Tainan literally means “southern Taiwan”; it was established by the Dutch East India Company as a ruling and trading base. As a result, you can still see traces of Dutch influence on the architecture, culture, and even some of the food in Taiwan. Tainan is also the oldest city in Taiwan, and with its complex history, has received the nickname “the Phoenix City”.
For our day trip in Tainan, we first went to Chikan Lou ‘赤崁樓’ or Fort Provintia. Chikan Lou is one of the most important historic sites in Tainan. It was a Dutch outpost built in 1653 during their colonization of Taiwan. The fort houses a library of dictionaries and business transactions documenting the Siraya language spoken by indigenous people of Formosa during Dutch rule.
Chikan Lou was surrendered to Zheng Chengong 国姓爷 when he and his army landed to take Taiwan from the Dutch. Since that point in history, Chikan Lou has been the residence of the governor, an army hospital during Japanese rule, and now a bookmark in Taiwanese history. There are two towers, Haishen Temple, and Wenchang Pavilion ‘文昌閣’. Both now serve as small museums. In Haishan Temple hangs small wooden plaques upon which students have written their wishes and prayers for good grades. Since I was just about to enter college at the time, my mom insisted that I write a plaque too.
We didn’t spend more than half an hour exploring Chikan Lou because of the blistering heat. What we decided to to afterwards was to get some 雪花冰 [xue hua bing], or more commonly known as “mian mian bing”.
In short: shaved ice. Mango and blackberry shaved ice, with some green tea and mango panna cotta to boot. The panna cotta is one of those foods from my travels that I still reminiscence about from time to time. So silky and smooth and cool–it just slithers down your throat. Nothing more gratifying in muggy, 96-degree weather.
We visited a couple more temples, and spent some time sitting in a large park with this incredible banyan tree. It could have been almost a thousand years old for all I knew; looked like something you’d find in My Neighbor Totoro. Uncle Chen, mom, and I just relaxed on a park bench until the sun set. And then it was time for dinner!
Perhaps I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: if there’s one thing you never should miss out on when you’re in Taiwan, its the fresh bamboo shoot that you dip in sweet mayonnaise. It is a godsend food. Crisp and sweet, almost like some buttery Gala apple. That was a pretty strange characterization, but it is so good.
We also ordered a large plate of 山蘇 [shan su], which is one of my favorite vegetables to eat in Taiwan. “Bird’s Nest Fern” is native to tropical areas; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the US.
The large leaves curl outward, giving it the appearance of a nest. It’s delicate, crunchy, and (dare-I-say-it) kinda slimy. Like the tasty okra kind of slimy, unless you don’t like slimy vegetables.
There was also 絲瓜 [si gua], or loofah, steamed in a pumpkin sauce. Loofah is one of my favorite vegetables, hands down–it basically looks like a giant cucumber. And it is indeed the same loofah we use in scrubbing sponges! What a practical plant. One of my favorite things was the sticky rice balls stuffed with delicious things.