Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that China’s Cultural Revolution triggered an influx of new residents from mainland China, and played a role in the flight of ousted Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. In fact, China’s Communist Revolution did both. The story has been updated.
My flight from San Francisco to Taipei was delayed, and painfully so. My eyes were bloodshot, my long, black hair already matted, and I was only a quarter of the way to my destination. Warily, I glanced at my text messages.
Aren’t you going to Taiwan? Did you hear about the phone call?
What luck. Just as I was Taiwan-bound, on a seven-day trip with a group of fellow unwashed-writer types, the 13,000-square-mile dollop of an island where I was headed was suddenly on everyone’s lips.
I raised my eyes to the nearest TV and quickly caught myself up. The news channels were buzzing about a 10-minute chitchat between the president-elect of the United States, Donald Trump, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. It wouldn’t seem like much but for the fact that no American president or president-elect had taken a call from Taipei in nearly 40 years. To do so would be an affront to China.
This particular president-elect not only spoke to Taiwan, but he had tweeted all about it.
Spent, I decided to send a few texts, board and sleep for the bulk of the flight. The fellowship that had dispatched me to Taiwan encouraged me to learn about whatever I wanted. And what I wanted to do was eat.
For a tiny place, Taiwan’s novelty-filled food culture has an almost gravitational pull over the American diner. Taiwanese American kids in Southern California snack on fried squid at homegrown night markets; a chef, Eddie Huang, slings bao — doughy buns filled with various meats and vegetables — and Taiwanese sodas in New York and Los Angeles. Bubble tea, a milky, sweet drink laden with gummy tapioca “pearls” the size of marbles, hails from this place, too, though now it’s almost as ubiquitous in such places as Rockville, Md.
I was Taiwan-bound for stinky tofu, not for a whiff of international brinkmanship.
It quickly dawned on me that politics and Taiwan’s delicate dance with China pervade everything here, from the conversation to the cuisine.
Everyone we met paused before speaking carefully about Taiwan. Is Taiwan a nation? (No.) Does it have an embassy? (No, not quite.) Is its democratically elected president actually a president? (Er, debatable, but this publication often uses “leader.”)
Beijing and Taipei are, for better or worse, bound, the product of the one-China policy, which recognizes the two governments as one — or, rather, recognizes only China’s as legitimate.
Which is why, for decades, American presidents have pretended that Taiwan doesn’t exist. And why, for two generations, Taiwan has shuddered under China’s yoke.
Szu-chien Hsu, the gleefully frank head of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, has a notion about why the Trump Call, as it has come to be known here, made Taiwanese hearts (and Tsai’s approval ratings) leap.
“We have this feeling,” he says, “that we’ve been forgotten by the world.”
The morning after my arrival, I sat down to a life-affirming Chinese breakfast of sweet black soybeans, the Chinese cruller known as an oil stick, taro bun and approximately four versions of tofu, and I begin to feel more charitable.
Around me, I noticed banyan trees, with their artfully tangled trunks, dotting every patch of green, and my ears were abuzz with the high-register squeeee of passing motorbikes. Pastel pops of cuteness — saucer-eyed cartoon figures plastered onto the sides of buses, pet hotels, blinking neon pinwheels — reached out and hugged me from across this landscape of glass and steel.
It looked like any urban East Asian nation. But muggy, perennially gray-skied Taiwan is unique in ways that aren’t readily apparent.
Passed like a hot potato from the Dutch to the Japanese to, finally, China, Taiwan has developed a culture that is a jumble of a half-dozen influences, including that of the Han Chinese, who make up the largest ethnic group here. There is also a tiny indigenous population — which, I learn from Lishan Chang, of the U.S.-based Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, has more in common with Polynesians than with the Chinese. (The president, who took office in May, proudly touts her indigenous family roots.)
All this cultural wire-crossing plays out in a dozen ways, including in the food, particularly what fills the island’s Las Vegas-like night markets and its streetside stands.
Thanks to Taiwanese Americans, I’m already familiar with some of Taiwan’s delicacies, many of them novelties.
Among them: xiao long bao, the two-in-one culinary nuggets that the Taiwanese would claim as their own. Dumplings with a center that bursts with meaty soup, they’re the specialty of Din Tai Fung, the island’s famous chain.
As our car pulled to a halt outside the restaurant’s downtown Taipei location on Xinyi Road and we ambled out into the sea of humanity, it’s apparent that a soup-dumpling pilgrimage hadn’t occurred only to us. Blissfully, we’re called pretty swiftly — the promise of dumplings has a way of blurring the passage of time — and soon we were clambering up a narrow set of steps, past a picture window that reveals what must be Din Tai Fung’s secret: a sea of professional dumpling-pinchers, all men, cloaked in all white — including masks — sealing and steaming with surgical precision.
Settled into our seats at this jumbo jet of a restaurant, we were instantly approached by a fawning fleet of graceful server-stewardesses, their collars fastened firmly with bow-ties, their hair slicked flat into sleek buns. I asked in English what offerings were vegetarian, and despite the language barrier — the people here speak mostly Chinese — our stewardess smiled warmly. Shortly, a plate of bean curd appeared, drizzled in sesame oil and sliced so thinly that it resembled noodles. It was followed by warm fried rice dotted with vegetables and an artfully arranged bed of actual noodles, fresh and warm and swimming in a pond of liquefied sesame seeds. The meat eaters, of course, got the real variety show: drunken chicken (which looks raw but, I’m told later, was just prepared in a way that spotlights the quality of the meat), shrimp-capped shumai and, of course, bamboo vessels the size of hubcaps bearing steaming xiao long bao.
The journalist next to me wiped his brow. Feasting is work.
I’m on a stinky-tofu hunt. A cousin who travels widely in Asia for work assured me that this is the holy grail of Taiwanese eating, the thing I needed to snarf down only so I might brag about it later, like a contestant on “Fear Factor.”
My group was fresh off a remarkably easy, 40-minute trip to Taichung, in the center of the island, on the Taiwan high-speed rail. We spent the night at the too-cool-for-school Red Dot Hotel, where guests can take a slide down into the lobby and the elevators light up like a rave. I located the espresso maker in my room and nearly squealed with joy. As I climbed into my huge bed with perfect sheets and traditional Hakka floral-print headboard, I pledged to never leave.
The next day, of course, I did, albeit grudgingly. We decided on dinner at one of the island’s massive eating-and-shopping bacchanals, Feng Chia Night Market, among the largest night markets in Taichung, a city with more than 10 such bazaars.
The youth population in Taiwan is dwindling markedly as couples delay marriage and put off or forgo having children, but at the night markets, youthful energy bubbles. At the maze-like Feng Chia, street after street lights up with the neon glow of food stalls hawking delicious junk food, including bubble tea, liquid nitrogen ice cream and shaved ice, German pig knuckles, taro pancakes, oysters and Japanese-style fried squid. This market alone rakes in 11 billion Taiwanese dollars a year, says Tristan Liu, director of Taichung’s Economic Development Bureau.
Woven into the deep-fried tapestry are carnival games and toy shops, stands with trendy cellphone cases and Goth T-shirts, all for the pleasure of the gaggles of kids who come here to roam, snack and find new ways to spend their parents’ money.
I pestered our young American-born translator, Isabelle, to find me my storied tofu.
The stink — like I had placed damp hockey equipment and gym clothes from a Bikram yoga session and cheese into a gym bag and left it in a warm, wet cave for a few months — found me first.
The name “stinky tofu,” you all should know, doesn’t begin to relay how malevolent this Chinese street-food delicacy actually is.
As quickly as I stuffed one piece of the fried tofu into my mouth, my face involuntarily shriveled and my nose filled with a sour, foul, unfamiliar funk. Determined not to be felled by perfectly innocent-looking tofu, steeped in a primordial stew of milk, greens and other mystery ingredients so fermented they are verging on spoiled, I took another bite, just as I might try bench-pressing 80 pounds. “I just don’t inhale,” I declared to my companions. I popped one more piece to prove I’m a woman of emotional toughness.
The rest I passed to Isabelle, who adores stinky tofu, to polish off while I purchased every snack in sight to erase its taste from my tongue. Rosewater bubble tea with lemons from one stand, scallion pancake fried into the shape of a dog bone from another, foot-long french fries with wasabi mayo from another.
I woke up in the middle of the night burning with fever. I popped two Advil and passed the time until I fell back asleep cursing the soybean, myself, my ego, all of it.
I rose a little blurry, but we made it back to Taipei, where we squeezed in a visit to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Dadaocheng. The attractions included the small Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum, which highlights the art of puppet making and performance, curiously revered there. Peeking down from the museum’s rooftop, I was more interested in the architectural hodgepodge below.
In Taiwan, modern buildings abut utilitarian shacks capped with aluminum roofs, while the pagoda-like lines of the mega-building Taipei 101 looms over everything here, including the mountains. (Taiwan is mountainous; locals I talked with told me, without pausing, that hiking was their favorite pastime. And just outside the capital, hot springs also beckon.)
If the city’s skyline looks clapped together, that’s because it was, Robin Ruizendaal, director of the museum, told me. A native of Holland, Ruizendaal has been in Taiwan for 20 years and is as fluent in its history as he is in the Mandarin spoken widely here.
As China’s Communist Revolution began, mainlanders arrived on this quiet island like a tsunami, flooding Taipei — on the northernmost tip of the island — and other large cities with more than 2 million new residents between 1946 and 1949 alone.
Urban planning? Ruizendaal smirked. Who had time for such a luxury?
Along with all the people pouring into Taiwan in the late 1940s, there was something else: crates.
And so, on the last day of our trip, our bus sputtered up the winding road to Taipei’s National Palace Museum, which has since 1965 been the resting place of many of China’s most treasured ancient paintings, delicate scrolls and verdant jade objects.
How these artifacts from the Ming, Qing and other eras of Chinese imperial history came to be berthed here, rather than on the vast mainland, is a tale as circuitous as the museum road itself.
But the crucial stuff is this: As the Japanese Imperial Army bore down on China in the 1940s, the country’s treasures were packed up and hidden away for safekeeping. Just a handful of years later, with the Japanese banished and communism taking root, ousted Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek absconded to Taiwan with his army and government, the Kuomintang — and the great wonders of China.
Now, because so many Chinese tourists arrive in Taiwan to gaze these debatably stolen treasures, we were warned that the lines at the museum could be formidable. Instead, the crowds were rather thin, and we managed to see Qing dynasty porcelain bowls painted with chrysanthemums in jewel-toned enamels, and peer through a magnifying glass at “Carved Olive-Stone Boat,” an olive pit sliced and diced to resemble a tiny boat, complete with people inside. The Jadeite Cabbage, a masterpiece of forest-green jade carved into the shape of a bok choy, was behind glass at the center of a maze of velvet ropes holding back no lines at all. We walked right up.
Tension between China and Taiwan was high in 2016, and after the election of Tsai, China placed a chokehold on some tourism from the mainland to the island, explaining the dearth of visitors at the museum. As we debarked from the galleries, and from Taiwan the next morning, the Trump Call was still burning in our ears.
I wondered what was next in this strange relationship that these two governments and their people share. Because these days, China and its neighbor to the south are not feeling like one at all.
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Howard Plaza Hotel
Da’an District, Taipei
In Tapei, you’re unlikely to spend much time luxuriating in hotels. The Howard offers luxurious touches, however, including a Chinese breakfast buffet, heated toilet seats, and top-notch service. Rooms start at $125.
Zhongshan District, Taipei
For those looking for modernism in Taiwan, the Regent, with its high-end shopping, spa and myriad restaurants, will offer a five-star experience for a few dollars more. Rooms start at $185.
Red Dot Hotel
Central District, Taichung
Making a side trip to the night markets in Taichung, or to its TongXiao Beach or stunning, cavelike Metropolitan Opera House, should be on your agenda, and the Red Dot is, if a little irreverent, an urban-dweller’s ideal stay: There are soft sheets, an espresso machine in every room and breakfast in a hip basement setting that cranks Western club music. Rooms start at $135.
Din Tai Fung
Various locations across Taiwan
Plan on waiting for a table at this soup-dumpling mainstay — a major tourist attraction. Dumplings start at about $5 per order.
Feng Chia Market
Xitun District, Taichung
Night markets sprung up in Taiwan as the island went through a prosperous period of development during the Cold War; the markets emerged to feed construction workers as they clocked out for the day. To this day, food remains the focus. Feng Chia is Taichung’s biggest night market; be sure to bring plenty of cash, particularly small bills, because snacks start at $1.
National Palace Museum
Shilin District, Taipei
Since 1965, the Palace Museum has offered locals and visitors from the mainland a chance to see some of China’s most treasured imperial artifacts, including the Jadeite Cabbage and Meat-shaped Stone. Admission costs about $10.
Huashan 1914 Creative Park
Zhong Zhen District, Taipei
Craft shops, spirits, cafes, pop-up art exhibitions and youthful energy bubble up at this fascinating string of creative businesses, all built in a former abandoned factory. An ideal place to pick up locally made gifts with a modern twist.
Beitou Hot Spring
Beitou District, Taipei
Taiwan’s skyline is defined by the mountains that fill the island. In the hills outside urban Taipei, find a popular resort town with bath houses and hot springs that’s also easily accessible by train. Start with the museum, visit the scenic Thermal Valley or bathe at the public Millennium Hot Springs.