烏來 Wu Lai, Taipei, Taiwan 2008

food“Food” was the name of the restaurant we went to…I believe?? I attempted to find this “Food” restaurant in Wu Lai just now, by furiously Googling various permutations of “Wu Lai Food restaurant” and “Wu Lai restaurant by river” to no avail.

(Edit: a lovely commentor, who runs Thinking About Languages was able to dig up the name of the restaurant! It’s called “Elite Fusion Cuisine“/名流水岸慢食. Thanks YT!).

“Food” serves kaiseki meals (the Western version is prix fixe). Our family friend brought us here since our favorite activity together is sharing the joy in good food. Even if it means driving a farther distance for it. Wu Lai is about a 1 hour drive from Taipei city and famous for its hot springs and aboriginal culture. Its name comes from the Atayal 泰雅 [tai ya] phrase, “kirofu ulai”, which means “hot and poisonous”. We didn’t get to explore much of Wu Lai, so I can’t speak for its other assets, but this 站 [xiu xi zhan, or “rest stop”] was perfect for a short getaway from busy Taipei.wulai

The restaurant sits on the banks of the Wu Lai river and directly faces a Buddhist temple with a large, golden statue of Guan Yin Bodhisattva–a place of terrific 風水 [feng shui]. food_areaMoreover, the glass panels that formed the walls of the restaurant brought in a lot of natural light, adding to the serenity of the atmosphere. Seating was very open; only sheer curtains separated sections of diners. Soft tatami carpeted the floors–no shoes were allowed onto them. You were given sandals upon entering the restaurant.

food3We got a table with a view of the river and sat down for a calm 2 hours of dining. We started with some genmai cha [玄米茶 xuan mi cha, which is green tea with roasted brown rice] and a shot of watermelon slush.

Then came the appetizers: umeboshi [梅干 mei gan, or pickled plum] and a crispy nashi pear [黄金梨, huang jin li] and guava [芭樂 ba la] salad with 醬 [he feng jiang, japanese salad dressing]. We were also served what could be the best tofu I have ever had. 

Handmade silken tofu [嫩豆腐 neng dou fu].

food4So delicate and fine: like slicing through softened butter. Light and airy. There was a faint sweetness, the kind you taste in homemade soymilk. In short, it was divine. They topped it with a dash of vegetarian tentsuyu broth (dashi, mirin, soy sauce) and a fresh gingko nut and dollop of greens for color. Such a simple dish, yet wonderfully layered and complex.

food6The main course was hot pot: rice noodles, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), buna-shimeji mushrooms, fresh corn, bok choy, tomato, mochi cubes, and 百页豆腐 [bai ye dou fu, a soft, spongy type of bean curd]. Healthy and a beautiful arrangement of colors.

food5A cleanser was served after the hotpot: some fruit vinegar (can’t remember what) on ice. Refreshing and just tangy enough to get our taste buds ready for the rest of the meal.

Another small sampler was brought in: stir fried buna-shimeji, shredded nagaimo [山药 shan yao, a type of mountain yam] served on a shiso leaf, and two small rolls of 薯 [zi se fan shu, or purple yam] with string beans, pickled daikon, and some vegetarian pork sung, all wrapped in a QQ mochi skin. 

food7Nagaimo–if you’ve never had it–is one of the few (? or only?) yams that can be eaten raw. When you cut them apart, you’ll notice a gooey strands of mucus-like stuff. But don’t be put off by it! When blanched or shredded, nagaimo has the mildly sweet flavor and crunch of jicama. So tasty. You can try eating it with blueberry sauce too (that’s how they eat it in Gansu, China). Purple yam is equally different from the orange and white yams most of us are familiar with. They’re white-skinned and have a deep, purple hue; when cooked, they’re velvety (but not mushy) and sweeter than the orange yams. They are by far my favorite type of yam.food8

Then came a small plate of stirfried broccoli with oyster mushrooms and gingko nuts, followed by the cheesiest baked zucchini. Mmmm.

food9food10We finished with one of my favorite dishes: 葉飯 [he ye fan, or lotus leaf rice]. It’s so rare to find vegetarian 葉飯, even in Taiwan, so I always treasure it when I do come across it. Sticky rice with shiitake mushrooms and crispy veggie ham, steamed and wrapped in lotus leaves. What could go wrong? I found this recipe online that gives a pretty good overview of what 葉飯 is. 🙂

All in all, one kickass and unforgettable meal. Have any of you been here? I’d would LOVE to be able to revisit this restaurant again, but neither my mom nor I remember where it is/what it’s called.

鼎泰豐, Din Tai Fung, Taipei

Din Tai Fungdintaifung has been around since 1958; they used to sell cooking oil until the industry crashed in 1972, and the owners decided to start making 小籠包 [xiaolongbao]. My mom tells me that my grandpa always loved the 赤豆鬆糕 [ci dou song gao], or red bean sponge cake, made there. Since Din Tai Fung is–and always has been–expensive, he couldn’t afford to eat it most of the time. So my mom would save up her money from an after-school job in high school to surprise him with 赤豆鬆糕 for special occasions. Grandpa had good taste: even now, 42 years since they first started, their red bean sponge cake is still one of their most popular dishes. It’s one of my favorites.

dintaifung1When Din Tai Fung first opened their doors in my Californian neighborhood–the only Din Tai Fung in the US at the time–no one in my family ate there was absolutely no vegetarian food served! The restaurant was already famous in the Chinese (mostly Taiwanese) community by then, but we just never went. That all changed after 2007 when one of my mom’s friends in Taiwan treated her to a meal there and she discovered a remixed menu that included a few veggie options. And they were delicious. So during the summer of 2008, she took me there for my first time. It was then that a lifelong adoration for Din Tai Fung began.

They’ve expanded their menu a lot more since then, as the vegetarian population in Taiwan continues to grow each year. And even though I haven’t been able to experience the divine and otherworldly xialongbao (yet), I’m okay with that. Almost never have I been to a restaurant where every. single. dish. tastes amazing. And for the 6 years that I’ve been a Din Tai Fung aficionado, the quality of their service and food has never for a second wavered.

dintaifung2If you could eat only at one restaurant in all of Taiwan, make it Din Tai Fung. The flagship store on XinYi/Yongkang Rd. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, the wait time is 1-2 hours long. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, you still should go. The quality control there is so refined that you will not find a single dumpling that does not have exactly 18 folds. I’ve counted. The skin is toothsome, cooked al dente, and thin enough that it’s nearly translucent. I’ve never seen a dumpling fall apart; when you sink your teeth into the skin, you feel that chewy “pull” as it gives way and the filing comes tumbling out.

So what does a vegetarian eat at Din Tai Fung? Start with their appetizers, 菜[kai wei cai]. Top notch. We love to get the 烤麩 [kao fu], which is braised wheat gluten with fresh bamboo, black woodear, shiitake mushrooms, day lilies, and edamame. 瓜[la wei huang gua], or pickled cucumbers in chili oil, are also delicious.

dintaifung3

If there’s one appetizer to order, it’s the 菜[xiao cai], which consists of mung bean noodles, shredded seaweed and bean curd, bean sprouts, and thin slices of hot red peppers. It’s perfectly savory, with a slight kick of tang and heat.dintaifung4 But an equally good substitute is the fresh bamboo salad with mayonnaise [竹筍沙拉 zhu sun sha la]. It’s a seasonal dish, which I’ve always had in summer. You pay a hefty USD$10 for a small serving, but good god it’s glorious. The bamboo shoots are so crispy and juicy; it’s almost like eating a gala apple. The creamy mayo gels so well with it, too. 

Their famous egg fried rice [蛋炒飯 dan cao fan], for one thing. Every grain glistens under the light, delightfully QQ. Tender scrambled eggs and bright green scallions tossed in. Simple and simply unbeatable.

Then there’s their dandan noodles [擔擔麵 dan dan mian]: sesame and peanut sauce massaged into fine and delicate flour noodles.

You could also get delicious vegetable dishes anywhere else for less, but the stir-fried water spinach [空心菜 kong xin cai, which literally means “empty heart vegetable” because of its hollow steams] at Din Tai Fung is flawless. The verdant veggies glisten like they’ve been gently airbrushed with oil–not greasy in the least–, and crunch like fresh, fall leaves when you bite into them.dintaifung5

Lastly, you have the desserts, all of which are ridiculously tasty. 八寶飯 [ba bao fan] is typically a Chinese New Year’s dish, meaning “eight treasures”. It’s sweet sticky rice with dates, lotus seeds, red bean paste…etc. The ingredients differ per recipe. I happen to love the one at Din Tai Fung.

The dessert I never fail to order (other than the 赤豆鬆糕) are the 豆沙小籠包 [dou sha, or red bean, xialongbao] and 芋泥小籠包 [yu ni, or taro, xialongbao]. SO GOOD. Get it. You can ask for 半籠 [ban long, or “half-basket”] with 5 of each. Zero regrets, even if you don’t like taro.

dintaifung6

My mom’s been to various Din Tai Fung around the world, and we both agree that the flagship store is, without a hair of doubt, the best Din Tai Fung. She’s been to the Michelin-awarded Hong Kong one, but there’s something about the history of the flagship that somehow makes it more alluring. You can find Din Tai Fung at:

台北市信義路二段194号 (永康街路口/捷運東門站5號出口)
No.194 Second Section, Xinyi Road, Taipei City (Yongkang St & MRT Dongmen Station Exit 5)
TEL: 02-2321-8928 FAX: 02-2321-5958

東區粉圓, Eastern Ice Store

dongqu

Caught the magical 15% where we can actually find seating.

東區粉圓 [dong qu fen yuan] is a shaved ice shop in the Daan District of Taipei. My mom first brought me in 2008 and we’ve always made it a point to return for every trip since then. The first time I went, the shop only had one section with at most 5 small tables with a couple pairs of stools. Regardless, the line went straight out of the shop and down into the street.

東區粉圓 has expanded since then, opening up a seating area adjacent to the original area, complete with TVs and A/C! Yet somehow even with this expansion, it has not made finding a seat any easier than it was back in 2008. There’s almost always a line: my mom and I have gone in the morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, and late evening. About 85% of the time there’s a truckload of people huddled outside of the store, either waiting to order or waiting for a seat. It’s really hit or miss.

dongqu2

left: yam balls with lotus seeds, grass jelly, and 豆花 [dou hua, or tofu pudding]; right: taro balls with peanuts and red bean. 2008.

In any case, this is a must-try 小吃 [xiao chi, or “snack”] place in Taipei! I’m sure there are hundreds of other 刨冰 [bao bing, or shaved ice] places in Taiwan, let alone Taipei, but this is the one I stick to because it is so so good. 東區粉圓 is famous for their taro and yam balls. Taro balls [芋圓, pronounced “yu yuan” in Mandarin and “o-yin” in Taiwanese] and yam [地瓜圓, di gua yuan] balls are made by mixing the mashed taro or yam with water and sweet potato or potato flour. The latter makes the balls springier or softer, respectively.

Taiwanese tend to like the springy and chewy a lot, which we say is “QQ”. At 東區粉圓 they are indeed incredibly QQ (albeit 九份 [jiu fen]  is the city in Taiwan that these originated from and reportedly has the best 芋圓 and 地瓜圓, but that’s another story).

dongqu2

ooey gooey taro awesomesauceness with mung bean and aiyu jelly. 2013.

The selection of items you can put in your shaved ice is overwhelming. I’ve never counted how many choices there are, but I do always feel a ton of pressure trying to figure out what exactly it is I want. My mom and I definitely get the 頭 [da yu tou] because they slow-cook giant chunks of taro until it’s very 綿[mian], or cottony, and then let it sit in something like honey or sugar syrup for hours. But it’s never saccharine, just sweet enough to bring out the natural sweetness of the taro. The taro itself falls apart when you poke at it with a fork–like expertly-done pulled pork–and maintains a QQ texture. Simply delightful.

Source: My Kitchen Snippets

We also tend to add 愛玉 [ai yu],  a jelly made from the seeds of a variety of fig. Really floral elements and refreshing in the summer with some lemon juice and sugar. It’s not grown anywhere outside of Taiwan and Singapore, but you can find it in cans at Chinese supermarkets in the US. Red beans [红豆 hong dou],  mung beans [綠豆 lu dou], lotus seeds [蓮子 lian zi], and grass jelly [燒仙草 sao xian cao] are the things we always tend to add. And stewed peanuts [花生 hua sheng], which are slow-cooked in the same way the taro is.

The shaved ice from 東區粉圓 has not changed in taste or quality for the past 6 going on 7 years and however many trips my mom and I have made to Taiwan. Delicious without fail, every. single. time.

Now go. You can find it at:

忠孝東路四段216巷38號, 大安區, 台北市
No. 38, Lane 216, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Rd, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106

If you’re taking the MRT [捷運 jie yun, or subway], get off at the Zhongxiao Dunhua stop on the Bannan line, 3rd exit at the station [板南線忠孝敦化站3號出口].

If you’re getting there by bus [公車 gong che]:

  • 232‧204‧235‧662‧299‧663‧212‧278 (阿波羅大廈站下車) [ah po luo da qin stop]
  • 275‧33‧292‧52‧605‧285‧630‧262‧905‧906‧909(捷運忠孝敦化站下車) [MRT Zhongxiao Dunhua stop]

Let me know if there are other shaved ice places in Taiwan that you love going to!

日月潭, Sun Moon Lake 2008

fenisiaWe stayed at the Fleur de Chine Hotel (formerly called Fenisia) in Nantou [南投], which sits right on the banks of Sun Moon Lake and has almost a panoramic view of the lake from the hotel. While it’s definitely on the pricier side, maybe even more so now that it’s been 5 years since I last went, I think it’s worth the splurge. The main window in our room framed the pretty lake picture perfectly. Our room was tatami-styled with a Japanese tea set, and complete with yukatas for bathing in the hot springs. There was even an adorable plate of handmade cookies for Taiwanese Father’s day: merengues, truffles, and sugar and butter cookies, as well as a fruit bowl with Naju pears, plums, and mango. AND a touch screen, old-school, handheld phone, which was the coolest thing I saw in 2008. (Keep in mind this was when people still used Blackberries and iPods, and iPhones were still luxury items).

wenwuOnce we had settled in and put our luggage down, we took our family friends to Wen Wu Temple [文武廟 wen wu miao]. The first of three halls is a shrine devoted to the God of Literature, the central hall to the “god” of war, Guan Gong [關公 guan gong], and the warrior god Yue Fei [岳飛]. A rear hall is dedicated to Confucius. Both Guan Gong and Yue Fei were both military heroes idolized for their loyalty and have since been deified for their moral qualities. It was a rather gloomy Sunday and the temple wasn’t open to visitors, so we just spent about a half hour roaming the grounds outside.

fenisia2fenisia3When we returned to our hotel room, we found some humongous hot spring tomatoes in our room. My mom and I immediately sliced one open to find it sweet, tender, and overflowing with juice. Mmm. After a little while, we met with our friends for a late (3pm) lunch, which was tasty, but not quite memorable other than the pictures I took.

The next day was spent walking around the lake and taking a short cruise to one of the small islands in the center, since it was a blue skies and sunny kind of day. Sun Moon Lake gets its name from the fact that the east side of the lake resembles a sun while the west side resembles a moon. It’s the largest body of water in Taiwan. I can’t remember the islands being all that interesting, but I do remember some tasty tea eggs and really fat roosters and pheasants. I wanted to release them :'(.sunmoon2

Other than that, a relaxing 2-day trip! Highly-recommended escape from the busy streets of Taipei. Have any of you been to Sun Moon Lake recently? 🙂 I’d love to hear what it’s like now!sunmoon