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Dispatch from Taiwan

Tea house in Jiufen
Tea house in Jiufen

By John Grossmann

Two very different highlights stand out from a recent six-day visit to Taiwan–one natural, the other divinely man-made.

China Airlines, which now offers a non-stop overnight flight from JFK to Taipei with fully reclining seats in the business premier section of its persimmon wood paneled Boeing 777 cabin, makes it easier to hit the ground running and begin exploring an island nation generally overlooked by Americans stamping their passports in such Far Eastern destinations as Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Hanoi.  Fewer than half a million North Americans visited Taiwan last year, many of them of Taiwanese heritage returning to visit relatives.  For first time visitors, Taiwan has much to offer in a very manageable package.  At 14,400 square miles, it’s about the size of Maryland and Delaware molded together into the shape of a sweet potato.

Called Formosa, or “beautiful island,” by early Portuguese settlers, roughly 70 percent of the country is mountainous.  Nine national parks with scenic hiking trails reward those who venture beyond such Taipei attractions as the National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010.  Now the sixth tallest, it still boasts the world fastest elevators, whose pressurized cars mean no ear popping.  It’s an easy subway ride out of the city to the town of Beitou, the heart of a geothermal valley of hot springs first appreciated by the Japanese, occupiers of the island from 1895 to 1945.  Day passes at many of the hotels hugging the green hillsides of the valley make Beitou a relaxing outing.  Those on high splurge mode can enjoy an overnight at the idyllic Relais & Chateaux gem, Villa 32.  Each of its five guest rooms has its own natural hot springs tub.

Taroko National Park
Taroko National Park

The must-do destination is Taiwan’s equivalent of America’s Grand Canyon, Taroko National Park, several hours south of Taipei by car or train.  You’ll enter the park on a winding, two-lane, cliff-clinging road—actually the nation’s major east-west artery—as it bends with the jade green Liwu River far below on the boulder-strewn floor of a deep and narrow gorge.  You’ll want to walk the Swallow Grotto section of the gorge, where the pedestrian path includes tunnels and offers views of the cave-dotted opposite canyon wall where flocks of swallows once took shelter.  Somewhere along the path you’ll realize that the boulders in and near the waters far below are the size of houses.

You’ll want to arrive well before dark at the Silks Place Hotel at the head of the gorge, about 12 miles up river from the decorative Chinese gate at the entrance to the park, so as not to miss the view of the gorge from your room balcony and perhaps catch a glimpse of the roving band of resident monkeys.  This five-star, three-story hotel, recently renovated in a minimally elegant Chinese modern design, has as quiet a lobby as you’re likely to find, a full service spa, an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the basement, and a rooftop oasis with Jacuzzis, fire pits, and an infinity pool.  Silks Place, which was built by Chiang Kai Shek’s son and has hosted foreign rulers and dignitaries, lives up to its name; it’s soothing.

Soup dumplingBack in Taipei, comfort of a different kind awaits beneath the lid of a bamboo steamer or three or four at world famous Din Tai Fung.   Now with five locations (including one in the upscale shopping mall at Taipei 101) in the city where it began modestly, four decades ago with three tables, the ever-growing chain has spread to nearly a dozen countries, including the US.  There are two outposts in the Seattle area and three near Los Angeles.  I had a wonderful meal at the Din Tai Fung location in Everett, Washington, but consider this the ground zero dumpling experience, the equivalent of eating jambalaya or shrimp creole in New Orleans.

Din Tai Fung did not invent xiao long bao, but it is rightly renowned for its rendition of the Shanghai delicacy known as soup dumplings.  Expect to wait as long as an hour, as Din Tai Fung takes no reservations.  You can while away some of that downtime peering into the glass-enclosed prep room, where a busy crew of dough rollers, stuffers, and crimpers turns out a steady stream of hand-made dumplings by the hundreds and hundreds.

“Each dumpling must weigh exactly 21 grams,” says Tavana, an English-speaking employee at the ready to demystify the blur of activity.  “Five grams for the dough, and 16 grams for the filling.”  She explains each dumpling is sealed by no more and no less than 18 folds.  That handiwork and precisely four minutes of steaming produces an ethereal dumpling that you eat on a porcelain spoon primed with a few slivers of ginger root and a splash of black vinegar…but only after piercing it with the tip of a chopstick to allow some of the hot broth to escape and cool.

Shilin Night Market
Shilin Night Market

Resist the temptation to over-indulge on soup dumplings, for Din Tai Fung’s purse-like Shao mai pork dumplings, topped with a single shrimp, are equally good.  And not to be missed are the pork and black truffle dumplings, which, I’ll confess, caused me to moan in pure happiness and earned my vote for best in show.  You can even end your dumpling feast with a dessert dumpling filled with a sweet red bean paste.

There are many traditional dishes to seek out in Taipei—a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup for lunch and oyster omelets, rustled up 15 at a time in a huge, paella-like skillet at the Shilin Night Market—but it’s the dumplings at Din Tai Fung that you don’t want to miss on a trip to Taiwan.

 

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John Grossmann has written about food and travel for The Art of Eating, Departures,  Eating Well, Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY. He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).
John Grossmann has written about food and travel for The Art of Eating, Departures, Eating Well, Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY. He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).
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