TAIPEI — ‘‘We call it small eating,’’ our friend Theresa said as she herded us through the maze of food stalls at the wildly popular Shilin Night Market here in her hometown.
We walked past bowls of black snails, baskets of fried shrimp, strings of octopus sausage, and steaming vats of smelly, fried, fermented chou doufu (really stinky tofu). Theresa laughed as we scrunched our noses and suppressed the gag instinct, and then shrugged her shoulders: What smell? She bought three pieces and thrust them in front of us to sample. ‘‘The worse it smells, the better it tastes,’’ she said.
As an aside, she told us that there are more than 2.5 million vegetarians in Taiwan (population 23 million). ‘‘Great chefs from around the world come here to learn how to cook our vegetarian dishes.’’
Despite its stomach-lurching odor, the tofu was surprisingly mild and tasty — another unexpected, pleasant discovery on our first trip to Taipei.
Taipei, the capital city on the island of Taiwan, has never been among Asia’s tourist hot spots, especially compared with Tokyo, Shanghai, or Hong Kong. But that’s changing fast. Relations with mainland China have improved and travel restrictions eased; the economy has gotten robust; and Taipei is coming into its own.
Committed to improving its stand in the world, this metropolis is throwing out the welcome mat. The bustling city, home to 2.6 million people, has an improved infrastructure — including the modern Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system — refurbished historic sites, and a lively, distinctive cultural and culinary scene. And the world is taking notice: Taipei had a whopping 26.7 percent increase in visitors in 2010.
Theresa, born and raised in Taipei, had greeted us at the airport with a list in hand. ‘‘Here are all the things you must see and do,’’ she gushed. ‘‘I have it all planned.’’ So, we followed Theresa and her list through the spruced-up streets of up-and-coming Taipei.
Visit the National Palace Museum
Forget jet lag; an hour after we landed we were at Taipei’s most popular attraction, and one of the finest art museums in the world. The National Palace Museum is home to nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese art and artifacts, many from the Forbidden City in Beijing, brought to Taipei by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. We couldn’t see it all if we had several days, but we hit the highlights. The Jade Exhibit Hall contained jaw-dropping carvings, like the famous Jade Cabbage, a beautiful piece shaped like a head of bok choy. We walked through halls containing ancient bronze cauldrons, water vessels, and bells dating to the late Shang dynasty, and intricate ivory, wood, and stone sculptures and carvings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The replica and presentation on the ‘‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’’ scroll painting was fascinating.
Get a foot massage
‘‘Time to put your feet up,’’ Theresa declared, leading us to her favorite foot massage center. Reflexology, in practice for thousands of years, is common in Taipei; there are massage parlors on nearly every corner. ‘‘Massages in Taipei are done by blind people,’’ Theresa said as we walked into the center, lined with a bank of reclining chairs. ‘‘Technically, only blind people can get a legal massage license in Taiwan.’’ It started out fine. We began by soaking our feet in a warm herbal bath followed by a neck and shoulder massage. Not bad, until the masseurs moved to our feet. We squirmed with pain as they dug their fingers, knuckles, and fists into pressure points. This was no Western-style spa experience. Theresa rolled her eyes and said, ‘‘It’s very healthy for you. You’ll sleep good tonight.’’ And we did.
Watch the sun rise Tai Chi at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
The sun was barely up when we boarded the MRT to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Early morning is the best time to roam the rolling Chinese gardens surrounding Memorial Hall, National Concert Hall, National Theater, and the large public plaza. We watched as locals gathered to practice Tai Chi, before browsing the museum highlighting the life of the controversial president of the Republic of China.
Eat on the street
‘‘If you have only a short time in Taipei, I’d tell you to just spend it eating,’’ Theresa said, only half-joking. The streets of Taipei are chockablock with food stalls serving simple Taiwanese dishes for pocket change. Generally, we ate as we went, grabbing dan bing (egg pancakes), tiao (sweet fried dough), and sweet soy milk curdled with vinegar and topped with spices for breakfast. Throughout the day, we sampled a variety of traditional street food, like zha jiang mien (noodles in bean paste sauce), niu rou mian (steaming beef noodle bowls), steamed taro cakes, shrimp rolls, rice cakes, meat pies, and sausages. Theresa also took us to some of her favorite street stalls, such as Ah Chung for a bowl of super thin vermicelli noodles steamed in pig intestine broth and topped with spicy chili sauce. One evening, we stood in line at the famous Din Tai Fung Dumpling Shop, one of the most popular and well-known restaurants in Taipei. It was crowded and noisy and served the best steamed dumplings we have ever tasted.
Survive the Shilin Night Market
Theresa wanted to show us the upscale West Side, home to Taipei’s big, modern shopping malls and designer outlets. We wanted to go to Shilin instead. Taipei is known for its rollicking, into-the-wee-hours night markets, and Shilin is one of the largest and most famous of them. Like most places in the city, the market was easy to get to on the MRT. We exited the subway station and walked into chaos. The streets and cramped alleyways were jam-packed with vendors, selling mostly cheap knockoffs, tacky souvenirs, and budget-priced clothing to teens and tourists. ‘‘People mountain, people sea,’’ Theresa said (her way of saying crowded) as she guided us to the food court area, with more than 500 vendors. Roaming up and down the aisles lined with food carts was a whirlwind culinary tour of Taipei, the air ripe with the smell of fermenting tofu and the fumes of the gas-powered fryers, and the lanes crowded with local families out for their evening dinner. We drank pearl milk tea, and ate oyster omelets, BBQ squid on sticks, and sweet potato fries.
Get a tattoo (or not) in Ximending
We spent our last night in the city’s lively, ultra-hip Ximending district. This colorful, pulsating neighborhood, often compared to Tokyo’s Shibuya, is a hotbed of pop culture and funky, local fashion. It’s the hippest spot in Taipei, an energetic pedestrian-only section of bright lights, colorful signs, artsy graffiti, funky boutiques, cinemas, karaoke bars, hair salons, and snack shops. We watched as groups of young women, dressed in barely-there skirts and Lady Gaga-style shoes, and men, showing off an array of intricate inkings and piercings, intermingled with families, professionals, and tourists. We stopped to watch a variety of street performers, and meandered into the back alleys, lined with tattoo and piercing parlors. ‘‘Go ahead,’’ Theresa urged. ‘‘A tattoo would be the perfect souvenir.’’
Instead, we shared our last meal in the city, a platter of chou doufu, topped with scallions and hot sauce, purchased for a couple of bucks from a crowded street stall. Once we got past the smell, it wasn’t bad.