Exploring (But Mostly Just Eating) Taipei

I’d had no plans to go to Taiwan.

It’s not like I had anything against the country. It’s just that, like most other Westerners, I knew little about it. As a tech geek, I was aware many of my gadgets were made there — but even for me, a tour of the Asus factory didn’t seem a compelling reason to visit. If it wasn’t for Lauren, I probably wouldn’t have gone there at all.

She’d spent five weeks there a couple of years earlier, and just couldn’t shut up about the place. As in, every time someone asked what her favourite country was, the reply was instant and vocal. “TAIWAN!!!”, she’d shout. I could almost see the exclamation marks, hanging there in the air with a faint hint of accusation that not only had I never been, the country wasn’t even on my radar.

So, when a direct flight from Yangon showed up as we were figuring out where to go after Myanmar, I couldn’t resist. It was time to swap rickety buses for shiny metro stations, mohinga for dumplings and glacial Wi-Fi for some of the fastest speeds I’ve ever seen.

First stop: Taipei.

View from the plane, Taipei

We arrived as evening fell, the well-oiled machinery of the airport picking us up and spitting us out at a small bus terminal. Signage was frequent, prices were displayed, English was spoken. The bus arrived on time, and had a luggage compartment. Bilingual announcements were made, not ten seconds after arriving at a stop, but a minute or two beforehand. After a few months in Southeast Asia, the level of efficiency was both rare and unexpected.

Finding our hostel couldn’t have been easier — I don’t think I’ve ever been provided such clear and accurate instructions, no matter how much I’ve paid for my accommodation. The city gleamed and glistened in the light drizzle, car headlights and neon signs twinkling in equal measure. Cauldrons of unidentifiable soup bubbled outside tiny shopfronts, the wafting fragrance reminding me that dinner on China Airlines had left plenty to be desired.

Our room at JV’s Hostel was clean and tidy, with aircon that worked and just about enough room to swing a cat. There would have been no problem with a kitten, definitely. Given the location, though — a twenty second walk to the TongHua Night Market, and a fifteen minute stroll to Taipei 101 — the size wasn’t an issue. We were there to sightsee (and by sightsee, I mean eat), not hang out in our room.

And so we didn’t.

***

Fried balls of awesome, Taipei If my walk to the hostel had me thinking I’d quite like Taipei, the thought was confirmed within seconds of heading back out the door. The night market swept me into its embrace, long vertical menus of Chinese characters stacked above hot plates and fry pans, friendly smiles from vendors inviting me to see what was on offer.

Occasional photos were my only clue about what lay in store, pictures of fruit smoothies and fried chicken an island of familiarity in an ocean of randomness. After a few minutes, I gave up on trying to figure out what everything was, and just ordered one of whatever I could point at from the vendors around me.

It was so the right choice.

Half a dozen delicious fried balls of something-or-other went down my throat, followed by several more. I didn’t know what they contained at the time, and I still don’t now, but that didn’t stop me heading back to order them almost every night. Popcorn chicken, squid on a stick, mango smoothie, some kind of folded omelette-type thing… hmm. There’s a reason I’m not a food writer. Anyway, regardless of what anything was called, or exactly what it contained, I can vouch for one fact above any other.

IT WAS ALL DELICIOUS.

Apart from the rock-hard chestnut-type thing handed to me as a freebie by a soup vendor. That was just weird. He motioned at me that I was supposed to eat it, so eat it I did — but I still think I would have been better off using it as a defence against street crime. If there’d been any. Which there wasn’t.

***

If the TongHua market had been open all day, I suspect I would have eaten every meal there — but the clue was in the name ‘night market’. Instead Lauren dragged me off to Taipei 101, a very high tower with a very long queue at the bottom. Not to go to the top (although there was probably that too), but to get into the original Din Tai Fung restaurant. We arrived shortly before it opened, and there was already a line. By the time we left, the wait time on the board outside was an hour. When I walked past early afternoon a couple of days later, it was two hours. Popular, much?

XiaoLongBao instructions Now, if you’d asked me if I liked dumplings before I went to Taipei, the answer would have been a pretty resounding ‘NO’ — mainly because I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

Rather than the stodgy, oily lumps of dough filled with fatty pork I’d eaten in the past, the dumplings at Din Tai Fung were… something else. A gift from heaven, perhaps. Light, flavourful, delicious, amazing, life-changing. All of those things, yes. Stodgy and oily? Not so much.

They even came with instructions. Handy, since I would have got the process totally wrong otherwise.

We ordered far too much food, and ate nearly all of it anyway. I couldn’t fit another dumpling in without exploding… and yet damn, I wanted to. I really wanted to.

***

And still the food madness continued. A few days later, we tracked down the more well-known, larger Shilin night market. To be honest I didn’t enjoy it quite as much, not because of the food (of course not), but just because the crowds and sheer size of the place made it harder to get around and figure out what I wanted.

In the end, what I apparently wanted was a bag of deep-fried duck tongues.

Dave tongue or duck tongue?

So that’s what I had.

***

Shortly before leaving Taipei, I suffered a bout of temporary insanity. At least, that’s the only explanation I’ve got for agreeing to accompany Lauren to a Barbie-themed restaurant. Yes, Barbie. Yes, the doll. Yes, it was just as bad as you’d imagine. In fact, it was worse.

There was pink. A lot of pink. The clientele seemed to consist of large numbers of teenage girls looking very happy, and a smaller number of teenage boyfriends looking extremely unhappy.

I’m not a teenage boyfriend, but I think I was looking pretty unhappy too — and that was before we discovered lunch had stopped being served twenty minutes earlier, and it was only drinks and cakes on the menu.

Barbie drink

So my drink looked like this.

Barbie cake

And my cake looked like this.

Give me a damn duck tongue any day.

Still, at least one of us was having a good time. Look at that smile. See how happy she was with her disgusting-looking bread-based dessert? She’s absolutely thrilled.

Lauren at Barbie restaurant

I wasn’t quite so excited.

***

We were only in Taipei a few days, and it wasn’t enough. Not in any way. We didn’t have enough time to do all the sightseeing we’d planned, or all of the shopping either. Most importantly, we didn’t have anywhere near enough time to try all of the amazing food on offer. It seemed like every corner held a new delight, another tiny restaurant full of wonderful smells, another night market full of unidentifiable-yet-delicious food.

That’s why we’re returning at the end of the year. Sure, we’ll check out all the tourist highlights. Sure, we’ll buy all the clothes and gadgets we didn’t buy last time. Neither of those things are the reason we’re going back, however.

We’re going back to eat.

10 Responses to “Exploring (But Mostly Just Eating) Taipei

  • Oh Dave, such a funny post! Taiwan sounds like such a cool country, it seems to be a good mix of convenience and authenticity.
    I’m a Gyoza addict in Japan so I guess I’ll become a dumpling addict when I visit Taiwan 🙂

  • Really enjoyed this article Dave!! Your rendition of eating at the Barbie restaurant made me laugh and all the other stuff made me hungry:( Shame on you, says the notorious foodie!!

  • Yes , of course .
    Taiwan is a really cool country.
    Welcome come back next time.

  • After nearly 4 months in Mexico (& 3 months previously in Rochester, Minnesota…) with nary a dumpling in sight, this post just absolutely slayed me. It’s no secret that Asia is filled with excellent eating destinations, but I definitely think Taiwan/Taipei deserves to be near the very top of that list. (Even with its abundance of Barbie cafés…) So glad you had an excellent—and delicious—introduction to the country; how great is TongHua Night Market? A stay at JV’s is worth it just based on proximity alone!

    • I would move back to Taipei for several months JUST BECAUSE OF TONGHUA NIGHT MARKET. That’s seriously not a lie.

  • Great read, so funny! We live in Phuket, but have a few friends in Taiwan who are ALWAYS trying to get us to visit. Looks like we’ll have to start planning. Might have to pass on the duck tongues though.. 🙂

  • “…and by sightsee, I mean eat”.

    Story of our life. *sigh*

    P.S. I’m loving your space here.

  • Ok, this post has gotten me excited for my visit to Taiwan this winter … can’t wait!

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