To grasp just how seriously the Taiwanese take their cuisine, go to the National Palace Museum in Taipei. There, in a dimly lit room, you will find two of the museum's most treasured objets d'art: a multicolored rock that resembles fatty stewed pork and a head of bok choy, or Chinese cabbage, carved from a piece of jade.
That reverence for food was what lured my wife, a friend, and me from Tokyo to Taipei. Taiwan's capital isn't exactly an easy place to navigate if you don't speak or read Mandarin. And eateries with signs or menus in English are hard to come by. But for adventurous foodies willing to endure a few wrong turns, Taipei is a palate-pleasing paradise.
There isn't much in English about Taipei's eating scene. There are, however, blogs and guidebooks galore in Japanese, and the food-crazy Japanese, who have been gorging themselves on Taiwan's delicacies for years, led us to more than a dozen meals over four days.
For breakfast, we devoured deep-fried dough sticks (you tiao) in warm, salted soy milk (dou jiang) and flatbread stuffed with eggs and green onions (dan bing) at a busy shop above a sad indoor market. The night markets bordering Longshan Temple were good for going stall to stall trying chunky-soup-in-a-cup, stinky tofu, intestine sausages, and chestnuts shaped like devil's heads. Longshan Temple, with its bowed, tiled roofs and ornately carved columns and eves, is one of Taipei's landmarks. We inhaled the tasty pork soup dumplings known as xiao long bao; slurped spicy niu rou mian, or beef noodles; sampled the aromatic blends of a local tea factory; and polished it all off with heaping bowls of dou hua, a custard-like tofu in a sweet broth, served hot or cold, and topped with azuki beans, mung beans, peanuts, chestnuts, or syrup. We could have carried on like this for a month without having to eat the same thing twice.
One of the more bizarre settings for a meal that we experienced was at the Taiwan Electric Power's canteen, where we had a meat lover's hot pot, or huo guo. The place was charming in its plainness: Greasy Formica-top tables, each with a metal chimney-shaped pot, filled a room that was floodlit by exposed fluorescent bulbs and cooled by retro metal fans overhead. Located inside the company's walled compound, the canteen has been open to the public for a few years. Word seems to have gotten out: When we arrived, it was a full house, and a couple dozen people waited outside in a light rain.
We almost didn't find the canteen. We had to circle the block a couple of times before finding a small opening in the wall marked by a backlit painted sign pointing to a low-slung building inside. At the canteen's front door, a middle-age man in a red DKNY T-shirt carrying a clipboard appeared to be turning people away. When my wife told him we had traveled from Tokyo, he nodded and held up an index finger: Don't go away, and we'll squeeze you in. An hour later, we were mixing dipping sauces of garlic, chili pepper sauce, and other mysteriously colored liquids, and soaking thin beef, pork, and lamb slices and bok choy leaves in a pot of boiling broth.
Breakfast: Fu-Hang Dou Jiang (metro station: Shandao Temple, exit 5). Located on the second floor of the Huashan Market building, this gem has shabby decor but is so popular among the locals that there's almost always a line. Tuck into a hearty morning meal of warm, salted soy milk with deep-fried dough sticks and flatbread stuffed with eggs and green onions.
Lunch/Snack: Din Tai Fung (194 Xin Yi Road, Section 2, Xin Yi). Soup dumplings have never been so good. Try the pan-fried Chinese water spinach (kong xin cai). Another tasty dumpling shop called Jin Din Rou (47 Changchun Road) isn't as famous but its few stores in Japan have made it a hit among Japanese tourists. The Longshan Temple Night Market and the Shi Lin Night Market also have a high concentration of stalls brimming with fried buns, barbecued skewers, ribs, and other local foods to sample.
Dessert: We ate at Gu Zao Wei Dou Hua, but it's not easy to find and it's far from the metro stops. Almost any dou hua shop with a good selection will do.
Tea: Wangs' Tea (26 Lane 64, Section 2, Chung King N. Road). This store in the older section of Taipei is run by Charmaine Wang, the English-speaking, 29-year-old great-great-granddaughter of founder Wang Jing Hui. It offers 100 kinds of tea and doubles as a tea factory. Ask to see the oven room for drying and fermenting tea leaves at the back of the shop and get a primer on the aromatic pouchong tea that you won't find anywhere else. Or, for a relaxing getaway, try any of the 93 tea plantations in Mucha, on the outskirts of the city.