Thursday 21 December 2017

taipei cheap eats and other wonderful things

A street vendor selling cooked water caltrop (菱角), a nutty starchy fruit that looks like goat horns.

Oops. I was supposed to finish up and publish this post months ago. Instead, I got carried away with another big multi-month Asia trip, and... here we are. I'll talk about these new adventures as soon as I can, but for now, let's get going with the final installment of my 2014 Taiwan travel blog series! (And you really should read this one, even if I do say so myself!)

A random snap of a street vendor (I didn't try their wares).

I have to admit I didn't really do a lot of research on the best places to eat in Taipei, but somehow, we stumbled upon many excellent places just sauntering around! And looking them up on the internet later, I find that many of these accidental finds are reputable, popular places with great reviews. How's that for awesome luck?

A picture of a dog in a pram, just because.

Some of the best snacks I've had are often casual street eats from unassuming stalls. Chen's wine cakes (陳記京滬酒釀餅) fall into this category. You can get these pancake-like treats in original, black sesame and peanut, red bean and green bean flavours. I think there is a savoury veggie and beancurd option as well.

Chen's wine cakes (陳記京滬酒釀餅), 30 NTD each.

Despite the moniker, you don't really taste any alcohol in these filled pastries. We had the black sesame one and I loved loved loved it. Crispy, toasty, warm, fluffy, it was everything, Just thinking about how delicious it was makes me yearn for it again!

Black sesame wine cake with peanuts.

I always knew going to Taiwan I would be sampling their beef noodles. I feel fortunate that I gave Piaoxiang beef noodle restaurant (飄香牛肉麵館) a go - we went there because it was in the vicinity of Ningxia night market (寧夏夜市), and the crowds were crazy at the market, so we escaped here instead, where at least we could get a seat and there was some breathing space! It turned out to be an excellent decision.

Piaoxiang beef noodle restaurant (飄香牛肉麵館).

Piaoxiang literally means "wafting aroma", and the beef noodle soup here is indeed fragrant and slurptastic. There is a hint of spiciness in the broth too, making it extra-appetizing!

Piaoxiang's beef noodle soup, 100 - 120 NTD.

Another beef noodle restaurant we tried in Taipei is the Lin Dong Fang restaurant (林東芳牛肉麵). This place is considerably more well-known (and also more expensive, but still affordable), and it was one of the few places that lazy me had actually jotted down as a place to visit.

Lin Dong Fang beef noodle restaurant (林東芳牛肉麵).

Here, the broth skews towards the clearer side of the spectrum, but the modest appearance belies the strength of the flavour that lurks within, with a hint of traditional Chinese herbs providing an additional dimension. This is quite a different style of beef noodles to the other one, so it's hard to say which is better. Try both!

Lin Dong Fang beef noodles soup, 140 NTD - 170 NTD.

For buns on the go, we found Lao Cai's Shuijianbao (老蔡水煎包) to be pretty reliable quality. The buns are steamed, then pan-fried to achieve a nice crispy crust on the bottom, while other parts remain soft and tender. The shop is open morning to night, but we tend to go for breakfast. A couple of buns and a drink here, and you're ready to take on the day!

Lao Cai's Shuijianbao (老蔡水煎包) shop, great for takeaway buns.

Old Cai's pan-fried steamed buns come in the flavours of cabbage (高麗菜), garlic chive (韭菜), or pork (鮮肉). You can also get beverages such as black tea (紅茶), soy milk (豆漿), or peanut rice milk (米漿) to accompany your buns.

Cabbage bun (高麗菜包), 13 NTD.

Garlic chive / Chinese chive / Chinese leek bun (韭菜包), 13 NTD.

Pork bun (鮮肉包), 13 NTD.

Occasionally we do brave the crowds at the night markets in Taipei. We were thankful that we didn't have to wait very long to get our teppanyaki chicken at this stall in Raohe night market (饒河夜市). If you understand Chinese characters, you'll be amused by the name of the stall - it's a puntastic twist on the movie title Farewell My Concubine, with the word "chicken" replacing the word "concubine", a perfect fit as the two words sound exactly alike.

Bawangbieji teppanyaki chicken stall (霸王別雞三星蔥雞腿板燒) at Raohe night market (饒河夜市).

Anyway, we enjoyed this! The chicken was succulent, and the accompaniment of sauce, spring onions and sweet corn intensified the juiciness of this dish. It's great value for money too, so the vendor should be saying farewell to many of his chickens at this rate!

Spring onion teppanyaki chicken leg, 60 NTD.

Speaking of night markets, you may spot these intriguing little bouncy cool jellies that they keep chilled on ice (QQ涼圓) making an appearance from time to time.

Miss Wang's QQ jellies (王小姐QQ涼圓菜燕).
Typical fillings are red bean or green bean paste. They make a simple, light and refreshing dessert.

Ice jellies (QQ涼圓), 10 pieces for 35 NTD.

Very importantly, towards the end of our stay in Taipei, we stumbled upon pepper buns (hujiaobing 胡椒餅), and wow, are they scrumptious.

Charcoal baked pepper bun stall.

Behold this gloriously seasoned meaty filling encased within a crispy golden brown pastry. It was quite the revelation.

Charcoal-baked pork and pepper bun (碳烤赤), 40 NTD.

The spring onion buns from this stall (whose name I do not know) were actually not half bad either, even though the pepper buns are hard to beat.

Charcoal-baked spring onion roll (碳烤蔥花燒餅), 25 NTD.

So that's it for the food stuff! I'll share a few other things while I'm here, to give you some idea of other aspects of Taipei. Starting off with a dog pic, just because.

These little dogs look like Sherlock and Watson to me! Too adorable!!

There's the famous Taipei 101 tower, of course...

Taipei 101 (台北101) view from Elephant Mountain (象山) hiking trail.

The love sculpture...

A big LOVE sign.

The rather magnificent Ciyou temple...

Ciyou temple (慈祐宮), dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu.

The Moon Bus, an art installation of some sort. We just happened upon this without knowing such a thing existed, and the unplanned, unexpected discovery made it all the more delightful.

The Moon Bus in Taipei (月亮公車).

And... it's a wrap! While I haven't been blogging very frequently or consistently this year, I do hope you have enjoyed the posts that I did manage to put up, even if some of them are, um... extraordinarily delayed. And I will definitely try to continue to keep at this. Having said that, I can't promise when my next post will be, but I'd like to say January. So in the meantime, happy holidays, stay safe, and I'll see you around next year!

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Sunday 20 August 2017

spirited away in jiufen, and houtong cat village

Adorable cat loaf in the dreamy mountain town of Jiufen (九份).

For our last week in Taiwan, we found ourselves back in Taipei again. We spent most of our time exploring different parts of the city, but we set aside one special day for a combined trip to Jiufen mountain town and Houtong cat village, as these two tourist destinations are very close together.

Jiufen town.

There are entrenched rumours that Jiufen is the inspiration for the setting of the famous Japanese animation film Spirited Away, though Hayao Miyazaki himself has debunked this during an interview with Taiwanese media. Regardless of whether this real-life town has any influence on fictional Spirited Away, though, if you are familiar with the movie, it could be a fun exercise to see if you spot any resemblances!

A photo I took from the bus window of the route scenery leading up to Jiufen.

We took a bus up. This is a great way to get there, especially if you sit on the left hand side of the bus - as you get closer to Jiufen, the scenery is truly breathtaking at points. During those moments, sitting on a bus on a winding road and looking out the windows at mountains punctuated with mist, it really felt like we were about to enter into a magical world.

The winding roads of Jiufen.

After reaching our destination, we found our way to Jiufen Old Street area, which is very crowded and touristy. I think it would have been a more enchanting environment if it wasn't quite so busy, but eh, what can you do?

Still, in between squeezing our way around everyone else, we did stumble upon this delicious, interesting Taiwanese concoction - peanut ice cream roll! 

A delightful icy treat from the A-Zhu/A-Jou peanut ice cream roll stall (阿珠雪在燒) in Jiufen, 40 NTD.

This unusual street food dessert consists of a thin wrapper similar to a crepe or a spring roll skin, a layer of grated peanut brittle, two scoops of taro or pineapple ice cream, and most intriguingly, a sprinkling of coriander leaves. You can omit this last bit, but I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant element in this treat, so don't be afraid of how strange it may seem!

A scrumptious peanut ice cream roll with taro ice cream, peanut candy shavings, and - surprise! - cilantro/coriander leaves.

After eating the delicious ice cream roll, we escaped to more peaceful surroundings. A walk around the neighbourhood yielded cute discoveries such as the "Don't Want Work Studio", which sells handmade furniture, secondhand goods, and other stuff. It also offers accommodation.

I hear you, pal.

We met a cat. Actually, we met a few. Here's one of them!

A cat in Jiufen.

We didn't find a lot of things to do in Jiufen, so we ended up spending about one and a half hours here. Still, it is a lovely and charming place, and I am glad we went, even if it didn't occupy us for long!

More Jiufen views.

If I recall correctly, to get to our next destination, Houtong Cat Village, we caught a bus from Jiufen to Ruifang railway station, where we then caught a train to Houtong station. It's a short ride on both the bus and the train, about five minutes each.

Before we caught our train at Ruifang station, we had a decently tasty lunch at a little shop nearby. Not sure how to translate the name of the place, but basically something like "Crispy Ribs Noodles Fast Food Cart".

So, Simon had their eponymous crispy ribs noodle soup.

Crispy ribs noodle soup at 快餐車排骨酥麵 near the Ruifang train station (瑞芳火車站), 60 NTD.

I had the wonton soup.

Wonton soup (餛飩湯), 40 NTD.

Then we got on the train and it wasn't long before we arrived at Houtong Cat Village!

A cat sculpture at Houtong Cat Village (猴硐貓村).

One of the first things I saw upon arrival was this bakery shop.

Annie's Bakery (艾妮西點).

I wasn't hungry after just having had lunch, but I couldn't resist getting myself a cat-shaped pineapple cake. This black version has had charcoal powder added, you can get regular ones too. If you're not familiar with Taiwanese pineapple cakes, they're basically like cookies with a pineapple jam filling.

Taiwanese pineapple cake (猴硐貓咪鳳梨酥), charcoal cat version.

And then it was time for us to go full-blown cat-crazy mode!

Adorable tabby cat on a scooter!

And cats really are everywhere.

Cat on the rooftop... seeing double?

Is Houtong Cat Village touristy? Of course. But there are plenty of wide-open spaces, so it rarely feels crowded.

A fellow tourist taking pictures of cats at Houtong Cat Village.

And it is one of the nicest touristy places I've ever been to. It seems to me that tourists are even being particularly patient and pleasant than usual over here. It's like everyone is thinking... "We're all cat-lovers here so we're basically one big family! Yay cats! Love to everyone!!"

A sweet kitty chilling out.

Also, even though everyone comes here for the cats, Houtong village actually has very pretty scenery. What a bonus!

The scenery in Houtong Cat Village.

The cats seem oblivious to it, though.

Cat licking itself.

"Scenery? What scenery? Just shut up and pat me."

A rather distinguished-looking tuxedo cat.

While you're here, don't forget to look up, because cats love hanging out in high places...

A cat on top of a shop.

And you wouldn't want to miss out on these cute sightings...

Cat amongst mountains.

Would you?

This cat had the cutest face!

Watch out for the cat-themed art, too.

Cartoon cat railway master at Houtong Cat Village.

They're interspersed throughout the village...

A cat with a heart.

And they're cute and fun and colourful.

A cat mural.

Oh, yeah, and the architecture here can be quite interesting, too.

Little houses in Houtong Cat Village.

But at the end of the day, it's all about the cats.

An old cat having a siesta.

So there you go...

Doesn't this one just look so elegant?

We ended up spending about two hours at Houtong Cat Village just strolling around. It was wonderful, we were entertained by cat sightings the entire time, and it was easy to get up close and personal with many of them for pictures and pats, as you can see.

Cheeky cat.

Needless to say, our excursion to Jiufen and Houtong Cat Village was a roaring (or should I say purring?) success! If you like village settings and friendly cats, give this Taipei day trip idea a go!

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