This is my third Taiwanese visit. First, as a child in 1969, to visit my maternal grandfather in Taipei. I can still remember a trip to Sun Moon Lake, the aborigines performing for us tourists, and my very first site of a typhoon.
7 years ago, I returned with my mother on a sentimental journey. Since then, I’ve reviewed a wonderful novel by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi. And still I do not feel competent to say anything meaningful about this country or the Taiwanese people.
I listen instead to the locals complain about the lack of tourists. Apparently, most of them come from mainland China. However, due to current frictions across the Taiwan Strait, China will no longer grant tourist visas to its citizens to visit Taiwan.
We look around us and see few Western tourists. Even at a famous Taiwanese tourist attraction like Mount Alishan, I counted less than a dozen round-eyes, including my husband. This might explain the uniformly warm welcome we received. It certainly had nothing to do with my ghastly attempts at speaking Mandarin.
I can theorize all I want but therein lies the danger of travel blogging. Take any of the aphorisms for beauty and apply it to the impressions of a traveler: subjective, skin-deep, fleeting. So why not focus on just that: Taiwanese beauties.
There seems to be a type, particularly on the streets of Taipei: worldly, dressed to the nines and permanently attached to a phone. Young women (say, between the ages of 20 and 30) wear their hair long and loose. Unlike children and senior citizens whose hair is jet black, Taiwanese beauties prefer red. It might be a few subtle highlights or a full-on mahogany dye. The color pairs nicely with their pale, pure complexions and eyes made up to appear round and innocent, not unlike an anime character.
The young Taiwanese woman favors clothing to show off her slim figure and long legs. That means a lot of lace and ruffles and short skirts. But when she walks, you notice the knocked knees or the oddly shuffling, stumbling gait. And when she talks, it’s with a high-pitched childish voice. Minnie Mouse on stilettos.
These Taiwanese beauties look great on camera. We saw multiple wedding parties throughout the city. The bride was radiant; the groom nebbish. Sometimes, they dress up in Tang Dynasty costumes like this couple at the Lin An Tai Old Homestead. Or take promotional shots like this actress posing in the rock garden.
A while back, my husband and I saw the documentary “Father” about a Taiwanese puppet master. That cinematic experience has developed into an obsession about glove puppets and a desire to visit the Taiwanese museum devoted to the subject. Alas! The museum closed the month before we arrived and is now in the process of merging and relocating.
Luckily for us, a British woman points us in the direction of a puppetry workshop on the top floor of an uninspiring commercial complex filled with fabric stands on the ground floor. Inside the puppet workshop, however, we find lovely displays of the three types of Taiwanese puppetry: marionette, shadow and glove.
All of the puppets are hand-made, the bodies carved from wood or cut from parchment. I loved this display on how to make a puppet hand. There were gorgeous hand-carved antiques as well as the fantasy puppets that are enjoying a revival today.
I have to say: the food in Taipei was disappointing. At the Ningxia night market, we tried duck tongues (chewy cartilage). We had chicken soup at a fancy Taipei restaurant known for this particular specialty. But it wasn’t until we arrived in central Taiwan that our taste buds popped.
We were in Puzi City, a two-horse town in the middle of nowhere, known only for its proximity to the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum. The museum was our destination but we had to eat, too. The hotel staff recommended a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in nearby Dongshi Township. And, as any self-respecting Taiwanese establishment must, the restaurant came complete with an altar to Mazu.
It’s easy to order at a restaurant like this. The menu is a bed of fish on ice and assorted platters of fresh vegetables. Everything on offer was caught or harvested that day. There would be a different assortment for lunch or dinner. We had perfectly steamed fish, fresh bamboo shoots (now in season), and a local Taiwanese specialty of glass noodles with oysters.
Eating food always makes me think about cooking food so here are some recipes inspired by our Taiwanese stop, both cold dishes that are good to serve on a hot and steamy day.
Cold diced spinach Mom’s style: Blanch spinach, squeeze all moisture out and dice finely. Soak dried shrimp (5 large) in a bit of water. When softened, dice into spinach. Add a pinch of sugar, soy sauce, chill. If desired, add sesame oil to serve.
Pickled daikon radish: Thinly slice daikon. Marinate in sugar, soy sauce and chili peppers.