S. Rabbani: literary fiction, instructional articles, essays & translations
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From Taipei

By Sahand Rabbani

from Taipei

Dear Friends,

Upon our Friday evening arrival into Taoyuan International Airport, we took a taxi to our hotel near the Taipei 101 tower. After settling in, we met up with a local friend at a Spanish tapas bar. He took us to the Shida Night Market (師大夜市) by taxi, a frequent spot for the students at Shida, or the National Taiwan Normal University. We enjoyed some flash-fried chicken and vegetables from one of the last remaining stands as the market was shutting down and then headed by taxi to the more widely known Shinlin Night Market (士林夜市). By then, many stalls had closed, so we ambled through the outdoor portion of the market, glancing at the overwhelming abundance of useless gadgets and smartphone cases, before finally returning to the hotel for a good night's rest.

On Saturday morning, on the recommendation of our friend, we enjoyed a traditional Chinese breakfast at a hole-in-the-wall bakery. Our delicious spread featured fried eggs with chives, soup dumplings, steamed dumplings, and youtiao (a long strip of oily fried dough). Following the hearty meal, we took the MRT and transferred to a taxi for the National Palace Museum. This popular museum houses many Chinese treasures that were brought over by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1940s. The museum was nearly impenetrable as it was bursting with large mainland tour groups who huddled around the important specimens. We managed to breach some of these huddled barriers to catch fleeting glimpses. Sadly, the museum's failure to institute reasonable capacity controls makes for an anxious and uncomfortable experience.

With the essential Taipei requirement out of the way, we enjoyed the rest of our day. We reunited with our host, who was not only generous with his time but also has impeccable taste and a great knowledge of local treasures.

First, we headed to the ornate Longshan Temple and walked around the area in the Wanhua district where the sidewalks reek from stinky tofu stalls. This is where my curiosity finally got the better of me; I tried the delicacy. The deep-fried fermented tofu did not taste like much, but it left behind an aroma of soured shit in my mouth. For the sake of others, I tried to speak as little as possible until our next meal.

That next meal turned out to be an exemplary showcase of beef noodles, a popular Taiwanese dish, at a local joint (清真中國牛肉é). The tender meat and spicy, flavorful broth was soothing and delicious. We wrapped up the evening with a walk through Ximending (西é町), a flashy pedestrian shopping district known for its Japanese influence.

We started our Sunday morning with breakfast in the hotel and a hike up Xiangshan (象山步é), or Elephant Mountain. We walked to the trailhead just southeast of the city and embarked on a quick vertical ascent of stairs leading us to sweeping views of downtown Taipei and the dominating Taipei 101 tower. In a city with virtually no other skyscrapers, Taipei 101 is a soaring monument, an unusual but appealing amalgam of Chinese and Western design. The tower looks dated, much like the city of Taipei itself, a standing reminder of Taiwan's once rapid growth. Opened in 2004 as the world's tallest building, it now sits at number nine at the time of writing. The tower seems to be a metaphor for the city itself: clean, well constructed, and functional while also stagnant and nostalgic. Taiwan's once booming economy earned it a place among the Asian Tigers, but it has since plateaued and now sits back, observing while the rest of the region catches up.

Our next stop, after the hike, was the tower itself. From its observation deck, we enjoyed panoramic views of otherwise flat Taipei.

For lunch, we took a taxi to a fish market in the north part of town and enjoyed sushi and grilled fish at a standing restaurant inside a refined grocery store. The Taiwanese food scene is saturated with Japanese influence owing to half a century of Japanese rule that ended in 1945.

From the fish market, we walked west along a wide boulevard to the historic Dadaocheng (大稻埕) district, whose dark, narrow alleys and haphazard buildings are a window into old residential Taipei. On Dihua Street (迪化街), we gazed at the myriad dried food stores. From one small grocery stand, we purchased four fresh fruits that were unknown to us, which we sampled later back at the hotel. After some research, we determined the fruits to be (1) rose apple: crisp, hydrating, refreshing, and slightly sweet; (2) a Chinese date: sweet and dense; (3) guava: sweet and sour with a tougher texture; and (4) lucuma: nearly inedible, intensely mouth puckering, leaving an unshakable sticky residue.

We topped off the evening with a visit to two more night markets. First was Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市), a narrow, crowded street flanked by food stalls. We squeezed through the artery of bodies from one end to the other. Finally, we visited the Raohe Street Night Market (é河街觀光夜市), a little larger and less crowded than Ningxia. We comfortably sampled a variety of foods including grilled cubes of meat, fried chicken, Taiwanese sausage, dumplings, and the unique oyster omelette.

I awoke early the next morning to catch my departing flight, concluding a delicious and satisfying weekend in Taipei but leaving me wanting to see more of Taiwan and its food-oriented culture. While it is a nation in political limbo with only sporadic international recognition, caught in a childish game with China over mutual claims of hegemony, Taiwan clearly retains a unique identity. Mandarin may be the dominant spoken language, but the island still uses the traditional character set, it prides itself on its democracy, and it numbers its years not from the birth of Christ but rather from the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. (I became wise to this when trying to interpret the date printed on a 7-Eleven receipt.) I bid Taiwan farewell for now and with gratitude.


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