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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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

pingtung food and sights

Pingtung Night Market (屏東夜市 / 屏東民族夜市).

After a great time in Hualien, our next destination was Pingtung, which is not a place that you'd typically find on the itinerary of foreign tourists to Taiwan, but for some reason or other - I'll explain it in a moment - I included it in our route. The train ride from Hualien to Pingtung had some pretty picturesque moments. Here's a photo I took during the trip!

A shot of the scenery from Hualien to Pingtung, taken from the train window.

So I think my original idea was to make Pingtung city a jumping-off point for a side trip to the Purple Butterfly Valley in the Maolin National Scenic Area, and we actually arrived at just the right season to see the glorious migration of those purple butterflies, too - but we ran short on time and energy, so we decided to just take it easy in Pingtung.

With our original plans shelved, what was there to do instead? Well, the cool thing about Taiwan is that there seems to be night markets wherever you go. And in fact, the Pingtung market is actually open day and night - that's our food and entertainment sorted!

Luzhen dumpling shop (陸貞湯包).

Alright, this was our first stop at the Pingtung night market... Luzhen dumpling shop. We just can't seem to stay away from dumplings in Taiwan. Who can blame us, when they're everywhere and they taste so good?

We tried their soup dumplings, which were decent enough.

Soup dumplings (湯包), 50 NTD.

But it was their pan-fried fennel frond dumplings that really surprised and delighted us. The zingy aromatic fennel fronds made for a fabulous dumpling filling.

Pan-fried fennel frond dumplings, or fennel frond potstickers (茴香鍋貼), 65 NTD.

We also tried the toon or toona pancake with egg, an intriguing snack that features the young leaves from the Chinese toon tree (toona sinensis). The herbaceous garlicky-onion flavour of the toon leaves worked well in this savoury pancake-omelette; it was certainly something new for us!

Chinese toon pancake or toon omelette (香椿抓餅), 30 NTD. Add 10 NTD for extra egg.

We also stumbled upon this stall selling "geng", a type of soup that is usually thickened with starch. They also sell fried rice and noodles, which you can mix in with your "geng" for a substantial meal.

Wangchao soup shop (王朝香菇肉焿旗魚焿).

I went for the swordfish fishball soup. My initial concerns about the gluey appearance and texture of the "geng" were washed away upon tucking in - it was surprisingly nice and smooth and went down like a treat. The handmade fishballs were delightfully bouncy, and the drizzle of black vinegar really completed the dish.

Swordfish fish ball soup (旗魚羹), 40 NTD for a small bowl, 60 NTD for a large bowl.

Simon had the meat and mushroom soup, which was also marvellous. I was definitely sneaking in a sip here and there...

Mushroom and meat soup (香菇肉羹), 40 NTD for small, 60 NTD for large.

When I saw this stall, I felt compelled to eat there. The big sign brightly advertises their handmade noodles and fishball soup. Smaller signs hanging just underneath speak of side dishes such as seaweed salad and pork liver salad.

Yong's handmade noodle shop (永記手工麵店).

I wanted to share a couple of things here with Simon, but he wasn't interested. So he loitered around while I sat down and ordered a fishball soup for myself. Why, yes, in case you haven't noticed, I have a thing for fishballs, and the ones here were solidly rustic and flavoursome. I do kind of regret not also getting the handmade noodles, as I think that is their signature dish, but hey, a girl can only eat so much. It's all Simon's fault for not being cooperative.

Another fishball soup (魚丸湯), 25 NTD.

Ready for something sweet? I thought this shop had a cute name: "Bakery Daddy".

Bakery Daddy (麵包老爹).

And their Swiss roll is scrumptious!

Swiss roll (瑞士卷).

It's fair to say that our time in Pingtung was dominated by food, because let's face it, if you don't venture out of the city, there isn't a whole lot to do. But we did stumble upon some sights...

For example, while we were sauntering about, we stopped to admire this temple for a while.

Sea Goddess Temple / Cifeng Temple (慈鳳宮).

And as always, cats kept us amused.

Ginger cat.

But I think our favourite moment was our discovery of this very old-school video games arcade. It was like going back in time - this is the kind of arcade that was around when I was a kid! And best of all, every single person in the picture is a middle-aged man. You're never too old to play at a video games arcade and this is the important lesson we took away here. Decades from now, I hope Simon and I will still be having fun like kids and teenagers!

Old-school video game arcade in Pingtung (屏東金台灣電子遊戲場).

In summary, Pingtung isn't the typical tourist stop, and there is hardly any English to be seen, heard, or spoken here - I kept telling Simon how lucky he was to have me to act as his personal translator and interpreter. But the food is just as good as anywhere else in Taiwan, so if you do drop by, you'll be well-fed, and you might encounter other pleasing surprises along the way, too.

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Wednesday, 31 May 2017

delicious hualien eats and pretty sanzhan village

A betel nut shop in Hualien (花蓮).

In my previous post, I told of our time at Taroko Gorge, which is a huge attraction in Taiwan, and I'm sure it is the main reason why many tourists include Hualien city in their itinerary. However, Hualien is not just a convenient base that one can use as a jumping-off point to visit Taroko - it is also an excellent destination in its own right.

After all, where else would you get egg-bomb spring onion pancakes?

Laopai egg-bomb spring onion pancake stall in Hualien (花蓮老牌炸蛋蔥油餅).

This is basically a deep-fried spring onion pancake roll with a half-cooked egg encased within. Bite into it and the creamy, gooey orange yolk bursts into action, so eat with care! You can also request for a fully-cooked egg if you wish, but I don't think that would be as awesome. This egg-bomb spring onion pancake costs 30 NTD, very affordable. You can get just a plain spring onion pancake without the egg for 20 NTD - but again, I don't think that would be as awesome. The spring onion isn't actually that prominent here, so the star of the show is really the egg.

So here's what the pancake looks like before the egg explosion... sorry, no post-explosion pics! It can get a bit messy, and I was too busy trying not to get egg all over myself!

Egg-bomb spring onion pancake (炸蛋蔥油餅), a fun, dramatic snack.

Another popular shop here is Gongzheng Baozi. Here, you can get a variety of things, including buns, dumplings, soup, noodles, soy milk, and tea, all for nice cheap prices. And it's open 24 hours so you can get your fix any time!

Gongzhengbaozi shop in Hualien (花蓮公正包子).

I think it was here that I first discovered that xiaolongbao in Taiwan typically refers to a special type of mini pork bun, and not the soup dumplings that I was accustomed to. I was disappointed at first, but these buns are actually not bad! The Taiwanese xiaolongbao bun has a thinner skin than your usual pork bun, so the meat-to-dough ratio is splendid.

Taiwanese xiaolongbao (小籠包) - these are like mini pork buns, not soup dumplings.

A shop I really liked in Hualien is this wonton shop, called Yexiang Bianshi. Apparently it has been in business for more than 70 years at this point.

Yexiangbianshi wonton shop in Hualien (花蓮液香扁食店).

My goodness, I adored the wonton soup here. Look how silky and perfect their wontons are! Along with the scrumptious broth, they went down like a dream. I think it cost something like 65 NTD per bowl.

Wonton soup (扁食湯 / 雲吞/ 餛飩湯).

We also lined up for the famous oyster omelette from Haipu. I enjoyed seeing them cook the oyster omelettes while we were waiting in line - it's done in a large, flat pan, and it's quite entertaining to watch!

Haipu Oyster Omelette Shop in Hualien (花蓮海埔蚵仔煎).

As it turns out, though, I don't think the Taiwanese oyster omelette is my thing... the liberal use of starch in the recipe makes for a glutinous quality that I wasn't particularly fond of. The sauce was also quite sweet. After tasting this, I have to say I prefer the Malaysian oyster omelette, which is more eggy and savoury. But clearly, there are many people who are big fans of the Taiwanese style, and the Haipu shop is extremely reputable, so if you're in the area, it's probably a good idea to try it for yourself!

Haipu oyster omelette (海埔蚵仔煎), around 50 NTD per serve.

We also sampled coffin bread, or coffin toast, or coffin sandwich, at the night market in Hualien. Similar to a bread bowl, this involves toasted or fried bread with a variety of enticing fillings such as hot pepper beef, smoked honey chicken, satay pork, and pumpkin seafood.

Jiangjia coffin bread stall in Hualien (蔣家花蓮創意官財板).

You can see how coffin toast got its name - the fillings are placed in the hollowed-out centre of a thick slice of bread, and then covered again on top with a cut-out piece of bread, so it resembles a coffin with a lid. An interesting snack to try if you get the opportunity!

Coffin toast (官財板).

We also stumbled upon a fabulous gelato shop in Hualien called Houshan Gelato. Made with fresh natural ingredients, the gelati here is seriously delectable. The selection is dominated by fruit flavours, and they're so so good. A bit pricey by Taiwanese standards at 60 NTD for one scoop and 100 NTD for two scoops, but it's quality stuff.

Delicious gelati in a waffle cone from Houshan gelato shop in Hualien (花蓮後山手工冰淇淋).

Additionally, here's a picture of a dog on a scooter, a classic scene in Taiwan. This doglet is so sweet and timid! We wanted to pat it, but it looked so scared and worried... and then it completely lit up with relief and happiness when the owner came back! Awwwww.

Little scooter dog!

Speaking of scooters, as mentioned in my Taroko Gorge blog post, we hired one for our stay in Hualien. It cost us 400 NTD per day, and fuel was about 150 NTD over the course of three days.

So we checked out the well-known Qixingtan beach, which is held in high regard for its pebble beach and blue waters.

Qixingtan beach (七星潭).

And I guess it is quite attractive, but to be honest, Simon and I were sort of like okay, it's a beach, now what do we do? So we ventured to the other direction, and there was some kind of a fish market going on. I've always been partial to fish markets, there's something about them that feels raw and right to me.

Qixingtan fish market (七星潭魚市場).

This kitty cat was probably the highlight of our trip to Qixingtan, haha! We were patting it outside someone's shop house like the crazy cat weirdos we are. This amused the locals and led to casual conversation related to the cat.

A nice cat near the fish market at Qixingtan.

On our way back to the main city area, we took a different route and discovered the Zuocang Cemetery. I took a photo as I thought it was quite a charming cemetery.

Hualien Zuocang Cemetery (花蓮市佐倉公墓).

There was also a cheerful statue of the Chinese Earth God, smiling beatifically as he ruled over his land.

Tudigong, Lord of the Soil and the Ground (土地公).

On another day, we headed off to Sanzhan (sometimes spelled Sanjhan and also known as Pratan), a little aboriginal village that was recommended to us by our enthusiastic Airbnb host, who showed us the pictures he took on his phone and the place looked pretty so we thought, why not?

We took the Hai'an Road route there and gosh, it's gorgeous. Such a great ride.

Beautiful views from Hualien City's Hai'an Road (花蓮海岸路).

Yep, the journey there alone was already making my heart sing.

Seaside views along Hai'an Road.

And then we got to Sanzhan village, and we probably should have done more research, because we weren't quite sure what we could do. If we'd looked it up more, we would have found out about river tracing here. We could have followed the water into a more secluded spot, taken a dip in a pool, and ventured into a river valley in the Taroko National Park!

Sanzhan River (三棧溪) - the teal waters are truly captivating.

As it is, we just wandered around randomly, and admired the views. With exquisite blue-green waters and a mountainous backdrop, this village sure is pleasing to the eyes.

Sanzhan village views (三棧村).

We got to the main village area, and found a shop where we could grab some breakfast!

I saw that they did blood cube soup, which isn't usually my thing, but that day, for some reason, it sounded fantastically appealing to me. An unusual craving for me, and I'm really glad I ordered it! The broth was generous with spring onions, and the pork blood curds were so smooth, the taste so subtle, it was almost like having tofu. This is simple, satisfying, rustic comfort food. I felt utterly nourished.

 Pig's blood soup (豬血湯) at Sanzhan village.

After our breakfast, we walked around some more, and met quite a few cats in the village, much to our sheer delight.

Cats at Sanzhan village.

Doesn't this cool cat look like it has superpowers? I mean, it looks like it could be a badass character from Dragon Ball Z or Rurouni Kenshin, or something.

A cool calico or tortoiseshell cat in Sanzhan village.

So even though we didn't do all the things we could've done at Sanzhan, we ended up having a lovely time there. Funny how things work out!

In conclusion, I'll just say that there is so much to explore in Hualien County, especially if you have your own transport. With a vibrant food scene in the city area, and beautiful scenery in the countryside, it definitely gets a thumbs-up from me!

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