Tastes of Taiwan: Aboriginal to high art 

click to enlarge Silks Place Taroko
  • Courtesy Ari Burack
  • Braised beef with herbs is served with rice, purple sweet potato, steamed Chinese sausage and wild vegetables, at the Silks Place Taroko hotel near Hualien.
To embark on a whirlwind culinary tour of Taiwan is to simply scratch the surface, revealing flavors underneath that are both ancient and subtle, bold and refined.

For an island known worldwide for its vibrant tech sector, urban sprawl and the occasional legislative brawl, one need only head southeast a short distance from the capital Taipei to enter a more placid stretch of coastal towns, factories, rice paddies and beaches.

At the city of Hualien – about two hours from Taipei by express train – the waters of Taroko Gorge spill from the foothills into the sea. This stunning natural treasure is named after one of the more than a dozen aboriginal groups that first made the island their home. Even today, some of their descendants are said to keep the old ways, living off the land far up in the mountains of this national park, which has remained protected by the Taiwanese government since 1986.

It’s perhaps surprising – or perhaps not – that several miles up a winding two-lane roadway, punctuated by tunnels and rock slides, that straddles the gorge, a luxury hotel is wedged into the hillside at the junction of two rivers.

The site was originally a lodge built in the 1960s by the son of Chiang Kai-shek to promote tourism and host the political elite. Now vacationers, many of them families from Taiwan and China, come to the renovated Silks Place Taroko to bask in the waters of a rooftop pool, the cool mountain air a welcome respite from the searing heat of the city, and are lulled to sleep by the roaring waters just outside their impeccably minimalist suites.

There’s a taste for nearly everyone here: modern Taiwanese, Western, and dishes incorporating aboriginal and other local ingredients, such as a sumptuous bowl of braised beef and herbs, steamed sausages, purple sweet potato and other wild vegetables plucked from the nearby hills, rice steamed and served in bamboo, and local millet wine. The flavors are intriguing and unexpected.

As the sun rises the next morning, a few hundred yards from the hotel door, past rows of tour buses, a small square table sits outside a food stand in the tiny village center of Tien-Hsiang. Atop plastic bowls from which noodles and spice were slurped the previous night, and tucked under a leg of the table, an empty liquor bottle. The anonymous celebrants have long since left, but a three-legged dog standing guard nearby glares curiously before inexplicably charging down the road.

In the late afternoon, throngs of tourists are led along the edge of the marble chasm, peering into cliff-side caves and craning their necks to glimpse the swallows flitting overhead, or snapping photos of nearby Buddhist monuments, as sunlight and mist weave light and shadow across the canyon’s rock face.

Signs in the park warn of poisonous snakes, wasps and falling rock, and walking in some areas requires a safety helmet. Fences and other protections are rarely seen; the threat of a massive boulder or other helmet-crushing debris suddenly dropping from the sky seems an accepted risk here. According to an experienced guide, the Taiwanese do as little as possible to interfere with nature. It makes for a more authentic, if slightly perilous, and rewarding experience.

Back in Taipei, wealthy barons and baronesses of industry, journalists and food bloggers assemble for a gala fine-dining event, featuring celebrity chefs from Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and San Francisco.

Lithe fashion models dripping in diamond-encrusted jewelry are the background for a showcase of inventive Asian- and French-inspired haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy. Heaps of caviar and uni are strewn atop a salad of crisp romaine hearts and stone crab. A warm gelee of foie gras, studded with shards of truffle, quivers invitingly in a goblet. Beef ribs, braised in ginseng honey, are garnished with lily bulbs. Muscat grapes are suspended in a chilled melon soup. Spherical desserts evaporate into a torrent of fruit essence as they settle on the lips.

In a world where food-makers have become stars, attracting wealthy and powerful devotees, it makes perfect sense that the rising economic tide of Taiwan and other Asian countries swells to accommodate them. But here, for one (ahem) unsophisticated palate, a line has been crossed from a truly satisfying meal to elegant high art for the 1 percent.

It’s enough to make one scamper out into the steamy streets of downtown Taipei for a sloppy, delicious bowl of beef noodle soup, a Taiwanese favorite. At one of many noodle shops, and for a much more modest sum, you’ll get a heaping bowl of noodles and sliced meat immersed in a shimmering brown broth and topped with green onions. The taste is rich and flavorful.

For the more daring, one may wade through crowds of teens at one of the city’s popular night markets to sample a plateful of the famously ripe “stinky tofu,” a spicy bowl of noodles and tripe, an oyster omelet, or a sweet shaved ice dessert topped with fresh mango, or with red beans, balls of glutinous rice and green tea ice cream.

Just a short ride to the outskirts of the city, in Maokong, there are lush terraced hillsides where tea is grown. A gondola ride allows sweeping views of Taipei, overseen in the distance by the monolithic, pagoda-esque Taipei 101 skyscraper – once the world's tallest. Tea houses are ubiquitous in this area, one after another, and at first glance it's difficult to know where one starts and the next begins.

Settling in at a simple wooden table offers a view of the landscape and insight into the reverence that tea culture has in Taiwan. Under the tutelage of a knowledgeable host, one is treated to a menu of dozens of varieties, ranging from young to aged, light and fragrant to deep and smoky.

The culinary Taiwan: a wealth of tastes as simple or as complex as a cup of tea.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com

If You Go

Silks Place Taroko: While the exterior of the hotel still bears remnants of earlier incarnations, the interior has been beautifully remodeled with tasteful, sparse and luxurious charm, incorporating elements of the surrounding natural world. Make sure to grab an exterior-facing room with a view of the rushing river. There are plenty of hiking trails of varying difficulty levels nearby. Prices range from $440-$535 per night. Taroko National Park, Hualien. http://www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw/

In Taipei:

Gondola ride to tea houses: In the Taipei suburb of Maokong, take the gondola from Muzha MRT station. Visit http://gondola.trtc.com.tw/ for operating hours and prices.

Beef noodle soup: There are many places to sample one of Taiwan’s most popular dishes. In Taipei, try the award-winning Lao Dong Beef Noodles, which has several locations. One near the National Taiwan University campus is at No. 4, Lane 24, Section 4, Luosifu Road. www.olddon.com.tw

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum: The museum has a massive and beautiful collection of priceless historical artworks from China. No. 221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Road, Taipei. http://www.npm.gov.tw

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Ari Burack

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