What you need to know
Some of Taipei's more esoteric food traditions are quickly disappearing, but the temple and surrounds offer an unmissable opportunity to slurp braised intestines and other old school treats.
The story of Taipei’s rise to become Taiwan’s capital city begins in the Dadaocheng (大稻埕) neighborhood.
Seated on the banks of the Tamsui River, it was the city’s first trade hub from the mid-1800s. Walking down Dihua Street (迪化街), the oldest street in the district, is like walking through the past. The building facades are immaculately maintained, and reflect the foreign influence on the architecture – a stunning mix of European Baroque and Japanese Colonial style with the odd traditional Taiwanese carving of tigers and dragons. This iconic architecture marks Dadaocheng out from other areas of the city.
Dadaocheng is unique in that the area’s history has been preserved while allowing modernity to flourish in a near perfect balance. If you visit Dihua Street in the run up to the Lunar Festival you will be greeted with a sea of customers frantically buying traditional dry goods from the shops that line the street to stock their cupboards for the New Year celebrations. From tea, herbs and spices, to nuts, dried fruit and unmistakably odorous dried fish, these old-school outlets are a sensuous treat.
However, the conservation of these historical buildings hasn’t stopped a wave of hipster coffee shops and craft boutiques crowding in. Entering one of these traditionally tall and thin buildings allows you to simultaneously enjoy the vintage feel of the past while tucking in to a flat white or immaculately sculptured cappacino. Dadaocheng is fast fusing its historical roots with cool modernity.
The same goes for food in the area. Though you can find funky innovations like oolong tea ice cream and avocado milkshakes, traditional market streets like Chicken Selling Street (賣雞巷) still remain. Just outside Cisheng Temple (慈聖宮) there is a treasure trove of traditional Taiwanese dishes.
The story goes that back in the day, about 140 years ago, when you needed to hire some strong bodies for a few hours of hard labor, you would find them waiting under a bridge near the temple. As the workers had to wake up at the crack of dawn to guarantee employment for the day, breakfast stalls opened early along Lane 52 of Ganzhou Street (甘州街), which leads to the temple.
Even today this tradition is upheld, and the temple’s courtyard has become a lively gathering place to share a meal. The stalls are only open from 9:00 a.m. until early afternoon – or until they have sold out.
The narrow street is lined with tempting stalls displaying an endless choice of Taiwanese goodies; bowls of bubbling fish stew, pig-blood soup and the Taiwanese favorite: braised pork rice (魯肉飯). But before you choose, you need to know how to sit. One way is to perch on the wooden bench in front of each stall. As long as you order something from that stall, you can also order things from other stalls and tell them where you are sitting – they will bring the dish to you and you can pay them then.
However, if you want to sit in the courtyard of the temple itself, under the soothing shade of a banyan tree, you need to pay attention to the table you sit at. Each table has the name of a dish written on it – if you want to sit at that table, you have to be eating that dish! You are then free to buy as much as you want from other stalls and enjoy the feast as an ensemble.
Being near the port, there is no shortage of seafood here. To start off easy, try bulagi (吻仔魚), a simple and classic Taiwanese dish of egg fried rice topped with tiny whitebait. When fried to perfection, this dish has just the right amount of fishy flavor to leave you craving another spoonful – without desperately needing a drink afterwards. The trick to ordering this favorite, though, is to avoid ordering in Mandarin – if you ask for wenziyu (文字獄) the seller will likely not understand what you’ve asked for! Just use the Taiwanese name – bulagi.
On the more controversial side, there is a stall here that sells smoked shark meat (鯊魚煙). Shark meat and fin used to be popular in Taiwan, but – taking a lead from more progressively positioned countries – it has recently fallen t out of fashion, leaving this stall as one of the only remaining places that serve shark in the city.
Their best seller is a dish of belly meat and intestine, served with ocean sunfish meat. Each part has a totally different texture. The skin of the belly is tough while the meat is tender, the intestine is slightly chewy, or as the Taiwanese would say it has a "QQ" texture, firm like young skin, while the sunfish is jelly-like and soft. As is the case with a lot of seafood stalls in Taiwan, the shark is served with a Japanese-style thick homemade soy sauce and a dangerous slap of wasabi.
For something not quite as controversial, visit Zhong Liqi’s (鐘麗淇) squid stall. The stall was passed onto the younger Zhong by his father who opened it over 50 years ago. Zhong takes dried squid and soaks it in a secret recipe soup for a few hours to soften it. The squid is then prepped by stripping off the thinnest outer layer of skin, cutting off the suckers, and scoring a tight crisscross pattern across the back.
The squid is boiled fresh in ginger-flavored water. It cooks in mere minutes and is then expertly sliced by Zhong himself, before being topped with chopped coriander (cilantro if you must) and spring onion and served with a homemade soy and tomato sauce, and, you guessed it, firey wasabi. Though a little chewy for some people’s tastes, this is what the locals come for, and is one of the true tastes of old Taipei.
My go-to snack for a quick bite is jijuan (雞卷), which though it translates as "chicken roll" is actually made with pork. The two reasons for this misleading name were recounted to me by the brothers who run the stall. The first is that when times were tough, any leftovers would be wrapped in tofu skin and fried, making another meal. The Taiwanese word for "many" sounds just like the word for "chicken," so the original name was "many roll" owing to the multiple leftover dishes used to make it.
The second reason is that the roll looked suspiciously like a chicken’s neck! The pork is paired with soft-boiled cabbage and onions, wrapped in a thin pastry and deep-fried till golden. The pork is tender and juicy, and despite the heavy dose of frying oil, is well drained and not overly oleaginous. Served with a sweet chili sauce, the combo hits all the right spots.
When it comes to classic Taiwanese soups, you have a few choices here. One is your standard pork spareribs soup (排骨湯). As one of the favorite stalls here there is usually a long queue, but it’s worth the wait, considering that their recipe has been acclaimed for over 50 years.
The pork ribs are boiled till tender enough to be snipped into chunks with scissors, and placed in a clear soup served with sweet-and-sour radish. For a more adventurous dining experience, go for the "four gods pig intestine soup" (四神豬腸). The soup was originally named after the four traditional medicines that used to flavor the soup: gorgon fruit (芡實), lotus seed (蓮子), Chinese yam (淮山) and fuling fungus (茯苓).
As people’s palates changed, the intense medicinal flavor became too bitter for most, so today the dish is simply seasoned with Chinese pearl barley, allowing the flavor of the intestine to take precedent. So, while you won’t gain any godly powers from drinking this soup, you will feel as though you have accomplished something as it’s probably not a daily dish.
At the moment, Dadaocheng has found a sweet spot of mixing tradition and modernity, with breakfast at the temple being just as busy as any nearby independent coffee shop – and with young and old frequenting both. However, Mr. Zhong of the squid stall sighed when I asked if his children would be taking over the shop from him.
“Two generations is enough,” he sighs, adding that he wants his son do be able to do his own thing.
The question remains: Will the Taiwanese youth uphold the food traditions of their ancestors? Until that question is answered, the dishes are there to be enjoyed under beneath the banyan tree.
Read next: Hong Kong Food: An Origin Story
Editor: Morley J Weston