Our family’s trip back to Taiwan this summer was a significant one, because my parents have finally decided to return to the US after a seven year sabbatical in Taipei. They returned to Taiwan both for professional and personal reasons. While both had retired from their long careers in the US, my father wanted to share some of his scientific expertise with his home country, and has had a very rewarding post-retirement consulting job at the country’s best hospitals. My mother, happily retired, returned to spend time with both of her remaining siblings. My uncle sadly died during my parents’ time there, but my mother was very happy to have been able to spend a few more years with him before he passed away, and to help her sister-in-law transition to her new life as a widow. My mother’s sister, despite having some residual partial paralysis from a stroke she suffered shortly before my parents’ return, finally quit smoking and started taking care of herself. She is now rehabilitated and stable enough that my mother feels comfortable leaving her. My father was glad to spend time with his brothers and sister and their families in the South of Taiwan, a relationship made much easier by the arrival of High Speed Rail several years back.
So on this visit, which would be the last one we could take while my parents were living in Taiwan, we wanted to see as much as possible. In order to do this, my parents hired a family friend who is a taxi driver to tour us around the island for a week. On my previous trips to Taiwan, we spent most of our time in Taipei and in Kaohsiung and Tainan in the South, where my family lives. But on recent trips back I was struck by the varied natural beauty in Taiwan, starting with trips to the jade mountains of Hualien on the spectacular tropical East Coast. Never heard of Hualien? It’s not a surprise. Taiwan is extremely underrated as a tourist destination in Asia. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the language barrier– being able to read and speak Mandarin Chinese (and in the South, Taiwanese) is crucial for most places outside of Taipei. The second is the transportation infrastructure. While the introduction of the fabulous High Speed Rail a few years back really opened up the accessibility of Taiwan beyond Taipei, the scenic areas are really best accessed by car. There are, to be sure, plenty of tour buses that ply their way to many hot spots, but the independent traveler is best served by car.
The first part of our trip was spent touring Taiwan’s North Coast, just an hour’s drive outside Taipei. It’s a mountainous area of small villages and tea plantations. The natural surroundings are stunning– verdant mountains dropping to turquoise seas, reminiscent of the Hawaiian islands and other islands in the Pacific. One of the main tourist destinations in this area is the old town of Jiufen, which starting in the late 1800s was a gold mining town. The heydays of precious metals mining are long gone, having ended in the 1970s, but a stroll through the winding streets of Jiufen is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Come hungry– its main street, Jishan street, is mainly lined by food stalls and teahouses. We sampled wild boar sausage, handmade mochi, and fish balls (yuwan) but saved our appetites for the locally made rice balls over shaved ice– here, incorporating the local flavors of sweet potato, taro and black sesame, mingling nicely with beans, gelatin and condensed milk.
Fans of Taiwanese cinema may also recognize these streets, as this is where Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1989 City of Sadness was filmed.
Another specialty of the area are custom-cobbled wooden slippers, which are reminiscent of Japanese zorries and likely another remnant of the Japanese occupation. Our daughters each selected their fabric and within minutes, a friendly and skillful cobbler had them outfitted in their new slippers. (I should have gotten a pair!)
Just a few minutes down the road is the town of Jianguashi, where you can find the Gold Ecological Park, which contains several restored Japanese era buildings from gold (and also silver and copper) mining days as well as several museums. The surroundings are stunning, with verdant and lush mountains and technicolor temples. In the park’s Gold Museum, you can find the world’s largest gold bar, which at a weight of 220kg was valued at $5 million in 2006. (I am sorry to say I did not see that myself, but both of the kids touched it! Asked how it felt, they replied, “Cold and smooth.”) There’s also gold panning available.
We finished our day with a brief drive in the surrounding area, where we came upon these waterfalls, stained metallic with copper, iron, and perhaps gold.
* * *
Sweet Taro Glutinous Rice Balls (Tang Yuan)
Here’s my attempt to recapture the “Q” (bouncy, chewy) goodness of the taro sticky rice balls (known as tang yuan in Mandarin or my preferred ngee-ah in Taiwanese) we enjoyed with our shaved ice in Jiufen. My version has more of a taro taste than the prettier ones in Jiufen, whose lavender hue must have been helped out by some food coloring. Appearance aside, I am happy with their flavor and texture. If the weather is no longer sweltering, you can enjoy these as a dessert soup with a broth of simple syrup, as pictured here.
for the rice balls
1 lb taro root
3 cups water
2 cups Mochiko glutinous rice flour
1 cup reserved cooking liquid
for the syrup
4 cups water
2 cups sugar
1. Peel taro root and place into a pot. Cover with water (about 3 cups), cover with a lid, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a gentle boil and cook, keeping covered, until taro is soft when pricked with a fork, about 30 minutes. (The water will get cloudy as it cooks.)
2. Meanwhile, make the syrup by combining the water and sugar in a separate pot and boiling until the sugar is completely dissolved. Set aside.
3. Remove cooked taro from the pot (reserve the cooking liquid) and mash with a fork until it has the texture of mashed potatoes. Allow to cool to room temperature. Also allow reserved cooking liquid to cool.
4. Once mashed taro is cool, combine with the rice flour and reserved cooking liquid in a bowl, first with a fork, then with your hands, until you have a firm dough.
5. Pinch off 1 inch pieces of the dough to form into balls. Set aside.
6. Bring the syrup back to a boil and carefully add the taro balls. Boil for 20-30 minutes until the balls are floating and light. They are fully cooked when they have a nice springy texture and no longer taste of raw flour. Serve with the syrup, or allow to cool if using to top shaved ice.
Thanks for coming by and reading! If you liked this, please share with your friends. In upcoming posts, I’ll continue our tour of North Taiwan with stops in Yehliu and Danshui. Come back soon for these and more!
And if you’re hungry for some more Taiwanese food, please take a look at my other Taiwanese recipes: