Sunday, 16 July 2017

tainan: old-world charm, fish noodles, and cat cafes

Eating out, with a side of geese, in Tainan (台南).

So look, I have pretty much good things to say about every place we visited in Taiwan, but I'm going to come right out and play favourites here: I am particularly fond of Tainan. This city has so much character - it's just such a beautifully warm blend of old and new. On one side you may see little shops that look like they have been around for centuries, offering traditional goods and services that are increasingly rare in the modern world. On another, you might come across youthful, trendy stores and eateries with cosmopolitan vibes and experimental twists.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, this traditional puppet parade was one of the first things we stumbled upon on our first day exploring Tainan city. I think it's part of some Taoist ceremony, but that's my best guess. I asked a local bystander, and she didn't know, either!

Giant puppet parade in Tainan.

Soon after that, we strolled by a roadside setup where you can try your hand at making a traditional Taiwanese candy with sugar and baking soda, a crunchy treat similar to what you might know as honeycomb, hokey-pokey, or cinder toffee.

Cooking candy in the streets of Tainan (煮碰糖).

One moment, we'd be eating "top scholar" cakes (狀元糕) - traditional little rice cakes steamed in curious contraptions that look like mini totem poles, with ground peanuts or black sesame...

Top scholar cakes, also sometimes translated as champion cakes, from Wang's stall (王家庄狀元粿).

But another moment we'd be eating mini Belgian-style waffle ice cream sandwiches.

Belgian waffles with ice cream from Gold House (金色小屋比利時松餅).

We'd slurp down delicious douhua (豆花) - tofu pudding - from well-established shops that specialize precisely in this type of dessert. You can get it in the basic original flavour, which is simply sweetened, or you can get it with toppings such as red beans (adzuki), green beans (mung), tapioca pearls, lemon, and barley. You may see tofu, or bean curd, with a subtle grayish tinge - these are made from black soy beans instead of the usual yellow ones. Some shops add charcoal, making the gray colour way more distinctive and prominent.

I am partial to getting my sweet soybean curds with red bean topping,

Black soy bean tofu pudding with red bean topping from Mao's Black Sweet Tofu. (茂記黑豆花大王赤崁店)

While Simon can never seem to resist getting them with black tapioca pearls.

Tofu pudding with pearls from Tong's Anping Bean Jelly (同記安平豆花).

And we'd indulge in sweets from this sleek Japanese dessert shop - at the time we went, it also had
a casual photo exhibition in the upstairs dining area, and I think the pictures were from the shop owner's travels - so that was pretty interesting.

This fish-shaped cake, known in Japan as taiyaki, has an exterior that is made with a batter similar to what is used for pancakes or waffles.

Red bean and matcha taiyaki (紅豆抹茶鯛魚燒) from Hanami UJI Matcha WA-Sweets (宇治花見), 25 NTD.

The filling is part red bean paste, part matcha cream, and it is absolutely divine, especially when the whole thing is still fresh and warm. The sweetness of the red bean paste and the gentle bitterness of the matcha cream complement each other wonderfully.

The taiyaki's crisp exterior and lush fillings are a seriously fabulous combination.

And if you feel like something cold, there's the combination milk-and-matcha soft serve.

The soft serve milk-and-matcha twist, 80 NTD.

One thing I really wanted to try in Taiwan are fish noodles, which are not noodles and fish, but literally noodles made from fish. It's not terribly common - there's supposed to be a fish noodle stall in Cijin Island of Kaohsiung that's excellent, but it wasn't open when we went there. So it was to my delight that I found that there were two shops in Tainan that do handmade fish noodles!

At both places, I tried the fish noodles, as well as fish dumplings. As I've mentioned, the noodles are made from fish, but the cool thing is that the dough for the fish dumpling skin contains fish as well. Meanwhile, it seems that the dumpling filling is typically pork or a combination of fish and pork.

We went to the Xia Family Handmade Fish Noodle Shop first.

Behold their fish noodles...

Xia's fish noodle soup (夏家手工魚麵), 45 NTD for a small bowl, 70 NTD for large.

And their fish dumplings.

Xia's fish dumpling soup (夏家魚餃湯), 30 NTD.

Then we sampled the fish noodles from Zhuo Family Shantou Fish Noodle Shop...

Zhuo's fish noodle soup (卓家汕頭魚麵), 45 NTD for a small bowl, 75 NTD for large.

And also their fish dumplings.

Zhuo's fish dumpling soup (卓家魚餃湯), 35 NTD.

Honestly, it's been so long that I can't remember if one of the fish noodle shops was obviously better than the other one. In any case, they're both well-regarded and are located within a 10-minute walking distance to each other, so if you're in the area, it totally makes sense to try both anyway.

After eating fish noodles, relaxing in a cat cafe with a drink is a good idea. We went to two cat cafes in Tainan, and we found them to be superbly pleasant. We were entertained by the cats, and the cats seemed content and comfortable with the cafe setting and can easily choose to engage with guests or peace out in a safe space, which is so important, and exactly how cat cafes should be.

(AT) Cats & Tea is the more elaborate one, with a generous number of cats, and lots of space.

The bright orange sign was very effective in getting our attention.

(AT) Cats & Tea (茶飲輕食) cat cafe in Tainan.

We found this cute grumpy cat amusing. Despite the disdainful expression, it was amenable to being patted.

Cat with grumpy face at Cats & Tea.

And how about this adorable tabby being all loaf-like on a chair?

A tabby loaf at Cats & Tea.

Oh, my heart.

Fluffy blue-point cat taking a cat nap at Cats & Tea.

The other one we went to, Cafe Moment, is a very modest setup in comparison. It's more like a cafe that happens to have a couple of cats hanging around all casual-like, rather than the expected style of cat cafe that has more of a playground element to it, if you know what I mean.

Cafe moment (貓門咖啡).

I think we saw two cats while we were there. This cutie was there by itself for awhile before another one made an appearance.

One of the cats at Cafe Moment.

The menu has such a sweet personal touch, and the coffee here is so very pretty!

Cafe Moment menu and coffee.

I didn't mean for this post to end up being so long, but seriously, it could have been much longer, with way more pictures, more thoughts. There are many things I enjoyed in Tainan, and this is but a mere glimpse of what it has to offer.

Dragon fountain at Koxinga Ancestral Shrine (鄭成功祖廟).

So I say, if you get the opportunity, go stroll the streets of Tainan, and experience its charms for yourself!

A walk in Tainan.

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

artsy kaohsiung, salty soy milk, and a day trip to cijin island

Love River (愛河) at night in Kaohsiung city (高雄市) is quite a sight.

I'll be honest - at first glance, I wasn't particularly enamoured with Kaohsiung: the term "concrete jungle" comes to mind.

But it didn't take long for us to discover the charms the lie within this busy city.

Let me just say this - if you go to Kaohsiung, you should definitely check out the Pier-2 Art Center (駁二藝術特區). It's a laid-back presentation of art like I'd never seen before - a lovely open space, dotted with converted warehouses, and you can just stroll around enjoying what is basically a park filled with whimsical creative delights.

“Sit here, do nothing”, by artist Chi-Ying Lee (駁二最大咖 - 「一起坐著,甚麼也不做」李紀瑩).

Bumblebee from Transformers is probably the most popular installation here. Just about everyone wants to get a picture of this famous and fabulous robot!

Transformers Bumblebee (變形金剛大黃蜂).

There's a grassy defunct railway area littered with various metal art installations, such as this giant suitcase.

Suitcase by artist Yu-Sheng Chen (旅行箱陳右昇).

And a green living sculpture of a chameleon.

Chameleon (變色龍).

And if you're feeling peckish, there's usually someone selling a bite to eat, somewhere... this is Taiwan, after all. This vendor here sells egg cakes, and it looks like she's got quite the doggy fanbase!

Who wants egg cakes? We do! When do we want it? Now!

You'll also see weird and wonderful things, like cats with hands for heads... or at least that's what I think they are.

Cats with hands for heads (貓的身體手的頭).

And you'll see these male and female figurines dotted all over the place, decorated in different themes. These ones appear to be fashioned after auto-racing cars.

Pier-2 figurines (駁二藝術特區的公仔).

There are some old houses in the area... I don't think they're part of the art stuff going on, but I couldn't help but notice their dilapidated beauty.

An old dilapidated house.

This one looks more well-maintained and spruced-up. Check out that bold colour-blocking on those walls! I think it's kind of adorable.

Colour-blocked house.

So as you can see, there is more than one side to Kaohsiung.

A slice of life in Kaohsiung.

But Pier-2 Art Center is not the only place in Kaohsiung where you can find art.

While wandering around, we stumbled upon the Houyi shopping area in the Sanmin district. The stores here are wholesale businesses, but apparently they sell to walk-in customers as well. What really caught our attention, though, were these colourful umbrellas when we looked up! I don't know if they were a temporary or permanent feature, but they were very captivating indeed.

Umbrellas in the sky in Kaohsiung (高雄市三民區嫩江街周邊後驛商圈的雨傘).

Moreover, there are some very attractive MRT stations here. The picture below is of the Formosa Boulevard station, which is probably the most well-known one. However, I loved the Central Park station, too, which has fake flowers and greenery blossoming alongside the escalators in the most spectacular manner. The worst thing was, we stayed right near that station and went there every day, and somehow I didn't take a photo of it! Oh well, at least I've got this one of the Formosa station, and it's glorious, too!

Kaohsiung MRT - Formosa Boulevard Station (高雄捷運美麗島站).

And we've got to talk about the food scene in Kaohsiung, of course.

I tried the red bean cake from the Guan Pei Red Bean Cake shop. This is a chain store so you can find it in other cities in Taiwan as well. I'm not sure how the quality differs from store to store, but I'm pleased with the goods from this particular outlet that I visited in Kaohsiung.

Red bean cake from Guanbei shop (關北紅豆餅).

The red bean cake tastes so satisfying when it's freshly made and still warm. The exterior is nice and crisp. I really like the red bean filling, it's well-cooked and tender, and instead of a puree, the red beans inside are only roughly mashed and mostly intact, which makes for great texture, and feels very wholesome.

Delicious red bean cake!

I enjoyed a smooth and luscious papaya milk from the famous Zheng's stall at Liuhe Night Market, a trusty old brand that has been operating since 1965.

Papaya milk (鄭老牌木瓜牛奶) at Liuhe Night Market (六合夜市), 50 NTD.

To be honest I can't remember what I thought about these flame-grilled meats at Ruifeng Night Market, but I wanted to share this picture of the dramatic cooking process!

Flame-grilled beef cubes (火焰骰子牛) at Ruifeng Night Market (瑞豐夜市), 60 NTD for small portion, 100 NTD for large.

But I think the major food revelation here, for me, was at Guo Mao Lai Lai Doujiang shop.

Guo Mao Lai Lai Doujiang (果貿來來豆漿).

I've known about salty soy milk (xiandoujiang) for a long time, but this is the first time I tried it - I grew up with only the sweet version. I'll admit that I was a bit skeptical - curdled savoury soy milk doesn't sound that appetizing - but oh my goodness, it was beyond sensational. Dotted with ingredients such as spring onions and dried shrimp and drizzled with sesame oil and chilli oil, it was umami to the max. If you haven't tried salted soy milk before, you should definitely try it at least once at a reputable shop in Taiwan. And if you're anything like me, once you've tried it, you will appreciate that it is a work of genius, and want to have it again and again!

Savoury soy milk, 22 NTD, with Chinese crullers, 12 NTD (鹹豆漿油條).

Guo Mao Lai Lai also offers buns, dumplings, and flatbreads. We tried their pork buns and garlic chive buns, and they were splendid, with super-juicy fillings. If my memory serves me right, I think Simon might have gone back for seconds...

Pork bun and garlic chive bun (肉包,韭菜包).

No skimping on the filling here!

Garlic chive bun filling (韭菜包內餡).

And to wrap up the Kaohsiung portion of this blog post, here is a picture of the Dragon Tiger Pagodas.

Dragon Tiger Pagodas at Lotus Lake in the Zuoying district of Kaohsiung (高雄左營蓮池潭龍虎塔).

Not a bad way to spend the day.

The Mysterious Warrior God (玄天上帝), a Taoist deity.

But wait, there's more!

While we were in Kaohsiung, we did a day trip to Cijin Island.

Off to Cijin Island (旗津島)!

Upon our arrival, it wasn't long before the seafood stalls drew me in. Grilled squid? Yes, please!

Grilled squid stall at Cijin Island (烤魷魚,烤小卷).

There's something about eating bite-sized pieces of seafood with a toothpick from a paper bag that makes life feel wonderfully leisurely. That's how you know you're on holiday.

Grilled squid in a bag, yum yum.

Following the seafood-in-paper-bag theme, I got deep-fried mixed seafood at another stall.

Deep-fried seafood (炸海鮮).

My favourite is the deep-fried fish roe! I don't get to have fish roe as often as I'd like, it's such a treat.

Deep-fried fish egg (炸魚卵).

Fueled with seafood, we hired a couple of bikes, and cycled around the island.

After we were spent with all that exercise, it was time for more seafood, of course!

It's hard to go wrong with a good classic Chinese-style steamed fish (清蒸魚).

Before I sign off this post, here's one last picture. A cute Shiba Inu in a pram!

Dog in pram.

So there you go... there's no denying that Kaohsiung can be gray and industrial in parts, but it certainly has its colourful, charming aspects, too, and this vibrant, playful side is so worth discovering!

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