When you are traveling out of the country for the first time ever, you do A LOT of research. You want to make sure you know what to expect, know what to see, know where to go, know what to eat. I had a pinterest board, a guidebook, and had read lots on the Internet about Taiwan. But this little country is so concentrated with culture and sights and FOOD. Here are some of the delights that I had read nor heard anything about... what a wealth of surprises Taiwan is!
BREAD. Bread and pastries in Taiwan is on-level with some of the best bakeries in the world. I never think of Asian countries when talking about bread... except for Vietnam's famous mastery of French Baguettes. Taiwan had bakeries about every couple of miles, and they fill the whole block with sweet, yeasty delicious smells of fresh-baked goodies. I could have eaten all my meals at one of these places... the variety was vast, and all of it sounded, looked and smelled delectable.
MANGO ICE. Okay, a friend did tell me about this the week before I came, so I was able to seek it out, but you have to go to the college-town part of Taipei to really find the particular mango ice I was told about. As pictured, these places serve giant bowls of ice that's shaved so fine that it has the texture of a fluffy, smooth sorbet... like the cotton candy of sorbet. Piles of fresh fruit accompany it in the air-conditioned, modern decorated, hip-music-playing shaved ice joints. Such a dreamy refreshment in Taiwan's humid hot streets. There are also shaved ice places in the night markets, but the flavorings are usually sweetened condensed milk and various mochi and candy toppings. Those are also darn delicious.
ONION PANCAKES. These are the food I dream about most when remembering my trip. After we got the mango Ice we noticed a booth outside on the street with a line of people a block long waiting to get what these 2 ladies were cooking up. So we got in line to see what all these people seemed to think was worth the wait. Wow. These were naan-like flat breads, but kind of layered and a tougher bread. The women would place them on the grill and kind of stab them repeatedly with a spatula to loosen it up and make it tender, while giving it a fresh griddled browning. Then fresh herbs and quick cooked egg were folded up in it to make a kind of chewy, super savory, herby, street sandwich. I need one now.
FRESH LOCAL FRUITS. I don't know why this surprised me. I guess I was so focused on researching street food and places to go, I forgot that Taiwan is a tropical island, with a plethora of exotic (to me) fruits. Custard apples, the best mangoes ever, sweet watermelon, and a bunch of fruits I have never even seen photos of. Everything had that tropical sweetness you can't find anywhere else. A definite must if you visit is to hit a local market and try all the fruits you can find.
I WENT INTO A MCDONALDS ON PURPOSE. The apartment we stayed at was next to a McDonalds, usually a place I avoid like the plague (because it kind of is a plague to our society, isn't it?). But there was a sign out front advertising their Black Sesame McFlurry. After 5 days I couldn't resist any more. I love sesame, and this is a flavor of a shake I won't see in the states. I'm so glad I had it... so nutty, complex, sweet and delicious. I lovely late night snack. I am determined to make a sesame ice cream now.
7-11. I fell head-over-heels for the Taiwanese 7-11s and their mascot, "Mr. Open." Tea eggs, noodles, great ice cream, too many adorable junk toys, beverages with flavors I had never dreamed of... They were just a lot of fun and had some quite tasty treats.
PARKS. For not having much land mass, Taiwan is ripe with parks. Many of them had exercise equipment, like I am demonstrating above. The government really encourages the people to get regular exercise... this is smart of them because of all the wonderful food and the universal health care system. The parks were an oasis away from the fast-paced, crowded, visual-overload of the rest of the city... I went to parks to collect my thoughts and breathe. Taiwan would be a great place to retire.... hmmm....