Friday, December 30, 2011

Tasting Taiwan— Part Two: Silks Palace, Shilin Night Market, The Pacific, and Indigenous Food

Silks Palace at The National  Palace Museum is a tribute to both old and new.  A modern masterpiece of architecture, the menu at Silks Palace is fashioned after the most famous works of art that you’ll find in the museum itself.  An expanse of bright space and deep flavor, Silks Palace was well worth venturing to the outskirts of Taipei to experience.

Silks Palace at The National Palace Museum
Our meal there began with a canapé trio of marinated octopus, mountain yam, and crab.  From there we were served another hot and sour soup.  Again, I loved it, making me come to the conclusion that perhaps I just don’t like hot and sour soups made in America.  The beautiful bowl in which the soup was served was created by Silks Palace to mimic the ancient Bell and Cauldron Inscriptions from the Mao Gong Ding and Late Western Zhou Dynasty found in the museum.

Hot & Sour Soup in "Cauldron"
The next item proved to be my favorite, a chicken wing stuffed with glutinous rice.  This crispy, juicy and tender handful of loveliness is something you’ll find all over Taiwan in restaurants and street vendors, so I had it more than once.  But at Silks Palace they prepare this humble dish to perfection, elevating it to a form of gastronomic art not so out of place next to a museum.

Chicken Wing Stuffed with Glutinous Rice
In The National Palace Museum, one of the most famous works of art is an ornate jade carving of a simple cabbage dating back to the Quing Dynasty.  Having seen the piece on our whirlwind tour of the museum, I was more than happy to find it on my plate at lunch.  The “Jadeite Cabbage with Insects” (yes, insects), looked a near replica of the piece found in the museum, only thankfully this one we could eat, insects and all.

Jadeite Cabbage with Insects
Our last dish was the “Braised E-Fu Noodles” that were created by the personal chef of Cantonese calligrapher E Bing Sho.  E Bing Sho was known for gatherings at his home, parties that would often overwhelm his chef with their size, frequency, and often last-minute nature.  One day, Bing Sho suggested his chef make some simple noodles of flour and egg, and pan fry them anytime unexpected company would arrive.  It was Bing Sho’s guests who named this new noodle “E-Fu Mein” meaning “noodles of the house of E.”

Braised E-Fu Noodles
From this elegant, artistic lunch, I take you to the streets of Taipei, on my first adventure to a Taipei Night Market.  Had I not been tagging along with Pichet Ong, who speaks the language and had previously been to Taiwan, I would have been completely lost in the tiny streets and giant crowds that made up the Shilin Night Market.  Located in the Shilin District, just off of the MRT subway’s Jiantan Station stop on the Dansuei/Red Line, Shilin Night Market was founded in 1909 and is considered the largest in Taipei. 

Shilin Night Market
Loud, steamy, packed with people and crammed with everything from purses, clothes, and pets, to food and drink, the Shilin Night Market leaves you wide-eyed, dizzy-headed, and loaded down with things you bought, though perhaps didn’t quite need.  The scents are overwhelming, some so tempting they make you salivate, like grilling spiced meats, others not so much at all, like “stinky tofu” that sends you running in the opposite direction in a desperate search for air that smells like something—anything—else.

Candied Strawberries at Shilin Night Market
After four days in Taipei, and the experience of Shilin Night Market, I was more than ready to hop a train to Hualien and literally head for the hills.  While Taipei is much more quiet than Manhattan (I hardly heard a siren), it’s subways way cleaner and more orderly, it’s still a big city, and this is one big city girl who loves to get out into the middle of nowhere to relax.

A beach bum at heart, knowing that the road from Hualien train station up to the Taroko Gorge winds along the Pacific Ocean, I just couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to swim in the ocean of my Southern California childhood way far away from LA.  Luring Pichet, Andy and Ben into the water with me, we discovered not soft sand, but hard, sharp rocks, and rather than gentle, rolling waves, we fought a strong current, rough waves, and a wicked rip-tide.  But damn was it one of the best parts of the trip!

In The Pacific with Pichet, on the Rocks (Ouch!)
Having braved the rocks and rip-tide, we realized why all the Taiwanese on the beach with us were not venturing into the water in their bathing suits, in fact, the four of us were the only ones foolish enough to get more than just our feet wet.  Which also explains why unlike any other beach I’ve been to, this one didn’t have a shower in which to rinse off the salt water when we were finished swimming.  Rather, there was a large tub made of rock into which one could step and rinse their feet in the faucets.  No matter, we’d already made a spectacle of ourselves just by being in the ocean, so we figured we may as well keep up the show by rinsing our whole bodies in the tub.

Although we were heading straight from the beach to lunch, when we passed by one particular food cart, Andy and I were so drawn in by the smell that we just had to have a little pre-lunch bite.  Grilling traditional sweet pork sausages as well as rice “sausages” and then stuffing the rice with the pork, the character that was the vendor embodied all of what you would hope to find in street food off the beaten path.  He was gentle, small, his face worn with character lines, and his food was clean, simple, and outrageously good.

Andy Ricker Ordering

Perhaps it was the invigorating, daring swim, perhaps it was the smell of the Pacific in the air or the deep green mountains surrounding  us, or perhaps it was the unconventional “restaurant” itself, but lunch that day was an experience I’ll never forget. 

Leader Village Taroko (not the hotel), is run by generations of indigenous Taiwanese, and the menu consists mainly of ingredients they themselves have raised, caught, fished, foraged, and harvested.  Much of the furniture is hand-carved out of local wood by the family, and the view from our table in the open-air restaurant looked right out over the Pacific.  

The setting couldn’t have been more tranquil, and it only added to the serenity we felt as we ate such lovely food that was clearly made from the heart.  At Leader Village we ate a fresh sauté of green peppers, scallions and bacon, stir-fried beef (that was way too spicy for me), fish caugth that day in the Pacific, a platter of sautéed wild fern, steamed okra, pickled onion hearts and wild flowers, and sweet pork sausage, glutinous rice cooked in dried bamboo (which you had to whack against a rock to get to), crispy fried duck breast (with out-of-this-world skin), steamed jicama with chicken and scallions, and sautéed bamboo shoots with garlic and red pepper.

After the meal we took a tour of the grounds and got a glimpse of the wood-working shop out back, where all the furniture and carvings are made.  They even make cutting boards, and because the carvings were too big for me to take home, I bought a compact little chopping block made from local wood.   

The kitchen totally took us by surprise.  An open space with seemingly ancient equipment, it only brought home the fact that what we ate that day was completely out of the ordinary, and definitely something we wouldn’t ever find back home in the States.

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1 comment:

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