life for them all. 

In Taiwan, it is obvious that faith and worship are not isolated from daily life. Here, this temple is flanked by a parking lot for motorbikes (a popular form of transport) and to one side a row of shops and cafes - and that tall chimney to the left was used to fire ceramic tiles. 

It is estimated that there are around 13 million motorbikes in Taiwan, in a population of around 23 million. Many people own two or more, keeping the 'best' one for special outings.

And then you will often see parents with their family of two or three children all on the one bike! I love how here the toddler comes complete with his own set of wheels.

Fort Provintia (or Providentia) was a Dutch outpost on Formosa, established in 1653. During the Siege of Fort Zeelandia in 1662, the fort was surrendered to Koxinga, a military commander loyal to the Ming Dynasty, who came from the Chinese mainland. It was rebuilt and renamed as Chihkan Tower in the 19th century.

The gardens have stone turtle statues, and a stream filled with golden fish, and from the balcony there is a wide view of the city.

As always a busy sightseeing day is best finished with a good meal, and this Tainan restaurant, Du Xioa Yue, has been recognised by none less than Michelin in their Green Guide of 'must-try specialties'.

This is our 'tiny portion' (which seemed quite generous) of the dish that is a must-try on Michelin's list. Read the sign to see what it contains. Lu eggs are steamed in soya sauce and broth, and left to steep. They are a very popular street food snack.

Do watch what happens when someone enters or leaves this restaurant - see Gordon's VIDEO (above)

And here are steamed eggs we found later in one of the country's favourite convenience stores.

Yes, that's right, in Taiwan 7-Eleven a hugely popular one-stop place to do much more than just buy milk or bread.

While you might not come to Taiwan specifically for the food, it is a vital and fascinating part of every visit, mainly because you will encounter here foods and dishes that you did not even know existed.

Like these iron eggs, for instance. Strangely addictive for the locals, it seems, and like many classic dishes its beginning was accidental. It seems that a certain stallholder somewhere made 'red eggs' cooked in soya sauce. If business was slow he would recook them - sometimes over and over. But rather than abandoning his stall, his customers fell in love with the shrunken more chewy eggs, nicknaming them 'iron eggs'. You will find chicken, pigeon and quail eggs, but not duck, for some reason.

Then there is a favourite for heartier snacks: coffin bread. A specialty of Tainan, it is simple enough - a very thick slab of bread deepfried, then the 'lid' is cut back allowing a 'hinge,' and the interior is hollowed out, then filled with almost anything, often seafood or vegetables in a bechamel-type sauce.

Every country has its own beer, and Taiwan Beer is the local tipple. An amber lager, it has a distinct taste produced by the addition of locally produced ponlai, or Formosa rice which is added during the fermentation process.

Custard tarts are popular in many Asian countries, especially those with a Portuguese influence. In Tainan, Chinese-style egg tarts are found everywhere, even in upmarket street-front bakeries such as this one.

Not far away, we found this stall producing something I had never seen before. Using just ladles and a burner and two ingredients, I think (the stall holder was very cagey about even letting us watch!) he was producing these.....

.........which I shall call puffed sugar cakes. The recipe goes something like this: heat sugar in a ladle over a flame until it becomes caramel. Stir in some bicarbonate of soda and let it puff up spectacularly, heat it again over the flame until it is cooked through, then slip it onto a plate, and sell to the next customer in the line. These are not fast to make, so I had to hope he was turning a big enough profit for all that careful work. See this to get the idea better...

By day there are so many street stalls selling almost anything you would like to eat, but come night, the only place to go is the night market, and in the case of Tainan, that is Tainan Flower Night Market, sometimes also called Garden Night Market. One thing is certain. You will not leave hungry - but you may become lost! This place is huge.

With dozens (hundreds?) of items for sale, you can enjoy impromptu cookery classes too as you walk around. The cooks may not have enough English to explain what they are doing, but you can see for yourself - and then buy something and learn the flavours.

Poultry is popular and here it looks like it has been stuffed and given a lemongrass 'handle' before deep-frying.

As much as anything, it is a social occasion. Why would you cook in a tiny apartment kitchen when you can eat with your family and friends in the cool night air?

It is worth asking the question: How safe is it to eat on the street or at markets like this?

  • You need to be alert and think carefully before you buy or eat anything.
  • Look for places with long queues and a quick turnover (no food lying around for long periods)
  • Choose food cooked at a high heat (grills, stirfry)
  • Try to see how the food is handled (kept cold and covered until cooking)
  • Check how utensils are cleaned after use - because you may be using that plate and those chopsticks next!
  • Look at the operators. Avoid any who may have colds or don't appear well enough to be cooking.

Back to the novelty foods. These are called wheel cakes because they are made from batter poured into hinged moulds in a multitude of shapes, which once were often arranged in spokes like a wheel.

Once the little cakes have cooked, a filling is placed in the centre of those on one side - red bean paste, taro, coconut, you name it - and then the two are brought together to finish cooking and seal the cakes. Not just for children, everyone loves these.

Of course as an island with a long coastline and seas filled with a variety of marine life, seafood is always popular, and fresh too. Octopus and squid are hugely popular and make an easy snack to enjoy as you keep on walking around the markets.

In local restaurants, the food, and service, is more formal. A particular favourite dish of mine is the hotpot where a variety of meats and vegetables are cooked quickly in a pot of simmering broth on a burner at the table.

Here, at Jindu restaurant in Puli, a city close to Sun Moon Lake, the service is attentive, and our waitress knows exactly when each ingredient must be added for all to be perfectly cooked in time for serving. This alone would have been a meal for us, but it was only one dish in an eleven (eleven!) course lunch menu.

A simple dish of 'drunken' prawns and noodles, exquisite when each ingredient, including the rice wine liquor which inspires the name, is perfect.

Bitter gourd (or melon) is another one of those vegetables which vaguely resembles the shape of Taiwan, and is popular in many dishes. Here we have bitter melon chips dipped in batter and deepfried, addictively cleansing after the many preceding dishes.

This little dish appeared just in case we needed an extra refresher before dessert. Can you guess what these are? Answer later.

Fortunately after such a comprehensive meal, dessert was kept simple (clockwise from left): sweet potato balls, preserved plums and pineapple mochi.

As we were leaving the restaurant, this sign outside made sense to us. We had flown to Taiwan on China Airlines, the country's national carrier, and very much enjoyed our meals onboard. Now we knew why!

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....finally it is time to head up into the mountains.

Our first cable car trip swooped us up over pine forest and we had that 'are we nearly there yet?' feeling, excitedly peering out of the tinted windows.

But, no. This was Step One of our adventure and we were to have a chance to learn something of the indigenous aboriginal culture that predates other colonialists that have come and gone over the many centuries of Taiwan's past.

There is much to see at the Formosan Aboriginal Culture VillageIt includes recreated village life, craftwork, dances and entertainment, which you will see best on Gordon's video (below). The display (above) is so lifelike we almost expected them to move at any moment.

As we boarded our next cable car, we knew that soon we would see the lake. And of course you know how gobsmackingly surprising it was, from the top of this page.

The reason the lake is called Sun Moon Lake is quite simple really. One side is shaped like the sun, and the other resembles a crescent moon. This is the largest body of water in Taiwan and in the centre lies Lalu island which was reshaped and made smaller by the 921 earthquake in 1999.

The sky was misty on the afternoon we arrived at Yuchih village, a busy and vibrant tourist town, where the only things to brighten up the wharf were these pink and white ferries.

Next morning, the air had cleared and this serene sight greeted us from our five-star hotel room at Fleur de Chine.

Not all the treats were outside though. Breakfast included this honeycomb...

...and our room had a hot spring bath, similar to the ones we had enjoyed in Yilan, just days before.

Sun Moon Lake is situated almost exactly in the centre of the island of Taiwan. At an altitude of 750 metres, another advantage is that the coastal tropical heat is replaced by cooler clear air, making the use of the hiking trails and 33 kilometres of bikeways around the lake much more fun to use. Visitors can hire bicycles, and there are some electric ones too.

Our cruise on the only solar-powered boat on the lake is quieter and cleaner than a diesel-powered craft would have been. A green and white flag at the stern proudly proclaims Green World.

The cruise took us to the island, and a chance to see the lake from yet another angle. The story goes that long ago local tribal hunters discovered Sun Moon Lake while chasing a white deer through the surrounding mountains. The deer eventually led them to the lake, which they found to be not only beautiful, but abundant with fish. Today, the legendary white deer is immortalized as a marble statue on Lalu Island.

Fishing is still an important industry around the lake, and those strange fishing nets (above) are traditional Chinese-style nets that are manually lowered into the water, then hauled back up with, the fisherfolk hope, a full catch of fish.

WATCH THIS VIDEO TO SEE MORE....


 

 

Next stop, as we travelled around the edge of the lake was the region's impressive Information Centre.

With stunning architectural lines, it also has a museum, cafe and gift shop, and lovely views over the lake.

Perhaps with children in mind, this sculpture will make them realise that dental checkups have improved immensely.

Have you ever seen stone like this? In the gift shop, there were several huge and colourful pots and vases, and while we dubbed it 'rainbow rock' later research proved it to be Taiwan seven-colour jade or a type of serpentine, found only here in the central ranges of Taiwan. 

Natural and unmatched by other minerals or stones, it would have made a wonderful souvenir - but would have meant far too much excess baggage for us to consider!

With this leg of the trip drawing to a close, there was just time for a couple of final stops. This one was at the Shu Sheug Winery in Houli, north-west of the lake area. Over several generations, shaosing, a fortified wine, has been made here to the highest level, winning many gold medals.

In the wine tunnel, huge pots contain the valuable liquor.

But to show that there is a light side the very serious business of making fine wines, children and local artists have had a turn at painting casks, and they are displayed near the museum.

Taichung city, Taiwan's third-largest city, was our final stop. While known primarily for the many things it manufactures (bicycles, sporting goods and shoes, including Nike) unsurprisingly our food-centric tour led us to a riverside neighbourhood known for its exclusive artisan food products.

Specialising in gourmet items is Miyaharu, housed in a former eye hospital, and affiliated with Dawncake – an established store in Taichung that sells packaged pineapple tarts and other pastries.

 The interior is grand, and the meticulously packaged goodies - pastries, nougat, chocolate - match the environment perfectly.

Outside, facing the street, we discovered this retro-style tea centre selling flavoured teas (you must try the pineapple one!) and pearl tea, a specialty of Taiwan, made using giant tapioca balls.

And just when we thought things could not get any bigger, better, sweeter, more decadent......a few steps down the street was this mega ice cream parlour where one or two scoops was never going to be enough for the local ice cream lovers who patiently queued out the door and along the footpath.

Just look at that for a handful of wicked delight!

With so much to see and do - and eat - little wonder that people who visit Taiwan say this!

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More information about Taiwan........

(ANSWER to the lunch dish question: gingko nuts, melon, lotus seeds and vegetables)

Watch for the next installment of this trip in early 2017.

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Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled as guests of Taiwan Tourism

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Words and photos: Sally Hammond ©2016

Video: Gordon Hammond @2016

 

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