It is going to be very hard in the next few blog posts to not just turn this into”101 reasons why you should visit Taiwan in 2016.”
We have our major international cycling conference there in March 2016 so there will hopefully be a big contingent heading out from Europe to get a taste of the country. And taste would be a very good place to start. I know I am incredibly privileged with the job I do, this year Velo-city will be in Nantes France so I can recommend two back-to-back conferences for their cuisine alone!
As it has been such a focus of this year’s trip I want to start with the food I had on my two day cycle tour south from Taipei. Among their many activities Formosa Lohas Cycling Association (FLCA) have a programme of training cycle tour guides and arranging trips for riders of all abilities anywhere on the island. Visitors can get the full package of ride, guide and bike but most of all you get local knowledge.
Several of the club wanted a day or two cycling too so we had a proper club group. Food is absolutely integral to Taiwanese hospitality so that also meant everyone wanted to show me some form of Taiwanese food treat so I seemed to be stopping to eat something on almost every corner. I am glad I was riding hard between snacks, and that the food is generally very low fat so it is easy to eat bucket loads.
Day 1 – digestion or indigestion?
First stop a non-descript crossroads, one of many. One of the women riders disappeared suddenly and I was told “She has gone to get meatballs, there is a shop here that sells the best”. The bulging bag of meatballs were a perfect snack, a hot tasty mouthful of pork mince in a slightly sweetened dumpling. Just delicious sat on the pavements beside the bikes.
Onwards! Another 20km or so and I assumed we were approaching the lunch stop so we pulled in to a roadside convenience store which had some tables and chairs inside. But instead of buying junk food somehow our backup vehicle had spotted a fruit stall so I could try some local produce. There were Taiwanese olives, large green fruit, similar in taste but certainly not the same as European olives, some plum like fruit and a sort of dwarf pear, seemingly partly dried and sprinkled in icing sugar. I ate quite a few of those, promising myself it was a good energy intake for the next 70 or 80 km.
I got that wrong. Further along we rode into a quiet village just off the main road where lunch was announced. “Just a light lunch” says Demi, our organiser and my opposite number as Development Director of FLCA. I must remember never to trust that woman on the subject of food; she was on a mission to ensure I didn’t miss a single mouthful.
In the village was a small local restaurant known for its Hakka cooking. From my brief tourist reading I had thought Hakka was the term for a Chinese sub-culture originating in the south west of the mainland and many Hakka people came to Taiwan with the escaping nationalist forces after the revolution but thanks to reader Andrew who corrected me to say this is a much older cultural mix. His explanation is in the comments below.
The centre of Hakka culture is in the three counties of the central west coast of Taiwan where we were riding.
There was nothing fancy about this setting. A room upstairs that could just as easily have been a domestic dining room with odd bits and pieces shoved in the corners, a sheet of plastic film thrown over the table and we served ourselves mint tea out of plastic bottles into paper cups.
“Light lunch” consisted of about ten different dishes and I know I only recognised two of the whole lot, everything else was a novelty. Maybe I recognised some of the ingredients but they were flavour and texture combinations that I have never seen before.
Whole shrimp, dried squid with chilli, whole steamed fish were delicious and I would happily ride down there for lunch any time if I lived round here.
Pigs’ intestines was probably the novelty dish definitely sent out to see if the foreigner could cope, it had a texture not unlike tripe which I can’t get too excited about, but it was in a gooey tasty sauce so certainly not inedible.
Not typical cyclists’ fare for me of course, impossible to compare with to beans on toast in the café in a British club ride. I was just quietly hoping that I didn’t have indigestion when we wandered reluctantly back to the bikes an hour or so later, the hilly part of the ride was due in the afternoon.
I assumed that would be enough to see us through most of the rest of the day but we had one more treat in store. The steep sided valley we riding along widened out slightly and farms fields appeared on every section of flat land.
I soon spotted that there were a lot of cars parked by the roads and people out in the fields harvesting strawberries. It was Pick Your Own, just as we do back home in the fruit season where it is a treat to pull up at a fruit farm and get the freshest possible fruit.
It was soon clear we were in strawberry central as the whole valley was alive with farms and pickers, an impression cemented when we road in to Taiwan’s “strawberry town”, packed with weekend trippers out for a trip to the countryside.
We were encouraged to cycle on because the last big hill of the day was just down the road, a long drag up the side of the valley. But at the top a box of fresh strawberries was waiting – I mean it would have been rude not to have one wouldn’t it.
To wash it down “bubble tea”, a sort of sweet cold tea, but with small jelly “bubbles” in the bottom. It is a very weird sensation sucking on a straw when the jelly bubble pops in to your mouth. Not convinced by that one, it must be an acquired taste, I think I was just happy with the tea.
About 20km later my cycling day was complete, but my eating day was far from over.
For our evening meal it was off to a favourite local restaurant of my hosts for more Hakka cuisine and lots of beer to wash it down.
The Taiwanese are always willing to blend food styles so the starter was a plate of sashimi in the Japanese style, set on a plate under a flowering cherry branch, almost a work of art that looked too good to eat. Apart from the fact we had cycled 150 hilly kilometres, so it didn’t last long.
Centrepiece of this meal was a steaming hot pot, placed in the centre over a burner which provided a lucky dip that we all dived in to. Oysters cooked with fennel fronds, more whole fish, all delicious.
These folks like their beer too, cold and refreshing to wash everything down.
Boy did I sleep.
Day 2 – celebrate in style
The cycling part of our day was several hours of hard, hot riding in the mountains.
But it was cut short because of the importance of a “quick lunch” (Demi again) before we went back to Taipei.
On the ride itself I had learned my lesson and I stuck just to fruit and energy drink because I would not have enjoyed climbing with another culinary selection bubbling around inside.
Lunch however was another matter. We had a brilliant high speed thrash down the hills to arrive in the centre of Taichung, the large industrial city on Taipei’s west coast. The local club members had selected their favourite restaurant because it is owned by a club member and it is very much “their place”.
The whole session had a party vibe, the ride was over, deeds were done and there was a lot of storytelling to be done between the Taipei crowd and the Taichung riders who certainly seemed to enjoy life, they call themselves the “beer club” and lunch was loud, raucous and full of laughter.
The quantities of food were enormous even before the owner sent over a couple of free dishes, the staff had to keep running up to the table to clear dishes away so they could make space for the steaming bowls.
As well as the hot-pots there was a blur of new dishes including some deep friend morsels and something my hosts called the Taiwan hamburger, a sort of clamshell shaped dumpling that was just the right size and shape to pick up with a mixture of fillings.
Of course we over-ran our schedule, of course we were horribly late to get back to Taipei, but I would not have missed out on this part of my trip for anything. I have had some great food in Taiwan on previous trips and I have experienced the very high quality formal meals with the Mayor and dignitaries which are an experience in themselves.
However this informal, taste filled roller coaster of culinary trip eaten in local restaurants and cafes was something entirely different. For any traveller who enjoys new tastes in the company of people for whom eating is an experience of joy and fun and company and sharing then an eating tour with these Taiwanese cyclists must be very high up on your bucket list indeed.