Discovering Taiwan: Eating My Way Across l’Ihla Formosa

Two months ago, in August, I went to Taiwan on a week-long press trip -  a Foodie Tour, at the invitation of the Taiwan Tourism Board. An opportunity to eat my way around the island, with visits to cultural, spiritual and historical places – all while indulging in authentic Taiwanese cuisine, 10-course meals, night markets, tea houses and even beer breweries. You name it, it was on the itinerary – the first of its kind planned by the Taiwan Tourism Board, on occasion of the country’s centennial anniversary.

When MatadorU first posted the opportunity for its graduates, I jumped on it. A couple of weeks later, I was selected by the Taiwan Tourism Board, along with eight other travel writers and bloggers from around the US.

It would be my first time in Asia, and lucky me – that first time would be on an island (we all know my penchant for such places).

Shortly after that selection, I was offered a spot as Matador’s second Road Warrior in Belize.

Belize and Taiwan, all in one summer?! It was a whole lot of excitement for one girl. But I knew I could handle it.

The trip to Taiwan was the longest I’ve ever endured, because I had to make my way from Belize all the way to Washington DC, then LA and finally Taiwan.

LAX-Taipei alone is a 15-hour flight.

Phew. If it wasn’t for that comfortable, direct EVA Air flight with the extra leg room and the snazzy movie-on-demand feature, I wouldn’t have made it.

But the flight woes and back pains were all a distant memory the moment I arrived in Taipei and we pulled away from the airport and into the city.

Aah Taiwan! I experienced so many moments of intrigue at every hour of the day, let alone in a week. My senses were on overload, as was my camera – the farther we ventured the island, the more I felt connected to the culture and the more I wanted to look deeper.

Yes, Taiwan proved to be more than just an island off the eastern coast of China.

The country is a reflection of its complex history – because wow, Taiwan’s been through it! Portuguese settlers, followed by >>

Dutch occupation, then Japanese and later Chinese, all the way through 1945. It’s a land that carries the influences of its past and has remained steadfast in declaring its own identity and sovereignty, separate from mainland China. (That’s a whole other can of worms by the way – for now I’ll just tell you, don’t go to Taiwan and make the mistake of telling them they’re part of China!)

Ilha Formosa, as it was named by the Portuguese settlers who first set eyes on it - “beautiful island” – is a blend of the old and the young. An industrialized country, doing very well – and just a glance through even the smaller towns will show you that.

Its cities as large and modern as Manhattan, with skyscrapers, yellow cabs, high speed trains and a vibrant crowd. Its villages tucked in the mountains (Taiwan has over 200 of them). Its spirituality displayed on almost every other street, through temples. Its street stalls and alleys alive day and night, while hundreds shop till they drop. Its tea houses and breakfast stalls. And yes, its people – old delicate smiling faces here and there against a wider sea of fresh young faces.

Taiwan was all of these things, past and present intertwined so seamlessly and yet all we did was scratch at the surface as only one can in one week.

Here are some of the things that stood out to me.

The scooters. When our bus pulled into Taipei, the capital city, the first thing I noticed were the tens of dozens of scooters zipping by, stopped at the light or parked. You’d think it was some kind of motorcycle show. I almost got licked by one when I tried to cross the street – it’s a challenge, watching for the scooters – but for the most part, they’re more skilled at stopping in time by the crosswalk than a car is. I loved the sight though, and it made for some fun practicing on photo panning techniques.

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It’s hot and humid in August – I mean, really really hot. Belize heat has nothing over Taiwan. Everywhere, ladies with umbrellas – sun protection, for sure. And, I’m told, tanning protection for others (the women out here have no intention of getting darker skinned – hmm, sounds familiar, Ethiopians are the same way!).  As for me, give me sun, just spare me the humidity.

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Still, I was surprised to see the next level of sun protection on women – a sort of mask covering the lower half of their faces and their necks. It’s said that the “xiaojie” or Taiwan ladies go to great lengths to preserve their skin, not just from getting darker but also to keep it “soft and younger-looking” – which requires hiding from the sun’s harmful rays. That’s the concept of beauty in the East. I really would have liked to see one of those women remove the mask, so I could see that wrinkle-free skin for myself.

If I was watching for the scooters, at least I didn’t have to watch what I stepped on. Taiwan is uber-clean. No polluted streets, no overflowing trash cans anywhere, no grunge. Even the little graffiti I spotted was neatly painted. How do they do it?

I saw some beautiful old faces, sure – but mostly, there’s a youthful energy. Wander around and the signs are there – the cobblestone alleys dotted with fashion boutiques, happy hour spots and cafes filled with young couples and groups of friends.

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Which brings me to the food… gosh, where to start? Every five steps you take in Taiwan, you’ll hit a restaurant, a snack shop or a street market. Taiwanese food itself is like art, no kidding. From the way it’s prepared to the way it’s displayed. Food is not only an epicurian treat in Taiwan – there is cultural meaning and pride in every single creation.

The Taiwanese are passionate about their cuisine, and it’s not just about savoring it.  Meals are a major reason to come together and socialize in Taiwan; all you have to do is look around to see how busy the restaurants and eateries are.  Families gather, friends eat out regularly, and food is so cheap it’s not hard to decide that you won’t cook for a week. Locals have their favorite snack shops, their favorite market stalls, their favorite dishes.

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And by the way, this island is a snacker’s paradise – kind of like Spain with its tapas culture, except much cheaper. There are tons of mini food stands sprinkled all over town, with colorful displays of all kinds of fish, meats (lots of pork eaten in Taiwan, by the way) and vegetables – so colorful and confusingly tempting. (I’m such a major snacker, no wonder I loved Spain so much!)

The street markets have spectacular displays, too – with their baskets and rows of colorful, moist, pretty fruits. You can sample before you buy. My eyes were drawn to every corner. At night, everything comes even more alive.

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My favorite meal? The beef noodle soup with half-beef and half-tendon from the Lao Zhang restaurant in Taipei, voted best beef noodle restaurant in the city. The beef noodle soup is one of Taiwan’s traditional dishes and can be prepared in a myriad of ways. We tried various flavors, but that was the one I loved – the tendon is said to be good for your skin, it’s protein that acts like natural collagen. It’s also the fatty part of the meat but it sure tasted good in that semi-spicy broth. My other favorite meal was a an Aborigine lunch (Taiwan’s first inhabitants were Aborigines). Stay tuned for that delicious vegetarian report.

But I’ll be honest – if I had to pick my food out (or anything else) alone I’d be in big trouble… because English isn’t widely spoken in Taiwan. Most speak Mandarin Chinese and older folks, Taiwanese. I don’t know why I was so surprised or why I assumed they’d speak English here. I felt like a typical tourist at that second the thought crossed my mind. But yep, almost none of the vendors understand or speak English. The street signs, the food signs, the metro signs – I’d have to learn Mandarin so fast if I lived here. For this trip, I relied on just two words I learned at the airport -”ni hao” and “xie xie” (pronounced “shay shay”): hello and thank you. For the rest, I relied on the help of our Tourism Board ladies accompanying us on the tour.

But there was that one time when they weren’t close by and I got stuck. I asked for sugar at an upscale restaurant and the waitress gave me a blank stare, confused. I know, who the heck puts sugar in their tea in Taiwan! But hey, it was the end of our trip and I was dying for my regular sugar dosage. I gestured and pointed at my cup numerous times, then tried lifting my cup to drink it and made faces. After about twenty minutes, the waitress left and came back with this for sugar.

Not to worry though, the Tourism Bureau in Taiwan has some pretty awesome magazines and publications about the latest events in Taiwan, and ideas on day trips. Check out the “Travel in Taiwan” magazine – you can find it in your hotel or at the airport.

I ‘d heard of Asian night markets and Taiwan’s didn’t disappoint. If you want to really see and experience the culture here, this is one of the best places for it – from the people watching to the foods and the interactions among the locals. In one hour I scratched only the surface of each of these markets in different towns. I so wish I had more time. Taipei’s night market is the largest in the country. The clothes were pretty fabulous, the shoes not so much. And the foods – oh the foods – from delicious fruits to odd-looking meats (hello, liver!) and lots of fish I’d never seen before (Taiwan has the six largest fish economy in the world). It was one big colorful and overwhelming scene that I loved throwing myself into. Plus, how cute that these night markets are a popular meeting or “date night” spot for university students. Ah, to be young and in love!

Taipei Night Market | Copyright L. Girma

I can’t forget the drinks. They are as elaborate and creative as the food. In fact, I could try a Boba milk tea or pearl milk tea any day in Taiwan. I never even knew this was all the rage in the United States (where it’s called Bubble Milk tea). Well, it was invented right here, in 1985, by the Chun Shui Tea House in the city of Taichung. After that, it spread to neighboring countries and eventually all over the world. Well, I’m happy to say I tasted my first right where it was first created! And in Taiwan, the tapioca balls in the milk tea are preservative-free. How much did I love this beverage? When I went back to Belize after my trip, a friend took me to a Taiwanese-run cafe and smoothie lounge – and they serve Boba on Sundays! I was a very, very happy girl.

If an iced milk and coffee tasting drink isn’t for you, how about some passion fruit milk tea?

Or some Gold Medal Taiwan beer (really good I might add).

I think I could blog about a different Taiwanese drink for every day of the year.

And I could definitely blog about the different kinds of tea, too. If Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, Taiwan is a tea empire. Throw a rock and hit a tea house (or a temple!), trust me you won’t miss. The climate and the land allow Taiwan to grow different kinds of tea plants – each with distinct flavor and drinking purpose, making Taiwanese tea the best in the world. The “Grandmother tea” or Emerald tea (made from 80-year old tree)  was my favorite from a tasting at the Hugo Assam Tea Farm and House in Nantou County, rather than the world-renown Ruby Assam Black Tea, that I found too bitter for this sweet tooth.

But what I loved even more wasn’t just the tea itself, but the where and how of tea drinking:gorgeous tea houses that doubled as retreats and relaxation roomsJust divine. My favorite was the Shi-yang Culture House, in the hills outside Taipei City. I could sit there on those low stools and sip on tea, or lie down and contemplate on life or at the outside landscape. Truth is, I’ve always loved tea. In Ethiopia we infuse ours with all sorts of spices from cinnamon to clove. In Taiwan, tea is an art – the making, the tasting of it, and the drinking. Dark tea, flavored tea, iced teas… you name it, I tried it.  More details on this later.

If the tea houses were a rock’s throw away, temples were impossible to ignore. Colorful, ornate Tao temples or simpler, yet majestic Confucius temples are scattered through the towns and villages. And locals, praying inside or stopping by on their way to errands or to work. Even for two minutes of reverence from the outside before they go on their way. Spirituality is well alive in Taiwan. I feel drawn to such countries – it takes me back to my own and it gives me a sense of humanity.

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Of all the things that won my heart in Taiwan, it was the landscape. At times I forgot I was on an island, because it wasn’t just about the coastline – which I only saw on one grey day – but it was also about peaks and valleys, the mountains with villages tucked all around, the rice fields and the tea farms, and the gorges traversing the countryside. We traveled both by tour bus and by high speed rail, and I could feel peace and serenity reigning over this land. It’s also when I felt I was truly in Taiwan, away from the capital and deeper inside suburban life.

How can you not fall in love with these views?

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No matter where I went, the stares followed of course (let’s face it, there aren’t too many black people here) but it’s more curiosity than anything. I found Taiwanese people to be friendly, warm and quick to smile or willing to help. The hospitality was above and beyond wherever I went. Even if they didn’t understand my English they were patient and tried. I can definitely appreciate that.

My favorite part of Taiwan? Sun Moon Lake – a beautiful mountainous town surrounded by Taiwan’s largest body of water. The lake itself is magnificent, with hiking trails all around it and quite possibly one of the most awesome hotels I’ve ever experienced: Fleur de ChineEach room there has its own jacuzzi tub with hot spring mineral water flowing straight out of the faucet.

My biggest surprise of the foodie tour? Not getting sick once, even after numerous ten-course meals and sampling all kinds of new fish, meats and vegetables. I say it’s the smaller, healthier portions and the lack of heavy starch.

My only regret is never making it to the beach, other than staring at the coast from a distance on a cloudy day.

Oh, and one more reason I found to love Taiwan: their favorite coffee here is Jamaica’s Blue Mountain. Who knew! I enjoyed a cup of my favorite beverage at the Narrow Door Cafe in the city of Tainan, while gazing out the window at a 17th Century Confucius Temple across the street.

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the currrent author of MOON BELIZE for Moon Travel Guides and is completing a second title, MOON BELIZE CAYES. Lily is also AFAR's Jamaica Expert, and author of the AFAR Jamaica Country Guide. A serial expat, she's lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire–and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture, adventure and storytelling, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year.

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6 Comments

  1. Alex Evans 2 November, 2011 at 4:31 PM #

    Wow! My sister Lived in Taiwan for about five or so years and naturally, I heard many stories about Taiwan and their culture, and the food, and everything else… But never before have I been taken on a journey like I was for the past 10 minutes reading this. This really makes me want to visit Taiwan someday, even if just for their Bubble Milk Tea

  2. Diana 3 November, 2011 at 11:12 AM #

    I got a nice sense of Taiwan from this piece. I need to get one of those sun protection masks for this Florida sun!

  3. Lebawit Lily Girma 3 November, 2011 at 11:49 AM #

    @Alex, thank you! So happy to hear that. Please feel free to share the post with your sister. I’ll be writing a lot more in this series! Oh and you’d love that bubble milk tea. I still dream about it sometimes! :-)

    @Diana, thanks! Oh and I think those women may be on to something! Lord knows all that sunscreen we have here doesn’t quite work…

  4. lorraine 4 November, 2011 at 7:32 AM #

    Wow, nice trip/food/people/tea report! :)) Great pictures and wonderfully written, imo! some of the food(what were those “fish” swirls?) looked interesting to say the least! Bubble tea? Never heard of it! I learned all kinds of cool stuff here and never had to leave the house. Cuz you know Air Jamaica doesnt fly there;) Great Stuff, Road Warrior!
    One love

  5. Shawna Washington 8 November, 2011 at 8:07 AM #

    I so enjoyed your report! The pictures were beautiful! Never thought of going to Taiwan but the pics make me want to go there. I would love to go to the place (tea house I think) where the ladies are resting on a mat and looking out at nature.

  6. Lebawit Lily Girma 8 November, 2011 at 9:02 PM #

    Thanks ladies!!

    @Shawna, oh my goodness, that teahouse was just heavenly! I would go back there in a heartbeat. I wish we had those here, I’d be a weekend regular! :-)
    It put all the other afternoon tea spots I’ve been to, to shame.

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