taiwan 2019: one — taipei in temples, towers, and balls

one: temples and towers and lots of balls ::::

Our big international trip this year was Taiwan. We’d been planning this trip for awhile, wanting to return to where Eat is from to visit relatives but also have time with our immediate family to travel around the country. The last time Eat and I were in Taiwan was 22 years ago, just when we got engaged. At that time, we stayed in Taipei and mostly did rounds with all the family, gorging multi-course meals in fancy restaurants. This time, we definitely wanted to gorge but aimed for street and local food. I’ve focused on the food here (rather than family pics) and I feel compelled to review basic history of the country. The more we understand history, the more we understand the context of how people think or do things, even years later. If you know me in real life, go to my personal Facebook page for family photos. Here we go!

Days 0 and 1: We had a very early morning layover after a looooong non-stop flight from Atlanta to Korea. Incheon Airport in South Korea was just waking up at dawn when we were there with this guy always standing around accepting hugs.

There were also lots of cool sculptures and activities. “Mommy, it looks like a heart.” The floors were so shiny!

Japan does airport food well and so does Korea. The bi bim bop was really good here. There is more veg/meat to rice ratio!

Our first day in Taiwan, we melt in the oppressive heat and humidity and the 12-hour time difference. Taiwan in July is the hottest I’ve ever been. The last time Eat and I were here was in November — so different! Eat and I fade during dinner with the family, the kids completely zonked by 6PM. The first one to succumb in the air conditioning and the drug of circadian rhythms was Grub; I poked and prodded his face to no avail:


Day 2: On our second day in Taipei, the kids and Eat are up at 3AM, the kids ravenous from missing dinner the night before. They head out to an all-night food stall with fresh soybean milk (豆浆; doujiang), turnip cakes (蘿蔔糕; lo bak go), and soup dumplings (小笼包; xiao long bao). I miraculously stay in bed and sleep. After I awoke to a first breakfast and the others have a light second breakfast, we visited the largest park in Taipei, Da’an Park, just down the street from Eat’s Ahma’s home, where she likes to take a daily walk. There were birdwatchers and walkers every which way. At least 100 egrets roosted and squawked in trees over a pond. These Indian laurel trees were everywhere, their branches like veins, like snakes, like rope.

We headed to our first tourist excursion of the trip. We visited the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park (中正紀念公園), vast and majestic in the Zhongzheng district of Taipei, just off the CKS red line MRT subway stop. We watched the changing of the guard in front of the stoic seated statue of Generalissmo Chiang. There were at least 100 onlookers cordoned off around us. The memorial was built in 1980 to honor Chiang Kai-shek, the former president of the Republic of China (Taiwan). There are 89 stairs on each of the two stair cases, the age at which he died. The view looks across the square to the front gates. When we were there, there was a color guard competition of some sort, participants looking like high school kids or college.

The history of Taiwan and its identity, especially after the end of 50 years of Japanese colonial rule, is complicated. Summary: Japan surrendered in 1945 at the end of the WWII and the Allies gave control of Taiwan to the Republic of China. Many Taiwanese saw the Kuomintang (KMT – the Nationalist Party of China) as corrupt — Taiwanese residents were kicked off their private properties, goods and money stolen, citizens demoralized. In Taipei, a Taiwanese widow was suspected of selling contraband cigarettes on February 27, 1947 by the KMT, which led to their beating her. This was the impetus for the uprising, citizens nearby decrying the beating. Subsequently one of the KMT men shot bullets into the crowd and a man died. (Shawna Yang Ryan very keenly uses this event as the start of her novel Green Island, the narrator’s father a physician tending to a man who was shot.)  Military was called in and the period of White Terror (白色恐怖) began, the island put under martial law in 1949 finally, lasting until 1987. There are many “White Terrors” in the world: Taiwan’s involved suppressing political dissidents for the next 40 years. We’ll visit this history again in later posts.

Before heading to a well-know temple in Taipei, we stopped by one of the many 7-Eleven shops in Taiwan. Like in Japan, they are the snack headquarters all over the country. Note: White Peach flavored potato chips are NOT good.

We took the train to visit one of many Buddhist temples in Taipei: Manka Longshan (龍山寺 or 龙山寺), just off the MRT Blue Line, stop 10. It was built in 1738 the first temple in Taiwan with a palaquin-type drum and bell towers. It melds Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs in Taiwanese folk religion. Many temples in Taiwan support this amalgamation of beliefs with freedom of religion upheld. Under a gray dappled clouds, there were hundreds of worshippers lighting incense, praying, and setting offerings. This is the first of a few temples we visited in Taiwan. For a country about the size of Maine, it has an inordinate number of temples: about 30,000!

The kids, seeing tables of tempting fruits and cookies: “Mommy, can we eat these?”
“No, these are offerings for the gods and ancestors.”
[Look of disappointment on kids’ faces.]

On Day 3, I awake to hearing the sounds of different birdsong and animal life in the morning. My brain is finally registering this, and melding slightly into less of a jetlagged sleep schedule. Chirps and caws sing in different rhythms and timbres than at home. Last night, two caterwauling cats serenaded us. It didn’t go so well for one of them.

We walk to Yong He Soy Milk King for breakfast, feasting on you tiao (Chinese fried long doughnuts; 油条), sweet soy milk or savory soy milk with you tiao (you jiang you tiao; 豆浆油条), and shaobing (燒餅油條 or 烧饼油条; you tiao stuffed in sesame flatbread). Interesting fact: You tiao in Cantonese is yàuhjagwái (油炸鬼) which translates as “oil fried devil” or “oil fried ghost.” Below are the long stretches of you tiao dough ready for frying.

We walked back to one of the small tables and figure out our order. So much to choose from!

The you tiao is stacked like a pyramid in a prep space just beyond our table. The steamers to the left are ready to fill with xiao long bao, the famous soup dumplings (小笼包 or  小籠包). Much more on those later….

The spread for this morning: From top – warm peanut milk, warm sweet soy milk, meat buns (round bread in plastic), warm salty soy milk with pickled radish and vinegar, you tiao (in the middle). When the vinegar mixes with the warm soy milk, it curdles — very tasty!

You can order the ultimate: toasted flatbread with you tiao inside. You’ll make a mess of flaky crumbs every time.

After a short break to semi-digest that soy and crispiness, Peach and I run in Da’an Park, the sweat glistening off our skin within seconds of starting the jog. At 8AM, it was already 94 degrees F. The humidity is like a hot tongue licking the air. It’s less like a fun jog than tolerating movement in an outside sauna.

Showered and cooled in the air conditioning at home, we all headed to the San Want Hotel Restaurant in Taipei for a dim sum lunch with Eat’s cousin Evy and her family, his aunt, and his grandmother. I failed to take any food photos of the goose, shumai (烧卖 or 燒賣), xia jiao (also called har gow) (蝦餃), and various meat buns and breads, or mantou ( 馒头 or 饅頭). (Eat and I admitted later it was a disappointing dim sum spread overall).

The rest of the family headed home and our immediate family walked to Eastern Ice Store for dessert, just a few blocks away from the restaurant. It wasn’t quite the Soup Nazi for ordering but fast paced enough and little English that forced us to quickly point and choose two orders of iced mochi/glutinous rice balls (汤圆; tang yuan), grass jelly (仙草; xian cao), and boba (large tapioca balls). Even with five people eating two orders, the ambient 97 degree F heat and the fresh, warm boba melt the ice within minutes.

Glutinous rice balls: Some sources translate these as nuòmǐ (糯米) or chu̍t-bí (秫米) in Hokkien. Glutinous rice is ground to make rice flour, which is moistened to make a paste/dough, then used in sweet and savory dishes (dumplings, breads, thickening, baking).

Grass jelly:  This is made from the stalks and leaves of the Platostoma palustre plant. It is boiled with some starch then cooled to make the jelly. It’s usually mixed with sugar syrup for desserts, like ours. It has a grassy taste, is slightly smoky but not overpoweringly so, and looks green-brown. The green grass jelly variety doesn’t involve cooking and more straight up grass flavored.

Boba, or what Americans have resorted to calling “bubbles”, are balls of tapioca starch. The shape and size are created by pressing moist tapioca starch through a sieve. They are chewy (careful and don’t choke!) and larger spheres (~8 mm) when put into drinks or desserts. One source I read said that “boba” literally translated is 波霸 meaning “bubble big” and slang for a woman with large breasts.

Here is our bowl of melting ice, rice balls, plant goo, and boobs. Excellent!

We walk to Xinyi train station to go one stop on the red line to Taipei 101/World Trade Center. Taipei 101 was once the tallest skyscraper in the world at 509 meters of 101 floors in 2004, then lost that title in 2010 when the Burj Kalifa was built. It is now the most green skyscraper in the world.

Skyscrapers this high must be flexible but not too much so — you don’t want to hear the creak and crack of the walls or go toppling over. Taipei sits 660 feet from a major earthquake fault line, so it is inevitable the building will experience more than a few jiggles from the wind or otherwise.

There were views like this on every side of the observation deck, for miles and miles.

An answer for stability: a damper ball.

The tuned mass damper ball, a large golden ball that sits around the 87th floor, provides a way to counter the building’s movement on windy days. It is a massive steel ball that acts like a pendulum slung with eight steel cables and shock absorbers of eight viscous dampers. It can move up to 5 feet in any direction and reduces building sway by 40 percent. There are two more dampers at the spire for additional protection. I can honestly say I felt no sway while up there, not like the subtle movements I noted in the John Hancock building, the Empire State Building, or Tokyo’s Skytree. This flexibility allows comfort, protection of glass and walls, and prevents structural damage.

This damper is one of the few in the world that is publicly visible (I never knew these existed at all — obviously I’m not an engineer!) inside the tower. If you’re lucky, you may see movement during an earthquake, and perhaps might be more safe 500 meters in the sky than on the ground. Look on YouTube for eyewitness videos during earthquakes. Kinda cool and freaky.

After our ride into the sky, we headed to the kiosk near home called Beard Cup for boba tea for the kids, honey lemonade for Chris, and a rooibos tea with grass jelly — so good.


Day 4:

We all got more adjusted to the time change by Day 4, the kids knowing now if they wake up before the sun, that they are to eat snacks provided on a table in the front room without awakening us. I got some good sleep this trip! We go back to Yong He Soy Milk King for breakfast of sweet and savory soy milks, you tiao, and shaobing (you tiao wrapped in roasted flatbread, 燒餅油條 or 烧饼油条).

We take the Da’an Park MRT Red Line to Dongmen to transfer to orange line to the Hsingtien Temple (行天宮; also called Xingtian temple). This is a temple where Eat’s grandparents prayed once a month, until they were less mobile and able to make the trek. It has beautiful tall red doors.

We walked a sweaty half mile to Addiction Aquatic restaurant for sushi — oddly translated and definitely popular. Since we couldn’t all (translation = the kids) stay up for dinner last night, we saved the sushi restaurant for lunch. The lush sign outside nearby, fish swim in the leafy green. Everything grows here. The humidity never lets a plant dry up and wither.

Ah, the golden glow of cold beer. We ordered a large amount of food with the beer — all very reasonably priced. I think our bill was about $40 (American).

Such pretty sushi lined up in their grocery section:

We grabbed dessert here, too. The black sesame panna cotta was soooo good:

From here, we planned to see the Baoan temple but misread the directions and took the wrong train (we’ll catch up to this temple later). We changed our plan to visit the black sugar boba place instead, but that was closed on Mondays. We settled for the Rabbit Rabbit Tea teahouse across the street. I got golden boba in iced chamomile tea. After all of that sweaty walking, it tasted so good.

Next post, we hop on the Taiwan High Speed Rail to the south. To Kaohsiung!


Previously on the blog:

One year ago: fondue with IPA

Two years ago: corn salad

Three years ago: roti

Four years ago: phở and violet jelly candies

Five years ago: one-eyed chihuahua cocktail, almond celery salad and what to do with a monster zucchini?

Six years ago: apricot compote, tomato and halloumi salad with pomegranate drizzle and peach-blueberry pie

Seven years ago: pluots with mascarpone and honey and poached egg with balsamic dressed greensspaghetti squash browns and daisy cake

Eight years ago: kaiserschmarrn with peaches and blackberries and matonella con biscotti sablee (chocolate loaf with butter cookies and nuts), korean dried squid (ojingo chae bokkeum) and danube salad.


If you want to visit the posts from our Japan trip in 2017:

One: Tokyo and Mount Fiji

Two: Mount Fuji, Sky-Girl’s 4th birthday, and Nabari/Iga

Three: Hiroshima and Kyoto

Four: Tokyo and home

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