View towards the sea from near Taipei 101
I have precisely 8 weeks remaining before movers pack our life into a 40 foot container and four years in Hong Kong becomes just another metal box on a passing ship.
Hong Kong has given us some great memories, ones I don’t want to forget. So in the next 8 weeks I’ll be doing a little sauntering and cafe hopping down memory lane.
One of the many perks of living in Hong Kong is that Hong Kong is a travel hub for SE Asia. We’ve made the most of it and hit some long dreamed of destinations—Tokyo, Kyoto, Hanoi, Hoi-An, Sydney, Seoul, to name a few. So for the next 8 Fridays, I’ll do an Armchair Travel post and share with you a place we visited and loved.
I’ll start with Taipei, a city near and dear to my heart. Since my teen years, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for this sprawling city by the sea. The Taiwanese are incredibly warm and friendly, and their hospitality is legendary.
The flight is a mere an hour and half, so very easy to do over a weekend. I have family still in Taipei so it’s always a treat to visit and catch up. And I get to visit one of my oldest friends (we met when we were 6 years old) who is a big foodie. Whenever we get together, we pretty much gorge ourselves stupid on my favourite Taiwanese foods: shaved ice, bubble tea, and Taiwanese style beef noodle soup.
I used to spend my teenage summers in Taipei when it was a highly polluted and ramshackle city. The government of the day was serious about their platform to reunite with the motherland (China) and spent their budget not on their fledgling cities but on military might. It’s changed a lot since then; the focus is now on its own people, infrastructure, arts, and culture. It is an amazing city, clean and tidy despite the density. The architectural landscape is intriguing—a mix of modern high rises, renovated fifties low rises, futuristic buildings, old style temples with traditional Chinese roofs, restored breweries and warehouses housing art galleries and indie shops. And blue, blue skies. Quite a change from the smog that used to choke the city.
Buildings from the fifties were built in a hurry without much regard to aesthetics; nowadays there are a lot of innovative approaches to “beautifying” the urban landscape. The Taiwanese are big into green technology and architecture. A building slated for demolition or renovation is boarded up not with plywood but with living wall gardens. The technology university from which my cousin and uncle graduated really impressed me. It looks like the Elves of Rivendell were on the beautification council. Living branches hug the buildings, green leaves sprouting everywhere, transforming the original ugly concrete blocks into something out of a fairy tale.
Taipei has a plethora of small neighbourhood shops, many of which are funky little boutiques. One of my favourites is Tools to Live By—a vintage bric a brac shop specialising in beautiful stationery. It was down this quiet little residential lane, where you really wouldn’t expect a shop much less one that was buzzing with people coming and going.
Tools to Live By in the Da-an District
Hello, Your Majesty!
Taipei is stifling hot in the summer. Shaved ice is absolutely the best kind of treat when your clothes stick to your back, your face is sticky from the 98% humidity, the sun glares down on you like a giant flaming eye, and hobbits run amok in the … wait. Different country. Asia is too hot for hobbits.
Ice Monster has the best snow ice in town. They serve up a huge mound of thin ribbon like shavings of flavoured, almost creamy, ice. A variety of accompaniments are then added. The photo below is of jasmine flavoured snow shavings, with lime sorbet and pickled mango. Amazing flavours and textures.
Ice Monster Jasmine Snow Ice
Dong Qu Fen Yuan is more old school, you can probably tell by the super simple take-away bowls and plastic soup spoons. Their version of shaved ice uses crushed ice with your choice of topping. I always go for adzuki bean, steamed taro, a generous drizzle of sugar syrup and huge fen yuan—basically giant tapioca balls. Crunchy, cold, chewy and dense. Something to tuck into late at night, sitting on a small plastic stool by the side of the road.
東區粉圓 （Dong Qu Fen Yuan） Traditional Ice
Of course, the whole giant tapioca ball thing leads us to my hands down favourite Asian drink—bubble tea. Kind of like huge slimy frogs’ eggs in a drink. Looks gross, and to some the texture is really too much, but I am so going to miss this when we leave. I’m hoping the trend in London has picked up in the four years I’ve been away and the bubble tea places are better than the ones we had when I left. Texture is everything with the boba (aka bubbles aka tapioca balls). Soft squidgy bubbles are wrong on so many levels. They gotta resist and have bounce, what the Taiwanese call ‘Q’.
One of the best, if not the best, places for bubble tea in Taipei is 春水堂（Chun Shui Tang). The place also has great street-food style snacks. Lots of little dishes to 塞牙縫 (sai ya feng) a Chinese saying that means having a very insubstantial snack, only enough to fill the gaps in your teeth. I think we filled more than the gaps in our teeth…
Pigging out at 春水堂 （Chun Shui Tang）
Best beef noodle soup in Taipei
Beef noodle soup is my favourite savory dish (with vietnamese pho/bun tied for a close second). Stewed for many many hours, rich flavourful broth is paired with thick noodles (with that all important Q texture). The beef brisket is so tender and fragrant it melts in your mouth. Mmmm. Am salivating already. Anyways, Taiwanese street food and especially the beef noodle soup—put it on your foodie bucket list. Absolutely worth your time IMHO.
A bowl of the amazing goodness, the broth rich and moreish, handmade noodles with ‘Q’.
Something I know we won’t get in London is Taiwanese-style breakfast. It’s actually Shanghainese-style honed and perfected by the Shanghainese who fled Mao and moved to Taiwan pre-1949. This is something I’m going to have to make myself if I want to eat it. Totally stodge-tastic (sticky rice wrapped around a fried Chinese donut for example) but oh so good. Thankfully the fruit in Taiwan is amazing or it would be an incredibly constipated nation.
This photo encompasses everything I love about Taipei. We’d just had a delicious (and cheap!) meal at the famous beef noodle soup place in the Da-an District. The weather was balmy, and people were out and about strolling in the neighborhood. Bellies full, my little one and my childhood best friend chatted as they wandered down the street hand in hand for a post-meal constitutional, two happy, chatting, giggling peas in a pod. Sometimes it’s the simple things that are the best things in life. Great food, great friends, and a comfortable place to stroll and chat.