平溪 Pingxi, Taipei, 2012

sky lanternsThe famous host village of the Sky Lantern Festival–Pingxi 平溪. Another quaint village that developed during the Japanese Colonial Era. A typical recommendation is to stop and sightsee at all the towns along the Pingxi Railway as a day trip (such as Shifen 十分), but my mom and I unfortunately didn’t have time.

on the way to pingxiDaylight is short in the mountains, even in the summertime, so after spending some time at Houtong and taking the train, we had only an hour or two before dark to return to Taipei. Also, the weather was just not picking up. I would definitely advise going to any of these small towns in better weather and even maybe on the weekend–despite the fact that you would have to elbow your way through a thick forest of people. Most of the shops are closed on the weekday, and as soothing as the calm and quiet is, there’s not much to see.

Pingxi old streetWe did do our part as tourists and walk down 平溪老街 [ping xi lao jie], or Pingxi Old Street, though. Sparse sustenance for our rumbling bellies in these parts.

sky lantern shopAnd while our regrettably short visit left me feeling unfulfilled and with a lot of 遺憾 [yi han], or “regrets”, we did find a lonely sky lantern 天燈 [tian deng] shop! My mom wasn’t up for decorating a big one, so we bought a couple of souvenir sky lanterns to take home with good wishes on them. She was particularly interested in the one with 學業進步 [xue ye jing bu], or “may your studies improve”. Chinese parents, go figure.

Til next time, Pingxi!

猴硐貓村 Houtong Cat Village, 2012

sleeping cat

If you’re not a cat person or are even slightly allergic to cats, this place is not for you. This is cat heaven and your worst nightmare.

Houtong train station greetingsBut I like cats. They’re derpy, sometimes jerks, and maybe even adorable. And there really is no better place to see them in their natural habitat than at Houtong  猴硐貓村 [hou dong mao cun]. 貓村 literally means “cat village”. Houtong is a tiny village in the Ruifang 瑞芳 District of Taipei nestled between the numerous mountain ranges of Taiwan; you can get there by the Mountain Line and it’s about an hour’s train ride from Taipei Main Station.

Houtong 猴硐 actually means “monkey cave” in Chinese. It was named so because there used to be a cave inhabited by monkeys. Houtong was a rich, small mining town during Japanese rule, and I’m guessing that it’s because of all the development in the area that there are no longer any monkeys left.

mountain line train

The mountain line

When the mining industry died out, a cat lover organized volunteers to provide abandoned cats in the village with a better life. The response from cat lovers all over Taiwan was so overwhelmingly positive, that Houtong has now developed into a cat haven and popular tourist destination.

No dogs signThe first sign you encounter stepping off the train is a map of the village, and cute cartoons of cats holding signs. A particularly prominent one is: “不建議帶狗來訪 [bu jian yi dai gou lai fang”, or “bringing dogs (狗 [gou] ) is not recommended”.

Houtong villageIt was a rainy weekday, so a lot of shops were shuttered close and the typically bustling place was rather deserted.

Did you say dog? Shhh....just go back to sleep.

Did you say dog? Shhh….just go back to sleep.

The entrance to the rest of the village was lazily guarded by security cats as well.

cat housesWe wandered onto a small platform overlooking the river, and found the local cat condo community. Cozy, wooden cat houses with aprons for doors, built on a brick platform. Luxury. They even had a great view of the railway bridge! The rain started to pour at this point, so we squatted in the center of the community, getting acquainted with our new hairy friends.

houtong_7But people live here too! We stopped at a food stall on wheels to browse through their wares.

Village lifeI was still battling a rather persistent stomach bug from our trip through China’s Silk Road, where we were a few days prior, but you only live once. So I shakily hiked up several flights of stairs in cold sweat with my mom to reach an overlook of the village and catch a glimpse of village life.

every town should have this

every town should have this

We probably didn’t spend any more than an hour at Houtong, unfortunately, since we had to hit the road and I needed to find some facilities to purge the bug (TMI? maybe). But I’d definitely visit again on a sunnier and busier day and spend more time exploring, just not with a  stomach bug.

永和豆漿, a journey through Taiwanese breakfast food

yonghe

before it closed down…

Whilst traveling through Taiwan, you’ll notice a ton of Taiwanese food stalls under the name “永和豆漿” [Yong He Dou Jiang]. I think–but could be utterly wrong–that the breakfast scene really picked up starting in the district of 永和 (near Taipei), which is why now all breakfast places use that name. Do you know the origins of  永和豆漿?

Every store is owned by a different family. The menu is generally the same, but the recipes can vary widely. Some stores make particularly good 飯糰 [fan tuan, or sticky rice roll], while others are better known for their 油條 [you tiao, or Chinese fried breadstick].

My mom and I tend to alternate between two specific 永和豆漿 locations, depending on how much time we have. The one on 光復南路 [guang fu nan lu, or Guangfu South Rd] at the intersection of 仁愛路 [ren ai lu, or Ren’ai Rd], right across from the 國父紀念館 [guo fu ji nian guan, or Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall], used to be one of our favorites. It has, unfortunately, been replaced by another store as of 2015. 😥

One of the more famous breakfast spots that doesn’t fall under the 永和豆漿 umbrella is 阜杭豆漿[fu hang dou jiang], which is located near Exit 6 from the Shandao Temple [善導寺 shan dao si] station, a couple blocks from the Huashan 1914 Creative Park. We tried out this place several years ago (in 2008-9?), waited in a decently long line to get our food, and thought it was good, but not spectacular. It’s definitely still hugely popular, though. So go check it out and let me know what you think of it! 😉

yonghe_2This brings me to our favorite 永和豆漿 place: the one on Fuxing South Rd, Section 2 [復興南路段 fuxing nan lu er duan]. Easy to remember, since it’s right next to the Taipei City Fire Department and Fuxing Rd has the Brown Metro Line running right over it. The cross-street is 瑞安街 [rui an jie, Rui’an St]. I cannot say this enough: get there early. The line is long, the seats few, and the food so damn delicious. Forget about sleeping in, because most Taiwanese breakfast places have sold out by 11am and tend to stop serving around then as well.

The sacrifices we make.

fuxingruian_4Breakfast item #1:  燒餅油條 [shao bing you tiao]. 燒餅 translated is “fire-roasted bun”–a flaky flatbread typically decorated with white sesame seeds on top. Traditional 燒餅 is baked in a tandoor-like oven: stuck to the sides of thick, metal cylinders and dug out with a long hook. They can be either savory or sweet, stuffed with anything from red bean paste to braised beef.

But in Taiwan, they are most commonly paired with a stick of 油條, literally meaning “oil stick”. 油條 is a 12-16″ long piece of dough, deep-fried. And we all know how tasty fried things are. The best 油條 is one that is not greasy (in spite of being deep-fried), crunches like Parmesan crisps, and slightly glutinous and chewy on the inside. Many places tend to fry it until it’s hollow on the inside. Big no-no. They taste delicious with soy milk or 稀飯 [xi fan, or congee], too.

fuxingruianBreakfast item #2: 鹹豆漿 [xian dou jiang]. “Salty soy milk”. Strange? Maybe. Yummy? Oh yes. 鹹豆漿 is served as a hot bowl of fresh soy milk with dried shrimp, pickled radish, sesame oil, green onion, and/or pork sung [肉鬆 rou song]. Thrown in with a dash of vinegar to balance the savory. Vegetarian versions are eaten with  油條 [fried breadstick] crumbs, veggie pork sung, sesame oil, and/or green onion. I love it, but I grew up on it. What were your first impressions of 鹹豆漿?

fuxingruian_3Breakfast item #3:  飯糰 [fan tuan], Chinese “sushi” or rice roll. 油條 [fried breadstick], 肉鬆 [pork sung], and 榨菜 [za cai, or pickled mustard] are tightly bundled in a sticky rice blanket. Mmm. Good 飯糰/rice rolls don’t have too thick a layer of rice–just like good sushi–and filled to the brim with tasty stuffing.

fuxingruian_2Breakfast item #4: 蛋餅 [dan bing] is a scallion-flavored Taiwanese pancake with scrambled egg. Taiwanese pancake is thin like a crepe, but its texture is closer to an ‘al dente’ tortilla. The best 蛋餅皮[dan bing pi, or egg pancake skin], is QQ: chewy, crispy, and tender all in one pancake. 義美 Yi-Mei makes pretty good frozen 蛋餅皮 (which you can usually find in the frozen aisles of your Chinese supermarket!), but local Taiwanese food stalls still do it best. 

The scrambled egg skin that is layered on top of the pancake is critical to a good 蛋餅 dish as well. It should be fluffy. Eat the egg pancake [蛋餅] with some thickened sweet soy sauce and Huy Fong “Rooster” chili garlic sauce, and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

fuxingruian_5Breakfast item #5: 米漿 [mi jiang], sweet rice peanut milk. Also a strange-sounding food, but by golly, is it one of my favorite drinks to get in Taiwan. I’ve seen it very seldom in the US, so I drink gallons of this when I’m in Taiwan. It’s thick, still slightly granular, and has this toasty aroma from the roasted peanuts. Basically like a peanut smoothie. Mm.

Breakfast item #6: 黑豆漿 [hei dou jiang]. Black soybean milk. I don’t really have a clear picture of this, but a quick Google search gives a pretty good idea of what it looks like ;). Different kind of sweetness from regular soy milk. Just take my word that you’ll dig it. Mmm.

Did I miss any? These are just some of the foods I eat. What are your favorite Taiwanese breakfast foods? 🙂

穗科 Hoshina Udon, Taipei

hoshina_1

A cursory search of “Hoshina Taipei” yields a number of reviews for Hoshina by various bloggers, with the general consensus being that Hoshina makes some freakin’ amazing udon. While I am by no means as eloquent as other writers, I’m hoping that with the plethora of positive feedback on Hoshina’s food that ya’ll will go out and take some good slurps from their udon.

My mom and I discovered Hoshina [穗科 sui ke] while on our unforgiving search for vegetarian ramen in Taiwan–which has ultimately been unsuccessful. It wasn’t until our 3rd time eating at Hoshina that we realized how popular and well-known of a noodle place it is! Beginner’s luck was what we had when we walked into Hoshina the first two times and were seated immediately. The line moves relatively fast, but it is by no means short. There is limited seating in the waiting area: a few wooden benches by the  zen garden complete with bubbling brook, bonsai, and koi fish.

hoshinaThe front left of the restaurant is a giant glass enclosure in which udon masters stretch, roll, pound, pull, and slice udon dough like taffy machines. Watching induces salivation, making the wait all the more unbearable. And then you’re finally seated. Prompt and generally attentive service keeps your tea cup filled with Genmaicha [玄米茶 xun mi cha, or brown rice tea] the whole time.

A perfectly-sized menu of Japanese appetizers, entrees, and dessert, but with a modern Taiwanese twist. We start with the steamed kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) with toasted walnuts sprinkled on top, followed with some 龍鬚菜 [long xu cai, “dragon whisker vegetable” or chayote shoots] marinating in Japanese sesame sauce. My mom particularly likes the 卷 [bai yu fu pi tang juan, “white jade tofu roll in soup”]: soft napa cabbage leaves stewed in a light broth, wrapped around delicate layers of tofu skin. A pinch of shichimi togarashi [七味唐辛子, Japanese 7-spiced chili] to give the mellow flavors a kick.

hoshina_2Then the moment of truth: the udon. There truly is no better way to describe it other than saying “太Q了” [so Q!!]! In Taiwanese culture, achieving QQ texture is one of hallmarks of a great food establishment. Call it al dente, “chewy”, bite, or tender…that springiness of perfectly made noodle where the edges stick to your teeth for a fleeting nanosecond before snapping back onto your chopsticks. Perfection. 

hoshina_4You must try the 麵 [oo long leng mian, “udon cold noodles”]. I believe this is where you get a strong whiff of the finesse the udon chefs here have. Several whiskers of nori, a dash of sesame seeds, and a drizzle of dashi, but no more. Cold, glassy udon. Ecstasy.

hoshina_3The soup udon  龍湯麵 [oo long tang mian] is fantastic as well. There are no obvious weaknesses. Whether light, rich and thick, or spicy, the broth is almost as good as the udon (but a further almost). Toppings are a mix of aburaage [油揚げ, deep-fried tofu pouches], seaweed, and various vegetables. My recommended add-on item: the 蛋 [wen quan dan], soft-poached egg, to top off your udon. Break the yolk and good heavens–there is nothing more delicious than noodles coated in liquid gold. 

Still not full? Try the 腐 [hei zi ma dou fu, “black sesame tofu” for dessert. ごま豆腐 Goma tofu in Japanese. Goma tofu is not actually made from tofu; it’s made from kudzu powder, but has the silky texture of tofu when cooked. The kudzu is mixed with water and finely-ground black sesame. Envelope your taste buds in a velvet blanket of nutty and sweet flavors. 

You can find Hoshina not too far from the SOGO in Taipei. There are two branches, but I’ve only been to the one on Zhongxiao East Rd. Let me know how the other Hoshina is! 🙂

Hoshina Zhongxiao East:
Address: 台北市忠孝東路四段216巷27弄3號 // Zhongxiao East Road, Section 4, Lane 216, Alley 27 No. 3
Phone: 02-2778-3737
Hours: (Lunch) M-F 11:30 ~ 14:00, (Lunch)Sa-Su 11:30 ~ 15:00, (Dinner) 17:30 ~ 21:00

Hoshina Fuxing:
Address: 台北市復興北路313巷32號 // Fuxing North Road, Lane 313 No. 32
Phone: 02-27171518
Hours: same as above

楊媽媽素食, Mama Yang’s Vegetarian, Taipei

yangmamaDining in Taiwan can either be very expensive (but delicious) or unbelievably cheap (still delicious). In either case, you’ll leave the country spoiled and nothing will ever taste quite like it does at that tiny hole-in-the-wall, family-run eatery, off that big street and around the corner from that Ikari coffee and a couple blocks before Ellie bakery. The only way I’ve ever been able to navigate to this place for the past several years was, 1) by blindly following my mom and 2) taking mental pictures of the stores we pass on the way from my grandpa’s home. The beauty of this tiny veggie stand is that it was no more than a 5 minute walk from us. (Although we sold my grandpa’s home the year before 😦 ).

If you’re in any way familiar with the triangular park on 路135巷 [AnHe Rd, Lane 135] off of 信義 [Xinyi Rd]–which you might if you live in Taipei and shop at 哈肯舖手感烘焙 [Hogan Bakery,手感 shou gan meaning ‘handmade’ and  烘焙 hong pei meaning ‘baked’] in the mornings–Mama Yang’s is right in this area! Trace the back (aka non-pointy) end of the triangular park, and keep going along the same road until you hit the fork between 街 [Yanji St] and 愛路四段300巷 [Ren Ai Rd, Section 4, Lane 300]. Take Ren Ai Rd straight down. Mama Yang’s is one of the several food stands before you reach the main road/end of the lane. You’ll know when you’ve gone too far by seeing the Ikari Coffee shop. 

yangmama2

-salivating-

On the off chance that you don’t want vegetarian food (and I’ve no clue why you wouldn’t), there’s plenty of selection on this section of Ren Ai Rd. You’ll pass an Ellie bakery, dumpling and ramen stands, teppanyaki, and a fresh juice stand. And if you’re like me–vegetarian and unable to eat anything from these other places–you’ll find yourself shoving elbows to get one of 3 tray tables at Mama Yang’s.

Word of advice: avoid the lunch hour rush. Don’t underestimate its appeal as a 100% vegetarian place, because it is busy and surprisingly popular for such a small place. The owners also tend to (not) be the friendliest. But damn, is their food good. This is a no frills, just-like-mom-used-to-make place. You could even argue that you could make these dishes yourself, but why bother? They do it so well for so cheap.

Look at those prices!

Look at those prices!

I don’t think my mom and I have spent more than $6 USD eating here, which is cheap considering we typically order 3-4 items. As creatures of habit, my mom and I don’t stray far from the usual. So I’ll leave it up to all of you to try the other stuff for me and let me know if it’s good or not ;). We always stick with getting the 飯 [pai gu fan], or “spare ribs” with rice. Perhaps you find fake meat strange, but I think it’s tasty. The spare ribs are deep fried til crispy like tonkatsu, and have fresh black pepper cracked over them. There’s an umami sort of taste to it that I enjoy. The spare ribs come with rice, Taiwanese cabbage, 雪菜毛豆[xue cai mao dou] pickled mustard greens with soy beans, and stewed bean curd with fresh bamboo shoots. 

yangmama

Taiwanese cabbage 菜 [gao li cai] is in its own league of delicious vegetable. They’re grown up in the high mountains of Taiwan, such as at 武陵農場[wu ling rong chang, or Wuling Farm], which sits by 雪山 [xue shan, or snow mountain]. Insert some plant chemistry–possibly something to do with cold mountain air and different minerals in the soil–and you have a species of cabbage exponentially more delicious than all other cabbage. The crunch of the cabbage rings as crystal an apple just picked off the tree. There is sweetness to match, too. What  I like about Mama Yang’s cabbage is that the cabbage is mostly untreated: lightly stir-fried with some carrots, salt, and oil. 

Dish #2: 關東煮 [guan dong zhu], or oden. Oden is essentially hot pot; it’s a Japanese winter dish where eggs, daikon, konjac, fishcakes, and other tasty delights are stewed together in a simmering pot. The 子 [wan zi], or fish balls made at Mama Yang’s are very QQ. Their vegetarian dashi broth is light and flavorful, perfect for hot summer days or cold winter nights. And they top it off with slices of 糕 [zhi cai gao, or seaweed rice cake], which is one of my favorite Taiwanese foods.

Dish #3: 乾&帶 [lu dou gan / lu hai dai], which are stewed bean curd and stewed seaweed. The bean curd and seaweed are slow-cooked in a soy sauce (+ other magical ingredients unbeknownst to me, otherwise I’d make this all the time) stew for hours until all the flavors are absorbed into every pore. We call this 入味 [ru wei] in Chinese: 入 meaning”into”, and 味 meaning “flavor”. When something is not 入味 enough, it means the flavors haven’t set in yet. 

All foodgasms aside, I implore you all to check this place out and support them so they can stay in business for more generations to come! And remember to let me know how the other menu items taste :P.

三六九素包子店, 369 Buns, Taipei

369baoziOne of my mom’s best friends in college recommended this place to us. It’s actually a chain, but she told us the one on 長春路 [Changchun Rd] and  遼寧街口 [Liaoning St] is the best. I haven’t been to any of the other stores, so I can’t say if that’s true. Regardless, they make the best 包子 [baozi, or bun] that I’ve ever had. You would walk right past it if you weren’t careful. My mom and I always get our haircuts right around the corner, and this is the place we go to afterwards for a quick, dirty, and delicious lunch. I’ve managed to figure out its location by looking for the 長春市場 [chang chun shi chang, or Changchun market]. I believe they’re diagonally across from each other (??). Feel free to correct me though. 🙂 And since 2012/13, they’ve had a name change to 正饌素食 [zheng zhuan su shi]. However, the people who run the place haven’t changed, and neither has the quality of their food.

369baozi2The storefront is narrow and sits no more than 20 people at most. There are about 4 small tables inside. The menu is a short list of about 15 items, most of them buns. Go figure. It costs about 17 NTD/bun, which is about $0.50 USD! SO CHEAP! And they’re rather large buns too, which makes it all the more worth it.

369baozi3369baozi4There are 8 flavors of bun, some sweet and some savory. We tend get the savory buns. My favorites are the 香菇脆筍包 [xiang gu cui sun bao, or mushroom and bamboo shoot bun] and the 四季豆包 [si ji dou bao, or green bean bun]. I’m the kind of person who loves food with texture, e.g. chunky peanut butter and minestrone, and the filling made at 369 always fulfills this criterion. The mushrooms in the mushroom/bamboo bun are always tender and juicy; the bamboo is always crisp and fresh. The green beans are never mushy–I love the feeling of the beans popping out of the pod and into my mouth. And there’s always a dash of sesame oil in there. Mmm. 😀 All the other flavors are equally delicious too, so try them all!

369baozi5The filling is then lovingly wrapped in the most wonderfully springy wrapper a steamed bun could have. Upon breaking it open, warm steam powders your face. Fingers leave gentle grooves in the supple and slightly spongy dough, like a Tempur-Pedic mattress. Pair these buns with some 黑豆漿 [hei dou jiang, or black soybean milk] and you’re set. Their black soymilk is made in limited quantity, so beat the lunch rush to get it!

Venture outside of the buns and you will be rewarded with some of the tastiest dumplings outside of Din Tai Fung (in my humble opinion). The style is entirely different, but 369’s dumplings are like little bags of gold–so heavy and full with delicious mustard green filling. You get about  8-10 pieces for 50 NTD, or $1.50 USD.

369baozi6

I also really, really like the 蘿蔔絲餅 [luo buo si bing, or sesame turnip pastry] they make there. Flaky pastry shell with sesame baked into it, and finely shredded turnip sauteed with white pepper. My mom never fails to get their 冬粉 [dong feng]. Vermicelli noodle soup with Chinese celery, daikon, shredded bamboo, A 菜 [Taiwanese chard], fried tofu, and some really tasty homemade bean curd roll-ups.

So if you want great, cheap food, go check 369 out at 台北市中山區遼寧街152號 [Taipei Zhongshan District Liaoning St, No. 152]!

Anping Tree House, Tainan, 2010

anpingMother Nature always has the winning hand. We went to see the famous Anping Tree House 安平樹屋 [Anping shu wu] in the Anping District of Tainan. Vestigial bricks of an abandoned warehouse once owned the top five trading companies in Anping during the period of Japanese colonization. Tait & Co.’s legacy has been swallowed up by a few robust Banyan trees, reclaiming land rightfully theirs.

It’s a fascinating piece of architecture–there’s no telling where one tree’s aerial roots end and another begins. Dilapidated roofs have been replaced with sturdy branches of the trees. Walls, too. There are viewing platforms in place for visitors to climb to the top of the houses and see the expansions that the Banyan trees have made.

anping2The Tree House was believed to be haunted for many years, until the National Anping Harbor Historic Park undertook a project in 2004 to make the places more visitor-friendly.

anping3If you walk to the back of the warehouse, there’s another viewing platform overlooking the Yanshui River 鹽水溪 [yan shui xi]. And I can’t remember if these buildings were also in the Anping Tree House area, but the golden houses left by the Dutch complimented the azure skies really well. 🙂

anping4anping5We then made our way to the Anping Fort 安平古堡 [an ping gu bao], the oldest castle in Taiwan. It’s been rebuilt several times since its original completion in 1634. The fort was totally destroyed during Japanese occupation, because the space to be used for dormitories. You can find a more detailed account of its history here. There’s more to do in Tainan than visiting the Anping Tree House and Anping Fort! You can read more in my first post about Tainan.

墾丁 Kenting, 2010

kenting14

kentingWhite sand beaches. Wild monkeys. Hiking. Beautiful sunsets. Warm weather. Kenting. My mom and I spent about 2 nights there a few years ago and it was wonderfully relaxing. We stayed at the Chateau Beach Resort 墾丁夏都沙灘酒店, which is right on the beachfront. Our hotel room was about a 2-3 minute walk from the beach, which was just perfect. Accommodations come paired with a dinner buffet. The hallways are bright with a ton of sunshine–I distinctly remember Stacey Kent’s “Ice Hotel” playing continuously throughout the hotel. Ironically, there’s no better song I can think of for a day on the beach.

kenting2We arrived in the afternoon and decided to take advantage of the huge sunshine. Jumped into our swimsuits, and lounged on beach chairs for a good hour or two, with a kiwi smoothie for company. My mom’s friend suggested that we try to hike to the top of Dajianshan [山, which means “big pointy mountain”] before sunset. So, we hired a taxi to drop us off at the trail entrance. It was personally quite daunting for me to do any sort of hike, especially one that supposedly leads to the peak of a mountain.

The peak is about 4400 feet, and a one-way trip is about 90 minutes (?) with stops and some crying about turning back since it was getting too high up. The veil of butterflies flitting about was a nice distraction from the gain in elevation though! Plenty of vibrantly-colored flowers to boot as well. Beware of the mosquitoes though…I think I left with about 6 bites. We also traversed through some shallow canyons, which was quite fun.

kenting3kenting4Once we reached the top, we were incredibly lucky to catch a family of mountain goats on the peak to our right! About 5 fuzzy, black goats munching on tender greens. Pretty adorable. 🙂 And even more serendipitous was seeing wild monkeys! A small group of them, about 300 feet away. The alpha monkey was standing at the highest point, looking right at us. Like a king surveying his lands. The end of the trail leads to an observation tower, which makes viewing all this wildlife a lot easier than if we had to balance on the edge of the cliff to view them.

I’ll let you decide if the view is worth it or not–you’ll just have to hike it for yourself! I thought it was pretty. Nothing *spectacular* though. The rest of Kenting is pretty flat, but very green. We could even seen Eluanbi Lighthouse in the distance.kenting5

As the sun was already sitting low on the horizon, we wanted to make it back down before it got dark. No taxis to hail on our return trip, so we actually walked most of the highway down to the city. A little steep at times, but the whole 4 hours of hiking made for an awesome workout. At certain points on the way down to Kenting, we could see Chuanfanshih [石, or “sail rock”, since it looks like a sail] among the colorful buildings of the town. kenting6

kenting7By the time we returned to the hotel, we were famished, grimy, and pockmarked with mosquito bites. Showers always feel the best after these kinds of days. My mom and I were more than ready for the buffet by the time we headed down to dinner. Disappointment would be an understatement for how we felt when we found out that it was a seafood buffet. So we spoke to the chefs, and they agreed to make us a set meal.kenting8 It was at most…decent. Best part was the fresh bamboo shoot with mayonnaise. Mmm. Such a flawless pairing. The 粽子 [zong zi], or sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, were pretty good too.

Unsatisfied, we went to the Kenting Night Market in search of other goodies to eat. Boy oh boy were there a lot of tourists! The most we could do was shuffle along. Got some fresh grilled corn, stinky tofu, and even a cheap massage! Not a bad way to end the night.

kenting9All of the next day was spent in Kenting National Park. We took a short 1-2 hour tour through 佳樂水 [Jia Le Shui] park. Lots of coral reefs and interesting rock formations to be found there. Seal-shaped rocks, rocks with faces, turtle rocks…rocks galore! The most stunning aspect for me was seeing the thunderstorm that was brewing to the east. Rain pouring on the other side of 屏東 [ping dong] province, with occasional flashes of lightning.kenting10

The wind was picking up where we were and a short shower passed through, leaving us with some dew on our skin. Our tour dropped us off at a section of reef, so that we could get down and climb out over the rocks to see tide pools. Really beautiful water out there! Saw a couple of small fish and urchins. The rocks were so sharp though. I felt like Mulan and crew, training to walk on these small outcrops that were more or less the surface area of my foot.kenting11

We safely returned to the entrance of the park, and headed on our way to Eluanbi Lighthouse. The white-washed walls reminded me of Santorini. Pretty scenic area, with soft, rolling green hills.

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When we got back to the hotel, my mom and I were ravenous. No free breakfast at this hotel, and it was mid-afternoon. We caught the tail-end of restaurant service, ordering a mediocre pizza and a rather tasty strawberry smoothie. Hit the beach again for a bit, since the weather was just so beautiful. Cotton candy clouds, deep blue sky, and sunshine in 80-degree weather. As it neared sunset, my mom and I decided to take a trail close to our hotel (I believe?) that runs the perimeter of Kenting. I honestly can’t say where the trail begins or ends, but it’s somewhere in Kenting. Beautiful sunset there: mountains and the bay in the background.

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Anywhoo, Kenting is beautiful and you should go. That’s all I have to say. Our time felt a bit short, so I’d suggest giving it at least 3 nights (or more!). 😉

蓮香齋, Jen Dow Vegetarian Buffet

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You can see them get progressively fancier as the years go on (2007 -> 2010 -> 2013)

This is culinary Disneyland for a vegetarian: all-you-can-eat hot pot, dessert, stir-fry, dim sum, soups, and Haagen-Dazs for a low price of $760 NTD, or about $20 USD. Pretty sweet deal, vegetarian or not. Sometimes buffets can offer a smorgasbord of food, but with all of them sub-par in taste and quality. This is not a problem at  蓮香齋[lian xiang zai]. I’ve been coming here since 2007, and the quality of the food–which is very good–is unwavering. Always delicious, always fresh.

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this was only 1/3 of our meal…

They’re so popular now that you can’t get seats without reservations. It hasn’t always been this hot of a dining place, but since it moved to a new location on 南京東路 [nanjing dong lu, or Nanjing East Rd] about 3 years ago, business has exploded more than ever. They used to let you take photos of the place, but they’re so big now that I have to sneak quick snapshots in.

Now whenever we go, we feel like we’re competing in the Hunger Games with the rest of the diners to get the first rounds served (which usually have the tastiest dishes). My mom and I have developed a system where I take the entire right side of the restaurant, and she tackles all the stir-fry dishes on the left. A sampling of everything, so that we’ve at least had the chance to taste it before it’s all gone. A good number of the stir-fry dishes are only served at the beginning. The fried spring rolls, or 春卷 [chun juan]–which are absolutely divine and are the best I’ve found, ever–, and turnip cake, or 蘿蔔糕 [luo buo gao], go within the first 5 minutes they’re served up.

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Chinese toon fried rice, spring rolls, and a giant pot of spicy stinky tofu (L to R)

Other things, like the 麻辣臭豆腐 [ma la chou dou fu, or spicy stinky tofu], go really fast once they’ve reach their peak of deliciousness. I would suggest waiting a little more than 1 hour after restaurant opening to get the 麻辣臭豆腐, so that it’s had more time to stew and soak in the flavorful, numbingly hot broth that it’s cooked in. But don’t wait any more than that. It’ll be gone by about 12:30pm.

lianxiangzai5My mom’s favorite dish, 湯 [su pi long tang], creamed corn soup with a slab of puff pastry baked to crisp on top. That’s only served on weekends. I’ve seen diners hoard 3-4 of them in one go, and only about 15-20 are served at a time. So worth fighting for though! Buttery, flaky layers of puff pastry to poke through and dip into a rich broth. Mmm.

Two other dishes I really like are the 香椿炒飯 [xiang chun chao fan], or Chinese toon fried rice, and 油飯 [you fan], or Taiwanese “oily” rice. Chinese toon is an herb that tastes like a cross between yellow onion, scallions, and maybe shallots? Quite tasty, in any case. The tender leaves are simply chopped up and sauteed before adding in other ingredients. I really like my Chinese toon fried rice with some spicy peppers for a kick. 油飯 is long-grain sticky rice steamed, and then quickly stir-fried with sauteed mushrooms, veggie ham (or shrimp/real ham if you’re not vegetarian), and rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, and shallots. The one at Jen Dow is served sometimes in 荷葉 [he ye], or lotus leaf, for an extra boost of flowery fragrance.

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Other things we like getting: fresh baby corn, hand rolled sushi [手卷寿司 shou juan sou shi], the wonton soup with 粉條 [feng tiao, or wide rice noodle], 龍鬚菜 [long xu cai, translating to “dragon whisker vegetable” due to the long strands of veggie], and fresh bamboo shoot [春筍 chun shun]. I don’t know how many of you have seen fresh baby corn with its husk still on, but I’ve only ever seen it in Taiwan. It’s steamed in a bamboo steamer and is crunchy, sweet, and dericious. Baby corn haters can hate. 龍鬚菜is seasonal, so if you catch it, you’re very lucky. We used to grow a lot in my childhood home. Crunchy and tender when it’s young. Old 龍鬚菜 can be a bit too fibrous and chewy.  The one seasonal vegetable that goes faster than free food at a college event is the fresh bamboo shoot. Crisp like gala apple, and sweet like morning dew. I’ve never tasted morning dew, but good 春筍 tastes like it’d just been dug right out of the ground in some cloud forest high in the mountains.

lianxiangzai6lianxiangzai7Jen Dow used to offer cold slow-drip coffee that was brewed over the course of 24 hours; however, the yield was so low that they stopped doing it. My mom and I used to make sure to snag a cup for each of us, the moment we set our foot in the door. I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but damn, that was some fantastic coffee. There also used to be a rather extensive loose-leaf tea bar for you to mix-and-match teas.

There’s also a noodle station where you can ask the chef to basically make whatever noodle soup you want. Several varieties of noodles and toppings to your taste. Moreover, there are other stations for made-to-order vegetables, sushi hand rolls, clay pot and hot pot,…there’s probably more that I can’t remember. A smorgasbord of cocktails (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and drinks in general. I particularly love the fruit or herb vinegar drinks: e.g. apple, passionfruit, guava, basil…etc. The dessert section has grown almost every year I’ve gone too.

lianxiangzai8And of course, I can’t fail to mention the chocolate fountain! There’s a 3-tier chocolate fountain with fruit kebabs. Pretty sweet. The second time I went to Jen Dow, we managed to catch a wedding banquet and thus there were two chocolate fountains: one milk and one white. lianxiangzai9Haven’t been that lucky since. They also have two Haagen Dazs sections for endless ice cream, if that’s your thing. My favorite ice cream is actually the lactose-free ice cream, next to the dessert soups ( red bean soup, almond milk…etc.). I’m not lactose intolerant, but I find the lactose-free flavors to be more refreshing than the too-sweet and rich Haagen Dazs. If you’re willing to try it, definitely get the sesame soy milk, bilberry, mango, and peanut flavors. Mmm.

Whether you’re carnivorous or omnivorous, you’d probably enjoy eating here as much as we vegetarians do. My mom and I have brought non-vegetarian friends and family here and no one has had less than an incredibly positive experience.

Interested? Find them at:

台北市松山區南京東路五段188號地下1樓之1

Taipei City, Songshan District, Nanjing E. Rd, Section 5, No. 188
First level underground.

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.