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The Hungry Cyclist in Taiwan. Day 6, Shilin night market, Taipei

Shihilin Night Market
Chung Shan North Road, Section 4, Shihlin, Taipei
Cuisine: Pan-Asian
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The Taiwanese greet each other by asking 'Have you eaten? My answer, after a week of cycling on this fascinating island, is a resounding yes
 
There is only so much cycling a man can do in the tropical heat and instead of pedalling through the industrial lowlands of Taiwan’s west coast, I decided to conserve time and energy and load my bike onto Taiwan’s’ celebrated HRS (high speed rail) back to Taipei. Instead of five days of sweat-drenched cycling, in less than two hours the suburbs of Taipei were soon flashing through the windows.

After a visit to the magnificent Palace Museum, that holds the world’s foremost collection of Chinese artefacts, and where the restaurants chefs carefully craft the museums most famous artefacts into edible treats, it was followed by one last bike ride.

Cycling away from the silver skyscrapers towerblocks of Taipei, the cycle path along the left bank of the Danshui river carried me away from the city. Pedalling past traditional fishing boats and dense mangroves, through small villages and couples walking the shore in the evening sun I was cycling a world away from the bustle of Taipei's bustling streets. This was the ideal way to spend a final afternoon in Taiwan and to build up an appetite for my final meal.

Dian xin or dim sum are perhaps Taiwan’s favorite food. Found in almost every village and on every street corner these dumplings and buns, filled with savory or sweet fillings are steamed, boiled and shallow fried. But if like me you are looking for the perfect dian xin, you need look no further than Din Tai Fung. Founded over 30 years ago, Bingyi Yang and his wife, have been providing perfect dian xin at their Xinyi Rd restaurant and a gastronomic tour of Taiwan would not be complete without a visit.

So popular are the dumplings in Din Tai Fung I waited with the hordes of other diners milling on pavement anxiously waiting for a table. In side the restaurant is unpretentious and efficient. Businessmen and students share tables with young couples and tourists and taking my seat the dish I had been all week for arrived..

Xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings) are magical soup-filled dumplings, and in Din Tai Fung they are best you will find anywhere in the world and lifting the lid on the steamer placed in front of me I was greeted with eight of these mini masterpieces. Wasting no time, I poured some Chinese black vinegar onto a heap of shredded ginger in the dish in front of me. Unwrapping my chopsticks I delicately took my first Xiao Long Bao from its basket, and making sure not to break the fragile skin gently dipped it in the ginger-vinegar sauce. Placing it in my spoon, I brought the dumpling to my mouth and after nibbling the edges, I sucked at the broth inside before popping the whole thing in my mouth. The meaty juices, and subtle flavors rushed around my mouth giving my taste buds the time of their lives before the soft dim sum pasta and tender pork slid down my throat. I had come a long way for these dim sum and they were worth every turn of the pedals.

Going for a second supper after the delights of Din Tai Fung might seem greedy but a visit to Taipei would not be complete without a visit to one of her sprawling night markets. Shilin Night Market is not only Taiwan’s largest night market but also one of her oldest. It springs to life in the evening hours when a colorful selection of street stalls sell cheap clothing, shoes, jewelry, tools, pets and of course, food. On arrival the pungent smell of “stinky tofu” (fermented fried tofu) fills the air so I knew I was in a true Taiwanese market, and here in Shilin I had the choice of everything from fried chicken to jellyfish; candied tomatoes to tea jelly; snakes blood to exotic fruit.

Deciding on a stick of chilli dusted grilled cuttlefish, a plastic bag of fried ducks tongues, and a plastic beaker of green tea boba (bubble tea), I took a stool in a small stand and took in the scenes around me .Gas rings raged under huge woks of steaming noodles and stinky tofu; Shiny black hot plates hissed with oyster omelettes and coils of tripe; Dim sum sellers disappeared behind clouds of steam and strong armed women squeezed the juice from sugar cane. Teenage boys fished for long tail shrimp in plastic buckets before cooking them makeshift grills while their girlfriends nibbled novelty shaped gee dan gao waffle like egg cakes.

Sitting in this vibrant and boisterous corner of Taipei, surround by every generation of Taiwanese, it was clear that for the people of this small island, life, as it should be is centered around food. Where as in England we say ‘how are you?’ when we meet on the street, in Taiwan they ask each other "Have you eaten? After a week of cycling and eating on this fascinating island, my answer was yes!

Where to stay: Hotel Eclat. With a bathroom with more buttons than the Star ship enterprise, the Hotel Eclat is the height of comfort and modern luxury. In sight of Taipei 101 this boutique hotel is the perfect spot to rest your weary bones and digest a week of cycling and eating in Taiwan.
Shihlin Night Market.
Chung Shan North Road, Section 4, Shihlin, Taipei, Taiwan.
 
Travelling to Taiwan
Eva Air flies from London Heathrow (T1) and Paris, Amsterdam and Vienna in mainland Europe to Taiwan and many other destinations in Asia  
www.evaair.com
Reservations: +44 (0) 20 7380 8300



 
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15 August 2009
By: Tom Kevill Davies
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