Eating Your Way Through Taiwan’s Former Capital

Following the merger of Tainan City and Tainan County at the end of 2010, the special municipality of Tainan now encompasses 2,191 square kilometers (eight times the land area of Taipei) and has almost 1.9 million people. Among its far-flung attractions are the hot springs at Guanziling, and the Zengwen, Wushantou, and Nanhua reservoirs.

Much of the best food, however, is found in the old heart of the city. This article focuses on two very central parts of the municipality, plus one other district easily reached by public transportation. If you wish to telephone any of the listed eateries before you arrive in Tainan, remember to add the area code 06.

Story by Steven Crook. Photos by Rich Matheson

Soulangh Cultural Park, Jiali District, Tainan, Taiwan

East Market

East Market (東菜市場) is just 700 meters south of the railway station. This neighborhood’s culinary offerings are best enjoyed as part of a walking tour, which also takes you to two of Tainan’s most interesting places of worship.

The first is the Prefectural Cheng Huang Temple (城隍廟; 133 Qingnian Road), where the city god and his wife are among the deities worshipped. Inside, hanging right above the main doorway, a huge iron abacus reminds visitors that the gods are constantly tallying both their righteous deeds and their sins. The city god’s birthday, the 11th day of the fifth lunar month, will fall on June 26 in 2015.

Located just a few doors east of the temple, Qingqi Breakfast (清祺素食; 135 Qingnian Road; tel. 228-5781; open 4:30–11:30 a.m. and 1:30–10 p.m. daily) is a long-established eatery serving excellent vegetarian food. Help yourself to the dim sum in the circular bamboo steamers out front, grab some turnip squares or deep-fried spring rolls, and order noodles if you’re especially hungry. Then take your selection to the counter inside where you pay before eating. The bright lights and white-tile walls may remind you of an old hospital, but there’s no doubting the cleanliness of this establishment, as well as the tastiness of the food.

If you prefer meat with your noodles, head for Amei Lumian (阿美魯麵; 88 Minquan Road; tel. 226-9102; open 7 a.m.–1 p.m. daily). The signature dish (dalumian, 大魯麵) is the only hot food available. You’ve a choice of standard wheat noodles or rice vermicelli, but it’s the broth – which is chock full of sliced pork, mushroom, egg, and vegetables – that’ll have you coming back for more next time you’re in the city.

Soulangh Cultural Park, Jiali District, Tainan, TaiwanOne reason for this business’s prosperity is that some local families buy dozens of portions to share with friends and relatives whenever an elderly family member has a birthday or a daughter gets engaged. At the same location, under the brand name Qiu Hui-mei Pineapple Cakes (邱惠美鳳梨酥), the owners also sell a range of traditional baked delicacies that make for good gifts.

The quickest and most interesting way of getting from Qingnian Road to Minquan Road is by cutting through the market. About halfway, on the left, you’ll find Meifong Sticky Rice (美鳳油飯; tel. 226-4525; open 8-12:30 a.m.). This is where traditionalists with a son about to marry order boxes of youfan (油飯), a mix of sticky rice and pork given away on such occasions. If you’re looking for something to add to a picnic, you may prefer to buy some of Meifong’s taro balls (NT$60 for six). These are made by putting steamed taros through a meat grinder (hence the worm-like strands), then rolling the purplish matter around a filling of green onions stewed in pork gravy.

Turning right at Amei Lumian leads to Dongyue Hall (東嶽殿; 110 Minquan Road, Section 1), a cramped and spooky temple where relatives of the recently deceased petition the gods of the afterworld in an effort to minimize their loved ones’ posthumous suffering. Because much of the activity relates to the recently dead, photographers should snap with sensitivity.

Soulangh Cultural Park, Jiali District, Tainan, TaiwanA score of businesses on this stretch of Minquan Road sell religious paraphernalia, such as votive money and incense sticks. It’s Tainan’s equivalent of Xiyuan Road in Taipei’s Wanhua District.

Turning left and crossing the road brings you to Sunice (太阳牌冰品; 41 Minquan Road, Section 1; tel. 225-9375; open 8 a.m.–9:30 p.m. daily), which first opened its doors in 1957. The desserts served here are built around neither conventional milk-rich ice cream nor the shaved ice so popular during Taiwan’s summers, but something in between. Multiple flavors (NT$50 to $80 per serving) are available, including taro, mango, and azuki beans with condensed milk. If you want to keep moving, buy a popsicle (NT$17 to $22). Where else will you find the flavor choice of walnut and egg yolk?

Tainan, Taiwan Tainan, Taiwan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting there

If you’re coming by car, the most convenient parking lot is on the corner of Weimin Street and Wude Street.

 

 Soulangh Cultural Park, Jiali District, Tainan, TaiwanOld Five Channels Cultural Zone

Thanks to the vast amount of silt washed down from the mountains each wet season, Taiwan’s southwestern coastline has advanced steadily over the past few centuries. Fort Provintia, also known as Chikan Tower, is now more than 10 kilometers from saltwater, but when the Dutch built their fort here in 1653 it was an oceanfront property. During the Qing period (which lasted until the Japanese took over in 1895), this part of Tainan was called Wutiaogang (五條港), literally “harbor of five channels.” It still retains an exceptional amount of traditional character, as you’ll notice as you walk among the eateries introduced below.

In recent years, the Tainan City government has organized an annual beef festival, with the 2014 edition showcasing 48 eateries spread over 18 of the municipality’s 37 districts. One of the featured restaurants is at the northern edge of the Old Five Channels Cultural Zone: Kangle Street Beef Soup (康樂街牛肉湯; 325 Kangle Street; tel. 227-0579; open 4:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-midnight, closed Tuesdays). It’s a classic example of a restaurant that focuses on a narrow range of dishes and does them very well. The beef soups (from NT$100) consist of nothing but stock and thin slices of meat; no onions or greens make an appearance. Cow’s lung and cow’s heart are also available, fried or in a soup, and there’s a beef version of the old staple of braised meat on white rice (rouzaofan, 肉燥飯). According to the owner, the beef is sourced from a ranch in Tainan City’s Shanhua District, just 25 kilometers to the northeast – a detail that’ll please diners trying to minimize their food miles.

Tainan, TaiwanLess than 150 meters to the south, Guban (古板; 145 Minquan Road, Section 3; tel. 220-3515; open 9:30 a.m.–10 p.m. daily) serves tasty beef buns (niurou xianbing, 牛肉餡餅) and pork buns (zhurou xianbing, 豬肉餡餅). The corner location makes it a good spot to linger and watch life on the street.

A worthwhile nearby attraction is the Wind God Temple (風神廟), easily found by continuing south along Kangle Street to just south of Minquan Road. Dating from the early 18th century, it’s the only house of worship in Taiwan devoted to the wind god, which is surprising given the frequency of typhoons. The adjacent archway was erected to welcome imperial officials disembarking at the end of the sea voyage from Fujian. Appropriately, it’s made of granite blocks that arrived as ballast on board ships coming from the mainland.

Much loved by tourists thanks to its antique appearance, Shennong Street is a must-see in this part of Tainan. Largely intact traditional two-story houses with tiled roofs and wooden upper floors line both sides of the street, which is too narrow for cars.

Surprisingly, the only formal restaurant on this ultra-traditional street specializes in French-Italian cuisine. The multi-course sets at Brittany (布列塔尼; 65 Shennong Street; tel. 0989 203 383; open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. daily) are priced around NT$700 and worth every dollar. Without a reservation you won’t even get in, as owner-chef Paul doesn’t unlock the door unless he has a booking.

After Shennong Street, cross Haian Road and take a look at the market that fills almost the entire block between Minquan and Minzu Roads. It’s named after the picturesque shrine at its heart, Shui-xian Temple (水仙宮). This year the temple is celebrating its 300th anniversary.

In addition to the usual stalls offering fresh fish, meat, and vegetables, there are three vegetarian holes-in-the-wall on the fringes of the market, and at least two places serving coffee. A stone’s throw from the northeastern corner, you’ll find Fu Sheng Hao Rice Cake (富盛號碗粿; No. 8, Lane 333, Ximen Road, Section 2; tel. 227-4101; open 7 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mondays), which has been in business since 1947. The above address, which is what appears on websites and name cards, is actually the back entrance. Instead, look for the bilingual sign on the south side of Minzu Road, equidistant between Guohua Street and Ximen Road, and enter there.

Soulangh Cultural Park, Jiali District, Tainan, Taiwan“Rice cake” is an unsatisfactory translation of what Mandarin-speakers call wanguo (碗粿), but which most Taiwanese pronounce waguei. “Cake” seems to imply something sweet and baked, but the dish is actually a mix of liquidized rice and peanuts, flavoring, a few small chunks of pork, plus a shrimp or two. The concoction is then steamed until it’s thicker than pudding. The taste is savory and very mild; most people add a dollop of the store’s zesty garlic sauce or a squirt of wasabi before tucking in. A single serving costs NT$30.

One more restaurant deserves a mention, even though it’s 500 meters from any of the other eateries featured in this section. To get to Chikan Peddler’s Noodles (赤崁擔仔麵; 180 Minzu Road, Section 2; tel. 220-5336; open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily), you’ll need to follow Minzu Road eastwards past Fort Provintia. Danzai noodles (擔仔麵), the featured dish here, was invented in the late 19th century by a fisherman who needed to earn money during the hotter months, when typhoons made fishing too dangerous. For this reason, they’re sometimes called “slack season noodles.” The putative creator is said to have used shoulder poles to carry his noodles to the temple courtyards where he hawked them; danzai means “carry on one’s shoulders.”

The noodles come with minced pork and a single shrimp. They’re extremely tasty, but portions are small so also order vegetables and perhaps some of the excellent pork dumplings. The bilingual menu isn’t complete, however, and the way the names of certain dishes have been translated is confusing. On the plus side, the retro decor is easy on the eye.

Getting there

Tourist Shuttle Bus no. 88, which also serves Anping, stops outside the market at the intersection of Minzu Road and Guohua Street. If you’re approaching by car, by far the best place to look for a parking spot is Haian Road.

 

Chou's Shrimp Rolls in AnpingAnping

The Anping district played a prominent role in Taiwan’s history. By 1624, when the Dutch East India Company established its colony here, migrants from the Chinese mainland had already established pioneer settlements at a handful of places along Taiwan’s west coast. Anping quickly became the most important of these thanks to the presence of European, Chinese, and Japanese traders.

As you would expect in a district abutting the ocean (and which was an island until well after the Dutch were forced out in 1662), seafood has long played a leading role in local cuisine. Anping’s most famous comestibles are based on oysters and shrimps. Big bags of shrimp chips are sold by several stores; Ruhfu Bakery (熱富西點麵包店; 133 Anping Road and also at 26 Yanping Street; tel. 221-3724; open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily) is the only one where products are labeled in English as well as Chinese.

Another good place to find edible gifts is Chycutayshing (永泰興蜜餞行; 84 Yanping Street; tel. 228-9271; open 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily), which is said to have been trading on Anping’s oldest thoroughfare since the final quarter of the 19th century. The signboard out front (which staff say dates from around 1960) deserves a photo, and inside you’ll see several of the glazed pots formerly used to produce Chycutayshing’s famous candied fruits. The selection – which includes kiwis, strawberries, and several plum flavors – is impressive. Small packets are priced at NT$50.

For an unpretentious sit-down meal, Chen’s Oyster Rolls (786 Anping Road; tel. 222 9661; open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily) is perhaps your best bet. Modern technology is used to crank out delicious yet inexpensive traditional food. Many tourists come here for oyster omelets, but the menu also lists shrimp rolls, soups, and straightforward noodle dishes.

Even better known is Chou’s Shrimp Rolls (周氏蝦捲; branches at 125 and 408-1 Anping Road; tel. 280-1304; open: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily). Founded by a banquet chef for whom shrimp rolls were initially just a sideline, Chou’s is now under second-generation management. Like Chen’s, the business has applied lessons learned in the fast-food industry to meet demand. As a result, there’s not much atmosphere, but the upside is consistency and never having to wait long for your order to be filled. A serving of the famous deep-fried shrimp rolls (xiajuan, 蝦捲) costs NT$55 and is enough for four people to each enjoy a lipstick-sized morsel. The recipe includes green onions, celery, pork, and pig offal. The menu’s other options include meatballs, shrimp soups, and danzai noodles.

Getting there

On weekends you’ll struggle to find parking within 300 meters of Yanping Street. Many Tainan hotels lend bicycles to guests, and Anping is within cycling distance of central Tainan. You’ll need a lock to enable you to explore on foot, and helmets are advised. City bus no. 2 (NT$18 one way, regardless of distance) links Tainan’s railway station with the National Museum of Taiwan Literature and Confucius Temple before stopping near Fort Zeelandia.

 

 

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