We’re almost at the weekend, just hang in there! Will this be the weekend where you can start planning parts of your trip to Taiwan? If so, I hope this helps as a very rough guide as I cannot claim to be a travel expert.
Let me think back . . . we went in mid-February and I found it shockingly cold. I thought going from Toronto to Taipei meant warmer weather for me. But it’s a cold that seeps into your bone there, a deep kind of cold. So wear plenty of light layers and pack a jacket and accessories. This might reveal my delicate health, but I needed the hat, scarf, and hand warmers when we were outdoors. You can find Japanese hand warmers in convenience stores there where they only heat up when you magically open the packaging and they last for 24 hours. I found these so nice and toasty that I bought some back to Canada with me! However, it’s supposed to be much warmer in March as their spring season officially begins.
If your travels take you south to Kaohsiung City, then you should definitely be prepared with mosquito repellents and insect-bite relief as the mosquitoes come out to feast at night. This is where wearing layers should help, they can’t bite you if they can’t reach you!
Of course, Taiwan is famous for its night markets so that’s a must visit. There are plenty around the major cities and we strolled through many of them after dinner. You could visit a different one every night and not be able to explore them all. Shilin Night Market is probably the largest one and you’ll find tightly packed stalls of street food, games, and merchandise for sale. You snake through in single file and look for the stalls with the longest lines to join. Roam around to take in the sights and smells, but keep your belongings close to you and be aware of your surroundings. Our relatives warned us many times to keep our wallets and phone safely in front of us.
What should you eat? Well, there’s the famous Taiwanese stinky tofu, which I actually didn’t find all that stinky there (it’s more pungent here in Toronto). They make it much better in Taiwan and the savory flavours are worth a try. There’s a ton of fried food at the night market, almost anything you can imagine. I would highly recommend fried chicken as a late night snack. There are stalls with baos and oyster omelettes made fresh to order. Waffles batter poured in the weirdly shaped cast irons. There’s this particular dessert that is quite wonderful – it’s a crêpe filled with peanut butter brittle, ice cream, and cilantro. This might sound weird but it’s surprisingly delightful! You can also get a bowl of sweet potatoes that are covered in a syrupy glaze that warms your soul as the night gets colder.
Outside of the night market, you can’t skip Din Tai Fung. Their soup dumplings alone are worth it. Go in a group so you can order multiple steam baskets of dumplings to try. I found their hot and sour soup to be the best I’ve ever had because it’s incredibly silky from the tofu. Try the braised beef noodle soup!
Let me interject here with my very own dumplings. I made these without my mom’s help for the first time. However, the wrappers were store bought and not homemade.
Recipe adapted from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes
Makes about 50 dumplings
1 lb ground pork
¼ cup minced scallions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 lb pre-made round dumpling wrappers
- First of all, the original recipe called for a tablespoon of minced ginger which I omitted because Howard thinks I’m too heavy handed when it comes to ginger (it’s true, I probably would have put in two tablespoons). Ok, now that that’s out of way, here are the very easy steps.
- Mix the pork, scallions, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, cornstarch, sugar, sesame oil, and white pepper together in a bowl. Take the dumpling wrappers out of the fridge and packaging. Set aside a small bowl of water.
- Using a spoon, fill a dumpling wrapper with about one tablespoon of filling.
- Dip a finger into the water and moisten the edge of the wrapper – half a circle will do, you don’t have to go all around. Fold the dumpling in half and pinch it from the filling out to get rid of any air bubbles. Seal the edges tightly and crimp to secure.
- Repeat until all the dumplings are completed. Choose one of the two methods below to cook them.
- Boil: Fill a large pot with water and boil on high heat. Place the dumplings in the pot in batches (don’t crowd it). They will start to float around 3 to 4 minutes. That’s when they’re done, remove with a slotted spoon.
- Pan-fried: Arrange the dumplings (pleats up) on a cast iron pan until it covers the surface. Pour in neutral oil (I used grapeseed oil) to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat over medium until the oil starts to sizzle. Then pour in ¼ cup of water and cover it with a lid. The steam will cook the dumplings in about 3 to 4 minutes. You’ll end up with a nice golden crust on the bottom of the dumpling.
- Dip in a soy sauce and rice vinegar mixture and enjoy!
Taiwan is also a city full of hot pot restaurants. While it’s usually a shared experience here in Toronto, you get your own individual pot there. It’s definitely worth trying your hand at cooking your own food with fresh seafood. Japanese restaurants are also a must stop since the seafood is so abundant – you’ll see lots of conveyor belt sushi there, go for the fun or pick a more traditional restaurant.
Then there’s the famous shaved ice. We went to Smoothie House for their mango shaved ice, topped with a panna cotta and ice cream! Or there’s Ice Monster for a better sit down experience.
Go for a traditional breakfast where you can eat delicious buns, dough fritters, congee, and drink soy milk or wintermelon iced tea.
Taiwan is filled with amazing bakeries and cafes. Seriously, their pastry and bread game is on point. Wu Pao Chun Bakery is my absolute favourite. You should try their pineapple cakes, croissants, buns, and basically anything you can get your hands on when it’s your turn in line (yes, people line up for bread here). All my relatives know to bring me back a box of pineapple cakes from Wu Pao Chun when they visit Taiwan.
What else did we do? We visited Taitung County and Tamsui Old Street for some fresher air and ocean views. We were driven up winding roads to the top of the mountains to pay our respect to ancestors. We watched in envy as people zoomed by on scooters. We made sure to visit a 24-hour bookstore. You can even find a good meal at 7-Eleven, it’s more than a convenience store there, it does everything. People buy concert and train tickets, call taxis, pay bills, and even have the ready-to-eat food you buy prepared for you. I was very fond of this caramel egg pudding that I can’t find here and can’t quite replicate in recipes. Oh speaking of, I forgot to mention that every receipt you get in Taiwan is a lottery ticket. You can keep these or give them to relatives to redeem if the winning number shows up!
I do want to mention that sometimes it’s hard to find a clean washroom when you’re out and about or at a night market. Keep plenty of hand sanitizing wipes, napkins, and toilet paper in your bag. Some of the more rural places may have squat toilets instead of sitting ones. And what I found interesting was that some homes tile the entire bathroom because there are no bath tubs. They have a drain in the floor of the bathroom where the water goes when you shower next to the sink and toilet.
The subway system is very easy to use and clean, which reminds me there’s no food or drinks on the subway! There’s a line that clearly indicates where you’re no longer allowed to eat or drink in the station. Don’t sit on the designated priority seats on the subway either, you’ll get glances. And don’t lose any tokens or tickets, you’ll need it to enter and to leave the gates at the station.
I think that’s it. I don’t know if I’m missing any other observations! Practice your chopstick skills and I hope you’ll have a dumpling book when you come back.