Taipei is like Tokyo, with all the fabulous design, food and shopping options, but gentler on one's wallet.
This was my impression after a whirlwind 24-hour stopover in the city of Taipei on a recent work trip in Taiwan.
It had been six years since I last visited Taiwan and the territory has become brighter and more bustling. There is a distinct arts buzz in the city of Taichung, which I was visiting for work, and Taipei is packed with vibrant design and lifestyle options.
The Taiwan Gaotie (Taiwan High Speed Rail) train I took to get from Taichung to Taipei reminded me of the shinkansen in Japan: clean, comfortable and fast.
Plus, there was a delicious pork chop meal box (NT$70 or S$3.12), with a giant pork chop with vegetables and pickled bamboo shoot on rice, to complete the experience.
Once I got into Taipei proper after lunch, friends took me on a dizzying foodie romp through the city. Here are some of the eats to sample and treats to buy.
1. TIANXIA DIYI CUI
No. 61, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District
Ximending is foodie heaven and the first stop was this doughnut shop on a street corner.
The name of the kiosk proclaims, "Crispiest in the world". When I bit into the still-warm doughnut (NT$20), the crust shattered satisfyingly and my teeth sank into the fluffy interior, which offers a chewy bite that reminds me of mochi. Although there looked to be an alarming amount of sugar dusted on the crust, the pastry was not too sweet.
2. WANGJI FUCHENG
No. 84, Xining South Road, Wanhua District
Down the road from the doughnut shop is this dumpling shop which I was on the hunt for as I had stumbled upon it on my last trip. It specialises in pork dumplings, stuffed with tender braised pork, salted egg yolk and chestnuts.
If you eat it at the shop, it comes with a drizzle of light soya sauce and the local style is to dust it with ground peanut before you dig in.
The shop also sells a superb fishball soup, which comes with sturdy ping-pong-sized fishballs and a chunk of melty radish.
3. AH CAI SHI MU YU DU
No. 53, Neijiang Street, Wanhua District
This popular late-night supper spot attracts a queue even before it opens at 10pm. Be prepared to wait at least 30 minutes.
The signature dish is the milkfish belly. The fish comes fried to crisp brown perfection on the outside, tenderly flaky on the inside.
But this zi char-style store has lots of other must-eats. Order the three cup squid, which comes sizzling in a claypot; the addictive oysters, lightly battered, deep-fried and served with crispy basil leaves and a pile of salt-and-pepper dip; and the clear, clean clam soup.
The star was the insanely delicious kong bak rice bowl (above) - a thick slab of unctuously rich, unapologetically fat pork belly braised to melting softness accompanied by thickly diced spicy preserved radish. My friend taught me to stab the belly multiple times with chopsticks so that the fat oozes into the rice below. Happiness in every spoonful.
4. FONG DA COFFEE
No. 42, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District
This is an old-school coffee shop which roasts its own beans. I did not try the food on offer - the place is a popular breakfast haunt - but I did snag a bag of locally grown coffee beans.
The Taiwan Coffee, cultivated in Alishan, costs NT$1,500 for a 450g bag. The beans, when freshly ground, produced a cuppa with nicely rounded body, very light acidity and fresh berry notes.
5. HUASHAN CREATIVE PARK
No. 1, Bade Road Sec.1, Zhong Zhen District
Huashan Creative Park, located on the grounds of old breweries built during the Japanese colonial era, is home to lots of cosy cafes and designer shops. The shopping street offers pop-ups which sell everything from funky outfits by young designers to elaborately styled soaps handmade with local organic ingredients.
Entrepreneurs have taken a leaf from Japanese marketing and are now promoting Taiwan's agricultural produce with stylish packaging.
Look out for the Natural Life store that is to the left of the main entrance to the park. The brightly lit space, with its pine crates and potted plants, is dedicated to highlighting locally grown fruit and produce. It stocks a range of dried fruit - such as longan-flavoured mango - and vegetables, packed in resealable snack packs.
Those who love Instagram-friendly cafes should head straight for VVG Thinking. The ground floor is a cafe spread across several rooms with chandeliers and quirkily tiled floors. There is a minimum NT$250 spend, but that is easily covered when you order a coffee and a slice of cake. Try the Sicilian Lemon Coffee - a drip coffee with the tangy taste of citrus - and the Lemon Pound Cake.
The second floor boasts an indie bookshop with collectable coffee-table books.
Foodies who cook should also hunt down Shanchan Dian (literally Mountain Produce Shop), a hipster grocery tucked into a quiet corner near VVG. The shop stocks local wild pepper, which smells like lemons; as well as sugar-free organic soya sauces. Look out for the jars of fermented rice salt, which are great for marinating and tenderising meats.
6. ESLITE SPECTRUM SONGYAN
88 Yanchang Road
Malls are usually terrible cookie-cutter complexes.
Taipei New Horizon Shopping Complex, which houses Eslite's lifestyle concept store, was a shockingly pleasant discovery.
What sets it apart is the distinctly local flavour of the tenants, from the eateries in the basement to the home-grown brands on the lifestyle floor to the Eslite bookshop.
The beef and pork noodle bowls at Hei Mian Cai in the basement Gourmet Heaven foodcourt are generously sized and very tasty. Fans of the famed Wu Pao Chun bakery might want to check out the branch outlet here too.
But what makes this shopping complex a destination mall is the second floor, which is an Aladdin's cave of craft and foodie riches. Think of it as an artisan version of Tangs' home-grown designer floor, with different brands operating small kiosks, and you have an idea of the layout.
You can sign up for carpentry and glass-blowing lessons at a handicraft corner or pick up some cute cross-stitch embroidery kits at Xiu Crafts.
There is also a small collection of kiosks selling food produce, ranging from snacks such as preserved olives and plums to savoury items like 20-year-old preserved radish (above) and shallot oil.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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