It’s going to be the perfect day. Because it’s a day where the only thing we need to think about is food. The best of Taiwanese food, handpicked for us by local experts. It’s the Taipei Eats food tour. By the end of this day we’ll have eaten both the tastiest and the most disgusting food we’ve ever eaten.
The best of bao
We meet our guide, Bo-an, and fellow guzzlers at Yongchun traditional market at 11am. It’s a wet market, the kind that festers in the humidity, blowing you a fruit-scented kiss with one breath and a pungent meat belch with the next. It’s bustling and colourful and it leaves your senses swimming.
We sample the local fruits then move onto a stall selling scallion bread. Freshly baked and warm, it has a thin crust with lovely chivey dough.
The next stop on the tour is of particular excitement to me because it is for BAO BUNS. The first time I ate bao buns (London, July 9 2013 to be precise) my life changed forever. Suddenly no burger, wrap or sandwich was ever going to be the same. Because this was the ultimate. The spongy, tangy, almost soggy but not quite, ultimate.
Back in those days I ate meat. Now, I’m worried that my decision to go veggie could be about to ruin the best bao experience of my life. Bo-an heads back from the counter clutching three meated-up bao. They are stuffed with stewed pork belly, topped with preserved mustard and coriander, then sprinkled with peanut powder. They look absolutely divine. He heads back with my censored version and I bite into it fearfully.
It’s delicious of course. Even without the pork, the softness of the dough, the sharpness of the pickled veg and the, well, nuttiness of the peanut, are a killer combination.
The owner smiles a proud goodbye through a billow of bao steam as we leave.
Getting high with the betels
We move on to one of Taiwan’s most popular vices. Betel nut. These nuts are harvested from the areca palm and often served wrapped in a little package of cardamom, cinnamon, tobacco, and a betel leaf. Chewing on them gives you the same buzz as six cups of coffee (it can also give you oral cancer and stain your teeth black but that doesn’t seem to stop people). From the reading I’ve done, I know betel nut used to be sold by scantily clad ladies in booths at the roadside, known as betel nut beauties. It still is in some cases, but the authorities felt it was placing women at risk of exploitation or worse, and they’ve tried to phase them out.
Bo-an disappears into the betel-booth and comes out with our little green packages. They look quite big and it seems confusing what to do but he assures us you just put it in your mouth, crack with your back teeth and chew away.
It doesn’t taste good. A bit like how you’d expect a very young tree branch to taste. Bitter and woody. But then there’s the hit. I’ve been known to disembark from a train behaving quite erratically off the buzz of a single coffee, so my system isn’t quite sure what to do with this high. It settles on very awake and very elated. What a beautiful day! What beautiful people! How expertly these paving slabs have been laid! Is that a discarded cigarette stub? How wonderful!
Bo-an takes our betel nut bravado and he puts it to good use. He knows there will be no better time to face the biggest challenge of the day.
You want me to put that in my mouth?
We smell it before we get inside the door. It has a pungency that’s like a cross between boiled pork and ripe gorgonzola.
‘Stinky tofu!’ declares one of our team members.
Stinky tofu is tofu that’s been fermented for six months. Sometimes vegetables and brine are dumped in with it for extra stinkiness. The Chinese and Taiwanese like to eat it as it’s thought to be good for health, particularly the digestive system.
If a food (or anything come to think of it) is described as ‘stinky’ I generally avoid it. I don’t like ‘stinky’ cheese much, or stinky drains or stinky armpits. I don’t want any of them near my face. Being in the presence of stinky tofu reassures me this is a perfectly logical approach. Unfortunately, despite almost passing out from the smell, I kind of have to eat it.
The betel nut high still lingers and we’re giggly as Bo-an orders us both deep fried and raw versions. The deep fried just looks like normal tofu. We poke a hole in the top with our chopsticks, stick in some topping of pickled cabbage in garlic and sesame, and shovel it in. It actually tastes fine – maybe some subtle notes of rotten cabbage at the back there but it’s not so bad. Relief blanks out any other unpleasantness.
But we got cocky too soon. Because it’s the raw form of tofu where the real flavour hit is, and that’s what we have to eat next.
When even Bo-an declines it, we know we’re in trouble. Matt wimps out and that leaves three of us to try the six month fermented squidgy white lumps.
It’s every bit as disgusting as you’d expect and I don’t plan on ever eating it again. Next!
We go to dumpling heaven
We head to the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park to find delicacies at the other end of the deliciousness spectrum from stinky tofu (thank god).
The first is, of course, dumplings. Whilst Din Tai Fung steals the limelight on these globally, a smaller Taiwanese chain serves just as good, if not better dumplings without the lengthy queues. Gao Chi sits in the basement of the main building on the complex.
Once seated our group gets through various different types of pork dumpling, as well as mushroom ones for me. They’re freshly made, steaming, perfectly soft and full of salty flavour.
For dessert Bo-an hands us egg custard tarts from the bakery next door. They are divine, made with a perfect shortcrust and a creamy custard, not too sweet.
At this point there’s not much space left inside any of us, so we take a longer, slower walk to our final stop of the trip, passing the Dr Sun Yat-sen memorial hall on the way.
It’s a warm afternoon and we’ve worked up a mild sweat by the time we get there. But no worries, because our destination is a shaved ice parlour. We tuck into the sweetness of lychee flavoured shaved ice. It melts in our mouths and cools us down. We half crunch, half suck on it, watching the odd motorbike pass along the quiet side street outside the open fronted cafe.
And then it’s time to say goodbye to Bo-an and our no-longer hungry companions. We could not have had a better introduction to Taiwanese food, and I’m happy to report the stinky tofu nightmares have now cleared up 😉
We booked our food tour with Taipei Eats via their website. It’s the Xinyi food tour, running from 11am to 2.30pm (tours June-August start at 4.30pm). It costs 70 USD per person. We did the tour towards the end of our Taipei trip, but I’d recommend doing it at the beginning of your trip if you can as your guide will send you a comprehensive list of places to eat and drink in Taipei after the tour.