On January 31st, we met with Emily’s aunt to tour the Maolin Butterfly Trail and the nearby aboriginal villages. I was not expecting much out of that day, partly because I was not at all enthused about driving an hour just to see butterflies. I turned out to be absolutely wrong because the butterflies were amazing, the aboriginal town was beautiful, and breathing fresh air was a cleansing change from the smog of Kaohsiung.
We started the trip at her aunt’s house where she made us both a pour over using locally grown coffee beans. The beans are cultivated in the mountains by the local Rukai aboriginals. Emily’s aunt has been studying how to grow, roast, and prepare coffee for over a decade, and now acts as a pro bono consultant to the locals who want to grow and sell coffee beans for a living.
She buys raw beans from her aboriginal friends, and does the fermenting, drying, roasting, and grinding for her small coffee business. On weekends, she operates a coffee brewing stall outside the Butterfly Restaurant/Bakery for the tourists that come through the area.
From the Butterfly Restaurant, we walked towards the self guided Butterfly Trail and started to hear a hum of chatter in the distance. When we made the corner, we came up to a large group of children flailing nets too large for them to handle. There were butterfly guides/instructors under umbrella nets handling the butterflies and teaching the children about the Maolin purple crow butterflies.
Carefully handling the butterflies from inside the holding net, the instructor holds the wings of the insect delicately by the tips of his fingers.
We are learning about the details used to identify the sex and type of the butterflies. Unfortunately for me, everything was explained in Mandarin, so be sure to bring a translator with you if you’re not familiar with the language. 😑
The instructor is showing one of the students how to carefully pass the butterfly to your fellow enthusiast in a safe manner.
After catching the butterflies, the kids mark down their observations of their catch and tag them for tracking.
Male purple crow butterflies have a feathery tip sprouting from it’s abdomen. It is said to release pheremones to attract females and to ward off enemies.
The instructor is showing the iridescent wings changing from brown to purple. This particular catch has a pair of distinctive lines on each wing, and is unique to the double-branded crow butterfly.
Thousands of these butterflies migrate to this part of the island during the winter months where it is generally warmer. You can see them perched on branches in this photo during moments of overcast.
During moments of shade, the butterflies hide under the branches of the tree. Once the cloud cover breaks, they swarm out from the valley to show their colours.
We finished the short trail loop and continued onwards to explore the rest of the mountainous region. I never knew butterfly watching was something I would find enjoyable. Perhaps a sign of aging.
As we walked across the Duonagao suspension bridge, Emily’s aunt described the way of life of the local aboriginals who worshipped snakes. In Rukai folklore, there is a story of a girl who liked to eat snakes and as a result, was banished from the community. Hoping her husband would follow her, she left snake carvings in the rock so he could find her. We would later see decorative carvings around the area resembling the original petroglyph that tells the story (see photograph below).
Petroglyphs resembling heads, clouds and circles have been discovered in the Moalin area since the late 1970s. The photo you see above isn’t the real McCoy, but resembles the real carving that tells of a girl who ate snakes and was kicked out of the tribe. The aboriginals worshipped snakes, so eating them absolutely prohibited.
Maolin is located to the west of where the central mountain range begins. You can see endless mountains like this spreading towards the east.
This colourful suspension bridge decorated with the local Aboriginal motifs spans 232 meters over the Zhuokou river. The river used to be full even during the dry winter months and fed into a large waterfall. Unfortunately, a typhoon rolled through the area 4 years ago and caused a landslide that blocked the river to a trickle. Natural hot springs in the area were destroyed and we’re never recovered.
Hunger began to set in so we drove to the next aboriginal village of Duona to have lunch. We ate aboriginal food and had a delicious serving of Aiyu jelly in a hibiscus lime syrup. We liked it so much we bought a bag of dried Aiyu seeds so we could try to make it ourselves at home.
These bowls of aiyu jelly and fresh pineapple is a delightful treat on a warm day. This particular vendor flavours the jelly with hibiscus tea, lime juice, and rock sugar. Yum.
Slate is abundant in the area and they use it to build homes and kitchens like this one pictured above. The wood fired stone surface is used to grill meat at this small family run restaurant.
These are bamboo cooked rice (竹筒飯). It’s a blend of local quinoa and sticky rice surrounding a pork meat, wrapped with bamboo leaves and steamed until cooked.
Aboriginals hunt wild boar in the mountains which they cook on stone surfaces. We had a simple dish of pork belly and onions, 石板烤肉.
This is black rice, millet, taro and pork wrapped in edible leaves foraged from the mountain and steamed.
I noticed these red bushes growing in many family gardens and was surprised to learn that they were indigenous quinoa plants. Quinoa grows easily in the hot and humid climate of Taiwan.
The plants pictured above are a type of quinoa that is native to Taiwan. We saw many locals with quinoa plants in their backyard.
These taiwanese quinoa grains are smaller than the Andean quinoa which is what you normally find in North America.
This lady is preparing to dry some freshly harvested quinoa from her nearby farm. This will be sorted to remove leaves and branches, tumbled to remove the hull and then packaged for sale outside her home.
After lunch, a friendly stray dog began to follow us as we strolled through the village. Emily’s aunt pointed out the edible herbs, leaves, and flowers (for tea) that she sometimes forages. I’m finally starting to catch on that she really used to work as a tour guide for the area because she seems to know everyone in the community.
Here is a vendor selling mountain vegetables and herbs.
The warm climate of southern Taiwan allow plenty of tropical plants to flourish. Here is a small field of coffee bean plants grown by aboriginals.
Coffee beans waiting to ripen.
The leaves of this plant are similar to grape leaves and they are picked to make pork and rice wraps as seen above during our lunch.
Another mountain vegetable that is added to soups and rice porridge.
We discovered that bananas in Taiwan taste quite different to what we are used to in North America. They are starchier, more fragrant, with a rounded flavour.
Look closely and you’ll see some papayas hanging.
Emily’s aunt picks these little flowers to make tea or flavour her coffee. They smell like a sweet jasmine flower.
Grasshopper chilling on a post.
More than half of Taiwan is covered in mountains that run along the east side of the island. Only the west side along the coast is heavily developed. This makes for many great hiking and camping areas. You can visit this blog for more info: http://www.taiwanoffthebeatentrack.com/
The winding river moulded the mountain to the shape of a snake’s head. There’s another viewpoint nearby called the Dragon’s head mountain that resemble it’s name.
The day continued with more sight seeing around snake head mountain and dragon head mountain. As the sun was beginning to set, we finished our guided tour with a meal at a traditional hakka noodle shop, 美濃美食家鄉味.
Very similar to vietnamese pho, they make rice noodles in a large sheet that is then steamed and cut into thick strips. The difference is that they are a little thicker with more of a bite, like al dente pasta.
We had rice noodles in soup form and dry form, with braised winter melon. This shop is also famous for their caramelized shallot jam (cooked with lard) which they sell by the jar and use in all their dishes.
From the beach, we walked towards the Liberal Arts campus and found a trail that runs behind the university. Along this trail, you’ll most definitely spot a few rock monkeys which are native to the area and are known to be aggressive if they suspect you have food. If they hear the sound of plastic bags, they are not shy to take the whole bag from you.
Just south of the Martyr’s Shrine, you’ll find yourself in the Hamasen area (哈瑪星), part of the Gushan District. The name, Hamasen, is Japanese for ‘beach railway line’ and it reflects the period of Japanese occupation in Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The Japanese had built this location to be the intersecting point of the city’s harbour and railway line. It was used to export commodities from all over Taiwan back to Japan. Tropical fruits such as bananas and mangos were kept in the nearby warehouses waiting to be loaded on ships. You can pick up an English map here to explore the area.
Our next destination in Kaohsiung is the famous Buddhist Shrine on Fo Guang Shan. It is certainly worth a visit even if you’re not Buddhist to see the 40 meter tall bronze statue on the top of the hill. I later learned that the Taiwanese people are mostly Buddhist and Taoists with a small fraction being Christian. I believe the Christian religion was brought in by the Portuguese and the Dutch during their colonization in the 17th century.
A bus departs from Zuoying station every half hour to Fo Guang Shan so we didn’t worry much about buying tickets in advance. You just need to use your handy iPass card to pay the $70 NT ($2.33 USD) fare as you board the bus. The 35-min ride took us through many pineapple farms and made a single stop at the E-DA outlet mall. We weren’t interested in seeing more American brand names so we stayed on the bus to our final destination.
When we arrived at the temple, we promptly took an English map and started walking through the grounds. Following the map, we snaked through all the points of interest and learned what we could with the English pamphlet in hand. Free paper envelopes of tea and water was available around the site, so you don’t need to worry about feeling dehydrated. The monks there were all very friendly and greeted us as we walked by.
Emily and I eventually arrived at the main shrine where everyone is asked to remove their shoes before stepping inside. As we walked in, a monk handed each of us a flower to use as an offering to the three Buddahs. We watched some of the elderly people make their prayers, so we followed their lead. The room was large, airy, and felt quite comfortable to be inside. Everyone spoke in hushed voices as we walked around the room taking in the sights. We were told no photography is allowed in the shrine, so I didn’t capture any images of the interior. You can find pictures here and on their official page.
If you find yourself feeling a bit hungry from all that zen, you can have a nice vegetarian meal at the pilgrims lodge. The room is set up with a series of chafing dishes where you put together your own plate of food. I’ve been told that payment is optional, but the lady behind the counter made it sound like the minimum we should consider is $100 NT per person.
After a few days in Taiwan, we noticed that most kitchens of restaurants are placed on the sidewalk while the seating area is usually inside the building. This strange set up is because the seating area needs to be air conditioned in the summer when it is hot and humid outside. It also means that walking on the sidewalk involves navigating through uneven steps, kitchen equipment, chairs and tables, and servers carrying hot food to their customers.
In Taiwan, there often isn’t a clear divide between residential, retail, and business buildings. It’s very common to run a family business on the street level and live upstairs. Some families use the sidewalk in front of their home as an extended living room. I’m not sure if the sidewalk is considered private property but it feels like we’re intruding into a family dinner or after work gathering sometimes.
While eating in Taiwan, we found that pork was a common ingredient in many dishes, most often appearing as a minced meat sauce. Taiwanese meat sauce is made with chopped or minced fatty pork, sun dried shallots that have been fried, soy sauce, and five spice. The flavour, sweetness, and richness vary by region and depend on its application. It’s most often served on rice (肉燥飯) but can appear in many other forms.
One of my favourite snacks in Taiwan is a bowl of Aiyu jelly (愛玉). They are made with the seeds of a type of fig fruit that grow on vines of tall trees. They have a natural gelatinizing property with a mild herbal fragrance. This vendor is located inside the Nanhua Night Market.
To make Aiyu (愛玉) jelly, the seeds from the fig fruit are first dried, then scraped out of the fruit and tied in cheesecloth. It is rubbed in mineral water to release the gelatinizing properties that react with minerals in the water. Once it becomes a jelly, it’s cut and served with a lime syrup. Very refreshing in the hot, humid summers.
This is a tofu pudding dessert made from rich soy milk that can be served hot or cold. It usually comes with some ginger syrup and toppings such as red beans and rice cakes as pictured here.
I’ve never really enjoyed eating these chinese bean soups as dessert but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. They have a special way of toasting the beans, making a soup and cooking the beans separately so they have a nice texture.
Originating from Japan, these wheel cakes (車輪餅) are very popular here. You can find them from street vendors, small bakeries, or department store food courts.
It’s a light pancake batter aerated with whipped egg whites, and baked in these cylindrical copper molds. Just before the pancake batter is cooked through, a filling is added and they are sandwiched together before serving.
The most popular ingredient is sweetened red beans cooked into a thick paste. Other common fillings are taro root (pictured here), sesame, or custard.
From the Nanhua Market, we walked about a half hour west, across the Love River to the Pier-2 Art Center. It’s an area of abandoned industrial warehouses that have been converted to galleries, small music venues, and many gift shops featuring local artists. On the weekend, there are additional outdoor tents put up by small crafters and food producers. We came here specifically to visit the Sunny Hills cafe.
The iconic souvenir of Taiwan is the pineapple cakes. It’s a butter shortcrust dough (often with the addition of milk powder for a creamy flavour) surrounding a filling made of pineapples and sometimes candied wintermelon.
Growing up, we almost always had a box of pineapple cakes in the house from visiting family or friends. My favourite cakes are from Sunny Hills. They use pineapples grown on farms close to their bakery in the central mountain region.
They offer every visiting customer a free pineapple cake paired with oolong tea from a neighbouring farm. However, you must enjoy it in the cafe and it cannot be taken away.
One of the reasons I love their pineapple cakes is that it tastes different with every season. In the summer it’s sweet and caramelized while in the winter months, it is more tart, and floral.
They use only pineapples in their filling, which is coarsely chopped and slow cooked and candied in its own juices.
We walked by this restaurant, 喬品賣炒飯, that serves only fried rice. It was very popular and often runs out of rice before closing time.
This plate of sakura shrimp fried rice (櫻花蝦炒飯) was the best fried rice Nelson has ever eaten. It was extremely fragrant from the wok frying, and it was skillfully prepared so that each grain of rice was whole and separated.
This is a typical cafeteria style bento (meal in a box) restaurant. Most people work long hours and do not have time to cook. Many offices will order bento boxes for employees. This place lets you choose 4 side dishes, and comes with rice and a protein main.
I think these bento meals ($80 NT or $2.70 USD) are relatively healthier and more nutritious than what you’d get at a fast food restaurant.
On Thursday January 25th, we prepared for our flight to Taiwan departing from Vancouver. Instead of buying gifts for family and friends, we spent the past 3 days baking cookies and cooking caramels.
Getting around the City
Nelson woke up before dawn the following day and went for a walk around our neighbourhood in the Sanduo Shopping District (三多商圈站). Although it’s the winter season here, we found it very comfortable with temperatures ranging from 15°C (60°F) to 25°C (77°F) and little rain. It’s the perfect time to take a walking tour of the city as it’s near impossible to do so in the summertime when humidity is almost 80% and temperatures hover around 30°C (86°F).
We immediately noticed the polluted air and majority of people wearing face masks on the streets. We learned that the air quality is actually worst in the winter time due to the strong winds that bring in pollution from China. It’s further compounded by emissions from the heavy industries situated mostly in the south of the country, as well as the millions of motorbikes and cars.
In an effort to reduce smog in the city, the government has reduced public transit fares for 3 months. Right now, the light rail and bus lines are free while the underground metro lines are free during rush hour to encourage the use of public transit.
Breakfast in Taiwan
In the mornings, we like to walk around our neighbourhood and get breakfast from street side vendors. These vendors have a simple, mobile kitchen setup that usually involves a propane tank and they appear for only a few hours (7am – 10am) and promptly pack up and move after the morning commuter traffic dies down. Common breakfast foods include pan-fried dumplings, egg pancakes, steamed buns and baked savoury pastries.