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Wednesday 15 March 2017

The London Foodie Goes to Taiwan – Tainan the City of Snacks

As a former imperial capital and the oldest city in Taiwan, Tainan is often compared with Kyoto in Japan, and similarly has a strong culinary heritage and all the charm of an ancient city. 

With buildings no more than 5 or 6 stories in height, quaintly narrow pedestrianized alleys and temples, historic quarters and a thriving street food scene, Tainan is a wonderful place to explore another facet of Taiwan.  

After a few exciting if rather hectic days in the capital Taipei, about which I wrote in detail here, I hopped on the ultra-sleek high-speed train, the country’s bullet train, and headed south to Tainan.

What to Do 

The best way to get around Tainan is by bicycle – the city is reasonably flat so cycling is a doddle. I was staying at the Shangri-La Hotel, which offers complimentary bike use to its guests, and I used one every day of my stay to get around the city exploring the various neighbourhoods and food markets. More details in the Where to Stay section below. 

Anping District – The Historical Heart of Tainan

Anping Old Fort 

The first place I cycled to was Anping District. One of the most popular destinations in Tainan, this is the historical heart of the city. Anping is home to the Anping Old Fort, the Anping Tree House (a warehouse with massive banyan trees growing out of it), and numerous restaurants and food stalls.

In the early 17th century, Europeans came to Asia to trade and develop colonial outposts. In 1624, the Dutch occupied today's Anping and took ten years to build this fort, at the time named "Fort Zeelandia". 

During the Japanese occupation, the fort was rebuilt and named "Anping Old Fort." Today, the only Dutch remains are the ruins of a semicircular bulwark and a section of the outer fort's brick wall; the root of an old banyan tree on the wall remains a witness to the fort's long history. 

Anping Old Fort is a great place to learn a little about the colonial history of the city, and to chill in the beautiful gardens and surroundings.

Anping Gubao Old Street Area

For me the most exciting aspect of Anping District is the area around Gubao Old Street. 

With quaint narrow alleyways, antiquated little shops and loads of food stalls everywhere, it was one of my favourite spots in Tainan. 

I spent hours here, just walking around the streets taking in the atmosphere. It reminded me very much of Kyoto, but also of the area around the historic Tokyo district of Asakusa. 

Walking around, I would sometimes come across long queues in front of unassuming houses, which I discovered were people selling street snacks. 

At one of these, I had a delicious deep-fried dumpling filled with tofu, herbs and noodles. The dough was made and stretched out, filled and deep-fried in front of me – there was a long queue but the dumpling was well worth the wait. 

Anping Tree House

The Anping Tree House was the office and warehouse of the Japan Salt Company. After World War II, the salt industry in Anping declined, and to this day the house is abandoned. 

Over time, the roots and branches of banyan trees wrapped around the building, combining with the soil, red brick and partial concrete wall to create one of the most popular tourist sights in the district. 

While I would not make a special visit to Anping just to see this tree house, it is just around the corner from the Fort and Gubao Old Street, so it’s worth a visit if you are in the area. 

Chihkan Tower

Four kilometres away from Anping, Chihkan Tower is Tainan’s most famous historic site. Built in 1653 by the Dutch as "Fort Provintia", and renamed the "Tower of Red-haired Barbarians" by the Chinese, its official name today is Chihkan Tower. 

Chihkan Tower has survived different historical periods, but retains a graceful architecture, and is surrounded by gorgeous gardens. 

Crammed with stone carvings of horses, tortoises and other objects, the tower is well worth a visit. I am told it is particularly attractive at night. 

Temple Hopping

There are hundreds of impressive Buddhist temples in Tainan, but just by the Chihkan Tower, there are two that are worth a special visit - Temple Guan Kong (sacrificial rites martial temple) and Grand Matsu Temple.

Dating from the 18th century, Temple Guan Kong is dedicated to the Warrior God (aka the God of Wealth). 

This was the first time I have seen devotees throwing divination tablets, asking the god ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about decisions they were struggling with. 

The Grand Matsu Temple is also impressive - though smaller, it is highly ornate and with so many people there it has a great sense of atmosphere from those paying their respects. 

A little way from the Chihkan Tower area, the Confucius Temple is a serene 17th century building built by the Chinese, surrounded by beautiful gardens. 

Confucius Temple is a rather austere building as far as temples go, a tranquil spot ideal for contemplation and to admire the Chinese architecture. 

Across the street from Confucius Temple is Fujihon Street. This is a beautiful alley with lush green vegetation and a large number of cafes and shops selling street food, ice cream and teas. 

Fujihon Street is a great place to idle away a couple of hours, taking stock of the beautiful surroundings and cooling down with an ice cream in the shade of one of the many trees along the street. 

Ten Ren’s Tea Store

Tea is one of the major crops of Taiwan, and the country produces some of the highest quality and most prized teas anywhere in the world. 

I went to a few boutique teahouses in and around Taipei, described here, but was fortunate to have delayed making my purchases until I got to Tainan, where prices are significantly lower. 

A short bike ride from the Shangri La Hotel, Ten Ren’s Tea Store sells a great range of top quality Taiwanese teas, including my very favourite, Lishan. This is a lightly oxidised oolong grown on the Li Mountain (shan means mountain in Mandarin), one of Taiwan’s tallest, where tea grows at altitudes up to 2,400 metres.

On infusion, the tea has a pristine bright yellow colour, and an amazingly floral and sweet aroma.  Due to the altitude at which Lishan oolong is grown and the slow growth that this allows, the leaves of the tea are very large, expanding and filling the teapot after each infusion. 

Another great oolong is the Alishan tea, coming from the Ali Mountain. This tea is grown at a slightly lower altitude of 1,600 metres, and hence is more affordable. Similarly, Alishan tea leaves produce a clear amber brew, with a strong floral aroma reminiscent of lilly and orchid, and a smooth and creamy texture. 

I purchased a variety of teas at Ten Ren’s, and enjoyed a detailed and informative tasting. The owners were so helpful that they telephoned their niece to rush from her home to the shop to translate for me. I highly recommend a visit. 

Shennong Street

I found Shennong Street one of the most charming in Tainan. Part of the old port area that was a busy working class district during the Qing dynasty, the canals coming in from the ocean made this a densely populated area where goods were stored and sold. 

Today, it’s a beautiful pedestrianized street, only 100 metres long, with various exquisitely restored old houses. There are many galleries and craft shops on the street, as well as teahouses and bars.

At the west end of the street is the King of Medicine Temple, while at the east end is the Water Fairy Temple.  

Where to Stay

Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel 

Shangri-La is one of my favourite hotel collections. What I like about the Shangri-La is the focus on great food, and for that reason whenever possible, I stay at the Shangri-La on my travels. The Tainan property is the city’s top hotel, and a huge tower that is a dominant landmark for miles around.

My room was spacious and very elegantly decorated in tones of beige and brown, with very wide, nearly floor to ceiling windows that let in plenty of natural light and allowed great views of Tainan University and the surrounding parks. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in this room, it had super-fast WiFi, a very comfortable king-sized bed, and it was so high up that there was no noise from the street below to disturb my slumber.

My room rate and type gave me access to Shangri-La’s Horizon Club. The Horizon Club guest rooms are all at the top floors of the hotel, with the best views of the city. 

The Horizon Club gives access to bespoke holiday and business travel planning, meeting room facilities, as well as a private check-in among other perks, but most importantly for me, access to the Horizon Club Lounge with complimentary alcoholic drinks and food between 5-8pm every day!

The food served in the Club Lounge was excellent, with dainty canapés and other finger food including deep fried mozzarella balls, sushi, and pork knuckle terrine. 

There was also a huge selection of pastries and breads, a cheeseboard and an array of fine patisserie.

It was hard to tear myself away from the tempting food offerings of the Horizon Club Lounge, not to mention the wines and stiff G&Ts, but the prospect of dinner and other delicacies to come enticed me away.

Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel Tainan has two restaurants, the glamorous Shanghai Pavilion on the hotel’s 38th floor with magnificent views of the city, and the 10th floor Café at Far Eastern. I tried both restaurants and describe them in more detail in the Where to Eat section below. 

Breakfast at the Shangri-La properties is for me always one of the highlights of my stay, and it was no exception in Tainan. What I have never seen before at a Shangri-La hotel is a breakfast gourmet map, detailing all the favourite breakfast dishes available and the stations at which to find them. 

Set out in a circle, stations offered cereals and yoghurt, then Western favourites like hot oatmeal, bacon and sausages. The Japanese breakfast station had a number of options including miso soup, white rice, grilled salmon, pickles and sushi. 

There was a vegetarian station, a salad bar, a cheese and charcuterie station, an egg station, pastries and pancakes, and fresh fruits and juices.  

Best of all though were the Taiwanese and Tainanese breakfast dishes, and I decided to go for these. One of the highlights was the Tainanese beef soup with very thin slivers of beef and onions, lightly poached in a clear but well flavoured beef broth.

The Tainanese Danzi noodles with minced pork and prawn were also excellent, and this was only one of many options at the noodle station.

In addition, I just could not resist the different styles of fried rice they had each morning, the spicy mabo-dofu, a Sichuanese specialty I often make at home, as well as the selection of steamed dim sum.

Breakfast at the Shangri-La Tainan is a real feast. It can’t be rushed as it takes time to explore. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, I thoroughly recommend it as one of the culinary must-dos of Tainan. 

With so much to explore in Tainan, I must admit to not having made much use of the hotel’s other facilities including the outdoor swimming pool, the gym and the spa. 

There is a great Jacuzzi and sauna, which happily I did get to enjoy and would recommend. I was also pleased to discover that the Shangri-La offers its guests complimentary use of the hotel’s bicycles, which I made extensive use of throughout my stay. 

The Far Eastern Department Store ('FE21') on the premises of Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel is a great place for any last minute shopping, while the downstairs food court offers a good selection of restaurants, as well as the Hong Kong-based supermarket Wellcome.

The Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel is a gorgeous property in the heart of central Tainan. I had some of the best food of my trip here, and one of the most comfortable stays. I highly recommend it as the number one place to stay for anyone visiting Tainan. 

Where to Eat

Shanghai Pavillion

Situated on the 38th floor of the Shangri-La hotel with panoramic views of Tainan, this restaurant serves authentic Huaiyang cuisine which derives from the native cooking styles of the region surrounding the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. 

With Cantonese, Shandong and Sichuan, Huaiyang cuisine (a sub-section of Jiangsu cuisine) is considered one of the four great traditions that dominate the culinary heritage of China. Huaiyang cuisine emphasizes the harmony of colour, smell and taste with delicate craftsmanship. 

Having never eaten Huaiyang cuisine before I was intrigued, so booked myself in for dinner at the Shanghai Pavillion. This restaurant is considered the top eatery of Tainan, very popular with local families celebrating special occasions, as well as with visitors.

We started with a gorgeous chicken soup with braised beancurd (£4), skillfully shaped like a lotus flower. A light consommé, delicately flavoured, it was an auspicious start to dinner.

Equally beautiful to the eye and palate was a dish of longan fruit wrapped with sliced lotus root (£10). 

The eponymous Shanghai dumplings were excellent – freshly made, the casing was fine and delicate holding the concentrated broth that exploded in the mouth.

The restaurant’s signature dish, sliced pork belly pyramid layered with pickles (£18) was again strikingly presented. Layers of meltingly tender roast pork were encased in an aspic-like reduction, over mustard greens and crunchy baby bok choy. It brought tears to the eyes to cut through this little beauty but nothing is too cute to eat in my book!

Dinner at the Shanghai Pavillion, Shangri La Far Eastern Plaza 38th floor, is a true Tainanese spectacle combining majestic views of the city with delicious Huaiyang cuisine, and I highly recommend it.

Flower Garden Night Market

Visiting Taiwan’s numerous night markets is one of the island’s essential cultural experiences. They really bring to life Taiwanese food culture. I have written in detail about the night markets I visited in Taipei here, but I discovered that Tainan is no slouch when it comes to night markets either. 

For the visitor, Taiwanese night markets are a lot to take in. Crowded, noisy, hot and sometimes unsanitary places they may be. But on the other hand, they are incredibly vibrant, offering a multitude of affordable eating, shopping and entertainment experiences all in one place. 

Unlike in Taipei, the various night markets in Tainan do not operate every day, so you need to check before heading out.  But every night there will be at least one market open. 

The largest market in Tainan is the Hua Yuan Night Market (or Flower Garden Night Market, open from 6-11.30pm on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays). I got to the market shortly after it opened around 6pm, and it was already very busy. 

The market is a maze of alleys, with food hawkers and stalls selling everything you can think of to eat, and a few things you probably haven’t, like grilled giant cuttlefish served on sticks like lollipops, or cheese sarnies wrapped up in bacon and grilled. 

For more information about all of Tainan’s night markets, their days of opening and addresses, visit the Tainan City website here

Café at Far Eastern

On the 10th floor of the Shangri La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, Café at Far Easter is a more casual option than its sister restaurant Shanghai Pavilion. The café offers a mind-boggling array of Taiwanese, Tainanese and international options, served buffet-style.

Headed by Chef James Tseng, I had a great dinner here, and was able to sample a huge variety of dishes.  Some highlights were the Japanese station, serving fantastic blow-torched salmon sushi, and a seafood donburi with cod liver, ikura (salmon caviar) and ebi (sweet raw sashimi prawns). 

Then it was on to the Chinese buffet. This had a variety of typical dishes like Peking duck and roast pork and Sichuanese fish in chilli oil.

The sea urchin scrambled eggs with potatoes were also delicious, as well as the many options for stir-fried vegetables and noodles I just could not resist! 

Chihkan Peddler's Noodles

Tainan is famous for its small eats or xiaochi. Known as the capital of snacks, beyond the night markets, there is no better place than the Chihkan Peddler’s Noodles shop to try them. 

Chihkan Peddler’s Noodles is a modest café on Minzu Road, but very atmospheric with a lovely vintage look about it, and it came highly recommended. 

This is a budget place to eat, and so the perfect opportunity to try a huge number of dishes that will not cost you much but will give you a taste of Tainanese cuisine.  

The seafood stuffed fried toast (coffin toast or guāncaibǎn), a specialty of the city, featured fried bread stuffed with chicken, beans, seafood and vegetables in a béchamel sauce (£2.50). I found this uninspiring, bland and was not sure whether I was missing something. 

Better was the traditional minced pork rice (£1) – a simple dish of steamed white rice topped with minced pork cooked in soy sauce, sugar and ginger. I could have eaten many bowls of this. 

Best of all were the Danzi noodles (dānzǎi miàn, £1.60), created in Tainan around 130 years ago, made with noodles, a prawn broth, topped with beansprouts, minced pork and a single prawn.  This is the kind of dish that makes food travel so worthwhile. 

To accompany, I could not resist the generous platter of sweet potato leaves (£1.70). This is my personal favourite, which I ordered with almost every meal in Taiwan. 

Travel Essentials

High-speed rail travel time from Taipei to Tainan is 1 hour and 45 minutes. An adult ticket one-way ticket with reserved seating costs around £38 (NT$1450).

Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel 
89 Section West
University Road

Chihkan Tower
212 Sec. 2, 
Minzu Road
Central District

Ten Ren’s Tea Store
246 Dongning Road
East District

Hua Yuan Night Market (Flower Garden Night Market)
Open Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays
Haian Road
Section 3
Between Lixian Road and Hewey Road
North District

Chihkan Peddler’s Noodles 
No. 180
2 Minzu Rd

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