Taiwanese Food Odyssey Final Post: Dim Sum and Then Some

12 09 2009

This was it, my last day in Taiwan. I had to make it count.  What was the one thing I hadn’t had yet and couldn’t do without?

No trip to the Republic of Chinesefood is complete without a little Dim Sum.  So I filled up on some of these delicious Cantonese snacks.

This time we went to the Dim Sum restaurant in the Takashimaya department store at No.55,Sec 2,Jhongcheng Rd,Taipei. That’s right: when you go shopping in Taiwan, instead of Panda Express and Cinnabon, you get to eat Dim Sum.  You see why I wouldn’t mind living here?

For me, Dim Sum is synonymous with shrimp noodle rolls, or shia chung fun.  They’re usually a good barometer for the rest of the menu.  So I had them first.

IMG_0640Shrimp noodle rolls are a dead-simple dish, so they’re all about freshness.  There are 3 things I look for: thick, soft, but not mushy skin; big, plump shrimp; and sweet sauce.  These had all three.  And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that in the States, the shrimp dishes at some Dim Sum places have a faint taste of stagnant water?  I don’t know where that comes from, but there was none of that here.

Next was another Dim Sum icon, the beef ball, or nu wan.

IMG_0642These were huge, moist, spongy, and full of cilantro.  And surprisingly, they were also filled with fragrant orange peel, instead of the usual ginger.  Even my wife had never seen that before, so it must be a recent innovation.  After 2000+ years, I thought it was impossible to improve on the beef ball, but I was wrong.

Originally, Dim Sum hails from the Cantonese-speaking regions of Canton and Hong Kong in China.  But I’ve had Dim Sum in Hong Kong, and for the money, I prefer the Taiwanese version.

Anyway, there was more, much more: beautiful Chinese eggplant, cooked long and slow so they’re creamy on the inside, stuffed with tons of shrimp paste and covered in pungent black bean sauce,

IMG_0641hot, fluffy cha shao bao (barbecue pork buns) filled with perfect bbq pork–full of plum flavor but not too sweet, chunky and full of fatty pork goodness,

IMG_0644shrimp, cilantro, and ginger dumplings,

IMG_0645plain old shrimp dumplings (ha gao), a Dim Sum staple,

IMG_0643spare ribs (pai goo) in chili and garlic black bean sauce, full of malty, not-too-salty black bean flavor,

IMG_0646and super-fresh daikon cake, or luo bo gao.

IMG_0648The best thing about Taiwanese Dim Sum is that you order off a menu, not from a cart like in the States, so you are guaranteed to get what you want, when you want it. We were in and out in 30 minutes. What more could you want in life?

Hmm, maybe some Beijing duck?

As it was my last night in Taiwan, we had one last family dinner, this time at Tien Chu at Nan Jing W Road #1, 3F, a place famous for its rendition of that iconic dish.

But of course, we couldn’t just have the duck. We had to warm up first. So we made our way through these soft, golden cakes of zha dofu (fried tofu),

IMG_0654bai chen, a delicious, simple salad of dried, hard tofu, cabbage, red chili, green onion, sugar, and vinegar,

IMG_0655a stunningly fresh dish of shelled peas with shredded chicken in white sauce (reportedly their most popular dish, even more popular than the duck),

IMG_0656super-thick green onion cakes, or cong you bing,

IMG_0657crab soup with cabbage (drab-looking, but tasty),

IMG_0658sea slug soup with puffed rice clusters (an interesting mix of crunchy rice clusters and squishy sea slug, which didn’t have much taste but was reminiscent of a fishy mushroom),

IMG_0661and shrimp on a bed of greens.

IMG_0665All of this was good, but we were all waiting for the duck.  Finally, it arrived–in pieces.

IMG_0662What was really unique and interesting about this version of Beijing duck (kao ya) was that at first, they only gave us the skin!

Genius! It’s definitely the tastiest part. No wonder Tien Chu is famous.

The servers made the pancakes for us, laying down the plum sauce and a piece of green onion on one of the tortilla-like wheat pancakes, with one or two pieces of the skin.

IMG_0663The salty, fatty, bacon-crisp skin played beautifully off of the sweet plum sauce.

The skin was what made the meal special, but later, they brought out the actual duck meat, and it was pretty good–juicy and full of smoky flavor.

IMG_0664As the Chinese love to eat all parts of an animal and are loath to waste anything, they also made a soup out of the rest of the duck. But it was a bit too gamy for my American palate.

IMG_0667We finished off the meal with a couple of tasty desserts. I love Chinese desserts because they’re always light, like this almond gelatin (xing ren dofu),

IMG_0669or these lightly sweetened fried red bean pancakes coated with toasted sesame seeds. They don’t leave you feeling weighed down.

IMG_0668

And so ended my latest stroll through the culinary Garden of Eden that is Taiwan.

I hope you’ve gotten a small taste of what it’s like in this small but proud island nation. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world, but it doesn’t have to be. If you like Chinese food at all, you’ve got to visit Taiwan at least once. I might see you there next time. Till then, we’ll have to bid farewell and say, as they do in Taiwan, bye bye.

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