What you need to know
As someone who loves visiting Yilan, do you really know the city? Why don’t you start by seeing if you can answer these five questions.
Translated by Olivia Yang
In recent years, Yilan has become a popular city among tourists from all places. But other than famous attractions and foods you can’t miss out on, the city also bears a rich historical culture that is worth exploring. As someone who loves visiting Yilan, do you really know the city? Why don’t you start by seeing if you can answer these five questions:
1）What is the origin of the name, “Yilan?"
2）Do you know where the names “Zhuangwei" and “Wujie" come from?
3）Is “Xilu meat " a kind of minced pork rice?
4）Why is most of the food in Yilan thickened with flour or cornstarch?
5）Due to the rainy climate in Yilan, how are the historic residences there different from the old architectures in southern Taiwan?
Don’t know the answers to these questions? Let us tell you some quick facts about Yilan.
What’s in a name?
Yilan was originally named “Kamalan," which was a voice translation of the local Pingpu language done by the Han Chinese that arrived to reclaim the land. Under the reign of Guangxu Emperor during the Qing dynasty, authorities believed that Kamalan was not easy to pronounce, therefore renamed the area, “Yilan," a name that has been used to this day. Yilan has another familiar nickname, “Lan Yang." This name originates from a poem from the Qing dynasty that describes eight sceneries of the area. Each verse in the poem depicts the breathtaking plains that make people want to linger, and the name Lan Yang was spread and widely used.
[Fun Fact] The eight sceneries of Lan Yang: The sunsets of Guishan Island, the evening mist of Longling, the refreshing air of Xifeng, the tides of Beiguan, the fall waters of Sanan, the spring sails of Shigang, the mirage of Su’ao, and the hot springs of Tangwei.
Carefully observing the location names of Yilan, you will notice a few words constantly show up, such as cheng, jie, wei and zhuang. The development of the Hans is hidden in these names. During the Qing dynasty, Wu Sha led armed groups to develop the land and they entered from the north side of the Lan Yang plain. The strongholds they built during their development work were called, “cheng." This is why there is Toucheng, Ercheng and Sicheng. The development team was then divided into groups of ten as development units called, “jie," leading to Erjie, Sijie and Wujie today. Multiple “jies" united together were named, “wei," such as Touwei and Erwei. After the development reached a certain stage, the sons of Wu Sha wished to thank the men for their help thus divided a piece of land into seven and distributed it among them. These seven pieces of land are now known as “Zhuangwei."
It’s all about the food
Locals that lived in the area back in the day found that the region was cold and wet. In order to adapt to the climate, hot food became an important source for warming their bodies. In addition, mountains surround Yilan from three sides so it was hard to import goods and locals were mostly self-reliant. This created a food culture unique to Yilan.
So exactly how much do people in Yilan love their hot food? First, you have to mention the thickened soups seen everywhere.
Because of Yilan’s wetness and coldness, locals have developed a habit of having thickened soups as main courses. The soups provide calories to fight off the cold, and have now become bestsellers regardless of the season. People even enjoy their soups under the scorching summer sun. There are multiple kinds and flavors of thickened soups in Yilan, such as rice noodle thickened soup, meat thickened soup, garlic meat thickened soup, whitebait thickened soup and so on. All of these can be found in crowded restaurants near Luodong night market or close to the North gate downtown.
Another dish known far and wide is, “Bu meat." This dish is made by breading the meat with flour, cornstarch and eggs, and then dipping it into sugar and salt before frying and serving. It’s easy to see that this famous Yilan dish is a high-calorie fried dish. Aside from adapting to the local climate, many families were farmers back then and they needed this kind of food to provide them with the energy.
There are also some other snacks you can’t miss, such as Gaojha and phoenix leg. The delicious fillings of Gaojha are out of this world and the pastry is also seen everywhere in the major night markets. Though they look delicious on the outside, you can easily burn your tongue if you bite into the pastry without being careful. People joke that the locals are just like these pastries; cold on the outside, but hot on the inside. This again shows how the climate and social pattern of Yilan has deeply influenced local eating habits.
The last traditional delicacy we will share is the secret dish, “Xilu meat." Yilan locals are welcoming and hospitable, and refuse to be sloppy when it comes to treating their guests with hearty meals. However, they used to lead poorer lives in the past and didn’t have enough supplies. Therefore, whenever it came to preparing wedding banquets or other larger meals, the locals would cut various ingredients into slivers, add cornstarch or flour to thicken the soup, and sprinkle egg crisp on top so that the dish would appear fancier. This dish not only shows the simplicity of the traditional Taiwanese society, but also leaves the guests enjoying their meal with both their eyes and taste buds.
[Fun Fact] Xilu meat is not braised pork and does contain meat. It is a traditional Taiwanese dish that usually has cabbage, mushrooms, carrots and bamboo shoots. The ingredients are thickened and topped with egg crisp.
Living the Yilan life
The influence of climate is not only seen in food, but also local architecture. For example, the “rammed earth houses" commonly seen in the traditional society is developed differently in Yilan. In the past, red bricks were considered to be high-class building material and were difficult to obtain, so farmers would use more accessible materials to build their homes. The most commonly seen houses were “rammed earth houses" made out mud bricks made from mud mixed with hay. But because the area floods easily and mud tends to collapse when becoming wet, so locals had to use stones to stabilize the foundation of the walls and continue building on top of the stones.
The “pitched roof" is another major symbol of the Taiwanese-style “Yilan houses." The drainage system and downwind design of the architectures were also intentionally designed to accommodate the weather. After the economy was more stable, traditional architectures began expanding and families began building “all weather corridors" so people could communicate more conveniently. The corridors are similar to the pedestrian arcades today. These paths allow communication within the community to be more convenient and frequent. This not only shows the wisdom of people in the past, but also portrays the traditional large family. This is something we might have a hard time imagining since we mostly live in apartment buildings in major cities. These traditional residences are epitomes of Taiwan’s past and show the simplicity back then. They also represent the hospitality of the agricultural society, which is the most primitive spirit of Taiwan. Does this remind you of when you were little and would have dinner while chatting and laughing with your family? Enjoying the cool evenings on a wooden bench with them was so simple but relaxing.
If you are interested in traditional Yilan cuisine and historical architectures, or if you miss those warm family moments and slow-paced life, then why not visit Yilan with your family on your next vacation? Try the local food, learn about stories behind the interesting names, and you can even stay at the Forte Dong Shan Villa, which is modeled on traditional Taiwanese architectures. Experience the san-ho yuan life in the night breeze and admire the red brick walls designed by world-renowned architect, Huang Sheng-Yuan, the limestone walls and roofs, and wooden sliding doors and windows. Listen to the river running outside and admire the simple but sturdy building materials of the architecture you’re staying in. You can also casually stroll through the National Center of Traditional Arts near the villa and learn more about various traditional arts and techniques. You can even join in a family DIY experience and enjoy a relaxing time with your family.
A special thanks goes out to Yilan local cultural worker Zhuang Wen-sheng for letting us interview him. If you are also tired of the usual attractions, then why not visit Yilan again after reading this article?
[Fun Fact] If you want to know more about Yilan or travel the city more in-depth, then Zhuang is the person to go to.
Zhuang runs a cafe in Luotung and welcomes tourists to visit him there.
Next stop: Yilan. Let’s go anywhere!
(Want to travel Yilan more in-depth? The imitated traditional architecture of Forte Dong Shan Villa offers you the most local experience.)