When traveling abroad, one often gets the opportunity to search an unpleasant situation for a silver lining. In my case, here in Taipei, I figured that six days of ceaseless rain would force me into just such a search. Luckily, I found that Taipei specializes in silver linings, and my search was over before it had even begun.
One reason for this is that Taipei is incredibly vibrant. Talk about a city that never sleeps; I was out twice until after 2:30 a.m. (a matter of jetlag more than lifestyle) and encountered crowded sidewalks, taxi-filled streets, and countless eateries open for business. And when I was up and wandering the city at 6:00 a.m., markets were already bustling and plenty of street vendors were ready for business.
Another reason is that the city is huge and infinitely explorable. The sheer variety of things being sold, displayed, and prepared for people’s consumption is staggering. There’s virtually no uniformity in these types of things, which is quite different from what one too often finds in the U.S. Sure, there are chain stores, but they don’t dominate the urban landscape in any noticeable way. And while the city’s architecture isn’t all that much to look at, neither is it boring. There’s an eclectic mix that works here.
Taipei is abundantly there on every street corner, in every tiny alley, its sights and smells and sounds commingling like one finds in any of the world’s truly major cities. And any language difficulties a non-Chinese or –Taiwanese speaker encounters is more than made up for by the friendliness of the Taiwanese. Their friendliness alone makes the city amazingly accessible. It’s something I haven’t found nearly as much in places such as Thailand, Japan, or Hong Kong.
Can you tell that I was taken by Taipei?
Other than losing my glasses, I had nothing but great experiences in Taipei, and I left wondering why the city and country is not a more popular travel destination. I hardly saw any Westerners here.
The food alone is reason to visit. It’s cheap, incredibly varied, healthy, and invariably delicious. The city’s many night markets are guaranteed to impress any visitor and make them wish that the food culture in their own country would open its eyes to Taipei and take after it.
Although I have two more days here, I’m happy to say that I have yet to eat any Western food. I did try a cream-filled pastry yesterday afternoon, but I couldn’t get past my first bite and threw it away – my only bad food experience, and one that was with something that isn’t particularly Taiwanese in origin anyway. (Imagine biting not into cardboard but rather balsa wood, with the cream in the middle resembling hard unsalted butter. I can’t fault anyone but myself for this, though – the people in the shop were friendly and wished me a happy new year, which is just the kind of thing to win me over in a foreign country.)
Well over half of what I’ve eaten here goes beyond my abilities to describe food. I order things I’ve never seen before, and sometimes I’m served things people mistakenly think I want. What I end up eating is almost always a mystery, but I’m also always pleasantly surprised by what I stuff in my mouth.
On my first night in town, I headed to a part of Zhongshan district to meet my friend, Tom, who lives in Taipei and teaches at a local university. We headed through the red light district, which seemed pretty tame to me, to a little hole in the wall that he's been going to for years.
I woke up early and headed for an area I'd explored a bit the night before. I believe this is Herchiang Street, which is only two blocks from where I was staying. I wandered up and down several blocks of this street at least twice before deciding on this small dumplings shop. The smell of steamed ginger, fresh dumpling dough, and hot soy milk took hold of me and drew me in. By the time I sat down I was salivating like a dog.
The woman who ran the restaurant is originally from Malaysia and spoke English fluently. Her dumplings and soy milk were insanely good. And although I told myself not to eat at the same place twice during my six days in Taipei, it's going to be hard to stay away from here.
For the two orders of dumplings and a large cup of hot soy milk, I paid something like 60 Taiwanese dollars, which is just under US$2.
Late that afternoon, after hitting the Fine Arts Museum, a teahouse, and several of Taipei's better-known temples, I returned to Herchiang Street and got a light meal that was an interesting and successful combination of Japanese udon and oden.
The man in the photo above was very nice and spoke English fairly well. The soup pictured below was light and tasty, and only set me back about US$2. It was a perfect antidote to a cold, rainy day like today.
From what I could gather, Bodao Mambo is located at 102 Herchiang Street, and is open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. If you want to call ahead of time, their telephone number is 02-2518-4619.
In the evening I decided to hit Liaoning Market, my first night market in Taipei. Unfortunately, the rainy weather turned worse just as I set out on foot to find it, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm much. After a twenty minute walk I came across one of Taipei's many versions of food heaven.
The selection here was stunning. Just check out the fish-on-ice display, which would be impressive in a museum much less in a night market. Those fish were so fresh-looking that I could barely stop myself from running inside and biting all their little heads off.
I'm not sure what the restaurant specialized in, but from the rest of the display in front of their dining area it could have been hot-pot.
There were also a few skewer stands with both meat and vegetable selections. I nearly raided this vendor's skewer stash, but since I'd snacked on some skewers the night before I decided to branch out.
I must have walked the length of this market, which spans three long blocks, at least three times before deciding to buy what I can only describe as gyoza-sticks. The people running the place didn’t smile at me a single time, perhaps because they thought I was a suspicious character for having walked back and forth before their entrance a half dozen times before placing an order. The gyoza-sticks were light in flavor, a perfect combination of dumpling dough and pork filling, without the greasy finish one sometimes comes across in the U.S.
The second place I went to was a total crapshoot. I had no idea what they were selling, which was part of the allure, but they were also very friendly, encouraging me to sample their food before committing. They also had a covered interior that looked very warm, which was another factor in my deciding on this place.
Like the woman pictured below, this glass case caught my attention as I walked by. From the fresh fish and octopus to the sake bottles heating up in a basin of water, I had a feeling this might be a good choice.
Unfortunately, the bin pictured below didn't really seem all that appetizing, but I liked the fact that at first glance I couldn't even guess what any of the food was.
At any rate, I pointed to a few items, and two women working there quickly pulled god-knows-what out of the basin and arranged them onto a plate. The older woman poured some peanut sauce on top of everything, ensuring that my meal wouldn't range beyond the most limited of color spectrums. I wasn't exactly thrilled by what she set down before me...until I smelled it.
On the back left of the plate is a slab of boiled, fried tofu, which mixed well with the peanuty sauce; to the immediate right of that is daikon radish, which was incredibly juicy; and to the right of that is what I believe was reconstituted fish with a bittermelon "crust." In the front, as you might be able to guess, was pork wrapped in cabbage, a popular dish in many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The cost of the meal was less than US$2.