Where to stay
Amba Taipei Ximending One of three hotels from the same stable, it fits snugly into the surrounding mix of shops, restaurants and cinemas. It’s sister hotel in Zhongshan, has a speakeasy bar that’s well loved by the city’s hipsters. Doubles from £81. 77 Section 2, Wuchang St, Wanhua, 00 886 2 2653 2828, amba-hotels.com
Folio Daan Taipei Converted from a dormitory for bank employees into a small but characterful hotel, it’s modern, convenient and sits at the junction of two MRT lines. Doubles from £70. 23, Lane 30, Section 4, Xinyi Rd, Da’an, 00 886 2 6626 0658, folio-hotels.com
The Grand Hotel It looks palatial and the main entrance lobby matches the exterior, but this once-figurehead hotel has more of a resort feel these days. Doubles from £122. 1 Section 4, Zhongshan North Rd, Zhongshan, 00 886 2 2886 8888, grand-hotel.org
Home Hotel A MIT (Made in Taiwan) design hotel close to the Taipei 101 skyscraper, it’s in the buzzing Xinyi district, where most of the conspicuous wealth can be found. Public spaces are dotted with artworks, and rooms are slick and modern. Doubles from £130. 90 Songren Rd, Xinyi, 00 886 2 8789 0111, homehotel.com.tw
Mandarin Oriental Taipei It looks as if it’s been part of the city for ages, but is only four years old. Decor is elegant, opulent and understated with all the hallmarks of Tony Chi’s design. Five minutes from Taipei Songshan Airport and 40 minutes from Taiwan Taoyuan Airport, it is an ideal base. Doubles from £293. 158 Dunhua North Rd, Songshan, 00 886 2 2715 6888, mandarinoriental.com
Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, and is situated at the northern tip of the island. Flights from the UK take around 15 hours and the time is eight hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the Taiwan new dollar (TWD). In April, the average high temperature is 25C and the average low is 18C.
GETTING THERE Cathay Pacific flies daily from London Heathrow to Taiwan Taoyuan International via Hong Kong, from £630 return. cathaypacific.com
Eva Air offers regular services from London Heathrow to Taiwan Taoyuan International via Bangkok, from £562 return. evaair.com
RESOURCES Taipei Tourism Office is the official tourist board and is full of up-to- date information and events to help you plan your trip. taiwan.net.tw
FURTHER READING Taipei People by Pai Hsien-yung (Chinese University Press, £17) is a collection of short stories that tell the tale of those who travelled across China to live in Taiwan during the 1950s.
CARBON COUNTING To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Taipei, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 2.7 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £20.12.
Where to eat
Prices are for three courses, for two people, with wine, unless otherwise stated
Addiction Aquatic Development The converted fish market in Zhongshan has an outstanding range of seafood. The price depends on which of the ten areas you intend to eat in, but a giant seafood platter is a bargain at £35. Alley 23, Lane 410, Minzu East Rd, Zhongshan, 00 886 2 2508 1268
Breeze If you want to eat like a Taipei-ite, spend time in the food court of this mall. Restaurants range from cheap and reliable to quite ambitious. San Ho Yan is modern Taiwanese and worth queuing for. 16 Songgao Rd, Xinyi, 00 886 2 6636 9959, breezecenter.com
Chamonix Teppanyaki with more than a twist. The set menu covers beef, duck and truffles. The atmosphere has shades of TGI Fridays, but it’s fun. Eight courses from £25pp. 46, Section 2, Zhongshan North Rd, Zhongshan, 00 886 2 2571 9608, chamonix.com.tw
Chen Jia Tofu Arguably the most Chinese restaurant in ‘Stinky Tofu Street’. It looks – and is – touristy, but is mainly frequented by Asian visitors. From £15. Shenkeng Old St, Shenkeng, 00 886 2 2662 2585
Chun Shui Tang Taipei has three branches of this tea shop, but the one overlooking Songshan Cultural and Creative Park is comfortable and also serves dim sum. Pearl milk tea from £2.50. Nanjing East Rd, Songshan, 00 886 2 2723 9913, chunshuitang.com.tw
Dinyuan Soy Milk Salty soy is an acquired taste but is worth trying. The puffy fried youtiao sticks, for soaking up the seasoned milk, are fresh and excellent. 30-1 Jinhua St, Zhongzheng, 00 886 2 2351 8527
Du Hsiao Yue This is the Dongmen outlet of a small, chain that started in Tainan in south-west Taiwan. Its owner was a truck driver who loved Taiwanese cooking and switched professions to become a restaurateur. Basically, it’s a noodle shop, but daikon omelette, boiled bamboo shoots and pork and rice are all tasty. Zhongxiao East Rd, Da’an, 00 886 2 2773 1244
Fengsheng The name means ‘sumptuous’, but this bistro dishes up Taiwanese favourites without frills. The menu, including salted duck eggs with broccoli, stir- fried water snowflake or sparerib and yam is based on the owner’s food memories from his youth when he was a truck driver travelling across the island. From £20. 1-3 Lishui Street, Da’an, 00 886 2 2396 1133
Fleisch Café This is the kind of café/restaurant that might do well in Melbourne. It provides platters such as braised dong po pork with sliced baguettes and salad. A good lunch spot before crossing the road for tea at South Street Delight. From £17. Section 1, Dihua St, Datong, 00 886 2 2556 2526, fleisch.com.tw
Lan Ji Hotpot Among the hundreds of hotpot eateries, this one is worth the visit because the boss is always out front, watching and helping. It’s no-frills eating, but the taste is powerful, right down to the soy dipping sauce. From £18. 19, Section 1, Jinshan South Rd, Zhongshan, 00 886 2 2322 4523
Night markets There are numerous night markets dotted around the city, each with its own vibe. Shilinn, situated on Jihe Road, is the largest, but away from the centre. Datong’s Ningxia enjoys the best reputation, while Raohe Street, in Songshan, is a manageable mix of Taiwanese cooking and street-theatre bustle.
Smoothie House This shaved-ice bar in the Yongkang area is a great place to sample the Taipei speciality. Mango is the classic, but the lychee version is all class. From £5 for a generous portion. 15 Yongkang St, Da-an, 00 886 2 2341 8555, smoothiehouse.com
Yong-Kang Beef Noodle The ramen noodle soup is hot and tasty with large chunks of braised beef. From £12. 17, Lane 31, Section 2, Jinshan South Rd, Da’an, 00 886 2 2351 1051
A generic term for steamed dumplings
A hotpot: ‘la’ means spicy; ‘jia’ can be used to add more stock
Small chewy eggs – often quail’s, sometimes chicken, never duck – which are stained black from stewing in soy and spice before air-drying
Lu rou fan
Humble and very popular dish of braised pork with rice
A generic term for noodles
Pearl, boba or bubble tea
A milk- or fruit-based tea with tapioca beads
Crisp pastry with pork and black pepper, baked in clay ovens
Look out for it on the street – it resembles an oversized sorbet
Fermented bean curd
Tian bu la
A type of fishcake which is deep-fried then boiled in broth
Edible slim stem of a type of water lily, treated asa vegetable and often stir-fried with garlic
Crisp, deep-fried pastry used to soak up salty soya milk or broth
Sticky rice, mushrooms and meat, steamed in fresh bamboo leaves
Food and Travel Review
Ciyou Temple in Songshan District, Taipei, nudges the entrance gate to Raohe Street Night Market, one of the oldest markets in the city. After dark, beneath its elaborate roof, it becomes a carousel of colour, gilding and light. Worshippers drop by to spread offerings for the goddess Mazu. Joss burnt, prayers whispered, they retrieve their assorted pineapples, grocery bags, rice-cracker snacks or a bottle of beer and leave.
Some go direct to the MRT (Taipei Mass Rapid Transit) Green Line for the routine commute. Many more make a path through the crowds to the back-to-back stalls packing the street. Starting one end with tandoor-baked pepper buns, they can graze their way for 600m and end up with six lacquered duck feet for £1.30. More than necessity, more than a passion, eating is a religion for the Taiwanese.
From the 88th-floor of the Taipei 101 tower, the city is a rice bowl surrounded by subtropical hills. Clustered grains of tenement flats reflect a history that turned an insignificant provincial city into the centre of one of Asia’s four ‘little dragon’ economies in 45 years.
Like the dragon Smaug from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it may be dozing over its acquired hoard just now, but it never sleeps. The birth rate is one of the lowest in the world, with women putting career before family. Everyone takes the majority of their meals out. Few cook at home. Buying street food or eating in a shopping mall can work out cheaper than cooking indoors.
Breeze Song Gao’s food court, in Xinyi, typifies an eat-any-time culture. It stays open from mid-morning until after midnight. Chinese and Japanese outlets dominate, even though they borrow Western names: Lunchbox To Go, Uncle Tetsu’s Shop, Very Thai Noodles, Delectable Hotpot Lab. To survive the intense competition, they simply have to satisfy hungry but picky eaters.
San Ho Yan is a modern Taiwanese concept, specialising in steamed buns with zebra or tiger stripes. It’s so busy, it pays to book in advance. Diners lay chunks of braised pork on the buns, add a sprinkling of crushed peanuts before folding them in half to eat like hybrid hot dogs. It isn’t fast food at giveaway prices. Tack on a cone of abalone, Szechuan-spiced chicken with okra, fried turnip cubes with XO sauce and the signature pyramid of short-grained rice, and the bill comes to around £20 for two.
Western eaters seem to have an innate prejudice against mass communal eating that mystifies the Taiwanese. The moment restaurateurs realise they have a success on their hands, they think of opening a chain. Chamonix has more than a dozen outlets peppered around the island that tear up the epicurean rulebook. Its name – completely random, bar the nod to France – gives no clue as to what’s on the menu. The only way of describing it is ‘evolved teppanyaki’.
According to area manager Daniel Kao (Chinese often adopt the Western monikers that were given to them by teachers when they learnt English), ‘The Taiwanese like eating their food spicy, and everything is hot and tasty.’ It’s a formula, he adds, that appeals to young women who enjoy experimenting: ‘It’s always the girlfriend who decides to come here rather than her partner.’
The set menu kicks off with truffled egg custard, followed by wild tiger prawns, duck magret with Calvados sauce, squid salad, sorbet and 42-day-old rib-eye beef. The best course, though, comes last: egg-fried rice with tiny ‘cherry blossom’ shrimps.
Shaved ice didn’t originate in Taiwan. It travelled from mainland China via Japan. Every self-respecting citizen has his go-to shop and brand. One swears by Ice Monster, another by Snow Bro. Tsai Yi Ting’s Smoothie House has five shops, including three in Singapore. The fashion, she said, began during the island’s Japanese occupation between the two world wars. The method of making it has changed. ‘Nowadays, we combine water and fruit purée, freeze it, then shave it off as you might do when turning wood on a lathe, so the texture is like snowflake paper.’
Portions mixed with three kinds of fresh mango and syrup may be topped with panna cotta or a scoop of ice cream. One of Smoothie’s newer combination mixes lightly salted lychees with sweet olive and osmanthus flower jam. Shaved ice, Ms Ting says, is for sharing. ‘Taiwanese enjoy eating together; but the serving isn’t as big as it looks at first sight. There’s air between the frozen layers that makes it puff up.’
Word for word, zhen zhu nai cha means pearl milk tea, but its slang name, boba, borrows from the English: bubble tea. Originating in Taiwan, it’s Taipei’s answer to a cappuccino or latte. Drinking requires a wide straw because the pearls are chewy tapioca balls, which rest at the bottom of the cup.
Chun Shui Tang, a teashop on the first floor of a mall overlooking Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, sells it in a type of sundae glass. It claims to have invented the bubble tea concept nearly 30 years ago at its original branch in Taichung, near the centre of Taiwan. Everyone has a preferred way of ordering: with or without sugar, with varying amounts of ice, and with different-sized tapioca beads. When buying it as a takeaway, there’s even a ritual way of piercing the lid with a straw – a short, sharp poke.
Dadaocheng opens another window on tea. Consisting of a few streets close to the Tamsui River, it was the mercantile heart of Taipei at the end of the 19th century. Then, the biggest cash crop for export in Formosa – the name that Europeans formerly called the island – was oolong tea. The Scottish trader John Dodd started selling it (mainly to the US) in the 1860s. He encouraged farmers to plant tea gardens in the hills close to the city. Oolong, still an important Taiwanese export, is a style rather than a variety. The shape of the leaves, curled or twisted, the degree of oxidation in drying, the technique of individual farmers and the way that it’s brewed all affect the final taste. For the uninitiated, South Street Delight, a traditional teahouse in Dihua Street, is an antidote to bubble-tea addiction. The waiter sets a box of 16 numbered teas before customers. They choose one and he returns with an unglazed pot accompanied by four cakes, all handmade at historical pastry shops in the Dadaocheng area.
In the rosewood and teak-panelled upstairs room, those who sample their favourite Tie Guan Yin oolong or matcha tea are young. Traditional scents and tastes can and do coexist with 5G lifestyles.
Shenkeng used to be a farming and mining community on the main road to Yilan, but now it’s part of the outer suburbs. It’s identified by its old high street and bills itself as the ‘tofu capital’ of the country. Shops and restaurants sell it regular, dried, ‘silky’, barbecued, boiled, as a drink, as a cake or as ice cream. What makes the place notorious, though, is the stinky tofu. Love it or loathe it, the stench permeates everything.
Detractors liken it to old socks or overripe Stilton. Neither comparison quite catches its virulence. Chen Jia Tofu, one of many drop-in eating houses, adds it to a stew with chilli, onions, mustard green pickles and goose-blood pudding. Eaten as part of a lunch that includes betel nut tops, fried tofu and shrimp, it isn’t so scary. Afterwards, a cup of starfruit cordial with smoked plum taken as a digestif helps ease it down.
The majority of settlers who emigrated to Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) came from Fujian on the mainland’s east coast. It’s the route by which tea and tofu reached the island. Huo guo – hotpot – must have too, but has evolved into a unique hybrid. In its basic form, the Chinese speciality is a party food. A bowl of broth simmers in the centre of a table. Sharers drop assorted raw meat and vegetables into it willy-nilly and take them once cooked. The Taiwanese version takes inspiration from the Japanese shabu-shabu and is served with a dipping sauce of shacha paste (soybean oil, garlic, shrimp and chilli) and a raw egg yolk.
However, a split-pot style is becoming increasingly popular in Taipei, with restaurants serving two styles of broth (one usually spicy) at the one table. Good hotpot restaurants such as Lan Ji Hotpot make the best bone stock, simmered for six hours and seasoned with peppercorns and star anise. It stays open until 3am and pays no concession to decor. At the modernist end, Mala, one step away from a pristine self-service buffet, lets you help yourself to ingredients from a wall of noodles, seafood, meat, vegetables and assorted mushrooms.
When the stock runs low, the key word to say to the waiter is ‘Jia.’ It means ‘add’ and is extra useful if the table has ordered youtiao. These deep-fried pastry sticks are like giant cheese straws and soak up liquid, acting as the ideal sponge for the broth. It’s this capability that makes them the basic accompaniment for salty soya milk too, a traditional Taipei breakfast. A slick of pepper oil floats on a bowl of hot soy. Add a little vinegar to curdle it, stir in fermented greens and chopped spring onions, and it’s ready. Next, either dunk the youtiao or flake it into the milk.
Addiction Aquatic Development is a fanciful interpretation of a Chinese seafood merchant. In this case, the hyperbole is justified. More than 8,000 people a day visit this rejigged portion of Taipei Fish Market to eat in its outlets. The queue to find a seat at its Japanese sashimi and shellfish counter, where Chef Tadashi Takeda carves and slices, forms before the 9.30am opening.
At the nearby seafood bar, the world’s marine offerings are piled on a platter: plump French oysters; Russian or Alaskan crab claws; Canadian sea urchin; Japanese mullet roe; South African spiny lobster; sustainably farmed Spanish tuna; and Japanese scallops could all make an appearance.
This global approach ripples through Taipei’s eating-out scene, as it resists being pigeon-holed. The current darling of food enthusiasts, RAW, applies a French bistro style and prices to Chinese flavours. Allen Chien, barman at Mud, a nightspot in the Amba Taipei Zhongshan hotel, combines cognac, cacao liqueur, tawny port and lime juice in a Black Forest cocktail. The Mandarin Oriental employs a world-class French patissier and has an Italian osteria, while for high-status entertaining, the hotel’s Ya Ge restaurant dishes up traditional Chinese cuisine that’s a pleasure to look at and taste.
Put all the pieces together and it’s easier to say what Taipei isn’t. It isn’t the cutting edge of 21st-century Pacific Rim fusion; rather it’s a city where every opportunity for eating or snacking is there to be seized and enjoyed in whatever form and at whatever time.