Saturday, August 30, 2014

Coffee Culture

Traditionally, Asians have always chosen tea as their caffeinated drink of choice, but it the past few years coffee has grown in popularity in the region, especially with younger people. I think it's both a social phenomenon as well as a change in taste preference. Coffee shops and cafes have become cool places to hang out and study, away from home and school. Students may also prefer coffee because of its extremely high caffeine content to help them keep up their energy (only black tea nears the amount of caffeine as black coffee).

Taipei has an extremely strong cafe culture. There are a few popular chains as well as many small boutique type cafes. In general, I would categorize the ways you can get your coffee into three four levels.

1. Convenience stores: $40-60 TWD ($1.50-2 USD)

By far the cheapest and fastest way to get a caffeine fix is to pop into the nearest 7/11 or Family Mart convenience store. There is usually one on every block, and you can order your drink at the cashier counter. There is a limited range of options, but usually you can find black coffee, cappuccinos, and lattes. There is the choice of iced or hot, and three sizes. The coffee is made with a machine, but the quality is decent, especially for the price. Some stores will have a little seating area but others do not, so be sure to check first if you want to sit down to enjoy your beverage. If you want a 24/7 option for coffee, this will do the trick.

2. Fast food places: ~ $60 TWD ($2 USD)

Many chains, like McDonald's or Mos Burger (from Japan) have "cafe" sections of their menu. The selections are basic but usually include the standard drinks. I think they actually use fresh milk though, unlike the convenience stores, so that's one step up in my opinion. Students will sometimes use the space for studying, though beware there is not always wi-fi.

3. Chain coffeeshops: $80-120 TWD (~$3-4 USD)

One step up from the fast food places are the chains. There are both western and local chains, and two of the most common are Starbucks and Dante Coffee. These are full-service coffee shops, with an extensive menu of drinks and food, and usually a good amount of seating. In Taipei, you have to register a Starbucks card in order to use their wi-fi.

4. Specialty cafes: $120-200 TWD ($4-6 USD)

Small home-grown cafes have proliferated in Taipei, especially in certain neighborhoods with lots of students or expats. These small businesses usually have distinctive character and a hipster vibe. Sometimes there is an extensive menu with foods for brunch or lunch, there is usually limited seating, and some of them take reservations. They are especially crowded during the expected hours (weekend afternoons) and be careful, some of them have a minimum spending per person. It's a pricey but relaxing way to spend a few hours!

The below latte was from "Hi Ryou Cafe" near NTNU. It had quite a fancy presentation, with a little bamboo mat, and the single coffee bean garnish.

They also had lovely cheesecakes! Light and fluffy, and not overwhelmingly sweet.

There are some coffee business that are outliers and don't really fit into any of the above categories. Some bakeries, like the Japanese Gaku-Den, sell a few drinks. There are some smaller chains that sell coffee but don't have any seating, like Cama Coffee. Sometimes the tea shops and milk tea places will also have a coffee drink or two. Regardless of your preferences, your caffeine needs are highly likely to be satisfied in Taipei!

I hope to be able to explore more of these little cafes, but I'll have to try not to splurge too much. $5 here and there doesn't seem too bad, but in Taipei that could be more than the cost of a filling meal! It's hard to justify that cost.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When I Travel, I Take...

A lot of times, what you will bring with you to a new place will depend on the circumstances: the time of year, the climate of the place, how long you will stay. Below I've listed a few things I always have with me when I travel.

1. Camera: I like to have my camera with me at all times, even if I'm just making a quick run out to buy something, or taking a short stroll around the neighborhood. You never know what you may find in the unlikeliest of circumstances - a stunning sunset, bizarre street performance, or a group of old ladies performing tai chi may be right around the corner. Cameras are also useful if you are in a new place and want to take a quick shot of a map in a subway station, for instance. The ubiquitous camera phone can also work in a pinch.

2. Wet wipes and tissues: When you are going through Asia, you'll quickly discover that many restroom stalls are not equipped with toilet paper. In a similar vein, some restaurants do not provide napkins, or at least not without a price! Paper products run scarce in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable, but tough if you aren't used to it. Basically, you the customer are expected to bring your own supplies, and you'll often see little packets of tissues sold by older people in busy shopping centers and food hawkers. There's no better feeling than knowing you are well-prepared with a stash of tissues when you have sauce from delicious Singaporean chili crab dripping down your chin.

3. Cash: Many businesses, especially the smaller mom-and-pop places, do not take credit or debit cards. You don't want to be caught in a situation where you can't buy something because you are running low on cash. The ATM situation will depend on where you are, and what bank you use, but generally you want to watch out for ATM fees when getting cash withdrawn. The ATM machine may charge a fee of a few dollars, and your bank may also charge you for a foreign transaction, so be sure to check the receipt and your bank statement. If you are changing currencies, do some online research to find the money changers in your area that give you the best rate. Sometimes the counter at the airport and other tourist centers give a great rate, but other times it's better to go to a local money changer.

4. Umbrella/Hat: There will almost always be a reason to wear a hat or use an umbrella on a day out. Here in Taipei, it seems that every day is either blazing hot or pouring down torrential rain. Many people in Asia, especially women, use umbrellas as shade whenever the sun is out. Some people do it for vanity reasons, as paler skin is prized according to Asian beauty standards, but it is also a good way to protect against burns and sun damage. Plus it keeps you cool!

5. Sense of Curiosity: I try to maintain a curious and open mind whenever I go someplace new. I keep an eye out for the simple things, whether it be something I'm seeing for the first time, or simply looking at an everyday object with a new perspective. The world has so many wonderful things to offer, and it's up to each of us to discover to beauty in the coincidences, patterns, and details that exist out there. You will approach something in a way unique to your experiences, perceptions, and memories that you bring to it. Use this knowledge wisely. And one simple rule of thumb I like to use: look up! We often forgot that there are interesting things above our heads: fluffy white clouds drifting by, interesting shopfronts, a flock of birds. Most people don't see these pleasures - be one of the few that do.

Other things that may be useful:
  • Copy of your passport. Sometimes when you do certain transactions people will ask to see your passport, like renting an apartment or buying a SIM card for a phone. Have a copy of it on your phone, and perhaps a hard copy if you want to be extra cautious.
  • Small notebook. A lot of writers take a small notebook with them to jot down notes and inspirations in the brief snatches of free time. Even if you don't plan on writing about your travels, you can keep these little tidbits as memories of what you've seen and experienced.
  • Snacks. I like to keep a granola bar or some crackers with me. Usually, there are food stalls everywhere, especially in more touristy locations, but it always seems to be the case that when hunger hits I can't find anything.  
  • Maps. I know, I know, nothing makes you stand out more than holding a huge map out on the street, but it is always good to know where you are and how to get to the next destination. You might want to step off into a corner or into a cafe if you feel unsafe or self-conscious. Google maps on your phone can also be very helpful, but be warned, sometimes the maps can be inaccurate. Of course, asking a local is a great way to get efficient directions.
  • Reusable water bottle. I'm always thirsty when I'm out and about. Sometimes it's unclear if the tap water is drinkable, and I don't like to continuously buy plastic water bottles from stores. I keep hydrated by taking my water bottle everywhere and filling it up whenever I get the chance. I now use a flexible plastic carrier called Platypus. It rolls up when it's empty, so you don't have to carry around a bulky hard plastic or metal bottle around.
  • Language apps. There are a ton of mobile apps that help you figure out a foreign language. In Taiwan, I like to use Pleco. I can draw the Chinese character with my finger on the phone screen, and the app will tell me the word and definition. It's really handy when I need to decode street signs and menu items. 
That's about it for me. I usually carry a Longchamp tote bag with me (yes, the one that literally everyone owns). The bag is lightweight and water-resistant, from what I can tell. With all these things, I can usually spend all day out and not have to go back or buy something. What types of things do you like to bring while traveling? 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Second Time Around Jiufen

Last year when I was in Taiwan, I got to visit the old mining town Jiufen. It was such a great experience that I had to go again this time. The name "jiufen" translates to "nine portions." Legend has it that there originally were nine families that lived in the village, a long time ago. It was difficult for them to get to the big markets outside of the village. Whenever one family made the trip, they would get "nine portions" of everything so they could divide up the supplies amongst all the other families, hence the name "Jiufen!"

It was another beautiful clear afternoon, another winding and picturesque journey up the side of the mountain. When you are riding the bus to Jiufen, make sure to sit on the left side if you want to best views of the ocean. 

This time, it was seemed so much more crowded than I remembered when I went last October. The Old Street was packed full of visitors and large tour groups, perhaps all the people taking summer vacations. I could hardly move, especially in front of some of the more popular stalls, where people bunched up together to wait in line.

I walked through the entire street again, taking note of the interesting food items I missed the last time. There were several vendors selling these little sweet desserts made out of rice flour, stuffed with various fillings, and wrapped up in plastic wrap. They don't look very appetizing, but as with most Asian foods, don't judge it by how it looks! I tried one with a red bean filling and green tea flavored outside - kind of like a Japanese mochi, but less sweet. 

There were a variety of meatballs and fishballs, sold on sticks or in a bowl of soup. 

Another popular treat is a snack wrap with filled with peanut shavings and scoops of ice cream...

As you go further down the Old Street, the crowds become a bit more sparse and you pass by sections of teahouses and cafes with gorgeous views of the coast. Here's a nice minimalist teahouse I passed. 

We had some extra time so we wandered past the end of the Old Street, into a quieter and more residential part of Jiufen. It's a really tiny town, but there are little alleyways snaking up the side of the mountain around homes and temples. We found quiet homestays and artsy galleries in these quaint lanes.

It was so much more peaceful than the bustling main street, but just as interesting, in its own charming way.

If you go far enough on these back lanes, they start to loop around and branch off into overgrown paths up the mountains.

You can get some pretty neat views from up here, without having to crowd around other people, waiting for them to move so you can enjoy the sight of the valley below.

The best part of Jiufen is seeing the sunset from way up high. There's a pavilion right near the bus stop, but it will be full of tourists. What you should do is keep walking up the winding road right outside the Old Street, up past the next bus stop. Even better views await! And there is no need to jostle with other people for a good spot.

Higher up on the hills are old cemeteries. I was surprised by how large each of the monuments is. There are little altars for the descendants to present offerings to the ancestors. I wonder who all these people are that are buried in these hills...

We stayed up here, watching the sunset, until the sun lowered behind the mountains. The sights were stunning - unfortunately, nothing is ever as good in a photograph as it is in real life, though we can try...

It was a good trip.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Snapshots of the Everyday Taipei

i. Clouds overhead National Taiwan University campus

ii. Auto repair shops dot the streets

iii. Buddhist Temple chandelier

iv. Woman selling dried squid at a night market

v. Deserted but thriving urban corner

vi. Quiet neighborhood alleyway

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Taiwan Eats

Taiwan, like Singapore, is a foodie paradise. Food options here are tasty, cheap, and diverse. I may be starting to do more individual reviews and summaries on my old food blog at, so be sure to check that out from time to time, but here is a brief overview of some of the experiences I've had in the past three weeks.

Taiwan has a famous night market culture. There are at least one or two night markets in each district of the city, with the most well-known ones being Shilin, Raohe, Shida, and Ningxia. In the early evenings, food vendors and stalls selling all sorts of traditional snacks, clothes, and random knickknacks will come to life, drawing in crowds of tourists and locals alike. Most of the foods at the night markets are pretty unhealthy, but at least the portions are manageable. 

Shilin Night Market is the most touristy but also the largest. At the basement of the Shilin Night Market is a big food court. If you fight through the crowds of people to the front of the lines, you will see lots of fried goodies like tofu, fish cakes, seafood, and grilled squid. 

Other stalls sell loads of meat on sticks. Multiple vendors specialize in big sausages wrapped in a blanket of glutinous rice - an Asian style hot dog.

I tried a Taiwanese specialty known as coffin bread at the Shilin Market. It's a very thick piece of toast, buttered and grilled, and then cut open so there is a box and a lid. Then, a creamy chowder of sorts, with various ingredients like shrimp, chicken, corn, and mushrooms is poured into the bread.

The bread is then cut up into squares and served with toothpicks. It's not exactly finger-food though, and can get a bit messy to eat. However, the pairing of the hot and crispy bread with the soft, savoury filling is delicious! It's a unique treat.

There are a lot of small family restaurants that dot the streets of the city. Many of them specialize in noodles and dumplings, and you can get a filling, fresh, homemade meal for around $3. The dumplings here are so much better than the frozen ones you will find in supermarkets. A lot of times, in the dumpling stores if you go during off hours you'll see the shopkeeper and relatives sitting in the back, folding hundreds and hundreds of plump dumplings, ready to be dunked into boiling water for the next meal service.

Most of these mom-and-pop places will also serve small dishes of vegetables and tofu, usually braised or marinated lightly in soy sauce and vinegars.

Steamed buns and breads are also quite common in Taipei, and there are local stands that sell these items for breakfast and snacks. They come in various flavors and fillings, from the traditional, like red bean paste, sesame seed, and meat fillings, to others like chocolate!

Finally, I want to introduce you to my favorite part of Taiwanese cuisine - these little stalls. I'm not sure if there is a proper English name for them, but I call them the veggie carts. Basically, there are a lot of fresh cold ingredients, ranging from chilled, soy-braised meats, to steamed broccoli, potatoes, and daikon radish. You indicate to the vendor which ingredients you want (usually around $1 for a portion of each), and then she or he will chop up your ingredients, drizzle on delicious brown sauce, sprinkle on some chili pepper, add in a dash of salted vegetables, and mix it all together for you.

It's then presented to you in plastic bag, and a long wooden skewer which you use to eat it. It's really fresh and tasty, and healthy. You can usually find these carts at most night markets, advertised by red lanterns. It makes a delicious snack or a takeaway meal in a pinch! 

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Walk Through Dihua Street

Dihua Street is the oldest street in Taipei. It once was a center of bustling commercial activity, and to this day still is full of shops selling traditional Chinese goods and wares. We decided to visit the street on a sunny afternoon this week.

The street is closest to the Daqiaotou MRT. After getting out of the station, we walked a few blocks, directed by well-labeled signage, before arriving at the entrance of Dihua Street. About a block away from the opening of the street is a narrow staircase up towards a large bridge that crosses the Tamsui River, so we climbed upwards to catch the view.  

This stretch of river is quite picturesque, and there is a well-maintained bike route that goes along the riverside.

Looking out over the other side of the bridge, you can see the mountains near Tamsui, (alternatively Danshui). We actually ended up going there a few days later.

After taking in the gorgeous views from the bridge, we turned back around to walk down Dihua Street. The end of the street near the bridge was rather deserted on a Monday afternoon. A few businesses were open, but there were only a few sprinkling of visitors here and there.

Alongside the traditional shops there are a few rather hipster cafes and stores selling updated modern versions of local crafts. Here is one quaint cafe - art gallery hybrid with a lovely brick patio out back. We stopped here for a breather and to get an iced latte before heading onwards down the street.

As we kept walking, the streetscape began to change, block by block. There were more open shops, more people walking around and mingling, and increased traffic on the road. The atmosphere felt more lively and festive.

I looked up at one point and noticed the beautifully preserved brick and stone facades on the buildings. It kind of reminded me of Singapore's traditional shophouses, only those tend to be wooden with colorful shutters. 

We passed by many shops selling Chinese herbs, medicines, and dried goods. Everything was neatly packaged up or jarred, and there were little dishes of samples for customers to try. 

One street corner shop was piled full with bags of garlic!

Here is a small sampling of the dried goods that were on offer - nuts, lentils, dates, fruits, and dried mushrooms...

...and shark fins! Shark fin is a delicacy but quite a controversial one - the practice is deemed cruel and wasteful, as fishermen will slash off the fins of sharks before throwing away the rest of the body.

There's a lovely little temple further along Dihua street called Xiahai Temple.

Yongle Market, a multi-storied fabric market, is also located on Dihua Street. There are many stalls crammed together over two floors, full of colorful fabrics and textiles. On the 8th floor of this building is a museum dedicated to shadow puppets and opera. There is a theatre and practice rooms, and on this day we saw several groups practicing for their performances.

We got to the end of the street just as the sun was setting, and headed to the nearby Ningxia Night Market. No photos of that one - it was a bit of a disappointment, as it was simply a row of streetcarts lined up the middle of the street. There were lots of interesting eats, but I prefer more enteratining night markets which have food interspersed with other types of stalls (shopping, games, drinks, performances), like Shilin or Raohe. Still, all in all, a good day exploring Taipei!