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A Culinary Journey Through Taiwan

Chou’s Shrimp Rolls

You all know how much I love food and how food for me is a vital aspect of visiting a new country. I know people who don’t really care about food when they travel (something that is completely incomprehensible to me) but I am the contrary: before I visit a new country, I research the local specialties, find out what the locals eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and which dishes I have to try before leaving the country. After visiting a country, I am always excited to share my foodie finds with you, telling you which dishes I loved.

Taiwan: A Foodie Paradise

Set A (with Dan Dan Noodles)One country that has enough culinary delights to keep a foodie busy for weeks is Taiwan. The small island nation of the coast of China is not only known for its stunning scenery that spans from lush green mountain ranges to sandy beaches has the reputation to have one of the most delicious cuisines in Asia, and people do not only flock here to eat from China but also from Japan and the nearby Philippines. Talk to someone who’s visited Taiwan and the glorious Taiwanese food will come up for sure!

Taiwanese food derived from the various cuisines in mainland China (like Cantonese or Szechuan food), but you also find Japanese influences in Taiwanese cooking. And like in most island nations, seafood plays a big role in Taiwan’s cuisine.

Local Specialties of Taiwan

Despite being such a small country, you can find a lot of dishes that are special to a single region. Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei, is famous for its freshly prepared soy milk, Taichung is well known for a sweet pastry named Sun Cake, Ilan is famous for a sticky rice snack called mochi while in Chiayi, you have to try the beloved cubic pastry (square cookies sprinkled with sesame seeds). Taiwanese people are so passionate about food that they will travel to another region within the country just to try their local dishes, by the way.

A Love For ‘Small Eats’: Xiaochi

One thing Taiwan is famous for is its tradition of xiaochi, which translates to ‘small eats’. It can best be compared to the Chinese tradition of Dim sum or Spanish tapas: enjoying several small dishes throughout the day instead of the western concept of having three big meals a day.Chou's Shrimp RollsThis concept is actually perfect for Taiwan visitors – it gives you more chances to sample all of Taiwan’s tasty dishes.

Here are the Taiwanese foods that you should definitely try:

Oyster omelet Oyster omelets are a staple in this nation of egg and seafood lovers – the omelet is spiced with a local chrysanthemum and tapioca starch is added to give it a gooey consistence, making it a distinctly Taiwanese food experience. It is usually draped in a thick, sweet red sauce.

Beef noodles Beef noodles are actually a soup which is oozing with chunks of stewed beef, and served with a dash of pickles. Beef noodles are so popular that they have their own festival!

beef_noodlesGua Bao Gua Bao is basically the Taiwanese version of a hamburger. Packed in between two halves of a steamed bun you’ll find braised pork belly, pickled cabbage and powered peanuts, all chopped up and mixed together.

Fried milkfish This is one of the most popular dishes in Taiwan, and is served fried, boiled, in soup, in a congee porridge. Milkfish is so popular that it has its own museum in Taiwan, and of course a festival.

Cho Dofu (Stinky Tofu) This popular snack is what is the durian for Singapore and Malaysia: you either love it or hate it, and its strong odor can be smelled from miles away (well maybe not miles, but you get the idea). Some people say the odor resembles sewage water, but Taiwanese love these deep-fried tofu cubes (that are fermented in milk) which don’t taste as bad as they smell – so best to hold your nose when you try one. And yes, you should definitely try stinky tofu – remember that it’s popular for a reason. Stinky tofu, Shanghai

Coffin bread The name might not sound appealing, but trust me, once you’ve tried it, you’ll probably want to have one every single day! Coffin bread is a slice of super thick toast, prospered like a French Toast but then hollowed out in the middle and stuffed with delicious fillings that range from vegetable chowder and sea food to pepper beef. Guan Cai Ban at Night Market, Taiwan

Oyster vermicelli (oya misua) Oyster vermicelli is a popular thick noodle soup (with thin vermicelli rice noodles) and as the name indicates: oysters! It’s often slurped right out of the bowl and finger-licking good.

Fried pork on rice This dish might sound simple, but you’ll be amazed at the explosion of flavors in your mouth when you try the divine smelling pork belly, which is finely chopped, cooked in soy sauce with a special spice mix, and served over white rice.

Green onion pancake This is something you find in every night market in Taiwan – the thin pancakes are made with scallions and usually filled with cheese and egg.

Soy milk and you-tiao The most popular way to start the day in Taiwan is having the simple breakfast of a glass of savory soy milk accompanied by a you-tiao, a deep-fried dough cruller. Almost everyone in Taiwan enjoys a glass of soy milk for breakfast, but for visitors the taste takes getting used to, as vinegar is added, resulting in an interesting taste, to say the least. Taiwan: Pineapple Cakes

Pineapple cake Pineapple cake is one of the most popular desserts in Taiwan, a square short crust pie filled with pineapple. If you want to buy some to take home as a souvenir, take the SunnyHills brand, which uses local pineapples only.

Bubble tea The bubble tea craze that took over the world a few years ago might be over (even though the beverage is still a popular drink in most parts of the world) but Taiwan is where it all started. This drink, which is also known as pearl milk tea, was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, is a milky tea to which chewy balls of tapioca are added. You can’t leave Taiwan without trying a freshly made bubble tea from a tea shop. I could go on and on – the list of yummy Taiwanese dishes is seemingly endless. To make your mouth water even more, check out CNN’s 45 Taiwanese foods we can’t live without.

Where to Sample Taiwanese Food

Bubble teaIf you’re lucky enough to visit Taiwan, the Shilin Night Market in Taipei is a good starting point. In addition to this popular night market which is filled with food stalls, there are about 20 streets dedicated to small eats in Taipei alone. Every city has a night market where you can sample the local specialties, but the city of Tainan in southern Taiwan is a paradise for foodie, so if you take your culinary experiences seriously, make sure to visit Tainan. Can’t make a trip to Taiwan happen anytime soon but would still love to try some of the dishes I’ve introduced you to?

The ‘Savoring Taiwanese Cuisine’ Festival in New York

If you live in or around New York, you’re in luck! The ‘Savoring Taiwanese Cuisine’ Festival takes place this month in New York City! From 16 to 20 October 2015 the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and The Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel are partnering with several award-winning chefs from Tainan who will bring you five days of savoring some of Taiwan’s most scrumptious dishes. The festival focuses on small eats and the main dish of the tasting menus you can try there will be Chou’s Shrimp Rolls, a dish so famous that it attracts foodies from all around the world! Instead of making your way to Tainan, where foodies line up to eat at Chou’s bistro (a national institution!) you can sample this world-famous dish right in New York. If you don’t happen to live in New York and aren’t able to attend the festival, look up the best Taiwanese restaurants in your city. Now you have an idea of what to try while you’re there!

Have you been to Taiwan? What are your favorite Taiwanese dishes?

This post is brought to you in partnership with the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau.
Photo credit: (1) Beef noodles by Matthew Hine, (2) Stinky Tofu by Gary Stevens, (3) Guan Cai Ban by Michael McDonough, (4) Pineapple Cake by sstrleu, (5) Bubble Tea – All photos used under Flickr’s Creative Commons License.
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12 Things That Surprised me About Hong Kong

hong kong central2

Even though I didn’t have many expectations when I visited Hong Kong for the first time this year, I have to admit that not only did the city blow me away completely, but it also surprised me in many ways.

I noticed these things during my first visit earlier this year, and when I returned to Hong Kong last month, I wanted to see if I still felt about them the same way, especially #8, which I found mind-boggling! And yes, I was still just as surprised about the following things as I had been back in January – so here they are, twelve things that surprised me about Hong Kong:hong kong tram

1 Hong Kong is busy

Arriving in Hong Kong from Stockholm, which had felt eerily empty during my visit, was absolutely overwhelming. There were crowds everywhere, and I hadn’t experienced large numbers of people in this way since leaving New York last November. Especially in the Kowloon neighborhood, where I was staying in the beginning, the streets were always packed with people. The subway was just as busy as the tube in London at rush hour, and most streets felt as busy as the streets around Times Square in Manhattan. It took me a few days to get used to how crowded Hong Kong felt.hong kong kowloon

2 Hong Kong is hilly

I have to admit that I had no idea that Hong Kong was that hilly! There aren’t a lot of hills in Kowloon, the part of the city that is connected to mainland China, but on Hong Kong Island, I found myself huffing and puffing up and down steep hills constantly. That’s why on Hong Kong Island, you find the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator, the Central–Mid-Levels escalator, which transports more than 55,000 people every day from the lower Central neighborhood to the mid-levels. The escalator has a vertical climb of 443ft (135 meters) and is 2,600 feet (800 meters) long. Since the financial district of Hong Kong is located in Central (at the bottom of the mountain), the escalators and walkways move downwards in the morning to transport workers from the higher located condominium buildings to their offices. After the morning rush hour, the escalators move upwards.Steep Hong Kong

3 Bamboo Scaffolding

Considering how modern and developed Hong Kong is, it struck me as surprising that all the scaffolding I saw around town was made from bamboo. I hope the skyscrapers were built with more sturdy scaffolding.. but bamboo seems to be much more robust than I thought – who knew!

Bamboo Scaffolding Hong Kong
Bamboo Scaffolding

4 Hong Kong is hip.

Who knew Hong Kong was so hip? Especially the Poho neighborhood (short for Po Hing Fong, in the Sheung Wan District), filled with trendy boutiques, independent coffee shops, hip restaurants and chic bars seemed to be the favored hangout for Hong Kong’s 20something trendy professionals. Street art was ubiquitous here, and young entrepreneurs keep moving into the neighborhood, opening artisan bread shops and organic bistros and other businesses.Hip Hong Kong

5 Hong Kong is international

I was surprised to see so many different nationalities in Hong Kong – not only Westerners, but also a lot of other Asian nationalities and Indians. When I was walking through the Financial District on a business day, I usually encountered more Westerners in suits than Asians!

hong kong coffee academics
Hong Kong being so international means most things are written in English

6 Hong Kong is smoggy

I know that Beijing and other Chinese mega cities are notorious for their air pollution, but I didn’t know that Hong Kong was just as polluted. The skyline pictures I had seen prior to my trip, taken from the famous ‘Peak’ viewpoint high over Hong Kong, usually made the city look like it had clear skies. During both my visits, however, the air was polluted and the city was constantly covered in a cloud of smog. I later read that air pollution has become a serious problem in the past 20 years and the number of asthma and bronchial illnesses has soared considerably.hong kong views from the peak1

7 Hong Kong is green

While the air might be polluted, Hong Kong is still home to an amazing amount of green spaces. Trees are everywhere, the city is infused with little parks and within minutes you can get to a green space to go on a wilderness hike. I was amazed to see how green the city was when I hiked up to the top of Victoria Peak through a number of parks, and when I ran along the Bowen Road Fitness Trail high above Wan Chai, the woods gave me an idea of the jungle this island used to be covered with, before it was changed for a massive concrete jungle.Hong Kong green spaces

8 There are no bicycles in Hong Kong

Considering that Beijing supposedly has 9 million bicycles, it was an astonishing surprise to not see any bikes in Hong Kong. I had even seen cyclists in the crazy traffic of Bangkok – only a few, but still – there surely must be cyclists in Hong Kong?! I paid more attention to it on my second visit, convinced that I must have overlooked the bikes the first time around, but still: no bicycles! I was ecstatic when I finally spotted a bike in Wan Chai, but I didn’t see any cyclists anywhere, neither in Kowloon nor in Hong Kong Island.

hong kong bicycle
One of two bicycles I spotted during my ten days in Hong Kong

(Note: I am sure there are bicycles somewhere in Hong Kong, but I just haven’t come across them, which is why I included it here. Please don’t take it too literally 😉 ).

9 Hong Kong loves coffee

A pleasant surprise! Having heard from travelers that it is hard to find good coffee in China, known as a tea nation, I wasn’t expecting much on the coffee front in Hong Kong.. only to find more specialty coffee shops, coffee roasters and coffeehouses than I could possibly try during my stay. I was ecstatic about the amount of excellent coffee shops in Hong Kong and will share all my favorite places for a caffeine fix in my next post.hong kong coffee

10 Hong Kong is expensive

The first time I visited I came from Sweden, a pretty expensive country by European standards – and Hong Kong still felt more expensive. The second time I came from Thailand, where everything is cheap, and Hong Kong felt shockingly expensive in comparison then. Hong Kong didn’t just feel expensive to me though – it was pricey even compared to New York. I have yet to visit another place in the world where I pay more than $6 for a Flat White (coffee), and the price of a pizza at Pizza Express was £13.53 – the exact same pizza in a London Pizza Express is £12.50. Motorino’s charges $17.80 for a Margherita Pizza in Hong Kong, while it charges $15 for the very same pizza in Manhattan. Alcohol was pricey too, with a glass of wine or a beer usually starting at around $9. Hotels and hostels are also very expensive, as are clothes – the only thing that is surprisingly (and disproportionally) cheap is public transportation, with tram rides costing $0.30 and subway rides averaging between $0.64 and $1.55, depending how far you go.

hong kong coffee
52 Hong Kong Dollars for a coffee – this equals 6.70 US Dollars

11 The varied culinary scene

This probably goes along with #5, how international Hong Kong felt: the food scene was much more varied than I thought. In some parts of the city I came across more international restaurants than traditional Chinese eateries. French bakeries, American-style brunch places, British chain restaurants like Pizza Express but also an outlet of New York specialty pizza joint Motorino’s, Italian pasta places and bagel cafes – in Hong Kong, you can find it all. For someone like me who isn’t the greatest fan of Chinese food, Hong Kong’s varied food scene was heavenly.passion cakes hong kong

12 Hong Kong has super fast wi-fi

I understand now why Hong Kong sees such an influx of visitors from mainland China: the internet is super fast, and there aren’t any websites blocked, unlike in China, where you can’t access sites like Google, Facebook or Twitter. Hong Kong also offers free wi-fi in many public spaces and parks, and almost all restaurants and coffee shops offer free wi-fi. After having been dogged by bad luck with well-working wi-fi in Thailand, it felt amazing to be connected at all times again, and to be able to even stream movies!

massage with wifi in hong kong
Even massage places have free wi-fi!

Have you been to Hong Kong? What are the things that surprised you?

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12 Things that Surprised me about Hong Kong

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