Long-time Topics contributor, Lonely Planet writer, and all-around travel geek Joshua Samuel Brown returns from a trip to Yilan with four food-themed vignettes.
Yuanshan Township: Taiwan’s Best Chicken
Vegetarians can’t comprehend the visceral, savage joy of ripping apart a roasted bird with their bare hands, and this is one of several reasons they (and their more diet-restricted vegan brethren) should give Old Mamma’s Barrel Chicken a wide berth. If the powerful aroma of roasting bird isn’t clue enough that Mama’s is geared towards carnivores, then the haunches of smoked pig hanging from the eaves of the outdoor kitchen should provide the final tipoff.
Old Mama’s is part of a growing trend in Yilan, the cross-pollination between agriculture (long the county’s lifeblood) and tourism. Agritoursim is increasingly big business in the county, and nowhere is the trend more visible than at the Jhentoushan Agricultural Leisure Area, a collection of attractions flanked by rice paddies and cloud-shrouded mountains just a few kilometers to the west of Yilan city.
All of these agricultural leisure areas have restaurants featuring traditional Yilan dishes like xilurou (a sort of chop suey concoction often made with chunks of fish, bok choy, mushrooms, and chicken or other meat, usually with a scrambled egg on top to obscure the dish’s ad hoc nature) and sliced sugarcane-smoked duck (almost impossible to find outside of Yilan County). But for authenticity, Old Mama’s is the best of these farm-to-plate eateries.
The restaurant is easy to spot: A dozen or so clay pots (filled with fermenting soy paste, Mama’s secret recipe) line the side of a restored farmhouse, and a row of smoking metal drums (usually cooking chickens) stands out front. The hams hanging from eaves close to the drums are used in various dishes, but it’s Old Mama’s signature chicken that brings diners from around the island to dine in bucolic splendor.
And what chicken indeed, served piping hot, juices practically erupting with the first tearing of the birds’ perfectly crisped skin. It should be noted that bare-handed savagery is not expected. The restaurant provides thin plastic gloves – a pair for each diner arrives alongside the chicken, a basket of salad greens and mixed raw vegetables, another basket with soft bread, and a dish filled with a thick, aromatic soy paste. The ingredients are then combined to make personalized sandwiches. Fans of the fashionable paleo diet (or those eschewing gluten for personal reasons) can ditch the bread and wrap the chicken in the greens. Carnivorous deliciousness!
Rustic-style chicken is popular around Taiwan, and nearby Jiaoxi has several such places along the main road. But what separates the chicken at Old Mama’s from the competitors is twofold. First, her chicken is cooked quickly in the high, dry heat of the metal barrels up front, making the skin especially crisp and the meat particularly juicy. And second, the secret sauce is out of this world, fermented for six months in the huge clay pots that line the restaurant’s side.
The sauce is available for sale, and a jar of Old Mama’s Handmade Soy Sauce makes a good gift for friends who couldn’t make the trip – or for vegetarians who chose to give Old Mama’s a miss.
Old Mamma’s Barrel Chicken
68 Pocheng Road, Zhenshan Village, Yuanshan Township, Yilan County
Tel: (03) 922-6639
Dong Yue: Tribal Cuisine
“Roasted wild mountain pig? Not today, I’m afraid.”
Yo Gan delivered the news to me gently. He sensed rightly that my desire to eat the dish played a large part in what had compelled me to brave bad weather – a typhoon was threatening to hit from the east, making travel along the Suao-Hualien highway a dubious prospect – to accept an invitation to dine with the Atayal people of Dong Yue village.
I’d eaten true wild-caught mountain pig only once, when some tribal neighbors in my then-home of New Flower Garden City in what was then Taipei County had joined their relatives on a trapping expedition deep in the mountains past Wulai. The trip a success, the extended clan returned to roast the beast on a spit in back of the building we shared. Though it was over a decade ago, I still remember the sound of crackling fat, the taste of crispy skin, and the succulent meat. I especially remember the way the men spoke of the expedition, of the pride they felt in having used traditional methods to trap, kill, and finally cook the animal.
But that was many years ago. Now Yo Gan and I walked through the rain to the semi-enclosed dining area where a long table was being set for the feast that was to begin shortly. My own presence there was an afterthought. The important guests were a large group of tourists from Guangzhou, who had paid big money to experience genuine Taiwanese aboriginal tradition, and perhaps some archery if there was a break in the rain. This scene, of course, was something that would have seemed unthinkable to my neighbors 15 years past.
I walked into the kitchen and watched the ladies of the village prepare the meal. Even without wild boar, the meal would be one to remember. Giant snails had been harvested from the river and braised with soy sauce. Chunks of river fish had been smoked and sautéed with wild harvested peppers. There were other dishes as well, including one of okra, onions, and pork. Another traditional dish, jutongfan, would be prepared by the guests themselves, who would be invited to cut bamboo stalks and stuff them with rice before the meal began, so that that each guest’s stalk could be steamed during the feast.
A few minutes after I arrived, the tour bus came, and two dozen Chinese guests were welcomed with tribal music coming from a boom-box. After putting on my gifted tribal headband along with the rest of the group, I began packing my bamboo stalk with rice. Soon we were all sucking snails from their shells, eating smoked fish and peppers by the chopstick-ful, and eating the okra, onions, and pork dish. Everyone was friendly enough, but I couldn’t banish the idea that I was, on some level, taking part in egregious cultural appropriation. The travelers from China seemed as interested in taking pictures of me as they were of our hosts, and by the middle of the meal I was sitting alone with Yo Gan and Cheng-shu, the photographer from Yilan City who had braved the weather to drive us to Dong Yue.
I asked Yo Gan why they hadn’t used wild mountain pig for the pork dish. “Not a lot of Atayal people know how to trap a wild mountain pig anymore,” he replied. “I do, but few of my people under 30 have the skills anymore,” he said, before adding optimistically: “But I think the skill will come back.”
“Why do you think so?” I asked. “Tourism,” he answered. “It gives the younger generation a reason to study traditional ways. Ten years ago Atayal teenagers left the villages to get jobs in cities. No way to make money at home.” Yo Gan gestured at the guests getting ready to remove their jutongfan from the steaming pot.
“Nowadays there’s practical financial incentive to learn how to make traditional dishes like jutongfan, to perform tribal songs and dances. Eventually, I think, the younger generation will also want to relearn more difficult skills.”
“Like trapping wild pigs?” I asked. “Exactly,” he said.
The meal over and the rain having let up, the group from Guangzhou walked onto the muddy field while a few members of the tribe set up archery equipment. Cheng Shu suggested we head north before the weather turned bad again. As we headed out, Yo Gan waved and called to me.
“See you next time. We’ll eat some roasted wild pig together.”
To arrange a visit and a meal with the Atayal Tribe of Dong Yue Village, send an email in Chinese to the local sustainable development council (多必優原住民永續發展協會) at [email protected] or telephone 03-998-6399.
Yilan City: The Culinary Artist
Chen Chao-lin is an artist and food is his medium of choice. His restaurant, Du Hsiao Yue, is considered by many the finest in Yilan City, and some rank it among the best restaurants in Taiwan. But the flavor of his culinary creations is but one reason people make the trek from Taipei (not a city lacking excellent eateries).
Style and presentation are another reason. But we’ll talk flavor first.
Yilan is known for seafood, so the wise diner should chose sashimi as a first course. Chen serves nothing but the freshest fish, presented in such a way as to bring out the color of each individual slice. Though there’s nothing particularly “signature” about this sashimi, Chen strives to use nothing in any of his dishes that isn’t local, and incorporates locally grown or caught ingredients in every dish.
As the meal progresses, more dishes come out, each one progressively more Du Hsiao Yue signature items. A grilled saltwater fish garnished with wasabi. A small dish for each diner containing a bacon-wrapped scallop. A plate of cherry-marinated duck drizzled lightly with caviar sauce. After this, perhaps Chen’s most famous dish, Gaojha.
About the size and shape of a block of supermarket tofu, Gaojha is nothing so simple. The dish is made from minced chicken, shrimp, and pork shaped into a cake and lightly fried, resulting in an item crisp on the outside and moist, sponge-cake soft on the inside. The flavor is exquisite, delicate, and more complex than any of its individual components.
But again, flavor is only one component in Chen Chao-lin’s culinary artistry. His skill with a knife is another, and Chen is almost as well known for his carving skills as he is for his cooking.
In 2008, he earned a gold medal in food presentation for turning a winter melon into an elaborate, three dimensional nautical scene featuring a Chinese junk sailing over the waves.
Armed with a knife and a carrot, he can create a fiercely lifelike (albeit still carrot-colored) dragon in under 10 minutes.
Chef Chen’s skills are recorded in a book displaying his culinary and sculptural creations side-by side, with each page featuring a dish next to an edible carving There is a carrot phoenix in flight next to a plate of minced pork cakes, a bamboo-shoot swordsman in battle next to a dish of stewed carp with bamboo shoots, and so forth.
An elaborate dinner at Du Hsiao Yue is (obviously) not cheap, and budget-conscious travelers are better off heading to nearby Jiaoxi for seafood, or even to the Luodong night market. Great food for all budgets can be found all around Yilan, but art – especially the edible variety – comes at a price.
Du Hsiao Yueh
58 Fuxing Road, Section 3, Yilan City.
Loudong: A Night Market Paradox
Yilan County’s Luodong Night market isn’t the biggest such market in Taiwan, but it’s one of the best known, justly revered as a great place to eat night market food of all sorts. I’d come looking for one dish in particular, a dish peculiar to Luodong – a dish which, by definition, should not exist: Odorless Stinky Tofu.
I’ll assume TOPICS readers are familiar with the Taiwan night-market staple chou doufu and that, love it or hate it, the dish itself needs no introduction. But how can a food that has “stinky” in its name come in a scent-free variety? It was enough to boggle the mind, like sugar-free cotton candy. I’d been tipped off by a friend who told me she’d heard tale of the stuff being sold at the market in Luodong. I was intrigued by the paradox.
Arriving just after dusk on a Monday, I realized quickly that the usual method of detecting the presence of stinky tofu wasn’t going to work with this version, and that more subtle detective work would be called for. And as all forms of work (save meditation) are made more difficult by an empty stomach, it seemed prudent to first have a few other Luodong market specialties.
Six fist-sized oysters, grilled in their shells over hot coals and served piping hot were a perfect investigator’s appetizer. These I washed down with a cup of warm sugar-cane juice, mixed with ginger (to cleanse the kidneys – one can’t be too careful with seafood post-Fukushima). Continuing throughui the crowded market, I was tempted to make a second snack of some deep-fried sqd, in honor of that most noble of sea creatures who call the waters off Yilan home, when I found myself looking at a cart selling something I’d never seen at a night market before.
They were a cross between a dumpling and an egg-roll, each the size of a baby’s head, and still opened like presents waiting to be sealed, allowing a full view of the ingredients within: vegetables, shrimp, oysters, and an egg yolk. I asked the girl behind the counter how they were cooked and she pointed to a large wok filled with bubbling oil.
Deep fried! Who could pass such a thing up? I ordered two.
They were crispy, delicious, and awakened memories of childhood egg-rolls. But I was quickly running out of stomach space and no closer to finding the elusive dish that had brought me to Luodong. Reluctant to ask around for “the cart selling stinky tofu that doesn’t stink,” I resorted to the skill that got me into travel writing in the first place: Wandering.
By luck or providence, 30 minutes (and some candied crabapples) later, I stumbled across a cart with a sign that read “Stinky Tofu to make your mouth water.” I took a tentative sniff, detecting nothing of the normally pungent odor – a cross between fine camembert and dirty gym socks – that normally surrounds such carts.
The cart’s proprietress and presumed chef was used to skeptical customers. She handed me a sample. “All taste, no smell,” she assured me. The tofu had no more aroma than supermarket tofu, but when I popped it into my mouth the pungency came rushing at me.
“This is fantastic,” I said enthusiastically. “It tastes just like chou doufu!”
“It is chou doufu,” she replied.
“But it doesn’t smell!”
“Exactly!” She pointed at her sign. “You buying or not?”
I plunked a 50 NT coin on the counter, and the tofu lady filled up a paper cup with cubes of her scentless stinky tofu.
“So…how do you make this stuff?” I asked between mouthfuls.
“Shi wo mi mi…It’s my secret.”
I understood completely. Unless she was soaking it in cyanide and frying it in diesel, her tofu couldn’t be much more dubious health-wise than your average night-market chou doufu, and wise indeed is the night-market chef to keep her secrets in Taiwan’s highly competitive street-food world. I finished the tofu and wished the chef well in cornering what I could only presume would be a lucrative market.
Less than a month later I was mildly saddened (but not surprised) to get a message from another friend telling me a restaurant in Taipei had just started selling their own version of odor-free stinky tofu. The Taipei restaurant was calling its product “Yilan-style Chou Doufu.” I like to think that this was a nod to the lady in Luodong.
The Luodong Night Market is located off Gongyuan Road in Luodong Township, Yilan County.