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Gluttony, thy name is Taipei

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“What kind of filling do you want? Lean pork, half-lean half-fat, or all fat?”

We stand at the head of a queue in a narrow street near Gongguan Station, lit by a barrage of neon signs hard against the silhouette of cables strung across a darkening sky. I haven’t seen Nelson in the three years since I left England, and now reunited on his home turf, my old friend is taking us for a “light dinner” of gua bao.

“What would you choose?” Bama and I observe the soft, fluffy buns of rice flour piled up in the bamboo steamer, our eyes darting back and forth as we wait patiently for Nelson’s answer. It comes without an ounce of hesitation.

“All fat – that’s what I usually go for. It’s the best kind.”

He hollers our order, three full-fat and one fifty-fifty, over the din of the street. With expert skill and lightning-quick fingers, the vendor reaches into a steaming vat of meat with a glinting pair of metal tongs, hoisting two, three, four helpings of pork into the waiting pockets of steamed bread. She hands us the sweet-smelling morsels, wrapping each one in a small plastic pouch.

“That second one,” Nelson smiles, “is for me.”

*     *     *

Our first full day in Taiwan is spent jetting around Taipei by metro, embarking on an eating marathon interspersed by slow, unhurried walks and long breaks for coffee. Waking up at 6:30 to beat the morning crowds to Fu Hang Dou Jiang, we arrive at quarter to eight, falling into line for the 20-minute wait on a rainy Saturday morning.

Here I seek the comforting crunch of youtiao, a fried bread stick that is virtually a meal on its own. But this time it comes wrapped in a thick slab of houbing – a combination of freshly baked dough and scallions. We sip languidly at a bowl of soy milk, smooth as velvet and just sweet enough to taste the extra grains of sugar. The real surprise is its savoury version, served with fat chunks of youtiao, baby shrimp, coriander, drops of vinegar and chilli oil.

Near the northern end of Yongkang Street, the wind buffets our uncovered arms as we shovel a mound of mango shaved ice, so thinly shredded it falls apart with every spoonful. Lunch is a table full of Shanghainese dumplings on the upper floor of a nearby restaurant. I tease the xiao long bao with my chopsticks, their skins concealing equal parts of soup and minced pork. We alternate this with xie ke huang, literally “crab shell yellow”, a flaky paper-thin pastry dotted with sesame seeds. Each bite yields a delicate filling of turnip and preserved vegetables. This is the reason why so many Hong Kongers flock to Taipei – simply to release their inner glutton.

*     *     *

Back on the alley, a single gua bao rests in my palm, its heat radiating through the plastic pouch. I can see the succulent juices gather like raindrops on the braised pork belly, its tender strips resting over a bed of diced greens and chopped coriander. In between these contrasting layers the gua bao comes dusted with a sugary coat of ground peanuts.

I take my first bite, enjoying the pillowy bread and the soft, jelly-like texture of pork belly on my tongue. When the rich, meaty fragrance gives way to the gentle crunch of peanuts and diced vegetables, I can picture what my grandmother would tell me. Brows raised and a mischievous twinkle in her eye, her pursed lips pronounce each syllable with great deliberation. “Sinfully delicious.”

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Frying turnip cakes at Ximending

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Homemade fried scallion pancakes, Ximending

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Sizzling crowd-pleasers

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Creating houbing at Fu Hang Dou Jiang

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Fu Hang Dou Jiang’s pastry kitchen

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A hearty Taiwanese breakfast

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Xie ke huang – “crab shell yellow”

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A steamer of xiao long bao

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Weekend shoppers in search of dinner

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Yongkang Street after nightfall

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Ingredients piled high for ‘lu wei’, a buffet-like hot stew

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Gua bao vendors…

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… serving up little pockets of heaven

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Suddenly hungry :p.. Like this as ussual james 🙂

    April 12, 2013
    • Makasih Danny, glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

      April 12, 2013
  2. Oh yes, food in Taipei! That is something! Thank you for sharing

    April 12, 2013
    • Absolutely, it’s one of the highlights of any trip to Taiwan!

      April 12, 2013
  3. I’ll have one of everything.

    April 12, 2013
    • You would have loved it, Debra. 🙂

      April 12, 2013
  4. Lisa #

    this makes me want to go to taipei! :p

    April 12, 2013
    • You should – Taipei and Taiwan in general are hugely underrated!

      April 12, 2013
  5. Mmmmm…you’re making me hungry again for a trip to Taiwan. Enjoy the rest of your time there, and I’m looking forward to reading more!

    April 12, 2013
    • Thanks Andrew, we didn’t get to try nearly as much food as you did, but then again it was a relatively short stay. Looks like you had better luck with the weather when you were there!

      April 12, 2013
  6. Yaaaaaay!!! I love the title.
    That all looks so amazing! Aside from xiao long bao, I don’t think I’ve ever tried any of those dishes, attesting to how little time I’ve spent in that part of Asia and how badly I need to change that! I would also probably eat so many scallion pancakes that I would end up just smelling like one and thus getting kicked off the plane on the way home.

    April 13, 2013
    • I knew you would, Erica. 😉
      The scallion pancakes were just so-so, maybe we didn’t go to the right street stall to get the thinner, crunchier ones. Or maybe I’ve just been totally spoiled by HK… either way you’ll have to come back and do a dedicated eating tour of East/Southeast Asia!

      April 13, 2013
      • bummer. it’s so hard when there are so many vendors, to know which one is the best one. I mean, popularity usually is a good indicator, but sometimes it can steer you wrong. You probably are, because all the food in HK looks amazing, and yes, I totally do!! Already starting to plot this, though it’s a bit further in the future than I’d like.

        April 23, 2013
  7. Most people go to Taipei for shopping and eating. We skipped the shopping. 🙂 However some of the dishes we tried were definitely something to die for! And I can still remember how gua bao tasted like. Truly sinfully delicious.

    April 13, 2013
    • I think we could have spent an extra day in Taipei just eating… I wouldn’t mind going back for a second (or third) gua bao! So glad you could be my partner-in-crime for this trip, Bama. 🙂

      April 13, 2013
  8. JAMES! YOUR POST IS MAKING ME HUNGRY! Also, you should’ve asked Nelson to bring you for scallion pancakes…His family friend makes the most amazing ones!

    April 19, 2013
    • Ha, maybe I should have included a disclaimer! I wasn’t impressed with the scallion pancakes I had that first day… but I have Nelson to thank for treating us to the amazing gua bao, he mentioned how much you liked them! He told us, “If Mun Ling thinks it’s good, then it must be really good.” 😉

      April 19, 2013
  9. I am drooling James! Everything looks and – from your descriptions – sounds heavenly! How fortunate to have Nelson to introduce you two to the culinary culture of Taiwan. Great post, even if it leave me foraging for leftovers 🙂

    April 22, 2013
    • It was heavenly, Madhu! Even now, just remembering how that gua bao tasted is enough to make me hungry. We wouldn’t have found it at all without Nelson’s help. 🙂

      April 22, 2013
  10. Reblogged this on fiverrearn.

    May 17, 2013
  11. Ari Vanuaranu #

    Oh my goddess, this makes me want to go back to Taiwan so bad! Oh gua bao, you sexy devil, you… *drools*

    August 28, 2014
    • Yes, the gua bao was truly out of this world! Everything about it was just perfect.

      August 28, 2014

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