Cold Days, Hot Springs, and Warming Foods

Impromptu goat meat hot pot restaurants pop up during winter months. (This one in Shilin.)

When winter weather arrives, a soak at one of Taiwan’s many hot springs is an attractive way to ward off the chill. Certain foods are also said to help achieve the same purpose. 

“Cold” is, of course, a relative term. For those coming from overseas locations with harsh winter climates, Taiwan’s cold season might seem barely worthy of the name. But in contrast to the long hot summer and balmy autumn, the arrival of winter can still come as something of a shock, especially in the north, where 2020 ended with weeks of almost unending rain.

Fortunately, there are plenty of food options tailored to help keep the body warm during this season, as well as millennia-long traditions of medicine-enhanced dishes designed to treat the coughs and sniffles of seasonal illnesses (though sadly not that illness).

Furthermore, Taiwan’s location where the Philippine Sea plate slides beneath the continental Eurasian plate not only generates self-shaking cocktails on a regular basis, but also makes it possible to indulge in the double pleasure of immersing in one of the more than 100 hot springs on the island, followed by dining on an appropriately matching repast.

The Tourism Bureau launched a campaign a couple of years ago, with the help of experts from the Chinese Gourmet Association and voting by the general public, to choose recipients for Taiwan’s top ten Hot Spring Cuisine Awards.

These are all at high-end establishments (unlike the Michelin awards, which now include numerous night market stalls), and so are far beyond the means of this writer. Luckily, however, I was invited to review a number of these restaurants and their award-winning banquets for another magazine, and so was able to form an opinion about them. Since that other magazine is funded by the self-same Tourism Bureau, readers may have wondered whether the unanimously glowing comments in that report could be believed.

In case there was any doubt, let me now confirm that the foods were, without exception, amazing.

At Guguan, 800 meters above sea level in Taichung, we were served a sturgeon with Kyoto-style white miso paste; chicken soup with shitake, burdock, and maqaw (馬告; the Atayal word for the pepper-like fruit of the Litsea cubeba tree); “chestnut sweet potatoes” (they really do look and taste like sweet chestnuts and make all subsequent sweet potatoes somewhat underwhelming); and bamboo shoots stuffed with mushrooms and gingko and topped with mentaiko (明太子; pink-dyed pollock roe).

At Guanziling in Tainan’s hills, which is famous not only for its water-and-fire spring where methane from a geothermal vent is said to have caught fire and burned continuously for around 300 years, but also for being one of only three mud hot springs in the world, I dined on chicken soup with fermented lotus root and gouqi (枸杞; Chinese wolfberry), fish with mango sauce, and prawns steamed with rice wine and herbs. 

Lastly, at Baolai (寶來) on the Southern Cross-Island Highway, which was just starting to rebuild its hot-spring industry after rediscovering the hot spring source lost during Typhoon Morakot in 2009, I got to try organic, handmade tofu; locally reared pork in shacha (沙茶; garlic, chili and shrimp paste) sauce; and bird’s nest fern (山蘇) cooked with plums and sesame seeds.

All sensational gastronomic experiences. Nowhere, however, were these dishes particularly linked to the activity of hot spring bathing. The venues were hot spring resorts with great food, but the dining experience was in no way connected to having soaked one’s body in steaming water for several hours. The sole exception was when I asked for a beer, only to be told that alcohol and hot springs do not go together.

Even when I pressed the head chefs, who had been dragged out of their kitchens to answer my questions, they were reluctant to stress the benefits of their dishes beyond a bland “Well, pumpkin is good for the kidneys” or “gingko is said to help improve your circulation.” Which was in stark contrast to the health claims made by their hotel managers that “carbonate waters of pH7 are skin rejuvenating” or “hot spring mud is joint improving.”

Rather, the chefs were keener to emphasize such things as freshness, seasonality, local sourcing, and organic-where-possible. Thus, the plums and other fruit served in Baolai were all grown within 20 kilometers of the restaurant, while the pork used at the Guguan restaurant all came from no further than one county away and the sturgeon from Songhe Village less than five kilometers downstream.

The Taipei environs

This approach to the cuisine is even more pronounced at the two hot spring resorts closest to Taipei: Beitou to the north of the city and Wulai to the south. It is cultural and historical considerations that seem to determine which dishes find their way onto those menus, rather than any more direct relationship to the hot springs that draw most visitors in the first place.

Local people build make-shift hot spring pools beside the Wulai River.

Beitou, just a dozen kilometers north of downtown Taipei, is the closest access point to the sulfur-producing volcanic pits on the southern slopes of Yangmingshan, formerly known as Grass Mountain. Indeed, even that name may derive from the sulfur industry, since Qing-dynasty officials are said to have regularly set fire to the mountain’s ground cover to deprive would-be sulfur thieves of trees to hide among, leaving only grass.

With the arrival of the hot spring-loving Japanese colonial rulers in 1895, another use was found for Beitou’s sulfur resources in addition to providing the raw material for gunpowder, one of China’s “four great inventions” (along with paper, printing, and the compass). Actually, it may have been more of a discovery than an invention, as 9th-century Daoist alchemists were really looking for the elixir of life.

Indeed, local legend dates the first hot-spring hotel in Beitou to the first year of Japanese rule, after a certain Hirata Gengo found that the waters possessed highly therapeutic effects (a kind of elixir of life), while bathing his wounded knee.

Whether due to Hirata or not, the area certainly became the hot-spring Mecca of northern Taiwan for the next 50 years and even into the postwar years, though by the end of the century its reputation was a great deal seedier. Introduction of the two-day weekend and reduced working hours in the 1990s, and the concomitant boom in domestic tourism, led to the area being revitalized, with a heavy rebranding based on its Japanese past.

The area includes more than a dozen Japanese-style eateries in just the 500 meters between the Xinbeitou MRT Station and the public outdoor hot springs. There is also a store that will rent you a kimono and other Japanese accessories, as well a photographer to snap you posing in front of the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, itself housed in a public bathhouse dating from 1913.

The Japanese-themed food options range from fast-food rice burgers, through tea houses and Teishoku (定食;“set meal”) joints, to high-end, named-chef restaurants in several of the larger hotels.

About 30 kilometers to the south is Wulai, which was settled by Atayal Aborigines – pressured out of western Taiwan by immigrating Han Chinese – not long before Hirata and his countrymen discovered Beitou. Legend has it that a hunter saw fumes rising from the river here and uttered “kilux ulay,” meaning “hot and poisonous” (presumably they didn’t think too highly of thermal waters back then), from which the placename Wulai is derived.

Nowadays hot spring hotels, an 80-meter waterfall, and a short length of logging railway converted for passengers sustain the local economy, helped in no small measure by Aboriginal-themed restaurants and stalls. Popular food and drink items include “wild boar” served on slate (please excuse the cynical quotation marks), venison, rice cooked in tubes of bamboo (竹筒飯), and a wide assortment of “mountain vegetables” (less cynical this time), all washed down with millet wine (小米酒), which is actually a brewed-grain beverage.

Selection of locally grown vegetables, Wulai.
Rice cooked in bamboo tubes, Wulai.

Flavoring with maqaw is widespread. You can even buy jars of the small dried fruit to take home to Atayalize your home-cooked meals.

“Flavored with” is pretty much the go-to phrase for a host of winter dishes in Taiwan, whether or not in a hot-spring resort. Walk down pretty much any restaurant-neighborhood street at this time of year and you will smell foods before you can see them. The reason is the strong connection between food and medicine in Chinese culture. Since winter’s cold and wet weather brings a lot more potential for disease, stronger-tasting and stronger-smelling tonic dishes are relied on for the maintenance of good health.

In your face and up your nose are dishes like yang-rou lu (羊肉爐), usually translated as “mutton hot pot.” Perhaps in China it is actually made with mutton, but in Taiwan, which has goats but precious few sheep, it is almost certainly “chevon hot pot.” The Chinese for both animals is yang (羊), which is pretty reasonable since there is little genetic difference between them. Mutton and chevon are both “warm foods” in traditional Chinese medicine, making them ideal for winter dishes. They are also said to boost the immune system, improve circulation, and increase milk production in new mothers. When rice wine is used as a base for the broth, the aroma is so strong that a shop sign is almost unnecessary.

The same is true for jiang mu-ya (薑母鴨; “ginger mother duck”), which in addition to the ginger and duck meat is made with sesame oil and rice wine. This is the go-to style of restaurant for Taiwan’s six weeks or so of winter. Every year I intend to look at what is being sold on the same sites during warmer months, but I always forget. Sesame oil is said to be rich in antioxidants, which help the body regulate blood sugar and fat.

There is also the less in-your-face and more innocuous sounding “four deities soup” (四神湯; also sometimes translated as “four tonics soup” or “four herbs soup”), for which the medical claims are far greater. The four herbs are Chinese yam (淮山), gorgon (芡實), lotus seed (蓮子), and poria fungus (茯苓), all of which in traditional medicine are neither warming nor cooling, yet are said to nourish the heart and lungs, regulate the liver, and strengthen the kidneys. Probably the most common tonic soup found in just about every night market, it is also said to improve the immune system and beautify the skin.

Finally, the winter season also includes the various Lunar New Year food-related traditions. Eating fish at some point is probably the best-known tradition, since “fish” (魚) is pronounced yu in Mandarin, the same as “surplus” (餘), implying a bumper harvest. For the same reason, a fish design is commonly found at the bottom of a bowl or on a plate.

The above-mentioned wordplay does not work in Hoklo, but one that does is onglai, which can mean both pineapple (鳳梨) and “prosperity has come” (旺來). Other New Year food offerings include tangerines (橘; ju) since the word in Mandarin sounds like “express good wishes” (祝; zhu), and an edible seaweed facai (髮菜; literally “hairy vegetable”), which sounds like “prosperity” (發財; fa cai). There are also New Year pastries called nian-gao (年糕), which bring to mind the expression “year after year promotion” (年年升高; nian-nian sheng gao), an idea also suggested by bamboo shoots because they grow tall and fast.

Dumplings are renamed “ingots” over Lunar New Year.

Other foodstuffs change their names just for the New Year period. Dumplings (餃子) become “money ingots” (元寶), which they resemble in shape; chicken wings are called “fly a thousand miles” (飛越千里); and pig trotters become “peacefully walk the azure clouds” (平步青雲).

Finally, at Lantern Festival (元宵; yuanxiao) on the first full moon of the new year, the Taiwanese enjoy special rice flour dumplings with sweet fillings. These dumplings, also nicknamed yuanxiao, herald the beginning of spring and, hopefully, warmer weather.