There’s still so much of Taiwan that I have never been to as I normally hang out in Taipei only. One day my friend suggested that we take a trip to Tainan City, a city on Taiwan’s southwest coast. It is the oldest city in the country and also the island’s capital from 1683-1887 under the Qing dynasty. It’s been said that majority of Taiwanese people have ancestry that can be traced back to Tainan origins. She enticed me with the promise of cultural and gastronomical treats that would make the trip rewarding, so I readily agreed.
GETTING THERE FROM TAIPEI
Because I was a frog living at the bottom of a well and had never explored outside of Taipei before, I imagined Tainan would involve an arduous trek and a painful commute. I mean, Taiwan is an island and the Chinese words themselves already made it clear that PEI = north, NAN = south, so common sense expects the trip to be long and tiring, right? Wrong. Taiwan High Speed Rail made this trip a breeze and I couldn’t be more thrilled and relieved. I downloaded the app into my phone, reserved and purchased my ticket using credit card, got an electronic ticket QR code thingie, done. Convenient and efficient.
Plugged into and listening to my Spotify playlists the entire ride over. The ride was a little less than 2 hours and it went by pretty quickly. Wooohooo!
My friend booked us into this charming little boutique hotel JJ-W West Market where we stayed for one evening. Every corner of the hotel, both inside and out, is tastefully decorated with a blend of indie local art, contemporary and antique furnishings. The concept of the hotel is based on the ancient trees surrounding the building, and the building’s been transformed into a modern treehouse-like structure with sections sticking out the sides. The interior is a gallery-like space that invites travelers to become part of this organic living and breathing art.
At the hotel entrance, the lights on the ceiling were made of wood and canvas on which various illustrations have been painted by a local artist. Really cute, just like a lightbox, and easily missed if you don’t look up.
The hotel room itself was minimal with wood furniture everything (befitting the treehouse concept) and exposed brick walls.
I found this hybrid console-bar table to be really neat. It’s simple and there’s nothing much to it, but the dimensions (height, size, proportions) have been thoughtfully designed, making it suitable both as a work table or dining table and perfect for a studio apartment. The drawers are like cherries on top of the cream. Even those two stools were so comfortable to sit on.
This stool. It’s so damn comfortable to sit on. It has a semi-bucket seat and also there’s a protruding ledge at the front to rest your feet on. An unassuming and often-neglected detail done right, IMO it’s fucking brilliant.
As for the bathroom, it’s basic but I’d like to mention that I dig this bathtub configuration because the dual-level is functional as well as practical (ie. space-saver).
Common breakfast area in the hotel, where unfortunately we didn’t get to enjoy because our food itinerary elsewhere was already packed. Cute forest creatures-inspired porcelain mugs. Also notice the metal shelving, which I believe is made out of salvaged window grills (I’ll write more about this below).
My fave was the gift shop at the lobby level. Very beautifully curated with fashion and household items from local designers. *spasming with excitement* As an Asian-American creative, cultural appreciation is a significant part of my upbringing and any expression of traditional motifs/ideas in modern design forms is something that appeals to and resonates with me deeply.
For an old town, Tainan turned out to be artsy. Architecture from yesteryears has been preserved and can be enjoyed freely. This is one quiet and sleepy town that’s very rich in heritage. I very quickly discovered that metal grills, the kind on windows, is a very distinctive feature here. Pair that with dilapidated short buildings with decorative upper floor balconies, and back alleys patinated in textures that could only be derived from decades of natural wear and tear, Tainan is one big throwback to a long bygone era. See how many different metal grill designs/patterns you can spot below.
There’s also a contemporary voice in the city too, in the form of street art. Spanning several blocks, local designers and architects have transformed Hai An Road 海安路 into a street gallery full of awesome old buildings covered with murals, cool pubs and free-standing modern sculptures.
Aha, now here comes the meat of this super long blog post – pun intended. The ancient city of Tainan is the epicenter of Taiwanese food. Tainan boasts a number of dishes exclusive to the region, but renowned all over the country. For example, Milk Fish Soup 虱目魚湯 and Danzai Noodle 擔仔麵 are enjoyed throughout Taiwan but are signature representatives of Tainan City as that’s where they originated from.
There’s an inexhaustible list of must-eats when visiting Tainan which our two day short trip did not allow for… *sad*. Nonetheless, we managed to maximise our time there by visiting quite a few of them. So many food to try, so little belly space, so little time!
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Casseta Volpe 狐狸小屋
No. 118, Xinyi St
West Central District
A small hipster-ish coffee shop Casseta Volpe where we chilled and rested our feet for a bit while figuring out food itinerary. This itsy bitsy coffee shop is in an alley somewhere and does not look like a commercial establishment at all. From the front it looked like someone’s house.
Browsing a design book on local product designers. Spotted a bunch of conceptual work. Like!
A rather cool-looking equestrian-themed coffee shop next door, but we didn’t go in because stomachs were beginning to rumble in hunger yo.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
No. 332, Section 2, Ximen Rd
A 24-hour joint selling meat congee, but I can’t remember now what this was like. I did have a bowl of Milk Fish Soup as a quick snack, because it’s my favorite and purportedly all the milk fish supply in Taiwan comes from Tainan so this city is the HQ for freshest milk fish.
Milk Fish Soup 虱目魚湯
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Taiwan Flower Garden Night Market 花園夜市
Section 3, Hai An Rd
The Tainan Flower Garden Night Market is the largest and most famous night market in the city. It is said “South is Flower, Middle is Fengjia, North is Shihlin”… referring to Tainan, Taichung, and Taipei respectively. Really huge night market indeed but nothing really caught my eye other than this Deep-fried Boneless Porkchop vendor. Heheh, one of my weaknesses.
Oh, mama mia. *chomps*
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Zhuo Jia Shan Tou Fish Noodle 卓家汕頭魚麵
No. 158, Section 1, Minsheng Rd, West Central District
Tainan City, Taiwan 700
This store features noodles made of fish meat. That’s right, don’t expect the starchy kind here. Fish is deboned and then ground into a paste, after adding seasoning and a binding agent (tapioca flour, likely), it’s then cut into strips. The fish that’s used by this shop is a variety that has lots of bone, so preparing the fish noodle is labor intensive. In other words, only limited quantities are made and served daily so go early lest you get disappointed they sell out.
This tiny restaurant has very few seats so we sat all the way at the back at a table behind the shop, by an alley facing a temple.
Served with lettuce, dried seaweed, a sprinkling of chopped scallion and a wee bit of ground pork, this bowl of fish noodle is simple, unassuming but exceptionally delicious and bursting with flavor. The fish noodle itself is springy, light, and juicy. This is clearly homemade, with uneven knobby bumpy texture which gives it a more satisfying toothy bite. Full of win and I wished the serving portion could be a tad larger!
Other fish items served at the restaurant include Fish Roll (above) and Fish Dumplings (below), both served in clear broth with plenty of lettuce.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Du Xiao Yue 度小月
No. 101, Zhongzheng Rd
West Central District
Founded in 1895 by a humble fisherman who moonlit as a noodle seller during typhoon months, Du Xiao Yue is most well-known for its noodles (擔仔麵). This noodle dish comprises of egg noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, a special braised meat sauce, and chopped cilantro. Served either with soup or without, a portion is small and goes well with any of the side dishes on the menu. The popularity of Du Xiao Yue has grown so much that they have set up shop in Taipei too (where I’ve also eaten at), but this location is the original.
Du Xiao Yue’s signature Danzai noodles 擔仔麵
Dragon’s beard vegetables (I love this, it’s crunchy and very unique to Taiwan as far as I know).
Deep-fried Milk Fish
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Yu Cheng Fruit Store 裕成水果店
No. 122, Sec. 1, Minsheng Rd.
West Central Dist
Tainan boasts exceptionally sweet super fruits so we went for that as palate cleanser. Non-descript hole-in-the-wall joint, but don’t play play ah, Wang Lee Hom, JJ Lin, and a bunch of other Taiwanese celebrities in the entertainment industry have been here before!
Fresh fruit juices
Yes, we ordered tomatoes too… it’s a fruit, no?
Watermelons on steroids.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Six Thousand Beef Soup 六千牛肉
63 Hai An Road Section 1
OK… I HAVE SAVED THE BEST FOR LAST.
The alarm clock was blaring away at 5 am in the morning. It was still dark outside. “We must go now before it gets too late,” my friend said to me as I was still curled up in bed under the covers. Even though I knew this morning was the primary objective we had traveled to Tainan for, I wasn’t exactly springing out of bed because come on, who wakes up before daybreak to join the queue at a street vendor selling beef soup? How kickass was this beef soup going to be anyway? As a night owl, waking up super early for food has never been on my agenda and honestly the appeal of this particular morning wasn’t tremendous. Besides, I don’t eat breakfast.
But hey, I could
always most definitely go back to sleep after having breakfast. And so we got dressed and began power-walking towards the shop, about fifteen minutes away from our hotel. We looked at the time, it was nearing 6 am, so we picked up the pace before it got too late. That last sentence is every bit as insane as it reads. 6 am, late, wth!?
This shop, Six Thousand, is famous for its beef soup. When my friend first told me about it, I had difficulty imagining what she was raving about. I asked her is it beef noodle soup (which I’m not crazy about unless there’s beef tendon), but my friend said no there’s no noodles involved. Just sliced beef in soup, she told me. Pfffttt, what could be so good about it, I dismissed. My friend insisted that I must must must try this no matter what, so I said okay… with much skepticism.
There’s a reason why we had to wake up early because by the time we got to the shop, a little bit after six in the morning, this place was hopping. Who are all these early birds!? There was already a queue of eight or so people while many of the tables were also occupied by customers.
As we joined the queue, I started to observe what the hype of this shop is all about. Whenever someone placed an order, one of the staff began slicing up beef from a pile of raw meat on the cutting board, then passed it to another who swiftly poached the sliced meat in bubbling stock. The pile of raw beef was so fresh it probably still had a heartbeat. Just look at it, that bright vermillion could only come from a cow that was slaughtered that same morning (and it was). I somehow managed to feel sleepy while salivating at the same time, less on the former and more on the latter as the minutes ticked along.
The reason why everyone came so early in the morning to eat this is because 1. the meat is so fresh that it’d be a shame not to consume it ASAP, and 2. that pile of fresh meat you see on the cutting board? That’s all the shop has for the day so when it’s all gone, that’s it – no more, zero, nada, mai wan le, sold out for the day, pull down the shutters and close shop, bye bye see you tomorrow. This can easily and often happen before 9 am so as the saying goes, you snooze you lose.
It didn’t take long before our order was ready. Two bowls of handcut raw beef soup, perfectly poached medium rare in piping hot and fragrant beef stock. Still pink and unmistakably inviting.
There wasn’t much else accompanying this beef soup, just some julienned fresh ginger that anyone could help themselves with as much or as little as they wanted, and thick soy sauce.
One sip of this beef soup and I am ruined forever. So simple, so delicious, so confident of its freshness and original unblemished flavor that additional aromatics like cilantro or scallion or whatever would only serve as a superfluous distraction.
This beef soup needed very little else. The beef was exceptionally soft and tender. Succulent. I had never had beef that tasted this good before (a sentiment that remains uncontested till this day). The broth was packed with a lot of wholesome natural flavors, it’s robust yet very palatable and light, with a hint of sweetness coming through. I was mindblown and wanted to cry from how incredibly delicious this was. Single tear of happiness. Life is bursting with rainbows once more. The world is a beautiful place to live in. Dayumn, I’m so happy to be alive.
Because this place was really crowded, we were sharing a table with a couple of strangers and we all had that foodgasmic look plastered on our faces. One of them, a local Tainan girl, remarked in Chinese, “You have a taste of this and it makes you wonder, what the hell have you been eating your entire life? THIS is what beef is supposed to authentically taste like!”. Amen, sister, amen. You don’t have to preach it to the choir. I was already a devout convert by this time. I was so intensely savoring every spoonful of this beef soup that I could just nod enthusiastically in complete agreement.
Early bird catches the worm, in this case, gets the fresh beef. By the time we were done eating (which wasn’t that long actually, good food disappears quickly like magic), the sun had just risen while the streets were still empty. I said a silent prayer of gratitude for being blessed with the good fortune of tasting this beef soup. This experience would be something I will remember for a long, long, long, long time.
There’s just a handful of things in life that can have me up and crawling at the crack of dawn – catching a flight, sleeplessness, sleepovers, hangovers, hunger. Six Thousand Beef Soup? Easily tops the list!
Thank you very much, Tainan, for pretty much ruining my life because beef will never taste as delicious to me ever again.